He listened to Mike Oldfield. He saw the pictures on the albums and he read about ‘this thing called a Fairlight’. Which raised Klaus’ curiosity about this ‘Computer Instrument’. Fellow keyboardists told him it was a mission impossible, getting your hands on one. But Klaus managed to find the holy grail…
‘To me, It’s still fresh. I can use the Fairlight to create sounds no one’s ever heard before.’
”I was lucky enough to find a Series II, back in 2010. It’s quite a historical piece, for it used to belong to Synthesizer Studio Bonn, one of the only two Fairlight retailers in Germany. They bought it in 1982. It was their demo machine and It was kept in their shop until 1999. They went bankrupt, and the Fairlight was sold to a synth collector, who went bankrupt as well. He had to sell a lot of his equipment, including the Series II. I got it for a good price. But I do hope I won’t be the third one to go bankrupt.”
Klaus Himmelstein has been a music and science teacher on several German international schools for about twenty years now. He developed a special interest in electronic music, but originally he is a classically trained violin player. ”That’s how I started, at the age of 8. My parents took me to violin lessons, because they discovered I have perfect pitch hearing. I really love to play the violin and I still play it. Through the years, I got more and more interested in electronic instruments.”
Green screen, big box
”I remember getting my hands on a Yamaha DX7 for the first time, when I was about 12 years old. That was in 1986. I didn’t know what any of these knobs were for. I tried out the presets and I tried to tweak them, to get some other sounds out of it. Around that time period, I also heard about the Fairlight for the first time. I listened to Mike Oldfields’ albums and I read he was using a ‘Fairlight computer’. So I thought: ’What the hell is a Fairlight computer?’ And then, I figured out it was this funny machine with this keyboard and this green screen and a big box, pictured on some of his albums.”
He bought his first synth in 1991. ”A Roland D-5. Not to be confused with the famous D-50. The reason I bought it was because it is multitimbral. I already had an Atari ST computer. I used this set-up for making my first compositions. And, around that time, I started asking other keyboard players about the Fairlight. Some people didn’t know anything about it. But the people who knew about it, they’d be saying things like: ’Oh boy, that’s the holy grail…’, ’15.000 Deutsche Mark’, ’You won’t get your hands on one’ or ’That’s only for the big studios’. By the end of the nineties, Klaus had built himself quite a studio with a decent amount of vintage synthesizers. ”I started looking on eBay, checking for Fairlights. I’ve learned there are two types of Fairlight-ads: either the refurbished machines which cost a fortune, or just crap.”
Closing the deal
In 2010, an acquaintance of his – the guy from RetroSound, who publishes videos of pretty much every vintage synthesizer you can think of – notified Klaus there was a Fairlight for sale. “He knew I was looking for one, through my posts on forums. So one day, he sent me an e-mail. He knew there was one for sale, somewhere in the Eiffel area. A Series II, not in perfect condition, but good enough. He offered to put me in touch with the seller.
So, in the end, I went to this guy, checked it out, talked about the price and closed the deal. It was pretty easy going. I picked it up myself, for I don’t trust companies like UPS and DHL too much handling valuable packages. I had a huge car back in the day, a station wagon. I put lots of cushions and blankets in the back of the car. I wrapped it all up and drove back to my studio, which was located in the city of Münster. I set it all up and after that, people didn’t see me for quite some time, for I was in the studio all of the time.
I went through all the floppy disks. They contained a large collection of samples from Synthesizer Studio Bonn. They made their own samples, their own sounds. It was used for demo sessions. I checked out all the sounds; quite some unique stuff in there.”
Nothing like the real thing
”I was always fascinated by its sound. That was one of the reasons I wanted to have one. Not just for collecting purposes. I’m not treating it like some piece of history that sits in my studio, like some precious artefact, being polished every day. I really want to use it for making music.” Of course, it took some getting-used-to. Klaus: ”When you start to work with it, you’ll probably find out it’s quite difficult. For instance, the light pen isn’t as accurate as you think it might be; no drag ’n drop, no pull-down menu’s. But in the end, after a couple of days, I’ve found my way around it.
I also figured out, and this is a thing I learned from other users as well: after two or three hours working with the light pen, your arm gets really tired. And that CRT monitor, that green screen compared to todays monitors.… It isn’t too comfortable. But that sound, it makes it all worth while. I think the percussive sounds are the best in the world. And it’s that 8-bit sound… I don’t know why exactly, but I think it’s just the best. It’s unique. You don’t get that particular sound out of todays software. For instance, Arturia’s CMI V, it’s really nice, it’s a good reproduction. But if you want that original particular sound, there’s nothing like the original Fairlight CMI.”
”I bought it back in 2010 and I have been using it ever since. It’s still in quite good condition, except for the CRT-monitor. It’s a little bubbly and not quite clear around the edges. But furthermore, the light pen is still working, one of the floppy drives still works, as well as the 8 voice cards. At the age of almost 40 years, it’s still a good machine. Together with Jean-Bernard Emond from France, I’ve made some modifications. For instance, we’ve replaced on of the floppy drives with an SSD-drive. Peter Wielk helped me out with one of the voice cards. I had a dead one. He had one in Australia, so he sent it to me.
I have two Emulators, and one of them just serves as a box of spare parts. I figured out there aren’t too many people familiair with repairing an Emulator. And it’s very, very difficult to get spare parts for it. With the Fairlight on the other hand, there’s a well grown community, pretty much world wide. You can get parts from France, from Australia, from the UK… There’s always someone somewhere in the world, with a great love for the instrument and lots of knowledge, who can help you out with any issue you might have.”
“In my studio, there are at least 25 keyboards and a whole lot of modules and other stuff. The Fairlight is a part of ’the orchestra.
I’m a big fan of Tangerine Dream, that is to say: their early work. Everything after about 1989 began to sound like pretty much everything else. They used cutting edge technology. But the funny thing is: they never used a Fairlight. According to Edgar Froese, they used a Synclavier, and Emulators. Their music comes close to what inspires me. Some people are comparing some of my work to Tangerine Dream. Others are saying it reminds them of Jean-Michel Jarre. The perception is quite different. I’m totally happy when people like my tracks. If they don’t? That’s fine with me. I’m working on my ideas and I’m enjoying the proces. That’s it. Sometimes, I get involved in some recordings, I made a couple of jingles for radio commercials and I once made a small movie score. Sometimes, I play keyboards and violin in bands. I’d prefer doing a little less teaching and a little more music production. The good thing about being a teacher: it’s a steady job. The bad thing about being a musician on the free market: you’re never sure of income. I prefer the more secure way. Teaching music actually is a lot of fun. Recently, we performed a few pieces with some students. I love teaching music to kids. But, I don’t take many of my synthesizers to school. My Moog Rogue is the only one I bring from time to time. They can tweak on pretty much every knob or slider; it doesn’t go out of order. But I’m not bringing the Fairlight to school. I don’t want to transport it too often.”
“The Fairlight CMI, it’s a particular part of history. It has integrated sampling into modern music. Without the Fairlight, things would have happened totally differently. Back in the early 80’s, it was the latest thing to go on, the latest way to produce new kinds of music. I love that particular sound. For me, it’s still up to date. It’s not old-fashioned, it’s not vintage. For me, it is still fresh. In my opinion, I can use the Fairlight – as well as the Emulator – to create new and fresh sounds that have never been heard before. I’m convinced of that.”