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A $30,000 instrument doesn't make one Thomas Dolby by Scott Alexander 
Tatyana Ali and Herbie Hancock on Sesame Street by Kris Pfeiffer  Fairlight sampling leads to success.
Starting out by Kevin Crossley  Kevin talks about how he was involved in the early days of Fairlight in the US.
Ride out on the highway by Simon Peters  A trip around Australia leads to a (brief) time at Fairlight.
Testing, testing by Neale Morison  Reveals why these machines are still going strong, and how some Fairlight employees got started at the company.
"Firelighter"...more than just a nickname by Peter Williams  Answers a burning question of where a nickname comes from.
The Fairlight story, as seen by me by Rob Judd  In which a young man meets someone who later goes on to start the Fairlight company.
The First Power On...er...Off! by Greg Holmes  How a 3D movie provided an opportunity to start working with a Fairlight.


A $30,000 instrument doesn't make one Thomas Dolby by Scott Alexander

Where to begin... I was a teenager in the 80's and was into making music. I was fascinated with synthisizers and hoped that someday I'd have my very own Prophet-10. I really got caught up in the "new wave" acts like Duran Duran, Thomas Dolby, ABC, Pet Shop Boys, and Ebn-Ozn. Of course, the similarity of all of these bands is the Fairlight. The thought of a $30K sampling machine was the trick that these guys had that made them what they were. I was somewhat talented, but my songs and productions didn't sound quite like these guys. Must be the equipment, I figured.

I attended college in 1988 in Denton, Texas just North of Dallas/Fort Worth. At the time I was working in a Dallas music shop as a keyboard salesman. It so happens there was a very wealthy trust-fund kid that frequented the shop where I worked. At least he did for a while, anyway. He was also a big Duran Duran fan and took notice of Nick Rhodes Fairlight. The difference between me and this kid is that he had the money to go and buy just about anything he wanted... including a Fairlight II, a Kurzweil K250, and a PPG Wave 2.3 and Waveterm B. Since he wasn't a musician or had no real musical asperations he tinkered with the stuff for a while and then put it in storage for several years.

One day he walked in to the store and said he wanted to sell all of it. Being a college student (i.e. broke) I didn't get my hopes up about buying anything. That is until he said how much he was asking for his gear. Don't remember the exact Fairlight price but I think it was somewhere around $3000. For the PPG Wave AND waveterm he wanted $2000. (This is 1988. This is probably $18K worth of gear. And no, it wasn't hot.) I quickly pulled out my checkbook knowing that I only had $1200 to spend. I got him down to $1000 on the PPG and $200 on an E-Mu SP-12 sampling drum machine (the BOMB at the time). I essentially walked with $20K worth of gear for $1200. Not bad for a 19 year old, huh?

The store I worked for purchased the Fairlight as a used item. I was one of the lucky employees that got to take it home and "make sure it worked". My day had finally come. Imagine a full Fairlight Series II packed into a Nissan 280ZX hatchback with a 19 year-old fraternity guy behind the wheel. Even if my friends could see me now they would have no idea what I have in my possesion.

I got it to my apartment that I shared with three other fraternity brothers and unpacked it (it had nice road cases) right there in front of the TV. One of my roommates came home and asked me to move that "computer crap" from the living room. I already tried to impress them with my PPG Wave. They thought it was neat, but overall, not that impressed. They didn't get it! They didn't understand that I was, actually, one of the very lucky few that had this "Ferrari" system. I got on the phone with my friends that were "in the know" and told them I had a huge surprise and to come up for the weekend. My buddy came up and boy was he surprised. A FAIRLIGHT. The things dreams are made of! There is a God, we both thought. We have arrived.

We didn't have a manual, but were somewhat computer and sampler literate so we were able to navigate to the disk loading and sampling pages (if you can navigate a PPG waveterm B with a German manual, you can figure out just about anything ;-). The disks we had weren't that exciting. I remember we found a good bass disk and a few string disks. We didn't have the Nick Rhodes "ahhh" sound that made the thing so popular, though. So what did we do? We set up a mic, turned on the TV and sampled a bunch of stuff from the tube. I think it was an old western.

We tinkered for the weekend coming up with all sorts of stuff and finanally recorded some fairly lame song with a bunch of samples of weird western shows.

I was considering asking my folks for the money to buy it. I was sure that if I could get my hands on one I could sound just like Thomas Dolby and Nick Rhodes. I was nowhere near those guys. I learned a VERY valuable lesson about music. It's not about the equipment, it's about the talent and the passion. I still feel lucky I learned that lesson for free instead of the kid who spent $50K to figure it out. I eventually sold the PPG Wave (big mistake) but enjoyed it while I had it and would love to have it back again. Now that I'm older and have more resources I plan to purchase a Series III someday. Even though I know my PC with sampling software can probably do more, I've always wanted a Fairlight and will have one soon. Of course, I still know I won't be Thomas Dolby, but I've learned to manage my expectations.   Posted:2004/06/10



Tatyana Ali and Herbie Hancock on Sesame Street by Kris Pfeiffer

I'm a drummer, which means I'm not necessarily a musician. What I am is a computer person, and for some reason since I was a kid I have always been fascinated with computers and music - especially when I saw the glow of that monitor in some Duran Duran video.

Anyhow, it's so cool that you've dedicated a lot of work to the Fairlight. I can only dream of ever touching one, but at least we get to read about it on your site.

Here's a Fairlight moment I remember...

I was in high school and flipping through the channels and came upon, of all shows, Sesame Street. There was Herbie Hancock with some little kids, and what was he showing them - a Series IIx?! I remember that he sampled the little girl speaking her name into the microphone - he applied filters, looping, etc., to the sample. What's weird is I remember that little girl's name - Tatyana Ali. Recently I embarrassingling found myself watching MTV and there she was - Tatyana Ali. I think the Fairlight was the key to her success. Video here.   Posted:2004/04/09



Starting out by Kevin Crossley

I was visiting my family in Sydney and had taken down a Prophet 5 and an Arp Quadra. I demonstrated them at a recording studio (I think it was Columbia) and the guys there suggested I check out the digital synth that a couple of guys were making around in Rushcutter's Bay. I called several times over the next few days but didn't get any answer. Then on a Friday a guy called Kim answered and invited me over to see the Fairlight. Incidentally, it was named after a hydrofoil ferry which ran across the harbour.

The Fairlight was at that time only about three octaves and after playing with it for several hours (and making Kim miss his chance to get to the bank before the weekend), I left telling him I would get in touch again after the weekend. On the next visit I remember telling him that if there was any way to make the Fairlight keyboard 63 notes like the Fender Rhodes it would be the only synth which would have a real piano type keyboard. He had said that it was a digital difficulty, 63 not being a number easily divided into by 8, but they would work on it and see what could be done. Subsequently, he called me in Los Angeles and told me that they had figured it out and the new keyboards were being made, and I would be really impressed with how they would look.

I had told Kim that I was working with Stevie Wonder among other musicians at the time and had a deal with Stevie that if I ever saw a keyboard which I thought he would like to go ahead and buy him one. I had previously built Stevie an RCC mobile phone in a Halliburton flight case and turned him on to the Helpinstill pick-ups and a Helpinstill Grand Piano, so I had a bit of a track record for turning up stuff for him. As his piano tech I had also figured out how to bend the hammers on a Clavinet so that if he put extra pressure on the right side of the Clav key it would cause the hammer to slide off the stop and bend the note.

Anyhow, before I left Sydney I ordered three Fairlight CMIs. Two for him and one for myself. The price in US dollars was to have been $25,000 each. and they were to have been delivered in about two months.

Arriving back in LA I told Stevie who was very excited because Roger Nicholls, who had designed and built the computer which supplied the bird sounds for "The Secret Life of Plants" tour, was having trouble with the portability of his setup. Stevie was very anxious to use the Fairlight on tour. Calling Kim back in Sydney he told me that he had sent the prototype to Bruce Jackson, an old friend of his from Cranbrook School (a prep school in Double Bay). He told me to get in touch with Bruce, who was working with Claire Brothers in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and try to arrange for him to bring the instrument out to the West Coast.

Well, Bruce arrived after I prodded him about Stevie wanting to use the thing on tour. Bruce was flying himself in his own Mooney 201. I was also a pilot and was quite envious that here was this young guy flying a Fairlight around the country. (Several months later I was to be doing exactly that too, in a Mooney 321!) Bruce arrived, Stevie was ecstatic and the two of them left on the road, Bruce programming and so on. When they returned, Bruce had to return to Lititz as he had just finished designing a fold-up mixing console for Claire Bros, and he was also mixing for Bruce Springsteen at the time and they were due to go back out on tour.

I had a GMC motorhome and, having taken out the dinette, there was room for me to install a five layer rack for the Fairlight and a few other synths and a prototype amplifier and mixer from Fender in behind the passenger seat. I had shown Herbie Hancock a photo of the Fairlight on returning from Oz and he wanted to see it. He invited me to his house where he had also asked Geordie Hormel from the Village Recorder and Jeff Harris, his chief engineer, to come see this new gadget and tell him whether or not it was for real. At that meeting Geordie told me he would buy 100 of the instruments and I became an employee and to all intents and purposes Fairlight USA was born. It was actually called International Sound Inc. (Check the credits for "Digital Dream", the first totally digital sound track for a motion picture.)

I was present when the first and last conversations took place between Kim and Geordie both at the start of their association, and at the end in about 1988. Notwithstanding, I still remain on very friendly terms with both of them.

In the ensuing couple of years I personally went to the airport and picked up each shipment of Fairlights, usually two at a time, and lugged them up the staircase at 1616 Butler Avenue into Studio "C" now occupied by Robbie Robertson. I put them together and made them work. Sometime between the middle of 1980 and the end of 1981 I had delivered about 36 instruments to various people and had grown tired of lugging the damned things up three flights of stairs.

I went down to the Bahamas to program for Keith Emerson while he was scoring NightHawks. I remained quite close to the Fairlight gang which by then included Will Alexander from Oberheim, who subsequently became Keith's right hand man. I had some memorable times with Alby Galuten and Robin and Barry Gibb in North Miami Beach with their Fairlight. Bopping over to Cable Beach to hang out with Keith and his family and going fishing. I also spent some time at North Texas State in Denton and then at Oberlin.

I sold a Fairlight once to a wealthy women who was only interested in buying it if I could draw an apple on the screen and then play it. For $36,000 I figured out how to do that!   Posted:2000/10/09



Ride out on the highway by Simon Peters

As an 18 or 19 year old boy, I was riding my underpowered and undersized Suzuki 250 motorbike around Australia. I may as well have been pedaling, as my journey was slow, but - my! - the people I met! I had put together a cassette of compositions of my own utilizing all the keyboard technology I could get my hands on, and of course it was synth-based.

After 8 months of traveling, my tired motorbike and tired body went toward Sydney. The mission, was to track down the source of that unmistakable robot, and that ubiquitous sound that was entrancing the dance floor. Orch hit, slap bass, and saarrah were calling...

Find it I did. By accident, hanging around King X, a suburban wasteland for lost souls and vagrants, I happened upon a more exclusive suburb "Rushcutters Bay". Traveling down a street called Boundary Road, I noticed a building like no other. It was bagwan rashneesh orange, and stuck out like dog's balls. So I parked my motorbike out the front (rabbit traps tied to my pannier bags), and inquired within.

It was none other than Kim Ryrie who greeted me. I was smelly, hadn't washed for a week, and looked like crap. Upon explaining my reason for being there, he offered me a house with fresh linen and a bed. He was most impressed with my music compositions. If I wasn't peddling my music and other abilities, who knows where I would have ended up (in some gutter somewhere with a needle in my arm, dead). Thanks Kim.

My job at Fairlight was to develop sounds for the sound library using Page 4. You may have noticed that there aren't many. After 4 months and offering Fairlight nothing (0), it was my turn to leave!   Posted:2000/10/04



Testing, testing by Neale Morison
When I was there the company was called Fairlight Instruments. Fairlight ESP is the new company formed after Fairlight Instruments succumbed to cash flow problems at the end of the 1980s. 
I tested and debugged circuit boards at first. I never did work out exactly how that little circuit at the digital/analogue end of the channel card worked. We cycled all the cards from 0 degrees centigrade to 70 degrees centigrade a few times, running them all the time, to see if we could break them. We used to keep the rack of live test cards inside a dry fish tank and attack them with carbon dioxide cylinders and heat guns, but then a soft-spoken Austrian called Eddie put together a rig out of a trolley and a reverse cycle air conditioner. You just turned a switch to change the temperature, and no trundling gas cylinders around. 
This treatment killed a lot of cards, but the ones that made it through the testing are probably still going. 
Eddie's other scheme was to keep the test room comfortably warm in winter with microwave elements, but I talked him out of it. Once I watched him fix the transmission on his car by cutting a hole in the transmission hump so he could reach through the floor and change gears manually. He had to duck down below the windscreen to do it, but only for a second or two. 
Eddie had amazing hands -- he could realign a floppy disk drive head that was giving trouble, and reuse tiny cable ties by flipping the catch. He wanted to move from the test room to R&D, but his methods were a little unorthodox even for Fairlight. When he'd solved a major problem with a machine that needed to be shipped, and you asked him to give details of the solution, he'd say "It vass a couple of vires in ze beck." 
After the test room I wrote the manual for the Series III, and did a little programming on the Series III interface software. We were working largely in a macro assembler with 16K of common memory. The rest had to be paged in and out. Nevertheless the software team put together a graphical user interface, complete with animation, and even managed a little windowing. 
The guy who created Page R was a Fairlight user, an American living in Sydney, who knew what he wanted, taught himself 6800 assembler, and built it. Then he started working for Fairlight. Like many of us he plunged forever into the maelstrom of computer programming, never to re-emerge into the sane world. 
A lot of people joined Fairlight that way. Someone in the UK built a Fairlight emulator on the Amiga or the Commodore -- I forget which -- for a kind of joke, and was promptly hired and brought over to Sydney. He was the one who programmed the Fourier transforms for the Series III. They didn't go fast enough so he rewrote his own floating point emulation in integer arithmetic and they flew. He ended up with a realtime wave display working in this tiny amount of memory. 
Another guy was a music producer/engineer working with Syco in the UK and he started working on a sequencer package, and ended up in Sydney working for Fairlight, building the Series III CAPS sequencer. 
I blew in off the street myself. I finished a jazz arranging diploma at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and I was hoping for a job close to a Fairlight CMI so I could program my arrangements. 
I've often felt that there should have been a special government arts fund to keep Fairlight afloat. The whole place was techno performance art. Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel simply wanted to make a great machine and surround themselves with other people who wanted to make great machines. They had an amazing critical mass there, and extraordinary things were coming out of it. Dispersing them put an end to a story with a great many chapters still to be told.   Posted:1998/05/21


"Firelighter"...more than just a nickname by Peter Williams
Sometime in the mid eighties I was working on an advert soundtrack with Irish folk-rock outfit Clannad at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, Ireland. 
Everything was going fine, vocal AAHs being sampled etc, when Kevin Malony (producer/engineer) turned round to me from the desk and said -- in the most laid back sort of way -- "Pete, your Fairlight is on fire..." 
Now, given that I was sitting working on the system at the time I took this as a compliment on my "hot" programming, and kept on working... 
A few minutes later Kevin looked around again and said -- still casual -- "Pete, I mean it, your Fairlight is on fire...!" 
Taking some notice at last, I peered over the top of the keyboard (the system was sitting in one of those horrible keyboard/system stands that Fairlight supplied) to check. Smoke was pouring out of the back of the system unit. 
Diving for the mains switch and unceremoniously yanking all connections from the system stopped the problem getting worse, but did not explain it. One of the output line drivers, it later emerged, had been fried due to a rather high voltage having somehow being wired up to the SSL patchbay... 
But that was not the end of it. 
A few weeks later someone who was present at the session was talking on TV about recording etc, and described the experience thus: "...we had great fun working with the Firelighter..." 
The name held for years.   Posted:1998/05/07


The Fairlight story, as seen by me by Rob Judd
In 1971 I went to the Sydney Musician's Union to see a demonstration of the newly-released Moog synthesizer. A Moog employee had flown in specially to address the musicians present of the exciting new product, and went through it fairly thoroughly. 
I ended up seated next to a guy about my age (I was 18 at the time) who was also into electronics, and, after the usual chatter about stuff we had built and so on, he asked whether I had any qualifications. At the time I didn't, having only recently left home in Melbourne and gone to discover what life was like in the "Big Smoke". He seemed disappointed, as he was considering starting a magazine. That young man was Kim Ryrie. He watched the demo with some fascination, then said "We could do better than that", which at the time I didn't understand the full ramifications of. 
Kim Ryrie is the son of Colin Ryrie, head of the Modern Magazines Holdings group, and he went off and started up Electronics Today magazine, which, within a very short time, described the world's first "build-it-yourself" analogue synth kit, running for over six months as a project. One module was described per month, and at the end you had a working analogue synth with a patchboard and dual VCO's and all sorts of goodies. 
It dawned on me one day that this was the same guy I had been sitting with. I sobbed at the missed opportunity to work with such a group, although I went on to gain my certificate and worked with some of the best audio and computer companies around, including Allen Wright Electronics and Wang Computer. But I digress. 
When he had done analogue and had already proven that he could beat the Moog, he set his mind to doing something entirely different. I saw Kim next at a computer show in about 1975 or 1976, demonstrating the Fairlight Series I prototype. He had a hell of a crowd, as no-one had seen anything before in which you could record your voice and then instantly play it back on a keyboard in any pitch -- a totally new idea. The legend goes that it had been tried elsewhere and deemed impossible by some of the best minds in electronics, but since the Aussies didn't know it was impossible they just went ahead and did it anyhow. The lightpen interface was also so new as to even startle older computer engineers. 
They had taken a locally-designed office computer, the Quasar (I have no idea who designed that -- Peter Vogel? Someone else?), and used its extensive expansion capabilities to add eight individual digital channel replay cards, which were sent to a rudimentary op-amp mixer (for 'phones monitoring) and then out to eight individual channels at the rear. This involved replacing the rear panel and adding some cards inside the rear, as well as a few others in the cardcage slots -- lightpen/video, AtoD and so on. 
Then, they had to hack Motorola's proprietary dual-6800 operating system to include hooks for the extra hardware and write the sequencer, using some of the most obscure and unsupported hardware and software tools available. If you ever reverse-engineer the channel card and take a look at the circuit, you will be amazed. Note: This was never made publicly available, even in the service manuals. For obvious reasons, it is not available from me. Don't even ask. 
This is not what I'd call a feat of small magnitude, even by today's standards. There were some very bright little propellor-heads at work for a long time to make this thing a reality, and my only criticism of the Series I and Series II machines is that sounds could not be dynamically allocated among voice cards. Considering the achievement, that's a trivial criticism. 
As a computer, the Quasar was also brilliant. If they had written a multitasking BASIC interpreter for the thing, with file- and record-locking done properly, they would have killed the Wang DP2200 series, whose processor comprised an ALU, some registers, and a whole board full of glue chips. They were of similar physical size, and even used the same SASI 8" floppies. As it was, the research all went into the music area, although the computer still was sold in small quantities -- the problem being a total lack of any high-level languages or off-the-shelf software, and even less interest from potential software developers. This Qasar heritage is still seen in the Fairlight in the PCB's whose part numbers start with a Q. 
Electronics Today went international, became ETI and eventually saw its demise in the 1980s, although the name is still used by an English publisher and former associate. However, that was Kim's magazine, published in Great Ryrie Street, Rushcutter's Bay, Australia.   Posted:1998/04/25


The First Power On...er...Off! by Greg Holmes
I was just starting my second year of a music course in college when the Fairlight came along. The year was 1983. 
My dad was involved in the supervision of the 3D technology and theatre design for a special 70mm movie which was to play the opening run at a new science centre in Sudbury, Ontario. The camera system involved two Panavision 65/70mm film cameras mounted at right-angles to each other, one shooting through a half silvered mirror. This allowed the bulky cameras to be effectively eye-width apart, a distance which was adjustable for different intensities of the 3D effect. The camera rig was hauled up and down mountains and floated on river rafts, and generally kept busy. 
The film was shot in color and used polarizing filters on the projectors, with matching polarized glasses for the audience. Not those funny red and green glasses you may have seen in "B" grade monster movies! 
It was a nature film, with underwater scenes, majestic waterfalls, and magnificent views of rocks and cliffs. This subject matter was specifically designed for the new theatre space, which was blasted out of the rock of the Canadian Shield in Sudbury, a place reknowned for its mining. 
The visitors would enter a kind of rocky grotto, with sounds of water dripping and other "underground" noises. Then, as the lights dimmed, the movie screen would come down from overhead, much like an oversized garage door, and the film would start. 
My dad saw an opportunity here and proposed to the producer that we could create sound effects and music using another high-tech piece of hardware, the Fairlight Series II. The producer agreed, so we ordered our Fairlight. 
At that time, it cost about US$30,000 and it arrived on the 12th of December of 1983. It came from Australia by way of Los Angeles, where they put the floppy drives in it and called it "American Made". We always felt that we could have saved money if it had been delivered directly to Canada from Australia, because both countries are part of the British Commonwealth, and would have had preferential trade agreements. 
In any case, we were very excited to pick up the Fairlight from the customs broker at the airport and set it up. We also had one of the Sony 2" 16-track tape recorders that would later be used as a multi-track playback unit synchronized to the two interlocked 70mm projectors at the theatre, and a large JVC television to act as our "movie screen". 
Once the various audio cables were connected and the power cord plugged in, we turned the key on the back of the Fairlight to start it up. 
The silence was deafening. 
We didn't know what to expect, but we certainly didn't expect nothing. There was no hum of electricity, no whir of cooling fans. Nada. Zip. Zilch. 
Once we started thinking clearly, we started checking cables. Then we checked the fuses on the back of the unit. Then cables. Then fuses again. Still nothing. Eventually we got up the nerve to look inside the beast. 
When we removed the top panel, we saw a big fuse, as big as your finger, behind the motherboard. This thing wasn't mentioned in any of the documentation, but it looked like some kind of 15-amp appliance fuse, like the kind that you'd find in an electrical panel protecting a washer or dryer. 
It was blown, so we replaced it with...a 15-amp appliance fuse, like the kind that you'd find in an electrical panel protecting a washer or dryer! 
We don't know why the original fuse blew, but the replacement has been in the Fairlight, working just fine, since 1983.   Posted:1998/04/01


Note  If you have a Fairlight-related story to tell, please contact Greg at gregh@ghservices.com.


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