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How One of the Most Important Synthesizers Ever Was Unearthed and Digitized

Synth enthusiast Patrick Fridh has led an effort in recent years to bring the Fairlight's sound into the software realm.

When everyone and their mother has GarageBand, sampling music is almost laughably easy. But it hasn't always been that way. Back in the 60s, to sample—as The Beatles did so psychedelically on "Tomorrow Never Knows"—one had to dub recordings, physically cut tape, and then assemble it into a song.

The Mellotron, released in 1963, cleverly brought pre-loaded analogue samples to the keyboard, but it wasn't until the Fairlight CMI came along in the early 80s that the era of tape-based samples gave way to digital sampling. The rest, as they say, is history—a long history of dynamic and cutting edge sound.

For this reason, synth enthusiast Patrick Fridh has led an effort in recent years to bring the Fairlight's sound into the software realm. It's an effort made all the more important because there are only around 100 Fairlights in operation now.

"After all of my experience with all music software and hardware, there still was this huge gap of a non-existent Fairlight sound," Fridh told me. "I felt I had to fix that."

To understand how Fridh brought the Fairlight to Propellerhead's Reason and Native Instrument's Kontakt software, it's necessary to know a bit about the Fairlight's history and sonic architecture.

Vintage Fairlight ad.

Designed by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie in 1979, the Fairlight was based on the Qasar M8, the world's first true digital synthesizer; a dual-6800 microprocessor computer, designed by Tony Furse in Sydney, Australia. While the Qasar M8 didn't bring digital synthesis to the masses because of limited processing power and a bulky design, Vogel and Ryrie did license Furse's synthesizer to exploit its sampling potential for their machine.

By 1980, the likes of Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Stevie Wonder, and Herbie Hancock had Fairlights in their sonic arsenals. Infamously expensive at $27,500, its cost was as hefty as the unit itself. That didn't stop it from appearing on many records in the 80s. If you've ever heard the airy strings on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "If You Leave," Jan Hammer's Miami Vice theme music, or Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey," you've heard the sounds of the Fairlight.

Using a microphone or a line input, any sound could be recorded and stored digitally on the Fairlight. These sounds could then be played back chromatically on a keyboard with groundbreaking multi-timbrality—the ability to produce two or more timbres (sounds or patches) simultaneously. The Fairlight could also compute waveforms internally, and users could redesign those waveforms in a number of ways using a light pen.

While the Fairlight's sounds weren't as "fat" as analog classics like the the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 or Minimoog, they were undoubtedly unique and futuristic. It also came with a robust sound library, which in total, Fridh estimated, amounts to about thirty 9-inch vintage floppy disks containing a number of samples.

"Since sampling and looping on the Fairlight was quite a complicated process, the factory sounds ended up on a lot of songs," Fridh said. "Studio time was expensive and they couldn't waste it too much on making unique recordings."

The Fairlight's green screen showing waveforms. Image: starpause kid/Wikipedia

Nevertheless, all Fairlight users contributed sounds to this considerable library. The computer's memory, at 16 kilobytes, only allowed for a few seconds of digital samples. Fridh said that the musical value came about because these sounds could be perfectly looped, so that a string section recording could appear to go on forever, even though it was just three or four seconds long.

Fridh, who started programing music on the Atari 1040 at a young age, said finding a Fairlight became a personal quest. After establishing a reputation online for collecting and trading vintage synthesizers, and working for Propellerhead, he finally got his hands on an "alive and kicking" Fairlight, which he said was a huge moment. In its floppy disks he could hear sounds from all of the records he loved.

After he got Vogel's blessing, he began the arduous task of using some "serious converters and interfaces" to record each of the Fairlight's eight voice cards, which were one-voice samplers. Fridh essentially sampled the samples, then edited and set about "looping the loops" by finding the same loop points as the original machine. Tedious work, he said, but well worth it.

Image: Wikipedia

To help rebuild the Fairlight's sounds for Reason and Kontakt, Fridh got in touch with some legendary electronic musicians and groups. Fridh found himself pulling Fairlight samples from Vince Clark of Erasure and Depeche Mode, Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears, and David Gamson of Scritti Politti, amongst others.

The first Fairlight plugin came in 2010 on Reason. Fridh also put together a Fairlight package for Native Instrument's Kontakt. The latest version, Way Beyond Fairlight, came out earlier this year and is packed with 2 gigabytes of Fairlight sounds, but also other material that Fridh says fits nicely into the machine's paradigm—Roland JX8P pads and Yamaha DX7 harp patches.

Fridh likes the idea of being able to layer these classic synths sounds and effects with the Fairlight. "The quest was to not only provide the raw Fairlight but also the sound of what could be done with it in a fully equipped recording studio," he said.

Thanks to its success, the Fairlight CMI inspired a wealth of cheaper competitors. The machine's genius, combined with its price tag and limited quantity, effectively dug its own grave. But since it was five years ahead of its competitors at the time, it really can lay claim to providing the groundwork for electronic music. Without it, the worlds of house, techno, and hip-hop, which all made heavy use of sampling, could look very different indeed.