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The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

"Much use was made of crude analogue processing such as kicking the echo plate to create explosions and clanking type effects"
l-r Lisa Braun, Douglas Adams, Colin Duff, Anne Ling, Geoffrey Perkins and Alick Hale-Munro.
Episode Guide

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Recording Hitchhikers

Read our insider's guide to the recording of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Queerer Than We Can Suppose

News of the first DNA Memorial Lecture
Related Links

BBC's Cult TV Hitchhikers page
h2g2 discusses HHGTTG Hitchhikers page
Hitchhikers @ Douglas Adams. com
Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy - BBC Radio 4
Douglas Adams' obituary at BBC News

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Memories of Recording The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
by Studio Engineer, Colin Duff

At this distance the thing I remember most about working on Hitchhikers is the overtime resulting from the frequent overruns of the recording and mixing sessions. The additional earnings from the first series paid for my honeymoon!

Actually this is just a wacky if somewhat distorted introduction because working on the programme was a truly collaborative creative venture involving the whole production team. It was never less than fun and a challenge.

With today's sophisticated and flexible digital recording, sampling and editing techniques it is unlikely that making such a programme would take so long, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s such things were only just beginning to appear. At the time BBC Radio only had one (or maybe just a few) digital pitch shifting devices and these resided at the Radiophonic Workshop. So whenever an alien-type voice was needed it was recorded on a separate tape, sent to Radiophonics for processing (not unlike putting one's holiday pics into the chemist for developing) and several days later we would get a tape back with the voice treated ready for mixing back into the scene.

This, and the sophisticated (for the time) sound stage we were striving to achieve, resulted in compiling each scene from its elements onto a multi track recorder. As far as I know this was the first regular use of multi track for drama type speech recordings - not that they are in daily use today either.

Whilst the Radiophonic Workshop contributed sound effects the use of conventional effects. in the studio, suitably treated, should not be underestimated. Much use was made of crude analogue processing (aka mild abuse) such as playing tapes and discs at incorrect speeds, fluttering sound by putting a piece of editing tape onto a tape recorder's capstan, deliberately introducing the sort of distortion we would normally take great pains to avoid, and not to mention kicking the echo plate to create explosion and clanking type effects.!
  • The Vogon footsteps (ep1) were microphone stand extensions clattering on a concrete paving slab.
  • Although the backgrounds were of spaceships, etc, we mixed in things like effect of a Singer sewing machine and old Austin 7 and Riley cars on varispeed just to make the spaceships sound a bit clanky and as a bit of an effect in-joke. This is not unlike in the film Airplane when sounds of propeller aircraft were put behind what is clearly a jet plane. Airplane was released in 1980. We certainly did not copy what they did though we both must have been in production about the same time. Great minds think alike.
  • There is one scene in the first series when Trillian puts the spacecraft into a daring maneuver to escape capture and the lines go something like Zaphod or Ford (?): "where did you learn a maneuver like that" Trillian : "negotiating my bike round Hyde Park Corner". We used the effect of a car hand brake ratchet - ie a hand brake turn.

Of course I could also mention that the conjunction of the late delivery of scripts and meeting transmission deadlines resulted in us all winging it, especially towards the end of each series. This practice had its own effect on what you hear…..

Written by Colin Duff Who worked on making sound effects, recording and editing

Other engineers were
  • Alick Hale-Munro
  • David Bell
  • Peter Harwood
  • John Whitehall
  • Lisa Braun
  • Paul Hawdon
The series was recorded in The Paris Studio, Lower Regent Street, London W1

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