The ‘Syn-ket’ (or ‘Synthesiser-Ketoff’). Paolo Ketoff & John Eaton, Italy. 1963.

The Syn-Ket
Paul Ketoff’s  ‘Syn-Ket’ c 1965

With the debut of affordable transistors in the late 1950s, several electronic engineers, inspired by the ideas of Harald Bode, realised the potential for creating lightweight, affordable and durable electronic instruments. Bode’s proposal for voltage controlled transistor based instruments ( “European Electronic Music Instrument Design”, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society (JAES) ix (1961): 267) inspired Robert Moog, Donald Buchla and Paul Ketoff amongst others to put Bode’s ideas into practice.

Paul Ketoff (L) and John Eaton (R) demonstrating the Syn-Ket. Rome, circa 1963

Paul Ketoff was an American- Polish-Italian sound engineer working for RCA based at the Cinecittà film studios in Rome. In the summer of 1956, Ketoff was invited by the composers Otto Leuning and George Balch Wilson to design a new electronic music studio at the American Academy in Rome– Otto Leuning was the composer in residence at the Academy and organised finance for the project via Columbia Princeton’s Alice M. Ditson fund.

Ketoff built a tape-based studio in the basement of the Academy at Via Angelo Masina (comprising of: three sine wave oscillators, a spring reverberation unit, a microphone, an Ampex stereo portable tape recorder,a mixing console, 350 Series Ampex mono tape recorder and a radio/record player) and then went on to develop the ‘Fonosynth’ in 1958; a large studio synthesiser with musical direction from Leuning, Gino Marinuzzi jr and other composers at the academy.

“But, Paul.  This is not just a group of components of a classical tape studio; this is an instrument!”

John Eaton 1963 – Interview  2012

Inspired by Harald Bode‘s ideas proposed in the 1961 JAES Journal, Paul Ketoff designed a new, much smaller, voltage controlled transistor based synthesiser to replace the Fonosynth (and again, indirectly funded by Colombia Princeton). Ketoff presented his new instrument christened the ‘Syn–Ket’ (Synthesiser-Ketoff) to the American composer John Eaton at the American Academy, who quickly recognised the possibilities of using the synthesiser for live performances; that is, performances without any tape recorders – electronic music performances of that period usually relied on recorded sound because ‘synthesisers’ were huge, stationary, multi component, studio based devices and far too big to move to a live performance space.

“I immediately began writing short pieces that could be played on it, without any pre-recording and asked him to build me one that could be modified for better use as an instrument.  At my suggestion, he modified the three keyboards so they would respond to velocity, like a piano, and sideways motion, as in a clavichord’s bisbigliando.  Over the next few years, he added an overall volume pedal, a white or pink noise generator, alternate basic sonic material, a spring reverberation unit, and other various types of modulation. “

John Eaton – Interview  2012

Paul Ketoff (right) and John Eaton (playing) performing with the Syn-Ket in Italy, 1963.
The Synket at the Philharmonie de Paris (musical instrument museum). Image ©Philharmonie de Paris
The Synket at the Philharmonie de Paris (musical instrument museum). Image ©Philharmonie de Paris

The Syn-ket comprised of three sound modules or “sound-combiner” as Ketoff called them – essentially three separate synthesisers built using a mix of solid state and vacuum  technology. Each module was independently controllable and interconnectable and mixable into a single output.

Each “sound-combiner” module consisted of:

  • 1 square wave frequency-controllable oscillator.
  • A button controlled series of frequency dividers which allowed division of the incoming  pitch by factors of 2, 3, 4,  5 and 8 to produce differing harmonics
  • 3 complex filters with a frequency range of 40 Hz – 20 kHz.
  • 1 amplitude control.
  • 3 modulators each controlled by a low frequency oscillator: The first allowed control of the square wave oscillator’s frequency, The second controlled the frequency of the filter and the third controlled audio amplitude.

Later versions were equipped with white and pink noise generators and a spring reverberation unit.

The Syn-ket was equipped with three small two octave keyboards, each corresponding to a module. Each key could be individually tuned allowing the musician to play and compose microtonal music. The keyboard was velocity sensitive and uniquely allowed the player to bend the note with a sideways finger action. The second version of the Synket allowed the player to control amplitude and filters through key velocity.

the art of electronic music_0002
Ketoff and Eaton with the Syn-Ket 1963 (image copyright ‘the art of electronic music’)

The Syn-ket was adopted by John Eaton as his concert instrument and he made over a thousand performances from 1966 to 1974 and used the Syn-ket in several of his recorded compositions, such as “Piece concert is Synket and Symphony Orchestra” (1967), “Blind Mans Cry” (1960), “Mass” (1970).

The Syn–ket was not conceived as a commercial product – Ketoff built only about a dozen variations on the Syn-ket theme  between 1963 and 1977 – and notwithstanding it’s innovative and unique features remained a one-off custom made instrument. Despite this, the Syn-ket was widely used by composers other than Eaton and found itself almost ubiquitous on Cinecittà soundtracks for Spaghetti westerns (Ennio Morricone used the Syn-ket on many of his soundtrack scores ), Italian horror and science fiction films.

One of the few surviving Syn-kets can be seen at the Philharmonie de Paris (previously know as the ‘musical instrument museum’) Paris, France.

Images of the Syn-ket

Eaton went on to collaborate with Bob Moog on an a controller keyboard called the ‘Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard’. Moog and Eaton had initially met when Eaton asked Moog to repair an ailing Syn-ket during a 1966 US tour. They immediately began collaborating on a new keyboard controller based on Ketoff’s triple keyboard of the Syn-ket. The final controller was straightforwardly named the ‘Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard’ or ‘MTS’

John Eaton playing the Syn-ket

Biographical Notes Paul Ketoff/Paolo Ketoff.

Polish-Italian Electronic and sound engineer. Born 1921 died 1996. Ketoff became the chief sound technician at RCA Italiana/Cinecittà film studios, Roma, in 1964 and the Fonolux post production company, between 1957 and 1965. Ketoff designed many devices for film music production including dynamic sound compressors and ring modulators, reverb chambers and plates, and established a new standard of sound post-production.

Film credits for sound production and effects from this period include (1966) ‘Africa Adido” , (1966) ‘La Traviata’ (1965) ‘Terrore Nello Spazio’, (1960) ‘L’ avventura’ (1953) ‘Pane, amore e fantasia’ (1965) ‘Planet of the Vampires’, (1959) ‘Hercules Unchained’

Commisioned to design and build the Electronic Music Studio at the American Academy in Rome, Ketoff finished his first synthesiser, the ‘Fonosynth’ in 1958 and then designed a much more compact voltage controlled performance instrument called the Syn-ket in 1963 which was presented at the conference of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) in 1964,

Ketoff was a lifelong friend and collaborator with the Italian composer Gino Marinuzzi jr. Paolo Ketoff was married to Landa Ketoff, the well known musical critic for La Repubblica Newspaper.

John Eaton

John Eaton Biographical Notes:

Born: March 30, 1935 in Bryn Mawr (Pennsylvania, USA)
The composer John Eaton began his musical career as a child, taking piano lessons at the age of nine and his first concert, playing Beethoven sonatas. In 1957, at age 22.
Eaton graduated in Princeton University. In 1959 he moved to Rome (Italy) and lived there in the following years. There he began a long time partnership with clarinetist Bill Smith – Their band recorded two albums and made several concerts in Europe and in the United States. In Rome John Eaton met the electronic engineer Paul Ketoff, inventor of the famous and legendary Syn-Ket, in 1964. With the Syn-Ket, John Eaton performed more than a thousand concerts around the world. Eaton later collaborated with Robert Moog to develop the ‘Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch Sensitive Keyboard’.


 “The Synthesizer.” Vail, Mark.

Interview with John Eaton:

Electronic Music Review. No. 4 October 1967

Interview with John Eaton NAMM.  January 23, 2010.

‘Electronic Music’ By Nick Collins, Margaret Schedel, Scott Wilson

‘Electronic and Computer Music’ Peter Manning. Oxford University Press p130

A History of the Rome Prize in Music Composition * 1947 – 2006 * Richard Trythall .Music Liaison. American Academy in Rome January 1, 2007

‘Music and Musical Composition at the American Academy in Rome’. Martin Brody. University of Rochester Press. 2014.

‘In The Workshop’. John Eaton.

The Akaphon. Hellmut Gottwald, Austria 1963

The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria. ©  Technisches Museum Wien
The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria. © Technisches Museum Wien

In 1958 the composer Karl Schiske and the pianist  Karl Wolleitner, following the development of electronic music in Paris (GRM) and Germany (WDR), founded the Electronic Music studio at the Vienna Music Academy. The sound engineer Hellmut Gottwald (1938–2004) was employed to design and technically direct the studio. Gottwald built numerous components and devices including the Akapiep (‘aka Beep’) an instrument for producing polyrhythmic compositions and the Akaschieb (‘Aka shifter’) an audio processing filter bank and finally in 1963, the Akaphon (the ‘Aka’ in the name referring to the Vienna ‘Akademie’).

The instrument itself was a one-off custom built polyphonic synthesiser, with 13 germanium transistors oscillators played by a keyboard manual built into the frame of an upright piano to keep the cost down. Each oscillator could be individually tuned with a variable potentiometer and modified using an LFO and variable filters. Uniquely, the wave form was shaped using opto-couplers to create attack, decay and sustain of each note.

The Akaphon at the  Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria
The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria. © Technisches Museum Wien

The Akaphon was used as the main electronic instrument at the academy until 1978 when it was replaced by a digital realtime sound processor called the AKA 200 designed by Peter Mechtler.

Gottwald’s Akaphon is preserved at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria.

Helmutt Gottwald
Helmutt Gottwald (1938–2004)

Dieter Kaufmann remembers Hellmut Gottwald;

Hellmut Gottwald (1938–2004) was one of the most important partners and stimuli in my “electroacoustic existence.” When in 1959 he was recruited to the studio at what was then the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts, the studio was equipped with devices to measure, generate and reproduce electronic frequencies, until then mainly used to measure the hearing ability of students hoping to be accepted or to document performances, but there was no “wizard” who knew how to use them creatively. Until the courses in “Sound engineering” and “Electronic music” were set up in the mid-1960s, Gottwald was practically the driving force behind the new technology. He made contact with composers and persuaded them to discover the new sound possibilities.

He was probably most successful at this with Anestis Logothetis, whose twenty-minute work Fantasmata, created as early as 1960, represents a milestone in the history of composition with electronic media. In Austria, it was in any event the first larger work to mediate between concrete and synthetic music – between noise and sine wave, between Paris and Cologne, as it were – and to demonstrate the electronic processing of speech (even before Herbert Eimert) and the inclusion of political references of the time (the Congo war). Although designed as a ballet, as far as I know it has never been danced to.

In the 1960s, Friedrich Cerha, Otto M. Zykan, Günther Kahowez, Klaus-Peter Sattler, Franz Blaimschein and Heinz Karl Gruber were also working on the creation of electronic works that would certainly have never been created without Hellmut Gottwald. Visitors were also allowed to use the creative climate: with Gottwald’s assistance, Boris Blacher created radio play music; Kurt Rapf required Gottwald to create a bottom B that should sound like a concentration camp – and got it; Fatty George found what he was looking for in terms of electronics for use on the radio …

In order to meet all these demands, Gottwald was forever designing and building new devices, starting with filters that he made using Matador components, through the akapiep and the akaschieb and finishing with the legendary akaphon. In the 1963/64 academic year, the course in electroacoustic music was set up at the Institute, and in the same year, Gottwald began to build an electronic instrument that can be regarded as the precursor of the later voltage-controlled synthesizer. He called the instrument the akaphon, in homage to the Academy of Music. To keep costs down, he used the casing of an old upright piano.

He himself also created examples of music on this early synthesizer, such as akaphon adaptations of well-known works (such as The Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov) or independent electroacoustic works (such as Hommage à Mailüfterl, dedicated to the eponymous development by the Vienna computing guru Heinz Zemanek). And always he was making inventions using the simplest of means that practically always worked perfectly. And sometimes it was necessary to kick or implore the machine – after all this was the age of analogue technology.

Many hundreds of kilos of equipment were dragged into performing rooms when I began teaching on the studio course in 1970, soon replacing the previous head Friedrich Cerha in this function. My aim was to acquire a broader public for the new medium, inconceivable without the master of the technology … And so together we brought sound to rooms in Austria and abroad.

Hellmut Gottwald, who in his leisure time was a champion dressage show-jumper, later ran his own company, developing circuits for traffic lights, the electronics for machines to sole shoes, or to make indestructible car tires; he was even asked to provide the foam for trenches in the Middle East war. It stimulated him to try to make the apparently impossible both possible and easy, and in that he succeeded.

The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria
The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria

From ‘ A brief History of The Institute of Electroacoustics and Experimental Music at the Vienna University of Music’ by Tamas Ungvary & Peter Mechtler

The composer Karl Schiske (1916-1969) and the pianist and producer Karl Wolleitner (b. 1919) already in 1955 planned to establish a studio for “Elektronische Musik” at the “Vienna Academy of Music”.The installation of the Viennese studio was definitively completed by Wolleitner in 1958/59, being perhaps the first Studio to be established at a School of Music in Europe.

In 1959/60, the first significant electroacoustic composition ever realized in Austria was produced in this studio, the ballet “Fantasmata” from Anestis Logothetis (1921-94) with the technical assistance of the sound enginneer Helmut Gottwald (b. 1938). The piece, tending to the French “musique concrete” approach already anticipates the future aesthetic development of the studio. In the academic year of 1963/64 the course of electroacoustic music has been founded.

In the same year, Gottwald started to build an electronic instrument which could be regarded as a forerunner of the voltage controlled synthesizer. This instrument, called AKAPHON as hommage to the “Musikakademie”, was used for many years as a source for electronic sounds and is now is a part of the collection in the Museum of Technology in Vienna. In the next year other electronic instruments, the AKAPIEP and the AKASCHIEB, were build. The first was a rhythm machine which allowed the production of unusual polyrhythmic structures. The second a kind of third filter bank graphic equalizer.

During the sixties aproximately 20 pieces have been produced by avantgarde composers like Karl Heinz Gruber, Gunter Kahowez, Peter Kotik, Friedrich Cerha and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. The last two were latter sucessively appointed institute directors. In 1970 the composer Dieter Kaufmann (b. 1941), former student of Schiske, came back from a period of studies in Paris, where he attended the classes of Olivier Messiaen and Rene Leibowitz, as well as the course offered by the GRM (the “Groupe de Recherches Musicales”) under guidance of Pierre Schaeffer and Francois Bayle. His engagement as head of the course of electroacoustic music in the Viennese studio, now raised to the status of an institute inside the school of music, gave a new impulse to the spreading of the new form of music in Austria, also beyond the academic sectors.

In 1978 a digital system for real time sound processing controlled by a graphic interface., AKA 2000, was build by Peter Mechtler. The catalogue of works realized at the Institute increased in the seventies in more than 70 compositions from Austrian and foreign composers. To mention some names: Kaufmann, Wilhelm Zobl, Camila Soederberg, John Maryn, Wolfgang Danzmayr, Logothetis, Riszard Klisowski, Bruno Liberda, Gunther Rabl, Christian Teuscher, Mayako Kubo. The Institute moved to a new location and the composers Haubenstock-Ramati, Erich Urbanner and Francis Burt sucessively took the direction of the Institute in the eighties.


“Österreichs neue Musik nach 1945”: Karl Schiske edited by Markus Grassl, Reinhard Kapp, Eike Rathgebe

“The Institute of Electroacoustics and Experimental Music at the Vienna University of Music” Ungvary, Tamas; Mechtler, Peter. Volume 1995, 1995

Zauberhafte Klangmaschinen: Von der Sprechmaschine bis zur Soundcard (First Edition)by Florian Cramer, Kulturfabrik Hainburg
Gebundene Ausgabe, 250 Pages, Published 2008 ISBN-10: 3-7957-0197-X / 379570197X

Technisches Museum Wien
Bereichsleitung Sammlung Musikinstrumente
Mariahilferstrasse 212
1140 Wien

‘Graphic 1’, William H. Ninke, Carl Christensen, Henry S. McDonald and Max Mathews. USA, 1965

‘Graphic 1’  was an hybrid hardware-software graphic input system for digital synthesis that allowed note values to be written on a CRT computer monitor – although very basic by current standards, ‘Graphic 1’ was the precursor to most computer based graphic composition environments such as Cubase, Logic Pro, Ableton Live and others.

The IBM704b at Bell Labs used with the Graphics 1 system
The IBM704b at Bell Labs used with the Graphics 1 system

Graphic 1 was developed by William Ninke (plus  Carl Christensen and Henry S. McDonald) at Bell labs for use by Max Mathews as a graphical front-end for MUSIC IV synthesis software to circumvent the lengthy and tedious process of adding numeric note values to the MUSIC program. 1 Interview with Max Mathews, Curtis Roads and Max Mathews. Computer Music Journal, The MIT Press, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), 15-22.

” The Graphic 1 allows a person to insert pictures and graphs directly into a computer memory by the very act of drawing these objects…Moreover the power of the computer is available to modify, erase, duplicate  and remember these drawings” 2 Thom Holmes, (2020), Electronic and Experimental Music Technology, Music, and Culture, Routledge, 275.

Lawrence Rosller of Bell labs with Max Mathews in front of the Graphics 1 system c 1967
Lawrence Rosller of Bell labs with Max Mathews in front of the Graphics 1 system c 1967

Graphic 2/ GRIN 2 was later developed in 1976 as a commercial design package based on a faster PDP2 computer and was sold by Bell and DEC as a computer-aided design system for creating circuit designs and logic schematic drawings.


  • 1
    Interview with Max Mathews, Curtis Roads and Max Mathews. Computer Music Journal, The MIT Press, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), 15-22.
  • 2
    Thom Holmes, (2020), Electronic and Experimental Music Technology, Music, and Culture, Routledge, 275.

Further Reading:

‘The Oramics Machine: From vision to reality’. PETER MANNING. Department of Music, Durham University, Palace Green, Durham, DH1 3RL, UK

M. V. Mathews and L. Rosler’ Perspectives of New Music’  Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring – Summer, 1968), pp. 92-118

‘Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology: Volume 3 – Ballistics …’ Jack Belzer, Albert G. Holzman, Allen Kent

The ‘Tubon’ Joh Mustad AB, Sweden, 1966

The Tubon
The Joh Mustad ‘Tubon’

The Tubon was an early ancestor of the  guitar-style electronic instrument family developed throughout the 1970s and 80s to allow the keyboard to become a front-of-stage performance device alongside guitars and vocalists. The Tubon was a tubular battery-powered, monophonic keyboard instrument that was played standing up supported around the neck with a strap, guitar-style, allowing the performer freedom to move around the stage. The Tubon was primarily designed as a bass instrument and had six preset sounds: Tuba, Contrabass, Electric Bass, saxophone, electric bass, woodwind and was commonly used by pop and folk bands in Sweden during the 1970s.

Paul McCartney's Tubon
Paul McCartney’s Tubon
Paul McCartney's Tubon backstage at a gig in germany
Paul McCartney’s Tubon backstage at a gig in germany

The instrument was manufactured by in 1966 by the Swedish manufacturer of electronic tube organs, Joh Mustad AB, in Gothenburg, Sweden and also sold under license in the UK as the ‘Livingstone’. Very few of the instruments were sold outside of Sweden but one was purchased by Paul McCartney ( the original score for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ includes a Tubon intro which was replaced by a Chamberlin on the final recording) and by Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk in the early 1970s.

Score for
Score for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ introduction

Images of the ‘Tubon’:


MUSYS. Peter Grogono, United Kingdom, 1969

EMS was the London electronic music studio founded and run by Peter Zinovieff in 1965 to research and produce experimental electronic music. The studio was based around two DEC PDP8 minicomputers, purportedly the first privately owned computers in the world.

One of the DEC PDP8 mini-computers at EMS
One of the DEC PDP8 mini-computers at EMS

Digital signal processing was way beyond the capabilities of the 600,000 instructions-per-second, 12k RAM, DEC PDP8s; instead, Peter Grogono was tasked with developing a new musical composition and ‘sequencing’ language called MUSYS. MUSYS was designed to be an easy to use, ‘composer friendly’ and efficient (i.e. it could run within the limitations of the PDP8 and save all the data files to disk – rather than paper tape) programming language to make electronic music.  MUSYS, written in assembly language, allowed the PDP8s to control a bank of 64 filters which could be used either as resonant oscillators to output sine waves, or in reverse, to read and store frequency data from a sound source. This meant that MUSYS was a type of low resolution frequency sampler; it could ‘sample’ audio frequency data at 20 samples per second and then reproduce that sampled data back in ‘oscillator mode’. MUSYS was therefore a hybrid digital-analogue performance controller similar to Max Mathew’s GROOVE System (1970) and  Gabura & Ciamaga’s PIPER system (1965) and a precursor to more modern MIDI software applications.

“It all started in 1969, when I was working at Electronic Music Studios (EMS) in Putney, S.W. London, UK. I was asked to design a programming language with two constraints. The first constraint was that the language should be intelligible to the musicians who would use it for composing electronic music. The second constraint was that it had to run on a DEC PDP8/L with 4K 12-bit words of memory.”

The two PDP8’s were named after Zinovieff’s children Sofka (an older a PDP8/S) and Leo (a newer, faster a PDP8/L). Sofka was used as a sequencer that passed the time-events to the audio hardware (the 64 filter-oscillators,  six amplifiers, three digital/analog converters, three “integrators” (devices that generated voltages that varied linearly with time), twelve audio switches, six DC switches, and a 4-track Ampex tape-deck). Leo was used to compute the ‘score’ and pass on the data when requested by Sofka every millisecond or so;

“These devices could be controlled by a low-bandwidth data stream. For example, a single note could be specified by: pitch, waveform, amplitude, filtering, attack rate, sustain rate, and decay time. Some of these parameters, such as filtering, would often be constant during a musical phrase, and would be transmitted only once. Some notes might require more parameters, to specify a more complicated envelope, for instance. But, for most purposes, a hundred or so events per second, with a time precision of about 1 msec, is usually sufficient. (These requirements are somewhat similar to the MIDI interface which, of course, did not exist in 1970.)”



Previous to the development of MUSYS, the EMS PDP8s were used for the first ever unaccompanied performance of live computer music ‘Partita for Unattended Computer’ at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 1967. Notable compositions based on the MUSYS sytem include: ‘Medusa’ Harrison Birtwistle 1970, ‘Poems of Wallace Stevens’  Justin Connolly. 1970, ‘Tesserae 4’  Justin Connolly 1971, ‘Chronometer’  Harrison Birtwistle 1972, ‘Dreamtime’ David Rowland 1972, ‘Violin Concerto’  Hans Werner Henze 1972.

Audio Examples

Demonstrating the digital manipulation of a voice with the frequency sampler:

In the Beginning‘ PeterGrogono with Stan Van Der Beek 1972. “In 1972, Stan Van Der Beek visited EMS. Peter Zinovieff was away and, after listening to some of the things we could do, Stan left with brief instructions for a 15 minute piece that would “suggest the sounds of creation and end with the words ‘in the beginning was the word'”. All of the sounds in this piece are derived from these six words, heard at the end, manipulated by the EMS computer-controlled filter bank.”

Datafield‘ Peter Grogono 1970

Chimebars  Peter Grogono 1968

 MUSYS code examples

A composition consisting of a single note might look like this:

      #NOTE 56, 12, 15;

The note has pitch 56 ( from an eight-octave chromatic scale with notes numbered from 0 to 63), loudness 12 (on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 15), and duration 15/100 = 0.15 seconds. The loudness value also determines the envelope of the note.

An example of a MUSYS  program that would play fifty random tone rows:

      50 (N = 0 X = 0
      1  M=12^  K=1  M-1 [ M (K = K*2) ]
         X & K[G1]
         X = X+K  N = N+1  #NOTE M, 15^, 10^>3;
         12 - N[G1]

MUSYS evolved in 1978 into the MOUSE programming language; a small, efficient stack based interpreter.


Peter Grogono.’MUSYS: Software for an Electronic Music Studio. Software – Practice and Experience’, vol. 3, pages 369-383, 1973.

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)

Sources: ‘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.

The ‘Coupigny Synthesiser’ François Coupigny, France, 1966

Coupigny Synthesisier
Coupigny Synthesisier

During the late 1960’s an intense intellectual animosity developed between the GRM and WDR studios ; The French GRM, lead by Pierre Schaeffer championed a Gallic free ‘Musique Concrete’ approach based on manipulated recordings of everyday sounds contrasting with the Teutonic German WDR’s ‘Electronische Musik’ approach of strict mathematical formalism and tonality (probably a simplistic analysis; read Howard Slater’s much ore insightful essay on the schism). This divergence in theory meant that the studios developed in diverging ways; the Parisian GRM based on manipulation of tape recording and ‘real sound’ and the WDR studio on purely electronically synthesised sound.


Part of the Coupigny Synthesiser and EMI mixing desk
Part of the Coupigny Synthesiser and EMI mixing desk

After this rivalry had subsided in the early 1970’s Groupe de Recherches decided to finally integrate electronic synthesis into the studio equipment. The result of this was the  ‘Coupigny synthesiser’ designed and built by engineer François Coupigny around 1966 and was integrated into the 24 track mixing console of Studio 54 at the GRM. Despite this, the synthesiser was designed with ‘Musique Concrete’ principles in mind:

“…a synthesiser with parametrical control was something Pierre Schaeffer was against, since it favoured the preconception of music and therefore deviated from Schaeffer’s principal of ‘making through listening’ . Because of Schaeffer’s concerns, the Coupigny synthesiser was conceived as a sound-event generator with parameters controlled globally, without a means to define values as precisely as some other synthesisers of the day”
(Daniel Teruggi 2007, 219–20).

Pierre Schafer by the console of Studi 54 with the Coupigny Synthesisier
Pierre Schaeffer by the console of Studio 54 adjusting  Moog, the Coupigny Synthesiser is built into the panel directly below.

The Coupigny Synthesiser was a modular system allowing patching of it’s five oscillators using a pin matrix  system (probably the first instrument to use this patching technique, seen later in the EMS designs) to various filters, LFOs (three of them) and a ring modulator. Later versions were expanded using a collection of VCA controlled Moog oscillators and filter modules. The instrument was completely integrated into the studio system allowing it to control remote tape recorders and interface with external equipment. Unlike many other electronic instruments and perhaps due to Schaeffer’s concerns over ‘parametrical control’, the Coupigny Synthesiser had no keyboard – instead it was controlled by a complex envelope generator to modulate the sound. This made the synthesiser less effective at creating precisely defined notes and sequences but better suited to generating continuous tones to be later edited manually on tape. The Coupigny Synthesiser continues to be used at the GRM studio to this day.

The console of Studio 45 at the GRM
The console of Studio 45 at the GRM


Click to access slater_heterozygotic.pdf

Gareth Loy ‘Musimathics: The Mathematical Foundations of Music, Volume 2’

‘From magnetic tape to mouse’ by Daniel Teruggi


The ‘Beauchamp Synthesiser’ or ‘Harmonic Tone Generator’ James Beauchamp, USA, 1964

Beauchamp Synthesiser or Harmonic Tone Generator at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. USA
Beauchamp Synthesiser or Harmonic Tone Generator at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. USA

James Beauchamp invented the Harmonic Tone Generator in 1964, one of the first additive electronic voltage-controlled synthesisers, under the direction of Lejaren Hiller at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The instrument synthesised six exact harmonics with variable fundamental frequency from 0 to 2000 Hz. The amplitudes of the six harmonics, the fundamental frequency, and the phase of the second harmonic were programmed by voltage control. The fundamental frequency (pitch) was controlled by an external keyboard or generators to provide vibrato and other effects. Control of amplitude was provided by special envelope generators or external generators or even by microphone or prerecorded sounds.

The harmonics were derived by generating pairs of ultrasonic frequencies which were nonlinearly mixed to produce audio difference frequencies. That is to say, one set of frequencies, 50 KHz, 100 KHz, …, 300 KHz, was fixed. Another set, 50-52 KHz, 100-104 KHz, …, 300-312 KHz, was variable. When 50 and 50-52 KHz, etc., was mixed, the sine tones 0-2 KHz, … was derived. Harmonics were generated by full-wave rectification (even harmonics) and square wave chopping (odd harmonics), followed by band pass filtering to separate the harmonics.

The envelope generators consisted of variable delays and attack/decay circuits. In response to a trigger signal from the keyboard, after a programmed delay, the envelope generator would either rise and then go into an immediate decay while the key is depressed or it would rise and decay after the key is depressed. Having the upper harmonics delayed with respect to the lower ones gave an interesting effect.

Because the amplitude controls were “bipolar” (i.e., either positive or negative controls were effective), the instrument could serve as a multi-frequency “ring modulator”, which was especially useful when the controls were derived from a voice or musical instrument. The frequency control was also bipolar and was capable of producing rich sound spectra when the control was taken from a sine generator operating at frequencies ranging from 20 Hz through several hundred Hz. This FM effect was very popular for producing sounds useful in electronic music compositions.”

James Beauchamp.

James Beauchamp working on the Harmo
James Beauchamp working on the Harmonic Tone Generator c1964

Several electronic music compositions utilised the Harmonic Tone Generator as their main source of electronic sounds. Among them are:

Herbert Brun, “Futility, 1964”

Lejaren Hiller, “Machine Music” and “A Triptych for Hieronymus”

Salvatore Martirano, “Underworld”

Kenneth Gaburo, “Antiphonics III”, “Lemon Drops”, “Hydrogen Jukebox”, and “For Harry”


‘The Experimental Music Studio at UIUC, 1958-68: Environment, People, Activities’  by Emanuele Battisti (pdf)

Hiller, Lejaren, and James Beauchamps, .Research in Music with Electronics., Science, New Series, Vol. 150, No. 3693 (Oct. 8, 1965): 161-169.

The ‘Subharchord’, Gerhard Steinke & Ernst Schreiber , Germany (DDR), 1960

The Subharchord at the Labor für Akustisch-Musikalische Grenzprobleme, Berlin Aldershof DDR in 1960

In the late 1950’s the East German government decided that it needed to develop an ability to produce electronic music for film and TV for ‘Eastern block’ media as well as provide a platform ‘serious’ modern electronic music to compete with the likes of WDR Electronic Music Studio in west Germany. The result of this was the foundation of the first East European electronic music studio under the auspices of the East German National Radio (RFZ) in 1956 (and closed in 1970). The studio was called the “Labor für Akustisch-Musikalische Grenzprobleme” ( laboratory for problems at the border of acoustics/music ) , and in 1960 the ‘Subharchord’ was created as the centrepiece of the Laboratory.

The re-constructed Subharchord
Detail of the Subharchord control panel.
Detail of the Subharchord control panel.

The laboratory was founded in East Berlin in 1956. Gerhard Steinke, a young sound engineer who became its director, was tasked with research and development into stereo-sound and electronic sound generation. Countries all of over Europe were running similar programmes at the time, many of which were visited by Steinke in the years before East Germans were subject to travel restrictions. In 1961, a team headed by Ernst Schreiber, who was latter credited as the inventor of the Subharchord, completed work on the instrument:

While I was working as a sound engineer with the Dresden radio station, I heard of and found numerous tape recordings of Oskar Sala’s compositions for Trautonium, music that I had listened to on the radio while doing my homework, in the programs transmitted by the Weimar and Leipzig stations attached to the Dresden station, and above all in the sound archives. These unusual sounds were often used for the stations’ own programs, and even for advertising. However, what finally set me going was working with the conductor Hermann Scherchen, with whom I made a recording of Bach’s Kunst der Fuge in February 1949 in the Dresden Broadcasting Hall (the former reception hall of the German Hygiene Museum). In conversation with the conductor, it became apparent that Scherchen had long been with the radio and had already worked together with Trautwein, Hindemith and Sala around 1930.

The Düsseldorf Funkausstellung 1953 was the occasion of the first presentation of an electronic organ (Polychord), which was bought by the enthusiastic Berlin chief engineer at the radio station, despite our objections to the lack of transients and our opinion that we could make something much better ourselves. At the same time, the first studio for electronic music had been set up in the Cologne Funkhaus, with a new trautonium by Trautwein, the monochord. In 1955, in the instrument warehouse of the Berlin radio station, I unearthed the surviving parts of a quartet trautonium commissioned by Sala for the station in 1948 and that didn’t really work properly; even Sala’s visit to the laboratory failed to bring life into the instrument. But we were now more than just curious, and announced to Sala that we would develop our own much more modern device … Sala laughed jovially, patted me on the shoulder in commiseration, and went on giving concerts and producing film music with his mixture trautonium.

However, we were able to convince our chief engineer to set up a “Laboratory for problems at the interface of acoustics and music,” and recruited the resourceful television engineer and organ lover Ernst Schreiber. The work on the development began in April 1959. It almost collapsed when the Ministry of Culture objected that subharmonic sounds were a musical fiction since subharmonics did not exist in nature. … However, we were able to prove their existence by dividing saw-tooth sounds into a number of sub-oscillations, and were allowed to start. We were not allowed to develop the organ we had planned, mainly because Dessau had, at my lecture in the Academy of Arts on the presentation of a Polychord electronic organ, complained that such bombastic sounds with such a strong vibrato were more appropriate in a brothel, while the sounds of the trautonium were capable of inspiring the composer’s creativity. However, this wary ministerial representative soon disappeared off to the West, and we cheerfully worked on in the laboratory.

A first subharchord was ready in 1961, and was immediately welcomed with enthusiasm by the composer Addy Kurth from the field of cartoon films and by others in radio and television. We were now able to produce mixture compositions in a laboratory studio, pursue the further development of the instrument and later begin series production. The first marionette cartoon to be accompanied by the subharchord, The Race, was a huge success. We had maintained our contacts with Scherchen over the years and on 9 July 1961, shortly before the unexpected construction of the Berlin Wall, Dessau, who had always supported our development work, Scherchen and I met in the West Berlin Hotel Kempinski to discuss the prototype – although Dessau remained critical of the lack of a second manual, which he had always insisted on.

The development and series production, and the many recordings made at the same time in the laboratory studio, led to the creation of the subharchord II by 1969. Unfortunately, Khrushchev had condemned electronic music as a “cacophony” that was inappropriate to “socialist realism,” which meant that the studio and any further research were abandoned. Nevertheless, a few instruments survived, and two were reconstructed in 2005 and 2007. They are now being used for new creative works.”

Gerhard Steinke “The Creation of the Subharchord – a Recollection ” 2008

Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Bratislava (CZ) studio using the Subharchord

The Subharchord’s history dates back to  pre-WWII exploration of ‘subharmonic’ synthesis of Dr Friedrich Trautwein’s  Trautonium and Oskar Sala’s Mixturtrautonium. These instruments uniquely used a technique of octave dividing sub-harmonic frequencies to modulate a synthesised tone creating a wide range of complex effects and sounds. Unlike the Trautonium family however, the Subharchord was less focussed on micro-tonal tuning and deployed a standard keyboard manual in stead of a sliding scale wire resistor.

Schriber’s DDR Patent for the Sunharchord 1960

Like it’s western counterpart, The Trautonium, the Subharchord was used extensively in film soundtracks and TV production throughout the Eastern block during the sixties and seventies; Karl-Ernst Sasse, former conductor of the DEFA (East German Film Company) Symphony Orchestra, worked with the subharchord in Dresden on the soundtracks of cult science fiction classics, such as ‘Signale’ ( a popular eastern block ‘Star Trek’ series). The subharchord was also used for many of the DEFA’s cartoons. Other composition from the studio include Der faule Zauberer (Kurth, 1963); Amarillo Luna (Kubiczek, 1963); Quartet für elektronische Klänge (Wehding, 1963); Variationen (Hohensee, 1965); Zoologischer Garten (Rzewski, 1965



Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. Thomas B. Holmes, Thom Holmes

La musique électroacoustique en République démocratique allemande (RDA) : une avant-garde paradoxale Tatjana Böhme-Mehner July 2012


The ‘PIPER’ System James Gabura & Gustav Ciamaga, Canada, 1965

Charles Hamm, Lejaren Hiller, Salvatore Martirano, Herbert Brün, Kenneth  Gaburo at the EMS, Toronto, 1965
Charles Hamm, Lejaren Hiller, Salvatore Martirano, Herbert Brün, James Gaburo at the EMS, Toronto, 1965

PIPER was one of the earliest hybrid performance system allowing composers and musicians to write and edit music in real time using computers and analogue synthesisers. The system was developed by  James Gabura & Gustav Ciamaga Who also collaborated with Hugh Le Caine on the ‘Sonde’) at the University of Toronto (UTEMS) in 1965. With computing technology in 1965 being to weak to synthesise and control sounds in real-time a work-around was to leave the scoring and parameter control to the computer and the audio generation to an external analogue synthesiser. The PIPER system consisted two Moog oscillators and a custom built amplitude regulator to generate the sound and an IBM 6120 to store parameter input and to score the music. The computer would read and store the musicians input; keyboard notes, filter changes, note duration and so-on and allow the user to play this back and edit in real-time.

By the 1980’s such large hybrid analogue-digital performance systems like PIPER and Max Mathew’s GROOVE were obsolete due to the advent of affordable, microcomputers and analogue/digital sequencer technology.