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George Barker, composer, synthesist and owner of Ravenwood Music

It was the early eighties when George Barker boldly went where no one had gone before. Armed with a report and costings, he stepped into the board room of publishing house Josef Weinberger Ltd and convinced the managing director to invest in a game changing musical computer. And so, the madness began….

Currently, George Barker owns a company called Ravenwood  Music, specialising in providing electronic music in every style you can think of. By the name of Willie Gibson he writes, produces and puts out his own music. George: “I have my own ProTools studio complete with an extensive Eurorack modular system and several other synths.” The modular is his main working horse. 

Music has always played an enormous part in George’s life. “Originally, I started out as a trumpet player. After leaving music college in 1969, I often worked in pick-up bands, backing American Soul artists on UK and European tours. In 1973 I decided that I could not go on indefinitely as a jobbing brass player. After much job searching, when it became clear that the most unemployable person in the music industry was a musician, I ended up at the publishing house Josef Weinberger Ltd. Whilst predominantly a publisher of musicals and operetta, JW had a production music department, popularly known as ‘mood music’ or ‘library music’. JW supplied broadcasters, production companies, ad agencies and any user of music in audio-visual media. We produced recorded music which we felt was appropriate for the market, we had it pressed on 12″ vinyl and supplied copies, free of charge to bona fide users of such music. In 1974, I started being much more involved in commissioning album projects and in studio production. And in the world of production music, things were changing fast.”

Need we say more?

“This was also the time of the birth of commercial radio in the UK, which was an important market for JW, despite the relatively low fees as opposed to TV advertising. Back then ad agencies were used to handling TV and press advertising, but they simply didn’t understand radio advertising, which left the market open to specialist radio production houses – some of my best clients – who devised many creative and imaginative ad campaigns. In January 1981, I attended the MIDEM music industry convention in Cannes. That’s where I first heard of this new machine that could sample real sounds. Not much else was known about it. I then spotted an ad in a pro-audio magazine called Studio Sound, which had a 1/8 page monochrome strip ad with a picture of the Fairlight and the strap line: ‘Fairlight C.M.I – Need We Say More?’ and a contact telephone number. “

“Well, yes indeed: they needed to say more!  If this machine did anything like what I had heard, then it had great potential in advertising. We worked with some very creative companies in radio advertisement and that’s really where I saw its potential. In fact, not so much for music, but for using tuned sound effects.
So I called the number. I wouldn’t say that reception was warm, and I had to do a lot of persuasion even to arrange a visit to see the Fairlight and discuss my plans, as the company repping Fairlight in the UK, Syco Systems, had never heard of Josef Weinberger, nor of ‘library music’. They were really only interested in selling Fairlights to stars. In fact, later on, they confessed that it was very frustrating that so far, they had only sold to universities and educational facilities and to virtually no rock stars! JW was I believe the 7th purchaser in Europe.”

“So, I made the journey to see the beast at Peter Gabriel’s studio in Bath, where at that time Syco Systems was based, and I was sufficiently impressed and confident that this would be just what we needed to develop our activities in supplying music for advertising. My next task was to convince the management directors of JW that what amounted to the biggest single investment in our department was worthwhile. It should be noted that JW was – and in some ways still is – a very old-fashioned company; very straight-laced and into ‘serious music’. Somehow, I managed to convince the managing director. I got permission to put the order through. Then followed a six-week wait for a machine to be shipped from Australia. But, Syco had kindly provided me with a typeritten manual of the Mk1 Fairlight CMI, which constituted my bedtime reading every night during the six weeks of waiting. I’m a great believer in manuals! And I literary read the thing from cover to cover, almost daily.”

“The Fairlight arrived in July, accompanied by Syco Systems’ distinctly eccentric engineer Philip Brain, resplendent in hippie-style paisley design shirt and velvet jacket; much to the horror of my managing director! Once set up, and with only half a dozen factory sample disks, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I even had to go out and buy a microphone for sampling!  When I actually got the machine, initially, I could turn it on, load sounds, plug the thing up correctly and actually get sounds out of it. After that, the manual became largely irrelevant, because, I also had the MCL manual which had all the syntax for writhing music in command line level. Eventually, they developed Page R which allowed you to write notes in, which was okay, but still incredibly tedious putting stuff in. I think I only used that on a couple of demos I did for advertising pitches.”

Muddling through

“Around the corner from our office was the sound department of one of my best clients at the time. One afternoon, I lugged the Fairlight to their studio to experiment. Now, the first thing we discovered was that, although the Fairlight could sample from 10k to 31.5k, we had no means of ascertaining what sample rate to set, in order that a pitched sample (say a middle C) appeared on the keyboard in the right place. To know this, you needed to know the frequency of the pitch x 128, divided down below 31500. So for example – one that I remember – the sample rate for G was ‘25088’ which is 196×128. Somehow, I managed to find a pitch-to-frequency table, published by a hi-fi magazine. In a later software revision, Fairlight added a page where you could select pitch-related sample rates. This is just one illustration of the fact that the developers didn’t really have a clue about how musicians worked or what they needed. The piano keyboard for example. It was rubbish! And it was criticized by lots of keyboard players. It was just plastic making contact on metal. Also, it wasn’t very robust. One other misconception: the Fairlight wasn’t a synth in any practical sense. Yes, you could draw waveforms on the screen, but you wouldn’t want to. Yes, it could do additive synthesis, but again: it was so clunky… When clients asked for synth sounds, I’d actually had to rely on sampled synth sounds that I got. The only sound I ever created was some weedy harpsichord.” Things like that demonstrate they didn’t really have a connection with musicians during its development. They certainly didn’t really have much understanding of how stuff was written or recorded, I think. A lot of things, we had to work out on the fly, in the studio, which could get pretty expensive. I think, Fairlight’s biggest problem in the early days was that they had this somewhat arrogant view that if you had a CMI, you didn’t need anything else. And that’s why they resisted MIDI for a long time. By the time the IIx came out, there were cheaper alternatives.”

“You could sync it to itself, which I had to do on a few occasions. For example, I did Händel’s Watermusic for a film by the English Tourist Board. I needed more than 8 outputs, so I had to sync to one part of the multitrack and than sync the other parts on to that. The only way you could do it was by feeding it a square wave. Which was hit-and-miss, because if you didn’t get the level right, it wouldn’t sync. It was quite a nightmare to do it.”

Syco’s soirées

“Yes, there were technical issues  From time to time, Syco Systems would organise little drink-parties in the early evening, where users could discuss possible improvements, problems that we’ve had, stuff like that. I probably met J.J. Jeczalik on one of those gatherings…. Certainly, Hans Zimmer was there on a couple of occasions. The company was run by Steve Paine. He had an colleague, Mike, who was an ex piano salesman. A really nice guy, but possibly more interested in making sure the mixture of his pink gin was right, rather than discussing business. I must say, it was all very amateurish. At that time, in the early days, there wasn’t a market for a high priced machine such as the Fairlight. It was 13.000 Pounds when we bought it; we paid 12,5 ‘cause we got a generous discount.” Laughing: “I was probably earning considerably less in a year at that time! The CMI was beyond the price range of most individual musicians. It had to be studios or companies that bought the machine. And they sold several to musical universities, musical department. That’s what frustrated the guys at Syco systems. They wanted to sell to stars… We bought one way before Kate Bush did. I think she probably was the best sort of high profile user they could wish for. They really wanted to live the rock and roll life. And God knows they tried.”

Sacked

“There were things it could do pretty well and things it couldn’t, because of the limits of 8 bit sampling. I think, one of the worst experiences was with composer Jeff Wayne (War of the Worlds). He was pitching for a football world cup-thing on tv. He hired me and the Fairlight, and he wanted to do something with the sound of a referee whistle. However – and this sort of really demonstrates its limitations – he hadn’t factored in that a referee whistle only sounds like a whistle in the key it is actually in. I think, something like F#. But as soon as you move the pitch of that sound, like three notes down, it ceases to sound like a referee whistle. Also, the vibrating sound of the pea inside the whistle changes as well. So it sounded ridiculous. To make a long story short: I got fired!
On that same session, there was a guy called Ken Freeman. He had been involved in synthesizers for a very long time. He designed and built the Freeman Symphonizer, a huge string machine which featured on quite a few commercial records at that time. He had bought a Synclavier, and he was sitting there with headphones on while I was making a fool of myself, trying to explain why Jeff Wayne’s referee whistle sample wouldn’t work. And, in the silence that followed, Ken put off his headphones and played back a perfectly created referee whistle on his Synclavier!” 

“I hardly used the sounds that came with the CMI. I had access to lots of sound effects, due to my work in production. A friend of mine at the time, he was a viola player, provided me with a single plucked viola sound. I used it in this mind numbing Music Composition Language to program ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’, which was used in a commercial. You could start of with a few basic parameters, for instance: the octave it started in, time signature and tempo. But then, you’d have to put in the pitch of a note with a letter, the duration, the gap time between two notes… For each musical line, you’d have to write a file, just in text, on the alpha numeric keyboard. You could have eight different sequences, and those could be part of a part, and you could have eight parts in a piece. That’s how I built up the piece of Vivaldi’s For Seasons I made for another film. The only way of checking was to compile it and play it. Now, in the Vivaldi piece, I only missed one comma, and the whole sequence was out by a tiny fraction of a second, and I had to find out where the hell the missing syntax or the missing comma was. I also had the flu at that time, I felt very ill, and of course I had a pressing deadline.” 

Crisps, barks and hello’s

“Yes, I did like my job at that time. I was actually quite obsessed with it. The Fairlight thing was a real challenge.. In fact, one of the guys I worked with a lot subsequently said it was impossible to talk to me about anything except the Fairlight, for at least the first year or so that I had it. I don’t know whether my wife would agree with that 🙂 Also, I was aware of the fact that I had to make the thing work, because I persuaded the company to spend so much money on it.  I’m not a keyboard player. So, I operated the Fairlight and a keyboard player would do the playing part. One guy in particular that I worked with was Tim Cross (1955 – 2012). Tim had done several albums for JW and, he worked with Mike Oldfield, TV Smith, The Adverts and many more. He also had done hundreds of radio ads for some of the top radio production companies at the time. He was a very talented writer and musician. When I told him we were getting a Fairlight, he was incredibly enthusiastic.”

“The reaction to the Fairlight in advertising and allied audio-visual media was, to say the least, an uphill struggle. There was a lot of ‘Well, who else has used it?”. Furthermore, the Fairlight was misunderstood as a universal ‘music generating machine’. I well remember, whilst doing some banal session playing tunes on potato chips or corks or whatever, being asked by one agency person: ‘Can you do Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday?’ So, it came down to sounds of crisps, champagne corks, dog barks and that sort of things.
Frustrated by the lack of work, in 1983, Tim and I embarked on a ‘tour’ of London ad agencies where we managed to get all kinds of ad creatives in one room to experience the possibilities of the Fairlight. It was great and horrible at the same time! Trying to lug it around in taxi’s was a nightmare. That was just the logistics of it all. Trying to get all of the agency creatives in the same room at the same time, that was the first problem. So, we pitched the idea to some of the bigger agencies in London. In six months or so, we managed to do three or four presentations. We would get one of the creatives to say the word ‘Hello’ into the mic and Tim would instantly play a jingle, based on the sampled word. Not one job ever came from this abysmal tour! But again, part of the problem was: so-called advertising creatives are some of the most conservative people in the world. They don’t like taking risks and they don’t like doing anything new. I don’t know how it is nowadays, for I hardy see any tv commercials now, but back in the day, all commercials were very derivative of other successful ads. So we would have needed some very landmark commercial campaign and then, everyone would want to use it for everything.”

Madness and more

George’s Fairlight skills can be heard on some well-known pop music. Most notable on Madness’ Driving In My Car.  “I did some re-recordings of House of Fun for Top Of The Pops. Back in those days, tv show Top Of The Pops, there were Musicians’ Union  restrictions on using recordings. So, tracks had to be re-recorded especially for TOTP. Often they were never used. but you still had to go through this ridiculous farce of re-recording the track. Or not. Sometimes, it never even got to that, because the manager would take the BBC producer over to the pub and they’d ‘pretend’ they had done a re-recording. It happened all the time…. So that’s how I started working for Madness for the first time. J.J. Jeczalik did most of the earlier Madness tracks. I think he did every album up till The House Of Fun. J.J. wasn’t available at that time. I did all the Fairlight stuff on ‘driving in my car’.”

“The Madness guys never did anything unless there was a reason for doing it. Everything was really well thought-out. They knew exactly what they wanted when they went into the studio, I mean, there was no real sort of down time where I turned up and nothing happened.  They wanted a car door slam-sound and we actually went into an underground car park and we recorded it. But when we sampled it into the Fairlight, it lost all of the room around it.
Another example: there was a band called Modern Romance who wanted handclaps, because they were too lazy doing their own handclaps through their album. So they wanted sampled handclaps. And that’s exactly the sort of sound that doesn’t work with the Fairlight because of the transient response; there’s no transient at all; it’s just a dull thud. Basically, bright metallic tinkly things of short duration work by far the best.”

“And, there was a band called Red Box for which I worked on a song called Chenko, 1983.  It’s such a massive production, it’s probably hard to hear the Fairlight in it.  There’s everything going on, and on one point, their producer whispers ‘It’s so quiet.’ and it’s somewhere in the track, but there’s so much going on… If you didn’t know it was there, you probably can’t hear it. Tim Cross played the keyboards. He wasn’t in the band, but he did most of the keyboard parts.”

What happened to the 7th CMI?

It languished in the office – It survived at least two office moves and generally slipped into terminal decline. George: “It remained dormant for a very long time. The light-pen didn’t work anymore, several keys on the alphanumeric keyboard had ceased to work and there was something wrong with the graphics card and the sampling card. It got replaced, but I don’t think it was ever installed. It was written off in the books years ago and it was just cluttering the place up. The Financial Director said: ‘Why don’t you take it to your home? It doesn’t have any value what so ever! It’s just in the way!’  I could have taken it home but to be honest, I really didn’t have a great use for it. It was an enormous bulky thing to have anywhere, so I passed on that one. But, in hindsight, I probably should have snapped it up! But, it had got very much sort of beaten up, lugging it and out of taxi’s and studio’s and stuff like that. It wasn’t really designed for that sort of life. You’d have to handle it delicately; even lugging it down the stairs and putting it down on the floors would unseated the cards. From what I remembered, eventually, it was sold for almost nothing and got shipped to Italy.”

Everything electronic

“When I started at JW, I didn’t know about library music or production music, I was given a card index with clients and we didn’t have many lp’s at that time. Just a lot of 7 rpm discs and tape. I joined JW in October 1973 and it would be for only 3 months. I stayed until 2012.”
George built Ravenwood Music as a total separate company. “We represent some of the small boutique music production companies. Many of them are producing trailer music. In fact, our biggest catalogue in terms of earnings, is Brand X owned by a couple of guys who started out working for Hans Zimmer in LA. It’s a small world. And so, because of my own long-term obsession with synthesizers, i wanted to build Ravenwood as an electronic music library and by that, I don’t mean just EDM. We got all sorts of stuff, for instance, a very interesting Musique Concrète production we did at the end of 2018, it came out in January. Jez Butler, the guy who wrote and produced it, uses all sorts of house hold stuff and he doesn’t have a Fairlight. But I think he is more creative than anyone I knew with a CMI back in the day.”

“I wanted to make Ravenwood THE electronic music production publisher. It is not without its problems, because there is a lot of resistance against the use of electronic music. Especially in the States. Even despite things like Netflix and tv shows like Stranger Things and Mr. Robot. I have seen it on e-mails in block letters: “definitely NO synthesizers!” But, I’m on a mission and because of my age and stage: I have nothing to lose really. By far the biggest challenge is to find talented writers. There are a lot of people with home studios who can make a lot of noise, but that’s not what I need. It’s just like the difference between journalism and writing a novel. What we want is the journalistic approach. Good beginning, good ending, End of story.”

Modular Music

Back in the day, George Barker programmed Vivaldi-pieces, using Fairlights’ “mind-numbing Music Composition Language”.  Nowadays, he pushes his modular beast way beyond its limits. On Bandcamp, you can find his rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Also, there’s the album called Saint Ex’  George: “One of my other obsessions is flying. I got a flying license, but it’s no longer valid. One of my sort of heroes is the French aviator / pioneer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who’s biggest claim to fame is his book called The Little Prince (Le petit prince)  He disappeared and is believed to have died while on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in July 1944. In honour of the 75 anniversary of his death, I’ve done a mini album, a kind of tribute. All modular. And just one sample… – I rarely, if ever, use samples in my work!” 

https://williegibson.bandcamp.com/album/saint-ex

 

Jean-Bernard Emond, restorer, collector and scientist

For more than 30 years now, Jean-Bernard Emond has been buying, selling, repairing and restoring audio equipment, especially the complex and vintage ones. Quite a number of classic synths and audio equipment were brought to his workshop, including Jean-Michel Jarre’s CMI II. 

“Ever since I was a kid, I have been obsessed with musical instruments, but I also had many other passions: astronomy, rockets and computer/electronics. For years, I just listened to music and I read magazines and books. I was introduced to the classics of the genre: Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, Art Of Noise, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Mike Oldfield, and many others. In the ’80’s, I discovered the use of samplers and in particular the CMI, I was drooling over photos of the mythical Fairlight CMI and the NED Synclavier. I remember Jean-Michel Jarre’s Magnetic Fields video, and Concerts in China, with video shots of his CMI.”

How it all began

He started out, tweaking sounds on computer systems such as Sinclair, Atari, Commodore, Amstrad, Acorn, Apple and IBM. “I used to have a lot of computer systems, such as I did some freelance work in the development of computer games (Ubi-Soft, Ere, Loriciel).” He got his first synthesizer, a year after he moved out with his parents. “That was 1990. I bought a Yamaha SY77. It was a crazy year. I had bought or recovered other machines; Akai, Kawai, Roland… In that same year, I bought my Fairlight CMI IIx !”

‘I don’t like to wait when I’m tinkering.’

Jean-Bernard is among those who prefer the I, II and the IIx. “Definitely! First of all, this granular sound; it’s so specific. Its dinosaur looks are so friendly and its design is incredible, a machine that makes you want to use it and explore it, to make sounds! Because the samples are short, because the  2.5 to 32KHz frequency, 8 bits and limited to a memory range of 16KB, the sound manipulation is very fast. So it is a rather fast machine, compared to similar machines. And this makes it very pleasant to use, indeed I am impatient; I don’t like to wait when I’m tinkering. And I really don’t like wobbly interfaces. If you have to read 300 pages of documentation to use a machine, for me, it’s a sign that its interface is bad. This is not the case with the CMI software, which is largely intuitive and accessible, either through the graphical interface via the light-pen or through text commands. In addition, the documentation is available online. But, we have to admit:: it’s an old machine; sometimes the interface isn’t much practical or intuitive. But hey, it’s a 40-year-old machine, built to last!”

What I regret is that the OS of the Motolora MDOS is limited in terms of FAT for floppy disks and therefore difficult to adapt to the FAT of a hard disk. The only solution Fairlight had found to mount hard disks on the CMI IIx was to emulate several partitions the size of a floppy disk on the hard disk (QDOS Takitron driver 5.09) or User command in CP/M OS. Nowadays, these problems are solved, for flash drives and SD cards are used as a substitute for floppy disks. This solution also allows the import and export of CMI files to the computer world for manipulation, backup or exchange.” He adds: “Another thing: they are much faster during sound manipulations than its successors: the CMI III and the MFX machines, who’s sound (16 bits) is too clean for me. And, the I, II and IIx: I love their design. I know, it isn’t rational!”

The road to recovery

The CMI he bought in 1990 has a British history. It was purchased by the BBC for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Now, that’s really something: it has been used in lots of shows that have been broadcasted on the British and the international airwaves. Most famous appearance is undoubtedly BBC’s Tomorrow’s World. Jean-Bernard: “Later on, it was sold to a studio in France, and it was used for several years before I bought it from this studio. It had some failures (dead light-pen, unreliable CMI-02 card, power failure). At the time, I was young and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I had bought the CMI for a small fortune. As I often reminis with my friends: ‘it was either a CMI or a car’. Looking back on it now, I still think I made the right choice! For a few months, I enjoyed the machine. And then, it really broke down. At the time I had entrusted it to the French importer, Studio de la Frette. For a few thousand Francs they returned it to me without specifying what they had repaired. Too bad, because a few months later, the breakdown was back. At that time, I moved to the south of France and I couldn’t make the time to take care of the CMI. A few months later, I contacted La Frette to find out if they could repair my CMI again. Unfortunately, they were no longer servicing CMI’s I asked them if it was possible to get the schematics. They told me to check with Fairlight, Australia. So, I contacted them. Yes, they could help me out, for the amount of 2300 Francs (€350,- / USD 385,-). I made the transfer and for months, nothing happened. So I contacted La Frette, they shook up the Fairlight company a bit and a few weeks later, I finally received a package. (Funny and ironic: 30 years later, Olivier Bloch-Lainé contacted me to have me fix his Fairlight CMI at Studio de la Frette…)

I was surprised by the thickness and weight of this package. To my pleasant surprise, It contained all you need to manage a broken down CMI IIx. Finally, I fixed it with a friend. A few years later it broke down again after a move. This time, it was the QFC9; another new repair. Meanwhile, I went back to Paris for work, that’s where I started sharing the Eprom and Prom documents and binary files that you still can find all over the internet. Together with Greg Holmes, I was one of the first to have a site on the Fairlight CMI. I decided to share all the documents I had about this Australian company. Having many other interests, I gradually handed the website to my friend David Cilia’s. The information is much better shared on his website. 

Bizarre!

“For years, I wanted to participate in the popularisation of synthesizers. I have already participated in several exhibitions with some of my ‘vintage’ machines such as the Synclavier II + VPK, DKI Synergy II+ with Kaypro and the Fairlight CMI IIx.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to repair and completely restore Jean-Michel Jarre’s mythical Fairlight CMI II. It should not be forgotten that this is the CMI used on the albums Chants magnétiques, Les concerts en Chine, Musique pour supermarché and especially the illustrious album Zoolook! I was very honored to be able to take care of it, and at the same time: to preserve all Jean-Michel Jarre’s disks. I converted all 8″ floppy disks to my Flash-Kit (HxC-based).

In the summer of 2019, I presented a masterclass on LowFi sampling ‘Autour de Zoolook’‘ at Synthfest France, Nantes. I asked and received permission from Jean-Michel Jarre to use his sounds for my presentation. So, me and my friend Cyril Do Espirito Santo, went through his collection of floppy disks for a few weeks, to prepare some demonstrations based on the Zoolook-album. A crazy and a much exiting job! Finding the legendary Zoolook-sounds one by one; it’s a most interesting activity!

Dividing time

Nowadays, Jean-Bernard got his hands full with restoration work. One might expect, he is making a full living out of it. “Restoration / repair of musical instruments isn’t my actual job, it’s just a hobby. At first, it was just the machines I bought. Later on, it extended to doing repairs for my friends, friends of friends, etc, etc.  I’m working as a IT engineer at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.), which is the largest scientific research center in France. I spend a lot of my spare time on musical instruments and it is not always easy, combining my daytime job, my family life and the audio maintenance workshop.” Over the past ten years or so, there have been a few repairers in France. “But, for large digital machines like Fairlight CMI/MFX, NED Synclavier, E-Mu Emulator, PPG Wave, or other curiosities, it’s rare and I’m one of the only ones in France and also in Europe.” He also knows his way around the large modular classics such as Moog 3P and Arp 2500, as well as polyphonic synths like the Yamaha CS80, Oberheim OB-X and the Roland Jupiter 8. “When I started, I accepted almost every repair work, Now, I’m concentrating on certain brands, exceptional, rare or high-end machines, or special cases that arouse my curiosity. I have my work cut out for me, for years!”

Mutual machine lovers

I confess I have a preference for old machines. But from time to time, there are some nice surprises on the market. The last machines that really interested me was the Arturia Matrix Brute which is for me the best mono analog synthesizer since the VCS3, I also have a crush on the Baloran The River, a sublime analog polyphonic synth from my friend Laurent Baloran. It’s funny, but these two machines are French, It’s not a choice, it’s just a coincidence. What modern machines reproach is the complexity of their operation, they are not intuitive enough. Real gas plants, too many choices they do too many things but wrong. I prefer a simpler machine that does only one thing but does it well. 

“When I finally find out which parts no longer work in a broken-down machine, especially when it takes me a long time to trace the problem, that’s always a great pleasure!’

“Parallel to all these repair activities, I was looking for information on the machines and this allowed me to meet and exchange with many people with their own experiences in the world of electronic music. That’s how I was given my Synclavier I. The deal was to get it up and running again. Mission accomplished, years ago now. A few months back, I saved all the floppies on one of my Synclavier II. And I just mounted a flash drive on this old machine to do comparative tests for a German friend (who just sold it to one of my clients) who also has a broken down Synclavier I.  Together with my wife, who is also a passionate musician, we acquired some machines that I wanted to have. I have a beautiful collection of rather vintage digital instruments including some exceptional machines such as the Synclavier with Ork and VPK keyboards, DKi Synergy II+, a Kurzweil K250 and many curious machines and specific computers dedicated to sound. And of course my Fairlight CMI IIx. My current dream? A full PPG Set : Wave and Waveterm.

 

Fine additions

Jean-Bernard came up with a few much needed CMI enhancements: “Initially I was interested in what seemed to be the most crucial thing to find a substitute for: the disk drives, because by the end of the 1990s, it became very difficult to find 8-inch diskettes, or they were sold for crazy prices. And in general, diskettes became unreadable. Losing your much loved sounds; it’s the worst nightmare of many a musician…”

“First, I had to find a solution to save the floppy disks; to make binary images of them. I built a dedicated PC with a suite of tools (ImageDisk, Teledisk, 22Disk, Anadisk, etc). Later on, I also tried to use KryoFlux and I developed some tests to archive and restore. I absolutely wanted to be able to write the disk images to an 8-inch drive! After some trial and error I found the right settings. Second, in 2008, I went to a vintage computer geek-meeting, to present a NeXT Cube with IRCAM DSP/Audio card to the Infoticaires. By chance, I met Jean-Francois Del Nero and Gregory Estrade who presented their prototypes of “HxC drives” (Pic and FPGA), they had already talked about it on the Silicium Forum (a French vintage computer forum). We talked and I told them I wanted to have this kind of emulator on some audio machines. A few months later, I started testing the compatibility and adaptation, whilst having long series of email exchanges with them. In the end, we managed to adapt the solution for regular computers to be used in CMI’s. The third step was the validation testing phase, which was long because it was necessary to check if it worked with all of the models. Finally, I started marketing the Flash Kit in 2013. Since then, about 50 kits have been installed in CMI’s around the world. 

During my years of maintenance, repair and restoration work, I have been building up a small stock of parts. I redesigned and produced some boards for CMI I, II, II, IIx and III and MFX. Also, BUS extenter boards, essential to perform repair tests, 256KB and 32MB memory cards; specific for QFC. Soon, I will release new made cards, especially the CMI-01-A and CMI-02, as well also some   main cards of the CPU part. I also redesigned some accessories for the facade door in 3D printing. I also made custom front panels to replace the 8-inch floppy drives (double or single width) or hard drives. And last but not least, I have a couple of solutions to make machines more quiet. 

Virtual Musical Instruments

Over the years, Jean-Bernard helped out several company’s such as UVI and Arturia with the development of virtual CMI’s. Jean-Bernard: “Maybe, it seems like a bit of a contradiction, being someone who loves authentic hardware machines…  Several companies took an interest in the sound banks that I own and in the virtualisation of some of the instruments that I have. This has resulted in some productions at UVI (U1250, The Beast, Synthox, ENERGY, Darklight IIx) and Arturia’s CMI V. Arturia contacted me thanks to the recommendation of my friend Yves Usson who is nothing less than the Godfather of analog synthesis at Arturia, and the Brute branch (Mini, Micro, Matrix). We are also colleagues at the CNRS. My contribution to the CMI V software is primarily the loan of my Fairlight CMI for almost a year, and I have also contributed to the documentation and specification of filtering and descriptions for the audio file formats. In particular, for the structuring of synthetic sounds (MODE 1). I also provided them with all the official Fairlight sound libraries that I have compiled and reconstructed over the years.

To conclude the story…

Does he make music himself? Jean-Bernard: “I don’t have that pretension, I’m a simple sound handyman, I have a few things here: https://soundcloud.com/mustudio 

And, any final words?
“Longue vie aux Fairlight !”

Tim Curtis, 2019

Tim Curtis, producer, engineer, musician

He started out with a LinnDrum and an Oberheim OB-8 when he was about 12, 13 years. “I still have them. And they still work.” Tim Curtis, producer, musician and tech wizard, has been around the block for many years. Need to get that punchy sound we all love so much? He’s the one you gotta call. Need to get things up and running again? “I fixed-up Prince’s two Fairlights in less than an hour.”

Tim Curtis, 2019

“To me, there’s no such thing as old school or new school. Some prefer working with software and a bunch of plug-ins. Some prefer working with hardware. To me, a table with a flatscreen and a couple of monitors on it; It’s as boring as it can get. The way I’m doing my job hasn’t changed very much. For me, it still works. ” He has a stack of vintage synths and some other fine gear stored in his Blinky Room. His three Fairlights – a Series I, IIx and a III/MFX2 – are set up in his home. “I’ve used the Fairlight on practically everything I’ve worked on.”

‘Look what I’ve won!’

“I was a big fan of bands like Duran Duran. A lot of music of that time period sounded great. I was convinced I could make the same good music if I’d have a Fairlight.” When he was twenty years, he bought his first CMI. But, in order to find one, he had to do some detective work. “Back in 1986, Keyboard Magazine was having this Fairlight give-away contest. A Series IIx; probably the last one, for the later models were already on the market. I entered the contest. Unfortunately, I didn’t win. Somehow, I managed to find out who did. It was a woman called Cherie. Not really into the tech stuff, not a professional keyboard player; just a lucky devil, loving give-away-contests. I think, it was her boyfriend at the time who told me it was sold to a studio in Davenport, Iowa. I called the studio and made arrangements with them to buy it. I never actually spoke to Cherie until a couple years ago. As it turned out, she didn’t have much use for it. She kept it for about a year. Most likely, she’d fire it up, playing the dog barks to her friends on parties. Eventually, she sold it.”

“The studio she sold it to never even set it up.  I got it with about 10 hours on it. “It was July 6, 1990 when I picked it up. I remember it well. It was a three hour drive in my powder blue Ford Escort, no air conditioning. Michael, a friend of mine and my bandmate, was waiting for me at my place. We carried it in, fired it up and figured out how to load sounds. Before that, I had never been in a room with a Fairlight before. I remember listening to the string sounds, thinking: ‘Now I have the power everyone else has…’. It felt pretty awesome.”

Hotline

Back in the early nineties, the Fairlight CMI wan’t considered vintage yet. Just older, yet valid technology. “Information on the instrument wasn’t really available at that time. There was no internet and there were no e-mail groups, and around that time, the original Fairlight company went bankrupt. So, there weren’t many people around knowing about this older technology. I’d spent lots of time trying to find fellow owners to share some knowledge with. That’s how I came into contact with Clive Smith, who knows the machines from the inside out. He did the soundtrack for Liquid Sky, he worked on the Hall & Oats album Big Bam Boom back in the early eighties, just to name a few examples. He was more than happy to share his knowledge with me. I still have the notes I took during our phone calls. I remember having huge phone bills. He answered all my questions, he was very patient. He taught me every bit there is to know about the Fairlight.”

Fixing famous Fairlights

Tim studied the machine in depth, composed a lot on it, and so, the IIx became the main tool in his studio. “There weren’t that many users at that time, for people got more into newer and cheaper alternatives. But there still was a group of Fairlight-users out there who needed to keep them going. So I started a users-group. Suddenly, I was getting phone calls from people who were idols of mine. Like, from the Duran Duran-camp, Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears… When they needed technical support, they’d call me. That was a cool time.” Meanwhile, Tim did a lot of work in the studio, working with lots of bands. And then one day, there was this call from Andrew Brent, the West coast Fairlight technical genius. He started an independent company, handling support for CMI’s in the US. “It was 1996. Prince wanted to get his Fairlights up and running again. Andrew asked if he could pass on my phone number.” Tim got a call from Prince’s Guitar Tech, and a few days later, he arrived at Paisley Park. “Prince had two IIx machines. He wanted to use them again, but they didn’t work anymore, the floppy discs were lost and so were the manuals. I got them up and running again within the hour. For a year or so, I freelanced for Prince, being the keyboard guy. It was a cool time.”
People who closely followed Prince’s career might remember him, moving into another direction around 1996. Tim: “He decided he wanted to do things differently. He fired the band, the maintenance crew; basically everybody who worked in the studio at that time. I didn’t realise it back then, but I think I came in, right after his former staff went home.” After his death in 2016, some studio pictures were released; evidence pictures, taken by police officers. They were all over the internet. Tim: “The Fairlights still were there.”

Defining moment

With his three machines, and the ones he fixes for others, you can say, Tim got himself a home full of Fairlights. “Nowadays, about 30 years later, I’m still doing a lot of Fairlight stuff besides my other studio work. I just fixed one of Stewart Copelands’ old machines, along with two or three others from befriended colleagues.” He adds: “I’m still getting requests for renting out my Series IIx. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s just because it just sounds awesome. People still want that sound, which is a pretty cool thing.”

Obviously, through his Paisley Park-experience, he got noticed. It got him a lot of work in the LA music industry. “But, I think it all started the day I got my first Fairlight, back in 1990. Because of that machine, many doors had opened up for me, giving me the opportunity to work with a lot of good people. That day in that powder blue wagon, picking up that IIx….That was a defining moment in my life.”

Honouring its history

“I guess you could say that I’m kind of a devotee to the CMI as an instrument, without judging it for its technology, or trying to improve it. It seems that 80% of the people who are new to the Fairlight community are interested in having it as some kind of attempt to legitimise themselves – ‘80’s cred or something – to capitalise in on a retro craze. Another 10-15% are trying to ‘modernise’ it instead of appreciating it for what it is. You know, I’ve got a ’69 Pontiac Firebird. If someone should be putting a Tesla engine in it, he should be flogged. Same rule applies here. The over-repeated comments are focusing on how old the technology is. Who cares? It’s not a PC to game on, it’s an instrument that was beautifully designed and crafted; the product of a lot of forward thinking vision and a response to feedback from some of the most creative people in the field. Yes, your iPhone has more computing power. But, who fucking cares? Your iPhone hasn’t been used to create some of the greatest music of our generation. Cheesy as it may sound, the Fairlight CMI, to me, is up there with great instruments such as a Steinway or Stradivarius. With this difference: The CMI was first of a kind and therefore, unique.

Clive Smith – recording artist, composer, performer, sound designer

You might have seen him on the legendary Sesame Street-episode, in which Herbie Hancock is demonstrating the Fairlight. You might have heard him on the soundtrack for the ’80’s cult film Liquid Sky. And you might have come across his name on a whole lot of session-work and collaborations. Clive Smith, often credited as the ’Fairlight Programmer’. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

Wether it is your typically structured mainstream music, or the more textured, experimental kind: Clive Smith morphs fluently between both realms. “I’ve always been interested in texture, as wel as in structural music composition.” He started out as a trumpet player in high school, is a trained musician and has taught himself to play guitar, bass-guitar and keyboards. “Those sparked to me a lot more. The trumpet, it never really sat with me as well as the ’rock instruments’.  But occasionally, I pick up the trumpet to keep my lips in shape, or to play it on some album. When I went to university, i took a multimedia-course, which was basically visual arts and sonic arts. There was a VCS3, the ’Putney’, and I really fell in love with synths and the ability to create and craft your own sounds; to manipulate them. I was always interested in electronic sounds. Prior to the synths, I used tape. My father had an expensive tape recorder. I used to have lots of fun with it, recording all sorts of sounds, noises, trying to play it backwards.” He reckoned how John Lennon discovered that by accident. “I was very interested in those kind of things. “

Becoming the Fairlight expert
Clive came fresh out of college with a degree in musical composition. But… What to do next? ”One of my professors started this non profit organisation called Public Acces Synthesizer Studios. I started out as the associate director and later, I became director. In 1980, there was an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City. There was this Australian company called Fairlight, showing this instrument; it was probably one of the first times it was shown in the US. Back then, it was just called the Fairlight CMI, for there were no Series II, IIx, etcetera yet. I was amazed by it. It took a little bit of doing, but the following year, we had one at PASS, on loan to us. I fully immersed myself in it, trying to learn as much about it as I possibly could.  The great thing was, there were no specific rules on how to use the instrument. I took lots of time sampling and creating my own sounds and I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that there weren’t any boundaries someone else already had defined. That was extremely satisfying. ”

“As soon as I learned everything about the Fairlight, this Russion director, Slava Tsukerman, came in at PASS, as he wanted to create the soundtrack of what later would become Liquid Sky. He realised he couldn’t operate this computer himself, so he initially hired Brenda Hutchinson, who started working on the project with him. She was called away for a job on the West coast. So I took over and did the remaining two third of the project. I think there were three or four different types of classical pieces that the director came to us with.’ They programmed that into the Fairlight. You might call that a hell of a job. Clive: ‘It was very much like old-fashioned computer programming, using a code for every note, every change, like velocity or note durations.” At that time, there was only the Series 1. So, no easy peasy sequencing, using Page R, which was introduced into the Series II, in 1982. ”There were two types of recording. The first one was non-real time, using Musical Composition Language. The second method was called Page 9. It recorded in real time, but there were no visuals; you couldn’t really see what you were doing on the screen. When you made a mistake, you had to start all over again.”

Quick and dirty
“Slava isn’t a musician himself. But he did have musical ideas and a clear vision of what he had in mind for the soundtrack. He’d just tap a rhythm, or hum a melody, moving his arms in a particular way, saying: “I want this for that scene.”  And I would just play around with some ideas. When there was something he liked he said: “OK, let’s record this.” We’d immediately be recording the ideas, right when they were fresh. Often, I wanted to do it again, for I thought it was too sloppy. I wanted to go back, perfecting it. But then he‘d say: “No, I like it. Let’s make it quick and dirty.” He liked the sort of clunkiness; the marriage between the computer high tech and the punk approach.
I had sampled lots of different percussive sounds. Some wooden, metal and glass wind chimes. I put them all together, and I think that’s what we ended up using for the creature sounds. They weren’t specifically made for the movie. I played it to Slava, he liked it. They fitted with his vision for the movie. So they ended up being part of the alien sounds.
Brenda had seen some of the footage. When I started working on it, I never saw any footage. So it was only his verbal description of things. So in a way, I wasn’t influenced at all by visuals. I was strictly translating what he was conveying to me. It wasn’t until the actual premiere that I saw how it all worked together. And it worked very well. Me and Brenda, we got the credits for composing, but it was his vision. He was coming across with moods. I only matched with what he was doing. And if he would have let me be alone with it, it would never have turned out that way.” 

Rocking it on Sesame Street
Because of Liquid Sky, the US branche of the Fairlight company asked if he would work for them. He left PASS and became one of their consultants, from 1983 ’till about 1989.  Clive: ”That was incredibly great. I had access to the equipment, I promoted their product doing demos, and I was doing session work on the side.” So, how did he end up with Herbie Hancock on Sesame Street? Clive: ”Alexander Williams, he did sort of what I was doing, on the West Coast. When Herbie Hancock purchased his Fairlight, he had Will training him on how to use the machine. When he wanted to capture his ideas, in a session, on the fly, Will was able to help him out with the technical side. When Herbie visited the East Coast, I kind of did the same thing for him. Will and I knew each other, and it turned out Herbie and I had some mutual friends. So, that worked out nicely. I think, if I remember correctly, Herbie didn’t travel with his Fairlight, so he used mine for the Sesame Street-session. The show went pretty much as shown; the children were very excited about this new technology. Just like the kids are today. We didn’t do anything different. That clip was pretty much the entire take.
People were always very curious about it. And It’s very inviting; something that looked like a ‘60’s tv-screen, a bit of a retro sci-fi-look, a huge white keyboard, playing melodies with barking dogs… It looked accessible, more ‘friendly’ and less intimidating than a modular synth with patch chords, knobs and sliders.”

“I’m really glad I got the opportunity to work with Herbie Hancock. Up until then, I never realised what an amazing musician he is. It was great to see the ideas running in his brain, coming out. Always, his first ideas were immediately great. Watching him listening to a musical piece he’d never heard before and then, coming up with this great keyboard part. Very enlightening to see. And he’s a very nice, very friendly down to earth kinda person. You know, formally trained musicians often want to play tunes on a synth using their keyboard technique. Herbie, he was very open to coming up with interesting sounds, being Interested in things that had some internal movement on the things he was playing. I think, that’s what we have in common: having this split personality between being a trained musician, using structured forms, and being able to work with textures, creating sounds, the approach a non-musician might have. The more creative approach by just going in and thinking: ’What would i like to happen?’.

Big bam boom
In 1984, I bought my own IIx; that’s when the session work really took off. In ‘86, the series III was released and I was able to purchase one fairly early in its existence. There are certain things that are unique to the IIx, but I could do so much more on the III. It expanded on the things I wanted to do. I started using them both.” And so, he was moving around New York, carrying around two fairly heavy machines. ”I was doing a lot of session work in New York, mostly in the avant-garde music scene. I was either playing in progressive rock bands, avant-garde rock bands or free jazz and noise bands. And all of a sudden, I was called in to do sessions with very mainstream artists. There was this buzz going ‘round about the Fairlight. People were looking for that extra spice to add to their music. So, I was hired to make a few noises on the track.”  Laughing: ”It felt a bit like being the odd one out.”

In 1984, he was asked to work on the Hall & Oates-record Big Bam Boom. “They were listening a lot to Sgt. Pepper’s. They wanted to take a different approach. They didn’t want to emulate The Beatles, but it was the whole idea that they needed to break out of their old approach and treat the studio in a different way, instead of archiving and capturing what they did playing live. That was essentially what it was. That’s why they brought in the Fairlight. They didn’t know exactly what it did, or what they thought it would do. But they might have thought it could be the ingredient pushing them into a new era. Of course, they did the pop music that they were known for, but in a slightly different way and I think it was successful. Their new approach did work out for them.”

“They didn’t have all the songs written yet; just some words, some of the choruses were done. A lot of things were formed in the studio. The way I worked with them was a little onorthodox. Next to the control room, in the Electric Ladyland studios, there’s the vocal booth. They took the door off that separated the booth from the control room. And they’d have me set up with the Fairlight and some speakers, letting me hear the same play-back the producer, Bob Clearmountain, was hearing. They had me playing along with the music and every now and then they’d listen to what was coming out on my channel; what I was coming up with. When they liked it, they decided to put that on the record. I’d put something in, or Robbie Kilgore, the other keyboard player they hired. That’s how we worked for about three months. It was done very professionally, almost like a regular nine-to-five job. At 10 am, we’d come in, we’d have a short lunch break, and around 6 pm we were usually out of there. No drinking or drugs were allowed in the studio; they were very disciplined, especially Daryl. It was a very instructive experience and it got me a lot of jobs at sessions. It was a great opportunity.“

Programmer? Keyboard player? 
On album credits, guys like Clive were often referred to as ’Fairlight programmer’. Which makes you think: didn’t he play some decent notes at all on all these records? Clive: “They didn’t know what to make of it, so they called it Programmer. Which was fine with me. The lesser known music I worked on was where I got to play more. On some of those, I even play the guitar. People brought me in as the Fairlight programmer, but then they learned I play keyboards and guitar as well. So often, they’d ask: ’Oh, you play guitar? Bring yours tomorrow!’ and they’d let me lay down a couple of tracks as well.
Right before the final days of the series III had arrived, before the original Fairlight company went down, I had a midi guitar. I used to bring it to sessions, so I could play the Fairlight from the midi guitar. That was great, because I was able to do things I couldn’t do on the regular keyboard. Especially when it comes to bending pitches in a particular way; that sort of thing. Each string could have a different sound to it. So with the midi guitar, in a way, you had six keyboards with different sounds attached to each string. Sometimes you ended up with some very wonderful things. I’ve used that on the more obscure records, because people were more open to try different things than they were on mainstream recordings.”

Shaping and creating
Over the past few years, Clive has worked on many, many projects, providing music, or musical textures for a dozen tv-shows, doing session work, being a sound designer for Korg… And today, he’s working on a variety of interesting collaborations. ”There’s always something going on.vAt the moment, I’m doing sounds for PARMA. They approached me, because they liked a particular piece I’ve made in the past. So they asked if I had any more material like that. I’m actually working on that at the moment. I’ve finished about 25 minutes of music for it. And it will probably be 50 minutes, so I’m halfway through. It’s fairly textural material, but tonal at the same time. Recently, I’ve become very interested in this composer Arvo Pärt who’s been around for a long time, but I became familiar with his work just recently. Some of the things I was touching on are similar to what he’s been doing for years. It inspired me to go further down this particular path. It almost felt as if we were aligned in some way. So, that’s the direction this particular suite of pieces is going to.’

“I’ve always been interested in texture. There is something about texture in the visual realm as well as in the sonic realm that I love. Getting inside of a sound, reconstructing it. With the textured soundscapes, I feel it’s communicating more directly with your subconscious. That’s the impact of art and music combining. It reaches you in ways that are difficult to articulate. it’s just… telling you a specific story.” One of the other things he’s been working on, is archiving some of his older Works. “I recently uncovered some recordings from the early days of the Fairlight, and I also recovered some old tapes. I’m trying to transfer them into ProTools, before I lose acces to it, not being able to play these things back. I discovered some unfinished things that I made. I might revisit them. I work on those things which strike me the most at that time, in between the session work I do.”

There’s no time like the present
Of course, there’s just one question left: does he still use his Fairlights? Clive: ”Unfortunately, my Series III is not completely operational right now. But I will probably be able to use it again very soon. My IIx on the other hand is completely functional. That is, everything except for the light pen. But, I don’t really need the light pen anyway.
Even today, when I purchase new hardware or software, it always comes down to: does it excite and inspire me in some way? Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s great. It has to surprise me. But, the other way around: I do have some vintage guitars and I like them. Not because they’re vintage, it’s because I have built a relationship with them over time.
I don’t want to be locked into a specific time-period. So, to me, it’s not about a specific age or about nostalgia. Having said that: the Fairlight grabbed me in a way that no other instrument did before that. And I do still love them.”

Joe Britt, system developer / computer engineer

In 1999, he bought his first machine, sight-unseen. He had just learned the difference between the Series I, II, IIx and III and he had no idea what he was up against. He took on the challenge and dived right into the seemly endless depths of the system. Along the way, he gained enough knowledge to patch up some wonky CMI’s, and to come up with a few inventions to extend the lifespan and usefulness of these beautiful machines.

“I bought my first CMI, a Series III, sight-unseen from a guy in Sweden. Then I was down the rabbit hole.”

When he was in high school, Joe Britt already knew his way around computers; he built his own Macintosh out of junk parts, he loved all things electronic, and his favorite book was The Soul of a New Machine. And, he was curious about this mysterious instrument called Fairlight. Joe: “I first learned of the CMI in the mid-eighties. As a long time fan of artists like Tangerine Dream, Jean- Michel Jarre, and Isao Tomita, I was blown away when introduced to the music of Art of Noise and Kate Bush. I was in high school then, and it was not easy to learn much about this “Fairlight C.M.I.” that was listed in the album notes I pored over. And what kind of instrument was this, that it needed a programmer? There was clearly something very electronic and very magical going on.”

Exploring

“I was introduced to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love through a classmate’s modern dance performance to “Jig of Life.” That led me to explore the rest of the album, which just pulled me in like no other record had. I found it very deep, and I wanted to understand how she was creating those sounds. Playing things backwards could be done by tape of course, but doing that digitally, and being able to play it on the keyboard; that was really something. It’s hard to overstate the impact that music had on me. 

Electronic music of all kinds provided the soundtrack for my young life and later work. Time passed, I went to university, and I ended up in California working on consumer electronic products at a few different companies. I remember very clearly one day in 1999, working in the lab and listening to some music. The Web had become quite popular by that time, and I remember wondering what I could find out about the Fairlight now on the internet. I found the (famous!) Greg Holmes Page and was really excited! I voraciously consumed everything that was on that website, spending so much time scrutinizing the photos of the machines, trying to understand what was inside. There was also a classified ad section where people could buy and sell Fairlight equipment. (We did have eBay then, but the CMI was too exotic — there wasn’t anything listed.) And that’s where I found my first Fairlight. I didn’t really know anything about it. I had learned the difference between the I, II, Iix and III, and really wanted a IIx, but there on the Holmes Page classifieds was a Series III listed for sale. The machine was located in Sweden, and it wound up costing me US$7000. Its original owner was Puk Recording Studios, Denmark. According to the fellow I bought it from, the second owner was one of the guys from Ace of Base. I bought it sight- unseen.”

Troubleshooting

The day his Series III finally arrived from Sweden was a memorable one. He unwrapped the whole package and he set it up. Everything seemed in order, except for one thing: there was no sound. “I remember pretty clearly tracing out the signals from the music keyboard into the Fairlight and checking all the connections inside and outside. I didn’t even know the Series III keyboard was MIDI, because the connector was not a DIN5. I also tried driving the CMI from an external MIDI keyboard connected to one of the CMI MIDI inputs. That didn’t work either! Finally, I decided to just dig in and start debugging the hardware. If you’ve never taken apart a CMI, especially a Series III machine: they are beasts. First I took off the top of the keyboard, did a visual inspection and got a rough idea for how it worked. I went through the usual first checks: power supplies looked good, clock to the processor looked good. I recognized the a serial port chip, and could see data coming out of it when I pressed keys on the keyboard. So, the keyboard was alive; it was sending data. Looking at the timing of the data with an oscilloscope, I saw that it was at 31,250 bits per second — for anyone who has worked on MIDI hardware, that’s a dead giveaway! So I realized that it was just sending MIDI over a different kind of connector, and it looked like the keyboard part was working. “

“Next I had to follow the signals into the CMI and to verify that they were reaching the circuitry inside the mainframe. This was made more exciting by my lack of any technical documentation! All I could do was trace the wiring. In the Series III, the signals from the keyboard come into a connector on the back of the mainframe. They then transition down to another board that actually is part of the power supply, it runs across that PCB, to another connector, through an internal wiring harness, and up to a PCB that the rear mainframe boards plug into. A board with the CMI MIDI connectors plugs into that board. The CMI has multiple MIDI inputs, and it turns out that the music keyboard is just another one of them.”

“MIDI inputs use a component called an “optoisolator” to electrically isolate the connected MIDI devices. Once I found the optoisolator used to interface the CMI music keyboard, I replaced it, hit a key, and literally jumped when the CMI played a really loud brass sound! So, clearly, there was my problem.
The interesting part was this: the same type of optoisolator circuit was used for the external MIDI inputs. All of those optoisolators were blown out, too! That is really unusual. I never found out how that had happened. Anyway, I replaced the parts and got the machine basically working again. But, it turned out, that wasn’t all. There seemed to be a problem with one of the voice cards. Those things are super complicated, and I really needed a service manual or at least a schematic to figure out what was wrong. So, the next day I called Fairlight in Los Angeles and just asked, like: ‘Hey, I’ve got this machine, I’m looking for a service manual, could you help me?’ They transferred me to, as it turned out, one of the famous guys who had worked on the development of the Series III in Australia, Andrew Brent. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know who he was! But he was extremely nice. I think once I described what I had gone through to debug the keyboard problem, he probably took pity on me. He was incredibly kind, and offered to mail me a copy of the Series III service manual. Wow! I was ecstatic when I got it: man, I just couldn’t believe it! It was like a thick phone book, and It contained all the schematics and the entire theory of operations of the machine. This was also a time before document scanners were common. At work, we had a scanner, so I turned it into a PDF, and I think that PDF is still the one floating around on the net. For me, this experience was also emblematic of the whole Fairlight community: brilliant, friendly, and empathetic.”

The Fairlight-collector

“So, I had a lot of fun working on that machine, and I still have it. It’s a Rev 6 machine, one of the earlier ones. Around the year 2000, Peter Wielk came out with a memory extension board for the Series III. I bought two of them, and that machine has one of them in it now.”

But it didn’t stop there. Joe: “By that time, I was much more aware of the differences between the machines and had more clearly defined interests. I got another Series III, also a Rev 6 machine. It was kind of a basket case, which I originally bought a parts machine. I’m restoring it now, but need to find some more time! Then, I found a guy in LA with a Rev 9 machine, and I bought it for US$2000. Compared to the US$7000 I paid for the Rev 6, that felt like (and was!) an absolute bargain. I put the other Peter Wielk memory card in it and now have 2 great Series III machines, one rev 6 and one rev 9.”

“Back in the early 2000s I continued to visit the Greg Holmes page. And then one day there it was: a Series IIx for sale! And it was an interesting one. The guy I bought it from worked for Sony Music, New York, and he had bought it from Bill Laswell. Bill is an extremely famous bass guitarist and producer, and he worked quite a bit with Herbie Hancock. As It turned out, Herbie Hancock was the owner before Bill. The flight cases — still in my garage — have ‘Rockit Band Herbie Hancock’ stenciled on the sides. It’s also obvious that they toured with this machine. It’s got really cool stickers on it from all over the world: stickers for shows like Japan’s “Live Under the Sky ’87” and “World Destruction”.

When I got it, it wasn’t like a “normal” IIx. It was clearly originally a Series I that had been upgraded over time. This would be consistent with an early owner like Herbie, who would have likely had access to upgrades before they had been fully productized. The MIDI interface on this machine is unlike any I had never seen before: instead of a 68000 CPU, Herbie’s uses a 6809 on a board that was very clearly hand soldered.
A typical IIx also has a big box on the back which provides the MIDI in and out connectors. Mine only has three DIN5 jacks, wedged into a hole in the bottom, very hand-done. But it works great!”
This machine also has a very specific cosmetic detail: there’s a cigarette burn on the low F key. I love to imagine someone playing it, perhaps at “Live Under the Sky” in 1987, pausing to park a cigarette on this UD$25000+ CMI… It’s like a cool tattoo!”

“I love developing products, and love taking apart other products to see how they were made. I love thinking about the people who built them, and all the decisions they had to make. With an incredibly complex product like the CMI, built at a time when such an amalgamation of technology really was alchemy, looking behind as many of the curtains as possible becomes a kind of addiction. So I kept looking for more. The internet did not disappoint.
A couple of years later, probably around 2009, I ran across a listing for a Series II on eBay. Actually, the guy thought it was a IIx, but it was a II. He was an accomplished studio musician and teacher, with a career that included work with bands like Bananarama and studios like Paisley Park. Incredibly, this machine had been sitting in a garage for the past 20 years in a house just a few miles away from mine! Time had taken its toll on the machine, and it was not operable. There was also a bit of corrosion throughout from the humidity. It would be a fair amount of work to restore, but it would also be fun. I bought the machine and spent the next couple of weeks fixing it up and getting it back in good shape. So, that’s how I got my Series II, IIx and the III’s. Now all I need is a Series I!”

Nifty little boxes

“As a member of the Fairlight community I saw over and over again reports of trouble with the light-pen on the Series I/II/IIx machines. They break and are difficult to repair, and sometimes they are just lost. For certain parts of the UI, the light-pen is critical, and getting a replacement is practically impossible.”

“This inspired me to build an interface which lets you connect a USB mouse instead of or in addition to the light-pen. The response was great! I built and sold about 20 of them back in 2010, and I guess I should have built a few more — I still get emails from folks who want to buy one. It’s a neat little device, just a simple box that plugs in between the monitor and the CMI. If you move the mouse you’ll see the cursor moving across the screen, and you can click the mouse button to have the same effect as tapping the tip of the light-pen.”

 Any famous users? Joe: “I know one of my interfaces made its way to Jean-Michel Jarre! Jean-Bernard Emond {the famous Fairlight-fixer-upper from France} sent me a photo of JMJ’s studio and he explained he was using the mouse with my interface connected to his old series IIx. So, that’s super cool, you know… I saw JMJ play a couple of times, here in California, and It makes me very happy, knowing one of my childhood heroes is using something I’ve invented. The artist Benge also has one, and is using it on his project with Neil Arthur from Blancmange, FADER II. It’s really cool!”
”Recently, I started working on another interface that lets you plug a modern USB keyboard into a I, II, IIx or III. For the III, you can also use a mouse instead of the G-pad and stylus. Its also got a MIDI in port, which lets you drive any of those machines from MIDI — even Series I and II, which lack MIDI!”

In retrospect

“It’s such a deep instrument, especially considering the timeframe it came from. Take Page R, for instance. I’m sure there were similar concepts, like, the Roland digital sequencers, but they didn’t have a UI like that. They didn’t have a screen, so they couldn’t show a high fidelity representation of what the computer was going to play. Also, consider the display of the audio waveforms, in pseudo-3D on the screen. I remember thinking, “that is the sexiest thing I have ever seen.” It’s so cool. But not only that, it’s very useful as well. You can shift the data forward and backward and everything lines up just the right way when the loop point is right. You get a nice, topographic-like picture: it’s like the CMI gives you synesthesia, letting you see the sound. Genius!”

“I feel very fortunate, having been able to spend some time talking with Peter Vogel, learning about the history of the machine from him. As it turned out, we knew some people in common at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music Applications. It is well known for John Chowning’s research on FM synthesis (used to develop Yamaha’s DX-synths). Peter told me how he and Kim Ryrie were trying to create a digital synthesizer back in the ’70’s. They weren’t even thinking about sampling. What they really were aiming for was what we now call physical modeling synthesis. But back then, computers didn’t have enough horsepower to pull it off. Peter visited Stanford University in the 1970s to check out the digital synthesis work being done there, and that visit led to the conclusion that it probably just wasn’t practical given the limits of microprocessor systems at the time.”On the plane back to Australia, Peter realized he could kind of ‘cheat’ by capturing a sound as a starting point: the CMI could then take a bit of, say, a real piano sound and then modify it digitally to create a new but related sound. I think the big surprise came when everyone saw how mind- blowingly compelling it was to capture any sound and play it up and down a keyboard. The Mellotron existed of course, but the plasticity of digital took the concept to a whole new level.”

People in this picture are: Yoshi Yoshikawa, Jory Bell, Peter Vogel, and Joe Britt. Photo credit: Yoshi Yoshikawa
People in this picture are: Yoshi Yoshikawa, Jory Bell, Peter Vogel, and Joe Britt. (Photo credit: Yoshi Yoshikawa)

“There are these pivotal instruments which, from an engineering point of view, if you take them apart, contain surprising choices that are beautiful. Sometimes that beauty comes from brilliance, sometimes it comes from naiveté, and it’s really fun when you can’t tell which it is!”

“Like the Linn LM-1, the first digital drum machine. I saw the schematics and I thought: ‘Holy crap! That’s how it works!’ The timing of the playback, it’s magical in part because of its imperfections. The LM-1 uses a very famous early chip called the 555 for sample rate timing. This is an unorthodox choice. Normally one uses a crystal oscillator for a very precise sample rate. In contrast, the 555 is rather un-precise, and its frequency changes over temperature and voltage. Usually, that’s a bad thing. But, that is actually part of its sonic character of the LM-1! Its sounds are definitely digital samples, but the 555’s frequency variations due to its environment give them an unusual organic aspect.”

“The CMI also has some unorthodox (by modern standards) design choices that contribute to its sonic character. For example, most modern sample playback hardware runs at just one frequency, say 44.1kHz, 48kHz, or 96kHz. By comparison, the CMI varies the sample rate depending on the desired pitch! To understand this, imagine a buffer full of audio samples for some sound. To play the sound at a lower pitch, modern hardware would likely “play” some samples multiple times, so they consume more time. To play at a higher pitch, modern hardware would likely “skip over” some samples, effectively squeezing other samples closer together in time. The CMI, though, plays all samples every time — but changes how fast it plays them. That contributes to the character of the device. At the time, they chose the most straight forward way to accomplish that, and it was the least computational. The result was artifacts that were sometimes undesirable but seen as a reasonable tradeoff. In hindsight, they actually were at the core of the soul of these machines. And I think that’s a big difference with modern instruments. We have lots of memory and processing power, but we have lost some of the beautiful messiness. Recovering that messiness, now, that’s an interesting challenge.”

Final thoughts

“So, absolutely, this machine had a transformative effect on me. There’s a great, positive community of people who still love and use all things Fairlight. I feel very privileged, not only being part of that community, but also to be able to give back in a way, by creating new devices that can extend the life and usefulness of these incredible machines.”

Photo credit: Tjepke Zijlstra

Danny Weijermans – Composer, orchestrator/arranger, sound designer, teacher

In a nutshell: Danny studied Music Technology, he has been involved in numerous productions for film and television, theatre and art exhibitions. And, he teaches Composition and Music Design at that very same college he attended. In 2014, he bought a Series III. “To me, it’s a great tool for creating my own sounds. I wasn’t really after getting those signature sounds or anything like that. Its quality was more appealing to me.”

He attended the HKU University of the Arts, Utrecht – Music And Technology, back in 1988. During his studies, Danny and a few friends started their own business in developing plug-ins and software, and they started a firm, Soundpalette, specialised in music productions.”TV-shows, film, commercials, theatre, art performances…. The six of us worked on just about anything you could think of. That were some crazy times! You name it; we did it. At some point, I kind of withdrew from Audio Ease, the software company, so I could really focus on the craft of programming and composing.”

Nowadays, Danny is covering the whole spectrum of music production. “It depends; sometimes, it’s more about composing and arranging. Sometimes, I’m orchestrating; sometimes, I’m the sound designer. Or, I’m doing a bit of everything. Whatever is necessary to get the best results.” The list of projects he worked on is excessive. 

Like with most musicians, his training began when he was very young. “I started with trumpet lessons at the age of six, followed by organ and classical piano.’ In addition to his Musical Technology studies, he chose Trumpet as a subsidiary subject: ‘I performed with lots of bands. My experience with both keyboard instruments and brass instruments still comes in handy in my line of work. It makes it very easy to communicate with the musicians, performing my compositions.”

Photo credit: Tjepke Zijlstra

Magical, mythical

Way before he entered the Utrecht conservatory in 1988, he already discovered the wide possibilities of sampling. “It had a great impact on me. I started out with an Ensoniq EPS. During my studies, I went to India for a year, to work as a Synclavier specialist. Owning a Synclavier system was my biggest dream. The Synclavier has always been my greatest love. The Fairlight on the other hand; its magical and mythical status was very appealing to me. People were called ‘programmers’, it was unobtainable and unaffordable; only available for those who made name and fame…” Danny, thinking out loud: “It is likely, this perpetuated the whole mythical aspect of the Fairlight. At the hands of a wealthy amateur, it probably would have been nothing more than a very sophisticated musical instrument.”

“People knew about the records it was used on: “Oh, yeah… that’s done on a Fairlight.” It had the reputation of a machine that could make miracles. I think, back in the ’80’s, most of us presumed it was all Fairlight we were hearing, when in fact, it’s always a combination of the CMI and several other synths or instruments.
Back in 2011, I bought my second Synclavier, a DirectToDisk system, from Dave Lawson, who also worked on the string arrangements for Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love-album. According to him, the string parts were Fairlight, mixed with acoustic strings.”

His first Fairlight encounter? “I think it was a year before my studies began. There was a trade show at the Utrecht Mercury Hotel, hosted by Synton. It was set up in a separate room, ready to give it a go. Oh yes, it was magic. But of course, it was way, way out of my price range!”

Pure quality

Sound designing wasn’t his first love: “I got into it because very often, I felt the need to improve the quality of music and sounds that were used with the productions I worked on. I grew to like this part; moulding and forging sounds, letting them morph into musical elements.”  He uses a Series III (upgraded to MFX), alongside other high end equipment such as the Synclavier and the Kyma system. “Every machine has its own capabilities and its own limitations, and every one has its specific purpose. When I need that crunchy sound, I’ll grab the Ensoniq Mirage. I hardly use the Fairlight library sounds. I bought one, solely for sampling and sound scaping. And besides: nowadays, the library sounds are way too recognisable. There are libraries on the market who are doing a much better job, especially when it comes to orchestral sounds. But if possible, I prefer working with a live orchestra.”

“Mostly, I’m using the Fairlight for ambient sounds. While the Synclavier reproduces sounds; the Fairlight enables you to mould sounds in many more ways, thanks to filtering. And the sound quality is extraordinary. That’s really something. Even the softer sounds used in theatre productions, tucked away deeply within the mix, are coming through clearly. The D/A conversion in both the Fairlight and the Synclavier: it makes them unique in comparison to other samplers.”

photo credit: Tjepke Zijlstra

Unpacking and exploring

“I bought mine in 2014, from Peter Wielk, Horizontal Productions. I knew he was selling refurbished machines, so I reacted to one of his posts on the internet forum. It used to be a test-model, used at the R&D-department. It wasn’t a 100% up-to-specs and the top panel of the casing wasn’t there. Peter made some modifications and it’s working fine. Back then, I didn’t buy the big keyboard that goes with it, but since I was planning on using it with midi, that wasn’t much of a problem. The day it came: yeah, that was a memorable day. It was packed into a large box, and some pieces were taped together. I had to be careful, for I didn’t want to ruin the paint whilst pulling the tape off.”

“It took a bit of exploring, getting it going. It’s not like there is a crash course in first time Fairlight-usage. But, it was fun! Although I didn’t buy it for those recognisable sounds, It’s certainly nice to have ‘m. I remember calling up the string sounds that were used on Kate Bush’s Cloud Busting.”

A touch of history

Since 2004, Danny teaches Composition and Music Design. Most of his students are between 18 and 24 years old. “I do try to convey the charm of using vintage equipment such as the Fairlight or the Synclavier; telling them these machines are more than just some kind of computer. They were designed and perfected to be a solid musical instrument. Well, yes, sometimes, I get mocked for that. And of course, it’s outdated. Once it was the cream of the crop, and nowadays, you can do more on just a smartphone. But some of the students are seeing what I’m getting at. To me, that tactile aspect that comes with using hardware, it’s of great value. Speaking of which: eventually, I bought the original Fairlight keyboard as well. As we speak, it isn’t operational yet, but I’m looking forward being able to use it. It’ll surely add to the whole user experience.”

Check out some of Danny’s work here! 

Rob Puricelli – Music Technologist, Instructional Designer, Fairlight fixer-upper

Like many of us, Rob wanted to be a musician. And, like many of us, he didn’t quite succeed. He
started out as a drummer, then got inspired by guys like Howard Jones and Gary Numan. ‘Me, being surrounded by synthesizers. That’s what I dreamt of all the time.’ But, diving in the wondrous world of knobs and sliders wasn’t really his cup of tea. ‘And then, there was this big white keyboard, and a screen you could draw on… I thought: ’A computer can do all the work for me. Now, that’s easy! ‘. Well, easy? He found out there’s a bit of a learning curve involved…  But, the failing part turned out pretty well. He started writing about the Fairlight in his blogs, it got picked up and for years now, he’s been the UK go-between for one of the few Fairlight fixers-uppers on the planet.

“A lot of people still want one, but they don’t realise what’s involved.”

It was his favourite hour of the week: Thursday night, watching BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, followed by Top of the Pops while having a nice cup of tea. The episode of Tomorrow’s World in which the Fairlight is demonstrated is a legendary one. “I remember it well. This guy, showing us how to emulate the sound of a timpani drum. First on a MiniMoog, then he moved over to this big machine…. And it was spot on. It looked absolutely cool, the big white box, the screen, the light pen…  Just amazing.”

Love letters to the Fairlight

From that moment on, he was hooked. He got into electronic music, collecting some synths, playing around with Cubase, and dreaming about having a Fairlight. “Especially when the IIx came out, everyone was losing their shit over it.”  Around 2004, he started writing blogs. “Back then, everybody was blogging, so I thought: I’m gonna start a blog. Why not?” Since he didn’t make it as a musician, Failed Muso seemed a fitting name. He started out writing about all kinds of things: music, synths and other fancy studio equipment. Of course, he dedicated most of his scribblings to the mighty machine. There wasn’t much information on the Fairlight online, so he jumped right in, proclaiming his love for the instrument on many occasions. “People liked it, shared it and it got picked up by manufacturers, which led to all kinds of great opportunities for me. I got to work with a lot of great stuff.” To his pleasant surprise, Peter Vogel got wind of it and contacted him. “He sent me an e-mail, asking if I’d like to do some stuff for him as well, on his iOS CMI app.”

Fixer-upper

And then, there was an afternoon, in 2013. He had a job to do somewhere in Germany. “I was checking my e-mail during my lunch break, and there was this message from Peter Wielk, Fairlight’s ex-studio manager and Fairlight-expert. He asked if I’d be interested in helping him restore a Series III CMI. Needless to say, it was a no-brainer.” He rented a van and picked it up. “It used to belong to Ian Stanley, the Tears for Fears keyboardist. It had been stored in a stale damp brick outbuilding. It took months to clean it. And months to restore it, because the spare parts had to be shipped from Sydney, Australia. Peter Wielk guided me through the whole process.”
Up until then, he never got the chance to lay his hands on one. This restored machine was the first one he actually got to play himself. Was it what he’d expected to be? “The first time I switched it on and played around with it, I thought…  “Well, this is awful!” But then, I realised: this is where it all started. It’s ’80’s technology. You have to un-learn all about modern DAWs and plugins. It takes you about five minutes to set up a simple sound.” He might have had a rough start after finally meeting his hero; eventually, he got the hang of it pretty well. These days, he gets Fairlights delivered to his doorstep on a fairly regular basis. He restores them, with a lot of help from Peter in Sydney, who then does the deal, and Rob sends them off to their new owner.

No Fuss Fairlighting

Obviously, there is still a lot of demand for this legendary machine. “A lot of people want one, but they don’t realise what’s involved. Owning a Fairlight is very much like owning a classic car. You spend months getting it up and running before you can take it out for a spin. You’ve got to love the tinkering. Most people want a Fairlight for the famous sounds. Well, you
can get those from sample libraries or for instance, from the Arturia CMI V plugin. You’ll get the sounds and more for about 200 bucks. A Fairlight in good condition? That’s about 10.000 US dollars.”
Then again, emulating the process within the machine, which gives it the unique characteristics; that isn’t done that easily, because of all the computing going on inside the casing. “Despite it being an old computer, there’s so much going on that if you were to emulate it accurately and completely, it will be eating up a lot of your processor power, which will affect everything else you’re trying to do.”

Telling the story

“What I’d really like to do is educate. The Fairlight is Ground Zero for the way we make music today. Before the Fairlight, you’d have to have massive amounts of gear for creating sounds and sequencing. After the CMI came out, other manufactures came up with samplers, sequencer software, hard disk recording; in a way, all inspired by the Fairlight. And now, it’s all integrated again in DAW software. I feel like it’s important telling people about how it all started. I think it’s important to know where you’ve been, to know where you’re going to go to.” Rob loves to take the Fairlight with him, showing it to all kinds of people who can benefit from learning about music technology. “Telling the story. That’s what I love to do.” One more thing? Yes. “When it comes to synthesizers, you always hear about Bob Moog, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim… Peter Vogel, the inventor of the Fairlight CMI, should be getting the same level of credit and the recognition he deserves.” Duly noted, and acknowledged!

All the fun of the Fairlight on Spotify

Personal favourites? “Too many. Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, Art of Noise… They all used the Fairlight in their own unique way.”

 

Michael Turner-Craig, musician, synth collector and vlogger

Over the years, he bought and sold synths, just like most electronic instrument loving people do. But, he doesn’t consider himself a synth hunter. In fact, he’s quite picky: ‘I’m only going for the ones which have that unique sound or character I’m looking for.’  He is the proud, but modest owner of a rare Fairlight Series III machine and a NED Synclavier II system; the two titans of vintage musical computers. 

Michael Turner-Craig started out making music when he was very young. ‘Maybe two or three years old. There were always some instruments lying around the house. So I had little melodica’s, accordions, and at about the age of eight, we got a piano. My parents asked me, a bit out of the blue, if I wanted to take piano lessons. At first, I said “no, why would I want to learn piano?” Then, a few hours later, I changed my mind. I was determined to take lessons.’ 

100 things and more

He gets inspired by artist like Brian Eno, Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schültz and Pete Namlook in particular. In 2015, he started his YouTube-channel 100 Things I do, showing clips of his synths, his DIY-projects and the creation of his ambient atmospheric music. ‘I didn’t take it very seriously back then. But along the way, I got more viewers and more e-mails with requests for more videos. A year later, it really took off.’ 

Although it’s quite a success; he didn’t quit his daytime job. Michael: ’Making a full living out of it, it’s quite hard, being an independent artist. Not many people are willing to pay for music, or expect to pay for music nowadays.’ Performing live comes with its own obstacles. ‘Moving the instruments for a gig, it is never without risks. They’re very old and temperamental, So, my music: it’s very much a part time job.’ ‘With most musicians, I think, you don’t make music by choice. You just feel compelled to create. You get so infatuated with the creation of music, and as you’re working on the piece you’re creating, you suddenly start having all kinds of other ideas, You just keep jumping from thing to thing. You sort of have to have the discipline to come back and finish things. That’s what many of us aren’t very good at.’

Synthesized Seventies

He grew up in England in the seventies. Electronic music seemed to be everywhere at that time. ‘Every time you turned on the tv, there was some Jean-Michel Jarre-track or a Vangelis-track playing. And like most kids my age did, I watched a lot of Doctor Who. It was just saturated everywhere. I must have been thirteen years when I heard the word Synthesizer for the first time, and hearing people talk about how you could create any sound you wanted. Being a teenager, that was the most amazing thing I had ever heard. And, I had to have one! My first synth was a Roland SH 03A.’ 

Like many others, he learned about the Fairlight through the famous demonstration on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World. Michael: ‘I think, as a child, it was very much the light pen technology and the singing into the microphone, doing whatever you wanted on the keyboard, that triggered me. Of course I didn’t think I’d come close to ever owning one myself. Computers were still a rarity when the Fairlight came out. Yeah, it was just unbelievable technology.’

Michael has been living in Australia for most of his life now. ‘My Family and I moved to a place, interesting enough, not too far from Fairlight Beach. We used to go swimming there all the time. That’s where the hydrofoil was sailing; where the instrument got its name from. It’s a very expensive area. Just like the instrument. Quite fitting.’

‘Is that one for sale?’

In 2016, he got his Series III. Michael: ‘I thought about buying a Fairlight, pretty much my whole life. But they were just incredibly unaffordable. And not available, even here in Australia. They were almost none around. The first one I ever got to use was the one I bought.’ In search of a Prophet 5, he found this advertisement on eBay. ‘I saw this mainframe in the corner of the picture of the ad. I instantly new what it was.’ He totally forgot about the Prophet  and asked if that Fairlight was for sale. And it was! 

‘It was a shop, specialised in synths, located in Gosford, near Sydney. They bought it from Peter Wielk, to be the centrepiece of the shop. But they didn’t turn it on very much, probably because the big iconic keyboard was missing. In stead, they’d hooked up a MIDI keyboard. It sort of sat there in the shop, collecting dust. And that’s why they had decided to sell it.’ 

Testcase

‘It used to be a development machine, used for testing the then new MFX system. On the front panel, there are color swatches from where they were testing out different colours. It’s got somebody’s writings next to the color swatches. Because it was a test machine, they never actually completely assembled it. For instance, there was no way to connect the keyboard, for they didn’t cabled it up completely. At that time, there wasn’t a Series III keyboard available. I asked Peter to do some modifications to make it work with a Series II keyboard. The original plan was to swap it when there would be a Series III keyboard available, but as soon as I got the Series II-keyboard, I let Peter know: “I’m keeping this one!”  I painted it and spruced it up a little. That beige, off-white color of the Series II: I like it better than the newer white ones. It’s got more character to it.’ 

Fairlight-party

‘The thing that astounded me the most when I got mine was the size of the mainframe is. It was much bigger than I expected. It arrived in this huge flight case, and it was very, very heavy.’ Michael, laughing: ‘I can’t lift a Fairlight. It’s seriously well-built and it’s seriously heavy!’

‘After I got it, It never occurred to me I would have to learn how to use it. I thought, you just turn it on, press a few buttons and off you go. But of course, there’s this whole operating system underneath. So, it took me a while to learn. After that, I threw a Fairlight-party with a bunch of friends. We went through the library that comes with all of the refurbished systems. I think we went through the Pet Shop Boys-sounds, some break beats…’ His friends heard the new installed fans as well. They were quite impressed: “Oh my God… They are so quiet!”  First thing Michael played? ‘Its a Sin by the Pet Shop Boys. It’s got the choir voice and the string sounds, and I was like ”Oh, I gotta play that one!” Normally, i don’t play “tunes” by others, but this is a classic!’


The two titans

‘My choice of synths is very much driven by what the sound does or what the technology could bring to the music I make. Over the years, I’ve been looking for those unique instruments. The Synclavier, it’s got a very unique sound. It took me about six months to get it. It was shipped from the US. I was constantly worrying: did they made the right adjustments, according to the Australian standard 240V?  Little by little I tested the modules. A very stressful time. But to my surprise: no explosions!’ 

On the internet, people often talk about some rivalry between the two Holy Grail Systems. Michael doesn’t think about it that way: ‘A Fairlight was the price of a house; a Synclavier was the price of multiple houses. It’s modular, so you can keep adding new parts. More FM voices, sampling, it’s a system you can expand. They actually sold the computer part to institutes like NASA. The two giant systems developed in pretty much the same way. The Synclavier evolved into the Tapeless studio recorder, becoming a multitrack digital workstation. Pretty much the same as the CMI, becoming the MFX.’

‘They do slightly different things in slightly different ways. I think artists became attached to a particular work flow of these instruments. Kate Bush loved her Fairlight, and by the time the Series III came out, she had a full-time programmer, looking after the operation. And Depeche Mode, they were all about the Synclavier. But, the song Excellent Birds by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, it’s all Synclavier. And Peter Gabriel is known for being a Fairlight-person.’ As for Michael: ‘I still think, both systems have great abilities for making music. Most people tend to explore them for the ability to conjure up the sound of the ’80’s, but if you dive into them, you can get so much more out of them. The Fairlight and the Synclavier: I couldn’t part from them both. I think the Fairlight Series III is much more rare. If I were to sell mine, I don’t think I’d ever find another one again.’

Karel Post – producer, engineer, studio owner

Picture this: a nice, idylic village in Friesland, a province in the north of the Netherlands. A studio stuffed with all the legendary hardware one could possibly dream of. Its design, based on the world famous 1970’s Atlantic studios. That’s Mixroom One, Karel Posts’ life’s work. “It took me years, collecting all this.” 

Karel Post has been in the business for more than 30 years now. He has worked for companies like BMG Ariola and Capitol Studio’s, and in the nineties he was producing and remixing for XSV Records. They were massively into the upcoming Trance house music. “I was producing flip sides, mostly. My name wasn’t on all of the credits, but fortunately, I earned enough in royalties to help build me this place.” Nowadays, clients with special interests in using vintage hardware, who are really into authentic sound quality, are finding their way to Mixroom One.

“I’m something of a purist. I’ll always be going for the original gear. No matter how.” Along with the Fairlight, there are the 303’s, 808’s, 909’s, LinnDrums, Jupiter’s, Juno’s, Prophets, Akai’s, the Emulator II and III…. Well, practically every hit making high-end machine you can think of. Icing on the cake: the MCI JH556D-LM mixing console, of which he is extremely fond. “Many famous records were mixed on these consoles. Mine came from the Atlantic Studio’s in New York. It was present in studio A from late 1980 until 1985. Against All Odds by Phill Collins and I Feel For You by Shaka Khan were recorded and / or mixed on this very console. Just to name a few.” In 2011, he found himself a Fairlight Series III MFX, fully equipped. “The reason I bought it, is because – obviously – I wanted the real mcCoy.”

Can we fix it?

He started out in 1988. “Some of the gear over here has been with me ever since, and is still working perfectly. Like my beloved, good-old Roland MSQ 700 sequencer. Works like a charm for synching old machines like the 303’s, 808’s etcetera to MIDI or SMPTE. I really can’t do without it.” 

Being a handyman at heart, he tends to buy broken gear and repair it himself. “I bought my Emulator II for a mere 150 euros and fixed it up. Recently, I bought two broken Urei 1168 compressors for less than nothing. Now, they are good to go again and worth about 2,000 Euros a piece.” The Fairlight he bought came from a German firm, handling secondhand high-end studio equipment. It was in perfect condition, until it got delivered… The day it arrived from Germany, he missed the delivery guy. Preventing his fragile package from a bumpy ride throughout the province, he called the delivery service to ask if they’d drop it off to his friend living nearby, who coincidentally was waiting for a delivery as well.  

“So there it was, this heavy priced machine, in a big box on a pallet. And there was that ‘uh-oh’-feeling…  It took me quite a while, putting all the voice cards back in place, doing some repairs, making it work again. But I got it up and running. Smooth as silk!” 

Hitting the jackpot

“It wasn’t easy to find one. Well, let’s say: to find one that is actually working. You can say I’ve found the needle in the haystack. It used to belong to Jörg Evers, who became famous as a musician/composer/arranger for a lot of German movie productions and artists. Later in his career, it seems he composed some music for commercials. I’ve found some very familiar tunes in my machine, along with some very nice home-made samples and drum patterns.

It was one of the first Series III MFX’s, probably delivered somewhere around 1986. It has all the available extra options. I still have the original monitor that came with it, but I hooked it up to a full color screen. The 24-track recorder workstation-mode is in full colour. But ‘escape F1’  starts all the fun! Doing that, it flips back to the ‘back-in-the-old-days’ resolution and screen layout.”

The original monitor comes in handy for this other piece of Fairlight equipment he has: the Voice Tracker. “I think it’s from 1985. It analyses and displays the notes it is ‘hearing’. A very early pitch-to-MIDI. It works with midi, and with control voltages as well. With this device, I can whistle a tune right into a midi track. Just like the Fairlight CMI, very much ahead of its time. Not many are made; it’s quite a rarity.” Laughing: “To be honest, I wanted to have it, just because it’s Fairlight!” 

In love with the libraries

“I think I started discovering synth sounds around 1976, through Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygen. It was a revelation! Later on, Art of Noise, Jan Hammer.…  I learnt that some major parts of ’80’s Fleetwood Mac songs were done on a Fairlight. And, Sowing the seeds of love by Tears for fears, a master piece, with massive use of the instrument as well. Just to name a few. First thing I played when I got mine? Probably the intro of Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love. 

“Yes, there are some really good sound libraries out there today too, but if you ask me, those on the Fairlight Series III are the top of the bill. Songs by ABC for instance, or Grace Jones, are stuffed with these good quality orchestral sounds, all coming from the Fairlight. That’s what made it all sound so tasteful. Strings, brass, drum loops.. every waveform is so useful, with such rich dynamics.”

“The Series II was somewhat limited, although Vince Clarke managed to make it sound fantastic on the Yazoo-album Upstairs at Eric’s. When the Series III came along…  Man, It just was all over the place! Probably until Akai came up with their also legendary, more affordable samplers.”

Collaborating with enthusiasts 

Over the past few years, Karel worked with artists who appreciate good oldfashioned craftsmanship when it comes to producing records. By the name of Lonestarr, he made some productions, loved within the Italo scene. Recently, he has done a 12″ record with Systems In Blue, a German band. Originally, they were background vocalists for a number of acts in the late 70’s and ’80’s, and mostly known for their collaborations with Modern Talking. “Itamar Moraz wanted to make a remix of a SIB-song in the original sound of Modern Talking. Moraz pre-produced the tracks in Israel, and here at Mixroom.one, we replaced the virtual instruments with the real deal; vintage synths, and all original hardware. It was released as a conaisseur’s edition, only on vinyl. To my satisfaction, it sold out in a few months! Vinyl has made a comeback over the past few years and it’s nice to know there are still people out there, appreciating these kind of complex productions.” He is also working on a remake of a song by the KLF; notorious for their early nineties stadium acid house. “I’m working with Azat (Isaac) Bello, who did the rap on What Time Is Love, and Maxime Harvey will join too, she’s the amazing vocalist on 3 AM Eternal. By the way, their music was chockfull of Fairlight as well. They used the one owned by Hans Zimmer at Lilly Yard Studio, and I have that library too.”

Glamour and mojo

“Having a Fairlight hasn’t changed my whole way of producing music. I’ve always worked with hardware. In most cases, I’m not using those famous signature sounds very much, but try to explore its depths. And as for sampling, I usually grab my first generation 12 Bit Akais; they’re really practical beasts. 

The first time I heard the Fairlight parts coming through my mixing console, joining a mix, I felt like: ‘Ok… this is something else! This is the shit! So that’s what the Fairlight sound is all about!’ Just amazing. It does an amazing job when it comes to time code / synching. Sometimes even faster than modern day computers. Just spot-on! Every sound or waveform coming from the library, is so useful, with great dynamics. Whatever song you’re making: the Fairlight will make it shine; it adds some real glamour to the production.”

It’s not like he holds any grudges against those who are climbing the charts with their bathroom-bangers, using just a laptop. That’s all fine with him. But in his humble opinion, much modern-day productions are stuffed with worn-out preset sounds he recognises in an instant from previous hit records: “The same bass drums, the same xylophone-sound, the same vocals, the same mix… Just too bloody boring. Even the today’s Trance records sound nearly identical to some of the stuff I did in the late 90’s. But luckily, there is still some good new music out there.”

“I guess what I’d like to say is: when you’re using software and you do like these vintage sounds, try to get your hands on real original gear, at least for once in your life. Let it inspire you. There are studio’s specialized in giving you that kind of experience, with people driven by enthusiasm. Yes, you’d have to spend some money, but it’s definitely worth the experience. You will hear the difference. You’ll get that ‘home coming’ feeling.  That just cannot be emulated by software. It’s all about mojo. That’s what makes the difference, and Fairlight, like the Jupiter 8 and the Minimoog, delivers that in spades. The same goes for a really high quality console like my MCI JH556D. It’s more of everything!” 

Final thoughts

“To me, using vintage gear is just sublime. No virtual instrument or plug-in can compete with that hands-on feeling and workflow. As for the Fairlight: I think it’s a matter of love people such as myself are having for its high-end quality and its authentic sonic characteristics. It’s nice to knowpeople are still using it and there’s still a steady fan base. Its sound, its quality: it’s just unique. There’s nothing like it. Period.”

J.J. Jeczalik – programmer, producer, musician

Except for the occasional game, he wasn’t really into computers. It was the late ’70’s and some early adopters could see it coming: ‘Computers are the future, you know? Don’t learn to lay drums, learn how to type!’ He ended up becoming keyboard tech for Buggles’ keyboardist Geoff Downes with this brand new beast called the Fairlight CMI. The rest is history…

“I never was that interested in all the tech stuff. I was more interested in what it could do.”

A quick browse through the Discoqs database, or a pair of well trained ears, will tell you there’s a touch of J.J. hidden in dozens of music productions. To begin with, there’s the ZTT-catalogue, including Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Propaganda, ABC and the Duck Rock album by the notorious Malcom McLaren. There’s the excessive list of other artists he worked with, including Paul McCartney, Billy Ocean and the Pet Shop Boys. On top of that: there’s the Art of Noise. They won a Grammy for their rendition of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn (featuring Duane Eddy), they helped to revive Tom Jones’ career, their music was featured in several tv and movie productions, but most important: J.J. and his colleagues introduced us to a fresh new way of doing things.

But let’s start at the beginning. J.J. Jeczalik, geography student at Durham University, took a year off, moved to London and found himself a job as the tech guy for prog rock band Landscape. “The bass player had built the band’s PA, and I helped him out. Really nifty. I think during that time, I learnt pretty well how to solder properly.” By that time, he started reading about the possibilities of computer technology. “A friend of mine recommended this book about the future of computers. I remember reading something in the line of ‘By the time of the year 2000, everything will be on the internet.’ I was intrigued by the possibilities of computer technology. It was a new era.”

Through his work with Landscape and Richard James Burgess, who did the drums on Video Killed The Radio Star, he met The Buggles, being Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. And that’s when J.J. got acquainted with his soon-to-be working horse. “At first, we didn’t really know what to do with it. So I just tried and figured it out myself. I did read the manual, but it wasn’t very helpful. It was about muddling through. I think most of us did, back in the day. I remember Blue Weaver, then keyboardist for The Bee Gees, telling the very same thing: just try, and see what it does.” He adds: “There weren’t any platforms or forums, like there are nowadays. I think we’d exchange some user experiences while being at the events hosted by Syco Systems.”

J.J. Jeczalik with CMI, in black and white

“Of course it was great. This expensive machine, the price of a house, and Trevor gave me his to develop it for him.”

The art of noise

And then there was the historical night when J.J. and Gary Langan messed about with the Yes drum loops. “We played it to Trevor. He liked it. He said something in the line of: ‘It needs some more melody.’ So he called in Anne Dudley and she came up with the beautiful chords and musical textures on top of the jumble Gary and I were making. You know, It’s funny: my Art Of Noise colleagues were looking at me like I was the computer wizard. I, in turn, was a bit nervous because I didn’t have any musical skills at all.“

Special artefacts

Often, J.J. was out with his tape recorder, hunting for sounds. “I was living in London at that time. I wanted to record the horses that galloped past my house almost every day. So I asked permission to do so. I recorded the horses, but it didn’t sound as good as I’d hoped for. At the same time, my neighbour was starting her Volkswagen Golf a few times. I played it back and thought it was a great sound. It’s not just the car you’re hearing; it’s the sound of the trees, the space between the houses. Especially when slowed down, you can hear every nuance. The same goes for the tennis court, where I took some recordings. Its sound had very specific characteristics. I’m pretty sure I can recognise which tennis court it was, just by hearing it.” Did the girl next door know her starting car ended up on a hit record? “No, I don’t think so. I never played it to her.”

Anne Dudley, Gary Langan and J.J. Jeczalik – reboot Art of Noise’s In Visible Silence – live at the British Library, March 2018. Credit: Marc Pinder

Aiming for the brain

One might say Art Of Noise is all about happy accidents, imperfections and having fun.And about Vibe, J.J. recalls. “Back then, it was all about ‘Does it have the Vibe?’ To me, it’s that unexplainable process happening in your brain when you’re on to something. That unique sound or atmosphere. It might be something small, but big enough to trigger some kind of response to your brain. I’ve always tried creating something that tricks the brain; something you can’t really identify, but yet sounds familiair. For instance, the word Paranoimia. I wanted to give it just that little twist, to puzzle the brain.”

“I don’t want things to be dull.”

Camilla Pilkingington’s Hey!’ is another example of that extra bit of vibe. “My girlfriend at the time told me she knew this girl at her school, with a beautiful, clear sounding voice. So I went to the school where she was teaching and we made some recordings. The bits where she just tried some phrases and made some mistakes turned out to be the best parts.”

Plenty of Moments

Moments in Love started out with this sample Anne gave me, and I had a great idea for a melody; It kind of dropped from my fingertips. But I couldn’t really remember what I’d played. Anne, having perfect pitch, remembered it and played the notes again. And off we went. Again, having fun with it. The best version is about nine minutes long. And yes, we tried to make it the most boring piece of music possible. Actually, there’s a lot going on in the track, thanks to Gary playing around, adding effects to the percussion parts.” Well, this little nine-bar-loop-tune must have inspired a lot of other recording artists. It has been sliced, dissected slowed down or sped up in more than a hundred songs, mostly hiphop/R’nB. J.J.: “I know it was played during Madonna & Sean Penn’s wedding ceremony, I know it’s been used a couple of times. So, I’m aware of it, but I don’t know all of these songs. The fact that it’s so widely appreciated: I think it’s great!”

Full-time jobs

Aside from being part of the ZTT production team for the first half of the ’80’s, and being part of AON, he was a freelancing Fairlight programmer, remixer and producer. “It was just working, working, working. I did the bits and pieces, and was just having a lot of fun while doing it. Most of the time I had no idea how it would end up on a record.”One of his first jobs as a producer was with the Pet Shop Boys. J.J.:  “Artists like the Pet Shop Boys always renew themselves, looking for different people to work with. When I was asked to work with them, I basically was thinking I’d be making another ZTT kind of record. But it wasn’t that way at all!”

“I used to bring my entire collection of sounds, carrying the floppy disks around in this big brown bag. Mostly I’d just go there, sit down and be like: ‘Ok, let’s play around…’ ” Laughing: “That was me, being a producer back in the ’80’s. Now, I would sit down, ask about the idea and talk it through.”

Second life

After being in the music industry for more than fifteen years, J.J. decided to move into another direction. He became a teacher in IT at two Oxfordshire high schools. His good old Series IIx was collecting dust. “For a long time, it just sat there in my house, this big machine. I wasn’t really doing anything with it. You know, you start to have a family, having other responsibilities… I figured I might just sell it. So I sold it, back in 1995 I think.”

His students didn’t know about his former career. That was until the Internet became commonplace. “It never came up, except at the end of my teaching career, not long before my retirement my students began looking up their teachers: ‘Hey, Mister J, is that you?’ ” By the time he retired, little by little, the music making returned into his life.

For that, he needed to retrieve his personal sound library. “I hooked up with a friend of mine in Bristol. He had some disks stored from 1982. I could tell immediately, from my handwriting, what was on them. Like opening up a file somewhere in my brain. You know, It all comes down to labeling your files properly.“ He also got some help from the members of the Fairlight community on Facebook. “I think I got all of my sounds back right now. It’s nice to have them back.”

Credit: Marc Pinder

Final thoughts

He still loves the instrument, but doesn’t really feel like using it anymore. “The Fairlight, it’s not the easiest piece of equipment to carry around. You need to look after it, be careful with it… They’re not the easiest machines for playing live. I use Macs and soft synths now, for I don’t like to carry heavy stuff around.” Laughing: “You see, I’m a bit of a lazy person, and put everything in a rucksack!”

“But It’s nice to know there are still people out there, caring for these sounds and caring for such old machines like the Fairlight. For me, it was great to work with. And back in the day, it was revolutionary. But to me, it’s all about coming up with ideas and creativity for making the music. You don’t necessarily need a Fairlight for that.”

Dudley Jeczalik Langan reboot Art of Noise's In Visible Silence - live at the British Library, March 2018. Credit: Marc Pinder
Credit: Marc Pinder

 

Links / additional sources: 

The Art of Noise Online https://theartofnoiseonline.com/JJ-Jeczalik.php

WhoSampled.com: https://www.whosampled.com/Art-of-Noise/Moments-in-Love/

The black-and-white photo and the one @ Monsterrat Studio’s, taken from the J.J. Jeczalik Appreciation group on Facebook