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.