The EMS Synthi 100 was a large analogue/digital hybrid synthesizer made by Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd. The ground-breaking analogue and digital engineering was designed by David Cockerell and documented in detail in 1971. The cost at that time was £6,500. The last unit built by EMS was number 30 (as there were only 30 units produced.) 

SYNTHI-100

Developed from an initial concept of three VCS3 systems. The analogue modules alone look more like six VCS3’s. Add the 256 digital sequencer circuit cards and the card count is 85 (28 times larger than a VCS3 by circuit board count), with 12 VCO’s and eight VCF’s Two monophonic keyboards (both keyboards together produce four control voltages and two key triggers simultaneously). The digital sequencer has three (duophonic) layers, 10,000 clock events and 256 duophonic note events. Two 60 × 60 matrixes were used to connect the different modules by using patch pins. The keyboard spread could be adjusted, making it easy to play a tuned equal temperament scale as well as alternative microtonal tunings up to 61 divisions of each semitone.

The Synthi-100 was developed a few years after the first VCS3’s. Both filters and oscillators were much more stable in the Synthi-100. There is an oscillator sync function that can sync the 12 main oscillators to each another or from an external source.

The Synthi 100 also had an add-on computer interface known as “Computer Synthi” which contained a PDP-8 minicomputer and 4Kb of random access memory. It featured an LEDdisplay, twin digital cassettes, Two 24 × 60 matrix patchboards, and a switch button control panel. Only three were sold.

Also the Vocoder 5000 (Studio Vocoder) was available as a separate module installed into the Synthi 100. It contained a 22 band filter, 22 × 22 matrix patchboard, mic/line inputs, two oscillatorsand noise sources, frequency shifter, pitch to voltage extractor, and a spectrum display driver. The first one to be used in the USA was purchased by Stevie Wonder

In September 2016 Engineers Australia awarded an Engineering Heritage Marker to a Synthi 100 that had been restored at Melbourne University.

People who use the Synthi 100

The Synthi 100 owned by Jack Dangers can be heard being used extensively on electronica group Meat Beat Manifesto‘s album R.U.O.K.?. Many photos from that album’s CD sleeve are close-up photos of the Synthi 100’s control panels and displays. It was claimed that his unit was the only one still in working condition at that time.

A Synthi 100 (formally from Melodia Radio) is on display at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada. Until recently The Music Department of the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, Canada, also possessed a Synthi 100.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop already had an informal relationship with EMS which went back as far back as 1964 and were familiar with products being developed. They took delivery of an EMS Synthi 100 modular system in 1970 which had been modified to BBC specifications, dubbing it the “Delaware”, after the name of the road outside the studio. Their composer Malcolm Clarke was one of its most enthusiastic users. One of the more notable scores he produced with the Synthi 100 was the incidental music for the 1972 Doctor Who serial The Sea Devils.

The first classical electronic music LP album generated exclusively on the Synthi 100 was released by Composers Recordings, Inc. in 1975. Called “American Contemporary-Electronic Music” (CRI SD 335), it featured full LP side lengths of music from Barton McLean (Spirals) and Priscilla McLean (Dance of Dawn).

The WDR Electronic Music Studio ordered a Synthi 100 in 1973, and it was delivered the next year It was used by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Sirius (1975–77), by Rolf Gehlhaar for Fünf deutsche Tänze (1975), by John McGuire for Pulse Music III (1978), and by York Höller for Mythos for 13 instruments, percussion, and electronic sounds (1979–80).

Billy Corgan, longtime frontman of The Smashing Pumpkins, is also reported to own one.

EMS Synthi 200

The University of Osnabrück, Germany, has a Synthi 100 variant labelled “Synthi 200” (since 1981). The same variant was bought in 1973 by the Bulgarian National Radio for the electronic music studio of Simo Lazarov.

IPEM, the musicology research center and former electroacoustic music production studio of Ghent University also owns a restored and working Synthi 100. It was acquired in the mid 1970s. Recently it was used by Soulwax, an electronic music band.

In 2017, Yoshio Machida and Constantin Papageorgiadis released an album “Music from the SYNTHI 100”. This album was made with IPEM’s SYNTHI 100.

Eduard Artemyev, Yuri Bogdanov and Vladimir Martynov used the Synthi 100 owned by Soviet label “Melodia” for their record “Metamorphoses – Electronic interpretations of classic and modern musical works”. Also Lithuanian composer Giedrius Kuprevičius for their rock-oratorio “Labour and Bread” (1978) and Estonian composer Sven Grünberg for the soundtrack of Hukkunud Alpinisti hotell (Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel) (1979) as mentioned in the title sequence of the movie.

Wolfgang Dauner has extensively used a Synthi 100, e.g., on his Album Changes (1978).

A Synthi 100, owned by the Greek Contemporary Music Research Center, was restored and exhibited in Athens Conservatoire as part of the Documenta 14 in 2017.

A Synthi 100 has been part of Radio Belgrade’s Electronic Studio since the 1970s, but was in a non-functional state for the 15 years leading up to October 4, 2017, when it was restored.

Global Access

As part of our Global Access project, we are creating an online editor for our Synthi 100. Below is an example of our user interface design. We are keeping it as close as possible to the original instrument.

SYNTHI 100 WEB UI (FILTER)

SYNTHI 100 WEB UI (OSCILLATOR)

R10 Synthi 100 heritage project

IMG_3267Krafthaus Arts CIC were successful in gaining a Heritage lottery grant for the acquisition of one of the last remaining EMS Synthi 100s in the UK. The incredibly rare  synthesiser was originally commissioned for the BBC Radiophonc workshop in 1970. From 1971, 28 EMS Synthi 100s were built and distributed around the world. Currently there are only a handful of working models, all in private studios or universities.

The EMS Synthi 100 at R10 is currently undergoing a complete internal restoration and rigours service to make sure this ultra complex machine will be working for many years to come. The end goal is that the EMS Synthi 100 will be at the centre of our heritage studio facility, incorporating and preserving music technology techniques and practices through workshops, talks, concerts and documented output from the R10 collective, invited guests and the wider electronic music community.

The EMS Synthi 100 and ten innovative records it helped define

A guide to the sound of the mythical analogue synthesizer, from the late ’60s to the modern day.

A certain mystique surrounds the EMS Synthi 100. Approximately thirty of these complex systems were made, but of that modest number, most were (and still are) owned by renowned musicians and recording studios. Among the diverse class of creative minds who set about taming this groundbreaking synth were the teams at Radio Beograda and the BBC Radiophonic workshop, the jazz pianist Wolfgang Dauner and the Swiss producer Bruno Spoerri.

The Synthi 100 was EMS’ second major project after the VCS3 monophonic synth, and was unusual in that it was created according to the budget and requirements of Radio Beograda, who commissioned it for their Elektronski Studio. Peter Zinovieff, one of three remarkable minds behind EMS, worked with Belgrade-based composer Paul Pignon and a small team of designers to refine the initial design, while the BBC Radiophonic Workshop also provided input on the final specs.

Zinovieff was one of only a few British composers and innovators championing electronic music as an artform, and developing technologies for its means during the mid-sixties. His early inventions with Tristram Cary and David Cockerell were guided by what he — as a musician and engineer — wished had been available on the music market.

Although the idea didn’t exist at the time, the Synthi 100 was, in some ways, a prototypical digital audio workstation: a system that enabled the user to generate, sculpt, sequence and playback electronic sound. Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic workshop demonstrated those capabilities in a fascinating 1979 documentary. As Frances Morgan wrote for Fylkingen, “the marketing of the Synthi 100 portrayed it not so much as an instrument but as a studio in itself: an entire working environment.”

Using the Synthi 100 wasn’t something you could simply ‘pick up’. The Harry Roche Constellation used one for less than twenty seconds on their 1973 record Spiral, but still required EMS sales demonstrators John Holbrook and Robin Wood to program it. As such, its users were somewhat self-selective, and only those with an inquisitive nature, or willingness to grapple with the technology, were able to utilise the machine. Here are ten records that showcase its boundless sound palette, and the music it has helped to realise.


Curved Air
Phantasmagoria
(Warner Bros. records, 1972)

Listen / Buy

A Synthi 100 was installed at EMS’ own London studio from the outset. Having used the VCS3 on Second Album, Curved Air keyboardist Francis Monkman was clearly itching to work with the next piece of EMS technology. He recorded two tracks for Phantasmagoria with the EMS team who would’ve helped to ensure he got the best out of it. On ‘Ultra-Vivaldi’, an interlude which concludes the first side of the record, we hear a Synthi-generated bassline, keyboard melody and modulated string synth line playing in unison. Monkman accelerates the ‘clockrate’ (a kind of master tempo dial) towards the end of the track, taking the sequenced parts up to a superhuman speed. On ‘Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway?’, he uses the Synthi 100 alongside a PDP-8 computer to process spoken word and program dissonant tones. The bold tracks are completely at odds with the rest of the record, and could not have come into being without the synthesizer and computer combo.


BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Fourth Dimension
(BBC records, 1973)

Listen / Buy

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was the second institution to order a Synthi 100, and Fourth Dimensionwas the first commercially released Radiophonic LP following its installation at Maida Vale. The synth had already stamped its mark on the Radiophonic’s soundtrack and foley effects work, and Paddy Kingsland was one of the chief composers using it for theme tune work too. Many of the tracks on Fourth Dimension are light and spirited theme tunes – upon which the VCS3 and Synthi 100 stick out like a sore thumb. But, as Kingsland reminded VF in 2014, the workshop composers worked to briefs and strict deadlines, servicing the programmes with songs and accompanied sound design. Despite that, they were able to create some of the most innovative synthesized textures and music set to record in that era.


Radovanović, Pignon, Devčić, Kalčič
Elektronski Studio Radio Beograda
(PGP RTB, 1975)

Listen / Buy

They may have been heavily involved in the design of the Synthi 100, but Radio Beograda’s ‘third program’ took delivery of model number 4 rather than number 1. Installed in 1971, those working at the station took their time acquainting themselves with the new apparatus, developing a manual for the Synthi 100 and incorporating it into the studio workflow. By 1972, Paul Pignon completed his ‘Hardware Performance’ composition using the Synthi 100, before Vladan Radovanović made a similarly avant-garde composition called ‘Electra’ in 1974. Both pieces exceed ten minutes, and showcased the tonal variation that the synth could achieve. Presets couldn’t be programmed, but the composer could position matrix pins (resistors that routed signal and control voltages to different modules) without fully inserting them, so that textural changes could be made at certain points during a recital or spontaneous composition. Techniques such as these, combined with an adventurous approach and great engineering knowledge, resulted in astonishing experimental synth works.


Bruno Spoerri
Voice Of Taurus
(Gold records, 1978)

Listen / Buy

In the hands of Bruno Spoerri, the Synthi 100 got cool! Although he is said to have been inspired by classical synth pioneers like Wendy Carlos, the Swiss composer created tracks with solid backbeats, pop arrangements and jazz-funk suave. Titles like ‘Galactic Acid’, ‘Space Cantata’ and ‘Cosmotoxology’ indicated his cosmic ambition, but also suggested an awareness of fresh and emerging genres like cosmic disco. Spoerri is a true outlier: he produced and engineered his own studio sessions for Voice of Taurus, recruiting Swiss jazz drummers to play on the record, and processing alto saxophone through EMS’ pitch-to-voltage converter, and random generator. Few others approached contemporary disco and funk with the same level of experimental flair.


Stockhausen
Sirius
(Deutsche Grammophon, 1980)

Listen / Buy

Between 1975 and 1977, the renowned sound designer and composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen used the Synthi 100 to create the electronic components of his music-theatre piece, Sirius. Music that he created could be performed by itself, without the four soloists the score also accommodates. The melodies Stockhausen composed correspond to the play’s four central characters – just one way his musical decisions were informed by the medium he was composing for. The resulting compositions bring together dialogue, synthesized and acoustic sound – a beguiling combination that is not unlike the theatre work of Harry Partch, with the Synthi 100 taking the place of Partch’s bespoke acoustic instrumentation.


Eduard Artemyev
Metamorphoses
(Мелодия/Melodiya, 1980)

Listen / Buy

Metamorphoses is to the Synthi 100 what Switched on Bach is to the Moog IIIp. Rather than exploring the Bach songbook, composer Eduard Artemyev opted to make “electronic interpretations of classical and modern musical works”. He turned to Russian contemporaries such as the serialist Vladimir Martynov, European composers such as Debussy, and early 20th century Russian Sergei Prokofiev. The Synthi 100 that Artemyev, his studio collaborator Yuri Bogdanov, and Vladimir Martynov used, was installed at one of Melodiya’s Moscow studios. Its purchase was purportedly authorised by Alexei Kosygin, then chairman of the Soviet council of ministers. It’s unclear if state ownership had any influence on the musical direction of Metamorphoses, but the record is a diverse and enthralling collection, with closer ‘Motion’ and Martynov’s ‘Spring Etude’ both outstanding examples.


The Putney
The Putney II 
(Fax +49-69/450464 records, 1995)

Listen / Buy

The Putney comprised of Ludwig Rehberg (a German distributor and sound designer who began working with EMS in German-speaking territories and once invested in its future), and the late producer and composer Pete Namlook. Also known as Peter Kuhlmann, Namlook founded his Fax label in 1992, and produced electronic music prolifically, drawing inspiration from Klaus Schulze among others. Working with Rehberg enabled the synth enthusiasts to take his experimentation up a notch. Peter described their 1995 record as “very experimental uncommon environmental ‘Krautrock’” and it is one of the definitive releases of his label’s ‘second phase’.


Meat Beat Manifesto
R.U.O.K.?
(Quartermass/Flexidisc, 2002)

Listen / Buy

By the time Jack Dangers came to use the Synthi 100, approaches to composition had drastically changed. Samplers, DAW’s, and MIDI control had blown the process wide open, with club and dance-orientated styles of music made in completely different ways to those of Paul Pignon and BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In light of that, R.U.O.K.? implements the Synthi 100 within a downtempo/breakbeat context. The synth’s sounds are sequenced alongside beats, samples, scratching and breaks – proving that its tones lent themselves to all manner of musical styles.


Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
The Kid
(Western Vinyl, 2017)

Listen / Buy

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith uses a wide range of synths on The Kid, but the track ‘Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am’ represents a ‘a single take without overdubs’ on the Synthi 100. She programs piercing tweets over pulsing suspended chords, the oscillators gradually shifting the synchronicity within the track’s pads. You can hear the contrast between the sound she achieves on this track and other pieces on the album, which make use of more contemporary modular synthesizers and vocals.


Yoshio Machida & Constantin Papageorgiadis
Music from the Synthi 100
(Amorfon, 2017)

Listen / Buy

Music from the Synthi 100 suggests that a love affair between the synth and today’s electronic producers continues. The Japanese and Belgian composers convened at Ghent University to create this album, which is entirely improvised, and exclusively features the sound of the Synthi 100. The pair also provide detailed insight into how they created the music, opting not to use a keyboard to trigger sounds, instead working side-by-side to shape and re-route the audio simultaneously. A crisp and well produced recording, it is perhaps the best recorded example of the Synthi 100’s sound capabilities.

EMS Synthi Models

Electronic Music Studios (EMS) Synthi A

EMS SynthiA Portabella

EMS SynthiA Image

Synthi A

The Synthi A and Synthi AKS models are virtually the same electronic instrument as the EMS VCS3, except that the Synthi models are housed in a thin plastic briefcase for easy portability. The Synthi A was also commonly known as the “Portabella”. The AKS model (pictured below) adds a 256-step on-board monophonic digital sequencer and a 30-note touchplate keyboard (activated by the 50 Hz-hum in our fingers).

Like the VCS3, the Synthi A and AKS feature three oscillators and a unique patch system. Instead of patch wires, they use a patchbay grid wherein the synth components are laid out and signal routing is accomplished by placing small pins into the appropriate slots. The VCS3/Synthi was, in actuality, a modular type synthesizer reduced down to an extremely portable size.

EMS SynthiAKS

Synthi AKS

They are famous for their ability to generate those familiar sci-fi sounds (Dr. Who) and other uniquely analog sounds. After ten minutes of warm-up the oscillators become pretty stable. There’s a Noise Generator, two Input Amplifiers, one Ring Modulator, one Voltage Controlled Low Pass Filter (VCF), one Trapezoid Envelope Generator, a Joy-Stick Controller, a Voltage Controlled Spring Reverb unit and two Stereo Output Amplifiers.

What is important about the portable line of EMS synths is that they were super miniaturized and fairly sophisticated for their time. The patching grid system made patching easier, and allowed the unit to take up a lot less space. The Synthi A was released in 1971, two years after the launch of the VCS3 (The AKS came out in 1972). It should be noted that the case mounting of the AKS can be very precarious. The mounting is prone to fail, and therefore any used units should be examined carefully to see if this common problem exists before buying.

EMS Synthi100

Synthi 100

EMS also produced the monsterous Synthi 100 in 1971. It is loosely based around the combination of three VCS3 systems into one massive synthesizer. Although the circuit boards are unique and somewhat different, the filters are still quite similar to those of the VCS3 and A/AKS. The sound of the Synthi 100 was subtly distinct from the VCS3. Both filters and oscillators were much more stable in the Synthi 100. It featured twelve VCOs, two keyboards and a 3-track, 256-step monophonic digital sequencer. EMS really was an early pioneer of digital sequencers in a time when such devices as Moog’s analog 10-step sequencer were the more popular norm. The Synth 100 also featured two massive 64 x 64 patch matrices. Approximately 29 Synthi 100 systems were built in the 1970s and early 80s, although EMS still states that you can have one built as a special order. It sold for $25,000 originally, and probably still does today. Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifestoowns one which he used heavily on his album, “R.U.O.K?”.

EMS Synthi E

Synthi E

The Synthi E is an educational form of the Synthi that had a complete teaching course built around it for use in colleges and schools. It was intended as a teaching aid into the principles of sound synthesis and electronic music. Small, housed in a brief-case and battery powered, the Synthi E was perfect for the student or teacher on the go! Simple as it may appear, it actually has some sophistiated features:

  • Input Amplifier with low (Microphone) and high (line) level inputs.
  • Envelope Follower providing a voltage proportional to the amplitude of the input.
  • Oscillator 1 with true exponential voltage control of frequency and three simultaneous output waveforms (sine, triangle and voltage controlled pulse).
  • Oscillator 2 for slow control voltages such as glissando or vibrato.
  • Filter/Oscillator 3 with v.c. low, high and band pass filter or pure sine wave.
  • Modulator for envelope shaping or ring modulation. Noise Generator.
  • Trapezoid Generator for multiple simultaneous trapezoid waveforms. These may be used for envelope shaping (trigger mode) or for low frequency waveforms (free run mode).
  • Manual-Slide tape Controllers (2) for obtaining control voltages. One slide-tape is stepped and may be used as a keyboard and the other for variable control. One provides a trigger pulse. Both may be temporarily marked or written on.
  • Inverter to invert control voltages or signals.
  • Monitor Amplifier and Loudspeaker with two input mixer faders.
  • A 3-octave keyboard for controlling the Synthi E is available. This unit is a mechanical keyboard which plugs into the Synthi E. It provides the correct pitch voltage and trigger signal for the Trapezoid Generator. A switch on the Synthi E selects internal or external keyboard operation.

Many of these EMS synth’s have been used by Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Stereolab, Yes, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Jean-Michel Jarre, Astral Projection, Vince Clarke, The Who, Todd Rundgren, Recoil, Freddy Fresh, Ultravox and many more.