The synth that made the music: 10 artists whose sound was defined by the EMS VCS3

The synth that made the music: 10 artists whose sound was defined by the EMS VCS3

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It wouldn’t be Machine Music Week without an in depth look at the synthesizer. For our focus we’ve taken the EMS VCS3, developed by Peter Zinovieff in 1969, a year after he supplied the world’s first piece of computer-generated music to the ICA’s survey of early electronica Cybernetic Serendipity Music, now being reissued by The Vinyl Factory for the very first time.


Words: James Hammond


The VCS3 takes up a special place in the history of synthesizers – educational tool come avant-garde studio in a box, highly idiosyncratic and melodically unstable, a melding of technological ingenuity with cost-effective army surplus electronics – it was never designed for conventional music yet its application and legacy have endured.

The product of a revolutionary group of thinkers in sound, electronics and computation who came together under the banner of Peter Zinovieff’s Electronic Music Studios (EMS), the VCS3 was the answer to the financial upkeep of Zinovieff’s one-of-a-kind Putney based music studio which housed one of the first privately owned computers in the world. In comparison to the other systems on offer in 1969 the VCS3 was to be an affordable and portable box-of-tricks, a child of the EMS studio-proper, which would provide financial fuel to Zinovieff’s constantly expanding ideas on refining the relationship between sound and electricity.

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It’s Zinovieff’s electronic score that still adorns the Cybernetic Serendipity Music LP and his PDP8 computer that formed a key part of the ICA exhibition – with its ability to sample and respond to whistled input – but it’s the VCS3 which Zinovieff and EMS are most commonly associated with. Given the work and ambitions hatched at EMS and the Putney studio, this is understandably somewhat to Zinovieff’s chagrin, and it seems part in vitriol but more largely in sincerity at the end of ‘What The Future Sounded Like’ that he describes the studios legacy as having amounted to some “pathetic little synthesizers”.

The relative harshness of its creators (Zinovieff, David Cockerell and Tristram Cary forming the all important creative trio) can be in relation to their technological aims and indeed later advances, but this label is not the VCS3’s legacy in recorded and particularly experimental music. This chaos-theory in a box expanded notions of musical possibility largely through it’s irregularities, and had many prominent exponents, finding its way onto a number of key recordings, which is where this list picks up from.

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For those who’d like to get a perspective on its sounds and foibles without diving head-first into retro-fetishism and visiting a bank manager to play the real thing, Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records has provided us with a delightful VCS3 app which can be found here. An app far more powerful than Zinovieff’s £4000 computer (circa 1965) that ultimately gave birth to it all.

Need more synth? Click here for an in-depth look at 13 more synthesizers that have shaped modern music.

See more from Machine Music Week:

Watch our short film on the first ever computer music compilation Cybernetic Serendipity Music

Listen to a Conrad Shawcross podcast on music and machines for his dancing robot installation The Ada Project

It’s a woman’s world: Ada’s top 10 techno records

The pioneering women of electronic music – An interactive timeline

Listen to the sound of the internet

Computer World: Why Cybernetic Serendipity Music is the most important and neglected compilation in electronic music


  • yohan the cat

    i think you do a great dis-service to the artists with this article: you are putting the cart before the horse…. please rethink it the other way around, technology does not define an artists work, especially technology as open ended as this & artists such as these