EMS VCS3 in the 1970s, part 1

Necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of Peter Zinovieff, the necessity was quite conventional. His cutting-edge studio that functioned as a research facility for electronic music experimentation, was in dire need of money. Income was scarce due the founder’s lack of interest in commercial music and the funding, which came mostly from his entitled wife’s ample resources, was not forthcoming after years of sinking money into the venture. The invention, however, was not conventional at all. Together with his two collaborators at EMS, David Cockerell and Tristram Cary, Zinovieff drew upon their vast collective knowledge of sound processing and came up with the company’s first commercial product, originally geared towards educational institutes. Little did they know that their creation would become one of the most celebrated sound generators in 1970s music, a favorite of musicians with a progressive mindset who were seeking anything but conventional sounds to enrich their music. This is the story of the VCS3, one of the most unique synthesizers in the history of electronic music.

EMS VCS3 synthesizer

Many articles have been published about EMS, the VCS3 and its three inventors. Most of them focus on the history of the company and the technical details of the instrument. Much less is out there with a focus on the musical side of this synthesizer and the impact it had on the music world during the heyday of analog synthesizers. In this article series I will attempt to provide a wide array of examples by highly talented musicians, some of them are well-known pieces of popular music, others less so. This is as much an appreciation of these musicians’ innovative music as it is of the instrument that enabled it. But first, a little history.

Peter Zinovieff and wife Victoria Heber-Percy

Peter Zinovieff, son to Russian immigrants who escaped the revolution and settled in London, was groomed to join the life of academia, earning a doctorate in Geology at Oxford University. However his interests were elsewhere in the experimental music field, and early on he started using tapes to slow down and speed up music he recorded on a prepared piano. His marriage to Victoria Heber-Percy and the immense wealth of her family allowed him to indulge in his passion for music, and he started tinkering at his home with electronic devices he found in surplus stores. In 1966 he teamed up with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, then working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (the folks behind the famed electronic sounds from the series Doctor Who). Together they launched the short-lived organization Unit Delta Plus. Working in his home studio they had aspirations for commercial work and jingles, but none of them had the business acumen to realize any money from the little enterprise. Instead, they focused on performance of their own compositions, and their claim to fame was a participation in the 1967 Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, an event that also included the playback of the legendary Carnival of Light, the 14-minute sound collage assembled by Paul McCartney.

The Unit Delta Plus studio

Things took a sharp turn to the better when Zinovieff met David Cockerell, a passionate tinkerer of electronic circuits who played bass in a rock group. Together the two concocted one of the first electronic music studios driven by computer software. To realize it they used the then-new PDP-8, a DEC minicomputer that sent signals from a rudimentary program to a bank of electronic circuits. The goal was to analyze recorded sounds and resynthesize them. Think of it as the grandpa of sound samplers. All good, spare the cost. That computer was not a house hold item, and Zinovieff bought two of them. He later explained how he was able to afford that expense: “I was lucky in those days to have a rich wife and so we sold her tiara and we swapped it for a computer. And this was the first computer in the world in a private house.”

Peter Zinovieff with a PDP-8 minicomputer and teletype

It was fun while it lasted, but money does not grow on trees, and the gift that keeps on giving stopped giving. Simply put, the wife put the foot down. With no additional funding, Zinovieff and Cockerell had to put their minds into practical use. They finally started thinking in terms of an end user who they should cater to, and added a third partner, electronic music pioneer Tristram Cary, to work on interface designs. Together the three founded a new company and called it Electronic Music Studios, or better known as EMS, located in Putney, south of the river Thames in London.

Tristram Cary

David Cockerell remembers the company’s first product: “We made one little box for the Australian composer Don Banks, which we called the VCS1…and we made two of those…it was a thing the size of a shoebox with lots of knobs, oscillators, filter.” Sounds simple but notice the use of the phrase ‘the size of a shoebox’. We are in 1969, mind you, and the reference for a size of a synthesizer comes from over the Atlantic in the shape of Robert Moog’s ginormous modular moog. Its closest competitor ARP Instruments just started manufacturing their own line of synths, somewhat smaller but nowhere near the size of a shoebox.

EMS VCS1 synth

The three decided that the educational market was the one to go after. Zinovieff specified the functions, Cockerell built the electronic guts, and Cary designed the box and interface. They kept working on that gizmo, skipped v2 and went directly to VCS3 (Voltage Controlled Studio). And voila – a legend was born.

Ok, enough history, lets get to the musicians and their music. We start with an artist who was at the forefront of adopting synthesizers, although his band was far from being considered an electronic music outfit. We are talking about Pete Townshend, who I also mentioned in my article about ARP Instruments. In 1968 Townshend married Karen Astley, daughter of composer Edwin Astley, the man behind the soundtrack for the iconic mystery TV series The Saint. The newlyweds used to come for Sunday lunches at the Astleys’ house, where soon after consuming the meal the two musicians would retire to discuss new developments in electronic music devices. In 2007 Townshend told Electronic Musician magazine this story related to the VCS3: “I persuaded my genius father-in-law to buy a couple, and he became quite adept at using them – great tool for such a gifted orchestral composer. I saw quickly how effective synthesis could be utilized to emulate orchestral textures.”

Pete Townshend with a VCS3

Pete Townshend put the VCS3 into good use pretty quick when he was working in his home studio on the demos for a project called ‘Lifehouse’. The science fiction rock opera follow-up to Tommy was abandoned, but pieces of music from it found their way into The Who’s 1970 album Who’s Next. One of them was Won’t Get Fooled Again. The song is a classic for many reasons, including the guitar riff, Keith Moon’s relentless drumming and that ‘Yeeeaaaah’ scream by Roger Daltrey. But the reason for its inclusion in this article is the insistent pulsating organ phrase that can be heard throughout the song.

It is important to note that the founders of EMS did not originally think of their invention as a musical instrument to be played live on stage in a common western-scale mode, and therefore did not package it with a keyboard. Instead they fitted it with audio inputs for the synthesizer to manipulate any sound source being fed into it. This effectively rendered it a glorious effects box, and Pete Townsend did just that with Won’t Get Fooled Again. He plugged his Lowrey organ into the VCS3 and used it to apply brightness of tone, pitch shift between the notes, and a filter that turned the sound of the organ on and off while playing chords. In essence, he created the basic function of a sequencer before sequencers were available on the market.

The sound mangling possibilities available with the VCS3 attracted the emerging progressive rock community with artists looking to break the rules of what is expected of rock music. Another early adopter was the band King Crimson, one the guiding lights of that movement. After putting the Mellotron at the forefront of their arrangements on their first two albums, they acquired a VCS3 and started using it on their third album Lizard, released at the end of 1970. Here is a great example how they used the synth, applying it to the descending synth line as well as the vocals (a ring modulator effect) on the track Happy Family:

King Crimson were also one of the first bands to take the VCS3 on the road. The instrument was relatively small, but not designed for portability. With its odd L shape it could not be folded, and schlepping it with the rest of the band’s gear was difficult. David Cockerell remembers: “The VCS3 was pretty awkward to carry around. It would have to be in a box as big as tea chest.”

Seeking to enhance the sonic possibilities with outwardly sounds in live situations, non-musician member of the band Pete Sinfield was tasked with the role of sound manipulator using the VCS3 with live feeds from the mixing board. This pattern started on their 1971 tour, and can be heard on a number of tracks from the album Earthbound. Drummer Ian Wallace found it sometimes a detriment to the sound of the band: “During this entire recording, a crude machine called a VCS3 synthesizer is used. I wish now it hadn’t been, but at the time it was on the cutting edge of sound technology, and just about everyone found it quite exciting. It’s used mainly on the vocals and Mel’s flute and saxophones, and on part of my drum solo.”

Pete Sinfield with a VCS3

The VCS3 offered many interesting features which we will discuss later, but perhaps its most alluring feature was its price tag. At the time the American synthesizers of the day from Moog and ARP would have cost you many thousands of dollars, and even more if you were to ship them overseas. In sharp contrast, the EMS VCS3 was priced at around £300. The EMS founders saw the main target audience as school teachers in academic institutions, not a population to spend extravagant amounts on equipment to teach their students. As it transpired, the main benefactors of that strategy were up and coming British artists who could only dream of acquiring an import synthesizer (unless you were Keith Emerson), but could stretch to spend 300 quid.

One such group was Hawkwind, a band in its infancy at the time and short on cash. After releasing a debut album in 1970, they bought the only synthesizer they could afford, a VCS3. They also added their road manager Del Dettmar to their lineup. Together with electronic device tinkerer DikMik, the two generated all manner of sounds that took the band’s music into space rock territories. In fact, the genre’s name did not even exist at the time their milestone second album, X In Search Of Space, was released.

Del Dettmar with a VCS3

Realizing the potential of the VCS3 not only as an effects box but also as a sound and noise generator, they created sweeping wind-like sounds around the band’s guitar riffs and bass and drum grooves that defined the sound of the band. Here is a classic example from that album:

A year later, in June 1972, the band released their biggest hit and one of the best songs to demonstrate the classic VCS3 sound. We are talking about the LSD-infused, space-rock bonanza known as Silver Machine. The song starts with a wobbly effect and moves on to the wooshing sound that became synonymous with the band. I always thought about the silver machine as the actual VCS3 that Del Dettmar manipulates in the song. The underground newspaper Frend featured the band in one of its issues, writing this: “It was Del the longest haired building labourer in the world, who entered with a hod on his back. And in the hod a bleeping, chirruping, wherping, blaspheming machine. ‘It’s a sympathizer’ he explained. ‘It must have heard the sounds coming from the room and started to sympathize. And now I can’t stop it.’”

You may have noticed a trend up to this point in the article. Pete Townshend, Pete Sinfield and Del Dettmar, all very talented in their own unique ways, but none is a keyboard player. This goes to highlight one of the major differences between the VCS3 and its American competitors. The American market for synthesizers was geared towards studio and live performance by keyboard players. Keith Emerson, Wendy Carlos, Rick Wakeman and others were the target audience, and they created magnificent music with their Moogs, ARPs and other keyboard-based synths. The VCS3, on the other hand, attracted a different demographic, one that was short on money and musical chops. And speaking of non-musicians, there is no better proponent of the VCS3 than Brian Eno.

Brian Eno with a Synthi AKS

Eno first laid eyes on a VCS3 after a chance meeting with Andy Mackay. The two knew each other while in college, both being members of school performance groups and sharing an interest in avant-garde music. They lost touch for a couple of years but met each other at the end of 1970, at which point the oboe and sax player invited Eno to haul his tape recorder and capture the very first demo songs of his new and yet unnamed band, later known as Roxy Music.

Arriving at the rehearsal room, Eno saw the silver machine, owned by Andy Mackay but left unused due to the owner’s lack of a single clue how to use it. By the time of his acquisition, the unit came with the DK1, an add-on keyboard controller that EMS added to meet the increasing demand of melodic play. Eno latched on to the fantastic-looking synth and took it home to experiment. He had little use for the keyboard, but quickly realized the cosmic potential of the synth.

Roxy Music with a VCS3 at the back on the left

Eno’s approach to use the VCS3 with Roxy Music may have been influenced by two folks previously mentioned in this article. When he was enrolled at the Winchester School of Art, he attended a lecture by Pete Townshend about the use of tape machines by non-musicians, sparking Eno’s curiosity about what is possible for him to do in the field of music. In addition, Roxy Music producer on their debut album was none other than Pete Sinfield, who’s role as mixing and sound mangler at King Crimson’s live performances was quite similar to the one Eno took with Roxy Music.

In the studio and on stage Eno applied the VCS3 circuitry to signals coming from various sources, as well as generating white noise from the instrument itself. Roxy Music’s debut includes examples of his work with the VCS3 in abundance. Here is some great footage from the Old Grey Whistle Test show in 1972, with a rare early opportunity to see close ups of the VCS3 played by the then-flamboyant Brian Eno. Notice at 4:20 how Eno is turning Phil Manzanera’s guitar into a schizophrenic alien on speed. Brian Ferry asked Eno to sound like the lunar landing on this track. Neil Armstrong and company would have chosen to skip the giant leap for mankind and return to earth in shame if this is what the moon would have sounded like.

In an interview many moons later, Eno commented on Roxy Music’s debut album: “I listened to that record recently and I thought, God, I can suddenly see why people thought this was weird! But to me, it didn’t sound at all weird. In fact, I was worried that it sounded too normal!”

Eno discovered one of the synth’s technical advantages early on, providing him with endless possibilities of sound shaping: “The thing that makes this a great machine is that whereas nearly all other synthesizers are set up to have a fixed signal path, with the EMS you can go from the oscillator to the filter, and then use the filter output to control the same oscillator again. You get a kind of Squiging effect. It feeds back on itself in interesting ways, because you can make some very complicated circles through the synthesizer.”

The band’s next album, For Your Pleasure, kept with the experimental vibe of the debut while adding a few highly energetic tracks in the best tradition of glam rock. Here is one, including a fine example of a synth solo and other noises by Eno at 1:30:

Eno left Roxy music after their second album and started a celebrated solo career in music. The VCS3 continued to serve him well over the next few years on various projects. He said about the instrument: “The VCS3 was quite a difficult instrument to use, though at the time it was a fantastic thing to have for someone like me, who couldn’t actually play any conventional instruments. There were no rules for playing synthesizers, so nobody could tell me I couldn’t play one.”

In 1972 Eno was invited to add weirdness on Matching Mole’s second album, Little Red Record. Robert Wyatt formed the band the previous year after leaving Soft Machine and it included bass player Bill MacCormick, who was Phil Manzanera’s friend. MacCormick was present during the recording sessions for Ladytron and observed Eno’s skill with knobs and switches. He wanted the same concoction on the track Gloria Gloom on Matching Mole’s album. Here it is – pay attention to the first 3 minutes and last 2 minutes, a fantastic early ambient drone before ambient was a musical genre.

The rest of the track is more in line with the jazz-influenced music that Matching Mole played at the time. Eno reflected on that album: “They were very jazz-derived. I was very anti-jazz, in that I thought jazz was a bit easy. I also thought it was a music of faith – and I still do, in some sense. I think, especially with free jazz, how much you enjoy it depends entirely on how much you believe in it.” For his effort he got a credit on the album sleeve: This Summer’s guest Super-Star: Brian Eno: VCS3 Synthesizer.

Eno’s participation on the album was significant for his career, as it connected him with future collaborator Bill MacCormick, together with Phil Manzanera a member of the band 801. Most importantly, this was where he met the album’s producer, none other than Robert Fripp.

Brian Eno with Robert Fripp

Eno invited Fripp to his house to try his tape recording and looping setup that involved two Revox A77 tape machines, one recording the input signal, the second feeding it back with a delay signal, thus creating a seemingly endless loop that kept reflecting the characteristic of the input signal. Sounds similar to Frippertronics, you say. Of course, for this is where Fripp got the idea for his own future sound experimentations. The technique was not unique, and has been used back in the 1960s by the likes of Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros. But these electronic music luminaries did not have Fripp as the input signal, neither Eno controlling the tapes. The result was a fantastic early ambient music. In 1972 a session yielded the track The Heavenly Music Corporation, recorded with only Fripp’s guitar as an input. In 1973 another session also incorporated the VCS3 into the setup, providing a loop over Fripp’s guitar, resulting in a continuous shimmering sound that you can hear on the track Swastika Girls:

The track, which was released on the album No Pussyfooting, has an explanation for its name, provided by Fripp: “Eno, while walking towards the studio on the night of the mix, saw upon the pavement a piece of paper from some magazine with the headline ‘Swastika Girls’ on it. On it were these naked girls with swastika emblems on their sleeves. On the back was this maiden in bondage… Eno, having some interest in bondage, thought this appropriate. Since he left side one to me I left side two to him.”

In 1974 Eno started his solo career proper with the debut album Here Come the Warm Jets. He invited a host of excellent musicians to play on the album, including John Wetton, Robert Fripp, Simon King from Hawkwind, Bill MacCormick, Chris Spedding and others. But one of the most engaging solos on the album is played by Eno himself on the track The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch, using the VCS3 to sound like R2D2 gone berserk (3 years before Star Wars premiered). Listen to it at 1:08:

In 1975 Eno was featured on the rock adaptation of Prokofiev’s famous composition Peter and the Wolf. This was the brainchild of Jack Lancaster (co-founder of the band Blodwyn Pig) and Robin Lumley (Brand X), who rewrote Prokofiev’s themes and invited a cast of a thousand rock and prog stars. Musical luminaries such as Gary Moore and Stephane Grappelli provided the musical equivalent of a duck and a cat. What about the Wolf, you ask? This is where Eno and his faithful companion the VCS3 come in. Here is the introduction to the vile animal before it consumes the unfortunate duck:

One last piece of music to close this article, from one of Brian Eno’s most celebrated albums, Another Green World. The album has been repeatedly chosen by many publications in their ‘best all-time’ lists, and for a good reason. It is a great collections of short pieces of music that make avant-garde, ambient and other sonic experiments easily digestible by unsuspecting listeners. As usual, an excellent lineup of musicians is on offer, including Phil Collins, Percy Jones, John Cale, and – who else? – Robert Fripp. Strange guitar sounds were Fripp’s specialty, but even he was impressed by the guitar sound Eno was able to generate on the opening track: “Sky Saw was a name for a particular sound which had to do with feeding the guitar through a VCS synthesizer and digital feedback. It’s a specific technical approach for getting the sound. You can get the sound or a very close approximation in a number of different ways, but that was the name he came up with. He came up with that particular sound. Wonderful rrrr. So gripping.”


The second part of this article is coming soon, featuring music by Pink Floyd, Jean-Michel Jarre, Led Zeppelin and others.

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