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29 Jun 2021

Synthesizer Trailblazer Peter Zinovieff Passes Away At Age 88

by puaweiyi | News, Feature



Synthesizer trailblazer, Peter Zinovieff (pronounced as ‘Zin-ov-e-eff’), recently passed away on June 23, 2021. Hailed by The Guardian as ‘Grandfather of the Synth’, the British engineer and innovator was known for his work with Electronic Music Studies (EMS) in developing the groundbreaking synthesizer VCS 3 in 1969. It became the staple for many musicians such as Pink Floyd, Coil, Klaus Schulze, etc., and the rest was history. His early work also became the groundwork for today’s digital music production.


Peter was a man known for his versatility. A doctorate graduate from Oxford University, the Geologist also did music composition during his lifetime. “Think of a sound – now make it.” he is quoted as saying in his 2015 interview with The Guardian. “There are so many sounds in my head and it would be marvellous if they could come out,” he says. “When I go to sleep, I think of ways of producing sounds. Then I spend most of the next day trying to get the computer to obey my nebulous thoughts.”


He had an early fascination with DIY radio sets, having been brought up by his Russian grandparents during the Second World War. He would go on to tinker with sonic waves during his doctorate days, and no soon did he find himself veering off the path of Geology to pursue a career in experimental music. “It must have been a middle-of-the-night decision,” he says, “It was a wild thing to do. At that time, there were just a handful of people making electronic music.” - The Guardian interview, 2015.


Dr. Peter Zinovieff, as he is sometimes known, is frequently referred to as ‘the first person’ to ‘privately own a computer at home’. Very impressive, as computers back in the day were usually housed in factories, laboratories, and universities. He would go on to spend days and nights on this computer until it could produce the desired sound he wanted, as explained in his interview with The Guardian. This was also when he had produced some of his earliest compositions. They are on his double album, Electronic Calendar.


This might have inspired the portable synthesizers he would go on to design and develop with EMS, to whom he founded with Tristram Cary and David Cockerel. Among the released synthesizers was the bestseller VCS 3 (Voltage Controlled Studio, version #3). Another acclaimed synthesizer from EMS is the Synthi series.


In his The Guardian interview, Peter thinks that he might have also been the first person to invent sampling, which is a way of inserting (or interpolating) other, external music or sound into one’s own composition. His work with composer Harrison Birtwistle, Chronometer, can be heard sampling the sounds of a ticking clock, where he and Harrison had to climb up the Big Ben to record it for the work.


After the bankruptcy of EMS in the 1970s, Peter halted all music composition activities until the 2010s, where he returned with numerous collaborations including Aisha Orazbayeva’s 5 Bagatelles From OUR Violin And Computer Concerto (2010), and Lucy Railton’s RFG Inventions For Cello and Computer (2020).


Arguably one of the most important figures in electronic and synthesizer music, the world has lost yet another music giant; Peter Zinovieff is a name that will be missed.

Photo: Peter Zinovieff, November 1963 (Getty Images)