Synthesizers – especially the first synths – are hard to use. They were often made by musicians with a background in engineering, or engineers with a fondness for music, and, as Robert X. Cringely used to say, “Nerds like things that are hard to use.”

The first step to mastery is familiarity. The best way to get familiar with the iconic synthesizers is with emulators. And so today’s desktop toybox places your hands on the faceplate of the quixotic EMS Synthi A.

SYNTHI-JS is a javascript and browser-based emulator designed after the EMS Synthi A. Familiar to listeners of progressive rock, Tangerine Dream and other ’70s bands and projects, the EMS Synthi A was notable for replacing Moog’s spaghetti patch cables with a “patch matrix” utilized by resistive pins.

The Synthi A was manufactured in 1971 by EMS, and was valued for packing a tremendous amount of power into a portable and self-contained case. (Legend has it that EMS executives were considering a number of different small footprint synthesizers when an engineer showed up with a simple briefcase containing a prototype Synthi A. They made their decision on the spot.)

You can hear the Synthi A alone in the intro to Alan Parsons Project’s “I Robot”:

SYNTHI-JS is a neat introduction to this workhorse unit, downloadable as a project that can be played offline in a browser or used as a fully-functional demo live on github right here. Developer Alex Nisnevich has some tips to get started with the patchboard in the ReadMe file; you can also start right away by using your own audio tracks as a source:

Another neat way to get started is to upload your own audio tracks to use as input sources. Use the Input Sources panel to upload tracks and (optionally) specify which segments of them you want to work with. Now, you can use the Input Channel pins on the patchboard (rows 8 and 9) as an input source. Try running your tracks through different devices and see what happens.


Also: an original EMS Synthi A costs about $15,000. The Ableton plugin costs $59. This one costs you $0. So there’s that too.