Inside the Collection

Beginning Electronic Music- Tristram Cary part 3

see parts one and two of this blog post

In 1965 Moog and the American composer, Eric Siday, conceived a single package which would contain versions of the many different devices used in the studio.[1] Moog then assembled these into a modular system containing several voltage controlled oscillators, voltage controlled filters, envelope generators and voltage controlled amplifiers in a single package. As I mentioned in Part 1, until this time most electronic music had been produced within workshop-style studios using an assemblage of electronic test equipment (function generators and filters and the like) and hand built special purpose devices. What Moog did was to build the first ‘synthesiser’, which he began selling in America. However they were very expensive in Britain and were out of reach of most composers in Britain at the time.

One of these was the Australian composer Don Banks. He was resident in London in the 1960s, a friend of Cary’s and also wrote film music. He got interested in electronic music and, in 1968, went to see Cary and Zinovieff, asking them to make him a small voltage controlled synthesiser for £50. With Cockerell as the main electronic designer, they mapped out how to build what became the VCS1,[2] of which three were built. One of those three is in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum [H9953-13].

By 1969 they had established the company Electronic Music Studios (EMS) and began marketing the VCS3 (a larger version of the VCS1) with 3 VCOs, a VCFilter, an envelope generator and other interesting modules. Again the electronics were designed by David Cockerell, the case was designed by Cary and the whole project was supported by Zinovieff. Apart from its small size the most interesting aspect of the VCS3 as against the American synthesisers of the period was that it used a small plug settable patching matrix to connect the outputs of sources to inputs for control of audio waveforms.

The VCS3 was a revolution. Here was a cheap modular synthesiser built into a conveniently organised box with a set of useful sound sources and modulators, a push-pin patching system (which meant no cables all over the work surface), and a joystick that could be patched to sweep the oscillators or the filter or pan the sound between channels. EMS sold it into educational institutions and many of the bands of the time took an interest. Pink Floyd made several of their records (e.g., Meddle, Obscured by Clouds and Dark Side of the Moon) with its aid.

Cary wrote the manual and had a couple of them in his studio. In its earliest incarnations it did not have a keyboard and it wasn’t really designed for keyboard music. The VCS3 had one other special advantage, apart from being comparatively cheap, and that was its stereo input channel which meant that other sounds could be processed with it. Musician Robert Fripp used the VCS3 with his band King Crimson and he used the input channel to process his guitar on his collaboration with Brian Eno, No Pussyfooting.[3]

Three VCS3s in Cary's Fressingfield studio
Three VCS3s in Cary’s Fressingfield studio. The furthest one is the prototype; the two nearest the camera are standard versions.

EMS then built a brief-case housed version of their VCS3 which became the Synthi A. David Cockerell designed a digital sequencer that was used in the sequencer version of the Synthi A known as the Synthi AKS because it had a touch panel keyboard and the sequencer in the cover of the brief case. Cary also has a very interesting sequencer in his collection of electronic instruments [2009/83/10], though it was possibly designed and built in Australia.

EMS also built a large synthesiser known as the Synthi 100. It had twelve VCOs of differing frequency ranges, eight VCFilters, three ring modulators, a 256 step digital sequencer, a pair of 60 x 60 pin Matrix patch panels, eight output amplifiers and eight input amplifiers.[4] It was designed to be computer controlled and one lived in Zinovieff’s studio in London patched up to the PDP8s which were operated by a program called MUSYS. Two are known to have come to Australia; one to the Music Department at the University of Melbourne and one to the University of Queensland.

Cary was invited to Melbourne in 1973 to show the staff at Melbourne University how to drive their newly acquired Synthi 100. He visited in August and found he had also been booked to present a number of lectures at various venues across the country. The result of this was that in 1974 he was invited to take up the position of Visiting Composer at Adelaide University and was then offered a permanent teaching role. He moved to Australia, shipping the Fressingfield studio.

Cary in his Fressingfield studio, with a score
Cary in his Fressingfield studio, with a score.

His last project before leaving the UK was his Divertimento (1973) for Olivetti machines, 16 singers and jazz drummer. It was commissioned by Olivetti for the opening of a training facility in Britain. The sounds of the Olivetti machines, from typewriters to computers were recorded in their showroom and then digitally processed at EMS.[5]

On arrival in Adelaide he established a teaching studio in the Elder Conservatorium at the University of Adelaide and also re-established his working studio in his home, which included much of the equipment from Fressingfield.[6] He brought out his VCS3s (now in the electronic music studio at Adelaide University) and at least some of the earlier hand built instruments including the VCO, the envelope shaper, an 8-octave filter bank. He also appears to have continued developing his own pieces of equipment, for example a digital sequencer which was built from packaging brought over from the UK was probably constructed in 1976 [PHM: 2009/83/10]. Having been part of the computer controlled synthesis project that was the real purpose of EMS in London, while at Adelaide Cary returned to his interest in computer music. He began teaching a course in digital synthesis and computing techniques around 1974, which became the Computer Music Studies course in 1980.[7] In 1978 the Conservatorium purchased a Synclavier for the electronic music studio and Cary began producing works in computer music around 1979 while visiting Stanford University but his main body of computer work was done in Adelaide. Cary retired from the University in 1986 but kept on making his music. He died in Adelaide in 2008.

I shall discuss in more detail some of the pieces of electronic music equipment mentioned in this short series in further episodes.

[1] Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, Analog Days: The invention and impact of the Moog synthesizer, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002, p.56.

[2] Andrew Ford, “Interview with Tristram Cary,” for the ABC Music Show. Available at

[3] Pinch and Trocco, Analog Days: pp.293-4.


[5] Kaye R. Fitton, Tristram Cary: Pioneer of Electronic Music in England, Masters of Music Thesis, Adelaide: University of Adelaide, 1983 (University of Adelaide Library – AV 09MU.M, F547 c.2/1-3).

[6] Tristram Cary, Illustrated Compendium of Musical Technology, London: Faber & Faber, 1992, pp.xxviii-xvix.

[7] Ray White (2004). BBC Radiophonic Workshop: An Engineering Perspective, chapter 2 []

3 responses to “Beginning Electronic Music- Tristram Cary part 3

  • Fascinating history of Tristram Cary & EMS studios.

    The Synthi 100 housed at the Physics Department, University of Queensland, was bought by my friend Ben Lancini in Brisbane circa 1980 – it had been stored in a stairwell, when the department acquired a Fairlight Series 1.

    We used this machine for several years in Ben’s studio, although it needed a great deal of maintenance work and was complex – and of course it had that (unreliable) sequencer. If the power went off all the oscilators had to be individually retuned. Luckily there was a numeric frequency counter (plus oscilloscope) on board.

    Ben later sold the machine on to another enthusiast, who I believe sold it to a US museum in the late 90’s.


    • The instrument for a time resided at Ascot House in a hallway at Newmarket Street, Newtown for a while with Ben and Jenny.

  • Hi Pete,
    Interesting, I’d heard of the existence of this machine when I lived in Brisbane in the 90’s. I worked in the UofQ Physics dept. at the time but a musician I met mentioned “a drummer” owning the Synthi 100.

    I’d always wondered if it was still in Australia or where it went. It would be nice to know which museum it went to & if it was serviced & in use. Probably not 🙁

    Thanks for the information.


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