Special Sound traces the fascinating creation and rich legacy of the BBC's electronic music studio, the Radiophonic Workshop, particularly in the context of other, more famous studios in Europe and America. Rather than compete with these academic studios, the BBC built a studio initially to provide its own avant-garde dramatic productions with "special sound," experimental sounds "neither music nor sound effect." Very quickly, however, from the ashes of highbrow BBC radio drama emerged a popular lowbrow kind of electronic music in the form of quirky tonal jingles, signature tunes, such as Doctor Who, and incidental music for hundreds of programs lasting until the studio's closure in 1996. These influential sounds and styles, heard by millions of listeners over decades of operation on television and radio, have served as a primary inspiration for the use of electronic instruments in popular music.
Author Louis Niebur opposes the largely hostile reception, both institutionally and publicly, of electronic music in the UK from its earliest manifestations through the 1970s against the more progressive attitudes of British drama. This history focuses on the many engineers, composers, directors, producers, bureaucrats, articles of equipment and the creative locations to construct a narrative of the shifting perception towards electronic music in British culture. Britain's peculiar position as "outsider" to the developments in academic electronic music as it evolved in France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States render its unique and influential contributions to the field of electronic music a fascinating counterpoint to these more publicized academic styles. By combining an historical discussion with an analysis of specific works, Niebur derives new hermeneutical models for understanding how the output of the Radiophonic Workshop fits into the larger history of electronic music. The book also situates these works in the context of a uniquely British form of mid-century modernism.