The Fairlight CMI

The Australian invention that revolutionised music technology and profoundly influenced global music culture

By Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Fairlight CMI 30A Computer Musical InstrumentMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

The Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight CMI had a profound impact on electronic music culture. Not only did it introduce the technique of “sampling”, but it was one of the first integrated digital music workstations with a graphic user interface to become commercially available. 

An Unusual Story

The entire system was developed in relative isolation in Australia by inventors, designers, and engineers Kim Ryrie & Peter Vogel. The unlikely story of the CMI’s development stands in stark contrast to the impact it had not only on audio technology but global musical culture.

The Fairlight CMI 30A

At MESS, we have in our collection the Peter Vogel Instruments CMI-30A. This instrument is a contemporary redesign of the original Fairlight CMI overseen by Peter Vogel, and sold in a limited edition to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original CMI.

Original sound, contemporary parts

While retaining the sound, look and feel of the original CMI’s, this instrument expands on the capabilities of the original with a modern CPU and an extensive sample memory and storage capacity common today, but unheard of in the 1980s.

A modern rarity

Production of these machines was halted due to legal action from the owners of the Fairlight trademark. Subsequently, only a handful were produced. This CMI-30A was Peter Vogel's personal machine which was then purchased by Australian artist Wally de Backer (aka Gotye).

International 4600 (1973) by Electronic Today InternationalMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Analogue Roots

The origin of the Fairlight begins with this instrument – the ETI-4600 (aka International 4600).

Switched On Bach (1968) by Wendy CarlosMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Inspiration

Kim Ryrie was inspired by the potential of the synthesiser after hearing Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach. This seminal LP was widely credited with bringing electronic sound to the popular music audience.

Electronics Today International, January 1974. (1974) by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

DIY Kit Synth

Kim’s father was a publisher and at his son's suggestion had created a magazine called Electronics Today International, and Kim thought a DIY synthesiser would be a great project for the magazine.

International 4600 (1973) by Electronic Today InternationalMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

ETI-4600

The machine was designed by Trevor Marshall, with packaging and kitting coordination from Barry Wilkinson at ETI. The entire project was published over a 12 month run of the magazine and approximately 1000 units were made by electronic enthusiasts in Australia and Europe.

Subtractive Analogue

This 4-oscillator "partly digital, mostly analogue" machine was typical of many of the subtractive synthesis machines of the early 1970s. For example, it is monophonic, meaning it can only play one note at a time. This machine cannot play chords simultaneously.

Matrix Patching

One notable feature is the distinctive matrix-style patch bay. Common to many of the famous English EMS synthesisers, which also share an Australian origin story. This feature allowed for the interconnection of all of the machine's functions without the need for audio cables.

Wendy Carlos in her home studio demonstrating and explaining some of the techniques used in the creation of Switched-On Bach.

While happy with the outcome of the project, Kim was frustrated with the unnatural sound and limited functionality of the instrument. Around this time, powerful digital microprocessors were becoming more affordable and widely available which gave Kim the idea that something else was possible for a musical instrument. At this time, however, not even machines like Apple I were a reality, let alone a dedicated playable digital musical instrument. Kim got in touch with his old school friend and fellow electronics engineer, Peter Vogel, with a bold suggestion, "How about we build the world's greatest synthesiser?". With both Kim and Peter being at loose ends and with nothing better to do, they decided to set up shop in the basement of Kim's grandmother's house, situated on the iconic Sydney Harbour waterfront, and get to work.

Hydrofoil 'Fairlight' by City of SydneyMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Fairlight

When they were in the process of incorporating their new company, Peter and Kim had to quickly find a name for their new organisation. Looking out onto the harbour they saw the Fairlight hydrofoil ferry passing by and had their name.

Kim and Peter’s aim was to create a playable electronic instrument that sounded “natural”, and, after initially pursuing Kim’s idea for how they may be able to do this, quickly realised that it was unfeasible. At this time, Kim and Peter were introduced to Tony Furse who had also been working on a musical instrument that sought to use digital technology to model and create realistic sounding waveforms.

Tony Furse with the Qasar II by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Anthony (Tony) Furse

Tony Furse has worked as an electronics engineer in computing since the 1960s. 

Tony Furse has worked as an electronics engineer in computing since the 1960s. In his spare time he had developed his own electronic instruments to the point where he had founded his own company and produced two innovative analogue/digital hybrid synthesisers, the Quasar I and Quasar II. While these rare instruments were praised at the time for their design, they fell short of Furse’s ambition for a realistic-sounding instrument.

The Qasar I, Unknown, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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The Qasar II, Unknown, From the collection of: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio
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The QASAR I (left) and QASAR II (right), both hybrid analogue-digital synthesisers designed by Tony Furse. Images courtesy of 120years.net with thanks to Simon Crab.

Don Banks in his home studio. (1971) by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Don Banks

Australian composer Don Banks, whose interest in electronic musical instruments had influenced Peter Zinovieff, Tristram Cary and David Cockerell of EMS to begin to commercially produce synthesisers, played a key role in supporting the development of the Quasar II as well as Furse’s next all-digital machine, the Quasar M8.

Image courtesy of ANU Photographic Archive.

Tony Furse with the Qasar M8 by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

QASAR M8

Along with Vogel and Ryrie, Furse had realised that microprocessors were the means to produce a realistic-sounding synthesiser. 

Image courtesy of 120years.net 

The ideas put forward by the QASAR M8 (Multimode 8) eventually led to the Fairlight CMI. Based on an innovative design using Motorola 6800 microprocessors, the QASAR M8 featured a piano keyboard, a light pen (used to draw waveforms directly onto a monitor) as well as a system for music control and sequencing called MUSEQ 8. In 1974, after a lecture and demonstration of the prototype machine, Don Banks commissioned Furse to build a QASAR M8 for the Canberra School of Music.

The Qasar CMI by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

The prototype M8 was eventually sold to the Canberra School of Music which allowed for further development of the instrument to take place. Also at this time Ryrie and Vogel had approached Furse with an offer to develop and manufacture his synthesiser, as well as seek other opportunities for the computer which lay at the heart of the system.

Image courtesy of 120years.net 

The Qasar CMI by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

QASAR CMI

As part of the development process with Fairlight, an interim machine called the QASAR CMI was developed. A complete redesign of the M8, the CMI featured a reconfiguration of the keyboard as well as printed (rather than hand-wired) circuit boards. 

Image courtesy of 120years.net 

In 1979, after many years of development, Furse became less involved with the project and licensed his intellectual property to Fairlight to allow them to continue to develop the system. The QASAR CMI and M8, along with other instruments, objects and papers of Tony Furse’s are now held by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, Australia.

What about the sound?

One of the main innovations that occurred between the QASAR M8 and CMI was the approach as to how the sound itself was generated. Originally, Furse had pursued additive Fourier synthesis as the means for sound generation. While the M8’s computer was powerful for its time, it was not powerful enough to calculate the complexity required for this synthesis method to generate a convincingly authentic sound. The sound of the M8 has been described as cold and sterile. Here is an example from Peter Vogel's online Fairlight archive.

By contrast, with the exponentially more powerful processors in today’s computers, there are many software-based physical modelling synthesisers that use variations of this method to produce very authentic complex-sounding waveforms.

       Pianoteq is a software instrument produced by Modartt. The software authentic models the sound and behaviour of keyboard-based instruments. It is important to note when listening that what you are hearing is a result of complex mathematical equations controlling a large number of oscillators in real-time. This sound generation method is closely related to the original ambition for the synthesis method employed in the QASAR M8.   

The Qasar M8 by UnknownMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Towards Sampling

With the M8 unable to synthesise a convincing sound, another method of authentic sound generation was needed. Vogel and Ryrie had a powerful custom computer with a digital memory at their disposal and that meant that another method was possible. 

Image courtesy of 
120years.net

Of the many major innovations introduced in the Fairlight CMI, arguably the most significant was its “sampling” sound generation method.

By feeding the sound of a real instrument from a live microphone or recording into the computer, a digital representation of this sound could be stored in the computer's memory and played back via a piano keyboard or other control source. The idea was that you could take a small section of a sound, a “sample”, and use the computer to digitally store, playback, and manipulate this sound in real-time.

It was this innovation that made the Fairlight CMI sound remarkably like an authentic instrument and unlike the sound of any other commercial electronic instrument at that time.

Peter Vogel demonstrating sampling via the Fairlight CMI on 'This Week' from ABC-TV Australia (1980)

Herbie Hancock demonstrating sampling with the CMI on 'Sesame Street'. Interestingly in a 2019 conversation between Peter Vogel and MESS director Byron Scullin, Peter related an anecdote of attending a (then recent) trade show in the US where a famous music producer cited watching this moment on Sesame Street as a child, and it being instrumental in inspiring them to pursue a life in music.

Mellotron Mini (2017) by MellotronMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Old Samples

Interestingly, this method of sound creation has an older analogue precedent that can be found in other electronic instruments. Most famously in the Mellotron.

In a strange twist, this modern Mellotron from the MESS collection uses digital sampling, rather than magnetic tape, to recreate the sound of its analogue forebear! The Mellotron was used by many famous artists including The Beatles, King Crimson and The Moody Blues.

Paul McCartney demonstrates on the Mellotron.

Peter Vogel and Byron Scullin in discussion. (2019-10-15) by Mathew WatsonMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

From a Basement in Sydney to the World

The development of the Fairlight CMI was intensive, arduous and time consuming. As part of a joint project between MESS and RedBull Music in 2019 called Synthesis, MESS director Byron Scullin sat down to discuss the Fairlight development story.   

In the interview excerpt below, we pick up the story of the CMI at the point where Peter and Kim have a working prototype of the CMI but no real sense of who the customers might be, how the instrument would be sold, or even if the idea itself was original.

This aspect of the Fairlight story details how the instrument became known to the world and involves a chance meeting with an old friend of Kim's, Elvis, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Peter Gabriel.

Peter Vogel and Byron Scullin in discussion. (2019-10-15) by Mathew WatsonMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Peter Vogel and Byron Scullin in discussion.
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From a Sydney basement to the World

The development of the Fairlight CMI was intensive, arduous and time consuming. As part of a joint project between MESS and RedBull Music in 2019 called Synthesis, MESS director Byron Scullin sat down to discuss the Fairlight development story.   

Fairlight CMI Series I by Joho346Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Fairlight CMI

After its introduction to the world, the CMI became a sensation. It was the defining sound of 1980s popular electronic music and launched the careers of many notable artists and producers.

Page R from a Fairlight CMI II by Joho345Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio

Page R

Aside from the innovation of sampling, the CMI also bought with it a new way of composing music. Page R in the Fairlight operating system allowed artists to extensively program and sequence their music. Not only this, its user interface was graphic, making it easy to use.

It was Page R in the CMI that set the course for the music software we use today. Computer-based MIDI sequencers and DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) systems that are the mainstay of contemporary music production, all share a lineage with Page R from the Fairlight CMI.

Fairlight CMI 30A Computer Musical Instrument Fairlight CMI 30A Computer Musical Instrument (2011) by Fairlight InstrumentsMelbourne Electronic Sound Studio

A new world of sound

The Fairlight CMI left a profound mark on popular music and audio technology. With the introduction of sampling and digital music sequencing, it laid the foundation for contemporary music-making. Entire genres of music would be profoundly different were it not for the innovations that the CMI introduced.

Influence

What follows is a small selection of music, interviews and talks that further detail the impact of the Fairlight CMI on musical culture.

Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" was the lead single from her Hounds Of Love LP. The CMI allowed Bush to largely self-produce and perform all parts on the record having negated the need for a band or musicians. The CMI was the heart of Bush's home studio where the record was made from scratch. Considered one of her finest records, it could be said this record was the vanguard example for the many self-produced solo records made in artists home studios today.

A fantastic video lecture, 'Kate Bush and the Fairlight CMI' presented by Dr Dori Howard and Cliff Bradbury. This was filmed in Music Technology facilities at Keele University in 2020 showcasing the Fairlight CMI.

It was Peter Gabriel who had the first Fairlight CMI in the UK and introduced Kate Bush to the instrument. Here, Gabriel demonstrates his use of the CMI in his studio.

Peter Gabriel's completed track "The Rhythm of the Heat" that is demonstrated in progress from the previous clip.

This excellent video by Estelle Caswell from Vox details the impact of justy one of the sounds that came bundled with the Fairlight - the Orchestra Hit.

Producer Trevor Horn talks about the Fairlight CMI. Many of Horn's 1980s productions made heavy use of the CMI. His work with Malcolm McLaren, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Art of Noise and Grace Jones (among many more) all feature sounds produced with the CMI.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax". As mentioned by Horn in the clip prior, the production was the first time he locked a Fairlight CMI to a drum machine. 

Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones in the studio demoing and jamming on the Fairlight CMI

Herbie Hancock's hit single "Rockit" featuring sounds from the Fairlight CMI. Interestingly, this film clip was directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme (aka Godley & Creme aka 10cc)

Credits: Story

This MESS project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.
Photographs by Kristoffer Paulsen.

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.
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