Thursday, May 25, 2017

The VCS3, a West Coast Syntheszier?

Wendy Carlos’s Switched-on-Bach (1968) popularised the idea of the synthesizer, and along with other early Moog players such as Keith Emerson helped shape the perception of it as a keyboard instrument;  taking a device potentially capable of producing all manner of previously unheard sounds, and turning into it a form of expanded piano/organ. Compounding this was the Moog philosophy, which favours a form of subtractive synthesis, in which the signal chain takes ‘raw’ oscillator waves from a VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator), and then filters them via voltage controlled filer (the VCF) and then amplifies them (VCA) to produce the classic ‘warm’ analogue Moog sound.

Such a linear signal chain, VCO-VCF-VCA which in the form of the Minimoog became predetermined or hard wired, has all but become synonymous with analogue synthesis, and there are numerous variations on the theme, all with their fans and their detractors, often arguing over the merits of their respective filters. Ever since synthesizers produced by Roland, Yamaha, Korg have followed this model with little real variation, making it as easy as possible for the keyboard player to access a small palette of sounds such as, ‘screaming leads’, ‘deep basses’ and so on, but offering little scope for more adventurous sonic experiments.

In contrast the British built VCS3 and the briefcase version the Synthi A, used by many popular artists in the early to mid 1970s including: Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Hawkwind, Jean Michelle Jarre etc, does not come with a built in keyboard (though a separate unit is available), and has a unique pin matrix system that allows great flexibility in terms of patching the various components together. Though the classic Moog chain is possible, it is not predetermined, and the matrix system together with the wide-ranging oscillators, ring modulator, and quirky trapezoid envelope gnerator encourages experimentation. This is indeed how it was initially used – often to provide explicitly electronic sounds rather than imitations of conventional instruments or the classic filter swept Moog sound.

In this way the VCS3 can be aligned with the philosophy of West Coast synthesizers builders such as Buchla and Serge. In the West Coast philosophy one starts with what is called a complex oscillator, whose output is waveshaped rather than filtered to produce different timbres. Early Buchla’s didn't have a filter as such. FM synthesis, and much more sophisticated envelope or slope generators that can be re-triggered and act as a form of LFO, all play a part in the West Coast sound, much favoured by composers such as Morton Subotnick and Suzanne Ciani. Buchla’s were expensive but developed a niche and loyal following, and there was little imperative to try and compete with the success of Moog let alone the Japanese manufacturers who cam along in the late 1970s.

The VCS3 offers many of features of the West Coast synthesizer but in a reduced form. The oscillators' waveshapes can be swept to produce different timbres, but by hand, to access the CV control one needs to modify the standard model. The trapezoid generator can re-trigger but offers less scope than Buchla or Serge envelopes or slope generators. FM synthesis and hard sync are possible, though again the latter requires modification. In short the VCS3 has all the makings and potential of West Coast synthesis, with the added flexibility of the patch matrix, but by comparison is limited in various ways.

Having been taken up enthusiastically by many popular music artists (as per the list above) in the early 1970s and also being found in many UK university studios (such as Goldsmiths and Morley College) and radio stations such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and WDR (Studio für elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks) both of which ordered the large Synthi 100, EMS who produced the VCS3 were initially very successful, but a lack of an either East or West coast philosophy hindered development.

In the mainstream, many bands by the mid 1970s moved away from the VCS3 to the Minimoog, or kept the former as a special FX unit whilst the latter would be used to play lead lines. The more experimental university and radio station studios were not that dissimilar. The Goldsmiths studio was by the late 1970s acquiring a Roland system 100, the Radiophonic workshop added Yamaha equipment.

EMS seemed unsure how to respond, a prototype Synthi P was produced with more stable oscillators and a few refinements, but it never went into production and was neither an answer to the Minimoog, or sufficiently different to the Synthi A such that people would have replaced their existing kit. Had EMS embraced the West Coast philosophy and developed its oscillators and trapezoid generators, allying these with the pin matrix and Zinovieff’s investigation of computer controlled circuits then it could have had a future as Buchla had, instead EMS went bankrupt in 1979.

This was not the end of EMS as after changing hands a number of times Robin Wood a former employee now produces very limited quantities of VCS3s from his Cornwall base. As a compact synthesizer it still offers much greater scope for experimentation than most commercial synths, and the modifications listed above can be added when ordering. Nonetheless the basic oscillator and trapezoid designs are unchanged from the model produced in the 1970s, whereas Buchla continued to develop and expand, inventing new components up to his death, the VCS3 has been frozen in time.  More recently new companies such as Make Noise and Pittsburgh Modular have begun to produce synthesizers that combine elements of East and West Coast philosophies.  The VCS3 matrix routing remains unique, and with enhanced oscillators and digital control, EMS could if so inclined produce a British contemporary synthesizer that was a worthy heir to the VCS3.