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EMS: The Inside Story

by Graham Hinton

Last updated: 27th December 2002


bulletThe Beginning

Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd. was formed in 1969 by Dr. Peter Zinovieff to market innovative ideas arising from his private studio and interest in musical applications of computers. Over the next ten years many seminal products were released and many talented designers worked for the company. EMS had its own peculiar brand of British eccentricity which could be both endearing and annoying, but should be viewed in the context of true pioneering. It is easy to copy and follow others, but not to think up new ideas in the first place and EMS had no shortage of originality. The EMS influence was significant and can be traced into many contemporary products.

Peter ZinovieffPeter Zinovieff in EMS Putney Studio (GIF = 195K)

It may be difficult for a generation brought up with 32-bit computers and digital signal processors as consumer items to appreciate just how revolutionary Peter Zinovieff's projects were. In the 1960s to have access to a 12-bit computer with 1K of memory outside the academic or military establishment, let alone have two personal ones and then use them for music, was completely unheard of. To have a video screen as well when most people programmed with punched cards was beyond belief. Today there is a huge worldwide market for electronic music equipment, but there is little that was not envisioned by the EMS team before 1970 ten to twenty years ahead of their time.

The demise of EMS has many parallels with that of ARP. Both companies succumbed to the lure of the guitar market, ARP with the Avatar and EMS with the Hi-Fli. Both put a large amount of R&D effort into ambitious projects that were never completed. Had they both stayed within the markets they excelled in history could be quite different. After gearing up to make large quantities of the Hi-Fli, for which there was not actually a corresponding demand, EMS incurred burdening debts. Diversification with the International Voice Movement and falling victims to a financial fraud made the collapse of EMS in 1979 inevitable.

Interest in EMS and particularly the VCS3 has now reached cult proportions and its products have become rare collectors items. The fact that VCS3s exchange hands for up to £2000 while a DX7 is lucky to scrape £250 is testimony to how they are appreciated. Unfortunately there is much misinformation and many inaccurate websites and press articles, even when they plagiarise this site without due credit they still cannot get the facts right. This page is intended to provide a definitive record and insight by people who were actually there.

bulletThe Non-Products

Like many companies, only 10% of the R&D turns into products and only 10% of those do well. EMS is best known for its VCS3/Synthi A synthesizers, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

A lot of the EMS research effort went into developing unique devices used in Peter Zinovieff's private studio. Even before EMS was formed as a company, David Cockerell had produced a minicomputer controllable 60-channel analogue filter/oscillator bank. In other words the entire studio was a computerised vocoder and this was further developed as a fully digital version in the early 1970s. Some of this research surfaced as later products such as the Vocoders and Sequencers, but most remained embodied in several unique devices:

bulletThe Putney Studio (1970)

Musys Studio in Putney EMS Putney Studio (GIF = 361K)

Some more details of the computers in this studio and a colour picture appear on Peter Grogono's Website

bulletThe Great Milton Studio (1979)

Great Milton StudioThe last version of Peter Zinovieff's Studio in Oxfordshire (GIF = 542KB)

For more information about PDP8 computers see Online PDP-8 Main Page

bulletThe People

The Boss (55K)

bulletThe Users

  • The Universities of: Cardiff, Durham, East Anglia, Glasgow, Utrecht & Belgrade.
  • Edward Williams
  • Michel Fano
  • David Vorhaus* - White Noise I, II & III
    David Vorhaus with his Kaleidophon controller
  • Pink Floyd - Meddle, Obscured by Clouds, Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, Wish You Were Here
    Rick'n'Dave in the studio
    Pink Floyd at Abbey Road Studios

  • Brian Eno/Roxy Music
    A Garden Party (35K)
    Roxy Music performing at the Crystal Palace Bowl
    This VCS3 has recently been purchased by David Bowie for an astronomical sum!

  • Pete Townsend/The Who - Who's Next
  • Edgar Froese/Tangerine Dream - all early albums
  • Klaus Schulze
  • Gorgio Moroder
  • Kraftwerk
  • Malcolm Cecil/TONTO - Zero Time, It's About Time
    Malcolm Cecil
    There is a Sequencer 256 in there somewhere

  • Hawkwind
  • Christian Boule
  • Tim Blake*/Gong -Flying Teapot, Angel's Egg, You

  • Tim Blake*/Crystal Machine - Fish Rising, Crystal Machine, New Jerusalem

    (157K) (90K)
    Basil Brooks (Synthi AKS) & Tim Blake (2 x Synthi AKS + Minimoog) circa 1976
    Lightshow: Acidica by John Andrews

  • Basil Brooks* - Steve Hillage Band, Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy (plays)
  • Zorch*
    Zorch gigging
    Basil Brooks (2 x Synthi AKS & Hi-Fli) & Gwyo Zepix (Synthi A + DK2) circa 1976

    Ouroborus CD cover An archive CD of material recorded in the EMS Putney Studio in 1975, OUROBOROS, has now been released.

    Glastonbury Live CD cover Zorch are still performing live with a Synthi A in use since 1972. Glastonbury ~ Live recorded May 2001.

  • and a thousand others...
  • * The most serious users developed several modifications to their instruments which dramatically increased the capabilities. Do not imagine that by aquiring a standard production model that their sounds can be emulated. Full information of VCS3/Synthi A modifications are detailed on a separate EMS Modifications Page.

    Tim Blake Solo 1977 (74K)
    You don't see many people on stage with only
    three mono synths these days, do you?

    bulletThe Inbetween Years

    After EMS(London) folded in 1979 the assets were bought by Datanomics, a company that made rocking hospital beds [sic.]. From 1980 to 1984 a small number of VCS3s, Synthi AKSs and Vocoders were made and a new synthesizer was developed, the DataSynthi. This was essentially a VCS3 type monophonic keyboard using Curtis ICs with a programmable patch matrix and it was never produced. They also redesigned all the circuitry of the Synthi 100 and then sold just one to a studio in Spain.

    After the honeymoon, Datanomics realised that they were not destined to become commercial synthesizer manufacturers and EMS was sold again. The next owner was composer Edward Williams, a long term EMS user and enthusiast, with the soundtracks of the famous "Life on Earth" documentary series to his credit. The Soundbeam and several upgrades to the Vocoders were made during this period.

    In April 1995 Robin Wood aquired the full rights of EMS after working for all incarnations continuously since 1970. Synthi As, VCS3s and Vocoders are still being produced to the original or modified specifications. Current details and news appears in the EMS Main Page.

    bulletGo to EMS Product Guide Page

    bulletGo to EMS Modifications Page

    All material on these pages Copyright ©1995 - 2002 Graham Hinton.
    Dudley Simpson and BBC CD covers ©1973 BBC
    Other colour photographs ©1976 John Andrews Digital Arts)

    Synthi is a trademark of Electronic Music Studios.
    All manufacturers' trademarks are acknowledged.