Pandora's box of sounds : the Fairlight CMI

A brief history

Loading 3D model
Show lessRead more

At first glance, the Fairlight CMI appears to be a regular computer from the 80s combined with two keyboards—one for music and one for typing—and an additional piece of equipment in a case. However, this machine triggered one of the biggest revolutions in music, which to this day influences the way music is made: sampling. 

In December 1975, two young Australians—Peter Vogel, an electronic engineer, and Kim Ryrie, a synthesized music enthusiast—launched a brand called Fairlight. Their intention was to develop digital synthesizers that would go beyond the limitations of the era's analog models. For several years, they worked on building a groundbreaking instrument in Kim's grandmother's garage. Their first attempt, the QASAR M8 in 1976, was very large, complex, and too expensive for the market. They weren't satisfied.

Show lessRead more

Qasar M8 / source:

In 1979, the two friends completed the first Fairlight CMI Series I. The instrument incorporated innovations that were very modern for the time, even if only in terms of the parts used in it. The 12" monochrome green screen had a resolution of 512×256 pixels (16 Kbits), allowing the user to see various menus and 3D representations of sounds. Thanks to an optical pen, soundwave shapes could be edited directly on the screen. The box—which was activated via a key—had 208 Kbits of RAM, an 8-bit Motorola 6800 dual processor and two 8-inch floppy disk drives (up to ~256 KB per floppy disk). While these figures may seem small now, they were impressive for the time, justifying the high price of the machine: £12,000 for Series I models, equivalent to about $25,000. After all, its designers were targeting professional buyers, such as recording studios and successful artists.

Fairlight CMI light pen, From the collection of: Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)
Show lessRead more

The most revolutionary aspect of the Fairlight CMI was the way it enabled users to create and manipulate sounds. In fact, it was one of the first instruments to utilize digital synthesis. Not only that, but it was the first synthesizer to integrate a digital audio workstation and a visual digital sequencer. These innovations not only enabled musicians to produce sounds as they would on a traditional synthesizer, but also to compose sequences of rhythms and melodies and to arrange a track which could then be played back automatically. The "Page R" sequencer included in the Fairlight CMI Series II from 1980 was a resounding success due to its very intuitive structure, which can still be seen today in software sequencers like Ableton.        

Fairlight - page R, From the collection of: Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)
Show lessRead more

Copyright: Kevan Davis

And that's not all. Vogel and Ryrie had sought to develop a sound creation technique that would give users access to the widest possible range of sounds. After numerous attempts, they arrived at a method which they didn't see as actually achieving their goal, but rather the best compromise they could reach on their own expectations: sampling. <br> Sampling consists of recording a portion of a pre-existing sound to use it as a sound source in a new musical context. While this technique had already been used at times by manipulating magnetic tape, this was the first time an instrument allowed the user to create, modify, and reproduce recorded sounds. Indeed, a user could plug a microphone into the Fairlight CMI and process the sounds that passed through it directly on the computer, thanks to the built-in program and the optical pen. The recorded sound was then distributed across the keyboard's 73 notes so it could be played at different pitches. Up to eight notes could be played at the same time. The Fairlight CMI also offered the possibility to record brief samples lasting between half a second and a full second. They could then be saved on 8" floppy disks, with a maximum of 22 sounds per disk. Furth

Without realizing it, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie had started a revolution that would leave an indelible mark on music history. Thanks to the Fairlight CMI, any sound, whether musical or not, could now be turned into a complete instrument. The possibilities were quite simply endless.

After finding their first customer in the USA—a certain Stevie Wonder—the Fairlight CMI soon become known through word of mouth among the recording studios. Herbie Hancock also bought one and went on to introduce artists like Quincy Jones to the machine. In the UK, the instrument found favor among artists like Kate Bush, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and Peter Gabriel, who was so excited about the CMI that he co-founded a distribution company for the European market. And so the Fairlight CMI became firmly rooted in pop culture.

Jan Hammer - Crockett's Theme

Miami Vice

Jean-Michel Jarre - Zoolookologie

Yello - Oh Yeah

Art of Noise - Moments in Love

Kate Bush - Cloudbusting

By the time the Fairlight CMI Series IIx came out in 1983, the instrument had already had quite an impact on the world of music, and it appeared on many famous tracks. Some samples even began to take on a life of their own, such as the infamous Orchestra Hit (recorded as "Orch5" on the floppy disks supplied with Series I), which was taken from a passage of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird, recorded by Peter Vogel. This sample went on to be used, reused, and parodied by everyone from Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force to Bruno Mars, with Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and The Art of Noise chiming in along the way. The quality of the samples and their digital processing contributed heavily to defining the sonic fingerprint that was so typical of the music from the 1980s.

Since then, sampling has become one of the most accessible techniques in music production around the world, and quite likely one of the most widely used by producers of hip hop and electronic music. Keeping pace with the rapid changes in technology in recent decades, the Fairlight CMI is available today in the form of a smartphone app, but it can still be found today in major recording studios and its legacy is far from forgotten.

Fairlight C.M.I., From the collection of: Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)
Show lessRead more
Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Music, Makers & Machines
A brief history of electronic music
View theme
Google apps