I’ve been finding myself doing some audio design at work lately, and it’s actually kind of fun. Most of what I do involves taking generic sound effect samples from a library and trying to make them seem a little less generic. I thought I was pretty clever for cobbling together an effect for an overheated engine from a clip of a boiling radiator and a bit of white noise, mixed and filtered in Audition. Then I saw “Alchemists of Sound,” a documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and now consider myself duly humbled.

The people who made sound effects for the BBC in the 50s and 60s didn’t have software-based multitrack mixing and looping to help them make noise; they didn’t even have synthesizers. They did everything by cutting up hundreds of bits of tape and sticking them back together in endlessly inventive ways, taking sounds as simple as a plucked string or a struck lampshade and turning them into compositions that sound richer and more sophisticated than a lot of the stuff that today’s laptop DJs put out. The most famous of these concrete musicians is probably Delia Derbyshire, whose theme for Doctor Who remains a classic among both science fiction nerds and fans of electronic music. The kinds of sounds these people were able to produce with little more than a razor and a bank of tape recorders is more than impressive, it’s downright awesome. And intimidating. And inspiring.