Tag: Engineer

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.