EMS: The Inside Story

(For Techies and Detail-minded data collectors)
By Graham Hinton
Last updated: 8th August 1998


The Beginning
The Non-Products
The Putney Studio
The People
The Users
The Inbetween Years

The 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 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 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. Consequently there are many rumours and much misinformation and this page is an attempt to provide a definitive record and insight by people who were actually there.

The 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: Squeeze-Me by Peter Eastty & Richard Monkhouse. A ten octave pressure sensitive keyboard used as an input device to the computers. Touch-Me by Richard Monkhouse. Raster graphics video screen with lightpen for user interface. DOB by David Cockerell & Peter Eastty.

Digital Oscillator Bank had a complement of 64 oscillators with independent computer controlled frequency and amplitude. Each "oscillator" comprised a 1024 entry arbitary wavetable with 0.25Hz resolution with three outputs further modified by independent function generators and mixed as three separate buses. The whole system had 46kHz sample rate and 16-bit resolution outputs and existed as hardware when FM was a non-realtime software operation. Analysing Filter Bank by Peter Eastty. A set of 128 digital filters to analyse a signal and provide control coefficients to DOB.

The Putney Studio (1970)

EMS Putney Studio (GIF = 361K)
Left Side (out of view)
Teletype for PDP8/L
Ampex 4 Track
Left Bay
Digital Tape Controller
Two DecTape Units (one missing)
PDP8/L Computer ("Leo") 4K x 12 bits (=6K bytes) 1.3 s cycle (0.77MHz)
- which compiled and delivered the events
32K Hard Disk Store
Teletype for PDP8/S in front
Centre Left Bay
Large Screen Oscilloscope and Repeater Display
Manual A/D Control
Multiple Filter Bank
Centre Bay
PDP8/S Computer ("Sofka") 8K x 12 bits (=12K bytes) 19 s cycle (0.052MHz)
- which controlled the EM devices
Main Patch Matrix
High Speed Paper Tape Punch
Centre Right Bay
Timer/Frequency Meter
4 VCOs
12 Line Amplifiers
WaveTek Oscillator
Button Panel Computer Interface
2 Filters
Right Bay
Output Mixer and Patch
2 Spring Reverbs
Right Side
2 Revoxes
VCS4 Live Performance Module
Modified Organ

The People

Peter Zinovieff (Chairman: 1969 - 1979)

The founder, driving force and person synomynous with EMS. Pioneer of using mini-computers for musical applications during the 1960s. Now retired.

Tristram Cary (Director: 1969 - 1973)

Pioneer of classical electronic music during 1960s and composer for film and broadcast with musical credits on the first Dr.Who & the Daleks and several Hammer films. Left to become Professor of Electronic Music at the Royal College of Music. Since became Professor of Music at the University of Adelade. Now retired.

David Cockerell (Analogue/Digital design: 1969 - 1972)

Left to join Electro-Harmonix and designed most of their pedals. Went to IRCAM in 1976 for six months, but returned to Electro-Harmonix again. Has designed the entire Akai sampler range to date, some in collaboration with Chris Huggett (the Wasp & OSCar designer) and Tim Orr.

Robin Wood (Sales/Demonstrator: 1970 - present)

Still flying the flag, see below.

Alan Sutcliffe (Software: 1969 - 1979)

Wrote the computer graphics for planet contours used in "Alien".

Peter Grogono (Software: 1969 - 1973)

Worked on the MUSYS programming language and further developed it into the Mouse language. Now teaching in Canada.

Jim Lawson (Software: 1973 - 1976)

Worked on the MUSYS programming language. Left to join IRCAM. Later LucasFilms.

John Holbrook (Studio assistant/sales demonstrator: 1971 - 72)

Has been living in the USA since 1973, & continues to work in music as an engineer/producer/musician.

Graham Wood (Service Manager: 1971 - 1977)

Peter Eastty (Digital design: 1972 - 1977)

Left to join IRCAM. Has since worked for Solid State Logic (O1) and now at Sony Broadcast.(OXF-3R).

Richard Monkhouse (Digital & Video design:1972 - 1975)

Freelance design consultant often collaborating with other ex-EMS designers. Never credited for many designs including the Sycologic M16 and the SoundBeam.

Tim Orr (Analogue design: 1972 - 1977)

Prolific designer. Many of the Powertran Synthesizer kits were designed by him with Richard Monkhouse. Lectured at London College of Furniture. Now working as design consultant.

Graham Hinton (Analogue/Digital design:1978 -1979)


Left to join Research Machines and designed their LAN. Has since designed for HH (Lead and Polyphonic Synthesizers) and Solid State Logic (Programmable Equaliser, Panpots & Film Surround Sound Joysticks). Now running Hinton Instruments.

The Users

*The BBC Radiophonic Workshop
*The Universities of: Cardiff, Durham, East Anglia, Glasgow, Utrecht &
*Edward Williams
*Michel Fano
*Kaliedophon Studio (GIF = 252K)
*David Vorhaus* - White Noise I, II & III
*Abbey Road Studios (GIF = 149K)
*Pink Floyd - Meddle, Obscured by Clouds, Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, Wish You Were Here

*Brian Eno/Roxy Music
*Pete Townsend/The Who - Who's Next
*Edgar Froese/Tangerine Dream - all early albums
*Klaus Schulze
*Gorgio Moroder
*Malcolm Cecil/TONTO
*Christian Boule

*Tim Blake*/Gong - Flying Teapot, Angel's Egg, You
*Tim Blake*/Crystal Machine - Fish Rising, Crystal Machine, New Jerusalem

*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) (113K)
*Zorch* (2 x Synthi AKS, Synthi A + DK2 & Hi-Fli)
*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 tricks can be emulated. Full information of VCS3/Synthi A modifications are detailed on a separate EMS Modifications Page.

You don't see many people on stage with only three mono synths these days, do you?

The 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.