In 1971, in Australia, Kim Ryrie creates the magazine Electronics Today International (ETI) in which are published the diagrams of two hybrid analog / digital synthesizers available in kit and designed by Trevor Marshall, the ETI 3600 and 4600. These two synthesizers will be marketed in England by Maplin Electronics Ltd.
But frustrated by the limitations of analog synthesis, Ryrie asked Peter Vogel, a former schoolmate, to help him create a company, in order to develop a machine designed around a microprocessor to digitally control analog oscillators (technology that will be used in the Prophet 5 in 1978).
Fairlight Instruments Pty Ltd was established in December 1975 – The name Fairlight comes from a hydrofoil that ran in front of Kim Ryrie’s grandmother’s house in Sydney.
At the same time, Tony Furse, then a consulting engineer for Motorola, founded his company Creative Strategies Pty Ltd in Sydney in 1972 to produce his first synthesizer, an analog / digital hybrid, the Qasar I.
Interested in this first prototype, Don Banks, composer and director of the Canberra School of Electronic Music, manages to convince the school and the Australian federal government to financially help Furse to develop the Qasar. This collaboration with Don Banks will give birth to the Qasar II, a dual-processor (6800 Motorola 8-bit) duophonic digital synthesizer.
The Qasar M8 (Multimode 8) was released in 1975. It is a dual-processor (6800 Motorola 8-bit), 8-voice polyphonic synthesizer using additive synthesis with the ability to draw and edit waveforms with a lightpen on a screen. The M8 has a 4 octave keyboard as well as two 8″ floppy disk drives.
In 1976, Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel met Tony Furse for a presentation of the Qasar M8.
Seduced by the demonstration, they negotiated a license to produce the M8 under the Fairlight brand. The Qasar M8 will be improved with in particular a new OS, the QDOS, a variant of the Motorola MDOS system, and a 6 octave keyboard. He will be baptized simply Qasar. It is the direct ancestor of the Fairlight CMI.
Ryrie and Vogel’s initial aim was to create a fully digital synthesizer, capable of generating sounds very similar to acoustic instruments while having full control of the various sound parameters, in a manner as elaborate as a musician with his instrument. Somehow acoustic modeling before the hour.
Disappointed as they were by the poor sound quality and the lack of variety of the sounds of the Qasar, they decide to digitally record natural sounds in order to obtain richer and more complex tones.
This process, sampling, was first used with Harry Mendell’s Computer Music Melodian, a monophonic sampler released in 1976.
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.
COMPUTER MUSICAL INSTRUMENT – CMI I 1979
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 drives, 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 and comes with a soundbank on floppy disks featuring 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 France, Jean-Michel Jarre, Indochine, Daniel Balavoine, Louis Chédid … In Austria, Hubert Bognermayr (Eela Craig).
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.
CMI II 1982
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 Page R, 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 Page R 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.
CMI IIX 1983
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.
CMI III 1985
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 Page R was replaced by a new sequencer, the CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer, Sequencer).
VOICE TRACKER ET COMPUTER VIDEO INSTRUMENT – CVI 1985
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.
MUSIC AND EFFECTS – MFX 1987
In 1987, Fairlight turns to the post-production market with the MFX (Music and effects).
The MFX (also called MFX III) is in fact a CMI III with a new control keyboard adapted to the new Cue List sequencer.
At the beginning of the 80s, a first competitor in the field of sampling appeared: E-mu with the Emulator in 1981 then the Emulator II in 1984. Other manufacturers followed by offering more and more affordable samplers: Akai with the S612, the S900 then the S1000 and Ensoniq with the Mirage. Sequencers are also appearing on microcomputers such as the Atari ST or the Macintosh. The supremacy of Fairlight in these two areas, sampling and the “graphic” sequencer, begins to falter. In addition, with around 300 CMI sold worldwide, the market is 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.