I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

EMS: Electro Before There Was a Scene

by Brian Correia
June 5, 2014

Moog gets all the credit. The iconic American company is pretty much synonymous with the synthesizer and the genesis of electronic music as we know it today (despite the fact that few people even know how to pronounce “Moog” correctly). The name pops up fifteen times in the Wikipedia article for "electronic music". But Moog is not the only synthesizer game in town. In fact, all over the Western world, scores of composers and inventors had begun experimenting with electronic music even before the production of the first computer-generated sound in 1957. Perhaps the most important of these composers and inventors were three Englishmen; three unsung heroes whose names pop up exactly zero times in the aforementioned Wikipedia article but whose influence on music, electronic or otherwise, cannot be understated: Dr. Peter Zinovieff, Tristram Cary and David Cockerell, the founders of the London-based Electronic Music Studios (EMS) and inventors of the VCS3 synthesizer.

What the Future Sounded Like is the first of several documentary shorts directed by Matthew Bate. Today, when electronic flourishes from auto-tune to synthesized beats grace the majority of popular music, he has done us a great service by sharing his look at the groundbreaking work of EMS. The engaging interviews are complemented by impressive archival footage, photographs, trippy video montages, and the fascinating electronic musical selections.

After World War II, Britain, along with the rest of the world, was ready for a change -- and a young man named Tristram Cary was no exception. Cary entered the war with dreams of being a classical composer. While serving as a radar operator, Cary had his first experiences with German tape recording equipment and became infatuated. He began to experiment with the alteration of tape in his compositions. This young style of composition was known as musique concrète and is an important precursor to electronic musici. Despite the fact that musique concrète was largely avant-garde, Cary's career as a composer began to take off as he began to incorporate more and more electronic elements into his compositions. Cary's score for the Doctor Who series provided many households' first exposure to electronic music.

Cary teamed up with fellow electronic music enthusiasts Cockerell, a brilliant engineer, and Zinovieff, a who had built his own studio in a shed behind his house. Zinovieff is the real star of the show. It is a mystery as to why he is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other electronic music pioneers. The hardware that Zinovieff and company used was probably the most powerful in the country outside of an academic or military settingii. In fact, one of his primary goals in founding EMS in 1969 was to find a way to pay for it all. One interviewee credits him with “using computers in a way that would become commonplace in the mid-eighties, and he was doing it twenty years earlier with equipment that was large, unwieldy, and not designed for the purpose.” Entire genres of music owe a huge debt to his ambition and vision. In crediting him with creating the first sampler, Cockerell unwittingly points out that even hip-hop owes a great deal to Zinovieff.

What EMS accomplished is all the more impressive considering the musical environment of the time. The sounds they were interested in producing were completely at odds with popular and classical music. There was, of course, no corner of the Internet in which they could hide and build a cult following, as they might today. Rock and roll was king, and the music that their equipment was capable of producing was very far from rock and roll. Despite Cary's success as a composer, the odds seemed to be stacked against them. As you watch the footage of Zinovieff's 1967 computer concert, it is useful to keep in mind that Beatlemania was rampant and Woodstock was only two years away -- that'll help you recognize just how unconventional that performance must have been.

Luckily, EMS struck gold with its design of the first portable synthesizer. It became extremely popular with rock and roll artists, especially those of the progressive persuasion. Known as the VCS3 (short for Voltage Controlled Studio with 3 oscillators), it was employed to great and famous effect on songs such as The Who's “Won't Get Fooled Again” and Pink Floyd's “On the Run.” Among the other artists who used the VCS3 are Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, and Hawkwind (that's Lemmy's first band, metal fans). Lord knows, if Kraftwerk is using your stuff, you've had quite an impact on the world of electronic music. EMS would go on to create many different synthesizer models in its ten year run. However, the VCS3 would remain its most popular model (and still goes for many thousands of dollars on ebayiii.)

From their post-war experimentation to the full-on embrace of synthesizers as musical instruments in the sixties and beyond, the three men of EMS have been able to watch electronic music grow from bleeps and bloops to a full-blown scene, complete with obsessive fans, designer drugs, and a seemingly infinite number of sub-genres. More often than not, EMS is unfairly reduced to a footnote along the lines of “See: Dark Side of the Moon.” Perhaps the short life of the company is to blame for this. Maybe it's just because some other filmmakers got around to making the Moog documentary three years earlier. But make no mistake: Without the three men behind EMS, their unusual ideas, and innovative equipment, electronic music would not be the same.

iii http://bit.ly/lAiuIj


Brian Correia is a budding computer scientist and aspiring writer from Boston, Massachusetts who couldn't decide which hip-hop lyric to put in his byline. The top three, in no particular order, were as follows: “cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” “spiced out Calvin Coolidge loungin' with six duelers,” and “I got techniques drippin' out my buttcheeks.” He is on Twitter (@brianmcorreia) and Tumblr (brianmcorreia.tumblr.com) like the rest of the kids.