Fairlight CMI - History


Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight CMI was a development of an earlier synthesizer called the Qasar M8, an attempt to create sound by modeling all of the parameters of a waveform in real time. Unfortunately, this was beyond the available processing power of the day, and the results were disappointing. In an attempt to make something of it, Vogel and Ryrie decided to see what it would do with a naturally recorded sound wave as a starting point. To their surprise the effect was remarkable, and the digital sampler was born. In casting about for a name, Ryrie and Vogel settled upon Fairlight, the name of a hydrofoil (named in turn after a suburb of Sydney) that sped each day past Ryrie's grandmother's large house in Point Piper, underneath which Ryrie had a workroom.

By 1979, the Fairlight CMI Series I was being demonstrated in Australia, the UK and the US. In the US, the latter country covered by Bruce Springsteen's concert sound engineer Bruce Jackson, once Ryrie's neighbour in Point Piper.

At this time the sound quality was not quite up to professional standards, having only 24 kHz sampling, and it was not until the Series II of 1982 that this was rectified. In 1983 MIDI was added with the Series IIx, and in 1985 support for full CD quality sampling (16 bit/44.1 kHz) was available with the Series III.

One of the Fairlight's most significant features was the so-called "Page R" software, a real time graphical pattern sequencer, introduced on CMI Series II. This feature was often a key part of the buying decision of artists, and widely copied on other software synths since.

The Fairlight ran its own operating system known as QDOS (a modified version of the Motorola MDOS operating system) and had a menu-driven GUI. The basic system used a number of Motorola 6800 processors, with separate cards dealing with specific parts of the system, such as the display drive and the keyboard interface. The main device for interacting with the machine apart from the keyboard was a light pen, which could be used to select options presented on a monochrome CRT display.

The Series III model dropped the light pen interface (the light pen cable apparently was one of the most fragile hardware elements in the system) in favour of a graphics tablet interface which was built in to the keyboard. This model was built around Motorola 68000 and Motorola 6809 processors, running Microware's OS-9 Level II operating system (6809 version).

The Fairlight CMI was very well built, assembled by hand with expensive components and consequently it was highly priced (around £20,000 for a Series I). Although later models, adjusting for inflation, were getting comparatively less expensive as the relevant technology was getting cheaper, competitors with similar performance and lower prices started to multiply. For some years the CMI was sought after by those who could afford one, but competition made life increasingly difficult for the company. Fairlight managed to survive until the mid-1980s, relying more and more heavily on its revered name and its products' cult status for sales.

Fairlight went bankrupt a few years later due to the expense of building the instruments – A$20,000 in components per unit. As a last-ditch attempt to salvage some revenue, the final run of machines were marketed as word processors. Peter Vogel said in 2005, "We were reliant on sales to pay the wages and it was a horrendously expensive business ... Our sales were good right up to the last minute, but we just could not finance the expansion and the R&D."

Ryrie subsequently set up Fairlight ESP (Electric Sound and Picture), a company which sold the Fairlight MFX range of post-production audiovisual workstations. These were initially based on the CMI III, although later versions were entirely independent developments.

In August 2009, Peter Vogel launched a new company, also called Fairlight Instruments, with the objective of developing a 'retro' CMI-30A (30th Anniversary). This system is supposed to have the look and feel of the 1979 CMI but will use the latest 'Crystal Core media engine' developed by Fairlight.au.

In 2011, Fairlight also released a CMI app for the Apple iPad. The app includes the complete CMI sound library and an accurate translation of the CMI's renowned Page R sequencer.

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