Tag: Series IIx

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.”

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