– or, How stereophonic sound changed my life
I remember it very clearly, although I don’t know exactly when it was. Probably 1980, since the first TV series was broadcast in 1981 – so I would have been nearly ten years old. I think it was at my Dad’s suggestion, but perhaps not.
For whatever reason, on that particular evening, I curled up on the sofa and listened for the very first time to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy on Radio 4. (It was a radio series first, before the LPs, books, TV and eventually film.)
It was the episode where The Heart Of Gold lands on the legendary planet of Magrathea, by way of improbability drive, imminent missile attack, sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, and I was transfixed.
I vividly remember looking over to my Dad in astonishment, Sennheiser headphones clamped firmly to my ears and saying (too loudly, probably) “It flew right over my head!”. At which he smiled and later explained why and how this aural magic worked.
Of course, there was more to it than that – Hitchhikers was a sonic masterpiece of it’s time. The full cut-price majesty of the late great BBC Radiophonic Workshop – of Dr Who’s ring-modulated Daleks and piano-string-key-scratching Tardis dematerialising genius – in a head-on collision with Douglas Adams’ sci-fi masterpiece, successfully realising his goal of making Hitchhikers’ production standards equivalent to those of a modern rock album.
And for me, it started a life-long love-affair with audio for it’s own sake. Music especially, especially the prog rock standards of the time – Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, Jean Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
I also devoured recorded “audio experiences” of any kind. Another Radio 4 experiment – some kind of underwater musical, the name of which escapes me – which was my first experience of binaural recording. Borrowing an LP of the complete soundtrack to Apocalypse Now from the library, even though I’d never seen the film; countless BBC Sound Effects LPs and (a little later) Trevor Horn’s incredible multiple 12″ remixes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes, not to mention the “aviary” introduction to Welcome To The Pleasure Dome; all of these together helped cement my fascination with the art of recorded sound.
It wasn’t just the sound itself, though – with hindsight I think the aspect I found so magnetic was the ability of nothing but audio to conjure an entirely different world inside my head. It was the combined sound effects of school playgrounds and helicopters in The Wall, the very slowly panning rhumbas-in-the-rain of Jarre, the eeire-but-ridiculous oo-lah of the tripods in War Of The Worlds… I was only ten, I had no idea what half this stuff was about – all I knew was it could transport me somewhere else without physically moving, and that’s something that still delights me to this day.
It was the first time I remember being fascinated with sound, and it’s the reason I’m a sound engineer.
Here’s a favourite (classic) snippet from Hitchhikers (the TV series), if by any chance you aren’t already a convert:
Oddly enough, from someone who spent years telling people “The radio series is the best version”, I’ve recently realised that it is actually the vinyl LP that I know off by heart, and can recite from memory – sadly now long since unavailable. But if you’d like to hear the next best thing, you can buy the original radio series on CD here and here.
So that’s my excuse – why are YOU a producer/sound/recording/mixing engineer ?
Update – I found copies of the LPs on eBay within days of writing this post – they’re in pride of place in my studio, now !