The Fairlight CMI (short for Computer Musical Instrument) is a digital synthesizer, sampler, and digital audio workstation introduced in 1979 by Fairlight.[5][6][7] It was based on a commercial licence of the Qasar M8 developed by Tony Furse of Creative Strategies in Sydney, Australia. It was one of the earliest music workstations with an embedded sampler and is credited for coining the term sampling in music. It rose to prominence in the early 1980s and competed with the Synclavier from New England Digital.

Fairlight CMI
Fairlight CMI Series II
exhibited at NAMM Show in 2011[1]
Dates1979–1989, 2011–present
Price£ 15,000[2]–112,000[3]
Technical specifications
Polyphony8–16 voices
LFOfor vibrato[4]
Synthesis typeAdditive synthesis
Sampling (8 bit @ 16 kHz – 16 bit @ 100 kHz),
waveform editing/drawing,
additive resynthesis (FFT)
Filterlow-pass for anti-aliasing[4]
Keyboard73 keys non-weighted, velocity sensitive.
Option: slave keyboard[4]
Left-hand control3 sliders, 2 buttons,
numeric keypad (right side)[4]
External controlComputer keyboard
Light pen
CV/Gate (option, CMI II~)

History edit

Origins: 1971–1979 edit

In the 1970s, Kim Ryrie, then a teenager, had an idea to develop a build-it-yourself analogue synthesizer, the ETI 4600, for the magazine he founded, Electronics Today International (ETI). Ryrie was frustrated by the limited number of sounds that the synthesizer could make.[8] After his classmate, Peter Vogel, graduated from high school and had a brief stint at university in 1975, Ryrie asked Vogel whether he would be interested in making "the world's greatest synthesizer" based on the recently announced microprocessor. He recalled: "We had long been interested in computers – I built my first computer when I was about 12 – and it was obvious to me that combining digital technology with music synthesis was the way to go."[7]

In December 1975, Ryrie and Vogel formed a home business to manufacture digital synthesizers.[8] They named the business Fairlight after the hydrofoil ferry passing before Ryrie's grandmother's home in Sydney Harbour.[8] The two planned to design a digital synthesizer that could create sounds reminiscent of acoustic instruments (physical modelling synthesis).[8] They initially planned to make an analogue synthesizer that was digitally controlled, as the competing Moog synthesizer was difficult to control.[9]

QASAR series edit

  • QASAR M8 [Multimode 8] (1974/1975) by Tony Furse[10]
After six months, the pair met the Motorola consultant Tony Furse.[8] In association with the Canberra School of Electronic Music, Furse built a digital synthesizer using two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors, and the light pen and some of the graphics that would later become part of the Fairlight CMI.[8] However, it was only able to create exact harmonic partials, sounding sterile and inexpressive.[8][11]
  • QASAR M8 CMI [Multimode 8 Computer Musical Instrument] (1976–1978) by Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogl
Vogel and Ryrie licensed Furse's design, mainly for its processing power,[8] and decided to use microprocessor technology instead of analogue synthesis.[9] Over the next year, they built what Ryrie called a "research design", the bulky, expensive, and unmarketable eight-voice QASAR M8 CMI synthesizer, which included a 2×2×4-foot processing box and a keyboard.[8][12]

Sampling edit

By 1978, Vogel and Ryrie were making "interesting" but unrealistic sounds. Hoping to learn how to synthesize an instrument by studying the harmonics of real instruments, Vogel recorded about a second of a piano piece from a radio broadcast. He discovered that by playing the recording back at different pitches, it sounded much more realistic than a synthesized piano sound. He recalled in 2005:

It sounded remarkably like a piano, a real piano. This had never been done before ... By today's standards it was a pretty awful piano sound, but at the time it was a million times more like a piano than anything any synthesizer had churned out. So I rapidly realised that we didn't have to bother with all the synthesis stuff. Just take the sounds, whack them in the memory and away you go.[9]

Vogel and Ryrie coined the term sampling to describe this process.[13] With the Fairlight CMI, they could now produce endless sounds, but control was limited to attack, sustain, decay and vibrato. According to Ryrie, "We regarded using recorded real-life sounds as a compromise – as cheating – and we didn't feel particularly proud of it."[8] They continued to work on the design while creating office computers for Remington Office Machines, which Ryrie described as "a horrendous exercise, but we sold 120 of them".[8]

Series I: 1979–1982 edit

Fairlight CMI

In addition to the keyboard, processing, computer graphics and interactive pen borrowed from Furse's synthesizer, the pair added a QWERTY keyboard, and a large 1×1.5×3-foot box stored the sampling, processing and ADC/DAC hardware and the 8-inch floppy disk.[8] The biggest problem was largely considered to be the small 16 kB sample memory. To accommodate sample lengths from approximately a quarter of a second to an entire second, a low variable sample rate between 24 kHz and 8 kHz was used.[8] The low sample rate introduced aliasing; however, Vogel felt that the low quality of the sounds gave them their own character.[14]

The Music Composition Language feature was criticised as being too difficult for empirical users.[8] Other primitive aspects included its limited amount of RAM (208 kilobytes) and its green-and-black graphics.[8] Nonetheless, the CMI garnered significant attention from Australian distributors and consumers for being able to emulate sounds of acoustic instruments, as well as for its light pen and three-dimensional sound visualisation. Still, Vogel was unsure whether there would be enough interest in the product.[8] The CMI's ability to emulate real instruments made some refer to it as an "orchestra-in-a-box", and each unit came with 8-inch, 500-kilobyte floppy disks that each stored 22 samples of orchestral instruments.[8] The Fairlight CMI also garnered publicity in the science industry, being featured on the BBC science and technology series Tomorrow's World. The Musicians' Union described it as a "lethal threat" to its members.[8]

In the summer of 1979, Vogel demonstrated the Fairlight CMI at the home of English singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel, where Gabriel was working on his third solo studio album.[8] Gabriel, as well as many other people in the studio, was instantly engrossed, and he used strange sounds such as breaking glass bottles and bricks on the album.[8][15] One of those present for the demonstration, Stephen Paine, recalled in 1996: "The idea of recording a sound into solid-state memory and having real-time pitch control over it appeared incredibly exciting. Until that time everything that captured sound had been tape-based. The Fairlight CMI was like a much more reliable and versatile digital Mellotron. Gabriel was completely thrilled, and instantly put the machine to use during the week that Peter Vogel stayed at his house."[8]

Gabriel was also interested in selling the CMI in the United Kingdom, and he and Paine formed Syco Systems to distribute it for £12,000.[8] The first UK customer was Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, followed by musicians including Boz Burrell, Kate Bush, Geoff Downes, Trevor Horn, Alan Parsons, Richard Wright and Thomas Dolby.[8] The Fairlight CMI was also a commercial success in the United States, used by acts such as Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Todd Rundgren and Joni Mitchell.[8] Musicians came to realize that the CMI could not match the expressiveness and control by acoustic instruments, and that sampling was better applied as imaginative sound than pure reproduction.[8][16]

Series II: 1982–1985 edit

Fairlight CMI Series IIx (1983)

The second version of the Fairlight CMI, Series II, was released at a price of £30,000 in 1982.[8] The sampler's maximum sample rate was increased to 32 kHz, allowing a reduction of aliasing, but only for short samples, as its sample memory was not increased. The bit depth of the sampler also remained 8 bits.[8] The CMI's popularity peaked in 1982 following its appearance on a special of the arts magazine series The South Bank Show that documented the making of Peter Gabriel's fourth self-titled studio album, where he used 64 kilobytes worth of samples of world music instruments and sequenced percussion.[17]

The Fairlight CMI Series II became widely used in popular music recordings of the early to mid-1980s,[8] and its most commonly used presets included an orchestra hit ("ORCH 5") and a breathy vox ("ARR 1").[17]

Page R edit

"Page R" and light pen on Fairlight CMI Series II

The popularity of Series II was in large part due to a new feature, Page R, their first true music sequencer.[8] As a replacement for the complicated Music Composition Language (MCL) used by Series I, Page R helped the Fairlight CMI Series II become a commercial juggernaut. Page R expanded the CMI's audience beyond that of accomplished keyboard players.[8] Audio Media magazine described it as an echo of the punk rock era: "Page R also gave rise to a flow of quasi-socialist sounding ideology, that hailed the impending democratisation of music creation, making it available to the musically chops-challenged."[8] Graphically depicting editable notes horizontally from left to right, the music programming profession and the concepts of quantization and cycling patterns of bars where instrument channels could be added or removed were also born out of the Page R sequencer.[8] CMI user Roger Bolton recalled: "By definition, its sampling limitations and the Page R sequencer forced the composer to make high-quality decisions out of necessity. The CMI II was a high-level composition tool that not only shaped the sound of the 80s, but the way that music was actually written."[18] Fairlight kept making updates to the system, such as a 1983 upgrade called the CMI Series IIx, which now allowed for MIDI, until the release of Series III in 1985.[8]

Series III: 1985–1989 edit

Fairlight CMI Series III (1985)

The sampler of the Series III featured many improvements on its predecessors. It was capable of 16-bit sampling, with a maximum sample rate of 44.1 kHz, across 16 channels. This was enabled by the increase in sample memory from 16 kB per channel to 14 MB across all channels, an increase by a factor of 56, even when all channels are in use.[8] Its design, graphics, and editing tools were also improved, such as the addition of a tablet next to the QWERTY keys, using a stylus instead of the on-screen lightpen;[8] this change was made due to complaints from users regarding arm aches from having to hold the pen on the screen.[18]

CAPS edit

An enhanced version of the Page R sequencer called Composer, Arranger, Performer, Sequencer, or CAPS, as well as Eventsync, a post-production utility based on SMPTE timecode linking, were also added to the Series III computer.[8] However, while many people were still using CMIs, sales were starting to diminish significantly due to much lower-cost, MIDI-based sequencers and samplers including the Atari ST and Akai's S612, S900 and 1000 samplers in the market.[8] Paine stopped selling the CMI in the United Kingdom because of this.[8] The Fairlight company was becoming more focused on post-production products, a market Paine had a hard time getting used to, and when HHB Communications Ltd took over distribution for the United Kingdom, they failed to sell any.[8]

Adoption edit

Peter Gabriel was the first owner of a Fairlight Series I in the UK. Boz Burrell of Bad Company purchased the second, which Hans Zimmer hired for many recordings during the early part of his career.[19] In the US, Bruce Jackson demonstrated the Series I sampler for a year before selling units to Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder in 1980 for US$27,500 each.[20] Meat-packing heir Geordie Hormel bought two for use at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles.[20] Other early adopters included Todd Rundgren, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, producer Rhett Lawrence and Ned Liben of Ebn Ozn,[8] the owner of Sundragon Recording Studios who served as the demonstration representative for Fairlight for the U.S. east of the Mississippi.[citation needed]

The first commercially released studio album to incorporate the Fairlight was Kate Bush's Never for Ever (1980), programmed by Richard James Burgess and John L. Walters.[21] Wonder took his Fairlight out on tour in 1980 in support of the soundtrack album Stevie Wonder's Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants" to replace the Computer Music Melodian sampler he had used on the recording.[20] Geoff Downes used the Fairlight on Yes' 1980 studio album Drama and its subsequent tour. Downes later used the Fairlight on the Buggles' 1981 studio album Adventures in Modern Recording, and both in the studio and live with Asia. The first classical album using the CMI was produced by Folkways Records in 1980 with composers Barton McLean and Priscilla McLean.[22]

Peter Gabriel's 1982 studio album also featured the CMI. In 1981, Austrian musicians Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader composed a symphony, Erdenklang – Computerakustische Klangsinfonie.[23] This work premiered live on stage, using five music computers, during the Ars Electronica festival in Linz.[24] In 1984, he released an album by the singer and songwriter Claudia Robot. (Phonogram) Her studio album Alarmsignal consisted of songs written by the female vocalist, with tracks produced by the Fairlight CMI.

The first commercially released single in the US made with a computer, a Fairlight CMI, was Ebn Ozn's "AEIOU Sometimes Y" (Elektra 1983) - actually recorded in 1981-82[25] along with their studio album "Feeling Cavalier" (Elektra Records 1984).

Devo's 1984 studio album Shout heavily featured the Fairlight CMI at the expense of analog instruments. Gerald Casale later stated that Shout was the biggest regret of his career, "because the Fairlight [synthesizer] just kind of took over everything on that record. I mean, I loved the songwriting and the ideas, but the Fairlight kind of really determined the sound."[26] Frontman Mark Mothersbaugh later used the CMI in the soundtrack of the 1991 children's television show Rugrats.[27] The instrument is most prominently heard as the lead instrument in the show's theme song – it is the 'Swannee' sample with a low-pass filter applied.

Australian singer John Farnham used a Fairlight CMI on his twelfth album, Whispering Jack, in 1985 and 1986.[28]

Influence and legacy edit

After the success of the Fairlight CMI, other firms introduced sampling. New England Digital modified their Synclavier digital synth to perform sampling, while E-mu Systems introduced a less costly sampling keyboard, the Emulator, in 1981. In the United States, a new sampler company, Ensoniq, introduced the Ensoniq Mirage in 1985 for the price of $1,695, less than a quarter of the price of other samplers.[29]

In America, Joan Gand of Gand Music and Sound in Northfield, Illinois was the top salesperson for Fairlight. The Gand organisation sold CMIs to Prince, James "J.Y." Young of Styx, John Lawry of Petra, Derek St. Holmes of the Ted Nugent band, Al Jourgensen of Ministry, and many private studio owners and rock personalities.[30] Spokesperson Jan Hammer appeared at several Gand-sponsored Musictech pro audio events, to perform the "Miami Vice Theme".

The ubiquity of the Fairlight was such that Phil Collins stated on the sleeve notes of his 1985 studio album No Jacket Required that "there is no Fairlight on this record" to clarify that he had not used one to synthesize horn and string sounds.[31]

Swedish warez and Commodore demo scene group Fairlight took its name from this device, which Jean-Michel Jarre used on some of his records.[32]

Experimental music group Coil considered the device unique and unsurpassed, describing using the Fairlight as "An aural equivalent of William Burroughs cut-ups".[33]

In 2015, the Fairlight CMI was inducted into the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia collection.[34]

References edit


  1. ^ "Mix Announces Certified Hits of NAMM 2011". Mix (28 January 2011). Archived from the original on 10 August 2016. Retrieved 20 February 2011.
  2. ^ Beecher, Mike (June 1981). "Fairlight CMI Review". Electronics & Music Maker. United Kingdom: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing. pp. 56–59. Retrieved 7 June 2023.
  3. ^ "Fairlight CMI Series III". Sound On Sound. United Kingdom: SOS Publications Ltd. October 1987. p. 37. Retrieved 7 June 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d Holmes, Greg (17 September 2010). "The Holmes Page: The Fairlight CMI". GH Services.
  5. ^ VCO8 (7 October 2015), Peter Vogel demonstrates the Fairlight CMI 30A, archived from the original on 12 December 2021, retrieved 26 October 2017{{citation}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ "Fairlight History".
  7. ^ a b Vogel, Peter. "The Fairlight Story". Retrieved 5 April 2016. — with links to some Fairlight history and photos
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an "Fairlight – The Whole Story". Audio Media Magazine (January 1996).
  9. ^ a b c Hamer, Mick (26 March 2015). "Interview: Electronic maestros". New Scientist. Reed Business Information. Archived from the original on 8 July 2008. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  10. ^ Qasar M8 digital synthesizer (1975-1978), Tony Furse (Creative Strategies, Sydney), Powerhouse Museum, Object No. 96/382/1, Production: Designed by Tony Furse. Made by Tony Furse and Creative Strategies, Sydney, Australia. / History: Used by Tony Furse, Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogle as prototype to development of Fairlight CMI.
  11. ^ Chapman 2012, p. 3
    Furse's next project was an all-digital synthesiser, which he named the Qasar M8 (Multimode 8) synthesiser. In addition to a keyboard, Furse had developed a graphics display which, with the use of a light pen, allowed the operator to create an instrument or voice using waveforms. After having made a deal with the large American electronics company, Motorola to use their programme development system, Furse was able to develop the MUSEQ 8 sequence playing system. The idea was that the MUSEQ 8 system, when used in conjunction with his M8, could be used by composers of all kinds of music, not just electronic, for the composition and the performance of music. Another major innovation with the M8 synthesiser was Furse's use of two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors in an unusual parallel configuration which greatly speeded up data input and output. / In late 1974, following the success of Furse's lecture and demonstration of the Qasar M8 in Canberra before an audience from the Canberra School of Music, the Australian National University and the College of Advanced Education, Don Banks, who realised the potential of Furse's invention for the School of Music, requested a similar model be made for the School's electronic music studio. Furse continued to work on the prototype making use of the latest technology by incorporating floppy disk storage using the newly released 8 inch floppy disks The disks worked differently from tape recorded music in that a piece of music could be reorchestrated without altering the data on the disk. ”
  12. ^ Chapman 2012, p. 4
    From 1976 Furse worked with Fairlight on the project, which included producing circuit boards from the circuit board schematics and reconfiguring the synthesiser's keyboard resulting in the production of a totally redesigned version of the synthesiser which was known initially as the M8 CMI (Multimode 8 Computer Musical Instrument). In early 1979 Tony Furse, with less involvement in the project, signed a licence agreement with Fairlight, allowing them the use of his intellectual property for both the synthesiser and the computer. ”
  13. ^ "The Lost Art of Sampling: Part 1". Sound on Sound. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  14. ^ Leo Brown, Simon (17 November 2015). "Fairlight CMI synthesiser, used by stars like Michael Jackson, added to Sounds of Australia registry". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  15. ^ Stump, Paul (1997). The Music's All that Matters: A History of Progressive Rock. Quartet Books Limited. p. 267. ISBN 0-7043-8036-6.
  16. ^ "Gabriel looks for live sound in the studio". Billboard. No. 26 July 1986. 26 July 1986.
  17. ^ a b Moran, Michael (29 April 2011). "Fairlight: The Rolls Royce of synthesizers". The Register. Situation Publishing. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  18. ^ a b Willox, Mike (28 May 2014). "Studio Icons: Fairlight CMI Series". Music Tech. Anthem Publishing. Archived from the original on 30 November 2018. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  19. ^ Dawson, Giles (4 August 1983). "Machines alive with the sound of music". New Scientist: 333.
  20. ^ a b c Stewart, Andy. "Name Behind the Name: Bruce Jackson – Apogee, Jands, Lake Technology". Audio Technology (40).
  21. ^ "About Fairlight CMI | Artrocker". 7 August 2011. Archived from the original on 7 August 2011. Retrieved 25 June 2023.
  22. ^ Olmsted, Tony (2003). Folkways Records: Moses Asch and Folkways Records. New York, N.Y.: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-56098-812-0.
  23. ^ "About us". Erdenklang Musikverlag. Archived from the original on 21 April 2008.
  24. ^ Hubert Bognermayr; Harald Zuschrader. "Erdenklang - Computer-Acoustic Dance Theatre". Ars Electronica 1982. Ars Electronica ( Archived from the original on 28 January 2006. (see also other archive Archived 8 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine)
  25. ^ "About Fairlight CMI | Artrocker". Archived from the original on 7 August 2011.
  26. ^ "The Q&A: Devo". Billboard. Retrieved 22 March 2021.
  27. ^ Klickstein, Mathew (5 March 2012). "Mark Mothersbaugh on Rugrats". Vulture. Retrieved 22 November 2022.
  28. ^ Adams, Cameron (11 April 2018). "Why John Farnham was nearly rock-blocked from 'You're the Voice'". Retrieved 12 April 2021.
  29. ^ Paul Théberge (1997). Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan University Press. p. 65. ISBN 9780819563095.
  30. ^ "Joan Gand". NAMM. 24 October 2016.
  31. ^ "Phil Collins - No Jacket Required". Genesis News. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
  32. ^ Goldberg, Daniel (20 April 2012). "We might be old, but we're still the elite". IDG. Translated by Anders Lotsson. Archived from the original on 21 April 2012.
  33. ^ COIL - Part 1 - rare unedited May 2001 interview w/ John Balance & Peter Christopherson (video) – via YouTube.
  34. ^ "2015 Registry additions". National Film and Sound Archive. Retrieved 5 April 2016.


External links edit