EMS Synthesisers, Peter Zinovieff, Tristram Cary, David Cockerell United Kingdom, 1969

EMS (Electronic Music Studios) was founded in 1965 by Peter Zinovieff, the son of an aristocrat Russian émigré with a passion for electronic music who set up the studio in the back garden of his home in Putney, London. The EMS studio was the hub of activity for electronic music in the UK during the late sixties and seventies with composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Tristram Cary, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans Werner Henze as well as the commercial electronic production group ‘Unit Delta Plus  (Zinovieff, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson).

Front panel of the DEC PDP8i
Front panel of the DEC PDP8i

Zinovieff , with David Cockerell and Peter Grogono developed a software program called MUSYS (which evolved into the current MOUSE audio synthesis programming language) to run on two DEC PDP8 mini-computers allowing the voltage control of multiple analogue synthesis parameters via a digital punch-paper control.  In the mid 1960’s access outside the academic or military establishment to, not one but two, 12-bit computers with 1K memory and a video monitor for purely musical use was completely unheard of:

” I was lucky in those days to have a rich wife and so we sold her tiarra and we swapped it for a computer. And this was the first computer in the world in a private house.” – Peter Zinovieff

The specific focus of EMS was to work with digital audio analysis and manipulation or as Zinovieff puts it “ To be able to analyse a sound; put it into sensible musical form on a computer; to be able to manipulate that form and re-create it in a musical way” (Zinovieff 2007). Digital signal processing was way beyond the capabilities of the DEC PDP8’s; instead they were used to control a bank of 64 oscillators (actually resonant filters that could be used as sine wave generators) modified for digital control. MUSYS was therefore a hybrid digital-analogue performance controller similar to Max Mathew’s GROOVE System (1970) and  Gabura & Ciamaga’s PIPER system (1965).

Peter Zinovieff at the controls of the PDP8 Computer, EMS studio London
Peter Zinovieff at the controls of the PDP8 Computer, EMS studio London

EMS studio diagram (from Mark Vail’s ‘ Vintage Synthesizers’)

Even for the wealthy Peter Zinovieff, running EMS privately was phenomenally expensive and he soon found himself running into financial difficulties. The VCS range of synthesisers was launched In 1969 after Zinovieff received little interest when he offered to donate the Studio to the nation (in a letter to ‘The Times’ newspaper). It was decided that the only way EMS could be saved was to create a commercial, miniaturised version of the studio as a modular, affordable synthesiser for the education market. The first version of the synthesiser designed by David Cockerell, was an early prototype called the  Voltage Controlled Studio 1; a two oscillator instrument built into a wooden rack unit – built for the Australian composer Don Banks for £50 after a lengthy pub conversation:

“We made one little box for the Australian composer Don Banks, which we called the VCS1…and we made two of those…it was a thing the size of a shoebox with lots of knobs, oscillators, filter, not voltage controlled. Maybe a ring modulator, and envelope modulator” David Cockerell 2002

vcs-3_0001 The VCS1 was soon followed by a more commercially viable design; The Voltage Controlled Studio 3 (VCS3), with circuitry by David Cockerell, case design by Tistram Cary and with input from Zimovieff . This device was designed as a small, modular, portable but powerful and versatile electronic music studio – rather than electronic instrument – and as such initially came without a standard keyboard attached. The price of the instrument was kept as low as possible – about £330 (1971) – by using cheap army surplus electronic components:

“A lot of the design was dictated by really silly things like what surplus stuff I could buy in Lisle Street [Army-surplus junk shops in Lisle Street, Soho,London]…For instance, those slow motion dials for the oscillator, that was bought on Lisle street, in fact nearly all the components were bought on Lisle street…being an impoverished amateur, I was always conscious of making things cheap. I saw the way Moog did it [referring to Moog’s ladder filter] but I adapted that and changed that…he had a ladder based on ground-base transistors and I changed it to using simple diodes…to make it cheaper. transistors were twenty pence and diodes were tuppence!” David Cockerell from ‘Analog Days’

Despite this low budget approach, the success of the VCS3 was due to it’s portability and flexibility. This was the first affordable modular synthesiser that could easily be carried around and used live as a performance instrument. As well as an electronic instrument in it’s own right, the VCS3 could also be used as an effects generator and a signal processor, allowing musicians to manipulate external sounds such as guitars and voice.

VCS3 with DK1 keyboard
VCS3 with DK1 keyboard

The VCS3 was equipped with two audio oscillators of varying frequency, producing sine and sawtooth and square waveforms which could be coloured and shaped by filters, a ring modulator, a low frequency oscillator, a noise generator,  a spring reverb and envelope generators. The device could be controlled by two unique components whose design was dictated by what could be found in Lisle street junk shops; a large two dimensional joystick (from a remote control aircraft kit) and a 16 by 16 pin board allowing the user to patch all the modules without the clutter of patch cables.

The iconic 16 X 16 pin-patch panel of the VCS3
The iconic 16 X 16 pin-patch panel of the VCS3. The 2700 ohm resistors soldered inside the pin vary in tolerance 5% variance and later 1%; the pins have different colours: the ‘red’ pins have 1% tolerance and the ‘white’ have 5% while the ‘green’ pins are attenuating pins having a resistance of 68,000 ohms giving differing results when constructing a patch.

The original design intended as a music box for electronic music composition – in the same vein as Buchla’s Electronic Music Box – was quickly modified with the addition of a standard keyboard that allowed tempered pitch control over the monophonic VCS3. This brought the VCS3 to the attention of rock and pop musicians who either couldn’t afford the huge modular Moog systems (the VCS3 appeared a year before the Minimoog was launched in the USA) or couldn’t find Moog, ARP or Buchla instruments on the British market. Despite it’s reputation as being hopeless as a melodic instrument due to it’s oscillators inherent instability the VCS3 was enthusiastically championed by many british rock acts of the era; Pink Floyd, Brian Eno (who made the external audio processing ability of the instruments part of his signature sound in the early 70’s), Robert Fripp, Hawkwind (the eponymous ‘Silver Machine‘), The Who, Gong and Jean Michel Jarre amongst many others. The VCS3 was used as the basis for a number of other instrument designs by EMS including an ultra-portable A/AK/AKS (1972) ; a VCS3 housed in a plastic carrying case with a built-in analogue sequencer, the Synthi HiFli guitar synthesiser (1973), EMS Spectron Video Synthesiser, Synthi E (a cut-down VCS3 for educational purposes) and AMS Polysynthi as well as several sequencer and vocoder units and the large modular EMS Synthi 100 (1971).

Despite initial success – at one point Robert Moog offered a struggling Moog Music to EMS for $100,000 – The EMS company succumbed to competition from large established international instrument manufacturers who brought out cheaper, more commercial, stable and simpler electronic instruments; the trend in synthesisers has moved away from modular user-patched instruments to simpler, preset performance keyboards. EMS finally closed in 1979 after a long period of decline. The EMS name was sold to Datanomics in Dorset UK and more recently a previous employee Robin Wood, acquired the rights to the EMS name in 1997 and restarted small scale production of the EMS range to the original specifications.

Peter Zinovieff.  Currently working as a librettist and composer of electronic music in Scotland.

David Cockerell, chief designer of the VCS and Synthi range of instruments left EMS in 1972 to join Electro-Harmonix and designed most of their effect pedals. He went to IRCAM, Paris in 1976 for six months, and then returned to Electro-Harmonix . Cockerell  designed the entire Akai sampler range to date, some in collaboration with Chris Huggett (the Wasp & OSCar designer) and Tim Orr.

Tristram Cary , Director of EMS until 1973. Left to become Professor of Electronic Music at the Royal College of Music and later Professor of Music at the University of Adelade. Now retired.

Peter Grogono Main software designer of MUSYS. Left EMS in 1973 but continued working on the MUSYS programming language and further developed it into the Mouse language. Currently Professor at the Department of Computer Science, Concordia University, Canada.

The Synthi 100 at IPEM Studios Netherlands.
The Synthi 100 at IPEM Studios Netherlands.

The EMS Synthi 100

The EMS Synthi 100 was a large and very expensive (£6,500 in 1971)  modular system, fewer than forty units were built and sold. The Synthi 100 was essentially  3 VCS3’s combined; delivering a total of 12 oscillators, two duophonic keyboards giving four note ‘polyphony’ plus a 3 track 256 step digital sequencer. The instrument also came with optional modules including a Vocoder 500 and an interface to connect to a visual interface via a PDP8 computer known as the ‘Computer Synthi’.  

Images of EMS Synthesisers


VCS3 Manual (pdf)


http://www.till.com/articles/arp/ ‘Analog Days’. T. J PINCH, Frank Trocco. Harvard University Press, 2004

‘Vintage Synthesizers’: Pioneering Designers, Groundbreaking Instruments, Collecting Tips, Mutants of Technology. Mark Vail. March 15th 2000. Backbeat Books





Peter Forrest, The A-Z of Analogue Synthesisers Part One A-M, Oct 1998.

3 thoughts on “EMS Synthesisers, Peter Zinovieff, Tristram Cary, David Cockerell United Kingdom, 1969”

  1. Back in the mid-70s, when I was about 11 or 12, I used to collect literature on electronic organs and synthesizers. I’d mail postcards to manufacturers, and in a few weeks, (usually) get a big envelope full of brochures.

    I sent one postcard to EMS in England. I received a large envelope addressed to “Mr. Charles P. Hobbs, Esq.” That was very impressive back then. Inside was the literature about the synthesizers (shown on this page) and a very nice letter from an official of the company. (They did not have a U.S. sales office at the time–as far as I know they never did).

    I pinned the letter to my bedroom wall, where it stayed for a year or so.

  2. the synthi 100 at IPEM (photo) was standing in a house at the Muinkkaai in Gent, Belgium. (Not The Netherlands)
    The studio was Co-owned by the Flemish Radio and the University of Gent. The synthi 100 still exists within the university but is not longer actively used and needs service.
    Amongst others composers Lucien Goethals and Karel Goeyvaerts were working and drinking lots of coffee at that studio.

  3. The Digital Age…

    Thanks to App Designers APESoft the VCS3 has been recreated on the Apple iOS Platform and the user experience is so close to the original hardware that Peter Zinovieff has endorsed it, writing the following preface…

    The iVCS3 is a completely brilliant product. After experimenting with it, I once again became very pleased with my original invention of this “synthesiser without leads”, in those early days I hated patch leads and hated cutting tape! I also began to see how slick and easier to control this iVCS3 is than the original and how many brilliant added features there are. Originally my aim was to have all the ingredients for a completely basic electronic music studio in a box and this became the VCS3. I decided what the hardware would be, David cockerel then wonderfully engineered my dreams and Tristram cary designed the actual VCS3 box. It was only later that we added a keyboard and made a separate digital sequencer. Here in the iVCS3 is a truly useful instrument and the fact that it uses the VCS3 as an inspiration is just wonderful for my ego! It is perfectly thought out, superb graphics and a simple to use interface. Personally I cannot criticize it in any way. To cast myself completely back to the 1960’s I would like to see a couple of random voltage generators developed next year an add-on module.

    Peter Zinovieff.

    iVCS3 is available now for iPad and for less than €20 anyone can experience VCS3 sound design in a truly portable form!

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