The EMS Synthi 100: Rare, expensive and not actually very good

Williams, Sean (2019). The EMS Synthi 100: Rare, expensive and not actually very good. In: Sustainable Sounds: Interrogating the Materials of Music Making Technologies, 11 May 2019, University of Edinburgh.


Only around 26 of these synthesizers were built, and in the early 1970s each one cost about as much as a small village. Only affordable by institutions such as the Westdeutsche Rundfunk, the BBC, and the University of Glasgow, or wealthy pop stars, these were touted as being the most advanced synthesizers available. Very few pieces of music were produced using these synthesizers, and yet they command prices in excess of £50,000 having been available for as little as £2000 only 20 years ago.

In trying to recreate some of the electronic music for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Sirius” on a restored Synthi 100 at KSYME in Athens, and on the machine at the WDR Museum Studios in Cologne, I came across numerous issues where original technological features and choices made during restoration intersect. The two main areas of interest I present are the innovative use of the technology in the realisation of the electronic music for “Sirius” in 1975, and the serious design and manufacturing flaws that prevented this kind of machine from being used to any great success. Restoration problems include the unavailability of components, and the different behaviour of alternative replacements.

This paper seeks to demythologise the Synthi 100 with a dose of practical assessment of its usability.

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