Picture of Ian MacNaught-Davis, Lesley Judd and John Coll in the Micro Live studio.

Strings and Things

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a theme tune, a symbol or a title sequence, I have always wanted to copy things to see if I can work out how they were done.

In 2015 I started to use a free and open source score editor called Rosegarden to edit music. I could export music using SoundFonts that I found in the internet1, and there were also various plugins that did things like emulate analogue synthesisers or the legendary DX7.

For analogue synths, I used a plugin called xsynth-dssi and to practice with it I decided to recreate something by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The obvious candidate was one of Roger Limb’s themes for the BBC television programmes made as part of BBC Computer Literacy Project.

One theme that really caught my imagination back in the day was the theme to Computers In Control.2 The title sequence of a huge robot arm drawing the titles seemed like the future to me when I first watched it. It’s hard to explain how impressive the sequence was now.

I thought it would be an interesting job to do in Rosegarden, and here is how it turned out:

Computers In Control (Rosegarden version)

I was pretty happy with this arrangement at first, which was a mixture of xsynth-dssi sounds and SoundFont sounds, and even used it for many years as my ringtone. However, shortly after finishing it, someone asked me whether I was “the one that did that godawful pan-pipe arrangement of Computers In Control”.

So, in 2016 I decided to have another go. This time I would do the theme for Making The Most Of The Micro. My reason for doing this was so that I could have the opening theme and the subtly different closing theme as a single piece of music.

And, so there was no risk of pan-pipe awfulness, I decided to do the whole thing using only xsynth-dssi and here’s how it turned out:

Making The Most Of The Micro (Rosegarden version)

I was pretty pleased with it and I was delighted that soundhog said I had made quite a good job of it. So that was that, until early this year.

MuseScore is a free and open source score editor which I have played about with for some time. However it only really fired my imagination in December 2022, when it was paired with MuseSounds, which are quite incredible orchestral sounds that you can use to export your finished scores as audio files.

I wanted to practice using MuseScore and I needed some short pieces. Theme tunes are ideal as they tend to be only around a minute long. You can complete several of them in a relatively short amount of time and with each one you learn new things and improve.

One of the first themes I attempted was the theme to Making The Most Of The Micro. I decided to transcribe the theme to entirely orchestral instruments.

One of the big challenges was making the tune a little less busy so it could actually be played by real players. A loop may be OK in a computer, but you can’t expect a bassoon player to play the same few notes for a minute straight! That said, there are still lots of pedal notes and repeated phrases, so it would be a very sheepish conductor who put this score in front of a real orchestra!

Another interesting thing about the tune is that is seems to have been put together on monophonic synthesisers, so I gave a single part to each instrument creating a very sparse looking score.

I thought really hard about whether to include percussion on the score. In the end I decided not to, as I thought it worked without it, but it was a difficult thing for me to decide.

Here is my completed score for Making The Most of the Micro. It’s a strangely melancholic version, but I was really, really pleased with how it turned out.

Making The Most Of The Micro (Orchestral version)

So now it was time to return to my previous nemesis, the theme to Computers In Control. I thought maybe I should keep away from woodwinds to avoid the “pan pipe” effect. And then I thought, no, I have to use a piccolo in this as there’s no other choice for the high bits.

Computers In Control (Orchestral Version)

Computers In Control is a much fuller looking score than Making The Most of the Micro with the Horns and Violins playing harmonies.

It would be another very unpleasant score to put in front of real musicians as the violins, flutes, trumpets and horns have to play in their highest registers and the bass (played by the cellos, contrabasses, tubas and bassoons) is repeated relentlessly throughout.

I wasn’t as happy with this one as I was with the arrangement for Making The Most Of The Micro, but I was still pretty pleased with it.

As someone who is nearly 52 years old, both the Rosegarden and MuseScore versions of the themes absolutely amaze me. Not my work on them, which is pretty ropey, but the fact that they are possible at all.

The first music I composed for a computer was on a BBC Micro, in BASIC. I had three sound channels and a single wave form (a square wave) to use. The BBC Model B was even released with a bug which meant it was out of tune!

So looking at what you can do on a computer today is a thing of pure wonder to me, and I’ll never take this technology for granted.

  1. In particular, the pianist and composer S. Christian Collins put together an excellent SoundFont and put it on his website here. It’s called the GeneralUser GS Soundfont bank. I got an incredible amount of use out of it. ↩︎
  2. One of the most notable things about Computers In Control was the tie-in BBC Buggy, the first and so far only official BBC robot. It was a little FisherTechnik robot that was controlled by a BBC Micro. Our school got one, but sadly I never got to play with it! ↩︎






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