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.


Phil Atkin avatar

Cheers Liz, you’re a star. And a nerd!!

Liz Upton avatar

Thank YOU Phil – absolutely outstanding work.

ColinD avatar

Phil, that is FRICKIN AWESOME! The hardware in the Pi at the various price points it reaches is ridonculous and causes me giggles of excitement every time I see / hear it do something so cool.

You’re right, a fiver to be able to do that is crazy!

Robin Newman avatar

this is great. Beats my humble offering for Dr Who done with Sonic Pi on a Pi2, although should run on a zero as well.

AndrewS avatar

A nice follow-on from my comment yesterday – in outer-space on Wednesday, under-water on Thursday, and now travelling-through-time on Friday! :-D

Raspberry Pi – where no environment or dimension is an obstacle.

Phil Atkin avatar

You may also be interested in actually seeing it run, as a few people – cheecky beggars – believed it to be fake, or not running on a Pi Zero at all. So here is the moving picture edition –


AndrewS avatar

You want to be careful that all your infra-red photons don’t leak out of your TV-remote!

Kevin Hainsworth avatar

Phil Atkin is clearly either a Sound Lad (as they say up North) or he’s a Sound Lord (as they say in Gallifrey). You decide ?
I would love to know what his 99p USB audio interface is ?

Phil Atkin avatar

Grey import from China! I got 10 from eBay for 9.99 about 2 years ago. They can be had for about £1.99 from domestic suppliers on eBay

Silviu avatar

I bought this USB sound card. It works after about ten attempts to connect it to USB. Found a fix to work on first try: Add a 3 to 4 ohm resistor on the 5V USB wire. Problem is that a smd capacitor for USB power has a big value (and a low voltage close to 5V) and shorts the USB 5V when first connecting. With the resistor, short is avoided and voltage increases at a stable pace, allowing the C Media chip a smooth boot sequence. Learned that from schematic of avrusb500v2 programmer and power rush-in lessons at school.

heater avatar

Wonderful. I too saw the first ever episode. With Delia’s music and the video effects it was truly a revolutionary production. Not to mention being mysterious, creepy and weird. What a box that is bigger on the inside than the outside? What it travels through time? etc…

It took me a while to figure out how they made those video effects in the title sequence. Given that there were no GPU’s and such back then.

Do you know how?

Liz Upton avatar

Phil Atkin avatar

A whole week on and I still laugh out loud when I see good old Starship Troopers bloke quivering in this picture!

Phil Atkin avatar

Analogue feedback – point a TV camera at a CRT being fed by the camera, and all sorts of weird, plusating magic kicks in.

Graeme Porter avatar

This is how they did all the trippy visual effects in the music video for Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

heater avatar

Do you have a link to that epic Queen video thing?

Graeme Porter avatar

Specifically referring to the part where Freddie Mercury’s face is shown “zooming” into the distance. This effect was achieved using video feedback techniques.

It can be seen from 3m 20s into the video (link to this part below)

The video itself isn’t particularly epic, though it was groundbreaking at the time. The song is epic, though. Very unusual for a hit pop/rock song to be longer than 3 minutes, very unusual combination of rock and operatic musical elements.

Dougie avatar

That’s a seriously cool use of a Raspberry. Where can I download some stuff so I can play this on my Raspberries?

heater avatar

Yes, Phil, that’s it.

Add in a mirror or two, record in the dark with some point source lights to kick off the feedback. Perhaps move the camera around a bit whist recording. Overlay the titles and such.

One can do this with the Raspi camera and a monitor, perhaps some coloured LEDs to get things going.

I expect some see some retro video feedback sequences to go with your theme tune performance soon.

Phil Atkin avatar

Not tried it digitally – it is probably even better due to increased latency. Must try …

John avatar

“You won’t believe that a $5 computer can do this one weird thing.”

I know that’s satire, but PLEASE don’t let me see this tag start showing up around the internet… :P

AndrewS avatar

Somebody set up us the bomb.

Helen Lynn avatar

This is gorgeous! I’ve just listened three times. Thanks Phil!

Phil Atkin avatar

Thanks Helen – and you still owe me that trip to Kings on your perpetual visitor card next time we are in town! I just have to hear those acoustics …

R37R0 avatar

Good Job Phil!
If a free community version of your VST software could be made available in raspian, it might be a good method of advertising your product and also it might inspire the creative types of tomorrow…

Norman Dunbar avatar


Bill Robinson avatar

Brilliant. Yet 50 years later and with so much more hardware for the dollar, it still doesn’t sound as good.

A** try – but bear in mind Rule 1:

It’s not about the hardware, or the software. It’s about the human. Delia had far less, yet still made more.

Phil Atkin avatar

I have to agree. The original is unmatched, and it isn’t about spending hours tweaking envelope generators, LFOs, mod matrix subtleties and velocity response to get the bass ‘righter’ than it is – believe me, there was SIGNIFICANT time investment in the pair of synths playing the bass here – but that original piece of music is beyond amazing, and is somehow so real that it just can’t be matched. But heck, I gave it a good shot I think, and having spent a lot of time on whomix, and having contributed there before, I have heard a lot of ‘Delia’ tributes, and don’t think me immodest, but actually this is one of the better ones. And flipping heck, it is being synthesized live by £5 of hardware. But in short, yes, the original still wins by a mile!

Bill Robinson avatar

Hi Phil – please don’t think I was intending to detract from your amazing work – “Awesome” is way overused, but your synth project genuinely merits it. Just that Delia’s achievement is still jaw-dropping even now.

604 avatar

Wait, closed source? Lost interest there.

Marek avatar

Nice! Hope It will work on model a !!!
I need to find a reason to still use my Rpi

Phil Atkin avatar

Works great on an A – see this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7DysYrQqKs

But to get the full 10 synths and 1080p rendering I am relying on the 500MHz core clock on the Zero, so your A needs to be reliable at the 1GHz overclock setting with 500MHz core clock. Otherwise, back off both the synths and the display resolution – at 950MHz / 720p, which is typically 100% reliable (I have 8 model As, all are good at this setting), 7 or 8 synths is typically OK depending on complexity of synth model. The YouTube video I linked to above was at 950MHz overclock.

The display resolution is a memory bandwidth thing by the way. I touch every pixel at once at 30Hz via the GPU when doing the waves render, plus I pick up a texture value everywhere the wave is visible, probably half a texel on average due to texture cacheing, and the video refresh picks each pixel up at 60Hz – twice typically, merging the desktop with the overlaid rendering, which fully obscures the desktop – and when you do the maths that is a big old chunk of available bandwidth. Backing off to 720p is a big win at 250MHz core clock. Alternatively, just buying a Zero or cranking up your clocks to sort of risky levels is also a big win!!

Jono avatar

Lost for words…. other than AWESOME, UNBELIEVABLE, SWEET and other such superlatives!

Chi avatar


Babyannie avatar

Wonderful. I could listen all day.

Steve Richards avatar

Wonderful. Takes me back to feeling eight.

Derek avatar

Phil, that is truly amazing…

Have you thought of Kickstarter to offer the synth software as a commercial project, I would buy it just for the Dr Who theme!

They did it for Elite, dangerous, and that is just a computer game!….

Jim Manley avatar

A … W … E … S … O … M … E !!! This is simply amazing and harkens back to the first, mind-blowing time I heard Wendy Carlos’ “Switched on Bach” in 1968, and my building a Paia 2700 series modular analog synthesizer designed by John Simonton, Jr. It was the cover feature article in the May, June, and July 1973 issues of Radio Electronics magazine as a very early open-source hardware project that was also offered as a very reasonably-priced kit, including ala carte by individual modules:


I got to visit John’s “factory” and studio, which happened to be located in his family’s former barn in the back yard of what had become just another home lot in a subdivision in Oklahoma City. It was a classical startup company, but in a barn instead of a garage – sort of a “barnage” setup, and in Oklahoma City, of all places! John was more than happy to drop everything when I stopped in on my way driving cross-country from Annapolis to my first Navy duty station in San Diego … the fact that I bought at least one of every product he offered probably made it worth his while, though. He was so giving and willing to spend as much time as I wanted to yakking, and I think he was just amazed and ecstatic to have a fellow geek with a common intense interest in music synthesis stop by from half-the-continent away.

John was decades ahead of his time and would have loved everything about the Pi. One of his prescient designs was a 6502 microprocessor-based single-board computer with touch-panel control and data entry keys (sound familiar?) that fit next to the music keyboard. It ran sequencer and other software, including one routine called “Pink Tunes” that generated random sequences that could be paused, played back, edited, and saved to cassette tape for later reloading, playback, and further editing.

Unfortunately, we lost John to cancer in 1997, but Paia Electronics still lives on through his family and employees at http://www.paia.com, where high-quality 9700 series module kits can be purchased at very reasonable prices. Thankfully, the WWW has helped his dream of providing affordable components live on for future generations of electronic synthesis geeks. RIP, our good friend …

ColinD avatar

I’ve just found out that Phil did Popcorn on the Pi as well, https://soundcloud.com/pisynth .

*BANG* head explodes from too much awesome.


Phil Atkin avatar

Eeek – that is an ugly, early Popcorn, for which I can’t take much credit as I just grabbed a MIDI off the web and messed with it, then played it in Logic, captured the naked MIDI bytstream, then played that back on the Pi.

However, this Teenage Lobotomy is all mine, done as a “Pi Sequencer Language” file – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyqGqtHVGyE – ditto this Being Boiled – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byArm5K14aU

Phil Atkin avatar

… and really, my all time fave – mainly because of the awesome “Massed Caitlin Vocals” (from here – http://www.omenie.com/sopranotron.html), plus it’s a Sparks song – is this one – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7DysYrQqKs

Siriushardware avatar

I’ve been following this project with interest since it was first mentioned here and it looks great, but I’m not a TV ‘Dragon’ so I can’t assist the project by throwing a pile of money at it – I wish I could. Like others, I wish you would consider putting it out as a kickstarter project since it looks as though you have a virtually finished prototype – or at least a Version 1.0 – there already.

John Beardmore avatar

Magnificent ! I hope I have time to play. I assume it’ll run on a Pi1 or Pi2 ?

Is there a site where this can be downloaded ?

Cheers, J/.

James Purcell avatar

There is only one thing (just 1) that could make this even more amazing.

Have the vis output generating the tunnel effect from the current series.

Very Nice Work Phil.

karrika avatar

Being a late Whovian (discovered the series in Netflix) I just love the song. I am actually growing a TARDIS (http://discohat.com/projects/) so having this software would be very cool.

pik33 avatar

There is a modular synth/tracker/sequencer for the (not only) Raspberry Pi here: http://www.warmplace.ru/soft/sunvox/ – here are some samples: http://www.warmplace.ru/soft/sunvox/#music

I tried this on Pi2 where it run without any problem; Pi0/1 may be too slow for this program but it has also fast 12-bit version for less powerful CPUs.

Tom avatar

I’ve had some success using AMS, qsynth and several other programs on the zero – plug in a MIDI controller and join things together with aconnectgui and off you go.
I’ve had tuxguitar working with qsynth and qjackctl reasonable well.

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