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  • Peter Donebauer, Richard Monkhouse and the Development of the EMS Spectron and the Videokalos Image Processor
  • Chris Meigh-Andrews (bio)

The author details the development of two early color video synthesizers, the EMS Spectron and the Videokalos Image Processor, and examines their influence on video-based art. The Spectron, developed by Richard Monkhouse for Electronic Music Studios, influenced both its creator and various artists in the development of video-based art and images. Artist Peter Donebauer collaborated with Monkhouse to produce the Videokalos, leading to several artworks and a series of live performances.

In the early days of video art, many artists were involved in the design of hardware specifically for the development of their own creative practices. Although most of these artists, such as Eric Siegel, Stephen Beck and Nam June Paik [1], were based in the United States, a number of individuals were engaged in comparable activities in Britain during the early 1970s. Richard Monkhouse and Peter Donebauer were among the most significant of these British pioneers in video technology.

Richard Monkhouse and the Ems Spectron

Richard Monkhouse did not train as an artist. He graduated with a master's degree in natural sciences from Cambridge University in 1972 and then worked on government defense projects at Marconi-Elliot Avionic Systems, where he learned how to design and build electronic circuits. He subsequently joined Electronic Music Studios Ltd. (EMS), a London-based company specializing in the manufacture of sound synthesizers. One of Monkhouse's first projects at EMS involved the design of the video display component for a new audio instrument. Intrigued by the visual quality and purity of the color images he was able to produce with the video display, Monk-house developed a prototype video synthesizer that went much further than simply generating colored stripes and squares.

Monkhouse's prototype, initially named the Spectre (Fig. 1), generated considerable interest at EMS and soon attracted the interest of EMS director and electronic music composer Peter Zinovieff [2]. Among numerous other functions, the machine could take a monochrome video camera feed and colorize the image to eight levels of luminance, with digital control of color, hues or chrominance. After a number of technical demonstrations in the United Kingdom, EMS added a color encoder to the Spectre, enabling recordable output.

For the basic layout and configuration of his video synthesizer, Monkhouse drew on the design of the EMS VCS 3 audio synthesizer, which featured a pin-based patch board, giving the instrument considerable flexibility by facilitating countless routing possibilities without the need to resort to an enormous patch field of video connectors.

In the December 1974 issue of Video and Audio-Visual Review, a full-color image produced by the Spectre appeared on the cover, and the magazine contained a substantial article written by Monkhouse, entitled "The Moving Art of Video Graphics—Or How to Drive a Spectre" [3]. Comprehensively illustrated with images and diagrams, the six-page article presented the functions and operations of the prototype Spectre in considerable detail. Monkhouse also outlined the basic philosophy and approach behind the design of his instrument:

Up to now there has been little work on direct video synthesis—most effects units (such as wipe generators, chromakey units, and colourizers) have been kept separate, and only used directly to treat signals that originate from a conventional camera scene set up. In our Spectre video synthesizer, a different concept has been used; rather than produce another special effects unit I have endeavored to group together units with a highly perceptual impact in a way that gives total freedom to combine shapes and colours logically, and in a very general way [4].

Although the Spectre was a novel idea with an untested market, EMS manufactured and actively promoted the instrument, renaming it the Spectron and making it available for £4,500 in 1975 (Fig. 2). Monkhouse, working for EMS as an electronics engineer employed to develop the new prototype, was not simply interested in the technology for its own sake; he also wanted to make creative use of the machine he had designed. He left EMS in 1975, but even before that had begun to use the Spectron to produce his own...


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pp. 463-467
Launched on MUSE
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