My fair Fairlight, and what came after
I first encountered the Fairlight when I was studying studio engineering at Goldsmiths College. I was too much of a know-all so the tutor banished me into a small back room where this huge cream-coloured monstrosity had been stashed away. The college had bought it, but no one had managed to get to grips with it. I was given it to play with to keep me quiet.
The interface was a big clunky CRT monitor that showed – most of the time – Page R’s nifty rhythm matrix on a black background. It could of course be switched to show an impressive but almost completely useless 3D audio waveform if you were lucky enough to get on Top Of The Pops.
The monitor with its integral light pen was a surprisingly intuitive way to interact with the software. Even the later Fairlight Series III, which coexisted and competed with mouse-controlled Mac and Atari systems, stubbornly used a graphics tablet rather than give up pen control altogether.
A side effect of the early 80s monitor technology was some sort of inimical radiation that really warmed the operator's fillings. A burnt tongue was a handy reminder to take regular screen breaks.
Monitor and qwerty keyboard sat together on top of the rather elegant music keyboard controller, which had 73 keys plus a couple of rather stylish switches that looked like glowing extra-strong mints. (I don’t think they did anything.)
The brains of the outfit was an enormous CPU, the size of two or three Mac Pros stacked on top of one another, but not even one hundredth as powerful. The CPU housed the floppy drives and audio I/O – an XLR connector for each of the Fairlight’s eight voices and of course sampling inputs for capturing all those dog barks.
I made a series of demos on it, which managed to secure my band a record deal. I promptly spent £27,000 of the advance on a Fairlight series IIX.
The only place you could buy one of these things was in the West London showrooms of Stephen Paine’s company Syco (unaffiliated with Simon Cowell’s current production company). It had a quiet, almost temple-like atmosphere where salesmen would reverently display to you the cutting edge in electronic music technology.
The chap who sold me mine, Roger Bolton, went on to be a hugely successful composer of music for TV. I doubt if anyone who worked there was less qualified to own a state of the art computer musical instrument than I was. Buying a Fairlight was the beginning of my long romance with high-end music kit. If anyone ever personified the expression ‘all the gear, no idea’, it was me.
The main thing that made the IIX more special than its forebears was a retrofitted box that enabled the Fairlight to talk to other musical equipment via MIDI. That advance was the super-sampler’s doom.
With the introduction of MIDI, and the advent of the MIDI-enabled Atari ST computer, a cheap sampler (for example the 1985 Ensoniq Mirage) and a couple of synthesizers could be assembled into a system that could do all of the Fairlight’s major tricks for a fraction of the price.
I sold my Fairlight in 1987 for £7,000. Today you can buy a software version for iPad, licensed by Fairlight, for £29.99. There’s even a ‘lite version’ for a fiver.
The age of the really big synthesizer is long over, but for just a few years in the early Eighties, giants walked the charts. ®
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.