Tag Archives: Wonderful Things

Wonderful Things: VCS3 Synthesiser

Stella Williams from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects

The VCS3 was more or less the first portable commercially available synthesizer, unlike previous machines which were housed in large cabinets and were known to take up entire rooms. It was created in 1969 by EMS (Electronic Music Studios), a company founded by Peter Zinovieff. The team at EMS used a combination of computer programming knowledge, advanced engineering and musical ambition to create a brand new instrument for all to use. The electronics were largely designed by David Cockrell and the machine’s distinctive visual appearance was the work of electronic composer Tristram Cary.

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

The VCS3 was notoriously difficult to program but, a year before the appearance of the Minimoog and ARP2600, it brought synthesis within the reach of the public. It sold for £330 and became very popular in a short space of time. By the mid ’70s, the VCS3 (and its little brother, the suitcase-bound model AKS) had become something of a classic and was used by many famous bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who and Roxy Music.

This unique instrument allowed musicians to experiment with a range of new sounds never before available to them. Along with other early synthesisers it came to shape ‘the sound of the future’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and with further developments came the drum machines of the ‘80s setting the foundation for electronic dance music. Much of the music we take for granted today would not be possible without the pioneering work of groups like EMS and as long as there are developments in technology, there will always be people applying these innovations to music. Inventor Steve Mann has developed many interesting instruments such as the hydraulophone which uses pressurised water to make sounds, while artist and scientist Ariel Garten uses an electroencephalophone to turn brainwaves into music.

What sort of instrument do you think will make the sound of our future?

The VCS3 Synthesiser can be found in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition, on the second floor of the Science Museum.