Fairlight CMI - A Musical Revolution
By James Grahame
Music of the early 1980s was strongly influenced by computer technology. We saw the arrival of the revolutionary Linn LM-1 drum machine, along with digitally controlled synthesizers and effect units. But the most radical innovation was the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument (CMI).
Created in Australia by Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel, the 1979 Fairlight was originally envisioned as a computer-based music synthesis system. But the Fairlight had other more influential tricks up its sleeve: it was the first digital sampling instrument, capable of recording snippets of real sound and playing them back at different speeds. This meant that incredibly complex and realistic sounds could be captured and performed by musicians.
Only a few original Fairlights were sold to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel. By 1982, an upgraded Fairlight Series II offered better sound and included a graphic sequencing program called Page R. It became possible for musicians and sound designers to quickly program complex musical pieces, and all of a sudden the Fairlight Sound was everywhere. The world would never be the same.
The Fairlight CMI Series II cost around $32,000 when new. It featured 8 voices of 8-bit lo-fi audio, and each sampling card had only 16K of Memory - enough for a fraction of a second of sound. Some features were light years ahead of their time: The main system was driven by twin 6800 microprocessors and featured an enormous (by 1982 standards) 64K or memory (upgraded to 256K in the subsequent Series IIx). The built-in video system featured a light pen for point and click control. Sequences could be played back directly from the twin 8" floppy disk drives, allowing incredibly long and complex performances.
The Fairlight soon had stiff competition. New England Digital introduced the stratospherically priced Synclavier (perhaps most famous for the chiming gong sound at the beginning of Michael Jackson's Beat It), and Emu Systems introduced the sub-$10,000 Emulator and Emulator II keyboards. Technology advanced so quickly that by 1985 the Ensoniq Mirage cost a mere $2000 and became known as the poor-man's Fairlight.
Fairlight went on to introduce the CMI Series III in 1985. It offered pristine 16-bit sound, hard drive storage, tape backup, and a gigantic 14MB of sample memory. Unfortunately, stiff competition from manufacturers such as Sequential Circuits, Roland and Akai forced the company out of business by the late 1980s.
[Update: Fairlights show up occasionally on eBay. Decent Series III instruments are usually around $5000-$10000, depending on configuration and condition. Horizontal Productions offers serviced Series IIIs and upgrades to 32MB memory. Series IIx (with MIDI/timecode sync) also show up sometimes, but spare parts for the IIx are almost impossible to find.]
The Holmes Page (info, pics, and a great Fairlight forum and swap shop)
Classic Fairlight sounds: AHH, ORCH5, OOHH, TRIAD (short WAV files on The Holmes Page)
Norm Leete's Fairlight retro adventure (SOS Magazine)
Fairlight Week (Music Thing)