Tag: Australia

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.’

Peter Wielk – product specialist / former employee

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

Fairlight Headquarters, Sidney‘‘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.”

National treasure

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.” 

Going horizontal

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.”

Vintage fun

“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.”