Music Thing: The Fairlight CMI

Fairlight CMI

Each week Tom Whitwell of Music Thing highlights the best of the new music gear that's coming out these days , as well as noteworthy vintage equipment. Last Saturday it was the the the triple neck guitarm this week it's the Fairlight CMI synthesizer:

If you're a geek and you grew up in the 1980s, then you probably remember the Fairlight CMI. It was that huge white synthesiser with a screen, a qwerty keyboard and a lightpen. It cost $50,000 and people like Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby and Kate Bush used it. Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran used to draw waveforms on his screen with the lightpen during gigs. It was just about the coolest thing in the world.

This week on Music Thing has been Fairlight week, and this is what I?ve learned:

1) The Fairlight was pretty much the only famous synth ever to be designed in Australia. It was named after a ferry that sails across Sydney Harbour.
2) It was the creator?s second attempt to build a digital synth. The first, the Quasar M8, was four feet long, consumed 2kw of power, had 4k of ram and took two hours to boot up from paper tape. It couldn?t sample, and it sounded awful. It wasn?t a hit.
3) The Fairlight was the first commercial synth which could sample audio into its 128k memory and huge 8 inch disks. The most famous sample that came on the factory disks was ORCH5, the orchestral stab that was all over 80s records like ?Owner of a Lonely Heart? and anything by the Art of Noise. The stab was originally sampled by arty British musician David Vorhaus. UCLA musicologist Robert Fink has written an entire paper about ORCH5 and it?s impact on popular and classical music.
4) Fairlights were not a good investment. My friend Mike bought one in 1984 for ?23,000 of his record label advance. He sold it in 1987 for ?7,000, by which time Atari computers and Akai samplers had made the Fairlight utterly redundant.
5) However, Fairlights were incredibly well made and stress-tested at the factory. Just 300 Fairlight Series I & II machines were made, but most are still working today ? they cost about $2-3,000. There?s a Series III machine for sale on Australian Ebay until Monday.