Tag: Series IIx

Rob Puricelli – Music Technologist, Instructional Designer, Fairlight fixer-upper

Like many of us, Rob wanted to be a musician. And, like many of us, he didn’t quite succeed. He
started out as a drummer, then got inspired by guys like Howard Jones and Gary Numan. ‘Me, being surrounded by synthesizers. That’s what I dreamt of all the time.’ But, diving in the wondrous world of knobs and sliders wasn’t really his cup of tea. ‘And then, there was this big white keyboard, and a screen you could draw on… I thought: ’A computer can do all the work for me. Now, that’s easy! ‘. Well, easy? He found out there’s a bit of a learning curve involved…  But, the failing part turned out pretty well. He started writing about the Fairlight in his blogs, it got picked up and for years now, he’s been the UK go-between for one of the few Fairlight fixers-uppers on the planet.

“A lot of people still want one, but they don’t realise what’s involved.”

It was his favourite hour of the week: Thursday night, watching BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, followed by Top of the Pops while having a nice cup of tea. The episode of Tomorrow’s World in which the Fairlight is demonstrated is a legendary one. “I remember it well. This guy, showing us how to emulate the sound of a timpani drum. First on a MiniMoog, then he moved over to this big machine…. And it was spot on. It looked absolutely cool, the big white box, the screen, the light pen…  Just amazing.”

Love letters to the Fairlight

From that moment on, he was hooked. He got into electronic music, collecting some synths, playing around with Cubase, and dreaming about having a Fairlight. “Especially when the IIx came out, everyone was losing their shit over it.”  Around 2004, he started writing blogs. “Back then, everybody was blogging, so I thought: I’m gonna start a blog. Why not?” Since he didn’t make it as a musician, Failed Muso seemed a fitting name. He started out writing about all kinds of things: music, synths and other fancy studio equipment. Of course, he dedicated most of his scribblings to the mighty machine. There wasn’t much information on the Fairlight online, so he jumped right in, proclaiming his love for the instrument on many occasions. “People liked it, shared it and it got picked up by manufacturers, which led to all kinds of great opportunities for me. I got to work with a lot of great stuff.” To his pleasant surprise, Peter Vogel got wind of it and contacted him. “He sent me an e-mail, asking if I’d like to do some stuff for him as well, on his iOS CMI app.”

Fixer-upper

And then, there was an afternoon, in 2013. He had a job to do somewhere in Germany. “I was checking my e-mail during my lunch break, and there was this message from Peter Wielk, Fairlight’s ex-studio manager and Fairlight-expert. He asked if I’d be interested in helping him restore a Series III CMI. Needless to say, it was a no-brainer.” He rented a van and picked it up. “It used to belong to Ian Stanley, the Tears for Fears keyboardist. It had been stored in a stale damp brick outbuilding. It took months to clean it. And months to restore it, because the spare parts had to be shipped from Sydney, Australia. Peter Wielk guided me through the whole process.”
Up until then, he never got the chance to lay his hands on one. This restored machine was the first one he actually got to play himself. Was it what he’d expected to be? “The first time I switched it on and played around with it, I thought…  “Well, this is awful!” But then, I realised: this is where it all started. It’s ’80’s technology. You have to un-learn all about modern DAWs and plugins. It takes you about five minutes to set up a simple sound.” He might have had a rough start after finally meeting his hero; eventually, he got the hang of it pretty well. These days, he gets Fairlights delivered to his doorstep on a fairly regular basis. He restores them, with a lot of help from Peter in Sydney, who then does the deal, and Rob sends them off to their new owner.

No Fuss Fairlighting

Obviously, there is still a lot of demand for this legendary machine. “A lot of people want one, but they don’t realise what’s involved. Owning a Fairlight is very much like owning a classic car. You spend months getting it up and running before you can take it out for a spin. You’ve got to love the tinkering. Most people want a Fairlight for the famous sounds. Well, you
can get those from sample libraries or for instance, from the Arturia CMI V plugin. You’ll get the sounds and more for about 200 bucks. A Fairlight in good condition? That’s about 10.000 US dollars.”
Then again, emulating the process within the machine, which gives it the unique characteristics; that isn’t done that easily, because of all the computing going on inside the casing. “Despite it being an old computer, there’s so much going on that if you were to emulate it accurately and completely, it will be eating up a lot of your processor power, which will affect everything else you’re trying to do.”

Telling the story

“What I’d really like to do is educate. The Fairlight is Ground Zero for the way we make music today. Before the Fairlight, you’d have to have massive amounts of gear for creating sounds and sequencing. After the CMI came out, other manufactures came up with samplers, sequencer software, hard disk recording; in a way, all inspired by the Fairlight. And now, it’s all integrated again in DAW software. I feel like it’s important telling people about how it all started. I think it’s important to know where you’ve been, to know where you’re going to go to.” Rob loves to take the Fairlight with him, showing it to all kinds of people who can benefit from learning about music technology. “Telling the story. That’s what I love to do.” One more thing? Yes. “When it comes to synthesizers, you always hear about Bob Moog, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim… Peter Vogel, the inventor of the Fairlight CMI, should be getting the same level of credit and the recognition he deserves.” Duly noted, and acknowledged!

All the fun of the Fairlight on Spotify

Personal favourites? “Too many. Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, Art of Noise… They all used the Fairlight in their own unique way.”

 

Peter Kersten – synthesizer and MIDI expert

Books, manuals, schematics, a DX7…  It was the ’80’s and Peter dived deep into the world of MIDI, computer programming and synths. Films like Liquid Sky and Electric Dreams, and music made by The Art Of Noise made him fall deeply in love with the sound of the Fairlight. He bought his own in 1995. “The manual that came with it was as thick as two phonebooks. I’ve read it from cover to cover. It took me 48 hours.”

Peter Kersten, born and raised in the south of the Netherlands, grew up in the sixties, listening to The Beatles and learning how to play the recorder. “Back in the day, that’s were you had to start.” In the seventies, he traded in his recorder for the organ. “When you’d hit it real hard, the key contacts made random contact and it would produce sounds in the most peculiar way, reminding me of sound-effects produced by synthesizers. I loved those sounds, so I guess that’s where it all started!”

Gradually, he became more infatuated with electronics and synths. “There was this electronics magazine, providing a DIY-kit for building your own modular synth. That, and music by Tangerine Dream, Rick Wakeman and Klaus Schulze got me into electronics studies.” Later on, he switched to chemistry, got a job and bought his first second-hand synth, a Korg MS-10. In the eighties, after he got his hands on a DX7 in 1983, he decided to learn everything about programming.

MIDI-wizard

“I loved creating my own sounds. It got me interested in using computers for saving the sounds I had made. A DX7 has 145 parameters, writing them all down on paper took 15 minutes, that’s just for one sound! So I started out with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum+, followed by the Commodore 64 and the Atari ST. The one thing about the DX7: you can’t make those thick and big string sounds with it. For that, I bought the Roland JX-8P.  That’s when I stumbled upon System Exclusive. I knew my way around MIDI, but didn’t get around SysEx that much. I wanted to know all about it. And so, I dived right into that particular subject and learned all I could.” Unlike most of us, Peter does enjoy reading manuals. In fact: manuals are his favourite form of literature. All this studying made him become quite the MIDI and synth expert. “One thing led to another. I started programming and writing software myself. I wrote an editor/bankmanager for the JX-8P and a universal dump-utility for SysEx. I also started doing Cubase demonstrations and I served as an adviser for musicians and MIDI users. In 1989 I also started to import and sell Geerdes software.”

Later on in his career, he was offered a job as synth expert in a local music store. “For two days a week. Great thing about that: it gave me a chance to experiment and get to know more instruments thoroughly. And yes: I’ve read all the manuals…”

Look, but don’t touch

“Now, the first time I heard a Fairlight; that was back in 1983 when I saw Liquid Sky. Hearing that Sarrar-sound, I thought: ‘This is something special’.  The use of the Fairlight CMI was mentioned in the film credits. Well, I fell completely in love. A few years later, I attended this demo show at the Sheraton hotel, Antwerp, where several companies were promoting their products. Synton, the firm that handled the import for Ensoniq and for Fairlight in the Benelux, showed a Fairlight system. It had a price tag of FL 200.000 (about 103.000 USD; 90.755 Euro). The house I live in cost FL 150.000!”

“Sitting in front of that green screen. It’s magic…”

“It was set up in a room. Visitors were allowed to look at it, but they didn’t give a demo; such a shame. That day, I decided to buy an Ensoniq Mirage, the rack version. Although the specs are in many ways similar to those of the CMI, its sound is much less sophisticated. It can’t produce the powerful basses Fairlights are known for. For instance, the bass sounds on Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.… You just know they were using a Fairlight for that, you try to emulate that sound because you’re a fan, and… You end up frustrated, with this big frown on your face!”

Vintage treasures

In the early nineties, Peter met Michael Thorpe from Touched By Sound. Peter: “Digital synths were taking over and the ‘Oldies’ were being sold for a song. In search of a MultiMoog, I came into contact with Michael. He already was into selling and re-selling vintage gear, and we hooked up. Little by little, people were rediscovering the warmth of true analogs again. We jumped right into that gap, starting a business that turned out to be a very thriving one.”

“Every other day, Michael was sending over faxes, containing long lists of synths he acquired. One day, I spotted a few Fairlights on those lists, and for an affordable price. I thought about buying a Synclavier, I thought about buying the unique and rare Technos Axcel, which was stored in my house at that time, but the Fairlight… It was just more special to me. So, in 1995, I got my Series IIx.”

“It got delivered to me by Michael in person and his colleague. I took it in, stacked it up and spent the first moments just looking at it. I could hardly believe it was actually there. Suddenly, my doorbell rang again. It was Michael, smiling, holding up the ignition key which is needed to fire up the system.
It’s not like you can play it right away. Just the opposite. It takes a lot of learning; you have to immerse yourself in it. Nowadays, you can search the internet, watch tutorials, ask your questions in a Facebook group… Back then, you had to make do with the manual. It was about as thick as two phonebooks. It took me about 48 hours to read it. I didn’t get any sleep, I just couldn’t put it away! When I started using the Fairlight, it exceeded all my expectations.”

A box of pure magic

“According to the serial number, the unit was built in april 1985, and judging from the high serial-number, it’s one of the last IIx’s that were produced. I never saw a higher number listed, so it might even be the last one… The system I initially bought was previously owned by OMD. However, as it turned out, that one was already sold. Instead I got the one that used to belong to J.J. Jeczalik from the Art of Noise, so I wasn’t too disappointed! In fact, I was overjoyed, because I was a big fan of their work! It came with a truckload of floppy discs (over 200!). In truth, I haven’t even checked them all out yet. It’s great to have a collection of famous sounds, but to me, it’s not just about having famous libraries, and I don’t feel the need to do remakes of Art Of Noise-tracks. Why should I? It’s about the instrument itself, and what you can do with it.

“There was this one time a friend of mine dropped by, also a huge Fairlight fan. He felt kind of depressed. I told him: ‘Well, I got just the thing to cheer you up a bit.’ So I fired up the Fairlight and we spent an hour, just listening to a chord put on hold, hearing all the nuances of the Sarrar-sound. Beautiful! Usually, I sit myself down and just play or create new sounds. And before I know it, hours have passed.”

Final thoughts

It’s well-built, outstanding craftsmanship. It’s just beautiful to look at and is able to produce awesome, breathtaking sounds in a way that only Fairlights can do. I’m a huge fan of the IIx and much less of the Series III; this one, the Iix, has much more character. The light pen, the harmonics page, its sound… Sitting in front of that green screen: it’s just magic. I don’t think I will ever sell it, no matter what they’ll offer me. The Fairlight stays with me, for as long as I may live.”

 

Stéphan Schällmann – producer/composer

The electronic sounds used in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds had a great impact on him. And he liked ABBA as well. He got really interested in synth sounds through techno and rave music. “It was all over the radio when I was a kid. I always had a taste for melodies and catchy hooks.” He bought his Series Iix after years of searching and waiting for the right moment.

‘The old lady needs a little love and some maintenance’ 

The Grand Three Systems

The first serious piece of gear he got was a Technics AX5. “That’s how I came up with the name Tax-5′ By that name, he has been producing electronic music with dark ambient influences since the early 2000’s. His first synth was a Korg M1. His specific interest in the Fairlight CMI? “It must have been somewhere around 2003. A friend of mine had a studio full of juicy gear. PPG Wave, Jupiter 8, MS10, MS20…  We talked a lot about synths, and how to create certain sounds. And as always, we ended up talking about The Grand Three Systems, being the PPG Waveterm, the NED Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI.” 

Amazing looks

And so, Stephan decided he wanted one. Badly. “It was like that with most of the synths I heard about: I wanted it either badly, or not at all.” Given the whopping price tag, buying a Fairlight remained something of an impossible dream for a long time. But, he kept on checking the trade-topics on the synth forums religiously. And one day, there was a Series IIx for sale in his area. “I instantly send the guy a PM.” Stephan had never seen a Fairlight ‘in the flesh’, let alone played it before. “There was, and still is, a lot of false and misleading info about the machine. But I just knew it looked awesome, and that it should be sounding awesome.” 

Great, yet outdated 

“It was in 2009, somewhere in spring time when I picked it up. Of course, it felt exiting. I had large car back then; a Chevrolet Caprice 1992 with a powerful V8 in it. The Fairlight took up the whole space in the back of the car.  I got home, I installed the machine on it’s designated place, set it all up, and then I just loaded all discs and listened to the presets.” The previous owner was a musician from Switzerland. It was once traded for a EMS Synthi-A,  a very expensive system from the early ’70’s. 

It took Stephàn years of searching and yes, it took all of his savings. Was is all worth it? “Yes and no” he says. “It was a very cool experience, working with this kind of high-end gear. But to be completely honest: it’s brutally outdated. I didn’t use the machine as much as I had expected. It’s an old lady with some problems. She needs a little love and some maintenance. Which is interrupting my workflow.” 

Muuuh!

“The machine got me a lot of attention. Several interviews, friends who wanted to see it, and synth manufacturer Clavia contacted me. They wanted to create a sample library of Fairlight sounds for their Nord instruments users.” Another remarkable story is the one about the Matterhorn Project. “They wanted to re-release their album and cult-hit called ‘Muuh!‘; a funny song full of sampled cows. So, they came in with their old disks and we re-sampled them, so they could use them in a modern digital audio workstation. That was fun!” It’s certainly nice to know the cows are save and sound in a brand new shed. 

Listen to some music by Tax-5