Interview: Mark Ayres

Composing music for one of the world’s best-loved TV series, archivist for and performer with The Radiophonic Workshop, restoring, remastering…there’s little that Mark Ayres can’t do with sound, Adam Savage realises…

We hear you’ve been passionate about sound since you were very young. Is that true?

I was always interested in electronics and of course if you were a child of the ‘60s, as I was, you would spend a lot of time at school listening to school radio programmes, a lot of which had these weird electronic Radiophonic Workshop soundtracks, and then on a Saturday night you’d have Doctor Who, and there was Blue Peter with its Bleep and Booster stories, so I just became fascinated by sounds, electronics and music.

As a teenager I was playing with electronics and taking radios to bits but I was also writing music for school plays so I never really knew what I wanted to be. At school if you said you’d like to work in films or television they’d look at you as if you were insane.

After I failed my maths A Level – I fell out with the teacher – I hunted around and eventually got into Keele University, where I studied music and electronics.

So how did you eventually work your way into the industry?

I met Dick Mills from The Radiophonic Workshop at a Doctor Who convention – I was a big fan. He said ‘come and have a look around’ so I did, and that was it, I never really left. I was constantly haunting the place.

I also spent five years at TVAM, the first commercial breakfast TV station, at the end of 1982 as a sound engineer. In 1987 all the technical staff got sacked so I had to find work, and wrote to everybody in the industry I’d met, which included the producer of Doctor Who at the time, John Nathan-Turner. He liked my work and offered me a job doing the show’s incidental music for two years, which was obviously an enormous break.

And these days you juggle all kinds of audio-related jobs…

I just do things that interest me, so restoration and cleaning stuff up, sound design, music writing. I’m lucky that I can do all of that really. All of the classic Doctor Who stuff has come through me for restoration; we’ve done everything from cleaning up mono soundtracks to doing all-new 5.1 surround sound mixes. Some of the early Doctor Who’s don’t exist any more but we do have the soundtracks so we’ve done animated versions and exactly the same thing happened with Dad’s Army; we ended up with a brand new episode. I’ve just done a load of Alan Clarke and Ken Russell remasters for DVD and Blu-ray too.

Do you still get the chance to tinker with equipment?

I don’t get to do as much as I like, to be honest, because you have to make a living. As a youngster analogue was all there was so that’s what you did. I used to take old transistor radios to bits and I discovered that if you prodded around inside them you could get them to make weird noises so I was fascinated with what electronic circuits could do.

I love using analogue technology live because it is so unpredictable. If you recall a patch on a digital synthesiser it goes back exactly where it was before and that’s great, but there’s something about one of my favourite instruments, the Korg MS20, which I use live – it heats up and cools down and its sound will change. Every time you use it’ll sound slightly different – I know roughly what I’ll get but not exactly, and that’s what makes it fun.

Is there a lot of analogue kit on stage with the Workshop then?

We do have a digital safety blanket, so there’s always that to fall back on, but we do as much as we can live and analogue. We find that with our audiences they expect it to be a bit homemade around the edges and if something goes wrong I might be having a heart attack but the audience loves it.

We build a recording studio on stage every night, and we’re doing festival appearances, which is ridiculous because you sometimes have about 15 minutes to rig. It has evolved but we use two Macs, one of which is used to run Logic and does all the prerecord stuff and I also use it for a couple of soft synths, and then we have another Mac running MainStage.

We realised that if we turned up to most festivals or anywhere really with the number of inputs we’ve got and sent that to FOH it was just never get mixed, so we use MainStage to do submixes on stage and I also use a Behringer X32, which enables me to do onstage mixing and all our own in-ear monitors. So we end up just sending 16 channels plus drums to FOH because we submix everything on stage.

What are your thoughts on modern digital tools?

I’ve actually been doing a mix for a film and they’ve come back and asked for a couple of changes, and it’s brilliant just to open the Nuendo file because there it is, exactly as I left it, so that’s where digital technology is absolutely fascinating. I can just tweak it, save it again and then it’s done.

In the studio I use a lot of angle modelling plug-ins, but when I’m performing on an instrument I much prefer something that has a lot of knobs on it rather than something that’s virtual.

Sounds like you’re being kept very busy travelling about with the Workshop and your studio work. Do you have a preference?

I kind of like it all. I’ve never in my life done a 9-5 job; the live stuff is great fun and the restoration work is very satisfying – it’s all stuff that I grew up watching and it’s great to be able to pay something back and help preserve it.

I’m very keen that the BBC shouldn’t be throwing stuff out, which I’m afraid they still do, so it’s a case of standing in front of the bulldozers to a large extent. This is our cultural history and I think it’s important that we preserve it.

Photo: Paul Vanezis