"... and it seems such a shame, looking back on it, that we were foremost in the world, and yet in the end became famous for rather pathetic little synthesizers."
- Peter Zinovieff
Pathetic or classic - or both?
This section provides a bit of background. A much fuller history is available elsewhere on the Internet (see the links section below) so I'm not going to copy all of that here. Instead I'd like to focus on different views of EMS instruments, both positive and negative, and put this website in context.
The EMS VCS3 and Synthi A (both basically the same instrument in differently styled cases) have become classic instruments through their use by many musicians including Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Tim Blake, Zorch and the Steve Hillage Band. Many more important names could be added to that list. And yet Peter Zinovieff described these classic instruments as "rather pathetic little synthesizers."
Compared with the massive Synthi 100, the VCS 3/Synthi A design is necessarily limited. Add to that the fact that it's notoriously weak on producing good lead lines, and it becomes clearer why despite its extensive use in the early days of electronic rock music it was instruments like the MiniMoog and ARP Odyssey that appealed to keyboard virtuosi.
In context, Zinovieff's comments referred to the fact that EMS was very much at the forefront of electronic music in the 1960s and 1970s, and even further back when you consider the background of the musicians and engineers involved. Notable EMS innovations include the use of computers in electronic music. This had also been developed elsewhere, but EMS showed
signs of bringing computer technology out of the academic setting of university music departments and into the mainstream. Their 256 step digital sequencer was a revelation in the 1970s, and the story goes that they took the prototype into the Moog factory and demonstrated it, eclipsing Moog's own top of the line eight step sequencer.
The 256 step sequencer found its way into the massive Synthi 100, along with the EMS vocoder and their filter bank.
All this - and the never-before-heard music resulting from it - is the context from which Peter Zinovieff was speaking. Thoroughly familiar with the VCS3, he made his statement from an informed and experienced point of view. And yet however pathetic a VCS3 may seem when compared with a full studio with Synthi 100 and masses of outboard gear, as small synthesizers go it's one of the most important, and remains one of the most sought after. I hope this website will help to show why that is, as well as continuing the spirit of innovation and development that characterised EMS in their heyday. This section provides a bit of background. A much fuller history is available elsewhere on the Internet (see the links section below) so I'm not going to copy all of that here. Instead I'd like to focus on different views of EMS instruments, both positive and negative, and put this website in context.
Electronic music in the late sixties and seventies
When the first EMS instruments appeared in 1969, electronic music was moving in two streams. On the one hand there was the academic electronic music of the modern classical composers and the university music departments, while on the other hand there was a development toward making electronic music in more traditional musical styles.
Most of the commercially available synthesizers tended to be in the second camp. Wendy Carlos had triumphantly proved the suitability of synthesizers for traditionally structured music when she released Switched on Bach in 1968, and despite branching out into more abstract music at times (for instance more or less inventing ambient music with 1972's Sonic Seasonings) she continued down that line and hasn't ever revisited the academic electronica of her early Columbia Music pieces recorded pre-Switched on Bach.
In the same general line of development, pop and rock musicians became aware of synthesizers, and the most obvious usage was with pop bands like Chicory Tip and with rock musicians like Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and Tony Banks, a new breed of keyboard hero relying predominantly on the new Moogs and ARPs. Manfred Mann moved between the pop charts and the realms of prog rock and developed his own unique MiniMoog style, but for some reason tends to be overlooked a little.
Modern classical electronic music had come out of the academic cloisters in Britain and entered the consciousness of the average person through the pioneering use of electronics by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. British electronic musicians embraced the British-made EMS instruments and developed a new music with references to both science fiction and the consciousness development ideas that had grown out of the sixties with the development of experiments with drugs, meditation and so forth. Hawkwind developed a new form of Space Rock, at first using adapted tone generators as the early
electronic musicians had done, and very soon adding an EMS instrument. Tim Blake also took up the Synthi and added its unique sounds to the music of the Anglo/French band Gong before going solo and releasing some quite unique and adventurous electronic albums of his own. (See my main website for further discussion of Tim Blake's work). David Vorhaus also worked in pioneering areas at this time. The electronic music incorporated into Gong's sound became a staple part of Steve Hillage's brilliant series of 1970s solo albums. And Pink Floyd bought several EMS Synthis and used the instrument to great effect on their classic Dark Side of the Moon album.
In Germany, too, the EMS sound was perfect for the new developments in electronic music. A Synthi was Klaus Schulze's first synthesizer, and Tangerine Dream used them extensively during the early part of their career. Both Schulze and Tangerine Dream layered the spacey electronic effects of the Synthi over guitar and organ at first and later over their trademark Moog Modular sequences. Many other musicians on the German music scene at the time - for example Manuel Gottsching - took a similar approach in their own ways.
By the mid 1970s, then, the classical/academic sound effects natural to the Synthi had moved into the mainstream through television and film soundtracks as well as pioneering new forms of British and German rock music. The net effect was that both the strands of synthesizer development - the traditional note-making and the freer sound-effect based approach - had both become popular, and some musicians were using both approaches simultaneously, to great effect.
The Synthi today
After going out of fashion for a decade or two, the Synthi is now much sought after and prices have been climbing steadily for several years.
There's a current nostalgia for analogue synthesizers from the 1970s and early 80s, and that partly feeds the current interest in the EMS Synthi.
The main reason for the abiding value and relevance of the Synthi, though, apart from any kind of nostalgia, is the uniqueness of the design and the nature of the sound. With only three oscillators plus a noise source, and a single filter, plus ring mod, an idiosyncratic envelope shaper unlike anyone else's, and a small reverb unit, it isn't a match for a large modular system, and larger and more complex modulars can be bought at today's prices for rather less than a second-hand Synthi or indeed a new one. Analogue Systems, in fact, build modular systems based on EMS designs, and in principle you would get a Synthi specification for rather less money from them, though I haven't personally used any of their instruments so I can't comment on how they compare with a Synthi in terms of sound and playability.
New Synthis are being made both by Robin Wood in Britain and by Ludwig Rehberg in Germany, and people are very willing to endure high prices and long waiting lists to obtain these classic instruments. Modifications are also available to existing instruments - both the essential mods discussed by Graham Hinton (see the links section below) and unique and ingenious adaptations of the traditional design to widen the Synthi's repertoire of sounds.
The Synthi is amazingly well designed, fitting a massive range of connection possibilities into a very compact space by means of its pin matrix and offering a multitude of modulation possibilities through the connections made possible. Above all, the sounds are musically pleasing (depending, of course, on who's playing), with a specific character that's recognisably EMS. Many other synthesizers will make similar sounds, and some will sound broadly similar. You can get good twittering sounds with any synth with a self-resonating filter, for example, and LFO modulation can provide interesting and characteristically electronic textures from even a DX7 if you know how to program. But the Synthi offers particularly complex and manipulable modulations, and the tone perfectly complements the kind of sounds being made. I find that although I can make complex modulation sounds with my Moog, for example, using a second LFO and foot-pedal controls as well as hand-manipulation of the various control knobs, I still prefer the characteristic EMS tones in this kind of musical setting. Many other people evidently feel the same. Synthis simply sound right for sweeps, chirps, twitters and so forth.
Software and the future
Like many other classic older instruments, the Synthi has been modelled in software by several people. I have Ludwig Rehberg's Synthi Av and also Xavier Oudin's XILS 3, which show two different approaches to software modelling. The Rehberg instrument is closely modelled on the Synthi and is very much a substitute aimed at someone who can't afford a
hardware Synthi. It does have the advantage of instant patch recall, though, and there are a few unique refinements that come from the software design. For instance as well as manipulating the knobs in real time with a MIDI controller to gain the same kind of hands-on expression you can get with a hardware Synthi, it's also possible to allocate the pin matrix to a MIDI control knob, so you can turn a knob and change the pin positions in the matrix. I haven't yet really worked with this to see what's possible with it, but it's an interesting development.
The XILS 3, by contrast, is a new instrument that uses the Synthi as its starting point. The sound differs between the Rehberg and the XILS, and I like to use each in different musical contexts. Like individual EMS hardware instruments they sound different and have a different character. The XILS has a 256 step sequencer modelled on the original EMS design, and new modules are being added from time to time, building the instrument into something larger and more complex each time.
Many people dismiss software as an inferior imitation of `real' hardware synthesizers - much, perhaps, as people used to dismiss hardware synthesizers as an inferior imitation of `real' acoustic instruments. I find software has much to offer. The sound may not be as good in some cases, but in other cases it excels. Many people haven't really got to grips with treating software sounds properly to give them depth and character, and this makes a massive difference to people's perceptions. I
find the software versions of the Synthi have much to offer. I've made music with the Rehberg that people have thought was made with a hardware EMS Synthi, and I've made music with the XILS that simply wouldn't have been possible with a Synthi - even, perhaps, with a Synthi 100 - and the XILS is stimulating and creative as only a true musical instrument can be.
In addition, I've developed a series of EMS emulation projects using the Roland V-Synth XT. These use EMS sounds derived from the software instruments and incorporate them into various patches designed to further enhance the sound and the modulation possibilities. I can have EMS-type sounds in patches for instant recall, and manipulate them in real time using
the V-Synth's control knobs. The sound character is typically EMS despite the use of the Roland instrument, and new sounds are possible that weren't possible with the earlier EMS instruments.
What this website is about
There's a lot of EMS music about, some of it excellent, much of it interesting, some of it awful. I've mentioned a few notable and interesting names, and from time to time I may add to the list of musicians to check out.
The aim of this site is to act as a forum for new music, but with the main focus on new developments, which in practice means software and projects like my V-Synth emulation.
That may seem strange to people whose main focus is the original EMS hardware. The reasons are as follows: 1) The original EMS company ceased to exist long ago, and although Robin Wood and Ludwig Rehberg both continue to make standard EMS designs and provide fairly well-established modifications, there are no new instruments pushing the boundaries of what's possible. 2) The instruments that are available, either new or second-hand, are highly expensive for what they are, hard to obtain, and basically unavailable to most musicians. I'm more interested in music that can be made with available instruments than in music that might be made if musicians had access to instruments they can't afford or are on a long waiting list to have built and delivered. (This isn't a criticism of anybody, incidentally, least of all Robin Wood and Ludwig Rehberg, both of whom continue to do work which is very much valued and appreciated by many musicians, including me.)
Not very long ago someone objected to something of mine being included in a collection of EMS music because I proposed using the Rehberg SynthiAv software. Someone else pointed out that this is an `official' EMS product because it's supplied by Ludwig Rehberg, but that was countered by the statement that what mattered for that collection of music was what can be
done with just an EMS Synthi and not the capabilities of someone's computer. I find that rather ironic, in view of the fact that the EMS developers were especially interested in interfacing their instruments with computers, and the connection between EMS sounds and `the capabilities of someone's computer' was at the forefront of EMS thinking right through the 1970s. Of
course this was hardware sound-production linked with computers, but who knows where EMS would have gone if they'd continued to develop along the lines being established in the 70s? I have no objections to being excluded from a music collection that was limited to vintage hardware, but I thought the discussion was very interesting, and I have to admit one of my main motivations was to see what would happen if I offered a hypothetical piece to be performed using software.
The music on this website will be added to by me and possibly by other musicians. My contributions are limited to the Rehberg and XILS software and the V-Synth EMS emulations as I no longer have access to a hardware Synthi. The VCS3 was the first synthesizer I ever played, and its characteristic tone and feel have stayed with me over the many years I've been playing electronic music.
So overall I hope this website will demonstrate the kind of sounds and the kinds of music possible with EMS instruments as well as the possibilities for developing the EMS legacy into new instrument designs and new kinds of musical possibility. Ultimately the important thing is always the music, not the instruments used to make it, and I want the focus here to be on what can be done musically with EMS sounds, those characteristic EMS-sounding modulations, tweets, twitters, sweeps and so forth, as well as some more traditional sounding tones made with EMS sounds but difficult or impossible to obtain previously using the technology and designs of the 1960s and 70s. that weren't possible with the earlier EMS instruments.
Using XILS 3. This was done using the XILS 3's sequencer, with changes made to the patch while playing. I made extensive use of the different patch-pin values made possible in the upgraded version. The title refers to C.G. Jung's written record of his active imagination experiences, which had just been published when I recorded this piece.
2) Spring Comes, Birds Return to Plum Mountain - by Sweep
Using Roland V-Synth EMS emulations and percussion and flute samples played using Direct Wave and the V-Synth. The percussion samples were almost all recorded by me, though I used a couple of sounds from elsewhere - I think there's a Fairlight gong in there. The flutes are all mine. The `electric piano' part is a couple of Direct Wave patches made using tuned percussion samples.
3) Go `n' Grab It - by Frank Spears
Using EMS Synthi A and Roland V-Synth GT (lead and vocoder), plus programmed drums.
4) Bleak Landscape - by Sweep
Using XILS 3 and Technics KN750 (piano). The XILS was played through two Classic Delay VSTs and then a Lexicon MPX550, and edited extensively while playing. The synthesizer part was recorded in one take, and then the piano part added in a second take.
5) Crystal Manifestation - by Sweep
Using EMS Rehberg Synthi Av and V-Synth EMS emulation.
6) Awakening - a Hawkwind track from Space Ritual
Performed by Sweep using XILS 3.
7) Kurosawa - by Sweep
Using XILS 3 and Technics KN750 (koto).
8) Zylis - by Sweep
Using XILS 3 and Lexicon MPX550, plus a short lead line from the Arturia MiniMoog V. I could have used the XILS 3 for the lead line, but it didn't sound quite right. Interestingly, I tried several other synths, including a Moog Voyager, and the Arturia software worked better than the hardware Moog in this context.
9) Spring and Autumn - by Sweep and Frank Spears
Using EMS Synthi A (Spears) and Technics KN750 piano and V-Synth EMS emulation (Sweep).
10) Persian Carpet - by Sweep
Persian Carpet was done entirely with the Rehberg Synthi Av softsynth.
Frank Spears plays EMS Synthi A. Sweep plays Technics KN720 and 750 keyboards, Roland V-Synth XT, Kawai K1 and Lexicon MPX550 processor.
"The finished piece bears some resemblance to Edgar Froese's Aqua, which wasn't intended. It began with me using Frank Spears' Synthi sounds, which came in rising and falling waves. This gave the idea of waves of water, especially when I slowed the Synthi performances down and layered them in different stereo tracks. As I built on those with Technics chords and additional sounds it moved into a similar sonic area to the Froese piece, which I wasn't aware of until afterwards. Of course I first heard Aqua back in the Seventies, and the music of Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream has been one of the major factors in the development of my approach to synthesizers." - Sweep
13) Georgina Watson - by Sweep
This track uses an unusual development of the EMS Synthi idea. What if EMS had continued into the 1990s and - this will be sheer heresy to some people - created a Synthi with PCM WAV sounds instead of analogue oscillators, but with the more usual Synthi modulation options?
I simulated what this might have sounded like by taking one of my V-Synth EMS emulation projects and replacing the Synthi samples with equivalent sounds played on a Technics KN750. Some sounds were sequenced, while others were played using unusual keyboard techniques. The result was a set of PCM versions of typical Synthi modulations, which were then modified with the V-Synth using manual operation of the control knobs, much as a Synthi might be played.
The PCM Synthi emulation occurs in the central section, along with the harp. The Synthi sounds in the first section, accompanying the piano, are from the Rehberg Synthi Av, with the addition of some modified Synthi sounds from the V-Synth which have more compex modulations than would be possible with a Synthi. The last section uses the XILS 3. The other instruments are: piano (Casio CTK900 and Technics KN720 layered), harp (Casio CTK900), Direct Wave sampler, shakuhachi, and violin.
18) Sacred Yew - by Sweep
The Sacred Yew was inspired by an ancient yew tree in the village of Hope Bagot, England. It stands in a churchyard over a holy well and is most probably older than the twelfth century church. Comparing it with other ancient yew trees I've seen I'd guess at possibly ninth or tenth century. There's no guessing how ancient the well is, and possibly the tree was planted at an already sacred site due to the presence of the well.
The music is performed by Frank Spears on EMS Synthi A, and Sweep on shakuhachi and sampler. Frank recorded a lengthy Synthi performance, and then the Synthi and shakuhacki were both played from the sampler (Direct Wave software). The full performance by Frank Spears was played and layered by holding keys, with other parts brought in selectively here and there. The shakuhachi was sampled in relatively small sections and played looped through the Classic Delay software.
Sweep made extensive use of the ChorX spacial delay software from XILS in this piece. All the Direct Wave sampler performances were processed through ChorX, giving movement and three dimensional depth to the sounds. This was a vital part of the earthy, living quality of the final piece.