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The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument is a computer-based digital sampling instrument that was considered state-of-the-art in the 1980s. 
The Examples page shows a little bit of what the Fairlight can do. 
Visit the Swap Shop for Fairlight components and related gear. 
A place for Fairlight owners to exchange ideas and information. 
Read some of the Tales & Adventures submitted by Fairlight fans. 
Browse through the gallery of Fairlight images. 
Recent sightings of creative projects. Submitted by Fairlight users. NEW! 
Some Fairlight technology revealed. NEW! 
Another audio product, introduced in 1985, is the Fairlight Voicetracker. 
Take a tour through some of the Fairlight CMI's software pages: Page 1: Index, Page 2: Disk Control, Page 3: Keyboard Control, Page 4: Harmonic Profiles. More to come! 
Further down this page, you will find a History of the Fairlight, an Overview of the Fairlight CMI Series II Hardware, and Fairlight CMI Series II Software. 

The Fairlight CMI Series II

There are several very recognizable Fairlight sounds, some of which have been seriously overused!

· breathy choir [AAHH (90KB), OOHH (103KB)]
· orchestra hits [ORCH5 (17KB), TRIAD (24KB)]
· Biko drum, etc.

The Examples page shows some more of them.

Your Favorite Fairlight Songs
The votes are in!
See the results!

The Fairlight CMI is experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days as artists search for the classic Fairlight sound. Of course, to say that the Fairlight has a single sound is like saying a computer is only for doing e-mail!

There are many famous artists who use the Fairlight: Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones, Jan Hammer, the Pet Shop Boys, Tears For Fears, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Jane Child, The Art of Noise, Jean Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield, Alan Parsons, etc...

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 Vogel

They 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.

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.

The original idea was that the CMI would be shipped with a library of pre-existing samples which would provide Fairlight owners with everything that they would need. However, the owners starting creating large numbers of samples themselves, and so it was sampling that became the driving force behind the CMI's popularity. In fact, quite a few of the owner-created samples became part of the official Fairlight sound library.

Summary of Fairlight Models
I8-bit v1no
II8-bit v2no
IIx8-bit v2usually
The III evolved over time, but started out sharing the IIx hardware, making it difficult to define a particular hardware configuration as the iconic Series III configuration.

The first Fairlight (dubbed the Series I) had relatively poor voice cards, sometimes described as "scratchy", with a maximum sampling rate of 24kHz. The Fairlight Series II (circa 1982) improved on the sound and the software, including Page R which was so revolutionary that it was often the reason people bought a Fairlight. The Fairlight Series IIx (circa 1983) added MIDI support. The Fairlight Series III was introduced in 1985 with support for 16-bit CD-quality stereo sound, and was generally a new machine (or perhaps more accurately it was a re-working of the original idea).

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.

During the 1980s the only real competition for the Fairlight was the Synclavier from New England Digital, which originally used FM synthesis (before the Yamaha DX7 did) but which later added sampling in response to the Fairlight's success. Another contender was the AudioFrame from WaveFrame Corporation. AudioFrame is a rack-mount unit filled with specialized audio cards controlled by a PC running Microsoft Windows. A 16-voice version cost around US$45,000 in 1987.

A Fairlight advertising slogan in the early 1980s was "Tomorrow's Music Today". This futuristic view often caused concern among members of the Musician's Union, who worried that they were going to be put out of a job by a machine. The Hammond organ had earlier caused a similar stir among string players when it came out, although they obviously had nothing to fear. I got started with the Fairlight while I was still in college, and I faced some opposition from one of the instructors who was the local union representative!

When new, the Fairlight Series II typically had a price of US$25,000 or more, while the Fairlight Series III (which could be customized with many options) started at around US$40,000 and often exceeded US$100,000. This tended to limit the market a bit ... but demand is still high for these machines.

The Series III uses Motorola 68000 series processors running the OS9 real-time operating system, and the major feature is the addition of a 200 MB hard disk, and the fact that samples are variable length, limited only by available memory. There is 16 voice polyphony, up to 32MB of waveform memory, 50kHz sampling rate for stereo recording and 200kHz for playback, pressure-sensitive keyboard, and direct-to-disk recording. The Fairlight Series III went through several revisions, which typically offered larger disk sizes, more memory, extras such as optical disks, as well as software updates. Additional voices can be added with expansion units, up to 64 voices. The last Series III was made in 1991.

After the Series III came the digital recorders, MFX1, MFX2, MFX3, and MFX3+ which records 24 tracks of audio on a hard disk. There was even a hybrid of 8 voices of Series III sampling and 16 tracks of MFX3 hard disk recording in one chassis.

Greg Holmes and the Fairlight Studio
Greg Holmes and his Fairlight studio, mid 1980s.
All of this equipment (except for amp rack, speakers, and TV) could be, and often was, relocated to recording studios on a moments notice. Not portable, but at least transportable!
Left to right: 1/2" 8-track reel-to-reel, 1/4" 4-track reel-to-reel, amp rack on wheels (with phono and pro VCR on top, and cassette tape, tuner, surround room simulator, power amps), Fairlight CMI Series II CPU, Fairlight keyboards and monitor, amber PC-compatible monitor and keyboard, road-case rack unit (top to bottom: Korg MS-10 mono analog synth, MIDI routers [Roland MPU-103/104/105], Roland SDE2500 digital delay, Yamaha REV 7 digital reverb, Dynafex D-2B noise reduction unit, rack-mount PC-compatible XT computer behind grey faceplate, Yamaha TX 816 FM tone generator [equivalent to eight DX-7 sound modules], two Ashly SC-50 peak limiter compressors, patchbay), A-frame keyboard stand (top row: Roland SBX-80 Sync Box, Roland TR-707 drum machine, middle row: Yamaha DX-7 direct from Japan, bottom row: Tascam M-216 16-channel mixer, MP180 8-channel mixer). On the shelf in the background are Bose speakers and a large JVC TV/video monitor.
Note the light grey flight cases for the Fairlight under the desk and keyboard stand.

Overview of the Fairlight CMI Series II Hardware

The Fairlight CMI Series II is based on the QASAR general purpose computer. The operating system is called QDOS, a variant of Motorola's MDOS. The QASAR uses a passive backplane into which various cards are inserted. Somewhat contrary to the principles of a general purpose computer, the 20 slots on the backplane are configured with different bus connections, so that many slots are intended to hold specific add-in cards.

The QASAR General Purpose Computer

The processor card contains two Motorola 6800 CPUs running on a 1MHz bus. The data and address signals are interleaved, giving an effective rate of 2MHz. One processor is dedicated to keyboard and console I/O, while the other runs system code and performs disk I/O, which ensures that the operating speed of the Fairlight is rarely an issue. The processors can be individually paused and restarted with front panel switches. There are also switches to interrupt the processors and jump to a ROM-based debugger.

More than 15 years after the introduction of the Fairlight, the PC world is only now starting to implement multiple processors in personal computers.

For a deeper look into the QASAR, see my Fairlight Technology page.

In general, the Fairlight CMI is built like a tank. The high cost was partly due to the excellent quality of the components used. Most are so-called 25-year parts. Of course cabling and connections fail, most commonly the lightpen's coiled cable. The contacts on the circuit boards can be easily cleaned with a pencil eraser.

The machine is equipped with a very hefty power supply in which some of the capacitors are the size of 10oz soup cans. There are 15 or 20 amp cylindrical fuses inside the case, as well as numerous other smaller fuses accessible on the back panel. The heavy components are located in the left end of the CPU, which weighs in at about 80lbs. When two people are moving the Fairlight there is usually a bit of "maneuvering" as each person tries to outwit the other and end up holding the lighter end which houses the floppy drives!

The video monitor has a resolution of 512 horizontal pixels by 256 vertical pixels and is a green color with a very slight turquoise tint. The lightpen is managed by a dedicated interface card which calculates the current X and Y position by sensing when the monitor's electron beam passes under the tip of the lightpen. When the user touches the tip of the lightpen with a finger, the change in capacitance triggers a hit, which is similar to a mouse button click. The on-screen cursor is shaped somewhat like a crescent moon and it appears on the monitor as the lightpen approaches the surface.

The Fairlight CMI holds 8 smart audio cards, each of which contains 16KB of RAM and additional support processors. The audio cards operate autonomously, once the samples are loaded into their RAM and are triggered (by sequencer or keyboard).

The Series II plays 8-bit sounds at a variable sample rate, depending on pitch. Samples can be recorded and played at any rate up to 35kHz. Maximum sample length is 16KB. In fact, all samples stored on disk are the same size, consisting of the 16KB of waveform information and some additional control and housekeeping data.

The Fairlight has no built-in audio processing, other than a simple low-pass filter on each audio card which is used to mask the aliasing noise which is typical of 8-bit samples. The filter value (which ranges from 0 to 15) is saved with the Page 7 control settings for each sound. (The IIx software increases the filter range and allows it to be controlled dynamically by key velocity or by another controller.) Other control settings include key velocity, damping, attack, vibrato, portamento, and glissando.

The 6-octave music keyboard is velocity sensing with non-weighted plastic keys. The case of the keyboard is made of wood and is quite large in order to provide space to stack an optional slave keyboard. Each keyboard can be split into as many as 6 zones (one per octave) to play different sounds. It is useful to have many zones available, especially in a concert situation.

The music keyboard has three sliders and two buttons on the left end, which can be programmed to provide sustain, volume, or other effects. Foot pedals can be plugged into the back of the keyboard. There is also a small calculator-type keypad on the right end of the music keyboard that is used to load files. It is most useful during a live performance where there is often no room for the video display and computer keyboard on stage.

Fairlight CMI Series II Software

Of course the folks at Fairlight hid all of the hardware details by writing a whole lot of code. I remember one advertisement that showed a stack of source code printouts. It might have been the real thing and I would love to get my hands on it. In the 1980s I actually spent a lot of time disassembling (reverse engineering) it by hand! I did that in order to really understand how the hardware and software worked together and I was able to create a few signal processing programs in 6800 assembly language.

The software comes on one 8" double-sided, double-density floppy. (I refuse to call an 8" disk a diskette!) This system disk is put in the left-hand drive, while the data disk is put in the right-hand drive. The data floppy contains your sounds and sequences. Typically, you need one data floppy per song.

The Fairlight also has ROMs which contain some low-level routines for handling things such as input and output. These are not commonly changed, although updated ROMs may have appeared with newer CMIs.

Of course, the normal user does not need to be a computer programmer to use the Fairlight. The user-interface is arranged in a set of views, called Pages, each of which is focused on a particular task.

Page 1 Index The table of contents of all other pages
Page 2 Disk Control Used for managing the files on a disk
Page 3 Keyboard Control For mapping sounds to zones on the keyboards, and for adjusting tuning
Page 4 Harmonic Profiles Provides additive synthesis by drawing the amplitudes of harmonic frequencies
Page 5 Harmonic Amplitude Faders Similar to Page 4 but sets harmonic content at each sound segment
Page 6 Waveform Drawing Allows for drawing or alteration of a waveform with the lightpen
Page 7 Control Parameters Adjusts and routes parameters such as vibrato and looping
Page 8 Sound Sampling Used to record new samples
Page 9 Keyboard Sequencer For recording and playing of performances with no editing
Page A Analog Interface Controls and monitors the optional interface
Page C Music Composition LanguageDirectly edit streams of note data, very precise but tedious
Page D Voice Waveform Display Shows the voice waveform in various 3D formats
Page F User Defined Functions Allows control values to be mapped non-linearly. Introduced on Series IIx.
Page G Segment Info A diagnostic page related to Pages 4 and 5
Page I Interface Configuration To configure MIDI and SMPTE parameters. Introduced on Series IIx.
Page L Disk Library Organizes and cross references disk files
Page M MIDI Configuration The MIDI portion of Page I was moved to here on later Series IIx software.
Page R Real-Time Composer A pattern-based graphical sequencer
Page S Screen Print Provides screen printing in various formats
Page T Diagnostic Table Lists various operational variables

The Pages are often used in combination to achieve a task.

For example, Pages 8, D, 6, 7 are used when sampling sounds. The sound would be input into the Fairlight with Page 8, then Page D would be used to view the entire sound waveform in order to find any clicks or pops in the sound. Problems can be erased on Page 6 by drawing with the lightpen. Finally, Page 7 would be used to set the filter, attack, sustain, and looping parameters.

There are three Pages devoted to sequencing -- Pages 9, C, and R.

Page 9 is a fairly limited recording and playback facility that is intended to capture live performances. Once notes (and control movements) are recorded they cannot be edited, although there are 8 separate tracks which allows for some separation and muting of musical elements. There is no facility for quantization of events.

Page C implements MCL (Music Composition Language), which is a text-based programming language for musical composition. It can be used to create very realistic sequences, but the note-by-note approach can be very tedious. In some ways it can be likened to editing a stream of MIDI data. For example, "O=3 V=8 G=1/8 A B C,2 D5V11" would set the default octave to 3, velocity to 8 (out of 15), and gap to 1/8 which gives a legato effect. The C note is twice as long as the A and B notes and the D note is in the 5th octave and has a velocity of 11.

Perhaps the most popular Page is Page R - the Real-Time Composer. It is based on the idea of musical patterns, which are one bar scores for 8 monophonic instruments. It is essentially a souped up drum machine, like the Roland TR-707. What a thing to say about a Fairlight!

Fairlight CMI Series II Page R - Real-Time Composer

Page R displays the rhythms of the notes for a single bar. Although the display shows each note as a sixteenth note, eighth note, and so on, the image does not represent the duration of the sound, but rather the distance to the next note in the track. There are no rests. The duration is hiding underneath the list of names on the left and can be set, along with the pitch and velocity, by selecting individual notes. The Series III version of Page R no longer shows these simulated notes, but replaces them with small triangles with tails that show the duration.

Because of the emphasis on rhythm, Page R is often called the Rhythm Composer or Rhythm Sequencer (which was its original name in an earlier version of the software).

The patterns are arranged into a song by specifying a list of patterns and their repeat counts. Each pattern can have a different time signature, although the overall speed of the song remains constant. Oddly, the speed is not specified in beats per minute (BPM), but using something related to oscillator ticks per beat. Thus faster tempos are set with a smaller number. The Page R image above shows a speed of 2800. A value of 1400 would play the song twice as fast. Speed can be calculated by the formula

speed = (314140.625 / bpm).

Playback of sequences can be controlled by a sync tone, which is typically recorded on a tape track. The tone should be in the range 100Hz to 5000Hz, depending on the desired playback speed. The formula is

sync_frequency_in_Hz = (2010500 / speed)
- or -
sync_frequency_in_Hz = (6.4 * bpm).

Here are some common values:

BPM 50 60 70 80 90 100 110 120 130 140 150
Speed 6283 5236 4488 3927 3490 3141 2856 2618 2416 2244 2094
Sync (Hz) 320 384 448 512 576 640 704 768 832 896 960

The Fairlight CMI also generates a click track to which other gear can sync. So the Fairlight can be master or slave. However, the MIDI option, which is present on most Fairlight Series IIx and higher, makes this easier.


The operation of the Fairlight can be compared to a MOD player. MOD files contain digital samples and sequences of notes (or other events such as volume changes). The MOD player triggers the samples at the desired playback rates and combines the waveforms to create the output sound. The Fairlight operates similarly, except that the sounds are stored apart from the sequences, and the eight sound cards have individual audio outputs. Also, MOD players skip or repeat samples to alter pitch, whereas the Fairlight alters the playback rate.

It is interesting to note that the average PC today blows the early Fairlight CMIs out of the water in terms of performance and sound quality. If you can find a way to cram 8 monophonic SoundBlasters into a PC and if you can write the custom software, then you've got yourself a Series II!

Even though the Series III and newer models are top-of-the-line devices, there is still a certain mystique surrounding the special combination of sound hardware and software that makes up the Fairlight CMI Series II.

Note   It is the author's intention to add more information on the Fairlight CMI, including diagrams, screen snapshots, sound samples, and utility programs. If you have any requests, samples, or information, please contact Greg at gregh@ghservices.com.

Image credits:   Image showing keyboards, display, and system unit - by Greg Holmes, modified from Fairlight brochure.   QASAR front-panel diagram - by Greg Holmes, based on QASAR Users manual.   QASAR block diagram - by Greg Holmes, based on QASAR Users manual.   Page R screen - by Greg Holmes.

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All pages copyright © 1996-2008 GH Services™   Created 1996-10-01   Last updated 2010-09-18