During the 1950s and late 1960s before the advent of affordable electronic instruments, the only organisations that could afford the cost of the equipment and space for dedicated electronic music studios were generally large educational establishments such as Columbia University (USA) or as in this case, national broadcasters such as the state run Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Cologne – at the time the largest and wealthiest broadcaster in West Germany. The benefit for these organisations was, on one hand to have a local resource for electronic music and sound effects to use in broadcasting but also, for ‘nationalistic’ reasons; to be see as liberally progressive and technologically advanced. Electronic Music composers remained reliant on their patronage until modular synthesisers became available in the late 1960s.
The Electronic Music Studio at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Cologne was founded by the composers Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer, and Herbert Eimert (the studios first director) and was based on Meyer-Eppler’s ideas outlined in his 1949 book ‘Elektronische Klangerzeugung: Elektronische Musik und Synthetische Sprache’. This thesis defined the ongoing theoretical character of the studio as being based around electronically synthesised sound – in sharp contrast to Schaeffer’s musique concrète acoustic approach at GRN in Paris.
WDR is seen as the ‘Mother of all Electronic Music Studios’ because it quickly became a meeting place and forum for an international group of avant-garde composers including Ernst Krenek (Austria/USA), György Ligeti (Hungary), Franco Evangelisti (Italy), Cornelius Cardew (England), Mauricio Kagel (Argentina) and Nam June Paik (Korea) and Gottfried Michael Koenig who became the technical assistant at WDR and helped many composers create their pieces as well as writing many key pieces of electronic music at WDR (Klangfiguren II (1955), Essay (1957) and Terminus I (1962)). The pioneering work of previous composers has been somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of Karlheinz Stockhausen at WDR (who succeeded Eimert as director in 1962) in 1953 with pieces such as ‘Gesang der Junglinge‘ and Kontakte (1960) and Hymnen (1967) which became landmark works within the electronic music oeuvre.
The studio was originally equipped with a modified Trautonium by Dr Friedrich Trautwein modified to Meyer-Eppler’s specification called the Elektronische Monochord and with a Melochord by Harald Bode . As well as these instruments the studio consisted of:
Signal generators: sine , rectangular, sawtooth and noise
Filters: octave, third, radio drama (W49) filters.
Rotary speaker for recording spatial sounds
Echo and reverb chambers: the reverb chamber being a large empty room where sounds could be played through speakers and re-recorded with the room ambience added.
Sixteen channel (2 X 8 channel) audio mixer
Patchbay to route modules
Tape Machines: several mono, 2-track and one 4-track (one of the earliest 4-track recorders made) tape recorders and a ‘Springer’ variable speed tape recorder with a rotating 6-fold playback head.
The equipment of the studio was updated to Stockhausen’s specifications in early 1970s to include what by then was standard voltage controlled modular synthesisers, including a large customised EMS Synthi 100. WDR studio remained in use until 2000 when it was closed though some of the original equipment was saved from destruction and is now stored in the basement of the WDR building in Cologne, Germany.
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).
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).
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
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.
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 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 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’.
The GRM was an electro-acoustic music studio founded in 1951 by the musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, composer Pierre Henry and the engineer Jacques Poullin and based at the RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) buildings in Paris. The studio itself was the culmination of over a decades work into musique concrète and sound objects by Schaeffer and others at the ‘Groupe Recherches de Musique Concrète’ (GRMC) and the Studio d’Essai. The new studio was designed around Schaeffer’s sound theories later outlined in his book “Treaty of Musical Object – Traité des Objects Musicaux”:
“musique concrète was not a study of timbre, it is focused on envelopes, forms. It must be presented by means of non-traditional characteristics, you see … one might say that the origin of this music is also found in the interest in ‘plastifying’ music, of rendering it plastic like sculpture…musique concrète, in my opinion … led to a manner of composing, indeed, a new mental framework of composing” (James 1981, 79). Schaeffer had developed an aesthetic that was centred upon the use of sound as a primary compositional resource. The aesthetic also emphasised the importance of play (jeu) in the practice of sound based composition. Schaeffer’s use of the word jeu, from the verb jouer, carries the same double meaning as the English verb play: ‘to enjoy oneself by interacting with one’s surroundings’, as well as ‘to operate a musical instrument’
(Pierre Henry. Dack 2002).
Along with the WDR Studio in Germany, the GRM/GRMC was one of the earliest electro-acoustic music studios and attracted many notable avant-garde composers of the era including Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, Michel Philippot, and Arthur Honegger. Compositional output from 1951 to 1953 comprised ‘Étude I’ (1951) and ‘Étude II’ (1951) by Boulez, ‘Timbres-durées’ (1952) by Messiaen, ‘Konkrete Etüde’ (1952) by Stockhausen, ‘Le microphone bien tempéré’ (1952) and ‘La voile d’Orphée’ (1953) by Pierre Henry, ‘Étude I’ (1953) by Philippot, ‘Étude’ (1953) by Barraqué, the mixed pieces ‘Toute la lyre’ (1951) and ‘Orphée 53′(1953) by Schaeffer/Henry, and the film music ‘Masquerage’ (1952) by Schaeffer and ‘Astrologie’ (1953) by Pierre Henry.
The original design of the studio followed strict Schaefferian theory and was completely centered around tape manipulation, recording and editing. Several novel ‘tape instruments’ were built and integrated into the studio setup including the phonogène (Three version were built; the phonogène Universal, Chromatic & Sliding) and the Morphophone.
The Phonogène was a one-off multi-headed tape instrument designed by Jacques Poullin. In all, three version of the instrument were created;
the Chromatic Phonogène . A tape loop was driven by multiple capstans at varied speeds allowed the production of short bursts of tape sounds at varying pitches defined by a small one-octave keyboard.
The Sliding phonogène created a continuous tone by varying the tape speed via a control rod
The Phonogène Universal allowed transposition of pitch without altering the duration of the sound and vice-versa obtained through a rotating magnetic head called the ‘Springer temporal regulator’ (a similar design to VHS video tape recorders)
The Morphophone was a type of tape loop-delay mechanism, again designed by Jacques Pollin. A tape loop was stuck to the edge of a 50cm diameter rotating disk and the sound was picked up at varying points on the tape by ten magnetic heads (one recording, one erasing and ten playback heads). The resulting sound was passed through a series of bandpass filters (for each playback head) and amplified.
Images from the Groupe de Recherches Musicales Studio
IPEM electronic music studio founded in 1963 as a joint venture between the Belgian Radio and Television broadcasting company and the University of Ghent with the objective of operating as both a creative studio, and a research institution – IPEM continues to this day to research into audio and psychoacoustics. One of the first instruments developed was a sine wave generator by Hubert Vuylsteke. His assistant, an engineer called Walter Landrieu, invented a vacuum tube based instrument called the ‘Melowriter’ in 1976 that allowed the musician to create sounds through an 8bit code typewriter style interface.
470 compositions were realised at IPEM between 1963–1987. It is still operational, housed in the University building in the same place it was founded.
IPEM: Institute For Psychoacoustics And Electronic Music: 50 years of Electronic And Electroacoustic Music At The Ghent University is published by Metaphon, and comes with 2CDs of music made at the studio between 1963 and 1999. More details on the book here.
The Milan Electronic Music Studio or ‘RAI Studio of Phonology’ was designed by Alfredo Lietti in 1955 with the guidance of the musicians Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, and remained in use until 1983. In 2011 the entire studio was archived at the Municipal Collections of the Castello Sforzesco.
The studio was primarily created to produce experimental electronic music but also to create effects and soundtracks for film and TV (and was the model for the 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio). Berio drew inspiration from the working methods of American serialist composers Ussachevsky and Otto Luening at the Columbia University Computer Music Center and from GRMC in Paris through his friendship with Pierre Schaeffer and the Club d’Essai. Maderna’s influence came through his time studying at the Darmstadt summer school with Stockhausen and Meyer-Eppler.
At he beginning in 1955 the studio consisted of a few variable speed tape recorder, some filters, an oscillator and an Ondes Martenot. This soon changed with the acquisition of eight sine and square wave oscillators ( the ‘ninth oscillator’ being the voice of Cathy Berberian. Luciano Berio’s works of this period with Cathy Berberian include Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) and Visage), pulse and white noise generators. These generators were patched manually through a bank of processors; modulators ( including the ‘Tempophon’ a tape device with rotating heads that allowed to vary the duration of the playback of a previously recorded sound, while maintaining the original pitch ), frequency shifters, filters and various types of echo and reverberation units. The output from the studio was monitored on a system of five speakers and recorded to a four-track tape recorder.
“Two of the first electronic works in my record collection – Berio’s Visage from 1961, and John Cage’s Fontana Mix from 1958 – were created there with Zuccheri (Designer and technician at the RAI Studio) . Even today, both of these pieces sound impressively vivid and dynamic, and what we should now recognise is that such qualities should be attributed to the technician as much as to the composer.”
David Toop, The Wire, 2008
Musicians and composers who worked at the studio include Berio, Maderna, Nono, Castiglioni, Clementi, Donatoni , Gentilucci, Manzoni , Marinuzzi Jr., Paccagnini Sciarrino, Sinopoli, Togni , Cage and Pousseur.
“… I like remembering Marino in his Phonology Studio, master among masters, master of sound among masters of music, because sound for him did not have any secrets, since he was trained in auditoriums while working for the Radio together with the most famous directors of the time. He would always recall how he begun working in Phonology by chance, but it is certain that it wasn’t because of chance that he continued during the years, considering he’s been the only holder of the Studio from when it was created (1955) until it closed down (1983).”
Giovanni Belletti, “Marino Zuccheri in Fonologia”, 2008