This article, created by Gordon Reid, appeared in two parts in Sound on Sound magazine in 2000. Please note that all (c) are with Sound on Sound magazine and the author. The original article can be found here.
Here’s a puzzle for you. Study the following list of names: ARP, EMS, Moog, and Sequential Circuits. Which is the odd one out? Well… they all manufactured analogue synthesizers, they were each world leaders in their fields at some point during the ’70s, and they all went bust and disappeared in the late ’70s or ’80s. All but one, that is. EMS became bankrupt like all the others but still exists, albeit in modified form, and continues to sell classic analogue synthesizers.
Do you want another difference? OK, on an ARP, Moog, or Sequential Circuits synthesizer, you can set up and play a patch with reasonable confidence that — if you know what you are doing — it will perform as expected. You can also be sure that the patch will sound the same if you recreate it sometime later. Unfortunately, this isn’t true for the EMS range of synthesizers. The company’s most famous instruments are undoubtedly classics, and they remain sound effects machines of almost unsurpassed quality and flexibility. However, unless you’re very brave (or you’ve paid for a whole bunch of modifications) you won’t even attempt to play a tune on one. This is their story.
The Early Days
Peter Zinovieff was born in London in 1933. His parents were wealthy Russians who had fled to the UK following the 1917 revolution. A geologist who filled his home with samples (rocks, not audio) he was fascinated by electronic music, and used his wealth to develop a huge voltage-controlled studio that occupied an entire room in his Putney home.
When this became too unwieldy, he enlisted the help of engineer Dave Cockerell and programmer Peter Grogno. They helped him to design an enhanced system which used two DEC PDP8 minicomputers to control the voltage-controlled modules of Zinovieff’s early synthesizers. Unlike previous electronic studios, their ‘MUSYS’ system proved reasonably user friendly, with a standard QWERTY keyboard and a velocity-sensitive piano-style keyboard, rather like today’s computer-based studios.
Bearing in mind that Bob Moog had only recently published his seminal papers regarding voltage control, Zinovieff’s ideas and instruments were incredible. It’s worth remembering that, at that time, the closest most people had come to a computer was watching the flashing monstrosities featured in episodes of Star Trek and Lost In Space. But twenty years before affordable computing and sequencing packages, Zinovieff’s PDP8s could store and replay compositions, complete with sound shaping parameters such as loudness and envelopes. His software was even capable of twisting the music into bizarre new sounds and effects. All this, from a program that loaded from a long strip of punched paper tape! In 1968, Zinovieff and Cockerell also invented a form of computer-controlled spectral (or ‘additive’) synthesis, using a system of 60 resonant filters that could analyse sounds and resynthesise them.
In 1969, when MUSYS became too expensive for Zinovieff alone, he decided to ‘offer it to the nation’ as a free resource for the Arts. To this end, he placed an advertisement in The Times newspaper but just £50 was forthcoming. The benefactor, a gentleman named Don Banks had, it seems, misunderstood Zinovieff’s offer because, in return for his cheque, he asked Zinovieff to make him a synthesizer. Zinovieff and Cockerell therefore decided to embark upon a substantially different money-making scheme.
Together with Tristram Cary, a composer of electronic music for TV series such as Dr Who, Zinovieff and Cockerell created a new company, Electronic Music Studios Ltd. Given their mutual interest in synthesis, and the existing design of Cockerell’s — the Voltage Controlled Studio No. 1 — it was hardly surprising that their first product should be a synthesizer.
The VCS No.1 was a hand-built rackmount unit with two oscillators, one filter and one envelope. In an era when a synthesizer was, almost by default, a huge Moog modular, this was not thought to be adequate, so the partners set out to enhance Cockerell’s ideas. They designed an instrument that was small, portable, but very powerful and flexible. It was the Voltage Controlled Studio No. 3 or, as it is now known, the EMS VCS3.
The Key Players: Peter Zinovieff And MUSYS
In addition to his musical and technical accomplishments, Zinovieff was also interested in language. For Harrison Birtwhistle’s opera entitled The Mask Of Orpheus, he chopped up the sounds in the words ‘Eurice’ and ‘Orpheus’ to create a language of 151 new words. He remained active in his MUSYS studio until 1979, producing works including Birtwhistle’s Chronometer and Hans Werner Hense’s Glass Music.
In 1975, the long-forgotten techno pioneers Zorch became the only ‘rock’ band ever to record in Peter Zinovieff’s studio. Long-time fans and users of EMS synthesisers, they recorded a soundtrack for an early music video called Mother Earth. Zinovieff moved to a remote Scottish island in 1979 where, I understand, he remains to this day.
Since this article was first published in November 2000, Peter moved to Cambridge where he was interviewed on video by this article’s author in 2016.
The VCS3 is, essentially, a modular synthesizer. Given the prevailing ideas about music synthesis in 1969, this is not surprising. After all, the first integrated synth — the Minimoog — was not to appear for another year, and all previous synthesizers had allowed you to connect the various sound creating sections as you wished.
The VCS3 comes in two parts. The synthesizer — nicknamed ‘The Putney’ because EMS was located in that part of London — contains the bulk of the audio modules. It also incorporates two power amplifiers and two speakers that make it a complete, self-contained sound-effects generator.
Oscillators one and two are the primary sound sources, and these produce a remarkable range of frequencies, from below 1Hz to around 10kHz. Oscillator one produces sine and sawtooth waveforms with a form of rectifying waveshaping for the sine wave. Independent level controls allow you to select the amounts of each waveform in the oscillator’s output. The second oscillator also produces two simultaneous waveforms, and again it offers independent level controls for each. This time, the waveforms are pulse and triangle waves, with simultaneous waveshaping from zero percent to 100 percent on the former, and from sawtooth to ramp wave on the latter. It’s a shame that, on an unmodified VCS3, none of the waveshapers can be voltage controlled, because this would introduce many forms of pulse width modulation (PWM) and dramatically increase the range of sounds available. Once selected, a waveform is static.
A third oscillator is similar to oscillator two, with pulse and triangular waveforms, but its frequency range is concentrated much further down the spectrum, lying between 0.025Hz (one cycle every 40 seconds) to around 500Hz. Oscillator three also offers a waveshaper, and this is identical in concept to oscillator two’s. Using this, you can easily demonstrate just how precise the ramp/triangle/sawtooth waves can be. The same is not true, however, for the pulse waves!
An independent section on the panel contains a noise generator, with a level control and a ‘colour’ control that varies from predominantly low frequencies (red) to ‘white’ noise, and up to predominantly high frequency (blue) noise. Another section contains the ring modulator which, as you would expect, offers just an output level control.
Many players and writers have described the VCS3’s filter as a conventional low-pass filter with an 18dB/octave slope, but they are, to some extent, wrong. The VCS3 filter exhibits a ‘knee’ in its cutoff profile; the first octave above the cutoff frequency rolls off at 12dB/octave, but the slope increases to 18dB/octave at frequencies above that. Furthermore, any amount of filter resonance significantly depresses the low frequency gain, so EMS described it as a combined low-pass/band-pass device. At high ‘response’ (the EMS term for resonance or ’emphasis’) the filter self-oscillates, so it becomes an oscillator. This is not strange to a generation of players brought up on multi-mode filters and today’s complex virtual analogue synthesizers, but it was mind-boggling stuff in the late ’60s.
If the filter is slightly unusual, the envelope generator (which EMS called a ‘shaper’) and its associated VCA are positively arcane. It has six controls. The first, the Attack, is straightforward enough and has a range of about two milliseconds to one second. So far, so good. The next control is labelled ‘On’, but nowadays we would call this a sustain level ‘Hold’ because it determines the length of time that the envelope stays ‘high’ after you release the gate. (The Korg MS20 also has this on its HADSR envelope generator.) EMS claimed that ‘On’ has a range of zero to two and a half seconds, but mine holds for a full five seconds. Control number three is more recognisable — it’s a Decay Rate, with a claimed range of three milliseconds to around 15 seconds. Mine lasts for 60 seconds. The fourth knob is labelled ‘Off’ and it determines the delay before auto-retriggering of the envelope cycle. Until you understand that this must be in the ’10’ position (called ‘Manual’) to play the VCS3 conventionally, it can be very confusing. Indeed, the envelope will auto-repeat at frequencies of up to 60Hz, which is well inside the audio range, so the ‘Shaper’ can also act as an LFO or even as a deep bass oscillator. Again, this must have confused many players dreadfully when they first tried to get a sensible sound out of a VCS3.
The envelope has two outputs with independent level controls. The first (and the fifth in the ‘shaper section’) is the ‘Trapezoid’ level — the one that confuses most people. To understand this, just picture the envelope shape produced by an AHD (attack/hold/decay) contour generator. The Trapezoid level simply determines the level of the envelope CV. The second level control (the sixth shaper control) is the signal level, and this controls the loudness of any signal passing through the Shaper. There is also a large, red Attack button, which we would nowadays describe as a Manual Gate.
The VCS3 also provided a spring reverb with Mix and Level controls. This is a simple dual-spring device with a maximum reverberation time of approximately two seconds. Unfortunately, when using the VCS3’s internal speakers, the reverb howls uncontrollably before the mix gets very dense, and you can only use it to its full potential with external amplification and speakers.
It may not be obvious at first sight, but the VCS3 is a stereo synthesizer with independent output channels A and B that drive the left and right speakers respectively. These have independent level controls, panning controls, and output filters that, depending upon position, attenuate the bass or treble, or provide a flat response.
Performance controls are limited to the enormous X/Y joystick. This has two controls that govern the X and Y ranges but, unfortunately, its maximum range is about plus/minus two Volts, so it’s not often that you can plumb the extremes of any parameters it controls. In addition, just to place the VCS3 firmly in ’50s sci-fi territory, a voltmeter allows you to measure any control voltages (which are close to DC) or signal levels (which are AC) within your patches. You can even connect an oscilloscope to a dedicated quarter inch output on the rear. Wonderful!
Why Don’t Patches Sound The Same Twice?
On any synthesizer — whether vintage or modern — you expect a patch to sound the same, no matter how many times you return to it, but this is not the case with the VCS3. This is not due to its famous oscillator instabilities, but rather a consequence of the inconsistencies of the patch pins.
On a conventional modular synth, the impedances of the short patch cables are virtually zero, and are too small to affect the sound in any significant fashion. However, a white VCS3 pin may vary between 2,565Ω and 2,835Ω, and this is easily enough to change things. The most obvious way to demonstrate this is to change between two white pins in position I8 or J8… you may hear the keyboard tracking change significantly. Likewise, filter tracking, filter cutoff, audio signal levels between modules, other CVs between modules all change slightly when you replace one pin with another, ostensibly identical one.
To recreate a patch, therefore, you must not only record all the knob positions and the matrix patching map, but you must record which pin went in which position within the matrix. Fortunately, since you can now buy resistors with tolerances as good as 0.1 percent, you can alleviate this problem by replacing the resistors within all your existing pins. It’s laborious work, but it pays in the end.
The DK1 Keyboard
The separate DK1 keyboard — known as ‘The Cricklewood’, because that was where Cockerell worked — was as radical as the VCS3 it controlled. It was, of course, monophonic (there weren’t any polyphonic synthesizers in 1969) but it was velocity sensitive, allowing players to add expression in a way that had previously been impossible.
The DK1 is connected to the VCS3 using a dedicated eight-way cable that provides two power rails, two CVs, and a Gate pulse for the envelope shaper. To the left of the keyboard, two switches control the two output CVs (called ‘Channels’) produced by the DK1. The first of these has ‘Signal’ and ‘CV1’ positions — CV1 was what we would now call the pitch CV. In contrast, switch two had a ‘Dynamic Voltage’ position and a ‘CV2’ position. The former of these produces a CV proportional to the velocity with which you hit a key, while the latter produces a pitch CV. But CV1, and therefore channel one, produce the same thing, so there’s no point in having both switches set to ‘CV’.
Returning to the ‘Signal’ position… the DK1 has a built-in sawtooth oscillator and an associated VCA with frequency, ‘spread’, level and dynamic range controls. This is a godsend because, with the spread set to ’10’ the oscillator tracks the keyboard in a conventional 1:1 relationship. In other words, you can play the keyboard and, with everything else set up appropriately, you’ll hear the notes that you would expect. This is not necessarily the case when you use the keyboard CV channels. The reason is because the keyboard CV channels enter the VCS3 through two input level controls marked, sensibly enough, Channel one and Channel two. The problem arises because 1:1 key tracking occurs somewhere between ‘six’ and ‘seven’ on the knobs, and the exact position can fluctuate wildly with the oscillators’ temperature, the time of day, and the FTSE100 index. This makes it very tricky to use the VCS3’s internal oscillators for correctly pitched melodies. Every time you play the thing, and even after an hour of ‘warming up’, you are constantly trimming the tuning and scaling the Channels, much as you might expect to do on a Minimoog once every few years.
Furthermore, the VCS3 doesn’t conform to either the one Volt per octave or Hz/V standards used by every other manufacturer before and after. It uses internal voltages of 0.32V/octave for oscillators one and two, 0.26V/octave for oscillator three, and 0.20 V/octave for the self-oscillating filter. However, because there are CV amplifiers on the internal module inputs, you need to double these figures to 0.64V/octave, 0.52V/octave and 0.40V/octave respectively for external CV sources!
Likewise, the usual 10V peak-to-peak signal levels are eschewed in favour of three Volts, four Volts and six Volts for the oscillators (depending upon waveform) five Volts for the filter, three Volts for the noise generator… and so on. There was nothing conventional about the VCS3.
The Key Players: Tristram Cary
Tristram Ogilvie Cary OAM, MA (Oxon), LMus TCL, HonRCM, I Eng (to give him his full title) was born in Oxford in 1925. His education was as posh as it gets, with scholarships galore, but the latter part of the Second World War interrupted this, and he spent four years in the Navy as a specialist working on the RADAR technology developed a few years earlier. It was here that he received his training in electronics, and developed his first ideas regarding electronic music recording.
He studied piano, horn, viola and conducting, and spent a number of years teaching music, working in a gramophone shop, and developing the ideas for his first electronic music studio. From 1954 onwards, he became known as a composer, gave up his other jobs, and began living off his commissions for theatre, radio, film, and television.
In 1967, Cary founded the electronic music studio at the Royal College of Music. In 1973, he was invited to become the senior visiting lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia, later moving to Adelaide, and eventually becoming the Dean of Music at Adelaide in 1982. In 1986 he left the University and now operates as Tristram Cary Creative Music Services, where he continues to produce specialised recordings for film, TV, theatre, and radio. His book, The Illustrated Compendium Of Musical Technology, was published in 1992.
Putting It All Together
We haven’t yet discussed the VCS3’s most notable characteristic: the patch matrix. The most important thing to note here is that the VCS3 will remain forever silent unless you stick some pins into the matrix. This is because none of the devices described are connected to each other unless you use the matrix to determine which signal goes where. Fortunately, the 16 x 16 matrix allows you to connect any of the VCS3’s modules to each other.
Close-up of the patch matrix on a EMS VCS3.Let’s say that you want to direct the output of oscillator one to output channel one. Since the signal generated by oscillator one emerges from the list of sources in row three, and the input to channel one is column A, you simply stick a patch pin in position A3, and the connection is made. Of course, this doesn’t preclude you from sticking more pins in row three, and yet more in column A, so patches can become very complex, very quickly. Indeed, you can stick 256 pins into all 256 available sockets, but I doubt that it would create a sound. (I’ve never tried it — pins are too expensive.) Also, you must remember that, at this point, you have only made a set of connections between modules. Whether you hear a sound, or whether it’s a usable one, still depends on the positions of the front panel controls.
It may not be obvious from my description, but the VCS3’s patch matrix is much more powerful than the cable patching systems of other synthesizers. This is because, whereas a Moog, ARP, or even a modern VCO may have one or two outputs, the VCS3’s have, in effect, 16 outputs that you can direct to every input on the front panel. Likewise, each input on a conventional modular synthesizer is replaced by up to 16 inputs on the patch matrix. You would need sixteen large mixers and sixteen 16-way multiples to imitate this, using a conventional patching architecture, and I can’t think of any synthesizer that offers this. So, despite its limited number of oscillators, and its limited filter and envelope architecture, the VCS3 is nonetheless an incredibly powerful synthesizer.
Unfortunately, there are three problems with the matrix. The first two are simple to avoid: if mistreated it can become unreliable; and it’s very expensive to replace. The third is more fundamental. The matrix is not ‘buffered’, and this means that, every time you insert a pin into an existing patch, the actions of other patch connections will change to some degree. Let’s suppose that you have spent an hour creating a complex patch and getting every knob exactly as you want it. You then decide that you want to add, say, oscillator two to the filter input. You insert the appropriate pin and … everything else changes. As you can imagine, this is infuriating.
Now let’s turn to the patch pins themselves. These are not simple metal connectors that short between the row and column rails. They are resistors, and there are three types of these in common use. White ones (with a resistance of 2.7kΩ) are the most common, and you can use them for almost anything. However, because the resistors in the pins have a wide (five percent) tolerance, they are not suitable for some jobs. In particular, two white pins inserted into I8 and J8 (CV Channel A connected to the pitch CV inputs of oscillators one and two) will often be sufficiently different to make the oscillators track differently. To overcome this, EMS supplied red pins, also 2.7kΩ, but with two percent tolerances. The third of the common pin colours is green. These pins have a higher resistance than the others, thus reducing the amplitude of a signal considerably. Most often, you use these when you want to attenuate a control signal, such as applying a delicate amount of modulation to a pitch CV input.
Typical patches require up to around 15 pins, but you will often see VCS3s with fewer than this. Indeed, the number of usable pins may be close to zero because mishandling and age damage the delicate internal connections, making patching haphazard at best. Fortunately, you can still obtain these from EMS.
How Many VCS3s?
Nobody knows how many VCS3s were built and, since EMS’s serial numbering was neither consistent nor sequential, it’s unlikely that we ever will. The most reliable estimate — given to me some years ago by Robin Cook — is that fewer than 800 ever saw the light. Of these, many have been destroyed, dumped into skips by owners who found them unusable and worthless in the mid-80s. Given that today they’re worth £1,800, it makes you want to scour the rubbish tips and dumps around the country… maybe.
If you read some of the conversations flying around on the Internet, you might be forgiven for thinking that the VCS3 is no more than a glorified effects unit. In part, this is because few casual users have the knowledge or the patience to squeeze conventional musical signals from the instrument. But perhaps more significantly, it’s because the VCS3 has four quarter inch inputs on the rear panel — two for microphones, two for line level signals — routed to the Channel one and Channel two rows on the patch matrix. Because the VCS3 is modular, this is a far more powerful arrangement than the signal inputs on pre-patched monosynths, allowing you to use an external signal as an extra module, maybe as an audio source, a CV source, or even a Gate.
There’s another reason why the VCS3 is often regarded as a sound mangler. Because its internal oscillators are so unstable, using external signals (such as that generated by the DK1) is often the only way that you can play conventional melodies. So, in many ways, the VCS3’s status as ‘effects generator extraordinaire’ is a classic case of making a virtue out of a necessity.
The Heyday Of EMS
At £330 for the synthesizer itself and a further £150 for the keyboard, the VCS3+DK1 cost a small fortune in 1969. On the other hand, your £480 bought you the world’s first self-contained, portable synthesizer and velocity-sensitive synthesizer keyboard. The VCS3 was difficult to program but, a year before the appearance of the Minimoog and ARP2600, it brought synthesis within the reach of the public. (How many players do you think ever had access to the esoteric music computers installed in studios such as MUSYS, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where Cary had worked earlier in the decade?)
As a result, success came quickly, and EMS soon grew, employing more engineers and more sales staff, including a young chap named Robin Wood (whose role in this story will become much clearer next month). Several breadboard prototypes appeared. Perhaps the most interesting was the VCS4; a five-octave keyboard married to a pair of VCS3s, a mixer and signal-processing unit. The 1969 prototype still exists and I understand that it’s still functional, so why did EMS decline to produce it? Another was the Synthi KB1, a fantastic looking re-hash of the VCS3 with a 29-note mini-keyboard in a single case. Prototyped in 1970, EMS sold the only one of these to prog-rock band Yes and I’m not aware that it has never been seen again.
The VCS4 and KB1 were intriguing designs, and they may well have been commercially successful had they ever made it into production. However, in marked contrast to these compact synths, the next EMS instrument to appear was the monstrous Synthi 100, which we’ll take a brief look at in Part 2, as we continue to chart the further rise and dramatic fall of EMS in the ’70s, and its Phoenix-like rebirth in the ’90s. Until then…
VCS3 Modifications, Accessories And Spares
As you will have gathered, you can’t treat a VCS3 like a conventional synthesizer, and you certainly can’t sit down at a DK1 keyboard and just start to play. Even if you are adept at patching and programming the VCS3, its quirks and instabilities make conventional melodies all but impossible. Fortunately, there are numerous modifications possible, some of which tame the VCS3’s worst excesses, and some of which considerably extend its usefulness. The following list describes a range of these, all available from EMS. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it’ll get you started.
- Oscillator stabilisation modification (per osc) £18
- Metal-can dual transistors for oscillators (per osc) £10
- Oscillator sync — variable via potentiometer (per osc) £20
- Voltage controlled shape (per osc) £20
- Hi/Lo switchable frequency range (per osc) £25
- Portamento/glide £45
- Attack time extension to five seconds £15
- 10-turn pots on input channels (each) £15
- Centre-zero trapezoid for inverted bi-polar output £30
- External gate input socket £5
- Patchable voltage inverter £35
- Extra input channel £30
Of these, I would urge anybody with a VCS3 to pay for the stabilisation modification for all three oscillators. Once these are completed, the synthesizer becomes very stable, and many of its perceived deficiencies simply vanish. You should consider the voltage controlled shape mod, because this adds all the Pulse Wave Modulation possibilities that you could ever desire. I also suggest the voltage inverter (very useful) plus the 10-turn pots, which make it much simpler to tune the input CVs for conventional playing. A full range of accessories, spares, books and manuals is also available from EMS. These include a special jack lead that permits conventional MIDI/CV operation, and the original user manuals, service manuals, and patch books first released from 1969 onwards.
Neither the VCS4 nor the Synthi KB1 made it into production and EMS’s next synthesizer was the huge, unwieldy, and almost unusable Synthi 100. Contrary to the information on some web sites (which are simply wrong), this huge floor-standing unit was released in January 1971, and looked like one of the computers in the original series of Star Trek. (You could order the Synthi 100 itself as three large rack-mount modules, but it’s the floor-standing version that has survived in memory.)
The Synthi 100 used the same technology as the VCS3, but incorporated 12 VCOs, a pair of noise generators, three ring modulators, four low-pass filters, four high-pass filters, plus 39 other modules, and an oscilloscope! You played it using a pair of five-octave velocity sensitive keyboards but there was also a six-track, 256-step digital sequencer — a radical innovation then.
At £6,500, it was obvious that the Synthi 100 was never going to be a musician’s instrument, and almost all of the 30 or so produced ended up in universities or in broadcasters’ in-house audio workshops. The most famous of these was the one installed at the BBC Radiophonic workshop in Delaware Road, London and, in honour of this, the Synthi 100 also became known as ‘The Delaware’. (If you want to hear ‘The Delaware’ you need only listen to the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, or to any of the Jon Pertwee episodes of Dr Who.) The same year also saw the development of the one-off Sequencer 32, the Sequencer 64, and the Sequencer 128 — all of which evolved into the Sequencer 256, a stand-alone version of the six-track sequencer in the Synthi 100. This was no small box but, with its five-octave keyboard, 42-bit storage, internal and external clocks, forwards and backwards play, and editing capabilities, it was incredibly advanced in 1971.
You could later buy some of the Synthi’s other modules as separate products designed to complement the VCS3. These included the pitch/voltage converter (possibly the first of its kind), a triple slew generator, a filter bank, and a random signal generator, none of which existed in the VCS3 itself. But neither the Synthi 100 nor its spin-offs proved to be EMS’s crowning glory. That honour belongs to two direct descendents of the VCS3. Released in 1971, the first was the Synthi A, or ‘Portabella’, and the second was 1972’s Synthi AKS.
Dark Side Of The Moon: The Ultimate VCS3 Album?
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon made extensive use of a VCS3, especially on the track ‘On The Run’.Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon is famous for its extensive use of the VCS3, and ‘On The Run’ is perhaps the classic VCS3 track… but there is no VCS3 on it! Alan Parsons (the engineer on the album) later revealed that the track was recorded using a Synthi AKS. It was, as he put it, the “hot synth of the year”.
Because of the lack of synchronisation technology at the time, the track (except for the spun-in sound effects) was recorded live. The sequence was laboriously programmed using the AKS’s membrane keyboard, and then played back at high speed to produce the effect that you hear. Considering the complexity of the sequence, the amount of sound modulation going on, and the hi-hat sound that is also being produced by the synth, it’s remarkable that everything worked as well as it did. More so when you realise that the same rigmarole was required before every concert — there were no stage sequencers in 1972!
Descendents Of The VCS3
EMS Synthi AKS.Designed by David Cockerell, the Synthi A was functionally identical to the VCS3, the difference being that it was built into a Spartanite attaché case. At just £198, it proved to be a winner, popping up in numerous colleges and music studios. Nevertheless, its success was relatively short lived, because the AKS added an unplayable membrane keyboard and a sequencer in the lid. At £420, the AKS cost more than double the ‘A’, but this was the machine that everybody wanted. Soon the user-list began to read like a Who’s Who? of the music industry. It included electronic artists such as Tangerine Dream and (somewhat later) Jean-Michel Jarre, prog-rockers King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes, and more orthodox but far-sighted artists such as Roxy Music, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin. In fact, the second synthesizer I ever used was a Synthi AKS, owned by the music department of my local sixth-form college. I spent hours battling to get tunes out of it, and still more trying to master the membrane keyboard. I was greatly disappointed when I failed, and it wasn’t until some years later that I discovered that everybody else had had the same experience!
Also in 1972, the DK2 was released — this was a duophonic version of the DK1 which you couldn’t use duophonically, because when you depressed a second key, the second CV dragged the first one down. In addition, there was the KS Sequencer, which was, in essence, a stand-alone version of the sequencer and membrane keyboard from the Synthi AKS.
A Company Past Its Peak…
Looking back, it’s obvious that 1972 marked the zenith of EMS’s achievements. In 1973, the company released the Sound Freak, a guitar synthesizer that came as a stand-mounted console plus two CV pedal controllers. Later renamed the Synthi Hi-Fli, this proved to be Cockerell’s first failure. It wasn’t short of facilities — it offered distortion, ring modulation, a basic envelope generator, modulation, and various filter treatments — but it never caught on (it’s a shame that ARP didn’t learn anything from this, because the ARP Avatar guitar synthesizer was a significant factor in that company’s death eight years later).
On the positive side, 1973 also saw the release of the VCS3 MkII. This incorporated a stronger power supply and slightly improved oscillator stability, as well as the ‘Prestopatch’ socket. This socket allowed you to use 16 x 16 plugs (custom built to customers’ specifications) that mimicked the patch matrix, providing primitive patch memories for the routing of a sound. Of course, you still had to set all the controls by hand, but it simplified some of the sound creation and eliminated one source of potential cock-ups if you tried to use a VCS3 on stage. Unfortunately for EMS, technical improvements like this did not lead to increased sales. Throughout the heyday of EMS, its driving forces and inspirations had been Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell. But by 1974, Zinovieff’s interest was waning. He was computer-literate in an era when very few musicians were and, throughout the early ’70s, his ideas remained way ahead of their time. Furthermore, he had used EMS as a platform to finance his research in his MUSYS studio, and this was still to lead to many developments in new ways of using computers to shape and reproduce sounds. But conventional synthesis was no longer of real interest to him, and he had started to experiment with various forms of communications technology and speech encoding.
At the same time, EMS’s research projects were becoming ever more ambitious, and much of the company’s revenue was being diverted into the development of a huge digital synthesizer (the ‘Digital Oscillator Bank’) that was to have offered precise control over the waveforms and envelopes of its 192 oscillators! Yet another monster, Peter Eastty’s ‘Analytical Engine’ incorporated 128 digital filters that produced the raw data used to drive the DOB. Eastty had one fully-functional version of this in his studio but, when I discussed it with him in 1998, he confided that he had designed it as research tool and had never really seen it as a commercially viable product.
On the commercial side, Cockerell had continued to develop his VCS3 technology, producing two ‘Matrix’ products (one with keyboard sockets, one without) that allowed you to connect the Prestopatch sockets of two Synthi As or two VCS3 MkIIs. He had also developed a new version of the VCS3/Synthi A.
Where Are They Now?
- David Cockerell left EMS in 1972 to join Electro-Harmonix, the American manufacturer of effects units and miniature synthesizers. He spent a brief time in 1976 at IRCAM in Paris, but left to return to Electro-Harmonix. More recently, he was instrumental in designing Akai’s hugely successful ‘S’ range of samplers.
- Peter Eastty left EMS in 1977, also moved to IRCAM, and then spent some time at SSL, perhaps the world’s most successful manufacturer of large-scale mixing consoles. He now works for Sony Broadcast. As senior scientist at the company’s Oxford research labs, he has helped develop DSD and Super Audio CD (SACD), the new consumer CD format that Sony hope will displace the — as yet unreleased — DVD Audio format.
- Apart from his work at EMS, Tim Orr is best known for his Powertran synthesizer kits (as published in Electronics Today International magazine) such as the Transcendent 2000. I recently gave a lecture on ‘Analogue Synthesis, Past and Future’ to the British section of the Audio Engineering Society and Tim was in the audience, which was terrifying!
- When Graham Hinton left EMS in 1979, he briefly left the music industry, joining computer manufacturer RML (Research Machines Ltd) to work on local area networks. More recently, he returned to audio, helping design products for HH Electronics and SSL.
P For Professional
Named the Synthi P (the ‘P’ stood for Professional) the new instrument offered all the features of the ‘A’, but incorporated improved filters and envelopes, plus a heater on the oscillator chips to improve pitch stability. There were many other improvements. For example, Cockerell added pulse width modulation, a dedicated filter on oscillator one, oscillator sync between oscillators two and three, slaving of oscillator three’s pitch to one of the shapers, true ADSR contours, filter tracking, and portamento. The ‘P’ also sported a new mechanical keyboard, somewhat like a DK2 but with a KS sequencer incorporated within it. Unfortunately, the people who played the ‘P’– and there aren’t many of them — say that, whatever it gained in performance and reliability over its predecessors, it lost in character.
Whatever the future of the Synthi P might have been, there were only three prototypes made. One — sometimes called the Synthi Mk3 — was housed in a Synthi A case, the other two appeared in small flight cases. None saw the (commercial) light of day, although at least two of the prototypes still exist, and now reside in the USA. Likewise, Cockerell’s remarkable Speech Synthesizer (which allowed you to draw the formants with a pen) never proceeded past the prototype — possibly because Cockerell had left the company in 1972!
…And In Decline
So, in December 1974, EMS released its first product that did not have the Cockerell name attached. Richard Monkhouse’s Spectre (or ‘Spectron Video Synthesizer’) was a remarkable video synthesizer that combined digital and analogue technology, and sported yet another of EMS’s trademark patch matrices. It could produce its own shapes and colours, and you could use it to modify existing video signals. It even allowed you to modify the video image using an audio signal. Unfortunately, and like so many of EMS’s designs, the Spectron was too innovative and too complex for its time. Consequently, only 15 were built.
The EMS Spectre Video Synth system.Yet despite these diversions, flops, and a general lack of direction, EMS continued to bring viable products to the market. Much of this was thanks to a young designer named Tim Orr, whose first release was the Synthi E, yet another derivation of the VCS3, slightly cut down for educational use (hence ‘E’) and again packaged in a briefcase. He complemented this with the Synthi DKE, a three-octave mechanical keyboard that rendered the horrible membrane keyboards of the ‘A’ and AKS unnecessary.
Another Orr design was the ‘QUEG’ — the QUadraphonic Effects Generators — a four-channel surround mixer and effects generator. Neither of these proved to be huge commercial successes, but neither were they horrendous flops, so EMS continued to… well, if not prosper, at least survive.
Unfortunately, Orr’s designs could not halt the slide of the company, largely because the other developers’ projects were, to be polite, less than commercially oriented. One of these projects was Peter Eastty’s Computer Synthi — a digital controller for the Synthi 100. In a year when a three-bedroom suburban semi cost less than £10,000, this had a projected end-user price of £25,000. With a total market of virtually zero (ie. only those studios that already owned a Synthi 100), it was never going to be a resounding success. Sure it was technologically remarkable… it incorporated a PDP8/M mini-computer, 24 analogue-to-digital and 24 digital-to-analogue converters, cassette decks, and CV controllers, but who needed it? EMS built just three.
The Beginning Of The End
In 1976, following the failed launch of Zinovieff’s ‘International Voice Movement’ telecommunications company, EMS left London and relocated its development team and music studio to The Priory in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. But by this time, the company was in terminal decline. Yamaha had already demonstrated the future direction of synthesizers with its GX1, and the hugely successful CS80 polysynth had just appeared. The Oberheim 4-Voice was also available, the Polymoog had shown a different flavour of polyphonic synthesis, and the Prophet 5 and the Oberheim OBX were just a few months in the future.
In this climate, the unstable and temperamental VCS3 and its various descendants were no longer attractive. Yet EMS was still producing innovative products and, in 1976, it released Tim Orr’s now classic Vocoder 5000 (which, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, cost £5,000). This incorporated no fewer than 22 band-pass filters and envelope followers, together with oscillators, noise sources, a frequency shifter, a spectrum analyser, and comprehensive interfacing. It sounded good too! Indeed, in the July 1977 issue of Studio Sound (a magazine not noted for hyperbole) reviewer Nik Condron stated that, “It is my belief that in terms of all kinds of music synthesis, this machine will be the forerunner of the final stage of musical technological development — and perhaps it is at this time that the question should be asked: Where do we go from here?”
EMS also produced a cheaper and more limited Vocoder which, nonetheless, still sounds good today — Tim Orr’s Vocoder 2000 — and his ‘Universal Sequencer’, an expanded KS Sequencer with standard CV and Gate interfaces. But, on the other hand, there was the PolySynthi…
There have been many keyboards that used the so-called ‘Paraphonic’ keyboard technology: divide-down oscillators passed through a single filter and a single envelope. Of these, a couple enjoyed moderate success — most notably the Roland RS505 and ARP Omni string ensembles –but the class also included numerous, horrible, ‘Polyphonic Ensembles’. By 1978, it was a discredited approach to polyphonic synthesis, so why designer Graham Hinton adopted this for EMS’s much-needed polysynth is a mystery. Perhaps financial constraints were a major factor? The company had never before demonstrated such a lack of technical innovation. Despite costing a mint to develop, and notwithstanding the Electro-Harmonix MemoryMan, which was incorporated to thicken up the sound with grungy chorus/delay effects, the PolySynthi sounded thin and uninspiring. Dave Cockerell was at that time working for Electro-Harmonix helping to design the Electric Mistress and the MemoryMan. When EMS tooled up to produce the PolySynthi, he brought the effects boards back to the UK in his suitcase! With fewer than 30 ever built, the PolySynthi was another EMS disaster.
Unfortunately, Hinton’s other projects for EMS were equally disastrous. These included 1978’s VCS3 upgrade cards (which were to offer improved VCOs, better VCAs, ring modulation and reverb), and a polyphonic sequencer co-designed with Peter Zinovieff. Apparently, both cost a great deal of money to develop, but neither made it past the prototype stage.
The EMS Polysynthi: The Not-Really-Polyphonic Synth
Synthesizers are not truly polyphonic simply because they can play many notes simultaneously. To earn this description each note has to be shaped individually, and without deference to any notes that may already be sounding. This is accomplished in one of two ways. The first, as used in the wonderful Korg PS3200, is to have one or more envelope generators and filters for every note on the keyboard. The second, used by almost every analogue polysynth from the Prophet 5 onwards, is to restrict the number of notes that will sound simultaneously, and assign a limited number of envelopes and filters as the notes are played. Unfortunately, the PolySynthi did neither. While it allowed you to press every note on its four-octave keyboard simultaneously, its single envelope and filter meant that it couldn’t correctly articulate the notes that you played.
Thank You And Good Night
In 1979, EMS’s financial problems became insurmountable when one of its European distributors refused to pay its debts. Liquidators were called in, and they sold off the equipment in the studio, piece by piece. EMS itself was sold to Datanomics, a company based in Wareham, Dorset. EMS’s products had always been built in Dorset, and a number of the people formerly involved in manufacturing VCS3s and their descendants now worked for Datanomics, so it’s possible that they saw a future for the company where others could not. Whatever their motives, from 1980 to 1984 they kept the EMS name alive, building occasional VCS3s, Synthi AKSs and Vocoders.
Datanomics also provided the finance to develop two new synthesizers. The first of these was yet another monophonic descendent of the VCS3. This embraced digital technology with a Z80 microprocessor handling the housekeeping, and replaced the VCS3’s pin-matrix with a huge array of 400 programmable membrane switches and LEDs. It used Curtis chips for its three VCOs, and also sported a second envelope generator, high- low- and band-pass filters, and an analogue delay line. Yet another EMS disaster, the DataSynth would have been as large and unwieldy as a PolySynthi, and the prototype proved to be horrendously unreliable. With a projected price of £3,500, it’s hardly surprising that it never made it into production. The second was a new Synthi 100, also based on Curtis chips, but only one of these was ever built (it ended up in a college music studio in Spain).
Following Datanomics’ failure to revitalise the company, its next owner was Edward Williams, a composer who owned an EMS-equipped studio in Bristol and who had written music for TV series including Life On Earth and other natural history programmes. Williams was interested in combining music, technology and dance so, in 1985, he recruited Richard Monkhouse and, together with Robin Wood (who had stuck with EMS throughout all its highs and lows) they developed a new product.
Originally intended as a musical generator designed to complement avant-garde dance, the new device used ultrasonic range-finding technology to turn distances into musical information. It took another three years to bring a MIDI-equipped version to the market but, in 1988, the ‘Soundbeam’ became EMS’s first commercially viable product for more than a decade. Designed for performance artists, the Soundbeam’s ability to convert distance to voltage to MIDI allowed players to convert physical movements into sound, much like a Theremin. But Soundbeams also allow you to use tiny finger movements or even your eyelids to control MIDI modules, thus making them suitable for use in special needs schools. Indeed, physical and occupational therapists have noted that the Soundbeam gives some severely disabled people their first opportunity to control their environment with the minimal movement available to them. As such, it has become something far more important than just another type of synthesizer controller.
And From The Ashes…
In 1995, Robin Wood finally acquired all the rights to EMS, including the rights to manufacture the Soundbeam — this was 25 years after he started working for the company. For many years he had continued to supply EMS Vocoders, together with parts, manuals, and servicing for VCS3s and the various Synthis. Now he could again start to build VCS3s and Synthi As, selling them for £1,800 and £1,600 respectively.
Wood manufactures his new models to the original specifications although, if you require, he will also build special models that incorporate the modifications described in part one of this Retrozone feature. But be prepared for a considerable wait… there is a long queue for these hand-built classics.
EMS Soundbeam unit.Soundbeam itself became a separate company — The Soundbeam Project– based in Bristol. It continues to develop the Soundbeam, and now boasts more than a thousand users worldwide. In 1999, it released Soundbeam 2, an enhanced Soundbeam with memories, extra sound generating functions (such as programmable pitch sequences) and a switchbox that lets you connect other controllers such as joysticks. It also became speed sensitive as well as distance sensitive, opening up many more performance possibilities. With two sensors, Soundbeam 2 even allows players to change parameters and MIDI programs while playing sounds.
When I showed an early draft of this article to Peter Eastty, he was rather concerned that I had got the balance wrong. He suggested that I had made rather too much of EMS’s failures without devoting enough text to its successes. So let’s make sure that the following is clear. There was a time when EMS stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Moog and ARP. Indeed, in many ways, EMS was more advanced than either of these, and it’s very difficult in 2000 to appreciate just how radical Zinovieff’s and Cockerell’s pioneering ideas and developments had been. But, in contrast to the genuine ‘firsts’ such as the VCS3 and DK1, products such as the Computer Synthi were spectacularly unsuccessful. As for the PolySynthi… well, I still find that chapter of the EMS story completely inexplicable.
Is this a balanced view of the highs and lows of EMS? I hope so, and I hope that I have shown how the company could grow so quickly from almost nothing in 1969 to world leadership in 1972, and then plunged almost as quickly into bankruptcy by 1979.
So, what can we learn from the EMS story? Maybe it’s something that we already know. The Brits are often ahead of their time but, in the music industry as in so many others, they are unable to exploit their ideas in the way that (for example) the Japanese do. At EMS, as elsewhere, the dreamers and pioneers returned to earth with a hard commercial thump, and it was those who copied and later refined their ideas that eventually went on to rule the synthesizer world.
But the spirit of EMS has refused to die. The UK still has some — albeit small and very specialised — synthesizer manufacturers. One of these is EMS itself, and we should all be very grateful to Robin Wood for keeping the brand alive. Another is Analogue Systems, whose designer, Steve Gay — you guessed it — once worked for EMS. Maybe, just maybe, somebody in the year 2030 will be able to write a retro about the second 30 years of EMS.
I would like to thank Robin Wood, Peter Eastty and Steve Gay for all their assistance in researching these articles.
In Germany, there is a company called EMS Rehberg. This is owned by long-time EMS fanatic and user Ludwig Rehberg who, I understand, created some of the Synthi sounds for Dark Side Of The Moon and Oxygene. The company has distributed EMS and Soundbeam products for many years, but also manufactures products using the EMS-Rehberg name. Tim Orr designed at least two of these. The Analyse-Filterbank B1 was a 10-band graphic equaliser sold, primarily, to German broadcasters. Far more interesting than this, the Synthi-Logik was an improved Synthi E with several enhancements including a mechanical keyboard, portamento and a true ADSR contour generator.