Profile: EMS and The English Synthesiser Revolution

Oscillations

Peter Zinovieff’s Putney Studio

The History of Electronic Music, when taken as a whole, consists of parallel strands of evolution; with notable schools of composition and technological innovation germinating in climates unique to their respective cultural and literal geographies. To this, we might add a level of discourse that groups these disparate narratives together through the techniques and equipment employed.

The use of magnetic Tape in composition, for instance, is perhaps the first strata in this evolution and examples of which are often recorded as belonging to one of a number of distinct “schools”; namely French Musique Concrete, Academic American Tape-music and German Avant-Classical experimentation. The story of synthesis too is so often defined by the respective East and West Coast schools of Moog and Buchla, finding its roots in the experimentations of the above-mentioned collectives and eventually coalescing into the group of manufacturers now lauded as the godfathers of the synth as we know it.

Bob Moog with his Modular, Sonic Six and Model D systems

There are however so many threads missing from this common narrative; from the tape splicing of Japan, Mexico and the Middle East to those innovations in synthesiser design that didn’t find the same traction as the so-called big names. The reasons behind these evolutionary cul-de-sacs are of course myriad and the fact the history of Electronic music is one still being written goes some way to explaining their forgotten status.

The EMS Synthi 100 at Belgium’s IPEM

London based synthesiser manufacturer EMS is one such player in the field that has for many years been relegated to a footnote in history. Whilst the demise of the company came about through a combination of personal circumstance and cultural climate; Its heyday saw innovations that were decades ahead of their time and the EMS sound is imprinted on many more albums than one might think. Many of those involved with the company are also, in their own right, responsible for shaping the sound of English Electronica.

Post-War-Post-Modern

The Second World War is fundamental in the History of Electronic music for a number of reasons. Firstly, it accelerated technological innovation; as each side sought to usurp the other in the field of communication. Secondly, as it drew to a close, much of the equipment produced by the apparatus of total war was now redundant and as a result, became available to those who would seek to repurpose it. One such technological magpie was Peter Zinovieff and in a perfectly British manner chose as his nest site a garden shed.

Zinovieff was the product of another Twentieth-century upheaval that led to much innovation in technology and culture; the mass exodus of those seeking to flee the turmoil in Europe. His Parents having fled the Russian revolution and settled in London. And it would be here in the suburb of Putney that Zinovieff began construction on the home studio that was to be the forerunner of EMS.

Peter Zinovieff Programs the PDP-8 mini computer

Working initially with magnetic tape, Zinovieff soon found the process of cutting and splicing to be far to laborious a task. He sought a process whereby sounds could be generated and controlled in real time. He had a sound source in the oscillators and filters harvested from the worlds of Radio and Radar; what he lacked was a method of manipulating these signals in the temporal realm.

One of the major innovations of Musique Concrete was the ability to align recorded sounds in the manner that a composer might write a melody; indeed the Father of the technique Pierre Scheaffer set out a compositional framework for concrete sound that had traditional methods at its core; albeit substituting pitch for Sound quality and Harmony for texture.

The third musical building block of Rhythm was something of a hurdle for many electronic composers of the time and Zinovieff envisaged a device that might overcome these issues; a device we now know as a sequencer. Upon realising the limitations of his expertise however, Zinovieff sought the talents of one David Cockerell.

Attention to Attenuation

The PDP-8 interface

Cockerell was another tinkerer in the world of Post-War electronics and was possessed of an intuitive understanding of the potentials therein; in the case of Zinovieff’s sequencer, however, he also saw the limitations.

Whilst less than a decade later Bob Moog and Don Buchla would overcome these limitations through the concept of control voltage, Cockerell made something of a quantum leap; his solution would be the computer.

The PDP-8 was one of the first commercially available minicomputers and with its 12-bit processor and 1k of memory, represented something close to cutting edge. Designed initially as a method by which to control process in manufacture, it lent itself perfectly to Zinovieff and Cockerell’s needs and at £5000 was the cheapest so far produced. A price tag, however, that was still comparable to a semi-detached house at the time.

Whilst many experimental composers turned to grants and bursaries in order to take their research to the next level, Zinovieff had a benefactor somewhat closer to hand; The PDP-8 being purchased with the proceeds from the sale of his wife’s tiara. The benefit of a marriage within aristocracy, befitting of the Zinovieff family lineage.

The birth of EMS and its’ subsequent incarnations, however, would involve just as much adversity as privilege.

Swimming Up-Stream

Tristram Cary at work in his home studio

The third and final player in the creation of EMS is the composer Tristram Cary, an early exponent of Electronic composition he too had a private studio constructed from surplus army electronics. And, having served as a Radar engineer during the war was possessed of a great deal of expertise concerning its use and customisation.

Cary was one of the first English Electronic composers to break through into the mainstream; producing scores for a number of Film and television productions. Notable among these being the TV series Doctor Who and in particular an episode that provided a debut for the Daleks. A commission that would see Cary working alongside another British institution key to our story.

The crew of the Radiophonic Workshop in 1965 with Derbyshire (Center) and Hodgson (Right)

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was founded in 1958 on the Delaware road Maida Vale, London and was tasked initially with producing sound effects for Radio plays. Soon however the rise of Television and the popularity of science fiction saw a number of its members, as it were, pushing the envelope of sound generation techniques.

Notable among these pioneers was Delia Derbyshire, Co-creator of the iconic theme tune to the Doctor Who franchise and Brian Hodgson, the man behind the ring modulated vocalisations of the Daleks. Derbyshire and Hodgson also constituted two-thirds of Unit Delta Plus, an organisation set up to promote Electronic Music and it’s role in Film and Television; the third party in this enterprise being Peter Zinovieff.

Original poster for the 1967 Million Volt Light and Sound Rave

With Zinovieff’s Putney Studio as its’ base of operations Unit Delta Plus saw a great deal of initial success on the back of the cache commanded by its’ members and in ’66 hosted the “first Concert of British Electronic Music” at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. Derbyshire later remarked that the title was a little presumptuous but recalled that “…John Betjeman was there… he sat in the front row and went to sleep… it was quite a social occasion.”

Another UDP performance, The 1967 Million Volt Light and Sound Rave would see the three composers work performed alongside a tape collage from Paul Macartney entitled Carnival of Light, an association that also saw the Beatle visit the studio at Putney.

Despite these successes and popular associations, however, British Electronic Music continued to be regarded by many as nothing more than a quirky and endearing little brother to serious music and the Lion’s share of investment went into conventional orchestration.

There were differing conceptions within Unit Delta Plus also and at a 1967 Lecture at the Royal College of art Zinovieff’s attempts to tap into the American hippy culture of the time saw the more Conservative Derbyshire and Hodgson leave the stage in protest; an event that led to the dissolution of Unit Delta Plus.

Suburban Synthesis

1969 advertisment for the VCS3

A by-product of these collaborations, however, would be the birth of EMS with Zinovieff, Cockerell and Carey working on the project around the same time as Unit Delta Plus and releasing their first commercial synthesiser in ’69. It would be the product of a commission from Australian composer Don Banks who like Zinovieff desired greater control over electronic sound production.

The VCS3 or the “Putney” as it became known, was, in essence, a scaled down version of Zinovieff’s Studio. Readily transportable and costing just £330 it came at a time when Columbia-Princeton’s modular RCA-MkII filled a room and Bob Moog’s own vision of Synthesis for the masses retailed at $1495.

David Cockerells revolutionary peg board modulation matrix

Revolutionary too was the Implementation of a pegboard for the purposes of modulation, a solution rather more elegant than the spaghetti-like patch cords now so associated with modular units. Unique too was the inclusion of an X-Y joystick that allowed for a blending of parameters and presented the user with further levels of expression.

Added later was an innovation for which Moog still receives credit, the VCS3 was controllable via a piano keyboard. Something that dispensed with cumbersome programming and truly brought the synthesizer into the realm of the performing Musician.

The VCS3 was not without its’ flaws however and
the instability of its tuning put off many traditional musicians; being something that made incorporation into existing ensembles somewhat problematic. It’s release, however, would coincide with the emergence of Prog-Rock, a genre of music that sought to foreground the experimental and had at its heart a search for the “new sound”.

Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour playing a VCS3 and an AKS respectivly

Prog as it became known, was in many ways an incarnation of English Psychedelia and as bands such as Pink Floyd hung up their Kaftans others who had eschewed the hippy aesthetic were keen to pursue the experimental side of the music.

One such band was The Who and the familiar opening to the seminal Won’t Get Fooled Again is the sound of a Lowery Organ processed through the filter of a VCS3; it can be heard too on Led Zepplin’s Four Sticks and a number of records from Hawkwind; A founding member of the which Dave Brock being still in possession of his original model purchased in 1970. And it is perhaps in the hands of the more experimental artists to find prominence in the 1970s that the VCS3 is most familiar. Pink Floyd would go on to use it extensively on both WIsh you Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon and most King Crimson albums from this era feature its sound at some point.

Eno ponders his VCS3

A comprehensive list of artists who would go on to employ the VCS3, in fact, is a who’s who of Electronic music and Alternative Rock with occasional appearances in the worlds of hip-hop, Film soundtracks and conventional Pop. Brian Eno’s first forays into synthesis would be on a VCS3 and as a result, the other-worldly soundscapes of Roxy-music hits such as Virginia Plain are those of the EMS synth. All of this would come, however, at a time when EMS had moved on to new projects and much of it in the years following the demise of the company as was.

Suitcases are packed

Double page advert for the Synthi 100

The Initial success of the VCS3 brought new benefactors and necessitated the employment of developers, designers, salesmen and technicians. A growth that also saw new premises and new projects.

The first of these was the Synthi 100, a full-size modular unit that sold for £6500. This new behemoth featured hybrid digital/analogue technology and was in essence 6 VCS3’s in a single unit, teamed with a much-refined version of Cockrell’s computerised sequencer.

A dapper gent records settings on “the Delaware”

One of the first customers to receive a Synthi 100 was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who in the intervening years had moved away from the use of tape and into the realm of synthesis. The unit was modified to particular specifications and christened the Delaware in honour of the road that passed by its new home. It would feature on many a soundtrack for the next thirty years, including a number of episodes of Doctor Who.

The German Studio für Elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks also acquired a machine and Stockhausen, who had visited EMS in the early days, would go on to use it on his 1977 work Sirius as would many notable composers associated with the Studio.

Others were purchased by European University Electronic music departments and research collectives, with many working examples still to be found in Greece, Serbia, Belgium, Bulgaria and Holland. These units having been used on a number of Albums and Soundtracks in the years following their purchase and continue to attract visiting composers, artists and researchers. 2017 album Music from the Synthi 100 by Yoshio Machida and Constantin Papageorgiadis being the most recent addition to the canon.

Initial sales of this larger unit were slow however and the margins small, so in 1971 EMS returned its focus to smaller units and in particular the Synthi AKS. Housed in a suitcase and complete with a touch-sensitive keyboard and random sequence generator it proved to be the most popular of all EMS products. In essence, a scaled-down version of the VCS3 the AKS is more often than not the unit used on many albums; mislabeled as it’s predecessor. Many artists such as Pink Floyd and Brian Eno would go on to buy both and the formers Dave Gilmour is famously unsure as to which unit was used on which recording.

Cary aligns modulation parameters on an AKS

For Cockrell and Cary, however, the success of EMS came at a time when, for both men, their involvement in the company had necessitated the sacrifice of other passions. For Cockerell it was the desire to break new ground rather than simply repackage his now decade-old designs; whilst Cary felt his primary calling as a composer had been forsaken. And so, as 1973 rolled around, Zinovieff would be the sole founding member on the payroll of EMS, albeit supported by a keen new team.

Cary’s return to the world of Music saw him take a post as head of Electronic composition at the Royal College and ultimately a Professorship at the University of Adelaide following his emigration to Australia. It was a post he held until his retirement in 1986, after which he continued to tinker in his home studio; meticulously transported from England and rebuilt down-under. He passed away in April of 2008 aged 82.

David Cockerell around the time of his departure from EMS

David Cockerell would go on to join the Electro-harmonics company and is responsible for almost all of their phenomenally successful range of effects pedals, most of which exhibit Cockerell’s unique take on signal processing. He is also responsible for the equally successful range of samplers from Japanese company Akai, an implementation of a technique that he and Zinovieff experimented with at the original Putney Studio, decades before anyone else; their efforts being thwarted by a lack of computing power.

Due process

EMS Deodar road

The microchip revolution that enabled Cockerell to realise his sampler designs was also key to a new range of EMS products. Initially, through the MUSYS programming language; the roots of which lay in the methods devised by Zinovieff and Cockerell that enabled the PDP-8 computer to communicate with a given sound generation device. These basic protocols, however, lacked a composer friendly interface and were reliant on antiquated paper punch cards. The creation of MUSYS came from a desire to overcome these limitations and was the brainchild of Peter Grogono.

Zinovieff’s much expanded Putney studio circa 1971

Hired by EMS in 1969, Grogono had first become interested in Electronic music following a BBC broadcast that featured the work of Tristram Cary and as such had a unique understanding of what EMS were all about. He was tasked initially with creating a system whereby the two PDP-8 computers now owned by the EMS Putney studio could control a bank of self-oscillating filters. Both through user-defined parameters and by modelling an existing sound (the proto-sampling that Cockrell would go on to perfect).

The MUSYS language achieved this in a manner very similar to the now ubiquitous MIDI system; representing elements of frequency and amplitude through a numerical matrix. Unlike MIDI, however, it was able to further encode envelope information (how the amplitude might change over time) and the degree of filter applied to each note event. It was used in the creation of a number of compositions at the Putney Studio and was trialled Commercially in a digital interface for the Synthi 100. Ultimately though it’s potential to rival MIDI was never realised and Grogono himself departed the company in 1973.

The Spectron Video Synthersiser

Parallel evolutions of MUSYS then played out, with Grogono refining it into the MOUSE language and EMS engineers Jim Lawson and Richard Monkhouse pursuing further applications for Zinovieff’s studio work. The commercial efforts of EMS, however, went in two divergent and seemingly unlikely directions.

One such of these was the Spectron Video Synthesiser, a system that employed the same analogue technology as the VCS3 but realised it’s output through a cathode ray tube rather than a voltage controlled amplifier. Billed as a tool for special effect creation and with applications in design and the arts, the Spectron fell victim to a lack of focus within EMS and rapidly decreasing collateral.

Between Rock and a hard place

An advert for the Hi-Fli in the EMS house style

Another product that barely made it out of the traps in this era of decline was the Hi-Fli, Marketed as a Synthesizer it was in effect a multi-effects processor. Designed by David Cockerell and left at EMS almost as a parting gift, it had the potential to turn around the companies fortunes; Ultimately, however, alongside the Spectron, it signalled the beginning of the end. One final product, the EMS Polysynthi was released in 1978 but became, like so EMS products, a fantastic piece of hardware that fell at the final hurdle.

Dave Gilmour tinkers with a Hi-Fli prototype

The reasons behind the ultimate demise of EMS are many, not least of which being the breakdown of Zinovieff’s first marriage; an event that saw the loss of an important benefactor.

A lack of investment is perhaps key to the series of innovations realised by EMS that ultimately came to nothing. Zinovieff had written an open letter to the Times offering the Putney studio to the nation and seeking financial support that might see it become a centre for research and education. He unfortunately found no takers for this offer and as the 1970s drew to a close, found himself forced to dismantle the Studio and liquidate EMS.

Competition was a factor too, other Synth manufactures offered products that were more user-friendly and affordable than the esoteric EMS range. Coupled with a general movement away from Electronic music (at least for the time being) this saw a dwindling marketplace that coincided with a lack of viable products.

The short lived EMS Polysynthi

The EMS brand was bought initially by Datanomics of Wareham Dorset, a company that ostensibly made electronic hospital beds and was looking to diversify. A limited number of VCS3’s were produced under the tenure of Datanomics and some efforts were made in designing a standalone keyboard version to rival the popular Yamaha and Roland units that flooded the market in the early ’80s.

This however was the era of digital and demand for boutique analogue synths was limited; the efforts of Datanomics were indeed valiant but ultimately the early eighties was a time many were calling time on analogue synths.

Edward Williams with his private collection of EMS gear

There were those who kept the home fires burning, however; dyed in the wool analogue and modular enthusiasts who simply couldn’t bear to see the end of their beloved machines. Scouring house clearances and charity shops for pieces of gear dismissed by others as old fashioned junk, they salvaged what they could from the ashes of the analogue era; this was after all the disposable age and a select few in the know obtained equipment, sometimes for free, that is now worth thousands. Composer Edward Williams went one step further and bought a whole company.

Williams was himself something of a pioneer in the field of Electronic music and had been a fan of EMS synths from the early days. Perhaps best remembered for scoring the 1979 documentary series Life on Earth; Williams like Cary had brought Electroacoustic sound into the mainstream.

A 1989 advert for the Soundbeam evokes the ’60s heydey of EMS

Once at the helm of EMS he set to work on his own pet vision; a system whereby movement could be converted to MIDI data; something that essentially turned the human body into a keyboard. A project perfectly in keeping with the EMS legacy of eccentric modernism.

Williams had initially conceived of the idea as an Avant-Garde exercise in generative composition, whereby the movements of a dancer would generate the music in real time. Soundbeam, as it became known, was launched in 1989 and indeed worked exactly as Williams had envisaged.

This is the point at which previous EMS products had seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and as products go, the Soundbeam seemed to have little traction. A market in education would emerge however and Soundbeam version 6 is now widely used as a tool that allows the profoundly disabled to create music and participate in sensory stimulation projects.

Following the success of Soundbream, The EMS name seemed increasing less irrelevant to the project and the patents and schematics for those Classic products became somewhat redundant; so it was, that EMS changed hands again.

Cottage Industry

EMS Cornwall reproductions of the VCS3 and AKS

Robin Wood began work at EMS in 1970 as a salesman and demonstrater; he would stay with the company through every coming incarnation and in April of 1995 bought the shop. Operating from a converted barn in Truro, EMS Cornwall will build you a VCS3 for £1800; a comparable sum to the 1970 price tag. And can offer spares and modifications for those who might still possess an original. Like a company specialising in parts for vintage cars or rare model kits; EMS has a simple website and does not advertise. An EMS customer knows what he or she is looking for; they will find their way.

A Digitana SX-1 expander

Another quiet renaissance can be found in a company by the name of Digitana; a name borrowed from Zinovieff’s Synthi 100 prototype. They specialise in products that can interface vintage EMS units with the world of modern audio through MIDI and control voltage. A system that means the VCS3 can become part of a customised modular setup or be controlled via a PC. They are hand built units, sympathetically designed to fit Cary’s original aesthetic and, for the world of modular synthesis, are reasonably priced.

Digitaria’s latest product, however, has caused the greatest buzz among EMS aficionados. It is an exact reproduction of the ill-fated Hi-Fli effects unit, built under licence from EMS Cornwall and modelled on Cockrell’s original specs to the minutest detail. As a testament to the cult status, this unit has achieved, the current waiting list is four to five years.

For those of us wishing to enjoy the EMS experience but finding the price range beyond our reach, there is the realm of software emulation. For a little over £100, the XILS 3 from XILS-lab gives the user access to faithfully modelled controls, the addition of presets and of course that wonderfully unpredictable sound.

The interface of the Apesoft VCS3 ios app

Should this still be out of ones reach then the Apesoft iVCS3 will provide a fully immersive experience on i-pad for just £10.99. A price that equates to 1/10000 of the cost of Zinovieff’s PDP-8 when viewed in today’s money.

Aftertouch

Zinovieff at work

For everything that EMS became, it was established first a foremost as a way for Peter Zinovieff to fund his Putney studio and therein lies the real tragedy of the story.

Zinovieff’s dream was to establish a British Electronic Music institution to rival those of Columbia-Princeton or the WDR. And had the powers that be bought into this dream those Electroacoustic histories still being written may have been radically different.

At the controls of the PDP-8

In the end, the contents of Zinovieff’s studio was destroyed in a flood when the newly divorced composer was forced to dismantle and store his equipment. It was an unforeseeable act of God that sits alongside the bad marketing decisions and short-sightedness of the establishment as villains in the EMS story.

It is perhaps fitting, however, to the idiosyncratic eccentricities of EMS that things should play out as they did, framing the venture as that most British of narratives; the noble failure.

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