Dr Who theme on a Pi Zero

I am an unabashed synthesiser nerd. I grew up in the 1980s on a rich diet of Gary Numan, the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, and had my own Roland Juno 60 (approximately fourth hand and very battered) in my bedroom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I learned about sine waves.

Phil Atkin, who you’ve read about before in these parts, has spent the last few years building some incredibly sophisticated synthesiser software for his Raspberry Pis. Recently, he has been working on a Pi Zero. I hate to get all Buzzfeed on you, but you won’t believe that a $5 computer can do this one weird thing. Click play, and pass out in AMAZEMENT.

Phil says:

Over 52 years ago, I heard the Doctor Who theme for the first time at my grandmother’s house in Sheffield, at the Stones brewery in Burton Road, Sheffield, the first ever episode. I was only 4 years old, the sounds terrified me, the whole family sat transfixed at the noises, which had been created some months previously by the awesome Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. No synthesizers, just wobulating oscillators, tapes and a shedload of patience, diligence and dazzling creativity.

That was 1963.

Now it’s 2016 (bloody hell, last time I looked it was 1978) – can you believe you can do all that AND MORE for £4.99 today? One Raspberry Pi Zero (£4), one 99p USB audio interface, and the difficult bit – a huge bunch of very specialized, hardcore, time-consuming software development.

This track has 8 Virtual Analog monosynths, one wavetable synth (polysynth but with polyphony set to 1 as I am somewhat lax with the noteOff messages throughout!) and a single sample replay synth for the Tardis takeoff effect.

The VAsynths are :
Channel 1 : kick/tom – noise, bandpass filtered slightly resonant, and an EG to shape the amplitude
Channel 2 : snare (same setting as 1 but up the scale)
Channel 3 : the old faithful ‘Martyn Ware Glitterclap’ – these 3 are not exactly canonical but I wanted to add in a blast of “Human League do Gary Glitter / Doctorin the Tardis” for the outro. This is a burst of noise modulated by a square wave LFO, shaped by an EG to become a decaying train of noise pulses, bandpass filtered and quite resonant to emphasise the clappiness
Channels 4/5 : a pair of Radiophonic Wobulators, sin waves which warm up (some Phase Distortion, some morphing to slightly square) under a slow ramping EG, which also ramps up the LFO amplitude that is FM and AMing them. These have a bend range of +- 24 semitones for the giant 2 octave swoops
Channel 6 : the diddly dum bass riff. This is really velocity sensitive, both in amplitude and in brightness. OSCB gets louder under velocity, and both OSCs sharpen up under hard bashing – the ‘fine pitch’ modulation output is hooked into a fast EG. So really hard hits sound like plucked strings, sharpening immediately under tension then going true very quickly
Channel 7 : a bass ‘slurp’ for the grace notes – a slightly less bright version of the riff, and with a larger reverb send amount to distance it
Channel 8 : a noise generator with a keyfollowed bandpass filter, with some resonance to be played manually (hence hamfisted noises throughout). Heavily feedback delay adds SFX swishy whooshy things to the mix – really spacey, dude!
Channel 9 : a wavetable synth for the ‘melodica’ melodic notes
Channel 10 : EXTERMINATE! Samples, for the heck of it

Plus there are 4 delays with low pass filters and independent LR settings for delay, levels and feedback levels, plus a stereoizing reverb engine.

Can you believe it – 10 whole synths, all of them awesome, 8 of them virtual analog, on £4.99 of computer hardware. Less than 5 quid!!! 2016 is an insane place to be.

Thanks for the awesome arrangement Delia. And thanks to the Timelords for “Doctorin’ The Tardis”, spotting the unholy glory that is the mashup of Delia Derbyshire and early 70s glitterpop. So glorious a mashup that Hell’s Bells, I just HAD to slap the tempo up from 140 to 143 BPM as the drums kick in. I go WHOO HOO every time that happens, and I don’t often get actually excited by something I’ve created.

p.s. major thanks to the team at dwtheme.com without whom my tone deaf / ‘cannot do intervals’ brain would have struggled to make sense of this – this would have taken a month rather than 2 days!!

Phil is looking for commercial support for the work he’s doing – you can drop him a line here if you think you can help.