How Radio Belgrade’s EMS Synthi 100 was repaired (Svetlana Maraš)

UNEARTHING THE MUSIC: Sound and Creative Experimentation in Non-democratic Europe

How Radio Belgrade’s EMS Synthi 100 was repaired (Svetlana Maraš)

Svetlana Maraš is a composer and sound artist from Serbia. Since 2016, she has been the composer-in-residence at Radio Belgrade’s Electronic studio where she organizes a wide range of activities. For more information visit: www.svetlanamaras.com

 

How Radio Belgrade’s EMS Synthi 100 was repaired or

An unusual set of circumstances

 

I was invited to join Radio Belgrade’s Electronic Studio in September 2016. What I encountered was a dusty, old electronic music studio in an almost completely non-functional state. The majority of devices there had long been out of use, and some of them, like the EMS Synthi 100, were broken. Being aware of that studio from its earlier, rich history and groundbreaking activities related to the exploration of electronic music (in the 70’s and 80’s especially), my goal was completely clear to me – to help restore the EMS Synthi 100 and re-activate the Electronic Studio as a space for gathering fresh ideas and building an updated database of knowledge of electronic music.

The initiative for the studio’s revival came from different sides – within the radio, mainly from the music editors of the III program: Ksenija Stevanović and Ivana Neimarević, two important figures in the development of the contemporary and experimental music scenes in Belgrade, and on the other side, all the way from Sweden, from one of the studio founders, Paul Pignon. Only a month before my appointment at the Electronic Studio, in August 2016, Paul had been inquiring with Ksenija about the current condition of the Synthi 100 synthesizer. Earlier that year, he had been working in Athens on a newly restored Synthi for the “Documenta” show, and he had proposed that we do the same as the Greeks and invite foreign experts to fix the instrument, as it was not such an undoable and unimaginable thing as it has been thought for the over 20 years during which our Synthi was silent and asleep. Paul gave us the name of one of two people from the team who fixed Athens’ Synthi – Daniel Araya, an employee at EMS Stockholm, and said nothing about the other one.

 

Photo of the Radio Belgrade’s Electronic Studio in September 2016

Paul’s email reached me literally on my first day at work, forwarded by Ksenija. Having this information and wandering (a little lost) around the old studio, not knowing what to do with this or where to start, I was scrolling through my Instagram. I saw that Jari Suominen, my old school-friend from Helsinki, was conducting a workshop on custom-made electronic instruments in Zagreb, so I messaged him.

 

Geeky chats about musical equipment aren’t unfamiliar to me, and I also knew Jari to be an expert on Kurenniemi’s instruments, so I assumed he might know something about this good giant of analogue synths that was standing next to me. I sent him some photos of it while getting my hands completely black and dirty in order to take them from up close.

In this unusually positive and enthusiastic set of circumstances, and also thanks to fast and efficient internet communications, easy photo and video sharing and everyone’s constant online availability, I was positively surprised to learn (just some hours after reading Paul’s email), that not only did Jari Suominen know everything about the EMS Synthi 100, but that he was one of the two experts who fixed Athens’ Synthi, together with Daniel Araya, and thus the other person who Paul Pignon was referring to. This information overlapped completely accidentally and almost immediately.

The team of synthesizer-experts – Daniel Araya and Jari Suominen, September 2017

In September 2017, following the Radio’s default administrative route, the team – Daniel Araya and Jari Suominen was in Belgrade, ready to fix another EMS Synthi 100 and to make the present of electronic music a little more interesting.

 

The legend about Radio Belgrade’s Synthi 100

Well before any one of us younger generation composers/musicians got to hear the actual sound of Synthi 100 and got to know its possibilities by working with it, we knew the legend of our local Synthi 100 – the local legend of a local Synthi. The legend (or rather the real history and actually the history of all the Synhi 100s in the world) starts in the late 1960’s with the Radio Belgrade – III program commissioning a workstation for their emerging studio that would focus on the research of electronic music. Our composers and studio founders Vladan Radovanović and Paul Pignon sketched how they envisioned this instrument and voila! – the EMS company from London made it real and delivered one to Yugoslavia in 1971. After a fruitful life among many notable composers who worked at Radio Belgrade’s Electronic Studio, this mighty old synth fell asleep and this is how I met him, covered in dust and wrapped in silence behind the heavy doors of a tiny studio on the 4th floor of the Radio Belgrade building, at the end of the corridor. Very few people except the ones working there ever came into the studio in the past 15 years, but once in a blue moon a group of young enthusiasts would come specifically to see the instrument (although it was not working). They would come into its shrine to be immersed into the cloud of the sounds unheard but assumed, famous Synthi sounds and those suggested from various recordings made with it back when the studio was working in full force. So, one part of the legend was the Synthi’s famous sound. Through the oral tradition of the Radio Belgrade’s employees, this sound got many new dimensions and with each individual story it was tweaked and transformed in our inner ears and in our imagination. One famous story was that Synthi was the most sensitive to the open window of Electronic studio (there is only one in the room), so much that, whatever sound you made, it would become something completely different if you left it like that in a fresh breeze for a while. Deep inside this lies a true story: that the Synthi is indeed unstable to a certain extent. However, these slight deviations due to temperature change were minor as compared to the emphasized stories we heard. From them, I would imagine all 12 oscillators being frequency-modulated with a random generator all the time and their levels gradually changing with the slow ramp or envelope trapezoid over the course of time the window stayed open.

Unfortunately, the Synthi couldn’t talk to us and deny any of these stories. He/she would specially be concerned with this one: the legend says that there was a single PCB (printed circuit board) missing and that was the reason why the Synthi was out of function. The story goes further, saying that due to disappointment and anger after being fired, one of the engineers who worked in the studio at the time took this PCB and wouldn’t trade it, which prevented its restoration for good. Forever. Full stop. Once our experts dived into the belly of the Synthi 100, this proved to be untrue as there were no circuit boards missing. Even more, the composers who worked in the studio acted very responsibly by ordering many spare parts, and this meant a lot for the Synthi’s future as it made it much easier and cheaper to bring it back to life. We owe them a lot for the material and non-material heritage they left behind. Back to the present: the reason why the Synthi was not working was rather simple and not due to a missing/stolen PCB, but a broken power supply and a few other minor failures that were quickly repaired.

Due to all these stories, preceded by the great amount of lively history and the serious musical legacy left behind by our musical ancestors, the Synthi caused a great deal of admiration and fear at the same time – once it stopped working, it was treated like a relic and although Radio technicians were perfectly capable and competent enough to fix it, nobody dared. That’s why I got so many suspicious looks during the first few months at the studio while I was calmly repeating it was now the time to fix the Synthi, that it would happen for sure, we would finally be able to work with it again – well, you should have seen those skeptical faces turning (after one year) into big smiles after they heard the Synthi working again.

 

Interview with Daniel Araya and Jari Suominen, conducted by Svetlana Maraš on February 1st 2019 via FB messenger

Svetlana: Daniel, Jari, as you are familiar with probably every Synthi 100 that has survived since the 1970’s and hasn’t been stolen or destroyed (cut in half), could you please tell me what you knew about Radio Belgrade’s Synthi 100 before I contacted you and provided you with more information about it?

Jari:I think at the time we did not know more than that Radio Belgrade had one (Synthi) and Paul Pignon was running the studio during the time it was bought. There was lot of data digging going around before the first trip to Belgrade and I believe both Daniel and I also had discussions with Paul about the RB Synthi.

We learned more about whole Synthi line after our first contact with the RB studio, but before our first trip to Belgrade, as we worked on the KSYME (Athens) Synthi during that time and were also doing lots of data digging then. This included discussions with different techs working on other Synthi 100’s and people who had been researching a bit of the history of EMS. I also found out about a couple of details from Erkki Kurenniemi’s archives while working on Kurenniemi synths here in Finland. Now, I also remember that at your end there were rumors that there were parts stolen from your S100. I think that was also in some Internet source. That proved to be nonsense as there wasn’t anything missing. The biggest problem on the RB Synthi was an obviously busted power supply which was the likely reason for the retirement of the instrument at the time. But there was someone in the RB who also thought that someone was pissed about something and stole parts. A nasty rumor, especially as it was totally not true! There was actually a similar rumor in KSYME, but they were actually missing PCBs, unlike the Synthi at RB. But I think eventually they found out that they did not have them in the first place, they got it for cheaper without sequencer electronics.

Svetlana: While working in our studio in Belgrade, you have shown a great care to keep each particular part of the instrument as it was originally, especially when it comes to the exterior. Considering also the fact that our Synthi is a protected cultural heritage, protected by the Museum of Science and Technology in Belgrade, would you say that this kind of precious, old, analogue equipment requires more than just a rough technical maintenance but rather a restoration process like the one applied to museum artifacts? Or is it only the Synthi that is so specific out of all the electronic instruments from music history that you work with, because of its limited quantity, complexity of its structure and its unique design?

Daniel: We service instruments that are going to be used and not just sit in a collection and we do it for institutions that have limited budgets. We try to stay true to the original nature of the instrument but some of the parts used were terrible, really, and did not stand either the test of time or the test of musicians! So we try to keep a middle ground, we are not scouring the Internet for identical potentiometers, we get better quality ones instead and we change out bad types of switches for modern models even if they look slightly different from the originals. To do a museum quality restoration would take enormous amounts of time and money and it would probably not hold up for day to day use.

Jari: As Daniel put it, I don’t think I would call what we did with RB or KSYME Synthi ‘restoration’ as lot of parts were changed to a different type than what they were originally. But it is still not random upgrades, and when we are working with different vintage gear, (like Daniel with EMS Buchla or me with Kurenniemi synthesizers in Helsinki University) we are considering what can and what shouldn’t be changed all the time. I feel also that when you do something like this, it should be reversible later. Also it should be fairly obvious for a tech to read the instrument afterwards, to see what was changed and what not. The RB Synthi was already heavily modded in the early 1970’s and had more upgrades done even later, and all this is obvious just by looking at the machine.

Svetlana: You fixed two EMS Synthis already, brought them “back from the dead” so to speak, and you are familiar with all the tiniest specificities of the instrument and the way its makers wanted it to work. If you were about to upgrade the Synthi 100 with some new, special powers, to make it more versatile, what would that hybrid instrument be like?

Daniel: If I were to upgrade it today I would make it portable in four large suitcases, add midi or OSC to as many parameters as possible and add external CV control of PWM, why oh why didnt they add that?

 Jari: The founder of EMS, Peter Zinovieff was into building a computer controlled studio and I believe this was also one of the design goals of the Synthi 100. EMS had their own computer and they made early concerts of computers playing synthesizers (clips of which can be found online). So they believed the future of electronic music would be computers. With this in mind, each Synthi 100 was shipped equipped with a computer interface port. However they only sold a couple of Synthi 100s with actual computers. The sequencer bit of Synthi 100 was kind of a low budget replacement to an actual computer. So most obvious upgrade today for any Synthi 100 would be simply hooking up the Synthi through that computer interface port to a computer. It would need a bit of custom hardware, but not that much and would fulfill the original vision of what the Synthi 100 is.

 

The re-opening of the Electronic Studio

Paul Pignon preparing his patch on the EMS Synthi 100 for the opening, March 2018

The Radio Belgrade Electronic Studio official opening took place on March 2nd, 2018. The opening concert featured a live performance of my “Radio Concert No.1” for Synthi and computer, Paul Pignon’s piece “Play me again” for Synthi 100 and an acoustic instrument connected to the synthesizer to trigger different behaviors of a self-generating patch, Nicola Ratti’s performance/improvisation with his modular set and projection of the experimental film “Yeah” from 1972 by Slobodan Šijan with music by Paul Pignon. Whole event took place in two different studios simultaneously – Studio 6 and the Electronic Studio where the Synthi 100 is placed, both in the Radio Belgrade building. In both of these studios, sound technicians were regulating the audio stream (for the purpose of a live radio broadcast), and a TV crew with lights and cameras was transmitting video on National TV.

This hybrid format of live TV and radio broadcast with audience attendance in the studio was developed some years ago in a show called “Concerts in Studio 6”, initiated and realized by Nevena Popović, Ivana Neimarević and Ksenija Stevanović.

““Concerts in Studio 6” is a unique format that cannot be found in any other concert or non-concert venue. Through the cooperation of TV channel RTS3 and Third program of Radio Belgrade, the live broadcast of these events offers “the best of both worlds” – perfect sound created in the context of a studio recording session and a top quality image, enabling the audience to discover and experience this new “stage” of musical experimentalism and new possibilities.”

Choosing such a complex and unusual presentation format for the opening was aligned with what is the core of Electronic Studio – the urge for experimentation and challenging of different media while aiming to create the most engaging listening experience. Nevena Popović, in front of the television crew, fantastically understood these tendencies and together with the rest of the team, created an ambitious and distinctive event, absolutely uncommon for the regular TV programming. As a special guest, there was an appearance by composer and artist Vladan Radovanović, one of the founders of the Electronic Studio, who spoke briefly about the studio’s history.

My piece “Radio Concert No.1” was performed in the Electronic Studio while the audience in Studio 6 could watch me on two screens brought for this occasion, while I played on the Synthi and my tablet (to control my computer patches). Nicola Ratti was playing in Studio 6 in front of the audience and he combined his usual setup with the sounds he made with the Synthi a couple of days prior to the performance, during his residency. Paul Pignon’s setup was the most complex one – his instrument was amplified in Studio 6 where he played in front of the audience, and it was wired all the way up to the 4th floor and the cable plugged into the Synthi. With his instrument, Paul triggered different behaviors of his generative patch, and then this signal was sent back to Studio 6 – Paul was basically improvising with his patches remotely. The audience could see him playing in Studio 6, while the Synthi was processing sound in the “background”, all alone on the 4th floor, in the Electronic Studio.

This demanding technical setup used in live radio and TV broadcast with an audience in the studio, was all made out of adrenaline, fear, happiness, excitement and hope that after starting the show, after the first announcements and audience applause, things would keep rolling and no cables, microphones or cameras would break…And thanks to the most rewarding and indeed, only possible way of working on all this – team work, we made it!

 

 

*All photos by Svetlana Maraš