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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Computer Music Murmurs in the UK: Peter Zinovieff and EMS

We recently lost another great pioneer of synthesizer technology. Peter Zinovieff, founded EMS in the UK in 1969. They made the popular VCS3 and Synthi 100 used by many British and European musicians in the early 1970s. Zinovieff was a British citizen of Russian heritage. A graduate of Oxford with a degree in geology, he developed an amateur interest in electronic music during the mid-1960s. Zinovieff was an interesting fellow with the mind of a scientist and the instincts to invent electronic devices and instruments that musicians could use. Zinovieff set himself the task of creating the best private electronic music studio that money could buy. An amateur when it came to electronics engineering, Zinovieff was nonetheless an original thinker overflowing with unique ideas for mechanizing the process of creating electronic music.

The VCS3, introduced in 1969, was a small monophonic, modular synthesizer that could sit on a desktop. It was priced at £330 (about $1,200), a modest price by modular synthesizer standards of the day. It was voltage-controlled and was equipped with three oscillators, two input amplifiers, a noise generator, a ring modulator, a low-pass filter, a “trapezoid” envelope generator, voltage-controlled spring reverberation, and joystick controller. Instead of patch cords, it had a unique patch matrix into which pegs were inserted to connect the components.

What is generally overlooked in Zinovieff ‘s history is his pioneering work in computer music prior to forming EMS. Peter Zinovieff was invested heavily in experiments with computer music. He was trying to find a way to join digital and analog technology primarily to store and edit sounds digitally. “I liked doing electronic music by recording sounds,” he explained, “and it was very early on that I realized that cutting tape was a hopeless procedure. Really, this had to be done in a more sensible way and this was the beginning of the digital age.”[i]

The VCS3 quickly earned a reputation for mangling sounds, but delightfully so. Its oscillators were sensitive to ambient temperature but also to its own heat if it were turned on for a long time. This made the instrument peculiar as a special effects machine, churning out all manner of scrambled audio signals to the delight of musicians. As a fairly compact unit—smaller certainly than any keyboard that a musician might take to a gig—the instrument suddenly became a favorite of many rock musicians, especially those based in the UK and Germany. This briefcase size synthesizer was followed by the huge console instrument created for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the Synthi 100. The Synthi 100 was introduced in January 1971 at a cost of about £6,500 (about $24,000) and 30–40 units were made.

Toward the goal of eliminating tape editing, Zinovieff and engineering friend David Cockerell first experimented with creating electromechanical relays for sequencing or triggering tones, without much success. Frustrated with analog equipment, Zinovieff purchased an American-made DEC PDP-8/S, the same kind of minicomputer used by industry in business and scientific applications. It was one of the first such computers in a private residence and cost roughly as much as a small house. He and Cockerell wrote programs for the computer for editing and sequencing sounds. What they had accomplished was to introduce the computer as a control and memory device for storing and playing sounds. This paralleled similar developments at Bell Labs in the United States and several university computer centers around the world.

The Zinovieff studio became a hive of activity and attracted many visitors, including Robert Moog, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ray Dolby, and British composer Harrison Birtwistle. You can read a more complete history of EMS and Peter Zinovieff in my book, Electronic and Experimental Music.

We are going to listen to several works produced at the private studio of EMS with Zinovieff at the helm. We’ll listen to these in roughly chronological order to give you a sense of Zinovieff’s progression in techniques and style.

Sound sampling is represented in this podcast by the works Agnus Dei, Chronometer, and Raasay Digitised. Note the briefness of the digital samples of the voice due to the limited computer memory available. Then there’s “January Tensions” released in 1968 on the Cybernetic Serendipity Music album released by the ICA. The use of a computer to sequence, analyze, and edit sound is evident in all of these works. I’ve also included a couple of tracks by the progressive group Curved Air, led by Francis Monkman. These were entirely produced in the EMS studio. I’ve also included a flexi-disc that was packaged with Audio Magazine in the UK, produced at EMS studios and featuring examples of synthesized instrumental and other sounds.


1. Peter Zinovieff, “Agnus Dei (Excerpt)” from Electronic Calendar - The EMS Tapes (2015 Space Age Recordings). Early sound sampling, circa 1968. Note the briefness of the digital samples of the voice. 5:33

2. Peter Zinovieff, “January Tensions” from Cybernetic Serendipity Music (1968 ICA). Zinovieff’s notes, from the album: “Computer composed and performed. This piece is very much for computer both in its realization and composition. The rules are straightforward. The computer may begin by improvising slowly on whatever material is firs chooses. However, once the initial choices are made then these must influence the whole of the rest of the composition. The original sounds must occasionally be remembered and illustrated but a more and more rigid structure is imposed on the randomness. The piece was electronically realized and composed in real time by an 8K PDP8/S and electronic music peripherals.” 9:48

3. Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff, “Chronometer” (1975 Argo). "Chronometer", for electronic tape, was composed in 1971, and realized by Peter Zinovieff at EMS Putney. From the liner notes: “Chronometer is entirely made up from the sounds of clock mechanisms which have been computer-analyzed and regenerated onto 8 tracks (reduced in this recording to two.)” Air and contact microphones were used to collect sounds from widely different sources, Big Ben being a primary one. The program used to reinterpret the graphic and numerical music score was MUSYS by EMS. 24:19

4. Audio Past Present & Future - Presented with Audio Magazine (1972, IPC Magazines flexi-disc). A flexi-disc narrated by Richard Baker that was produced in EMS studios and includes a snipper of “A Lollipop for Papa” by Peter Zinovieff, various synthesized instrumental examples, and an excerpt of “Ultra-Vivaldi” by Francis Monkman of Curved Air. 6:48

5. Curved Air, “Ultra-Vivaldi” from Phantasmagoria (1972 Warner Brothers). Francis Monkman playing the EMS Synthi 100. Recorded at EMS studios. 1:31

6. Curved Air, “Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway” from Phantasmagoria (1972 Warner Brothers). Francis Monkman playing the EMS Synthi 100. Recorded at EMS studios. This track consists of tapes of Sonja's voice analyzed and processed by a PDP8/L computer and a Synthi 100 synthesizer. The final tapes were edited and prepared for performance by Francis Monkman and Robert Carvell. This is a good example of sound sampling that is more advanced than heard on the earlier track, “Agnus Dei.” 3:31

7. Peter Zinovieff, “A Lollipop For Papa” from Electronic Calendar - The EMS Tapes (2015 Space Age Recordings). From 1974. 6:26

8. Peter Zinovieff, “Raasay Digitised” from Electronic Calendar - The EMS Tapes (2015 Space Age Recordings). Even more voice sampling, blended deftly with electronic sounds. Circa 1975. 2:20

9. Peter Zinovieff, “Now’s The Time To Say Goodbye” from Electronic Calendar - The EMS Tapes (2015 Space Age Recordings). . Circa 1975. 4:11

Background music:

  • Peter Zinovieff and Alan Sutcliffe, “ZASP Parts 1 To 3” from Electronic Calendar - The EMS Tapes (2015 Space Age Recordings). A more sophisticated example of early music programming by Alan Sutcliffe using a Dutch computer, the ICL 1905 made by International Computers Limited (ICL). 5:11

[i] What the Future Sounded Like, South Australia Film Corporation television program, Porthmeor Productions (2006).

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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