In 1971, Kim Ryrie, a synthesizer fanatic, created a magazine called Electronic Today International (ETI), in which he presented the diagrams of two hybrid, analog / digital synthesizers available in kit form, the ETI 3600 and 4600. They had been created by Trevor Marshall (later, they would be sold in England by Maplin Electronics Ltd). However, as he was frustrated by the limitations of analog synthesis, he asked Peter Vogel, a former schoolmate, to help him create a company, in order to produce a new machine featuring a microprocessor that could control analog oscillators in a digital way (the same technology will be used for the Prophet 5 in 1978).
Fairlight Instruments Pty Ltd was created in December 1975 – The name “Fairlight” comes from a hydrofoil that ran in front of Kim Ryrie’s grandmother’s house in Sydney – After 6 months of labour, they met Tony Furse, who worked as a consulting engineer for Motorola. In 1972, Tony Furse had created his own company, Creative Strategies, to make two prototypes of hybrid analog / digital synthesizers: the Qasar I and II.
In 1975, Furse invented his first fully digital, bi-processor synthesizer: the Qasar M8. Seduced by this machine, Vogel and Ryrie bought the licence for the M8.
In 1976, Fairlight created a first prototype, that included the concept and the architecture of Furse’s M8. This prototype, which was simply called Qasar, was a complicated and bulky machine, with a poor sound quality. Ryrie and Vogel’s initial aim was to create a totally digital synthesizer, that would be able to generate sounds that were very close to acoustic instruments, and with a total control over the different sound parameters – exactly like a musician’s control over his instrument’s sound. It was a kind of acoustic modelisation before its time. Disappointed as they were by the poor sound quality and the lack of variety of the Qasar’s sounds, they had the idea of recording natural sounds digitally, in order to get richer and more complex sounds. The idea of sampling was born. Ironically, for Vogel and Ryrie, the sampling technique that would give birth to a revolution of music and sound creation in the ’80s, was only, at that time, a very limited alternative to their original concept. Indeed, although the sampled sounds were richer than simple digital waveforms, they couldn’t be controlled as easily as those waveforms. Only a few parameters (attack, sustain, vibrato and decay) could be modified. According to Vogel and Ryrie themselves, the sampling technique was only a roundabout way to get richer sounds out of their instrument:
We wanted to digitally create sounds that were very similar to acoustic musical instruments, and that had the same amount of control as a player of an acoustic instrument has over his or her instrument. Sampling gave us the complexity of sound that we had failed to create digitally, but not the control we were looking for. We could only control things like the attack, sustain, vibrato, and decay of a sample, and this was a very, very severe limitation of the original goal that we had set ourselves. We regarded using recorded real-life sounds as a compromise – as cheating – and we didn’t feel particularly proud of it.
Kim Ryrie – Audio Media magazine, January 1996
However, they decided that the conception of their machine should now include the sampling technique. In order to raise funds for this project, Fairlight produced about 120 office computers for Remington Office Machine. These computers were based on the bi-processor architecture of the Qasar.
In 1979, their work resulted in the creation of the Fairlight CMI I (CMI for Computer Musical Instrument). Based on the architecture of the Qasar M8 (two 8-bit 6800 Motorola processors with 8 voices of polyphony), the CMI I featured a 73 note keyboard, a central unit with two 8″ floppy disk players, an alphanumeric keyboard, a monochrome monitor, and a lightpen. The operating system was the QDOS, a variant of the MDOS Motorola system. The CMI I was the first machine featuring the sampling technique, a graphic representation of waveforms, additive synthesis, and a sequencer. It was the first workstation. In spite if the poor sampling quality (8 bits – 24 kHz maximum), the Fairlight was presented as a machine that was able to perfectly reproduce the sound of real instruments. It featured a floppy disk with a sound bank that included various samples of acoustic instruments.
Peter Vogel went looking for clients and distributors, travelling around the world with a CMI. In the summer of 1979, he met Peter Gabriel, who was recording his third album in his studio. Vogel showed a demo of the CMI to Gabriel, Stephen Paine (a close relation of Gabriel), Hugh Padham and Steve Lillywhite. Quite impressed by the possibilities of the machine, Peter Gabriel used the CMI during the whole week of Peter Vogel’s stay. Peter Gabriel eventually bought a CMI, and created Syco Systems with Stephen Paine. It was the first company to import and distribute Fairlight In Europe. John-Paul Jones was the second buyer (he wanted to replace his Mellotron !), followed by Richard Burgess (Landscape), Kate Bush, Geoff Downes, Trevor Horn, Alan Parsons, Rick Wright, Thomas Dolby, Stewart Copland, J.J. Jeczalik (Art of Noise), Mike Oldfield… In the USA, the CMI was successful too: it was used by Stevie Wonder (first customer), Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Joni Mitchell… In Austria, Hubert Bognermayr (Eela Craig), in France, Jean-Michel Jarre, Indochine, Daniel Balavoine, Louis Chédid… were among the CMI users.
Because of the poor quality of the CMI’s initial sounds, many users created their own samples. Some of them would later be included in Fairlight’s official sound bank.
In 1982, the CMI II, a slightly improved version of the CMI, was created. The sampling rate turned from 24 to 32 khz, still in 8 bits ; but the main innovation was the inclusion of the “R page”, the first sequencer with a graphic representation of the 8 tracks and notes. It was based on a system of patterns (sets of bars) that you could repeat, copy, paste… You could also quantify the notes. The R page was a revolution in the use of sequencers. Some musicians bought a CMI only for this graphic sequencers. 1982 also saw the release of “Shock The Monkey” by Peter Gabriel, the first hit single featuring a Fairlight.
In 1983, a major CMI update appeared: the Fairlight CMI IIx. Several internal cards were modified. The two 6800 processors were replaced by 6809 processors, and a MIDI/SMPTE interface was added.
In 1985, the Fairlight CMI III was a new step forward. Although it had the same architecture as the CMI I, the CMI III was the first 16 bit sampler with a sample rate of 50 kHz max in stereo, or 100 kHz in mono. The polyphony turned from 8 to 16 voices. A hard disk drive was added. A new operating system (OS 9) was created. The lightpen was replaced by a graphic tablet. The R page was replaced by a new sequencer, the CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer, Sequencer).
A few months later, the Voice Tracker (a Pitch-to-Midi converter for the voice or acoustic instruments) and the CVI (Computer Video Instrument, a picture and video processing machine), were released.
In 1987, Fairlight turns to the post-production market with the MFX (“Music and effects”). Basically, the MFX, which was also called MFX III, was a CMI III with a new control keyboard that fitted the new Cue List sequencer.
At the same time, other manufacturers released cheap priced samplers : Akai with the S612, the S900, and then the S1000; Ensoniq with the Mirage. Sequencers also appeared on computers such as the Atari ST or the Macintosh. Fairlight was slowly losing its supremacy in these two sectors (sampling and “graphic” sequencing). Moreover, with about 50 CMI sold in England, the market was saturated.
Stephen Paine of Syco Systems decided to stop importing and distributing Fairlight in Europe. As for Fairlight, they made several mistakes in their commercial strategy, most notably with their distribution in the USA. Because of all these elements, Fairlight went bankrupt at the end of 1988. Vogel and Ryrie found new financial partners, and created a new company, Fairlight ESP (Electric Sound and Picture) in avril 1989. Kim Ryrie remains the main shareholder, the president, and the products manager. Peter Vogel left Fairlight to be an independant worker.
Fairlight ESP decided to work exclusively on the post-production market, with machines such as the MFX1 (1990), MFX2 (1992), MFX3 (1994), MFX3plus (1996), MFX3.48 (2000) or, more recently, the DREAM (2003). Up until the MFX3 model, the MFX were always based on the CMI III system, and still had these functions. It was only from the MFX3plus that the CMI III compatibility was given up.