Tag: Series III

Clive Smith – recording artist, composer, performer, sound designer

You might have seen him on the legendary Sesame Street-episode, in which Herbie Hancock is demonstrating the Fairlight. You might have heard him on the soundtrack for the ’80’s cult film Liquid Sky. And you might have come across his name on a whole lot of session-work and collaborations. Clive Smith, often credited as the ’Fairlight Programmer’. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

Wether it is your typically structured mainstream music, or the more textured, experimental kind: Clive Smith morphs fluently between both realms. “I’ve always been interested in texture, as wel as in structural music composition.” He started out as a trumpet player in high school, is a trained musician and has taught himself to play guitar, bass-guitar and keyboards. “Those sparked to me a lot more. The trumpet, it never really sat with me as well as the ’rock instruments’.  But occasionally, I pick up the trumpet to keep my lips in shape, or to play it on some album. When I went to university, i took a multimedia-course, which was basically visual arts and sonic arts. There was a VCS3, the ’Putney’, and I really fell in love with synths and the ability to create and craft your own sounds; to manipulate them. I was always interested in electronic sounds. Prior to the synths, I used tape. My father had an expensive tape recorder. I used to have lots of fun with it, recording all sorts of sounds, noises, trying to play it backwards.” He reckoned how John Lennon discovered that by accident. “I was very interested in those kind of things. “

Becoming the Fairlight expert
Clive came fresh out of college with a degree in musical composition. But… What to do next? ”One of my professors started this non profit organisation called Public Acces Synthesizer Studios. I started out as the associate director and later, I became director. In 1980, there was an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City. There was this Australian company called Fairlight, showing this instrument; it was probably one of the first times it was shown in the US. Back then, it was just called the Fairlight CMI, for there were no Series II, IIx, etcetera yet. I was amazed by it. It took a little bit of doing, but the following year, we had one at PASS, on loan to us. I fully immersed myself in it, trying to learn as much about it as I possibly could.  The great thing was, there were no specific rules on how to use the instrument. I took lots of time sampling and creating my own sounds and I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that there weren’t any boundaries someone else already had defined. That was extremely satisfying. ”

“As soon as I learned everything about the Fairlight, this Russion director, Slava Tsukerman, came in at PASS, as he wanted to create the soundtrack of what later would become Liquid Sky. He realised he couldn’t operate this computer himself, so he initially hired Brenda Hutchinson, who started working on the project with him. She was called away for a job on the West coast. So I took over and did the remaining two third of the project. I think there were three or four different types of classical pieces that the director came to us with.’ They programmed that into the Fairlight. You might call that a hell of a job. Clive: ‘It was very much like old-fashioned computer programming, using a code for every note, every change, like velocity or note durations.” At that time, there was only the Series 1. So, no easy peasy sequencing, using Page R, which was introduced into the Series II, in 1982. ”There were two types of recording. The first one was non-real time, using Musical Composition Language. The second method was called Page 9. It recorded in real time, but there were no visuals; you couldn’t really see what you were doing on the screen. When you made a mistake, you had to start all over again.”

Quick and dirty
“Slava isn’t a musician himself. But he did have musical ideas and a clear vision of what he had in mind for the soundtrack. He’d just tap a rhythm, or hum a melody, moving his arms in a particular way, saying: “I want this for that scene.”  And I would just play around with some ideas. When there was something he liked he said: “OK, let’s record this.” We’d immediately be recording the ideas, right when they were fresh. Often, I wanted to do it again, for I thought it was too sloppy. I wanted to go back, perfecting it. But then he‘d say: “No, I like it. Let’s make it quick and dirty.” He liked the sort of clunkiness; the marriage between the computer high tech and the punk approach.
I had sampled lots of different percussive sounds. Some wooden, metal and glass wind chimes. I put them all together, and I think that’s what we ended up using for the creature sounds. They weren’t specifically made for the movie. I played it to Slava, he liked it. They fitted with his vision for the movie. So they ended up being part of the alien sounds.
Brenda had seen some of the footage. When I started working on it, I never saw any footage. So it was only his verbal description of things. So in a way, I wasn’t influenced at all by visuals. I was strictly translating what he was conveying to me. It wasn’t until the actual premiere that I saw how it all worked together. And it worked very well. Me and Brenda, we got the credits for composing, but it was his vision. He was coming across with moods. I only matched with what he was doing. And if he would have let me be alone with it, it would never have turned out that way.” 

Rocking it on Sesame Street
Because of Liquid Sky, the US branche of the Fairlight company asked if he would work for them. He left PASS and became one of their consultants, from 1983 ’till about 1989.  Clive: ”That was incredibly great. I had access to the equipment, I promoted their product doing demos, and I was doing session work on the side.” So, how did he end up with Herbie Hancock on Sesame Street? Clive: ”Alexander Williams, he did sort of what I was doing, on the West Coast. When Herbie Hancock purchased his Fairlight, he had Will training him on how to use the machine. When he wanted to capture his ideas, in a session, on the fly, Will was able to help him out with the technical side. When Herbie visited the East Coast, I kind of did the same thing for him. Will and I knew each other, and it turned out Herbie and I had some mutual friends. So, that worked out nicely. I think, if I remember correctly, Herbie didn’t travel with his Fairlight, so he used mine for the Sesame Street-session. The show went pretty much as shown; the children were very excited about this new technology. Just like the kids are today. We didn’t do anything different. That clip was pretty much the entire take.
People were always very curious about it. And It’s very inviting; something that looked like a ‘60’s tv-screen, a bit of a retro sci-fi-look, a huge white keyboard, playing melodies with barking dogs… It looked accessible, more ‘friendly’ and less intimidating than a modular synth with patch chords, knobs and sliders.”

“I’m really glad I got the opportunity to work with Herbie Hancock. Up until then, I never realised what an amazing musician he is. It was great to see the ideas running in his brain, coming out. Always, his first ideas were immediately great. Watching him listening to a musical piece he’d never heard before and then, coming up with this great keyboard part. Very enlightening to see. And he’s a very nice, very friendly down to earth kinda person. You know, formally trained musicians often want to play tunes on a synth using their keyboard technique. Herbie, he was very open to coming up with interesting sounds, being Interested in things that had some internal movement on the things he was playing. I think, that’s what we have in common: having this split personality between being a trained musician, using structured forms, and being able to work with textures, creating sounds, the approach a non-musician might have. The more creative approach by just going in and thinking: ’What would i like to happen?’.

Big bam boom
In 1984, I bought my own IIx; that’s when the session work really took off. In ‘86, the series III was released and I was able to purchase one fairly early in its existence. There are certain things that are unique to the IIx, but I could do so much more on the III. It expanded on the things I wanted to do. I started using them both.” And so, he was moving around New York, carrying around two fairly heavy machines. ”I was doing a lot of session work in New York, mostly in the avant-garde music scene. I was either playing in progressive rock bands, avant-garde rock bands or free jazz and noise bands. And all of a sudden, I was called in to do sessions with very mainstream artists. There was this buzz going ‘round about the Fairlight. People were looking for that extra spice to add to their music. So, I was hired to make a few noises on the track.”  Laughing: ”It felt a bit like being the odd one out.”

In 1984, he was asked to work on the Hall & Oates-record Big Bam Boom. “They were listening a lot to Sgt. Pepper’s. They wanted to take a different approach. They didn’t want to emulate The Beatles, but it was the whole idea that they needed to break out of their old approach and treat the studio in a different way, instead of archiving and capturing what they did playing live. That was essentially what it was. That’s why they brought in the Fairlight. They didn’t know exactly what it did, or what they thought it would do. But they might have thought it could be the ingredient pushing them into a new era. Of course, they did the pop music that they were known for, but in a slightly different way and I think it was successful. Their new approach did work out for them.”

“They didn’t have all the songs written yet; just some words, some of the choruses were done. A lot of things were formed in the studio. The way I worked with them was a little onorthodox. Next to the control room, in the Electric Ladyland studios, there’s the vocal booth. They took the door off that separated the booth from the control room. And they’d have me set up with the Fairlight and some speakers, letting me hear the same play-back the producer, Bob Clearmountain, was hearing. They had me playing along with the music and every now and then they’d listen to what was coming out on my channel; what I was coming up with. When they liked it, they decided to put that on the record. I’d put something in, or Robbie Kilgore, the other keyboard player they hired. That’s how we worked for about three months. It was done very professionally, almost like a regular nine-to-five job. At 10 am, we’d come in, we’d have a short lunch break, and around 6 pm we were usually out of there. No drinking or drugs were allowed in the studio; they were very disciplined, especially Daryl. It was a very instructive experience and it got me a lot of jobs at sessions. It was a great opportunity.“

Programmer? Keyboard player? 
On album credits, guys like Clive were often referred to as ’Fairlight programmer’. Which makes you think: didn’t he play some decent notes at all on all these records? Clive: “They didn’t know what to make of it, so they called it Programmer. Which was fine with me. The lesser known music I worked on was where I got to play more. On some of those, I even play the guitar. People brought me in as the Fairlight programmer, but then they learned I play keyboards and guitar as well. So often, they’d ask: ’Oh, you play guitar? Bring yours tomorrow!’ and they’d let me lay down a couple of tracks as well.
Right before the final days of the series III had arrived, before the original Fairlight company went down, I had a midi guitar. I used to bring it to sessions, so I could play the Fairlight from the midi guitar. That was great, because I was able to do things I couldn’t do on the regular keyboard. Especially when it comes to bending pitches in a particular way; that sort of thing. Each string could have a different sound to it. So with the midi guitar, in a way, you had six keyboards with different sounds attached to each string. Sometimes you ended up with some very wonderful things. I’ve used that on the more obscure records, because people were more open to try different things than they were on mainstream recordings.”

Shaping and creating
Over the past few years, Clive has worked on many, many projects, providing music, or musical textures for a dozen tv-shows, doing session work, being a sound designer for Korg… And today, he’s working on a variety of interesting collaborations. ”There’s always something going on.vAt the moment, I’m doing sounds for PARMA. They approached me, because they liked a particular piece I’ve made in the past. So they asked if I had any more material like that. I’m actually working on that at the moment. I’ve finished about 25 minutes of music for it. And it will probably be 50 minutes, so I’m halfway through. It’s fairly textural material, but tonal at the same time. Recently, I’ve become very interested in this composer Arvo Pärt who’s been around for a long time, but I became familiar with his work just recently. Some of the things I was touching on are similar to what he’s been doing for years. It inspired me to go further down this particular path. It almost felt as if we were aligned in some way. So, that’s the direction this particular suite of pieces is going to.’

“I’ve always been interested in texture. There is something about texture in the visual realm as well as in the sonic realm that I love. Getting inside of a sound, reconstructing it. With the textured soundscapes, I feel it’s communicating more directly with your subconscious. That’s the impact of art and music combining. It reaches you in ways that are difficult to articulate. it’s just… telling you a specific story.” One of the other things he’s been working on, is archiving some of his older Works. “I recently uncovered some recordings from the early days of the Fairlight, and I also recovered some old tapes. I’m trying to transfer them into ProTools, before I lose acces to it, not being able to play these things back. I discovered some unfinished things that I made. I might revisit them. I work on those things which strike me the most at that time, in between the session work I do.”

There’s no time like the present
Of course, there’s just one question left: does he still use his Fairlights? Clive: ”Unfortunately, my Series III is not completely operational right now. But I will probably be able to use it again very soon. My IIx on the other hand is completely functional. That is, everything except for the light pen. But, I don’t really need the light pen anyway.
Even today, when I purchase new hardware or software, it always comes down to: does it excite and inspire me in some way? Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s great. It has to surprise me. But, the other way around: I do have some vintage guitars and I like them. Not because they’re vintage, it’s because I have built a relationship with them over time.
I don’t want to be locked into a specific time-period. So, to me, it’s not about a specific age or about nostalgia. Having said that: the Fairlight grabbed me in a way that no other instrument did before that. And I do still love them.”

Joe Britt, system developer / computer engineer

In 1999, he bought his first machine, sight-unseen. He had just learned the difference between the Series I, II, IIx and III and he had no idea what he was up against. He took on the challenge and dived right into the seemly endless depths of the system. Along the way, he gained enough knowledge to patch up some wonky CMI’s, and to come up with a few inventions to extend the lifespan and usefulness of these beautiful machines.

“I bought my first CMI, a Series III, sight-unseen from a guy in Sweden. Then I was down the rabbit hole.”

When he was in high school, Joe Britt already knew his way around computers; he built his own Macintosh out of junk parts, he loved all things electronic, and his favorite book was The Soul of a New Machine. And, he was curious about this mysterious instrument called Fairlight. Joe: “I first learned of the CMI in the mid-eighties. As a long time fan of artists like Tangerine Dream, Jean- Michel Jarre, and Isao Tomita, I was blown away when introduced to the music of Art of Noise and Kate Bush. I was in high school then, and it was not easy to learn much about this “Fairlight C.M.I.” that was listed in the album notes I pored over. And what kind of instrument was this, that it needed a programmer? There was clearly something very electronic and very magical going on.”

Exploring

“I was introduced to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love through a classmate’s modern dance performance to “Jig of Life.” That led me to explore the rest of the album, which just pulled me in like no other record had. I found it very deep, and I wanted to understand how she was creating those sounds. Playing things backwards could be done by tape of course, but doing that digitally, and being able to play it on the keyboard; that was really something. It’s hard to overstate the impact that music had on me. 

Electronic music of all kinds provided the soundtrack for my young life and later work. Time passed, I went to university, and I ended up in California working on consumer electronic products at a few different companies. I remember very clearly one day in 1999, working in the lab and listening to some music. The Web had become quite popular by that time, and I remember wondering what I could find out about the Fairlight now on the internet. I found the (famous!) Greg Holmes Page and was really excited! I voraciously consumed everything that was on that website, spending so much time scrutinizing the photos of the machines, trying to understand what was inside. There was also a classified ad section where people could buy and sell Fairlight equipment. (We did have eBay then, but the CMI was too exotic — there wasn’t anything listed.) And that’s where I found my first Fairlight. I didn’t really know anything about it. I had learned the difference between the I, II, Iix and III, and really wanted a IIx, but there on the Holmes Page classifieds was a Series III listed for sale. The machine was located in Sweden, and it wound up costing me US$7000. Its original owner was Puk Recording Studios, Denmark. According to the fellow I bought it from, the second owner was one of the guys from Ace of Base. I bought it sight- unseen.”

Troubleshooting

The day his Series III finally arrived from Sweden was a memorable one. He unwrapped the whole package and he set it up. Everything seemed in order, except for one thing: there was no sound. “I remember pretty clearly tracing out the signals from the music keyboard into the Fairlight and checking all the connections inside and outside. I didn’t even know the Series III keyboard was MIDI, because the connector was not a DIN5. I also tried driving the CMI from an external MIDI keyboard connected to one of the CMI MIDI inputs. That didn’t work either! Finally, I decided to just dig in and start debugging the hardware. If you’ve never taken apart a CMI, especially a Series III machine: they are beasts. First I took off the top of the keyboard, did a visual inspection and got a rough idea for how it worked. I went through the usual first checks: power supplies looked good, clock to the processor looked good. I recognized the a serial port chip, and could see data coming out of it when I pressed keys on the keyboard. So, the keyboard was alive; it was sending data. Looking at the timing of the data with an oscilloscope, I saw that it was at 31,250 bits per second — for anyone who has worked on MIDI hardware, that’s a dead giveaway! So I realized that it was just sending MIDI over a different kind of connector, and it looked like the keyboard part was working. “

“Next I had to follow the signals into the CMI and to verify that they were reaching the circuitry inside the mainframe. This was made more exciting by my lack of any technical documentation! All I could do was trace the wiring. In the Series III, the signals from the keyboard come into a connector on the back of the mainframe. They then transition down to another board that actually is part of the power supply, it runs across that PCB, to another connector, through an internal wiring harness, and up to a PCB that the rear mainframe boards plug into. A board with the CMI MIDI connectors plugs into that board. The CMI has multiple MIDI inputs, and it turns out that the music keyboard is just another one of them.”

“MIDI inputs use a component called an “optoisolator” to electrically isolate the connected MIDI devices. Once I found the optoisolator used to interface the CMI music keyboard, I replaced it, hit a key, and literally jumped when the CMI played a really loud brass sound! So, clearly, there was my problem.
The interesting part was this: the same type of optoisolator circuit was used for the external MIDI inputs. All of those optoisolators were blown out, too! That is really unusual. I never found out how that had happened. Anyway, I replaced the parts and got the machine basically working again. But, it turned out, that wasn’t all. There seemed to be a problem with one of the voice cards. Those things are super complicated, and I really needed a service manual or at least a schematic to figure out what was wrong. So, the next day I called Fairlight in Los Angeles and just asked, like: ‘Hey, I’ve got this machine, I’m looking for a service manual, could you help me?’ They transferred me to, as it turned out, one of the famous guys who had worked on the development of the Series III in Australia, Andrew Brent. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know who he was! But he was extremely nice. I think once I described what I had gone through to debug the keyboard problem, he probably took pity on me. He was incredibly kind, and offered to mail me a copy of the Series III service manual. Wow! I was ecstatic when I got it: man, I just couldn’t believe it! It was like a thick phone book, and It contained all the schematics and the entire theory of operations of the machine. This was also a time before document scanners were common. At work, we had a scanner, so I turned it into a PDF, and I think that PDF is still the one floating around on the net. For me, this experience was also emblematic of the whole Fairlight community: brilliant, friendly, and empathetic.”

The Fairlight-collector

“So, I had a lot of fun working on that machine, and I still have it. It’s a Rev 6 machine, one of the earlier ones. Around the year 2000, Peter Wielk came out with a memory extension board for the Series III. I bought two of them, and that machine has one of them in it now.”

But it didn’t stop there. Joe: “By that time, I was much more aware of the differences between the machines and had more clearly defined interests. I got another Series III, also a Rev 6 machine. It was kind of a basket case, which I originally bought a parts machine. I’m restoring it now, but need to find some more time! Then, I found a guy in LA with a Rev 9 machine, and I bought it for US$2000. Compared to the US$7000 I paid for the Rev 6, that felt like (and was!) an absolute bargain. I put the other Peter Wielk memory card in it and now have 2 great Series III machines, one rev 6 and one rev 9.”

“Back in the early 2000s I continued to visit the Greg Holmes page. And then one day there it was: a Series IIx for sale! And it was an interesting one. The guy I bought it from worked for Sony Music, New York, and he had bought it from Bill Laswell. Bill is an extremely famous bass guitarist and producer, and he worked quite a bit with Herbie Hancock. As It turned out, Herbie Hancock was the owner before Bill. The flight cases — still in my garage — have ‘Rockit Band Herbie Hancock’ stenciled on the sides. It’s also obvious that they toured with this machine. It’s got really cool stickers on it from all over the world: stickers for shows like Japan’s “Live Under the Sky ’87” and “World Destruction”.

When I got it, it wasn’t like a “normal” IIx. It was clearly originally a Series I that had been upgraded over time. This would be consistent with an early owner like Herbie, who would have likely had access to upgrades before they had been fully productized. The MIDI interface on this machine is unlike any I had never seen before: instead of a 68000 CPU, Herbie’s uses a 6809 on a board that was very clearly hand soldered.
A typical IIx also has a big box on the back which provides the MIDI in and out connectors. Mine only has three DIN5 jacks, wedged into a hole in the bottom, very hand-done. But it works great!”
This machine also has a very specific cosmetic detail: there’s a cigarette burn on the low F key. I love to imagine someone playing it, perhaps at “Live Under the Sky” in 1987, pausing to park a cigarette on this UD$25000+ CMI… It’s like a cool tattoo!”

“I love developing products, and love taking apart other products to see how they were made. I love thinking about the people who built them, and all the decisions they had to make. With an incredibly complex product like the CMI, built at a time when such an amalgamation of technology really was alchemy, looking behind as many of the curtains as possible becomes a kind of addiction. So I kept looking for more. The internet did not disappoint.
A couple of years later, probably around 2009, I ran across a listing for a Series II on eBay. Actually, the guy thought it was a IIx, but it was a II. He was an accomplished studio musician and teacher, with a career that included work with bands like Bananarama and studios like Paisley Park. Incredibly, this machine had been sitting in a garage for the past 20 years in a house just a few miles away from mine! Time had taken its toll on the machine, and it was not operable. There was also a bit of corrosion throughout from the humidity. It would be a fair amount of work to restore, but it would also be fun. I bought the machine and spent the next couple of weeks fixing it up and getting it back in good shape. So, that’s how I got my Series II, IIx and the III’s. Now all I need is a Series I!”

Nifty little boxes

“As a member of the Fairlight community I saw over and over again reports of trouble with the light-pen on the Series I/II/IIx machines. They break and are difficult to repair, and sometimes they are just lost. For certain parts of the UI, the light-pen is critical, and getting a replacement is practically impossible.”

“This inspired me to build an interface which lets you connect a USB mouse instead of or in addition to the light-pen. The response was great! I built and sold about 20 of them back in 2010, and I guess I should have built a few more — I still get emails from folks who want to buy one. It’s a neat little device, just a simple box that plugs in between the monitor and the CMI. If you move the mouse you’ll see the cursor moving across the screen, and you can click the mouse button to have the same effect as tapping the tip of the light-pen.”

 Any famous users? Joe: “I know one of my interfaces made its way to Jean-Michel Jarre! Jean-Bernard Emond {the famous Fairlight-fixer-upper from France} sent me a photo of JMJ’s studio and he explained he was using the mouse with my interface connected to his old series IIx. So, that’s super cool, you know… I saw JMJ play a couple of times, here in California, and It makes me very happy, knowing one of my childhood heroes is using something I’ve invented. The artist Benge also has one, and is using it on his project with Neil Arthur from Blancmange, FADER II. It’s really cool!”
”Recently, I started working on another interface that lets you plug a modern USB keyboard into a I, II, IIx or III. For the III, you can also use a mouse instead of the G-pad and stylus. Its also got a MIDI in port, which lets you drive any of those machines from MIDI — even Series I and II, which lack MIDI!”

In retrospect

“It’s such a deep instrument, especially considering the timeframe it came from. Take Page R, for instance. I’m sure there were similar concepts, like, the Roland digital sequencers, but they didn’t have a UI like that. They didn’t have a screen, so they couldn’t show a high fidelity representation of what the computer was going to play. Also, consider the display of the audio waveforms, in pseudo-3D on the screen. I remember thinking, “that is the sexiest thing I have ever seen.” It’s so cool. But not only that, it’s very useful as well. You can shift the data forward and backward and everything lines up just the right way when the loop point is right. You get a nice, topographic-like picture: it’s like the CMI gives you synesthesia, letting you see the sound. Genius!”

“I feel very fortunate, having been able to spend some time talking with Peter Vogel, learning about the history of the machine from him. As it turned out, we knew some people in common at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music Applications. It is well known for John Chowning’s research on FM synthesis (used to develop Yamaha’s DX-synths). Peter told me how he and Kim Ryrie were trying to create a digital synthesizer back in the ’70’s. They weren’t even thinking about sampling. What they really were aiming for was what we now call physical modeling synthesis. But back then, computers didn’t have enough horsepower to pull it off. Peter visited Stanford University in the 1970s to check out the digital synthesis work being done there, and that visit led to the conclusion that it probably just wasn’t practical given the limits of microprocessor systems at the time.”On the plane back to Australia, Peter realized he could kind of ‘cheat’ by capturing a sound as a starting point: the CMI could then take a bit of, say, a real piano sound and then modify it digitally to create a new but related sound. I think the big surprise came when everyone saw how mind- blowingly compelling it was to capture any sound and play it up and down a keyboard. The Mellotron existed of course, but the plasticity of digital took the concept to a whole new level.”

People in this picture are: Yoshi Yoshikawa, Jory Bell, Peter Vogel, and Joe Britt. Photo credit: Yoshi Yoshikawa
People in this picture are: Yoshi Yoshikawa, Jory Bell, Peter Vogel, and Joe Britt. (Photo credit: Yoshi Yoshikawa)

“There are these pivotal instruments which, from an engineering point of view, if you take them apart, contain surprising choices that are beautiful. Sometimes that beauty comes from brilliance, sometimes it comes from naiveté, and it’s really fun when you can’t tell which it is!”

“Like the Linn LM-1, the first digital drum machine. I saw the schematics and I thought: ‘Holy crap! That’s how it works!’ The timing of the playback, it’s magical in part because of its imperfections. The LM-1 uses a very famous early chip called the 555 for sample rate timing. This is an unorthodox choice. Normally one uses a crystal oscillator for a very precise sample rate. In contrast, the 555 is rather un-precise, and its frequency changes over temperature and voltage. Usually, that’s a bad thing. But, that is actually part of its sonic character of the LM-1! Its sounds are definitely digital samples, but the 555’s frequency variations due to its environment give them an unusual organic aspect.”

“The CMI also has some unorthodox (by modern standards) design choices that contribute to its sonic character. For example, most modern sample playback hardware runs at just one frequency, say 44.1kHz, 48kHz, or 96kHz. By comparison, the CMI varies the sample rate depending on the desired pitch! To understand this, imagine a buffer full of audio samples for some sound. To play the sound at a lower pitch, modern hardware would likely “play” some samples multiple times, so they consume more time. To play at a higher pitch, modern hardware would likely “skip over” some samples, effectively squeezing other samples closer together in time. The CMI, though, plays all samples every time — but changes how fast it plays them. That contributes to the character of the device. At the time, they chose the most straight forward way to accomplish that, and it was the least computational. The result was artifacts that were sometimes undesirable but seen as a reasonable tradeoff. In hindsight, they actually were at the core of the soul of these machines. And I think that’s a big difference with modern instruments. We have lots of memory and processing power, but we have lost some of the beautiful messiness. Recovering that messiness, now, that’s an interesting challenge.”

Final thoughts

“So, absolutely, this machine had a transformative effect on me. There’s a great, positive community of people who still love and use all things Fairlight. I feel very privileged, not only being part of that community, but also to be able to give back in a way, by creating new devices that can extend the life and usefulness of these incredible machines.”

Photo credit: Tjepke Zijlstra

Danny Weijermans – Composer, orchestrator/arranger, sound designer, teacher

In a nutshell: Danny studied Music Technology, he has been involved in numerous productions for film and television, theatre and art exhibitions. And, he teaches Composition and Music Design at that very same college he attended. In 2014, he bought a Series III. “To me, it’s a great tool for creating my own sounds. I wasn’t really after getting those signature sounds or anything like that. Its quality was more appealing to me.”

He attended the HKU University of the Arts, Utrecht – Music And Technology, back in 1988. During his studies, Danny and a few friends started their own business in developing plug-ins and software, and they started a firm, Soundpalette, specialised in music productions.”TV-shows, film, commercials, theatre, art performances…. The six of us worked on just about anything you could think of. That were some crazy times! You name it; we did it. At some point, I kind of withdrew from Audio Ease, the software company, so I could really focus on the craft of programming and composing.”

Nowadays, Danny is covering the whole spectrum of music production. “It depends; sometimes, it’s more about composing and arranging. Sometimes, I’m orchestrating; sometimes, I’m the sound designer. Or, I’m doing a bit of everything. Whatever is necessary to get the best results.” The list of projects he worked on is excessive. 

Like with most musicians, his training began when he was very young. “I started with trumpet lessons at the age of six, followed by organ and classical piano.’ In addition to his Musical Technology studies, he chose Trumpet as a subsidiary subject: ‘I performed with lots of bands. My experience with both keyboard instruments and brass instruments still comes in handy in my line of work. It makes it very easy to communicate with the musicians, performing my compositions.”

Photo credit: Tjepke Zijlstra

Magical, mythical

Way before he entered the Utrecht conservatory in 1988, he already discovered the wide possibilities of sampling. “It had a great impact on me. I started out with an Ensoniq EPS. During my studies, I went to India for a year, to work as a Synclavier specialist. Owning a Synclavier system was my biggest dream. The Synclavier has always been my greatest love. The Fairlight on the other hand; its magical and mythical status was very appealing to me. People were called ‘programmers’, it was unobtainable and unaffordable; only available for those who made name and fame…” Danny, thinking out loud: “It is likely, this perpetuated the whole mythical aspect of the Fairlight. At the hands of a wealthy amateur, it probably would have been nothing more than a very sophisticated musical instrument.”

“People knew about the records it was used on: “Oh, yeah… that’s done on a Fairlight.” It had the reputation of a machine that could make miracles. I think, back in the ’80’s, most of us presumed it was all Fairlight we were hearing, when in fact, it’s always a combination of the CMI and several other synths or instruments.
Back in 2011, I bought my second Synclavier, a DirectToDisk system, from Dave Lawson, who also worked on the string arrangements for Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love-album. According to him, the string parts were Fairlight, mixed with acoustic strings.”

His first Fairlight encounter? “I think it was a year before my studies began. There was a trade show at the Utrecht Mercury Hotel, hosted by Synton. It was set up in a separate room, ready to give it a go. Oh yes, it was magic. But of course, it was way, way out of my price range!”

Pure quality

Sound designing wasn’t his first love: “I got into it because very often, I felt the need to improve the quality of music and sounds that were used with the productions I worked on. I grew to like this part; moulding and forging sounds, letting them morph into musical elements.”  He uses a Series III (upgraded to MFX), alongside other high end equipment such as the Synclavier and the Kyma system. “Every machine has its own capabilities and its own limitations, and every one has its specific purpose. When I need that crunchy sound, I’ll grab the Ensoniq Mirage. I hardly use the Fairlight library sounds. I bought one, solely for sampling and sound scaping. And besides: nowadays, the library sounds are way too recognisable. There are libraries on the market who are doing a much better job, especially when it comes to orchestral sounds. But if possible, I prefer working with a live orchestra.”

“Mostly, I’m using the Fairlight for ambient sounds. While the Synclavier reproduces sounds; the Fairlight enables you to mould sounds in many more ways, thanks to filtering. And the sound quality is extraordinary. That’s really something. Even the softer sounds used in theatre productions, tucked away deeply within the mix, are coming through clearly. The D/A conversion in both the Fairlight and the Synclavier: it makes them unique in comparison to other samplers.”

photo credit: Tjepke Zijlstra

Unpacking and exploring

“I bought mine in 2014, from Peter Wielk, Horizontal Productions. I knew he was selling refurbished machines, so I reacted to one of his posts on the internet forum. It used to be a test-model, used at the R&D-department. It wasn’t a 100% up-to-specs and the top panel of the casing wasn’t there. Peter made some modifications and it’s working fine. Back then, I didn’t buy the big keyboard that goes with it, but since I was planning on using it with midi, that wasn’t much of a problem. The day it came: yeah, that was a memorable day. It was packed into a large box, and some pieces were taped together. I had to be careful, for I didn’t want to ruin the paint whilst pulling the tape off.”

“It took a bit of exploring, getting it going. It’s not like there is a crash course in first time Fairlight-usage. But, it was fun! Although I didn’t buy it for those recognisable sounds, It’s certainly nice to have ‘m. I remember calling up the string sounds that were used on Kate Bush’s Cloud Busting.”

A touch of history

Since 2004, Danny teaches Composition and Music Design. Most of his students are between 18 and 24 years old. “I do try to convey the charm of using vintage equipment such as the Fairlight or the Synclavier; telling them these machines are more than just some kind of computer. They were designed and perfected to be a solid musical instrument. Well, yes, sometimes, I get mocked for that. And of course, it’s outdated. Once it was the cream of the crop, and nowadays, you can do more on just a smartphone. But some of the students are seeing what I’m getting at. To me, that tactile aspect that comes with using hardware, it’s of great value. Speaking of which: eventually, I bought the original Fairlight keyboard as well. As we speak, it isn’t operational yet, but I’m looking forward being able to use it. It’ll surely add to the whole user experience.”

Check out some of Danny’s work here! 

Karel Post – producer, engineer, studio owner

Picture this: a nice, idylic village in Friesland, a province in the north of the Netherlands. A studio stuffed with all the legendary hardware one could possibly dream of. Its design, based on the world famous 1970’s Atlantic studios. That’s Mixroom One, Karel Posts’ life’s work. “It took me years, collecting all this.” 

Karel Post has been in the business for more than 30 years now. He has worked for companies like BMG Ariola and Capitol Studio’s, and in the nineties he was producing and remixing for XSV Records. They were massively into the upcoming Trance house music. “I was producing flip sides, mostly. My name wasn’t on all of the credits, but fortunately, I earned enough in royalties to help build me this place.” Nowadays, clients with special interests in using vintage hardware, who are really into authentic sound quality, are finding their way to Mixroom One.

“I’m something of a purist. I’ll always be going for the original gear. No matter how.” Along with the Fairlight, there are the 303’s, 808’s, 909’s, LinnDrums, Jupiter’s, Juno’s, Prophets, Akai’s, the Emulator II and III…. Well, practically every hit making high-end machine you can think of. Icing on the cake: the MCI JH556D-LM mixing console, of which he is extremely fond. “Many famous records were mixed on these consoles. Mine came from the Atlantic Studio’s in New York. It was present in studio A from late 1980 until 1985. Against All Odds by Phill Collins and I Feel For You by Shaka Khan were recorded and / or mixed on this very console. Just to name a few.” In 2011, he found himself a Fairlight Series III MFX, fully equipped. “The reason I bought it, is because – obviously – I wanted the real mcCoy.”

Can we fix it?

He started out in 1988. “Some of the gear over here has been with me ever since, and is still working perfectly. Like my beloved, good-old Roland MSQ 700 sequencer. Works like a charm for synching old machines like the 303’s, 808’s etcetera to MIDI or SMPTE. I really can’t do without it.” 

Being a handyman at heart, he tends to buy broken gear and repair it himself. “I bought my Emulator II for a mere 150 euros and fixed it up. Recently, I bought two broken Urei 1168 compressors for less than nothing. Now, they are good to go again and worth about 2,000 Euros a piece.” The Fairlight he bought came from a German firm, handling secondhand high-end studio equipment. It was in perfect condition, until it got delivered… The day it arrived from Germany, he missed the delivery guy. Preventing his fragile package from a bumpy ride throughout the province, he called the delivery service to ask if they’d drop it off to his friend living nearby, who coincidentally was waiting for a delivery as well.  

“So there it was, this heavy priced machine, in a big box on a pallet. And there was that ‘uh-oh’-feeling…  It took me quite a while, putting all the voice cards back in place, doing some repairs, making it work again. But I got it up and running. Smooth as silk!” 

Hitting the jackpot

“It wasn’t easy to find one. Well, let’s say: to find one that is actually working. You can say I’ve found the needle in the haystack. It used to belong to Jörg Evers, who became famous as a musician/composer/arranger for a lot of German movie productions and artists. Later in his career, it seems he composed some music for commercials. I’ve found some very familiar tunes in my machine, along with some very nice home-made samples and drum patterns.

It was one of the first Series III MFX’s, probably delivered somewhere around 1986. It has all the available extra options. I still have the original monitor that came with it, but I hooked it up to a full color screen. The 24-track recorder workstation-mode is in full colour. But ‘escape F1’  starts all the fun! Doing that, it flips back to the ‘back-in-the-old-days’ resolution and screen layout.”

The original monitor comes in handy for this other piece of Fairlight equipment he has: the Voice Tracker. “I think it’s from 1985. It analyses and displays the notes it is ‘hearing’. A very early pitch-to-MIDI. It works with midi, and with control voltages as well. With this device, I can whistle a tune right into a midi track. Just like the Fairlight CMI, very much ahead of its time. Not many are made; it’s quite a rarity.” Laughing: “To be honest, I wanted to have it, just because it’s Fairlight!” 

In love with the libraries

“I think I started discovering synth sounds around 1976, through Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygen. It was a revelation! Later on, Art of Noise, Jan Hammer.…  I learnt that some major parts of ’80’s Fleetwood Mac songs were done on a Fairlight. And, Sowing the seeds of love by Tears for fears, a master piece, with massive use of the instrument as well. Just to name a few. First thing I played when I got mine? Probably the intro of Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love. 

“Yes, there are some really good sound libraries out there today too, but if you ask me, those on the Fairlight Series III are the top of the bill. Songs by ABC for instance, or Grace Jones, are stuffed with these good quality orchestral sounds, all coming from the Fairlight. That’s what made it all sound so tasteful. Strings, brass, drum loops.. every waveform is so useful, with such rich dynamics.”

“The Series II was somewhat limited, although Vince Clarke managed to make it sound fantastic on the Yazoo-album Upstairs at Eric’s. When the Series III came along…  Man, It just was all over the place! Probably until Akai came up with their also legendary, more affordable samplers.”

Collaborating with enthusiasts 

Over the past few years, Karel worked with artists who appreciate good oldfashioned craftsmanship when it comes to producing records. By the name of Lonestarr, he made some productions, loved within the Italo scene. Recently, he has done a 12″ record with Systems In Blue, a German band. Originally, they were background vocalists for a number of acts in the late 70’s and ’80’s, and mostly known for their collaborations with Modern Talking. “Itamar Moraz wanted to make a remix of a SIB-song in the original sound of Modern Talking. Moraz pre-produced the tracks in Israel, and here at Mixroom.one, we replaced the virtual instruments with the real deal; vintage synths, and all original hardware. It was released as a conaisseur’s edition, only on vinyl. To my satisfaction, it sold out in a few months! Vinyl has made a comeback over the past few years and it’s nice to know there are still people out there, appreciating these kind of complex productions.” He is also working on a remake of a song by the KLF; notorious for their early nineties stadium acid house. “I’m working with Azat (Isaac) Bello, who did the rap on What Time Is Love, and Maxime Harvey will join too, she’s the amazing vocalist on 3 AM Eternal. By the way, their music was chockfull of Fairlight as well. They used the one owned by Hans Zimmer at Lilly Yard Studio, and I have that library too.”

Glamour and mojo

“Having a Fairlight hasn’t changed my whole way of producing music. I’ve always worked with hardware. In most cases, I’m not using those famous signature sounds very much, but try to explore its depths. And as for sampling, I usually grab my first generation 12 Bit Akais; they’re really practical beasts. 

The first time I heard the Fairlight parts coming through my mixing console, joining a mix, I felt like: ‘Ok… this is something else! This is the shit! So that’s what the Fairlight sound is all about!’ Just amazing. It does an amazing job when it comes to time code / synching. Sometimes even faster than modern day computers. Just spot-on! Every sound or waveform coming from the library, is so useful, with great dynamics. Whatever song you’re making: the Fairlight will make it shine; it adds some real glamour to the production.”

It’s not like he holds any grudges against those who are climbing the charts with their bathroom-bangers, using just a laptop. That’s all fine with him. But in his humble opinion, much modern-day productions are stuffed with worn-out preset sounds he recognises in an instant from previous hit records: “The same bass drums, the same xylophone-sound, the same vocals, the same mix… Just too bloody boring. Even the today’s Trance records sound nearly identical to some of the stuff I did in the late 90’s. But luckily, there is still some good new music out there.”

“I guess what I’d like to say is: when you’re using software and you do like these vintage sounds, try to get your hands on real original gear, at least for once in your life. Let it inspire you. There are studio’s specialized in giving you that kind of experience, with people driven by enthusiasm. Yes, you’d have to spend some money, but it’s definitely worth the experience. You will hear the difference. You’ll get that ‘home coming’ feeling.  That just cannot be emulated by software. It’s all about mojo. That’s what makes the difference, and Fairlight, like the Jupiter 8 and the Minimoog, delivers that in spades. The same goes for a really high quality console like my MCI JH556D. It’s more of everything!” 

Final thoughts

“To me, using vintage gear is just sublime. No virtual instrument or plug-in can compete with that hands-on feeling and workflow. As for the Fairlight: I think it’s a matter of love people such as myself are having for its high-end quality and its authentic sonic characteristics. It’s nice to knowpeople are still using it and there’s still a steady fan base. Its sound, its quality: it’s just unique. There’s nothing like it. Period.”

Cris Blyth – film maker / graphic designer

His father was a musician, an artist, a Renaissance man. Like him, Cris is what you call a typical example of an autodidact. As a young boy he taught himself to play some instruments and he built his own multitrack recorder. His first keyboard was a Casio VL-tone his father gave him. He encouraged him to get into computer graphics and programming. That turned out to be a pretty good move. His love for the Fairlight arose when he heard Jean Michel Jarre’s The Concert at China. ‘But with the Zoolook album, it got burnt in my heart.’

It’s raining cats and dogs. You can hear the clattering on the roof of his studio in Nairobi, Kenya, where he and his wife are running a company specialised in creating and producing content based on storytelling. “It’s hard work, a labour of love. There’s little money and the local authorities are not very cooperative, but it’s very rewarding, there’s so much talent here; so many opportunities for this to grow.” He gradually shipped some studio equipment from LA to Nairobi. ”Most of my synths are still in LA. I really wanted to bring the Fairlight over here.” It’s that one piece of equipment he just can’t do without.

The whole proces

Cris started out as a graphic designer at Team17. Did you play a lot of computer games in the nineties? Chances are you might have heard of Wormes, which was very popular. He created the opening sequence. One thing led to another. He moved to LA and built himself quite a resumé. His work can be seen in lots and lots of tv and film productions.

Photographer, film maker, director, graphic designer, collector of camera lenses, music producer… “I’m a jack of all trades”, he says. ”I’m involved in the whole creating process, and I love creating music and sounds for the projects I’m doing. In the industry, this is a very uncommon thing. People want specialists. When you’re famous for doing car commercials, they will hire you to do a car commercial. See, I’m a director, and I’m creating the music because I love to. But I’m not necessarily telling people I did the music as well.”

Remotely loved

At Method Studio’s he had worked with the Fairlight MFX II. “I convinced them it would be a good thing having one in our studio. When I got to work with it, I thought… “I don’t know … Help!”, but I’ve learned how to use it along the way. For years, it was the heart of my production and editing process.” He still cherished the desire to have one of his own.”For a long time, I just loved it remotely. I think it started about after seeing Jean Michel Jarre’s ’The Concert at China’, but ever since I heard the Zoolook album, hearing the things you can do with this instrument; it got burnt in my heart.” He read about it in magazines and he often talked about it with fellow musicians. ”Some of them had been using the Fairlight. They said they moved on and they’d ask me “Why would you want one anyway? It’s outdated technology”.”  Yet, it still remained a dream, safely hidden somewhere in the back of his mind. And so, he had forgotten about an e-mail alert he had once set. To his surprise, he got an alert about an advertisement in which a Series III was offered.

Chis Blyth with his Fairlight SeriesIII MFXStriking gold

”It used to belong to Robert Ferris. Or to be more specific: to Kevin Gilbert, who was a musical prodigy.” Kevin Gilbert played several instruments, he played in several bands and he was part of the Tuesday Night Music Club, where he introduced his then-girlfriend Sheryl Crow. He died at the age of 29. ‘His Fairlight ended up with Robert Ferris, one of his bandmates. There’s a tiny black spot on the white casing, but other then that it was in mint condition. Even the cables were. Robert likes to keep things clean and tidy!”

It took a while before he could enjoy his purchase. His wife asked him to head over to Africa for a film project. His Series III was left behind in LA. The only thing he took with him was the manual, which he read during his flight. After a year, he managed to ship it to Kenya, where it got impounded by the authorities at the airport. They searched the Internet, they stumbled on the sparking new anniversary model, the 30A, and charged him accordingly. ”It took me days to convince them it wasn’t the same thing.”

Smells like Fairlight!

But now, it is safe and sound, occupying a nice, central place in his studio. ”People come in here, I play them some recordings I’ve made with the Fairlight, recorded into Logic, and they are stunned by the quality of the sounds.” Often, he sits himself down with a glass of wine and the manual.”I’m still learning and I really enjoy it. I like the process of creating my own sounds, working on my craft. With preset-based synths. You can browse through about 200 sounds and you probably still don’t find what you’re looking for. Yes, this soundscaping, it’s a slow proces, but it’s got so much to offer.”

Even after all these years, he keeps discovering and learning new things.”Did you know the Fairlight has a specific smell? It heats up, for it uses a lot of power. You can smell it when you step into the room.” His love for the instrument is deep. ”You know: why would you get rid of a Stradivarius? Because a brand new violin sounds better? The Fairlight is a true work horse. It’s timeless. Every time after I’m done, and I’m switching it off, I say: ‘Thank you, Fairlight!’ “.