|The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was the first polyphonic digital sampling synthesizer. It was designed in 1978 by the founders of Fairlight, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, and based on a dual microprocessor computer designed by Tony Furse in Sydney, Australia. It rose to prominence in the early 1980s and competed in the market with the Synclavier from New England Digital. Both instruments would be put through their paces by famed producer Trevor Horn.|
The first buyers of the new system were Peter Gabriel, Richard James Burgess, Todd Rundgren, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, producer Rhett Lawrence, and Stevie Wonder. Among the first commercially-released albums to incorporate it were Kate Bush's Never for Ever (1980), programmed by Richard James Burgess and John L. Walters, and Jean Michel Jarre's Magnetic Fields (1981). Jarre also made extensive use of the instrument on his The Concerts in China (1982) and Zoolook (1984) albums. It was used on The Buggles' last album, Adventures in Modern Recording and, after his time with The Buggles, Geoff Downes went on to use it with Yes and Asia. Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" and its parent album Security (1982) also feature the instrument, as does U2's The Unforgettable Fire (1984) album.
The Fairlight CMI was a development of an earlier synthesiser called the Quasar M8, an attempt to create sound by modelling 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 soundwaves as a starting point. To their surprise the effect was remarkable, and the sampler was born.
By 1979, the Fairlight CMI Series I was being demonstrated, but the sound quality was not quite up to professional standards, having only 24kHz sampling, and it wasn't 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 (16bit/50kHz) was available with the Series III.
The Fairlight ran its own operating system known as QDOS (was a modified version of the Motorola MDOS operating system) and had a primitive (by modern standards) 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 driver, keyboard interface, etc. 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 green-screen.
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 processors, running Microware's OS-9 Level II operating system (6809 version). One of the Fairlight's most significant software features was the so-called "Page R", which was a real time graphical pattern sequence editor, widely copied on other software synths since. This feature was often a key part of the buying decision of artists.
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 relative technology was getting cheaper, competitors with similar performance and lower prices started to multiply. Fairlight managed to survive until the mid-1980s, mainly bidding on its legendary name and its cult status, sought after by those that could afford its prices.
Fairlight went bankrupt a few years later owing to the expense of building the instruments — AUD$20,000 in components per unit. As a last-ditch attempt to salvage a small something, 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 couldn't finance the expansion and the R&D."
The success of the Fairlight CMI caused other firms to introduce sampling. New England Digital modified their Synclavier digital synth to perform sampling, while E-mu introduced a less costly sampling keyboard, the Emulator, in 1981.
In the United States, a new sampler company called Ensoniq introduced the Ensoniq Mirage in 1985, at a price that made sampling affordable to the average musician for the first time. Though the Mirage was essentially a poor man's sampler with significantly inferior hardware specs, at less than $2000, it was nevertheless sufficiently powered (8-bit microprocessor) to signal the start of end of the CMI. In addition to these low-cost dedicated systems, very cheap add-in cards for popular home computers started to appear at this time, for example the Apple II-based Greengate DS3 sampler card, and new computer systems such as the Apple Macintosh featured built-in sampling sound systems.