March 01, 2010

The EMS Story

The Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd. was formed in 1969 by Dr. Peter Zinovieff to market innovative ideas arising from his private studio and interest in musical applications of computers. Over the next ten years many seminal products were released and many talented designers worked for the company. EMS had its own peculiar brand of British eccentricity which could be both endearing and annoying, but should be viewed in the context of true pioneering. The EMS influence was significant and can be traced into many contemporary products.

It may be difficult for a generation brought up with 32-bit computers and digital signal processors as consumer items to appreciate just how revolutionary Peter Zinovieff's projects were. In the 1960s to have access to a 12-bit computer with 1K of memory outside the academic or military establishment, let alone have two personal ones and then use them for music, was completely unheard of. To have a video screen as well when most people programmed with punched cards was beyond belief. Today there is a huge worldwide market for electronic music equipment, but there is little that was not envisioned by the EMS team before 1970 ten to twenty years ahead of their time.
The demise of EMS has many parallels with that of ARP. Both companies succumbed to the lure of the guitar market, ARP with the Avatar and EMS with the Hi-Fli. Both put a large amount of R&D effort into ambitious projects that were never completed. Had they both stayed within the markets they excelled in history could be quite different. After gearing up to make large quantities of the Hi-Fli, for which there was not actually a corresponding demand, EMS incurred burdening debts. Diversification with the International Voice Movement and falling victims to a financial fraud made the collapse of EMS in 1979 inevitable.

The last version of Zinovieff's Studio in Oxfordshire