From 1980 to 1988, Peter worked at the original Fairlight company. As their Product Specialist, he’d give ‘the grand tour’, giving customers the opportunity to learn as much as they liked about the machine before buying one. Peter is still up to his elbows in Fairlights – he revives the oldies and sells them to a new generation of enthusiasts. “I could sell one every week, but unfortunately, there aren’t that many around now.”
Growing up in London, Peter Wielk lived through an interesting time musically, with psychedelic rock, punk and the early days of electronic music using the first synthesizers and drum machines. ‘I’ve been lucky to be involved in music technology pretty much all my life.” After studying electronics and music in the late 1970’s, he worked as a technician for Peter Gabriel, one of the very first Fairlight adoptors.
Travelling through Asia, and finding himself in Sydney, Australia, Peter looked up Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel, Fairlight’s inventors, with whom he’d been corresponding with from London. “I’d been looking to work with them, and was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Fairlight’s success meant they needed more people, and I seemed to have the required abilities. Needless to say, I was in heaven working for one of the most interesting companies in the world, and my very first job was sorting out the sound libraries for the CMIs”
Not your regular nine-to-five
‘‘I helped design and then run the Fairlight studio, which allowed me to play with these amazing machines whilst testing the stuff the R&D-guys came up with – it was a dream job, really. It was like no company I’d ever worked for”
“Most of the people drawn to Fairlight were young, and extremely talented. Skilled software and hardware designers from all over the world came together in this creative atmosphere. It was a hugely enjoyable experience”.
“No two days were the same. For example, one day would involve taking a CMI into Long Bay prison to show the inmates, the next might be taking one to a television studio for a demo to be broadcast that evening.”
Peter was also the Product Specialist, showing the Fairlights’ capabilities to people who might be interested in buying one. These were mainly musicians, producers and other creatives, but also educational and scientific establishments.
Peter: “We would meet them, either at our HQ or at their own houses or studios. We’d set up a system, and they could spend as much time as they needed to get to know the machine, just to make sure it was right with them.” So no unsatisfied customers? Peter, laughing: ‘People were really sure when they eventually signed the cheque.”
‘I’ve worked with lots of creative and talented people, however with Fairlight it was a dream job.’
He recalls showing the Fairlight to the guys from Duran Duran. “They were in Sydney working on an album, and were interested in a Fairlight, so I spent about a month or two with them. They were very into it. People might deride them for the suits and hairstyles, however I got to know them as very professional musicians, loving what they were doing and very interested in experimenting with this new technology. It was a pleasure working with them.”
So, no boring stuff on the job at all? “Well, the days we had to spend at trade shows were torture, but other than that it really was a dream job.”
There were only about 350 – 400 Fairlight CMI’s ever built. “Back in the day, we sold lots of Fairlights in Europe, especially in the UK. We have Peter Gabriel to thank for that.” Peter Gabriel introduced the Fairlight to Kate Bush and a few other British artists. His cousin Stephan Paine then set up Syco, a London based company that would distribute Fairlight CMIs and sell other leading synthesisers and audio technology. “Of course, we sold quite a few in the USA as well. Stevie Wonder was one of the first to buy one. But I think the Synclavier, being US made, was possibly more popular. There were a few Fairlights sold to China and Japan.” What about the Middle-East? Peter, thinking: “No… Not that I’m aware of…”
You might expect the Fairlight became one of Australia’s national treasures. No, not quite. Peter: “In the late seventies, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie were saluted for creating a ground breaking invention coming from Australia. Nowadays, most people aren’t even aware the Fairlight CMI, the first commercially available sampler, was an Australian invention. They assume it’d been invented in the UK or the US. A lot of great things are coming from Australia, especially in the fields of art and culture, but people just aren’t aware of that. It’s called here the cultural cringe.”
Spare parts and tools are scattered all over the place and a few of those famous white keyboards are stacked up against the wall of his workshop. Undoubtedly the biggest eye-catcher is the enormous Fairlight logo hanging on the wall. “It’s a left-over from the original company. They asked me if I wanted to have it.” Peter left the company in 1988. “When I finished working with Fairlight, I bought one myself and I’d hire myself out for making film music and any other musical really. I was based at Studio 301 where I’d previously worked with the Durans.” The Fairlight company subsequently changed its course, moving more into post production tools for film and television. Peter stayed involved with the machines, doing maintenance work, and helping out users who were having problems. Nowadays, Peter and his UK-associate Rob are restoring ‘the oldies’ before shipping the fully refurbished Fairlights to their new happy-to-be owners. Peter: “It’s both technical work and crafting. For instance, the monitor fronts and music keyboards are made from MDF, which falls apart if it gets wet. In this case I have to completely remake them. And some of the parts are very hard to come by, so I’m re-manufacturing them.”
“I could sell one every week but unfortunately, there aren’t that many around.” He adds: “Back In 1985, they cost about 60,000 dollars. You could buy a decent house for that amount of money”. Nowadays a lot of people are interested in vintage synths. Either young people who listened to their parents’ records, or folk that grew up in the eighties and got inspired by the sounds. Some want to own a piece of that nostalgia.”
“It’s a bit like being into classic cars. You could buy a brand new Toyota which is totally efficient and reliable, and also completely boring. Or, you can buy a great classic car, like an old Mercedes, Jaguar or Porsche…. It’ll need of lots of love and attention, but will be ultimately far more rewarding to own and drive. One of the nicest aspects of what I do is getting feedback from new users. A common theme is “I’m just enjoying playing with this thing so much!”
“I use Fairlight systems every day and I still love them. I’m a bit old fashioned, and I haven’t embraced working on modern computers at all. The CMI is a very intuitive instrument with a great sound. It is a computer, however the hardware and software were designed from the ground up to make music elegantly. It was an incredibly interesting time then, and you can hear the influences in new music. It defined the way we make music today.”