The Fairlight CMI (short for Computer Musical Instrument) is a digital synthesizer, sampler and digital audio workstation introduced in 1979 by Fairlight. It was based on the commercial licence of Qasar M8 dual-MC6800 microprocessor instrument developed by Tony Furse of Creative Strategies in Sydney, Australia. It was one of the earliest music workstations with an embedded digital sampling synthesizer. It rose to prominence in the early 1980s and competed with the Synclavier from New England Digital.
|Price||GB£ 18,000 ~ 60,000|
|Polyphony||8 ~ 16 voices|
Additive resynthesis (FFT)
|Filter||low-pass for anti-aliasing|
73 keys non-weighted, velocity sensitive.|
Option: slave keyboard
3 sliders & 2 buttons,|
numeric keypad (right side)
CV/Gate (option, CMI II~)
MIDI • SMPTE (CMI IIx~)
In the 1970s, synthesizer devotee Kim Ryrie initiated the idea to develop a build-it-yourself analogue synthesizer called the ETI 4600 for his family's magazine Electronics Today International. The detailed design was developed by ETI's Barty Wilkinson and Trevor Marshall but Ryrie was frustrated with the limited number of sounds that could be made with an analogue synthesizer. After his classmate, Peter Vogel, graduated from high school, and a brief stint at university in 1975, Ryrie asked Vogel if he would be interested in making "the world's greatest synthesiser" based on the recently announced microprocessor. He recalled: "We had long been interested in computers - I built my first computer when I was about 12 - and it was obvious to me that combining digital technology with music synthesis was the way to go."
In December that year, he and Vogel formed a house-based company intended to manufacture digital synthesizers. They named it Fairlight after the hydrofoil ferry passing before Ryrie's grandmother's home in Sydney harbour. The two planned to design a digital synthesizer that could create sounds reminiscent of acoustic instruments (physical modelling synthesis). They had initially thought of making an analogue synth that was digitally controlled, given that the Moog was much more difficult to control.
After the six months that followed involving the two in the company's basement where initial designs included a sample touch-sensitive keyboard and Vogel's video products to help pay the bills they met Motorola consultant Tony Furse. In association with the Canberra School of Electronic Music, Furse built a digital synthesizer that used two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors, as well as the light pen and some of the graphics that would later be a part of the Fairlight CMI. Despite this, the machine was unable to create harmonic partials, therefore the sounds that came from the synth were sterile and inexpressive.
Vogel and Ryrie licensed the design to help them make a digital synthesizer, mainly for its processing power, and decided to use microprocessor technology instead of analogue synthesis. Over the course of a year, the duo made what Ryrie called a "research design", the bulky, expensive, and unmarketable eight-voice synthesizer QASAR M8, which included a two-by-two-by-four foot processing box and a keyboard.
In 1978, Vogel and Ryrie were making "interesting" but unrealistic sounds. Vogel decided they might be able to learn how to synthesize an instrument by studying the harmonics of real instrument, and sampled around a second of a piano piece from a radio broadcast. He discovered that, by playing the sample back at different pitches, it sounded much more realistic. He recalled in 2005:
It sounded remarkably like a piano, a real piano. This had never been done before ... By today's standards it was a pretty awful piano sound, but at the time it was a million times more like a piano than anything any synthesiser had churned out. So I rapidly realised that we didn't have to bother with all the synthesis stuff. Just take the sounds, whack them in the memory and away you go.
With the Fairlight CMI, Vogel and Ryrie were able to produce an endless amount of sounds, but control was limited to attack, sustain, decay (ADSR) and vibrato. According to Ryrie, "We regarded using recorded real-life sounds as a compromise - as cheating - and we didn't feel particularly proud of it." They continued to work while making money by creating and distributing computers for offices in the Sydney suburb of Ermington, which Ryrie described as "a horrendous exercise, but we sold 120 of them".
In addition to the keyboard, processing, computer graphics and interactive pen borrowed from Furse's synthesizer, the pair added a QWERTY keyboard, and a large one-by-1.5-by-three foot box stored the sampling, processing and ADC/DAC Hardware and the 8 inch floppy diskette. According to a magazine feature about the Fairlight company, the biggest problem was the short sample length, which typically lasted from a half of to an entire second; it could only handle a sample rate of 24 kilohertz and a frequency response of ten kilohertz at most, so a sample rate had to be as low as eight kilohertz and a bandwidth of 3,500 hertz for sounds of longer length to be used. However, Vogel felt the low quality of the sounds was what gave them their own character.
The Music Composition Language feature was also criticized as too difficult for empirical users. Other primitive aspects included its limited amount of RAM (208 kilobytes) and its green and black graphics. Nonetheless, the CMI garnered significant attention from Australian distributors and consumers for being able to emulate sounds of acoustic instruments, as well as for its light pen and three-dimensional sound visualization. Still, Vogel was unsure if there would be enough interest in the product. The CMI's ability to emulate real instruments made some refer to it as an "orchestra-in-a-box", and each unit came with eight-inch, 500-kilobyte floppy disks that each stored twenty-two samples of orchestral instruments. The Fairlight CMI also garnered publicity in the science industry, being featured on the BBC science and technology series Tomorrow's World; given that futuristic theories of poor-sounding digital orchestras were also being made, Musicians' Union railed against the CMI who called it a "lethal threat" towards its members.
In the summer of 1979, Vogel went to the home of English singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel, where his third solo studio album was being recorded, to show him the Fairlight CMI. Gabriel, as well as many other people in the studio, was instantly engrossed by it, and he used strange sounds such as breaking glass bottles and bricks on the album. One of those present for the demonstration, Stephen Paine, recalled in 1996: "The idea of recording a sound into solid-state memory and having real-time pitch control over it appeared incredibly exciting. Until that time everything that captured sound had been tape-based. The Fairlight CMI was like a much more reliable and versatile digital Mellotron. Gabriel was completely thrilled, and instantly put the machine to use during the week that Peter Vogel stayed at his house."
Gabriel was also interested in selling the CMI in the United Kingdom, and he and Paine formed Syco Systems to distribute the product in the country at a price of £12,000. The first person in Britain to purchase the CMI was Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Other well-known figures from the British music industry followed, including Boz Burrell, Kate Bush, Geoff Downes, Trevor Horn, Alan Parsons, Rick Wright and Thomas Dolby. The Fairlight CMI was a commercial success in the United States as well, used by American acts such as Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Todd Rundgren and Joni Mitchell. However, musicians came to realize that the CMI could not match the expressiveness and level of control offered by acoustic instruments, and that sampling was better applied as imaginative sound than pure reproduction.
The second version of the Fairlight CMI, Series II, was released at a price of £30,000 in 1982. Although it still used 8-bit recordings like the Series I, the sounds produced were of better quality given that the system could handle a sample rate as high as 32 kilohertz and a maximum frequency response of fifteen kilohertz. The CMI's popularity peaked in 1982 following its appearance on a special of the arts magazine series The South Bank Show that documented the making of Gabriel's fourth self-titled studio album, where he used 64 kilobytes worth of samples of world music instruments and sequenced skippy-rhythm'd percussion. Fairlight CMI Series II was used on nearly every album released in the early to mid-1980s, and its most commonly used presets included an orchestra stab ("ORCH 5") and a breathy vox ("ARR 1"). The CMI Series II is also credited as helping launch popular musical styles such as hip hop, big beat, techno and drum and bass.
The popularity of Series II was in large part due to a new feature, Page R, their first true music sequencer. As a replacement for the complicated Music Composition Language (MCL) used by Series I, Page R helped the Fairlight CMI Series II become a commercial juggernaut. Page R expanded the CMI's audience beyond that of accomplished keyboard players. Audio Media magazine described it as an echo of the punk rock era: "Page R also gave rise to a flow of quasi-socialist sounding ideology, that hailed the impending democratisation of music creation, making it available to the musically chops-challenged." Graphically depicting editable notes horizontally from left to right, the music programming profession and the concepts of quantization and cycling patterns of bars where instrument channels could be added or removed were also born out of the Page R sequencer. CMI user Roger Bolton recalled: "By definition, its sampling limitations and the Page R sequencer forced the composer to make high-quality decisions out of necessity. The CMI II was a high-level composition tool that not only shaped the sound of the 80s, but the way that music was actually written." Fairlight kept making updates to the system, such as a 1983 upgrade called the CMI Series IIx which now allowed for MIDI, until the release of Series III in 1985.
With 14 megabytes of RAM, which equates to about a three-minute long stereo sample, the Series III was the first sampler capable of creating sounds with 16-bit, 44.1 kilohertz sample files, as well as 16-voice polyphonic patches. Its design, graphics, and editing tools were also improved, such as the addition of a tablet next to the QWERTY keys for the lightpen to point on instead of on the screen; this change was done due to arguments from users regarding arm aches from having to hold the pen on the screen.
An enhanced version of the Page R sequencer called Composer, Arranger, Performer, Sequencer, or CAPS, as well as Eventsync, a post-production utility based on SMPTE timecode linking, were also added to the Series III computer. However, while many people were still using CMIs, sales were starting to diminish significantly due to much lower-cost, MIDI-based sequencers and samplers including the Atari ST and Akai's S612, S900 and 1000 samplers in the market. Paine stopped releasing copies of the CMI in the United Kingdom because of this. The Fairlight company was becoming more focused on post-production products, a market Paine had a hard time getting used to, and when HHB Communications Ltd took over distribution for the United Kingdom, they failed to sell any copies.
Peter Gabriel was the first owner of a Fairlight Series I in the UK. Boz Burrell of Bad Company purchased the second, which Hans Zimmer hired for many recordings during the early part of his career. Other early users of the system included Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, Icehouse's Iva Davies, and Landscape's Richard James Burgess, who demonstrated it to many British musicians and on BBC TV's Tomorrow's World.
In the US, Bruce Jackson demonstrated the Series I sampler for a year before selling units to Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder in 1980 for US $27,500 each. Meat-packing heir Geordie Hormel bought two for use at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles. Other early adopters included Todd Rundgren, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, producer Rhett Lawrence and Ned Liben of Ebn Ozn. The first commercially released album to incorporate it was Kate Bush's Never for Ever (1980), programmed by Richard James Burgess and John L. Walters. Wonder took his Fairlight out on tour in 1980 in support of the album Stevie Wonder's Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants" to replace the Computer Music Melodian sampler he had used on the recording. Geoff Downes of Yes conspicuously used a CMI with monitor on the band's 1980 tour to support the album Drama. The first classical album using the CMI was produced by Folkways Records in 1980 with composers Barton McLean and Priscilla McLean. Titled "Electronic Music from the Outside In," it was adopted extensively in electronic music courses worldwide. Jean Michel Jarre used a Fairlight on Magnetic Fields (1981) and also made extensive use of it on his The Concerts in China (1982) and Zoolook (1984) albums. French keyboardist Roland Romanelli used the Fairlight on his 1982 solo album Connecting Flight. A Fairlight was used on Eye in the Sky and other albums by the Alan Parsons Project. The 1982 science fiction film Liquid Sky featured a soundtrack entirely performed on the Fairlight CMI.
Peter Gabriel's album Peter Gabriel (1982) also featured the CMI. In 1981, Austrian musicians Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader composed a symphony, Erdenklang – Computerakustische Klangsinfonie. This work premiered live on stage, using five music computers, during the Ars Electronica festival in Linz , and was released on LP in 1982.
Ebn Ozn's "AEIOU Sometimes Y" was the first commercially released American single recorded entirely on a computer, a Fairlight CMI, in 1981/1982, released in 1983 by Elektra Records and Arista Records in London. The first American album recorded entirely via Fairlight was Feeling Cavalier by EBN-OZN recorded in 1983/1984 released in 1984.
The English band Art of Noise and producer Trevor Horn used the instrument extensively. In the mid-'90s, former Art of Noise member J. J. Jeczalik would release a sample album titled The Art of Sampling, which featured all of the unique CMI samples they had used throughout their career.
The last Fairlight IIx was given away through a contest in the magazine Keyboard in 1987. That particular machine has been in the hands of producer/musician Tim Curtis since 1990 and is still in use as of 2015.
After the success of the Fairlight CMI, other firms introduced sampling. New England Digital modified their Synclavier digital synth to perform sampling, while E-mu Systems introduced a less costly sampling keyboard, the Emulator, in 1981. In the United States, a new sampler company, Ensoniq, introduced the Ensoniq Mirage in 1985, at a price that made sampling affordable to the average musician for the first time.
In America, Joan Gand of Gand Music and Sound in Northfield, Illinois was the top salesperson for Fairlight. The Gand organisation sold CMIs to Prince, James "J.Y." Young of Styx, John Lowry of Petra, Derek St. Holmes of the Ted Nugent band, Al Jourgensen of Ministry, and many private studio owners and rock personalities. Spokesperson Jan Hammer appeared at several Gand-sponsored Musictech pro audio events, to perform the "Miami Vice Theme", as well as Keith Emerson, Stanley Jordan, Allan Holdsworth, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Baxter, Terry Fryer, Pat Leonard (Michael Jackson), engineers Roger Nichols (Steely Dan), Bob Clearmountain (David Bowie), Al Schmidt (Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall) and Cubby Colby (Phil Collins).
The ubiquity of the Fairlight was such that Phil Collins stated on the sleeve notes of his 1985 album No Jacket Required that "there is no Fairlight on this record" to clarify that he had not used one to synthesize horn and string sounds.
Several virtual instruments based on the Fairlight sample library have been released:
Co-inventor Peter Vogel attempted to resurrect the Fairlight CMI as the CMI-30A, referring to the instrument's 30th anniversary. However, his right to use the Fairlight name was terminated by the original holders of the trademark following legal action, and the instrument is currently unavailable pending the resolution of all legal matters. Vogel had also been planning several other CMI-related hardware products, including a PC-based "Series IV" variant.
|Models||Year||Price||Notable new features||Voice#||Synthesis||Software||I/O|
|$15,000~ / $8,000~||1~24||
Options as of 1984:
|Qasar M8 CMI||1975
|CMI Series I||1979||~£18,000||
|CMI Series II||1982||~£25,000||
|CMI Series IIx||1983||~£27,000||8||
|CMI Series III||1985||£40,000 or £60,000||
|CMI Series 30A||2009/
||24||24-bit floating point quality.||CMI-30AX, 24 polyphonic instruments, each containing up to 1024 sample. The classic "Page R" sequencer is retained but is expanded to 24 tracks.|
|Fairlight Pro App||2011||£48.99||?||
Qasar I (1972)
CMI Series I (1979–1982)
CMI Series IIx (1983–1984)
CMI Series III (1985)
CMI Series 30A (30th Anniversary) (announced in 2009, released in 2011. Production suspended since 2013 due to legal action)
Fairlight Pro App for iPhone, iPod Touch & iPad, iOS 4.0 or later (2011)
Jean-Michel Jarre – Arpegiator
An excerpt from Arpegiator (recorded October 1981), highlighting the use of the Fairlight CMI
Note: These sound clips require an MP3 player.
Two tracks showing Mode 4 (sampling) and Mode 2 (synthesis) and Page-R capabilities on a Fairlight CMI II and a small analog mixer
American band Devo used the CMI extensively on their 1984 album, Shout, but only occasionally after that (mostly being used by lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh's music composing company, Mutato Muzika). It also appears as a prop in their home video release, We're All Devo, where it is used by Timothy Leary's character.
Jan Hammer was one of the most prolific composers to use the Fairlight in the 1980s, particularly for his work on the television series Miami Vice, for which he provided the theme song as well as an entire catalog of score music throughout the first three seasons.
The Fairlight CMI also makes an appearance being operated by Nick Rhodes in Duran Duran's video "The Reflex". Al Di Meola's Sequencer video has many shots of the Fairlight CMI and its software. You can see Fairlight CMI (series II presumably) in the music video "Etude" by Mike Oldfield (track from the album The Killing Fields, can be seen on the Elements DVD). A monitor of a Fairlight CMI appears at the 1985 music video "Machine Age Voodoo (Junk Funk)" from the band SPK. It can also be seen in the Queen documentary "Magic Years" and on the back cover of Mecano's live album.
Herbie Hancock made an appearance on Sesame Street in the early 1980s demonstrating the Fairlight.
Having incorporated the Fairlight extensively into their music in the 1980s, the Pet Shop Boys also used it for many of their TV performances, especially during Top of the Pops appearances. Chris Lowe can clearly be seen operating a Series III Fairlight (along with an Emulator II) on TOTP during the 1987 song "Always On My Mind".
Jun'ichi Sato of the Japanese pop band Fhana used a Fairlight Series III in performing two songs at the 2014 Animelo Summer Live concert.
The original CMI started at about £18,000, going up to £27,000 for the Series II and finishing up at £60,000 for the Series III.
Object statement: Archive, relating to development of Qasar M8 and Fairlight CMI, paper, Tony Furse, Sydney, 1965–1980 / History notes: Used as on-going plans in the development of the M8 and Fairlight CMI. / ..., (collection image); Full descriptions are found on: Chapman 2012
Drive: 1 Disk I.D.: QDOSYS", "MUSEQ SYSTEM; described on: Chapman 2012, p. 51
Drive: 0 Disk I.D.: QDOSYS", "MUSEQ BACKUP 1-4-79; described on: Chapman 2012, p. 52
Drive: 1 Disk I.D.: QDOSSYS", "MUSEQ SYSTEM; described on: Chapman 2012, p. 52
MUSEQ: SEQUENCER FOR M8 MK.1; described on: Chapman 2012, p. 38
Produced: CMI, 1980-82; Series II, 1982-83; Series IIx, 1983-84. / Approximate Numbers Made: CMI and Series II/IIx, about 300.
Fairlight launched the CMI Series II in 1982, which incorporated their now legendary Page R, the first serious music sequencer, which, according to Paine, "simply blew people away".