back to article Fairlight: The Rolls Royce of synthesizers

Synthesizers and Royal Weddings were everywhere in the early Eighties, but the real Rolls Royce of electronic music was the Fairlight. An Australian-made music production system based on the Motorola 6800 processor, the Fairlight was - at well over £20,000 – a stupendously pricey piece of kit. Officially named the Fairlight …

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  1. Msan

    My first sampler was a secondhand keyboard Ensoniq Mirage

    eventually followed by an Akai 2000... always preferred the Ensoniq though - its' limited sequencer and an ability to two samples was pretty impressive. Being able to sell it two years later for the same price I paid was also memorable.

    Unfortunately the Mirages' sole creative highlight was sampling 808 State and pitching down the sample to reveal 808 State had sampled a certain post punkers' 1986 album. So that's how you 'make' a breakbeat!

    Given a 27 K price tag -and average incomes at the time - how did you convince the band to spend the advance on gear?!

  2. Rogan Paneer

    Rogan Paneer

    Wasn't the Fairlight also used for the incredibly breathy soundtrack on the early 80s movie 'Liquid Sky'? (bisexual coke-heads, small flying saucer, New York ...)

  3. ey86798

    Syco Systems

    They were based in a back alley in Paddington, right opposite my student dorm window. The comings and goings were interesting to say the least.

  4. Jon Thompson 2

    A beautiful instrument

    The Fairlight still looks like it's from the future. See also the Synclavier.

  5. Malcom Ryder 1

    nice article

    Great article, what was the name of your band?

    1. John H Woods

      Erm is it this Michael Moran?

      http://www.rcm.ac.uk/Studying/Professors+and+Faculties/ProfessorDetails?staff_code=5213

      "All the gear no idea" my arse. But the modesty is charming. And the article was fantastic.

  6. Cihatari
    Thumb Up

    I'm going to drool at the video content later.

    I'm at work, yes even as the happy royal nuptials are grinding away in the background on a smallish telly at the othe end of the office. YouTube is disabled here, so I'll catch up at home later.

    Great article, thanks for the memories. I vaguely recall some South Bank show which featured this monster piece of kit.

  7. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Linux

    Hurumpf!

    Great stuff...

    Now I feel really OLD

  8. Lord Lien
    Thumb Up

    Fairlight...

    ... aslo gave name to one of the best Amiga demo groups

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vj7H4XMmldg

    They took their name from this instrument .

  9. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Great instrument of its day!

    And you can do everything it did and more on your home pc using free software and a £200 keyboard!

    1. Elmer Phud
      Happy

      PC?

      I used to use two Speccys and two samplers linked together with a MIDI lead.

      One sampler did the drums stuff, the other one handled the odd noises.

      It all worked rather well unless I let the tune end and didn't pause it - if I let the song end both machines crashed and then there was the job of firing up the Microdrives to reboot it all.

      Happy(?) days.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ah, fond memories of Top Of The Pops

    with the Pet Shop Boys' Chris Lowe moodily standing behind his Fairlight occasionally pretending to press a key while that bloody dog sample played. Great piece, thanks!

  11. DZ-Jay

    Great stuff!

    Goes to show you that vintage computers were not all cheesy 8-bit pong boxes. Some applications were truly transforming in more industries than just the personal computer one.

    -dZ.

  12. jake Silver badge

    Ugh.

    Just what I needed during calving ... Late '70s / early '80s Euro-pop flashbacks ...

    Anyone remember the name of the monster that Hillage's girlfriend played on the "Motivation Radio" tour? For some reason I think it was called "Tonto", but the other half of my brain says that was a studio-only bit of Moog-based kit ...

    Pardon me while I dig thru' the museum/mausoleum, looking for my Synclavier ...

    1. Mike Flugennock

      Yeah, you're right...

      The synth Hillage's band used was named "TONTO"; I forget exactly what the acronym stood for -- I remember one of the "T's" stood for "Timbre", that's about it.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Thank you, Mike.

        I did a little poking around ... "The Original New Timbral Orchestra". See:

        http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2010/12/01/tonto-the-coolest-modular-synthesizer-ever-video-demo/

        That's the non-portable studio model used on Motivation Radio ... I think Miquette used a portable[1], similar version that was given the same name for the tour. I saw 'em at Sheffield and York and Leeds ... at the Sheffield gig, I was close enough to the stage for my pre-punk long hair to be pushed around by the bass bins[2]. No, I haven't lost my hearing (yet), although gawd/ess only knows why not.

        As a side note, Miquette and Steve seem to still be an item. Well done, that couple! Hard to do in the showbiz world ...

        [1] For late 1970s values of "portable", of course :-)

        [2] Kind of an early version of sub woofers, for you youngsters in the audience.

        1. Mike Flugennock
          Thumb Up

          "Bass Bins"

          jake sez on 04.29.11 @21:49gmt:

          "...I was close enough to the stage for my pre-punk long hair to be pushed around by the bass bins..."

          By the time Jerry Garcia died, I'd lost track of how many times I'd seen the Dead, and began to refer to how many years I'd been going instead. When not making bootlegs, my favorite spot was toward stage left, in front of Lesh's bass cabinets. Lesh would hit one of those huge-assed bass chords and the shock wave would tickle my arm hair and make my rib cage resonate... I found that feeling deeply satisfying, somehow.

          As with yourself, my inveterate concert-going, including seventeen years of Dead shows -- with a few evenings of Slade, the Stones and Pink Floyd sprinkled in between -- have also left my hearing strangely unaffected. And, mind you, Slade were frickin' loud as shit -- but mixed very cleanly, so my ears weren't that bothered at all.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Clean mix? ... Makes you want to go ::hmmm::

            I wonder ... If a band didn't know how to mix for the venue, I never attended one of their gigs more than twice ... Has anyone done spot pressure measurements for badly mixed gigs v.s. well mixed gigs, to say nothing of the horror of mixing desks set for the studio being used at outdoor events?

            Eddies in acoustics are funny things; Mike might be onto something ...

    2. Slabfondler
      Boffin

      Tonto

      You are correct, somewhat - Tonto was/is a massive analogue synthesizer used by Tonto's Expanding Headband (and in the Phantom of the Paradise film). Started with a Moog III and expanded from there to include units and modules from a variety of manufacturers.

      More info here: http://www.tontosexpandingheadband.com/

  13. Anomalous Cowturd
    Thumb Up

    Happy days...

    Thanks Michael for an informative article, and welcome to the heady heights of Vulture Towers.

    I have four of the albums from that list, and will now have to dig them out for a new listen.

    Herbie Hancock is still one of the most innovative artists going. Art of Noise were one of the great bands of their time, but sadly under-rated in my view.

    PG4 is still my favourite of his albums.

    And wasn't Kate Bush hot?

    P.S. Love the signed keyboard by the way. Chick Corea too!

    1. Mike Flugennock
      Thumb Up

      re: Happy Days

      an Anonymous Coward sez on 04.29.11 @15:38gmt:

      "...And wasn't Kate Bush hot?"

      Damn' straight... and, unlike most pop "singers" today, Kate Bush was not only hot, but she had a real, actual _voice_. (sigh)

      1. jake Silver badge

        Not just a voice, Mike.

        She had pipes, and damn good ones ... not that I actually like(d) her music back in the day ... but holy shit, could she bounce music off whatever was hanging upstage ... I enjoyed her shows, despite the fact that I found her actual tunage pedestrian, at best.

  14. hammarbtyp Silver badge
    Pint

    Ah Nostalga

    Takes me back - watching Thomas Dolby with his Fairlight CMI and sheffield uni. Happy days

  15. Agent Heggle

    Direct Some Digital Transparency

    That was an AbFab posting, if I say so myself. Quincy said: " you are taking a pure electric signal and sculpting it into a thing of beauty."

    I LOVE the way you inserted videos showcasing the Fairlight.

    Did you know that Steve Munster, the obscure fellow that is vying for the Civil Service "Executive Director Of Digital Strategy" job, has a website where he showcases how we . . . electric beings . . . are transforming into a thing of beauty?

    He too uses videos, but ties them into a storyline. Here's one with David Bowie in it:

    http://heddinout.com/?p=2495

    The funniest thing is that even if he does not get the job, he is assuming he has it already . . . in a parallel dimension.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wasn't there a rumour at the time ...

    rather along the Arthur Eddington quip*, that there were only 4 people in the world that could program a Fairlight - and one of the was Peter Gabriel ?

    When asked if it was true there were only 3 people who understood Einsteins theory of relativity, Eddington frowned - the interview was afraid he'd made a terrible gaffe, but Eddington said "I'm trying to think who the third might be"

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Eddington

    1. Elmer Phud

      I heard . . .

      . . . that Kate Bush was sought after (no, not just like that) as she was ne of the very few who could wrestle with the thing and win.

  17. Ed-H

    Probably not the "Rolls-Royce"

    The title "Rolls-Royce of electronic music" would probably more appropriately be applied to the NED Synclavier. With system costs of anything up to $200K, and built from military/aviation spec components it was a high-class monster!

    Nerd Trivia - The CPU that NED custom-designed for the Synclavier was later used to drive the imaging system on NASAs Galileo Probe sent to Jupiter...

    1. Elmer Phud

      Zappa

      Didn't Uncle Frank piss off a few people by realising that with enough hard drives bolted on he could record entire albums?

  18. Andus McCoatover

    Wow!

    Whata trip down the annals of music! Thanks.

    Funny how one of my friends stated "there's nothing that can produce the music (of the time) as accurately as a Linn Sondek".

    Given the limitations, sampling rate, etc, I think he had a point. After all, what did I spend hundreds on a Pioneer (?) CD deck for, when my 'Sondek' would give me the same (and, with an 'Ittok' arm, cost a shedload more?)

    Why didn't the 'Prophet Synthesiser' get a mention?

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice article, interesting stuff

    I would like to offer my own opinion though that Babooshka is indeed a fine song, but one that's brought to life and made special by the wonderful fretless bass of John Giblin!

  20. Naughtyhorse
    Headmaster

    ‘all the gear, no idea’

    As ably demonstrated by stating the CPU (already defined as a 6800) is 3 times the size of a mackbook... as i recall a 6800- is about 3 times the size of a postage stamp.

    apart from that neat article, although it makes me feel quite old to see all the amazing kit of my youth now being paraded as hi-tech fossils :-S

    1. Stevie Silver badge

      Bah!

      CPU - central processing unit: A whole cabinet full of analogue electronic goodness making digital magic. All computers used to have these until one-chip integration got mind-bogglingly boggling.

      You are describing the microprocessor chip.

      You'll be telling me next you didn't know that at one time computers has a discrete part known as the "clock".

      Whippersnapper.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Pint

        Bah!

        Even before 1971, when the 'mind-boggling' 4004 was released, it was as inappropriate to refer to an entire system minus its human i/o as a 'cpu' as it was/is to call it a 'hard-drive.'

        The cpu *in* the Fairlight *is* a 'microprocessor chip.' (teehee when I read that I imagine you with a Forrest Gump accent, soz)

        Computers never inherently had a discrete unit called a 'clock,' either, I can only assume that your boggled mind is getting mixed up with 'Real-time Clock,' peripherals for 80's home computers. I've honestly never seen so much wrong delivered with so much cheek :p

        Anyway, great article. Much to my wife's chagrine I have a fairly extensive collection of the gear that so quickly rendered the CMI obsolete, but it still has a certain allure to it, not *entirely* due to the fact that unlike a TX-7, the chances of one showing up on ebay for <CAD100 are quite slim.

        Pint cos gear+booze=perfect

      2. Naughtyhorse

        actually

        I was describing the CPU

        theres a kind of online encyclopaedia brittanica, it's called wikipedia.

        go look for yourself

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CPU

        dinosaur :P

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    rather interesting that

    Just the other evening, Tuesday, on a BBC Radio article, a long time Rock DJ blamed the Fairlight for being responsible for the generally dire music of the 80's.

    Difficult to not agree.

    1. Elmer Phud
      Happy

      Piano

      The piano has then to be ruled the greatest ever producer of crap -- ever.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Pint

    A legend

    It's easy to underestimate just how important this machine was in shaping pop music through the '80s. When most bands were still playing with analogue Jupiters and Prophets, this machine brought a completely new technique to music making, without which albums like Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise just wouldn't have been possible. Arguably though it was the 'budget' Emulator II that really brought sampling to the mainstream... but almost anyone listening to Radio 1 today would be completely oblivious to all the excitement in electronic music 25-30 years ago.

  23. Giles Jones Gold badge

    Synclavier

    The synclavier was much better, although ludicrously expensive.

    Some still use them to this day.

  24. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Although Midi did rather spoil things Fairlight CMI-wise, you didn't have to synchronize all synths using expensive third-party kit. My Roland SH101 syncs with the microcomposer (and any other Roland kit) using the archaic but Roland-standard Control Voltage and Gate method.

    Still have them, and they look mint. Of course, when I packed them away and forgot I had them for 15 years I also forgot to park all the sliders at one end of their track so now I have a couple of nice scratchy linear pots.

    Bah!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Boffin

      Ahh

      WD40 will sort that out!

      1. The Flying Dutchman
        Stop

        No WD40 on pots...

        ...ever!

        It fixes the problems for a short while, but it tends to thoroughly ruin pots so treated.

        Use a proper contact cleaner instead such as Kontakt 70 or CRC Contact Lubricant.

  25. Graham Wilson
    Unhappy

    I'd wish I'd had a Fairlight when I was learning music.

    I'd wish I'd had a Fairlight when I was learning music but its price back then was astronomical (for me anyway).

    This was one of Australia's great ideas (and I remember following its progress through in a local mag, 'Electronics Today'); as always we hardly ever follow through and go on to second or third-generation development. Invariably, such developments are underfunded, or can't be capitalised because local investors consider it too risky or the ideas are sold off to overseas interests who then make the moolah. Tragically it's almost always been that way.

    After WWII, Australia, had the infrastructure, potential and population base to eventually go high-tech a la Korea, Taiwan or even Finland, but like the current NBN fiasco, as always, we fucked it big-time.

    Instead, like an ostrich breathing in sand, we've settled back into doing what we do best, which is very little except to argue with you Poms over cricket and to sell our mineral wealth to the Chinese only to buy it back 'processed' with the money they initially paid us. Heaven help us when it all runs out.

    Sooner or later, it seems inevitable that Malaysia's Lee Kuan Yew's prophecy of us becoming the "great white trash of Asia" will be proven to be true.

    ___________________

    [El Reg: Reckon it mightn't be a good idea to keep referring to 'something being the Rolls Royce of whatever'. The last few times I've done this on the Net I've had perplexed Americans come back to me and asked me what the hell I was talking about. Oh how times have changed!]

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Pint

      Hi Graham

      Commiserations, cobber. It's no consolation but your assessment sounds a lot like the UK (with some exceptions in terms of hi-tech capitalisation). Oz more similar to the Poms than many would care to admit?

      Cheers

  26. Martin Usher
    Thumb Up

    Another notable Fairlight trick...

    It actually used two 6800 processors running in anti-phase with each other so they could use the same memory. This was possibly the first example of a multicore processor setup (!) and was made possible by the rather relaxed bus timing of early processors. (That is, they were rather slooooooowwwww.)

    The wave editing was far ahead of anything else at the time, it was an amazing beast. It suffered from the problem all custom kit suffered from -- the 20K price tag sounds steep but was actually great value for money for a system of that complexity, easily comparable to the cost of a piece of generic industrial computing kit. What pulled the rug out from it is what got everyone else -- mass production where you could spread the development cost over millions of units.

    There was a wave table card available for the Apple 2 in the early 80s that gave comparable sound quality. It was a fantastic thing for the price but it suffered from the problem of being a 'plug in card for an Apple' -- the Apple ][ wasn't exactly roadworthy even reboxed to try and stop it falling apart between gigs. (I think it faded before the manufacturer thought to make it a plug-in card for a PC -- that would have been neat.)

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    re: perplexed Americans

    Cadillac - the Rolls Royce of cars.

    1. kissingthecarpet
      Thumb Up

      Think that

      might have been Chevy Chase's joke from the 70's - very funny gag.

    2. jake Silver badge

      @AC 21:56

      As a Yank who has driven[1] many models of both marques over the years, from most decades they have been built, I can assure you that a Caddy does not now, and never has in the past, come within even the same circle as a Rolls Royce. Probably never will, either.

      Well ... to be sure, both do share a couple features in that they are large, slow, bad handling, gaudy gas-hogs. And I wouldn't mind restoring a between-the-wars model of either someday. But that's about it.

      [1] Driven, not owned ...

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Headmaster

    The Tripods

    I think the exceptional music done for The Tripods was done on a Fairlight with Ken Freeman at the controls.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zkZPzeqyt8

    Sounds dated today, but remember that was done in 1984 and on the usual BBC TV timescales (2 weeks per episode). When you compare what the Radiophonic Workshop were doing at the same time it's light years ahead (as much as I love their work).

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Syco

    Syco went bust when their headquarters burnt down - it turned out they weren't insured. Up until then they'd cornered the market for high end electronic music equipment, acting as distributors for classic but long gone manufacturers such as Fairlight, Linn and Oberheim. The company they used to service all this gear is still around though - Alpha Entek, who also operate under the name of Hammond Hire. The've serviced some of my older music gear, and there's quite a demand for their expertise as many people like me prefer to use dedicated synths and drum machines to fiddly software based stuff.

    1. corestore

      Syco & Linn

      Ohhh I remember Syco... down a tiny side street near Paddington?

      As for Linn, they didn't just make sound gear... I'd kill for a working Linn Rekursiv!

      Mike

  30. corestore

    I'm lucky enough...

    To have one of these in the Corestore Collection. And, it's one of the original ones - the Fairlight 1. Very rare to find those, even rarer to find one with the software, and most unusual for it to still work perfectly! See:

    http://www.corestore.org/FL-1.jpg

    Awesome machine, one of the greatest hacks ever. What they managed to screw out of such primitive hardware is nothing short of amazing. Thanks for running the story!

    (of course there are two sides to every story; there are a fair number of people who would say this was the Ferrari; for the Rolls Royce you would have to look at Synclavier...)

    Mike

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    CMI = POS

    The writer may be wearing rose-tinted specs. My exerience with a CMI was less than fulfilling.

    I worked with Vince Clarke of Yazoo, another CMI owner, and I programmed all the A/V content for the first Yazoo tour.

    Vince used a Linn to trigger the CMI and also had an interface built to trigger, via the Linn, an AVL Eagle* computer that controlled all the slide projector dissolve units and a 16mm B&H film projector.

    The CMI was incredibly unreliable during the programming sessions and Vince decided to hire a backup machine for the tour. I think the going rate for rental was about a grand per week. The Linn was always good and never, if you'll pardon the pun, missed a beat.

    Yazoo did a warm-up gig in the band's home town of Basildon and during the first song the Fairlght played up and the Linn/AVL interface died. The bloke that had been engaged to look after the visuals on the tour didn't have a clue what to do but I had been watching the show from backstage and had to intervene. From the second song until the last I had to manually cue all the visuals from memory (my memory) and there were probably well over 30 sync points in each song.

    Ultimately the CMIs were dumped before the rest of the tour and the songs were dubbed on to a TEAC A3440 four track for playback and the A/V content was triggered by AVL's native timecode. A UKP500 Jap tape recorder was more reliable than the UKP20k CMI.

    Yazoo geek trivia: Vince wrote many of his songs on an acoustic guitar and did his accounts on an early IBM PC. Alf Moyet's vocals were always live and always note perfect.

    *The show was programmed on an Eagle but an AVL Roadrunner was used for the tour.

  32. Dick Emery

    Ah memories

    When I was a schoolkid I could not afford all the nice toys all the TOTP muso's had. My first 'instrument' was a Casio VL Tone. You know the one they used in that Da Da Da track. I progressed from that to a larger Casio keyboard with built in organ accompaniment. From there to a small Yamaha keyboard (Iforget the name but it was small and a bit of a toy really) with a built in mic and sampler. It wasn't until I actually started work I invested in a Roland Juno 106, Akai S400 sampler and 4 track cassette mixing desk type thingie.

    I was contunuously upgrading my gear over the years but could never quite afford the 'big toys'. I finally got to play with a Fairlight whilst in a recording studio working on a track. It was now seen as somewhat of a novelty item by that time though.

    Now anyone with a copy of Fruityloops can pretty much do it all in the comfort of their bedroom for a few hundred quid or less.

  33. MrMcginty

    Mostly used for sounds effects in 'Aliens'. Mostly.

    On the DVD extras for the quadrilogy and anthology editions of 'Aliens', it's mentioned that James Cameron did tons of sound effects in his hotel suite with a Fairlight during the production of that movie in 1985.

  34. David Strum
    Thumb Up

    Those were “days of High Adventure”

    Yeah, I think Conan The Barbarian was on VHS then. Wow – I dig all that. But it was all a mysterious thing – The Fairlight; it was the holy grail of synthesisers: thanks for unmasking the Wizard of Oz! What a money pit it must have been. I use to love all that Synthesiser stuff, but now a days – I think most PCs – with the right card and software can do great things.

  35. mike Banks

    Trevor Horn loved his

    Trevor Horn told me the story of when he was about to buy a Fairlight. The people at Synclavier called and said that the Fairlight was ok but it was a fun toy while the Synclavier was a 'serious Scientific Instrument'. Trevor said 'I'm a record producer and I like my toys'! That made me laugh.

    He talks about Fairlight and the early days of squeezing 'stuff' out of other early gear in a video I recorded with him: http://www.recordproduction.com/trevor-horn-producer-video-pt1.html

    :-)

  36. Gazman
    Go

    Jurassic Park?

    Peter Vogel is back in the game.

    See http://fairlightinstruments.com.au/

    So is Dave Smith (Sequential Circuits - Prophet).

    See http://www.davesmithinstruments.com/

    Woo-hooo!!!

    .

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