EMS: A Very British Synthesiser

illustration: mark hall

In early 1969, you could count the world’s synthesiser companies on the fingers of one hand after an unfortunate fireworks accident.

Buchla had started commercial operations in 1966, selling modules, while Bob Moog opened for business in 1967. Robert Pearlman was in the process of creating ARP, and the rest of the world’s synths were one-offs that lived in laboratories, like the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, or were part of an electronic music studio, like the WDR Electronic Music Studio in Cologne, where the studio was the synthesiser, and vice versa.

There were also a scattering of private electronic music studios, built by engineer/composers for their own research and creative ends, among them Daphne Oram in Kent, Louis and Bebe Barron in New York, and Raymond Scott in Long Island.

Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd, which launched in 1969, was the 60s lovechild of two private electronic music studio owners in England who had been operating for some years without being aware of each other. They were Peter Zinovieff in London, and Tristram Cary in Suffolk.

With electronics genius David Cockerell realising their ideas in circuit boards and other devilishly smart engineering solutions, these three set about creating perhaps the most eccentric and romantically mythologised synthesiser company there has ever been.

In the spirit of generations of British gentlemen explorers who had preceded them, EMS climbed the peaks of electronic waveforms with a rare combination of genius, ingenuity, daring and a high-minded disregard for the mucky mechanics of business.

While the rest of the country was eagerly anticipating the next album from The Beatles and abandoning psychedelia for whatever the end of the decade was going to bring, Zinovieff, Cary and Cockerell were cooking up an electronic storm in the shape of the world’s first portable, self-contained synthesiser: the EMS VCS 3. While Zinovieff had met The Beatles, the juggernaut of 60s pop music was not, to use the vernacular of the day, where his head was at.

EMS were building instruments partly as a natural progression of their own research and pioneering work in electronic music techniques, but mainly to fund Zinovieff’s studio and the work he was doing there. They were motivated not by profit, but by the desire to explore electronic music itself.

Along the way, their machines cropped up in the underground and pop music of the 70s, and they performed a pincer movement on the young of the nation when they were taken up by schools as music educational tools and by the Radiophonic Workshop, who used EMS synths to create hundreds of BBC radio and TV theme tunes and idents.

The first incarnation of EMS lasted only 10 years, finally pitching into bankruptcy in 1979 after at least five years of shaky finances. Both Cary and Cockerell were long gone, and Zinovieff seemed largely relieved to be freed of the responsibility of the company and went off to live in a windmill on the Scottish island of Raasay, where he continued his pioneering work into the potential of computer-controlled music composition.

But the legacy of his EMS lives on, as does EMS itself. Fifty years after the establishment of this most British synthesiser company, its spring reverb-soaked oscillator blurts are still with us.

0 Shares:
You May Also Like
Read More

Marc Houle: Techno Outsider 

He started his career buying vintage synths from Detroit pawn shops and became a key member of Richie Hawtin’s Minus family. But as his latest album proves, Marc Houle is every bit the techno maverick     
Read More

Jóhann Jóhannsson: Ice-Cold Thrillers

Best keep an eye on Jóhann Jóhannsson, blink and it seems Iceland’s finest ups his game yet another notch. His ‘Arrival’ soundtrack was special, what can we expect from his work on the new ‘Blade Runner’ film due later this year?
Read More

Radiophonic Workshop: Doctors of Radio Phonics

With an almighty album of analogue improvisations spread over four 10-inch vinyl discs about to remind the world that Radiophonic Workshop’s influence on electronic music is immeasurable, we meet them to find out how the old days shaped the future
Read More

Gwenno: The Road To Kernow

‘Tresor’, the beguiling third album by Welsh artist Gwenno, is a love letter to the language and folklore of Cornwall. Celtic identity, embracing electronics and a mixing desk that once belonged to Martin Hannett all play their part in her colourful journey
Read More

EMS: The Gear

EMS created nearly 30 synthesisers and other related technologies, and many more were developed that never went into production. Here are some of the highlights from a decade of innovation