Peter Zinovieff: Composer and pioneer of electronic music

Peter Zinovieff was the pioneering inventor who designed some of the first commercially available music synthesizer systems used by bands such as Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Who, and The Chemical Brothers.

Zinovieff, who died at the age of 88, has already been described with admiration by Jon Lord, the keyboardist of Deep Purple, as “a real type of mad professor”.

Peter Zinovieff was born in 1933 in Fulham, London, as the son of Russian aristocratic immigrants, Leo and Sofka Zinovieff. He was educated at Guildford Royal Grammar School and Gordonstourn, then studied geology at the University of Oxford.

From the late 1950s, Zinovieff experimented with sound, first using second-hand waveform generators and tape recorders. However, as he later told an interviewer, “I couldn’t stand the fragility of this. I quickly decided that sequencers were the answer – that’s ultimately what led me to computer science ”.

Zinovieff was one of the first people in the world to use a computer at home. Housed in the basement of his home in Putney, two PDP 8 minicomputers from Digital Equipment Corporation have been programmed to produce some of the world’s first computer-generated music. “It was a really huge change in my life,” he later commented. “To be a hobby now had to be a very serious effort to invest that amount of money.”

A composition of these machines was premiered under the name ‘Partita for Unattended Computer’ at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in 1967. He recalls: ‘She played a composition that no one had heard before, even me- even. I mean it was a random composition. It was therefore the first time that a computer had played a composition by itself.

Around the same time, and with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, Zinovieff created Unit Delta Plus, a pioneering collaboration between electronic music creators. The collective has worked on compositions and promoted the use of electronic music in film, television and advertising. Although short-lived, lasting only a year, it paved the way for the emergence of electronic music as a distinct art form.

“From being a hobby now had to be a very serious business,” he said as he became one of the first people to install a computer in their home.


Zinovieff founded his company, Electronic Music Studios (EMS), in 1969 with his colleagues Tristram Cary and David Cockerell. The company manufactured electronic synthesizers. Promoted with the slogan ‘Think of a sound – do it’ and costing around £ 300 (equivalent to £ 4000 today), their portable VCS3 device – and the Synthi AKS carried in a case – offered musicians endless possibilities. to create their own soundscapes.

The VCS3 was used to extraordinary effect by The Who, whose unmistakable intro to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” owes its supernatural sound to Pete Townsend playing his Lowry organ through the synthesizer. French ambient music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre once said Release how he traded a guitar and tape recorder for a VCS3. There was a very poetic innocence in early synthesizers, he thought. “This technological vision was like the invention of the helicopter in aviation: irrational, surreal, of a future that is still being invented.

Even more ambitious was the Synthi 100 device, which looked more like a studio with a mixer, and was first developed as a commission for Radio Belgrade. The company’s second customer for the Synthi 100 was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which is best known for its work on the original melody and sound effects for Doctor Who.

While the VCS3 was a huge success in its day, Zinovieff and his colleagues were swindled by the company’s US distributor, resulting in significant financial losses. In 1979, EMS went bankrupt and closed its doors.

Besides creating the machines that played the music, Zinovieff also had fun composing the music itself. He collaborated with Harrison Birtwhistle, creating the libretto for The mask of Orpheus, which premiered in 1986 at the English National Opera. In 2015, Zinovieff issued Electronic Calendar – EMS Tapes, a double-CD compilation of electronic music from his time as director of EMS.

Jarre said in tribute: “Thank you Peter, the father of VCS3 and AKS, I owe you so much.”

Zinovieff has married four times. He is survived by his wife Jenny and six children from previous marriages.

Peter Zinovieff, engineer and composer, born January 26, 1933, died June 23, 2021

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