The history of music technology is full of remarkable stories, but few are quite as eyebrow-raising as the tale of the Fairlight CMI.
This pioneering “Computer Musical Instrument” has long held power over those who love electronic music. Initially developed in a harbourside basement in Sydney, Australia at the tail end of the 1970s, it introduced the world to the idea of sampling and sequencing. What had started life as an attempt to make a killer digital synthesizer eventually turned into the world’s first fully-fledged computer music-making system.
As you’d imagine, given its’ cutting-edge nature, the Fairlight CMI was not cheap to buy. In fact, it was prohibitively expensive. To begin with, it was a plaything for moneyed-up musicians – Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Geoff Downes from Yes/The Buggles, Kate Bush, and so on – but eventually became the beating heart of recording studios in the 1980s. It was technically limited by today’s standards, but allowed for a level of creativity that was embraced by those who loved it most – the likes of Gabriel, producer Trevor Horn, and the man he enlisted to program it on his behalf, JJ Jeczalik. The latter founded the Art of Noise with Gary Langan in part to explore the potential of the CMI’s sampling and music production capabilities.
I first became aware of the Fairlight CMI through the credits on the back of records, particularly those by the Pet Shop Boys, when I was a teenager. I had no idea what it was, or what it did; the name alone was enough to spark a certain level of curiosity. Ever since, it has become something of an obsession – not a major one, I should add – so when Todd L Burns at RBMA asked me to come up with some ideas for their recently launched Instrumental Instruments series, I jumped at the chance to pitch a feature telling the story of this unique and groundbreaking machine.
Over the six weeks or so that I spent working on the feature, I was lucky enough to speak with co-creator Kim Ryrie about the machine’s development and history, Pet Shop Boys’ programmer Pete Gleadall, Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder, and 21st century producer Com Truise. The most exciting interviewee I managed to snag, though, was JJ Jeczalik, who happily discussed the Art of Noise and the role the CMI played in numerous Trevor Horn productions.
You can read the feature over at the RBMA Daily site right now. As usual the RBMA Radio team has made their own documentary loosely based on the feature, which is also well worth a listen – especially as it includes a killer demonstration from Fairlight enthusiast Tim Curtis that will give you a better idea of the machine’s sounds and operation. That can be listened to “on demand” by following this link.