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Experimental Music Studio recordings

Identifier: AC-0662

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Scope and Contents

The collection contains 132 open-reel audio tapes comprising over 150 compositions, performances, and interviews with composers and musicians involved with EMS. The magnetic tapes and reels vary between the formats 1/4" tape, 7" reel; 1/2" tape, 10.5" reel; and 1/4" tape, 10.5" reel. The tapes are dated from 1978 – 1988, although many are undated, and feature work by people such as John Chowning, who was responsible for the discovery of the frequency modulation synthesis (FM) algorithm; Judith Eissenberg, founding member of the Lydian String Quartet; Paul Lansky, generally considered one of the creators of electronic and computer music; Mario Davidovsky, Pulitzer Prize winner; Jeanne Bamberger, music cognition theorist; and John Stautner, one of the pioneers of standardizing music storage files leading to the mp3. Please see the “Subjects and Genres” section of the finding aid for a more comprehensive list of creators. The bulk of these performances were recorded at various locations at MIT. We also have two live recordings from performances in Vienna. Some of these recordings were made as part of a summer residency, as part of a class, or for radio stations, such as WBUR and WGBH.

Once digitized, the collection will also comprise over 150 digital copies of the aforementioned open-reel audio tapes. Based on industry standards, digital audio recordings will be formatted and stored as 24 bit master .wav files at a sample rate of 96khz.


  • Creation: 1973 - 1988
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1979 - 1986


Access note

This collection is open for research.

Digital Access Note

Some parts of this collection are available online: see the link under the "Digital Material" heading below or the links to specific online digital items found within their entries in this finding aid.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.

Historical Note

Professor Barry L. Vercoe, the creator of the EMS and contributor of this collection, is best known as the inventor of the Music-360, Music-11 , Csound, and RTCsound languages for digital music synthesis, which have been used by thousands of composers around the world. He is a respected composer, teacher, and software developer, and a broad thinker who was one of the founding faculty members of MIT's renowned Media Laboratory.

Vercoe was born in New Zealand in 1937. He received bachelors degrees in music and mathematics from the University of Auckland, followed by the Mus. D. from the University of Michigan, where he studied under Ross Lee Finney. After brief stints at Princeton, Oberlin, and Yale, he settled at MIT in 1971, where he was granted tenure in 1974 and became full professor. Professor Vercoe founded the MIT Experimental Music Studio (EMS) in 1973, the first facility in the world to dedicate digital computers full-time to research and composition in computer music.

The EMS was one of the first innovating studios in the field. This was at an active point in the development of digital tools for music production and recording. The EMS’s history spans over a decade during which technological innovations were growing at rapid speeds. In 1973 composers worked with a 16-bit DEC PDP-11/50 computer, and by 1988 they were using Music Macro Language (MML) and MIDI interfaces. The EMS is best known for developing or significantly improving technologies such as real-time digital synthesis, live keyboard input, graphical score editing, graphical patching languages, synchronization between natural and synthetic sound in composition, and advanced music languages. Composers at EMS got to experiment with the first versions of CSound and create some of the first music written using the MIT Graphic Score Editor. They also worked using the early artificial intelligence program Synthetic Performer, an MIT-created program in which a computer learns and then creates interpretations of music.

In 1976, the EMS hosted the First International Conference on Computer Music (International Computer Music Conference, ICMC). In 1981, Professor Vercoe's support encouraged the MIT Press to take over publication of the Computer Music Journal beginning with Volume 4. In 1985, the EMS was integrated into the new MIT Media Laboratory to carry on its work in a new, cross-disciplinary context of multimedia research.

EMS Timeline of Events


  • Professor Barry Vercoe joined the MIT Music Department faculty.

  • EMS was founded by Professor Barry Vercoe. The original studio was located in the basement of Building 26 at MIT. Later, the studio was moved up to the third floor and occupied the former laboratory of Amar Bose.
  • Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) donated a PDP-11/50 computer which became one of the central tools of the studio along with an IMLAC PDS-4 computer.

  • Barry Vercoe composed “Synapse” for viola and computer. It was the first major work to emerge from the EMS. In addition, it was the first piece of music written using the MIT Graphic Score Editor.
  • MIT hosted the first International Computer Music Conference (ICMC).

  • "New Music for Computer," a concert held at MIT's Kresge Auditorium, featured works by Edith Smith (“Spinner Web”), Richard Boulanger (“Trapped in Convert”), and others.
  • 1979 Summer Workshop participants included John Rimmer, Richard Boulanger, and Peter Child. Child stayed on at the studio as a member of the Graduate Seminar in Composition.

  • Martin Brody (“Moments musicaux”) and John Lunn (“Echoes”) participated in the 1980 Summer Workshop.

  • Barry Vercoe was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which took him to Paris to the Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music (IRCAM).
  • The EMS was awarded $1.1 million by the System Development Foundation of Palo Alto.
  • In March, Musica Viva performed Peter Child's “Ensemblance,” a piece that incorporates computer generated sounds engineered at the EMS.
  • "Micro Music - Live" brought together EMS performers to support computer music at MIT.

  • The Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities awarded the EMS a $40,000 grant and enabled the EMS to commission five new works (by five different composers) combining computer-synthesized sound with live performers. The first of the five composers was Graham Hair.

  • Barry Vercoe wrote a computer program called "the Synthetic Performer" which can accompany a human performer.
  • In March, Charles Dodge's "The Waves" premiered at the "Voicing: Music for Voice and Computer-Processed Sound" concert at MIT's Kresge Auditorium.
  • In June, at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York, "New Horizons", a concert of current computer music, included a work by Charles Dodge.
  • In July, the "Very New Music for Computer and Instruments" concert at Kresge Auditorium showcased eight composers who had participated in the 1984 six week Summer Workshop: Toby Mountain, Jon Nelson, Harry Castle, Michael Eckert, David Edelson, Kerry Koitzsch, T. Timothy Lenk and Joel Settel.

  • In January, MIT's Media Lab opened. Professor Vercoe, one of the Lab's founding faculty, and the EMS staff moved into the new space along with five other groups headed by Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert, Nicholas Negroponte, Ricky Leacock and Muriel Cooper.
  • Barry Vercoe added the "Synthetic Rehearsal" program to his "Synthetic Performer" that he created the previous year. This update enabled the computer to "learn" a particular performer's interpretation of a piece and thus accompany the performer more effectively.
  • In February, the "With Strings Attached" concert at MIT showcased performances including Carla Scaletti's “Lysogeny” for harp and computer.
  • The "Prestidigitations: Music For Piano and Computer" concert at MIT featured works from MIT graduate student Marco Stroppa and others.

  • In February, the EMS presented the "IRCAM" concert in Kresge Auditorium. Composers came from Great Britain (Stanley Haynes and Jonathan Harvey), Finland (Kaija Saariaho), and the U.S. (Tod Machover).
  • In August, James Dashow's “In Winter Shine” and Charles Dodge's “The Waves” were performed at the Festival of Contemporary Music in the Tanglewood Music Center.

  • The "New Music for Computer" concert at MIT featured works by composer in residence Jean-Claude Risset, as well as Madelyn Curtis, Thomas Sullivan, Tom Trobaugh, Takashi Koto, and Nicholas Hopkins.
  • Composer Anthony Davis' debut, “Song Was Sweeter Even So” was realized at the EMS over the summer of 1986. The piece uses digital manipulation of human speech to create a variety of sounds and effects.

  • The "Binary Convergence" concert at MIT's Experimental Media Facility featured live computer and performer works by Morton Subotnick, David Arzouman, Javier Albarez, Jonathan Harvey, and Mario Davidovsky.
  • Jonathan Harvey, Professor of Music at Sussex University in England, was the 1988 composer in residence at the EMSDuring his time there, he created “From Silence.”

  • Jonathan Harvey's “From Silence” is premiered in the Experimental Media Facility (the Cube). The concert also included works from James Mobberly, John Chowning, Jean-Claude Risset and Dexter Morrill.


8.8 Linear Feet (17 boxes)

182 Gigabytes

Language of Materials



The Experimental Music Studio recordings is a collection of reel to reel audio tapes produced by students and staff involved with MIT's Experimental Music Studio and with the New England Conservatory. The physical materials in the collection are reel to reel audio tapes in 7” and 10.5” reels, using ¼”, ½”, and 1” tape. Some recordings have been digitized thank to a CLIR Recordings at Risk grant in 2020.


The recordings are arranged into two series. 1. Magnetic tapes 2. Other recordings.

Digital files in the collection have been arranged intellectually with physical materials in topical series. When accessing the digital files they will reflect the original arrangement as presented on transfer.


Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Custodial History

Materials were originally held in Barry Vercoe's office prior to transfer to the Archive at the Art, Culture, and Technology program at MIT in the early 2000s, and were then transferred to Distinctive Collections in January 2023.

Processing Information note

Collection processed by Thera Webb in May of 2019. Finding aid assembled by intern Kayla Allen in the summer of 2021.

Guide to the Experimental Music Studio recordings, 1973-1988
Kayla Allen
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US