The Electric Story of the EMS Synthi 100 ‘3030’

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In its own words.

The EMS Synthi 100 is a mythical musical instrument. Launched – or born, depending on the sentience you ascribe to Synthi – in 1971, the hybrid analogue and digital synthesizer was conjured up by Electronic Music Studios designer Peter Zinovieff. Only thirty-one of the EMS Synthi 100 units were produced, further adding to its allure. These units, as well as accessory modular accoutrements designed for the synthesizer, were swiftly snapped up by visionary sound realms like the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and maestros such as Stevie Wonder.

Its elegantly behemoth design includes: multiple VCS3 modular systems with eight voltage-controlled oscillators, twelve voltage-controlled filters, two monophonic keyboards, digital sequencer cards, a computer interface, as well as an additional Vocoder 5000 that could also be procured for it. This is a ‘short’ description of the myriad electronic intricacies that lie within.

From Synthi’s beginnings in EMS’ Northwest London workshop to its home HQ at Ghent University’s Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music, the 30th unit – affectionately known as ‘3030’ – eventually ended up in the hands of Soulwax’s David and Stephen Dewaele, for a brief adoptive period.

Following the release of Soulwax’s EMS Synthi 100 DEEWEE Sessions Vol. 1 , which they created entirely using the illustrious EMS Synthi 100, we share an excerpt from its accompanying photobook featuring the story of beloved 3030, in its own words.


“I am ‘3030’, the thirtieth and penultimate EMS Synthi 100. Since 1979, I have resided at Ghent University’s Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music. Yet my origins lie 170 miles west, at the founding headquarters of Electronic Music Studios Ltd., located in Putney, on the south bank of the Thames. It was between there and an ancillary workshop in Cricklewood, north-west London, that my creators: the computer music pioneer Peter Zinovieff, gifted engineer David Cockerell, and composer Tristram Cary, responded to a commission from Paul Pignon and Vladan Radovanović of Radio Belgrade’s Third Program, to build an ambitious modular synthesizer for their electronic music studio.

Their enquiry hadn’t arrived by chance. In 1969, EMS’ three enterprising co-founders had launched their first commercial product: the VCS3 synthesizer. Nicknamed ‘The Putney’, it was portable, relatively affordable, and possessed features that singled it out within the burgeoning synthesizer market.

What had encouraged Zinovieff and company to do so was the prospect that it might fund the development of their Putney studio. The ideas and technology they developed in the studio could inform the products they designed, and sales revenue could then be reinvested into the Putney studio. Having heard of the VCS3, become acquainted with Zinovieff, and having failed to establish a dialog with the California-based synth designer Don Buchla, Pignon turned to the EMS team with his team’s plans.

The Third Program had specified a budget, around which Pignon and Radovanović had formulated some ideas about the synthesizer they wanted. EMS had the technology that had gone into the VCS3, plus the means and ideas to develop it further. While price and portability might have been pressing concerns for the ordinary musician curious about electronic sound, they mattered less to Radio Belgrade, whose facility was spacious and budget ample. Consequently, my earliest counterpart was able to exceed the VCS3 in size, complexity and expense. It was able to incorporate cutting-edge digital technology too.

When people encounter me today, they’re often struck by my magnitude. My cabinet two metres wide, my countenance an array of pots and meters around a central oscilloscope; I have an appearance that is, at first, imposing. But, if you can operate a VCS3, then you can operate me. For instance, my signals and control voltages are routed by the insertion of pins into my patchboards, completing particular circuits. This is the same method as is used with the VCS 3, except that the VCS3 has just one 16×16 grid. I require two 60×60 patchboards to accommodate all of my possible connections. With so many sound generation and routing possibilities, things could begin to get disorderly. That is where my integrated digital technology comes in.

Much of Peter Zinovieff’s early work had concerned computation. Could a computer be programmed to order and control sounds? Could it handle the many processes behind the creation of complex electronic music, and might it therefore have the capacity to orchestrate an entire musical performance, unaccompanied? Addressing those questions had enabled Zinovieff to execute the world’s first public recital of unaccompanied computer music: Partita for Unattended Computer, at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1968. These ideas informed the team’s decision to incorporate a 256-step digital sequencer into my design. It was thought that I should be able to generate, then sculpt, and finally sequence sounds, and that, should a composition require further technological control, I could be hooked up to the Computer Synthi—which the team had developed around a PDP8/M computer.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this advanced technology would take a short while to catch on. Yet, as the factory workers at EMS Bournemouth were finishing the assembly of my eldest sibling, many other institutions were registering an interest.

 

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop placed an order, as did the University of Cardiff, and soon enough, there were Synthi 100s being shipped throughout Europe and beyond. Although my earliest counterparts were given names like Delaware and Digitana, I and my later equivalents are identified simply by our unique serial numbers, hidden away from our user interfaces. In 1971, Digitana or Delaware would have sold for £6,500. As such, we tended to be purchased by large institutions: the university to whom I belong, the then state-owned record company Melodiya, as well as universities in Melbourne, Glasgow and Indiana, and public radio programs in Cologne and Sofia, amongst others. However, every now and then, one of us would fall into the hands of a maverick individual.

 

To begin with, they were musicians such as the Swiss artist Bruno Spoerri and German jazz pianist Wolfgang Dauner. Both installed Synthi 100s at their studios and eventually utilised them in commercially-released recordings. Following their lead over the ensuing decades, renowned musicians and secretive collectors in the United States, United Kingdom and Japan have procured units from the institutions that initially ordered them, but found they could no longer accommodate them. As more units have moved into private ownership — their whereabouts closely guarded — our mythological status in the culture of electronic music has heightened.

The album – EMS Synthi 100 DEEWEEE Vol. 1 – is a product of the time I spent away from my home at IPEM, when I was briefly adopted by David and Stephen Dewaele at their DEEWEE studio — also in Ghent. It is a pleasure for me to still be creating music today, as well as to have remained integral to IPEM’s research in the field of music and movement, alongside their education and performance programs.

I was created on the cusp of a revolution in digital technology. I may not be the perfect article, the most user-friendly or cost-effective of synthesizers, but at the time of my inception, I presented something exciting — something that still excites people today. I enjoy a stimulating relationship with the technicians who keep me active, and the musicians: like David, Stephen and countless others, who enable me to make new music, decades after my arrival in Belgium. I hope that you enjoy this music that I have made, and that my sounds can continue to inspire people for years to come.”

 


EMS Synthi 100 DEEWEEE Sessions Vol. 1 is out now on The Vinyl Factory / DEEWEEE. Order a copy here