Zoë Blade's notebook


VCS3 tech specs

  • Released: 1969[1]
  • Company: EMS
  • Type: Semi-modular synthesiser
  • Polyphony: Monophonic
  • Timbrality: Monotimbral
  • Control: 0.32V/Oct CV & V-trig gate[2][3]
  • Features: Matrix patchbay; joystick; spring reverb

The VCS3 (short for Voltage Controlled Studio Model 3,[4][5] and originally nicknamed The Putney) was a semi-modular synthesiser released by EMS in 1969.

Overall, this is a very distinctive synthesiser. The oscillators can easily be carefully fine-tuned with caliper-style geared dials reminiscent of cracking a safe. The envelope generator is of the trapezoid variety, much like on West Coast modular synthesisers. There's also a joystick for controlling any two parameters you'd like.

The pin matrix is smaller and neater than a mess of patch cables, although personally I find the latter more intuitive as you can see the connections at a glance. The different coloured patching pins represent different levels of resistance (and therefore different amounts of attenuation, like turning down a dial), a nice touch.

The oscillators are notoriously unstable, and the corresponding keyboard and sequencer are both rare, making this much better suited for sound effects and inharmonic percussion than for melodies. Indeed, it's perhaps most famous for providing many of the sound effects for Dr. Who.

Synthi A

The Synthi A (prototyped as the Portabella), was a portable version shrunken down to fit inside a briefcase. A keyboard was later added, as the Synthi AK, along with a sequencer, as the Synthi AKS.


For me, the EMS VCS3 is one of the best synths ever made because of its matrix board. It allows you to make totally crazy combinations — and the Moog can't do that. But it has the mistakes, like the oscillators drifting.

— Jean-Michel Jarre, 1982[6]

I still like the EMS Synthi. It was my first synthesiser, and gives me some special sounds, although I would never use it for harmonic scales but for bridges. I know it so well that I find I can get a lot from it.

— Klaus Schulze, 1983[7]

It's a superb machine, capable of all sorts of weird sounds.

— Ian Boddy, 1993[8]

I learned that synth so well, it's such a good synth to get when you haven't got much else, so many tricks you can do on them...

— Richard D. James (Aphex Twin), 2014[9]

Saved all my money for it for a long time, one of the first synths I ever bought and I know that machine inside and out, magical piece of equipment, always felt like it was made specially for me.

— Richard D. James (Aphex Twin), 2017[10]

Notable users



Synthi A

Synthi AKS


  1. The A-Z of Analogue Synthesisers, Part One: A-M Peter Forrest, 1998, ISBN 0-9524377-2-4, pp. 124—126
  2. "MIDI to CV" Kenton
  3. "Synthi AKS CV Interface" Digitana Electronics
  4. "The Time Machine" Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott, Electronics & Music Maker, Aug 1986, pp. 30—32
  5. "The Famous Five: Synths" Bass, International Musician & Recording World, Sep 1986, pp. 50—53
  6. "The Concerts In China" Mike Beecher, Electronics & Music Maker, Jun 1982, pp. 6—12
  7. "Klaus Schulze on Composing" Electronics & Music Maker, Mar 1983, pp. 10—14
  8. "Ian Boddy" David Hughes, Sound On Sound, Nov 1993, pp. 130—137
  9. "Aphex Twin SYROBONKERS! Interview Part 2" Dave Noyze, 2014
  10. "Selected Ambient Works Volume II" Richard James, 2017
  11. "Zoo 2000" Dan Goldstein, Electronics & Music Maker, Feb 1985, pp. 42—46
  12. "The French Connection" Sam Hearnton, Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music, Mar 1985, pp. 30—31
  13. "Docklands Rendezvous" David Bradwell, Music Technology, Aug 1988, pp. 26—31
  14. "Sound And Vision" Phil Ward, Music Technology, Aug 1993, pp. 50—54
  15. "Will Gregory: Recording Black Cherry" Nigel Humberstone, Sound On Sound, Jul 2003
  16. "Ambient Techno: Pete Namlook, Mixmaster Morris, Scanner & David Toop" Mark Prendergast, Sound On Sound, Mar 1995
  17. "The Orb" Mark Prendergast, Sound On Sound, May 1993, pp. 28—34
  18. Obsessive Surrealism Parallel Worlds, 2007
  19. Shade Parallel Worlds, 2009
  20. "Parallel Worlds Studio"
  21. "Ronny's Electro-Music Cabaret" Electronics & Music Maker, Jul 1982, pp. 6—11
  22. "'Destroy' Aphex Twin studio photo circa 1993"
  23. "Klaus Schulze" Dennis Emsley, Electronics & Music Maker, Mar 1982, pp. 6—11
  24. "Klaus Schulze" Ben Kettlewell, Sound On Sound, Aug 1987, pp. 8—10
  25. "Klaus Schulze" Mark Prendergast, Sound On Sound, Feb 1993, pp. 64—70
  26. "All Systems Go" Simon Trask, Music Technology, Oct 1991, pp. 36—42
  27. "Electric gypsy" Tim Barr, The Mix, Mar 1995, pp. 88—92
  28. "Future Talk" Simon Trask, Music Technology, Jan 1994, pp. 16—18



Semi-modular synthesisers: 2600 | K-2 | MS-20 | System-100 | VCS3