Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones 1983

The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument is a computer-based digital sampling instrument that was considered state-of-the-art in the 1980s.

History of the Fairlight

In 1975, Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel started a company in Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales, Australia to make a digitally-controlled musical instrument that would provide an alternative to the analog synthesizers that were popular at the time.

Kim Ryrie and Peter VogelThey built upon the dual-processor synthesizer design of Motorola consultant Tony Furse to create, in 1976, an eight voice synthesizer called the Qasar M8. Furse had worked previously with the Canberra School of Electronic Music to create a system that already had many of the classic Fairlight features, such as the lightpen and the graphics display.

With the Quasar M8, Vogel and Ryrie tried to create realistic sounds by using something akin to acoustic modeling (where the processor generates a waveform in real time according to a mathematical formula), but the result was less than inspiring, so they took a new direction by using real-life sound samples to provide complex waveforms.

Ryrie and Vogel felt that using samples was cheating since their original goal was to build a digital synthesizer that allowed complete control over every parameter in real-time. With samples they could only control attack, sustain, vibrato, and decay. The samples gave them complexity, but not control.

Once an 8-bit analog-to-digital converter card was constructed, legend has it that an employee’s dog bark was the first sound to be sampled and used in a melodic fashion.

Fairlight Lightpen on Page 4

The Fairlight Series I and II are equipped with a lightpen which is connected to the monitor with a coiled cable and works like a mouse except that the lightpen is held against the monitor’s surface. The lightpen is a bit tiresome to use after several hours of holding your arm up to the screen, so on the Series III the lightpen is replaced by a graphics tablet which is integrated into the alphanumeric keyboard.

By 1979 they were ready to demonstrate the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument. Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder bought the first Fairlight CMIs that year. Perhaps the earliest popular song to use the Fairlight was Peter Gabriel’s Shock The Monkey.

For more info on the amazing Fairlight CMI:


~ by Dudegotchops on October 18, 2007.

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