EMS VCS3 in the 1970s, part 2

In part 1 of this article we told a brief history of EMS and the VCS3 synthesizer, and featured music by Pete Townshend, King Crimson, Hawkwind, Roxy Music and Brian Eno. We shall open this article with a bang – the band that made the VCS3 a world-famous music instrument. We are talking about one of the most successful bands of the 1970s – Pink Floyd.

Richard Wright VCS3

The band members go a long way back with the people behind the VCS3. After releasing their debut album in 1967, Pink Floyd visited the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and met Delia Derbyshire. She was collaborating at the time with Peter Zinovieff in an outfit called Unit Delta Plus and invited them to his studio. Ever on the lookout for interesting sounds to boost their psychedelic music, they kept in touch and David Gilmour visited the facility in Putney to see a prototype of the VCS3.

The band purchased the instrument in 1971, in time for the recording sessions that yielded the album Meddle. They quickly found it a wonderful source for the multitude of sound effects they applied to their songs. One such example is the wind effect that opens and closes the song One of These Days. That sound effect was quite popular with the group and it returned on future pieces including Shine On You Crazy Diamond part 6 from Wish You Were Here.

Pink Floyd kept up with the technological innovations coming from EMS, and as the company continued to improve their synthesizer and released new versions of it, the sonic potential of these instruments found its way into Pink Floyd albums. In 1972 EMS released the VSC3 Synthi A, originally called ‘Portabella’. The electronic circuits were identical to the VCS3, but instead of the bulky connected two panels, the instrument was now housed in a briefcase, thus becoming much more portable. The picture below shows Richard Wright on a VCS3 while David Gilmour toys with a Synthi A on his lap:

Pink Floyd VCS3

The band kept using the instrument on their next album Obscured By Clouds. It produced long eerie droning sounds on the title track and the haunting Absolutely Curtains. It was also used to generate rich bass sounds ala Moog on the track Free Four. This bass pattern kept coming back on future tracks such as Time.

In 1972 EMS took the Synthi A one step farther and added a built-in two and a half octave keyboard and a sequencer to it, calling it Synthi AKS.

Synthi AKS
Synthi AKS

Pink Floyd did not waste time before acquiring one, and it was prominently featured on the album they recorded in the second part of that year. We are talking about an album called The Dark Side Of The Moon. You might have heard of it, it is one of the best-selling albums of all time. The album features a track called On The Run, a nightmarish sequence of sound effects and voice samples. This was one of the first demonstrations of the new AKS sequencer. David Gilmour remembers: “We’d just got this new synthesizer, a briefcase model EMS-1 [Synthi AKS], and in the lid there was a little sequencer thing. I was playing with the sequencer device attachment, and came up with this sound, which is the basic sound of it. Roger sort of heard it, came over and started playing with it, too. Then he actually put in the notes that we made…it was his sequence, that “de-di-doo-de-di-dil”- -whatever it was.” This sequence is discussed in The Dark Side Of The Moon Documentary:

On The Run became one of the most important pieces of music associated with the VCS3 synthesizer, similar to how people associate Switched on Bach or Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Lucky Man with the Moog. Pink Floyd milked it for all its worth on the track, and all band members are credited as using the instrument on the album. Here it is, one of the most played electronic sequences on classic rock radio stations:

One more from Pink Floyd, this one from their next album Wish You Were Here. The track is Welcome To The Machine, another song full of sound effects courtesy of the VCS3 circuitry built into its Synthi A and AKS successors. All the wooshing sounds, throbbing pulses and other industrial noises you hear here come from that synthesizer, while a Moog is used for the melodic lead synth parts.

Another band that exposed the sounds of the VCS3 to large audiences was Led Zeppelin. Bass and keyboard player John Paul Jones was an early adopter of the instrument and he used it both as a signal processor as well as a keyboard instrument in later models. A fine example can be found on the song No Quarter from the album Houses of the Holy. The audio signal of the Hohner electric piano was fed into the synth, and run through a filter which was modulated with a sine-wave LFO. This made the filter rise and fall rapidly, creating a shifting tone similar to a phaser, or Leslie speaker. In the first part of this article we discussed how a few years earlier Pete Townshend used the VCS3 to create the same effect on Won’t Get Fooled Again with a Hammond, thus creating a pulsing organ tone.

One more Led Zeppelin tune brings us to another innovation that came with the VCS3 – the joystick. Early on in the development of the instrument David Cockerell came up with the idea of allowing musicians to manipulate two parameters simultaneously. The result was the X-Y joystick, a component he adapted from a radio-controlled model airplane.


John Paul Jones put the joy stick to good use on the track In The Light from the album Physical Graffiti. A reed-like instrument can be heard at the beginning of the song, played by Jones on the synth. Jones makes excellent use of the joystick to create a pitch-bend, similar to the expression used by Arabic musicians playing Middle-Eastern scales.

The VCS3 became a staple synth in the arsenal of many progressive rock artists and bands in the early 1970s. The availability and low price of the instrument in the UK, the hotbed of the genre at the time, brought it into a many recording sessions. Lets look at some excellent examples of the instrument being used on a variety of albums. First is the band Curved Air and gifted keyboard player Francis Monkman. The classically trained musician, equally versatile on organ and harpsichord, was member of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields before founding Curved Air. On the band’s second album, released in 1971, he started using the VCS3. He said this about the instrument: “I was fortunate enough to have had the use of a VCS3 since 1969, when my flat-mate Robin Thompson (who was in Intermodulation with Andrew Powell & Co) got hold of one of the first. My experience with Moogs has not been so good — I always thought the Minimoog far too limited after the VCS3, and even the big modular affairs fail to impress me, though it’s true Keith Emerson got a monster sound out of his.”

Here is a tune from that album, Young Mother. Pay attention to the sounds Monkman gets from the VCS3 behind Daryl Way’s violin solo at 2:15:

We are lucky to have footage of the band playing live in the studio from a 1972 performance for the French TV. At the end of the set the band played their signature track Vivaldi, including a section of otherworldly sounds from the VCS3 with great close-ups of the instrument. Here goes:

In 1972 Curved Air split up and then reformed with the 17-year old violin and keyboard player Eddie Jobson. As a member of the band Fat Grapple, who opened for Curved Air that year, he was also an early adopter of the VCS3. The instrument was used on Curved Air’s next album Air Cut, and as Jobson’s career took him into joining various groups in the 1970s, he made good use of it on albums by Roxy Music and Frank Zappa. Perhaps his most significant feature of the VCS3 was with the band UK, a super group of progressive rock musicians who released their debut album in 1978. The story of that band and his use of another synth, the Yamaha CS-80, is told in this article.

Like many other artists, Jobson used the VCS3 to generate interesting, evolving sequences. A good example is on the track By The Light of Day, a moody song that starts with a sequence behind John Wetton’s vocals.

Another sonic adventurer who used the VCS3 extensively was Tim Blake, a member of the English-French trippy progressive rock band Gong. The instrument is featured heavily on the mythological trilogy of albums known as Radio Gnome Invisible, released between the years 1973 and 1974. The trilogy includes the albums Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg and You and it involves a planet called Gong, pixies, a trip to the Himalayas, a yogi, Australian Lager, a space pilot, a prostitute and an invisible temple. Like I said, trippy. And what better gizmo to use as a sound effect and sequence generator to enrich that story than a VCS3?

Here is the track A Sprinkling Of Clouds from the album You, with Blake building up a bed of delay-infused synth bubbles around the fantastic guitar playing of Steve Hillage.

After leaving Gong, Tim Blake started a solo career under the name of Crystal Machine, also using that name for the first album of that outfit in 1977. The project was built around a solo performance live on stage with a bank of synthesizers, with prominent spots to a dual setup of VCS3s in a perspex case.

Tim Blake VCS3
Tim Blake

In concept Crystal Machine was an art installation that also included a light show by Patrice Warrener. A rare footage from 1978 captured the audio-visual experience, with another fantastic close-up of a VCS3, this time two of them being fidgeted on stage:

The next band we shall discuss was an obvious match for the VCS3 and its ability to produce pulsating, spacey sounds. In 1970, after releasing their debut album Electronic Meditation, German band Tangerine Dream added Chris Franke to its lineup. The drummer, who came from the band Agitation Free, was into analog devices and early synthesizers. During a visit to England in 1971, Franke acquired a VCS3. Left with close to no cash after the transaction, he could not afford the custom tax and chose the cheaper method of smuggling the instrument into Germany. Whoever coined the term ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ was ignorant of electronic music history, for that event was one of the defining moments for that band. While their debut album did not use any electronic instruments, their next album Alpha Centaury featured the VCS3 prominently and that was when their distinctive sound emerged. A picture taken a few years later shows an arsenal of Synthi A and VCS synths at the top.

Tangerine Dream 1975
Tangerine Dream

On Alpha Centauri the VCS3 can be heard clearly on the track Fly and Collision of Comas Sola. Sounds from the synth open the track. Two VCS3s are actually being used on this track, played by Chris Franke and a guest on the album, Roland Paulyck. Additional white noise sounds from the instrument can be heard around the 6:30 mark.

The instrument remained with the band’s arsenal of gear throughout their halcyon days of the early and mid 1970s. Even as they added additional brands of synths such as ARP and Moog, they kept adding more EMS synths, to the point when all band members were playing the instrument.

One more from Tangerine Dream, this time from one of electronic music’s most celebrated albums, the band’s fifth effort and international breakthrough record Phaedra, released after the band signed with Virgin Records. Movements of a Visionary is a great showcase of the sequencer-based compositions that became synonymous with the band, and the sound effects coming from the VCS:

One last artist to close this article, and perhaps the one that along with Pink Floyd exposed the instrument to the widest audiences. We are talking about electronic music whiz kid Jean-Michel Jarre and his massively popular albums Oxygène and Équinoxe. Jarre was an early adopter of the VCS3 and he has fond memories of that instrument: “To me, the original VCS3 synthesizer is like a Stradivarius. All these old analogue instruments are very poetic. I have a huge emotional relationship with them. My first synthesizer was the VCS3. I got it in Bristol in the late Sixties, long before Pink Floyd used them. I had to sell an acoustic guitar and an old reel-to-reel tape recorder to raise the money.”

Jean-Michel Jarre VCS3
Jean-Michel Jarre

Jarre used the VCS3 on his early albums Deserted Palace and Les Granges Brûlées, but nothing prepared the artist to the massive success of his next album.

Jean-Michel Jarre Oxygene

Jarre recalls his equipment prior to the making of Oxygène: “When I started out, this synth was my primary tool along with a Farfisa organ and two Revox recorders.” By 1976 he also added the ARP 2600, a Mellotron and a favorite of his, the Eminent by Dutch organ manufacturer, and an early drum machine – the Korg Mini Pops.

The album produced two singles, most famously Oxygène (Part IV) with glorious wind and bubbling sounds, all created with the VCS3.

Jarre talked about the great possibilities of using analog synths like the VCS3 compared to new technologies: “You can do fantastic things with modern computers but you cannot use them in the same intuitive, spontaneous way you can a VCS3.” Many years later, the instrument remained in his live stage gear. Nearly 40 years after the release of the album Jarre played a live studio performance with a collection of vintage analog synths to make your mouth water. The footage gives us a rare opportunity to view the EMS VCS3 and Synthi A in excellent sound and visual quality. Here is another well-known piece from Oxygène:

To close this article, here is one last quote from Jean-Michel Jarre, one of the artists most passionate about the VCS3: “The VCS3 is the ideal synthesizer for doing uncontrolled effects. After a while you don’t know what you’re doing and you create sounds in a purely intuitive way, as you have so many tiny pins you are playing with, you discover things like a child with toys and I still have that experience 40 years later. I never had that experience with another instrument.”

Part 1 of this article, covering the VCS3 history and the music of Hawkwind, King Crimson, The Who, Roxy Music and Brian Eno:

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7 replies »

  1. Thanks for the VCS3 articles. Although it may be considered a crude technology by today’s standards, in the 70s, it was state-of-the-art and produced so many cool, timeless sounds.

  2. A great pair of articles on the EMS synths. Three things, though:
    1. For Tim Blake, I would have included The Octave Doctors And The Crystal Machine, from the album Flying Teapot, as this is entirely a Synthi A performance.
    2. For Tangerine Dream, I would have mentioned side one of Rubycon. Apparently, the bells at the beginning of the track were done on the Synthi A, with the ring modulator.
    3. For Pink Floyd, I’d have mentioned the live versions of Obscured By Clouds itself, which typically kicked with an extended raga-style solo from Rick Wright, on the VCS-3, I believe.

  3. Been using the VCS-3 on Sesame Street for thirty years. Kept alive by our friend in England! Cheers!!

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