Tag: Duran Duran

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.

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.”