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The VCS 3 (or VCS3; an initialism for Voltage Controlled Studio, version #3) is a portable analog synthesiser with a flexible semi-modular voice architecture, by Electronic Music Studios (London) Limited (EMS) in 1969.[# 1]
Note this product was called with various names, by EMS. For example, the printed logo written to the front left of products are: “V.C.S. 3” or “The Putney (VCS 3)” on the earlier version, then “The Synthi (VCS 3) II” on the later version (Synthi VCS 3 II).[# 2] (See details on below photographs)
It was created in 1969 by Peter Zinovieff's EMS company. The electronics were largely designed by David Cockerell and the machine's distinctive visual appearance was the work of electronic composer Tristram Cary. The VCS3 was more or less the first portable commercially available synthesizer—portable in the sense that the VCS 3 was housed entirely in a small, wooden case, unlike previous machines from American manufacturers such as Moog Music, ARP and Buchla which were housed in large cabinets and were known to take up entire rooms.
Significantly, it retailed for just under £330 in 1969 in the UK. Allegedly, many people (including the synthesizer enthusiast Gordon Reid in his articles on the EMS company for Sound on Sound magazine in 2000 ) considered it to be somewhat hopeless as a melodic instrument due to its inherent instability. This was a common attitude, due to the then-current electronic method of exponential conversion of voltage to oscillator frequency, and this included Moog synthesizers; however, the VCS 3 is renowned as an extremely powerful generator of electronic effects and processor of external sounds [according to whom?].
Artists looking to evoke a quaint, synthesised sound began to make the VCS 3 popular, and thus, prices for the synthesizer climbed much higher than the original asking price.[note 1]
The first album to be recorded using only the VCS 3 was "The Unusual Classical Synthesizer" on Westminster Gold.
The VCS3 was quite popular among progressive rock bands and was used on recordings by The Alan Parsons Project, Jean Michel Jarre, Hawkwind, Brian Eno (with Roxy Music), King Crimson, The Who, Gong, and Pink Floyd, among many others. Well-known examples of its use are on The Who track "Won't Get Fooled Again" (as an external sound processor, in this case with Pete Townshend running the signal of a Lowrey Organ through the VCS3's filter and low frequency oscillators) on Who's Next. Pink Floyd's "On the Run" (from The Dark Side of the Moon) made use of its oscillators, filter and noise generator, as well as the sequencer. Their song Welcome to the Machine also used the VCS 3. The bassy throb at the beginning of the recording formed the foundation of the song, with the other parts being recorded in response.
The VCS3 has three oscillators (in reality, the first 2 oscillators are normal oscillators and the 3rd an LFO or Low Frequency Oscillator), a noise generator, two input amplifiers, a ring modulator, a 18dB/octave (pre-1974) or 24dB/octave (after 1974) voltage controlled low pass filter (VCF), a trapezoid envelope generator, joy-stick controller, voltage controlled spring reverb unit and 2 stereo output amplifiers. Unlike most modular synthesiser systems which use cables to link components together, the VCS3 uses a distinctive patch board matrix into which pins are inserted in order to connect its components together.
Although the VCS3 is often used for generating sound effects due to lack of built-in keyboard, there were external keyboard controllers for melodic play. The DK1 in 1969 was an early velocity sensitive monophonic keyboard for VCS3 with an extra VCO and VCA.[# 3] Later it was extended for duophonic play, as DK2, in 1972.[# 4] Also in 1972, Synthi AKS was released, and its digital sequencer with a touch-sensitive flat keyboard, KS sequencer,[# 5] and its mechanical keyboard version, DKS,[# 6] were also released.
The VCS3's basic design was reused by EMS in many other of their own products, most notably in the EMS Synthi 100 (1971),[# 7] and the Synthi A (1971)[# 8] and AKS (1972) (essentially a VCS3 housed in a plastic briefcase). The AKS also has a sequencer built into the keyboard in the lid.[# 9]
Also an earlier agent of EMS in the United States, Ionic Industries in the Morristown, New Jersey, have released portable-keyboard version of VCS3 clone. The Ionic Performer in 1973 was designed based on VCS3's circuit, replaced patch board matrix with over hundred of push-buttons, and added built-in keyboard and effects units.
The original VCS No.1 was a hand-built rackmount unit with two oscillators, one filter and one envelope designed by Cockerell before the formation of EMS. When a benefactor, Don Banks, asked Zinovieff for a synthesiser, Zinovieff and Cockerell decided to work together on building an instrument that was small, portable, but very powerful and flexible. Thus came the VCS3, an entire new class of musical instrument.
A modified EMS VCS3 is presented as the "Harrington 1200" automatic song-writing machine in the "Music" episode of the British comedy Look Around You.
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