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Fairlight CMI

Not since the Les Paul guitar had one musical instrument had such a massive effect on the sound of popular music as the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument, natch). The chunky sampling system of choice for the pop avant gardist of the early 1980s was knocked up by two blokes from Sydney after they became obsessed with the analogue bleepity stylings of everyone’s favourite second hand LP purchase, Switched on Bach. Ironically, all the junk shop, self-soldering fun of the era that record symbolised was to be swept away by the new breed ushered in by the CMI. And no wonder. The VCS3’s little pegboard playground was all well and good, but could it draw a dinky green graph of the sound it was playing? It could not.

Looks-wise, the chunky, piano-sized CMI was as of-the-decade as it came. Plastic keyboard, light pen, green flickery monitor and massive floppy disks were the order of the day when the first models trundled off Australian production lines in 1979, straight into the sheds of Peter Gabriel, Trevor Horn and Thomas Dolby. Any player worth their salt on the electro/new/wave/post-prog axis had to have one to fiddle with at leisure in their white-walled studio. Apart from Martin Hannett, to his considerable annoyance.

For the price of a three-bedroom semi, you could become the conductor of your own private orchestra. Said orchestra, admittedly, consisted of the same loops of muddy, all-the-string-section-at-once “whoomp!” noises played at varying, and increasingly tinny-sounding, pitches. Oh, and some murky-sounding handclaps. And an asthmatic choir of indeterminate gender going “aaaah”. And the barking of a rather unconvincing dog. You could do far more creative things than that, of course, but the CMI’s more predictable, out-of-the-box tricks proved a magnet for lazy composers, and the familiar factory samples became the amusingly defining sounds of the early ’80s, just as those well-worn sound effects library mainstays of whinnying horses, shattering windows and burbling test tubes were the de facto aural signifiers of the analogue era.

Eventually, the combination of cheaper devices flooding the market, and a listening public growing increasingly weary of tuneless songs featuring really squeaky and really gravelly versions of the same singer’s voice singing the same thing for four whole minutes, brought Fairlight Instruments to their knees as the decade wound up. But now, bizarrely, the CMI is back, as its inventors have released a 30th anniversary special edition, which utilises modern processing power, but still packs it into that same, beige, boxy, light-pen-and-rounded-flickery-monitor format. Now you too can do what just about any bog-standard PC World purchase can do, and all for a knock-down fifteen grand! And we used to think paying a tenner on eBay for a fire-damaged Yogophant badge was a sign of madness.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Bright Ambassador

    February 24, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    I remember a picture caption in Peter Gabriel’s authorised biography reading :”Peter at home with his Fairlight.”
    And on the sleevenotes for The Complete Mike Oldfield: “The soundtrack for The Killing Fields was composed utilising the new Fairlight Computer.”
    There’s a place in East Sussex called Fairlight which always reminded me of post-prog rock stars in their home studios whenever I saw the sign.

  2. Adrian

    February 24, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Don’t forget the ‘Moog’ early synthesiser as well..

  3. FishyFish

    February 24, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    I remember the Top of the Pops ‘miming synth’. This was for years a Yamaha DX7 which, though never connected to the mains or an amp, could seemingly produce any sound from any synth ever produced just as long as the band in question wasn’t actually playing it (usually just dancing about while stabbing at the keys in a vaguely authentic looking fashion). It was replaced later by a Korg M1 if memory serves.

  4. Steve Williams

    February 24, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Of course, Tom Watkins lives in Fairlight, which I always thought was highly appropriate. I did read somewhere that when it first came to Britain, only four people could work the Fairlight, and two of them were Climie Fisher.

  5. Gareth James

    February 24, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Synths seem to attract these sorts of stories – see also the Yamaha GX-1 – the size of a cinema organ, the cost of a house, and supposedly the first two went to Keith Emerson and Stevie Wonder (which is probably as far apart as you can go on the musical spectrum without falling off the ends). Emerson’s was later run over by a tractor.

  6. Adrian

    February 25, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    TOTP always seemed to have ‘Roland’ keyboards on stage, which some wag would amend to read ‘Poland’..

  7. annoyingmouse

    February 25, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    On the subject of the Yamaha GX-1, as mentioned by Gareth James, apparently John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin sold his one to Emerson as a spare instrument. Only Emerson can both own a huge synth like that and still need another. In more recent times, Richard D. James (of Aphex Twin fame) tried to release an album under the anonymous pseudonym “The Tuss” but was kind of caught out in large use of the GX-1 on it. Given that hardly anybody sodding has one, it’s a bit of a give away. I mean nobody else who owns one is leaving prog any time soon!

    Still on the subject of Fairlight, let’s just leave it in the hands of a master to explain it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQ-lrVMxhMY

  8. Synthtastic

    February 25, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Anyone know if the 80s computer game Fairlight, where you had to guide Paul Rutherford in a cape around a 3D fantasy castle, was named after this instrument?

  9. johnnyboy

    February 25, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    In the 80’s film ‘Brainstorm’, starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood, there’s a scene where the new helmet they’ve developed (which can store someone else’s thoughts/perceptions) is being demonstrated with sound and they use a synth in a huge insulated room that I’m pretty sure is a Yamaha GX-1. I always thought that it looked totally amazing. Didn’t know it cost a quarter-mill though.

  10. steve norgate

    April 30, 2010 at 11:06 am

    The Tuss track ‘GX-1 Solo’ was the give away. ABBA had one too, and called it the dream machine.

    TOTP synth evolution: Mini Moog -> Prophet 5 -> DX7 -> M1/D50. Pairings of M1 + DX7 or M1 + D50 were very common too.

    Anyway back to the Fairlight. How could you not mention the Art Of Noise? They only existed because of the Fairlight. I used to have a radio 1 sdaturday afternoon documnetary taped where Anne Dudley described how the first time she used the Fairlight was on a Dollar track. PSB used to drag one on to stage occasionally too.

    See also school’s music programmes where someone would demonstrate the Fairlight or other sampler.

    The Emulator did for it (perhaps tellingly Kraftwerk got an EMU and bypassed the Fairlight completly) and and the Akais and Casios nailed the lid shut a few short years later.

  11. Adrian

    April 30, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Electronic keyboards are largely responsible for the continuing sales of floppy disks, now that PCs have stopped using them.

  12. Richard Davies

    August 9, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    I read somewhere that most (if not all) of the TV-AM main theme was created on a Fairlight.

    Harald (Axel F) Faltermayer & Yazoo era Vince Clarke made much use of Fairlights.

  13. wilberforce

    August 12, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    I remember an edition of the “South Bank Show” featuring Peter Gabriel as he went about recording what was then his latest album (Peter Gabriel “4” I think). Anyway, at one point he was tinkering about in a breaker’s yard, recording himself bashing bits of clanking metal and blowing down a tube of some kind. He then went back to his studio and started feeding his field samples into his Fairlight, producing what seemed at the time amazing if gimmicky sounds (actually, he used the blowing-down-a-tube noise to great effect on a track called “San Jacinto”).

    I see that ITV have recently started showing old SB shows under the title “South Bank Show Revisited”… well Melvin, instead of showing the usual poncy Shakespearo crap, you should dig this one out of the vaults, as it’s a real product of its time and I’m sure would be fascinating to watch as a time-capsule piece, not to mention opening a debate on how the Fairlight and its successors changed the face of popular music…

  14. Mick

    September 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    The later Fairlights were obviously the best, but as the article says, any off-the-peg PC can do it now. And far far more with a plug-in keyboard and now-free software.

    But don’t denigrate. A promo video I saw had college kids agog with a Fairlight reproducing all the beats Michael Jackson stole for the Thriller album, plus the guy notating with his guitar, having the guitar play samples and printing out a score.

    Truly revolutionary and the contemporary home computers, like the C64, could only do a tiny fraction.

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