The Wonder from Down Under: The Fairlight CMI Digital Sampling Synthesiser

The CMI's visual composer would change music production forever

After Sydney-native Peter Vogel graduated from high school in 1975, his classmate Kim Ryrie approached him with the idea of a creating a computer microprocessor-driven electronic musical synthesiser. Ryrie was frustrated with his attempts at building an analogue synth, feeling that the sounds that it could produce were extremely limited.

Vogel agreed, the pair spent the next six months in the basement of the house they rented to be Fairlight’s headquarters working on potential designs. However, it wasn’t until they met Motorola consultant Tony Furse that they made a breakthrough.

In 1972 Furse had worked with the Canberra School of Electronic Music to build a digital synthesiser using two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors, called the Qasar. It had a monitor for displaying simple graphical representations of music, and a light pen for manipulating them.

However, Furse’s synthesiser lacked the ability to create harmonic partials (complementary frequencies created in addition to the “root” frequency of a musical note in acoustic instruments, for example when the string of a piano or guitar is struck) and the sounds it emitted lacked fullness and depth. Ryrie and Vogel thought they could solve the problem, and licensed the Qasar from Furse. They worked on the problem for a year without really getting anywhere.

Late one night in 1978, Vogel proposed they took a sample (digital recording) of an acoustic instrument, and extract the harmonics using Fourier analysis. Then they could recreate the harmonics using oscillators. But after sampling a piano, Vogel decided to see what would happen if he simply routed the sample back through the Qasar’s oscillators verbatim. It sounded like a piano! And by varying the speed of playback, he could control the pitch.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than anything else they had come up with, and off they went.

They continued to work on the idea of digital sampling while selling computers to offices in order to keep the lights on. They added the ability to mask the digitised sounds with an ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release) programmable envelope, allowing for some variation.

They also added a QWERTY keyboard to go with the monitor and light pen (a light-sensing “pen” which can tell its location on the surface of a CRT by synchronising with the video signal), and an 8-inch floppy diskette for storing sample data, which was loaded into the CMI’s 208KB of memory). It really wasn’t much room – at 24 kilohertz (a CD-quality recording is typically 44.1khz) a sample could only last for one-half to one second – not very long.

Longer sounds needed to be recorded at even lower sample rates, but Vogel credited their low-fidelity (think landline telephone) for giving the CMI a certain sound. However, despite its deficiencies, Australian distributors and consumers were interested, so much so that the Musician’s Union warned that such devices posed a “lethal threat” to its members, afraid that humans in orchestras could be replaced!

In the summer of 1979, Vogel visited the home of English singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel, who was in the process of recording his third solo album.Vogel demonstrated the CMI and Gabriel was instantly engrossed with it, using it over the following week to “play” sounds such as a glass and bricks on songs in the album. He was so happy with it he volunteered to start a UK distributor for the CMI, which went on to sell it to other British music artists such as Kate Bush, Alan Parsons and Thomas Dolby.

The Americans soon caught on as well, with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Todd Rundgren all taking a shining to the CMI amongst many others. But they weren’t interested in using it for reproducing real instruments – rather it was the surreal quality of its sounds combined with the built-in sequencer which made it an attractive addition to their musical toolbox.

Over the following decade, three generations of CMI, with upgrades such as MIDI support, higher sampling rates and more memory, would contribute heavily to the sound of 1980s popular music, spawning new musical styles such as techno, hip hop and drum and bass.

The Page R sequencer in the Fairlight CMI Series II inspired a great many musician software developers to create versions for 1980s-era home computers, including the Atari 400/800, the Apple II and the Commodore 64.

While these 8-bit machines were limited to simple waveform-based sound synthesis, and couldn’t (generally) play back digital samples the way the CMI could, note-based sequencers provided not only a simple way to both learn music notation but also create 3-voice arrangements of original and popular tunes (and also Christmas carols!) with the noise channels in most sound chips providing primitive drums.

Considering the contemporary equivalent was the repetitive (and cheesy) accompaniment available in the common household electronic organ, this was considered to be an improvement!

Atari and Commodore both released note-based music software for their respective computers; Commodore’s included a musical-keyboard overlay that went over top of the alphanumeric keyboard on its Commodore 64.  A number of third-party software programs were also produced, and 8-year old music composers flourished.

Bank Street Music Writer was a typical music application of the time. Written by Glen Clancy and published by Mindscape, the Atari version was released in 1985. Like competitors such as Music Construction Set, users can place graphical representations of notes on to a musical staff, making the creation of computer-generated music much more traditional than step-entry piano-roll type methods.

This was only practical due to the visual nature of a computer monitor, which wouldn’t itself have been possible without the cathode-ray tube, the work of A.A. Campbell Swinton, Philo Farnsworth and many others. This sort of interactive music editing highlights the varied artistic software applications the CRT made possible, not just in visual arenas such as video, photography and digital art, but also in literature and music, where digital composition is a standard practice today.

8-bit music notation software led to the rise of the first “bedroom musicians”, amateurs who were now able to compose coherent, sequenced tunes without the need for expensive equipment. Many of them would go on to write music for video games, and/or became professional musicians when they became older – much like many of today’s bedroom EDM producers, who use descendants of that software.

The higher video resolutions available in 16-bit computers such as the Atari ST (640×400) and the Apple Macintosh (512×342) led to an improvement in the graphical quality of music software. The crispness of their monochrome CRT displays made musical notes more readable, and thus more of them were legible on screen at one time than had been on their lower-resolution 8-bit predecessors.

The Atari ST also featured a built-in MIDI interface, which allowed for the connection of external keyboards (for both input and ouput) and digital-sampled “sound banks” such as the Roland MT-32, which set the standard for MIDI instrument assignments and allowed for greater portability of MIDI files between different electronic musical instruments and devices.

As they had with the Fairlight CMI, professional musicians began to take notice as consumer-grade computers developed complex music-notation and sequencing software. Paired with MIDI instruments capable of outputting dozens of voices simultaneously, these consumer computers began to overtake dedicated musical computer systems such as the Fairlight CMI, with the Atari ST (commonly paired with Steinberg’s Cubase music sequencing application) becoming fairly standard in music studios around the world for much of the 1990s.

These days, most music is sequenced using an off-the-shelf Macbook Pro!

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