Keith Humble’s Optronic Workstation Featuring the EMS VCS-1

How Australian composers fueled the development of an important milestone in electronic music - the creation of the first widely affordable electronic musical instrument

By Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1 Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1 (1967) by Electronic Music Studios LtdMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Keith Humble Optronic Workstation

The Keith Humble Optronic Workstation is one of the most important instruments in the MESS collection due to is rarity and major historical significance.

A Unique Instrument

Not only does it represent the beginnings of electronic music in Melbourne and Australia but it also tells the story of the emergence and development of EMS as one of the first companies in the world to produce and sell electronic musical instruments that were affordable and accessible to the general public.

EMS VCS3 MKI, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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The EMS VCS-3. One of the first electronic instruments sold to the general public for an affordable cost.

This instrument came into the MESS collection from the personal collection of MESS co-founder and director Robin Fox. Robin was given this workstation by engineer Jim Sosin. Jim was Keith Humble’s friend and technician and had worked alongside him for many years. With Keith’s passing in 1995, Jim inherited many of his instruments which he subsequently passed onto Robin. All of these instruments are in the MESS collection.

EMS VCS3 MKII, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, David Cockerell, Tristram Cary, Peter Zinovieff, 1973, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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Synthi A, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, David Cockerell, Gerry Rodgers, 1971, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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A VCS-3 Mk.2 and EMS Synthi A, both formerly owned by Keith Humble and now in the MESS Collection.

Keith Humble (1960/1969) by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Keith Humble

Keith Humble is an incredibly important artist in the story of electronic music in Australia. He was a renowned performer, composer and educator. Keith’s passion for contemporary music drove his foundation of Electronic Music Studio at the Melbourne Universities’ Grainger Centre (now known at the Grainger Museum).

Keith Humble by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

He was also the Foundation Professor of the incredibly influential music school at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Many contemporary Australian composers, performers and sound artists attended courses developed under Keith's innovative curriculum.

Keith Humble (1985) by Kate HodgeMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Both as an artist and educator, Keith (directly or indirectly) influenced an entire generation of Australian electronic music creation.

Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Embodiment

This instrument embodies many of the ideas, emotions and philosophies that drove Keith Humble’s work. Today these ideas remain vibrant and continue to inspire and motivate the creation of new electronic music.

Workstation

This machine is a proto-electronic music workstation and dates from approximately 1970. It was designed to be a self-contained electronic sound workshop for live performance and studio recording projects.

Kristina Kilmova plays a Moog Theremin at MESS (2019) by Ben CareyMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Connection

In many ways, this workstation also captures the essence of what motivated the creation of MESS as a centre for people to come into close physical contact with many of the living and functioning primary sources in our collection. Each of these objects played a role in inspiring the post-war electronic music revolution.

Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Handbuilt

Completely custom and handbuilt, it was developed long before the advent of portable multi-function devices, something we now take for granted with the abundance of computing devices available to sound and music artists.

Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Optronics

The workstation was assembled based on Keith Humble’s direction by engineer and designer Graham Thirkell who applied the brand of his company Optronics (“Optro”) to the instrument. Graham was also a creator of instruments and devices of his own design.

Layout

Let's look at the different sections of the workstation in more detail.

Mixing Section

The instrument features a rudimentary mixing panel. It can accept inputs for 3 microphones, 3 line level devices and one echo effect processor. Each channel has separate level controls for left and right output channels (no need for a panner) as well as a send to the echo effect processor. At the top are master controls for the outputs as well as two VU meters for level monitoring.

Patch Panel

This panel is where all voltage inputs and outputs for all devices in the workstation converge and are available. These voltages could generate sound to be processed and heard or generate control signals for other devices in the workstation. This series of sockets, also called a patch bay, can be used to connect signals between various devices in the instrument. Here an artist can create unique signal pathways based on their ideas.

Interconnection

Everything from basic signal connection through to elaborate behaviours based on composition schemes can be articulated in a “patch”. Even though this patch bay could be seen as simple by today’s standards, the method signal processing and interaction displayed here lies at the heart of all electronic sound artistry. Even this patch pay can be used to create new, complex and provocative sounds.

Mindreader

In the centre of the workstation is the OmniVoila, made in New York by David Rosenboom and William Rouner’s Neurona Company.

Impulse Control

It is designed to take brainwave impulses from an electrode attached to the temple and turn these signals into voltages that can control a synthesiser. The idea was to allow control of sound directly from the mind.

Keyboard Free

Along with this, it is important to note that no piano keyboard is used with this workstation. This is intentional and common to many early synthesisers of this era including the EMS VCS-3. During the 20th century, many artists working with electronic sound saw western-style chromatic tonality as a creative restriction.

New Language

Many electronic music artists desired to create new musical syntaxes by which the could give expression to the complex ideas and emotions generated by the upheaval of two World Wars and the flourishing of countless new and challenging ideas across culture, science, politics, spirituality and so on.

Experimentation

Using brainwaves directly was one experiment in this direction. Brainwave readers are still used in electronic music today, along with countless other non-keyboard means of controlling electronic sound generation. It is this spirit of novel thinking and practical experimentation which we hope to encourage in today’s artists through interaction with these objects at MESS.

Ring Modulators

These two items are ring modulators and are used to allow two separate signals to interact and interval to create complex waveforms that in turn could be used to generate audio, control signals or both. These ring modulators were custom built by EMS in London for Keith Humble.

MIDI or not?

The plugs on the left-hand side of each section may look familiar to some as they use the same DIN type multi-pin plug used to send and receive MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) signals. This machine predates the invention of MIDI by about 10 years. These plugs are here as a simple means to facilitate the signal input and output to the ring modulators within a single plug, instead of using multiple jack cables via the other black sockets you can see to the right of the DIN plug.

EMS VCS-1

This is the heart of the workstation, the EMS VCS-1 also known as the Don Banks Music Box. This instrument was originally built to stand alone but was integrated into this workstation by Humble and Thirkell. This is one of only three VCS-1s’ ever made. As far as we at MESS know, it is the only one in the world that is still working and fully functional.

Raw and Untamed

In synthesiser terms, the VCS-1 is the essence of what you would find in any basic subtractive synthesiser. The VCS acronym stands for Voltage Controlled Studio and was designed to be its own small electronic sound workstation. As such it has a few additional features to allow for novel interactions with the sound it generates.

This machine, as with all the EMS machines, was built to a budget for compact size and maximum functionality. In order to keep these machines affordable, the circuit designs were kept slim. This could lead to unstable and unpredictable behaviour. The VCS-1 is the most raw and untamed expression of the sound which became the hallmark of EMS instruments. At the time this instability was seen by many as a disadvantage, but as the reputation of these instruments has grown over the years, the chaotic character of EMS machines is now highly prized by electronic sound artists.

MESS director Robin Fox has said of the VCS-1, "It's as close as you can get to shaping raw voltage into sound with your hands, without being electrocuted."

Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1 Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1 (1967) by Electronic Music Studios LtdMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

The Functions of the VCS-1

Let's look at the VCS-1 controls in more detail.

Noise & Microphone

The first columns of knobs control the volume for a noise (random voltage) generator and the input from an external microphone. Signals from a microphone could be blended with the oscillators, or used to create a voltage to control the behaviour of some other function of the machine.

Attack Button and Suppression Modulator

Next, a large red button controls when the envelope generator should begin following it's instructions. The suppression modulator rate control is next with its corresponding output control. This is the opposite of an amplifier circuit and is designed to restrict voltage.

Envelope Generator

The second columns of knobs control the functions and output level of a basic envelope generator. Commonly used to control the behaviour of sound volume, this function can be thought of as instructions on how quickly you might open and close a faucet that voltage flows through.

Filter

Here we have the multimode filter, key to the subtractive method of synthesis. We have mode control, filter centre frequency and filter output controls. The filter is designed to only let certain sound frequencies pass through in order to further shape the quality (or timbre) of the sound. The sound of filters and filter sweeps are synonymous with electronic music. Importantly this filter has no resonance control, so does not have the buzzy and biting quality common to most filters.

High (Hi) Oscillator

These knobs control the high range frequency oscillator, one of the two core sound generators for the VCS-1. The middle dial controls the high oscillators frequency (pitch/note) and the lower dial controls the oscillators output level. Both this and the next oscillator generate square waveforms, which means that they both have a buzzy brass instrument-like sound (or timbre). This high oscillator, however, has an output control for an additional triangle waveform that it generates. This adds more richness and complexity to the sound, with the triangle providing a more mellow string-like quality to the sound.  

Lo (Low) Oscillator

Here we see the controls for the center frequency (pitch/note) and output level  for the low range oscillator. A thick rich and heavy sound used to add further complexity to the sound, or to be used a source for modulation of other functions like the filter. 

Reverb Control

These are the controls for the built-in spring reverb generator. Much like reverb generators common to guitar amplifiers, the effect unit adds sustain and further richness to the total sound of the synthesiser. The reverb depth is an adjustment for the reverbs tone quality.

Patch Panel

Lastly, we can see across the bottom of the VCS-1 a series of RCA plug sockets (also called phono plugs), used to create circuits and interconnections within the synthesiser. it functions much the same was as the workstation patch bay directly above the VCS-1.

Tristram Carey, Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell (2007) by Matthew BateMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Inspiration

The development of this instrument is responsible for inspiring the founder of EMS (Electronic Music Studios) English composer Peter Zinovieff to go into partnership with composer Tristram Carey and engineer David Cockerell to focus EMS on the production of affordable electronic musical instruments.

The story goes that after a concert of electronic music in London in 1968-9 Australian composer and performer Don Banks convinced Peter Zinovieff and Tristram Cary to accept a £50 commission (the equivalent of £700 in early 2021) to build him a portable synthesiser he could fit in a suitcase to take back home to Australia. They, along with David Cockerell, designed and built the Don Banks Music Box, later called the VCS-1 (or Voltage Controlled Studio 1). Once Don’s friend and associate Keith Humble got wind of this, he too commissioned Zinovieff, Cary and Cockerell to make a copy for himself. Humble’s VCS-1 wound up being folded into his Optronics instrument/workstation.

This story is touched upon in the following excerpt from Matthew Bate’s 2007 Australian documentary What the Future Sounded Like.

Excerpt of the Don Banks story from Matthew Bate’s 2007 Australian documentary What the Future Sounded Like.

The interest of Australian composers Banks and Humble played a significant part in inspiring the creation of EMS Synthesisers, which with the development and release of the VCS-3 (aka The Putney) for the first time gave people the opportunity to buy an affordable electronic instrument. This history is detailed by New Zealand based artist, composer and academic James Gardner in his paper The Don Banks Music Box to The Putney: The genesis and development of the VCS3 synthesiser.

Prior to the VCS-3 electronic instruments were largely the domain of radio stations, universities and the very wealthy who could afford the high quality and expensive offerings from the likes of Robert Moog. With the VCS-3 and later the portable Synthi-A and Synthi-AKS, many people could now experiment with electronic sound. The roster of artists who use EMS instruments is long and includes many people now considered electronic music pioneers such as Brian Eno, Jean-Michel Jarre, Pink Floyd.

Brain Eno playing an EMS VCS-3 in a jam at the end of Roxy Music's performance of Ladytron on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972.

Jean-Michel Jarre demonstrating how he used EMS instruments such as the VCS-3 (aka The Putney) and Synthi AKS in creating many of the sounds on his breakout electronic music album, Oxygène.

Roger Waters of Pink Floyd jamming on two EMS Synthi AKS machines, including the famous sequence/riff from On The Run during the sessions for The Dark Side of The Moon.

EMS VCS3 MKI EMS VCS3 MKI, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, David Cockerell, Tristram Cary, Peter Zinovieff, 1969, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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EMS VCS3 MKII, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, David Cockerell, Tristram Cary, Peter Zinovieff, 1973, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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Vocoder 2000, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, Tim Orr, 1977, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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EMS Rack: Pitch to Voltage, Random Voltage & Fixed Filter Bank, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, David Cockerell, 1971, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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Synthi AKS and accessories, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, David Cockerell, Gerry Rodgers, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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DUAL Synthi Aks w Digitana Interface DUAL Synthi Aks w Digitana Interface, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, Digitana, David Cockerell, Gerry Rodgers, Steven Thomas, 1972, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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EMS instruments and devices from the MESS collection.

Afterword...

Interestingly, when MESS founders Byron Scullin and Robin Fox first started to work together, Keith Humble's workstation was being stored in a suburban backyard garage that Robin was using as a home studio.

Byron recounts, “I went over to Robin’s house and he had his studio in this old shed out the back of his house. I seem to remember it was pretty wild. I think it had partially been used as a greenhouse in its past, so there were glass panels on one side and a bunch of vines and greenery growing in through the gaps in the corrugated iron cladding. Like a lot of sheds in suburban Melbourne, there was not much to it other than a wooden frame and cladding - not exactly what you would call weatherproof! Anyhow, the Humble workstation was sitting up on a shelf in the shed and I remember walking in and it grabbing my attention right away. I asked Robin what it was, and his response was along the lines of, “It’s some old thing of Keith’s. I’m not really sure if it works. I plugged it in and it makes some weird sounds. It’s pretty heavy and I'm not sure if it's working properly"...

Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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Keith Humble’s Optronic workstation featuring the VCS-1, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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The front and rear view of the Keith Humble Optronic Workstation.

...At the time neither of us realised what an important machine this was. It was only through Robin doing some research that he came to suspect it was an EMS VCS-1 in the setup. This was later confirmed by research conducted by New Zealand based artist and academic James Gardner (formerly of Apollo 440) who confirmed for us the importance and significance of this machine. We both feel a little shamefaced at its treatment then, now knowing what it is."

It’s also not the first time at MESS that a rare piece of Australian electronic music history was discovered in a shed, dumpster or under a bed. For example the Transaudio 3 Oscillators were dumpster rescues, the Serge Paperface spent many years in boxes in a shed covered in dust and bird droppings and the EMS video synthesiser the Spectre/Spectron was found under a bed by composer David Chesworth.

Swappable System, Transaudio, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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Paperface, The California Institute of the Arts, Serge Tcherepnin, Randy Cohen, 1973, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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Spectre Spectre, Electronic Music Studios Ltd, Richard Monkhouse, 1974, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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All of these instruments made their way into the MESS collection from obscure sources.  

The influence that these EMS instruments had on the development of electronic sound for artists, particularly in popular music, cannot be underestimated. It should also be noted that EMS led the way for many other instrument designers to found companies around their own ideas of how electronic sound could be generated and articulated.

Credits: Story

This MESS project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.
Photographs by Kristoffer Paulsen.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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