Fairlight: The Rolls Royce of synthesizers
We salute the big beige monster of the 80s
Synthesizers and Royal Weddings were everywhere in the early Eighties, but the real Rolls Royce of electronic music was the Fairlight.
An Australian-made music production system based on the Motorola 6800 processor, the Fairlight was - at well over £20,000 – a stupendously pricey piece of kit.
Officially named the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, the Fairlight was a pioneering digital music workstation. It was designed by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, and imported into the UK by Syco – a high-end music (and later video) equipment retailer run by Peter Gabriel’s then brother-in-law, Stephen Paine.
The Fairlight marked the practical beginning of digital samplers in music. The other ‘big ticket’ digital music production system of the era, New England Digital’s even pricier Synclavier, soon added sampling to its wavetable-based vocabulary.
The early Eighties were, in a sense, the high water mark for big technology in music. Not because the charts were particularly dominated by high tech: Shakin' Stevens’s unapologetically retro Green Door was at number one in July ’81 and although Depeche Mode and The Human League were certainly bouncing around in the hit parade, they used comparatively low-end gear.
In their early years Depeche Mode tended to use the new wave of entry-level synthesizers that were just coming onto the market, typified by the basic but meaty-sounding Moog Rogue. The Human League mainly used Roland modular systems from the mid-70s, controlled by Roland’s notoriously hard-to-master sequencers the MC-4 and MC-8.
The Fairlight was an entirely different beast.
It was launched in Australia in 1979 but first really excited the popular imagination after a 1982 South Bank Show special, which followed the recording of Peter Gabriel’s fourth and final self-titled album which our American friends know as Security. Other pioneers of the big beige monster included Kate Bush, who first used one on her 1980 Never For Ever album. The single Babooshka displays to great effect the Fairlight’s signature ‘glass breaking’ samples.
The Fairlight sampled in mono, with a fairly grainy sounding 8 bit resolution and had a bandwidth of around 2100 Hz to 30 kHz. If there’s a mobile phone in your pocket right now, chances are that it can sample better than that.
Sampling is now so ubiquitous that we forget how, back when Charles and Di were pledging their everlasting troth, it was a quite amazing trick. Just crudely playing a tune with a sampled dog bark (Wonderdog) was enough to kickstart the dastardly Simon Cowell’s musical career in 1982.
By contrast, Gabriel used the Fairlight to evoke exotic ‘world music’ textures and generate skittery sequenced percussion for his ambitious and still very listenable fourth album.
The Mark 2 version that Peter Gabriel would have used on tracks such as Shock The Monkey boasted 64 kilobytes of system memory. There was no hard disk. The operating system was loaded on a floppy disk that really was floppy, a big 8” square vinyl job that you could almost bend in half. A second drive enabled the user to load pre-made samples into RAM.
The charts of the early Eighties were filled with the CMI’s ‘ORCH 5’ orchestra stab and breathy ‘ARR 1’ choir.
The Fairlight was much more than just a magic box for playing back animal noises and violin screeches. There was a complex and powerful music composition environment (MCL) that no one I ever met really understood, a fully featured performance capture sequencer (called Page S) and a waveform analysis tool on which the user could modify an audio waveform directly onscreen using the attached light-pen.
The big sell, though, was Page R. It was in effect a giant drum machine. Short ‘patterns’ of eight monophonic samples could be assembled quickly and easily into songs.
If you wanted to use a Fairlight in tandem with, for example, a then-ubiquitous Roger Linn drum machine, there was no plug and play synchronisation. A dedicated studio clock called an SRC had to be pressed into service in order to get all of the devices of the era to talk to one another.
Next page: My fair Fairlight, and what came after
As a Yank who has driven many models of both marques over the years, from most decades they have been built, I can assure you that a Caddy does not now, and never has in the past, come within even the same circle as a Rolls Royce. Probably never will, either.
Well ... to be sure, both do share a couple features in that they are large, slow, bad handling, gaudy gas-hogs. And I wouldn't mind restoring a between-the-wars model of either someday. But that's about it.
 Driven, not owned ...
CMI = POS
The writer may be wearing rose-tinted specs. My exerience with a CMI was less than fulfilling.
I worked with Vince Clarke of Yazoo, another CMI owner, and I programmed all the A/V content for the first Yazoo tour.
Vince used a Linn to trigger the CMI and also had an interface built to trigger, via the Linn, an AVL Eagle* computer that controlled all the slide projector dissolve units and a 16mm B&H film projector.
The CMI was incredibly unreliable during the programming sessions and Vince decided to hire a backup machine for the tour. I think the going rate for rental was about a grand per week. The Linn was always good and never, if you'll pardon the pun, missed a beat.
Yazoo did a warm-up gig in the band's home town of Basildon and during the first song the Fairlght played up and the Linn/AVL interface died. The bloke that had been engaged to look after the visuals on the tour didn't have a clue what to do but I had been watching the show from backstage and had to intervene. From the second song until the last I had to manually cue all the visuals from memory (my memory) and there were probably well over 30 sync points in each song.
Ultimately the CMIs were dumped before the rest of the tour and the songs were dubbed on to a TEAC A3440 four track for playback and the A/V content was triggered by AVL's native timecode. A UKP500 Jap tape recorder was more reliable than the UKP20k CMI.
Yazoo geek trivia: Vince wrote many of his songs on an acoustic guitar and did his accounts on an early IBM PC. Alf Moyet's vocals were always live and always note perfect.
*The show was programmed on an Eagle but an AVL Roadrunner was used for the tour.
Even before 1971, when the 'mind-boggling' 4004 was released, it was as inappropriate to refer to an entire system minus its human i/o as a 'cpu' as it was/is to call it a 'hard-drive.'
The cpu *in* the Fairlight *is* a 'microprocessor chip.' (teehee when I read that I imagine you with a Forrest Gump accent, soz)
Computers never inherently had a discrete unit called a 'clock,' either, I can only assume that your boggled mind is getting mixed up with 'Real-time Clock,' peripherals for 80's home computers. I've honestly never seen so much wrong delivered with so much cheek :p
Anyway, great article. Much to my wife's chagrine I have a fairly extensive collection of the gear that so quickly rendered the CMI obsolete, but it still has a certain allure to it, not *entirely* due to the fact that unlike a TX-7, the chances of one showing up on ebay for <CAD100 are quite slim.
Pint cos gear+booze=perfect
It's easy to underestimate just how important this machine was in shaping pop music through the '80s. When most bands were still playing with analogue Jupiters and Prophets, this machine brought a completely new technique to music making, without which albums like Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise just wouldn't have been possible. Arguably though it was the 'budget' Emulator II that really brought sampling to the mainstream... but almost anyone listening to Radio 1 today would be completely oblivious to all the excitement in electronic music 25-30 years ago.
No WD40 on pots...
It fixes the problems for a short while, but it tends to thoroughly ruin pots so treated.
Use a proper contact cleaner instead such as Kontakt 70 or CRC Contact Lubricant.