Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight CMI (short for Computer Musical Instrument) is a digital synthesizer, sampler and digital audio workstation introduced in 1979 by Fairlight.[4][5][6] It was based on a commercial licence of the Qasar M8 developed by Tony Furse of Creative Strategies in Sydney, Australia. It was one of the earliest music workstations with an embedded digital sampler, and is credited for coining the term sampling in music. It rose to prominence in the early 1980s and competed with the Synclavier from New England Digital.

Fairlight CMI
Fairlight CMI Series II
exhibited at NAMM Show in 2011[1]
Dates1979–89, 2011–present
PriceGB£ 18,000 ~ 60,000[2]
Technical specifications
Polyphony8 ~ 16 voices
LFOfor vibrato[3]
Synthesis typeAdditive synthesis
Sampling (8bit@16kHz

Waveform editing/drawing
Additive resynthesis (FFT)
Filterlow-pass for anti-aliasing[3]
Keyboard73 keys non-weighted, velocity sensitive.
Option: slave keyboard[3]
Left-hand control3 sliders & 2 buttons,
numeric keypad (right side)[3]
External controlComputer keyboard
Light pen
CV/Gate (option, CMI II~)


Origins: 1971–1979

In the 1970s, Kim Ryrie, then a teenager, had an idea to develop a build-it-yourself analogue synthesizer to be called the ETI 4600, for his family's magazine Electronics Today International (ETI). Ryrie was frustrated by the limited number of sounds that the analogue device could make.[7] After his classmate, Peter Vogel, graduated from high school and had a brief stint at university in 1975, Ryrie asked Vogel if he would be interested in making "the world's greatest synthesizer" based on the recently announced microprocessor. He recalled: "We had long been interested in computers - I built my first computer when I was about 12 - and it was obvious to me that combining digital technology with music synthesis was the way to go."[8]

In December that year, he and Vogel formed a house-based company to manufacture digital synthesizers.[7] They named it Fairlight after the hydrofoil ferry passing before Ryrie's grandmother's home in Sydney Harbour.[7] The two planned to design a digital synthesizer that could create sounds reminiscent of acoustic instruments (physical modelling synthesis).[7] They initially planned to make an analogue synth that was digitally controlled, given that the competing Moog analog synthesizer was difficult to control.[9]

After six months, the pair met Motorola consultant Tony Furse.[7] In association with the Canberra School of Electronic Music,[7] Furse built a digital synthesizer using two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors, and the light pen and some of the graphics that would later become part of the Fairlight CMI.[7] However, the machine was only able to create exact harmonic partials, sounding sterile and inexpressive.[7]

Vogel and Ryrie licensed Furse's design, mainly for its processing power,[7] and decided to use microprocessor technology instead of analogue synthesis.[9] Over the next year, the duo made what Ryrie called a "research design", the bulky, expensive, and unmarketable eight-voice synthesizer QASAR M8, which included a two-by-two-by-four foot processing box and a keyboard.[7]

By 1978, Vogel and Ryrie were making "interesting" but unrealistic sounds. Hoping to learn how to synthesize an instrument by studying the harmonics of real instruments, Vogel recorded about a second of a piano piece from a radio broadcast. He discovered that by playing the recording back at different pitches, it sounded much more realistic than a synthesized piano. He recalled in 2005:

It sounded remarkably like a piano, a real piano. This had never been done before ... By today's standards it was a pretty awful piano sound, but at the time it was a million times more like a piano than anything any synthesizer had churned out. So I rapidly realised that we didn't have to bother with all the synthesis stuff. Just take the sounds, whack them in the memory and away you go.[9]

Vogel and Ryrie coined the term sampling to describe this process.[10] With the Fairlight CMI, they could now produce endless sounds, but control was limited to attack, sustain, decay and vibrato. According to Ryrie, "We regarded using recorded real-life sounds as a compromise - as cheating - and we didn't feel particularly proud of it."[7] They continued to work on the design while making money by creating office computers for Remington Office Machines, which Ryrie described as "a horrendous exercise, but we sold 120 of them".[7]

Series I: 1979–1982

In addition to the keyboard, processing, computer graphics and interactive pen borrowed from Furse's synthesizer,[7] the pair added a QWERTY keyboard, and a large one-by-1.5-by-three foot box stored the sampling, processing and ADC/DAC hardware and the 8 inch floppy diskette.[7] By now, the biggest problem was the short sample length, which typically lasted from a half of to an entire second; it could only handle a sample rate of 24 kilohertz and a frequency response of ten kilohertz at most, so a sample rate had to be as low as eight kilohertz and a bandwidth of 3,500 hertz for longer sounds to be used.[7] However, Vogel felt the low quality of the sounds was what gave them their own character.[11]

The Music Composition Language feature was criticized as being too difficult for empirical users.[7] Other primitive aspects included its limited amount of RAM (208 kilobytes) and its green and black graphics.[7] Nonetheless, the CMI garnered significant attention from Australian distributors and consumers for being able to emulate sounds of acoustic instruments, as well as for its light pen and three-dimensional sound visualization. Still, Vogel was unsure if there would be enough interest in the product.[7] The CMI's ability to emulate real instruments made some refer to it as an "orchestra-in-a-box", and each unit came with eight-inch, 500-kilobyte floppy disks that each stored twenty-two samples of orchestral instruments.[7] The Fairlight CMI also garnered publicity in the science industry, being featured on the BBC science and technology series Tomorrow's World; given that futuristic theories of poor-sounding digital orchestras were also being made, Musicians' Union railed against the CMI who called it a "lethal threat" towards its members.[7]

In the summer of 1979, Vogel went to the home of English singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel, where his third solo studio album was being recorded, to show him the Fairlight CMI.[7] Gabriel, as well as many other people in the studio, was instantly engrossed by it,[7] and he used strange sounds such as breaking glass bottles and bricks on the album.[7] One of those present for the demonstration, Stephen Paine, recalled in 1996: "The idea of recording a sound into solid-state memory and having real-time pitch control over it appeared incredibly exciting. Until that time everything that captured sound had been tape-based. The Fairlight CMI was like a much more reliable and versatile digital Mellotron. Gabriel was completely thrilled, and instantly put the machine to use during the week that Peter Vogel stayed at his house."[7]

Gabriel was also interested in selling the CMI in the United Kingdom, and he and Paine formed Syco Systems to distribute the product in the country at a price of £12,000.[7] The first person to purchase the CMI in Britain was Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Other well-known figures from the British music industry followed, including Boz Burrell, Kate Bush, Geoff Downes, Trevor Horn, Alan Parsons, Rick Wright and Thomas Dolby.[7] The Fairlight CMI was a commercial success in the United States as well, used by American acts such as Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Todd Rundgren and Joni Mitchell.[7] However, musicians came to realize that the CMI could not match the expressiveness and level of control offered by acoustic instruments, and that sampling was better applied as imaginative sound than pure reproduction.[7][12]

Series II: 1982–1985

The second version of the Fairlight CMI, Series II, was released at a price of £30,000 in 1982.[7] Although it still used 8-bit recordings like the Series I, the sounds produced were of better quality given that the system could handle a sample rate as high as 32 kilohertz and a maximum frequency response of fifteen kilohertz.[7] The CMI's popularity peaked in 1982 following its appearance on a special of the arts magazine series The South Bank Show that documented the making of Gabriel's fourth self-titled studio album, where he used 64 kilobytes worth of samples of world music instruments and sequenced skippy-rhythm'd percussion.[13]

Fairlight CMI Series II was used on nearly every album released in the early to mid-1980s,[7] and its most commonly used presets included an orchestra stab ("ORCH 5") and a breathy vox ("ARR 1").[13] The CMI Series II is also credited as helping launch popular musical styles such as hip hop, big beat, techno and drum and bass.[11]

The popularity of Series II was in large part due to a new feature, Page R, their first true music sequencer.[7] As a replacement for the complicated Music Composition Language (MCL) used by Series I, Page R helped the Fairlight CMI Series II become a commercial juggernaut. Page R expanded the CMI's audience beyond that of accomplished keyboard players.[7] Audio Media magazine described it as an echo of the punk rock era: "Page R also gave rise to a flow of quasi-socialist sounding ideology, that hailed the impending democratisation of music creation, making it available to the musically chops-challenged."[7] Graphically depicting editable notes horizontally from left to right, the music programming profession and the concepts of quantization and cycling patterns of bars where instrument channels could be added or removed were also born out of the Page R sequencer.[7] CMI user Roger Bolton recalled: "By definition, its sampling limitations and the Page R sequencer forced the composer to make high-quality decisions out of necessity. The CMI II was a high-level composition tool that not only shaped the sound of the 80s, but the way that music was actually written."[14] Fairlight kept making updates to the system, such as a 1983 upgrade called the CMI Series IIx which now allowed for MIDI, until the release of Series III in 1985.[7]

Series III: 1985–1989

With 14 megabytes of RAM, which equates to about a three-minute long stereo sample, the Series III was the first sampler capable of creating sounds with 16-bit, 44.1 kilohertz sample files, as well as 16-voice polyphonic patches.[7] Its design, graphics, and editing tools were also improved, such as the addition of a tablet next to the QWERTY keys, using a stylus instead of the on-screen lightpen;[7] this change was made due to complaints from users regarding arm aches from having to hold the pen on the screen.[14]

An enhanced version of the Page R sequencer called Composer, Arranger, Performer, Sequencer, or CAPS, as well as Eventsync, a post-production utility based on SMPTE timecode linking, were also added to the Series III computer.[7] However, while many people were still using CMIs, sales were starting to diminish significantly due to much lower-cost, MIDI-based sequencers and samplers including the Atari ST and Akai's S612, S900 and 1000 samplers in the market.[7] Paine stopped selling the CMI in the United Kingdom because of this.[7] The Fairlight company was becoming more focused on post-production products, a market Paine had a hard time getting used to, and when HHB Communications Ltd took over distribution for the United Kingdom, they failed to sell any.[7]


Peter Gabriel was the first owner of a Fairlight Series I in the UK. Boz Burrell of Bad Company purchased the second, which Hans Zimmer hired for many recordings during the early part of his career.[15] In the US, Bruce Jackson demonstrated the Series I sampler for a year before selling units to Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder in 1980 for US $27,500 each.[16] Meat-packing heir Geordie Hormel bought two for use at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles.[16] Other early adopters included Todd Rundgren, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, producer Rhett Lawrence and Ned Liben of Ebn Ozn.[17]

The first commercially released album to incorporate it was Kate Bush's Never for Ever (1980), programmed by Richard James Burgess and John L. Walters.

Wonder took his Fairlight out on tour in 1980 in support of the album Stevie Wonder's Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants" to replace the Computer Music Melodian sampler he had used on the recording.[16] Geoff Downes of Yes conspicuously used a CMI with monitor on the band's 1980 tour to support the album Drama. The first classical album using the CMI was produced by Folkways Records in 1980 with composers Barton McLean and Priscilla McLean.[18]

Peter Gabriel's 1982 album also featured the CMI. In 1981, Austrian musicians Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader composed a symphony, Erdenklang – Computerakustische Klangsinfonie.[19] This work premiered live on stage, using five music computers, during the Ars Electronica festival in Linz.[20]

Influence and legacy

After the success of the Fairlight CMI, other firms introduced sampling. New England Digital modified their Synclavier digital synth to perform sampling, while E-mu Systems introduced a less costly sampling keyboard, the Emulator, in 1981. In the United States, a new sampler company, Ensoniq, introduced the Ensoniq Mirage in 1985, at a price that made sampling affordable to the average musician for the first time. In America, Joan Gand of Gand Music and Sound in Northfield, Illinois was the top salesperson for Fairlight. The Gand organisation sold CMIs to Prince, James "J.Y." Young of Styx, John Lowry of Petra, Derek St. Holmes of the Ted Nugent band, Al Jourgensen of Ministry, and many private studio owners and rock personalities. Spokesperson Jan Hammer appeared at several Gand-sponsored Musictech pro audio events, to perform the "Miami Vice Theme", as well as Keith Emerson, Stanley Jordan, Allan Holdsworth, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Baxter, Terry Fryer, Pat Leonard (Michael Jackson), engineers Roger Nichols (Steely Dan), Bob Clearmountain (David Bowie), Al Schmidt (Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall) and Cubby Colby (Phil Collins).

The ubiquity of the Fairlight was such that Phil Collins stated on the sleeve notes of his 1985 album No Jacket Required that "there is no Fairlight on this record" to clarify that he had not used one to synthesize horn and string sounds.[21]

Coil considered the device unique and unsurpassed, describing using the Fairlight as "An aural equivalent of William [S.] Burroughs cut-ups".[22]

In 2015, the Fairlight CMI was inducted into the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia collection.[23]



  • Vail, Mark (2000). Keyboard Magazine Presents Vintage Synthesizers: Pioneering Designers, Groundbreaking Instruments, Collecting Tips, Mutants of Technology. Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0-87930-603-8.
  • Chapman, Jill (2012), Guide to the Qasar Tony Furse archive (PDF), Sydney, Australia: Powerhouse Museum, 96/382/2


  1. "Mix Announces Certified Hits of NAMM 2011". Mix (28 January 2011). Archived from the original on 10 August 2016. Retrieved 20 February 2011.
  2. Leete, Norm. "Fairlight Computer". Sound on Sound (April 1999). The original CMI started at about £18,000, going up to £27,000 for the Series II and finishing up at £60,000 for the Series III.
  3. Holmes, Greg (17 September 2010). "The Holmes Page: The Fairlight CMI". GH Services.
  4. VCO8 (7 October 2015), Peter Vogel demonstrates the Fairlight CMI 30A, retrieved 26 October 2017
  5. "Fairlight History". FairlightUS.com.
  6. "Peter Vogel history". anerd.com. — with links to some Fairlight history and photos
  7. "Fairlight – The Whole Story". Audio Media. January 1996.
  8. Vogel, Peter. "The Fairlight Story". Anerd. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  9. Hamer, Mick (26 March 2015). "Interview: Electronic maestros". New Scientist. Reed Business Information. Archived from the original on 8 July 2008. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  10. "The Lost Art Of Sampling: Part 1". Sound on Sound. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  11. Leo Brown, Simon (17 November 2015). "Fairlight CMI synthesiser, used by stars like Michael Jackson, added to Sounds of Australia registry". ABC Online. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  12. "Gabriel looks for live sound in the studio". Billboard (26 July 1986). 26 July 1986.
  13. Moran, Michael (29 April 2011). "Fairlight: The Rolls Royce of synthesizers". The Register. Situation Publishing. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  14. Willox, Mike (28 May 2014). "Studio Icons: Fairlight CMI Series". Music Tech. Anthem Publishing. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  15. Dawson, Giles (4 August 1983). "Machines alive with the sound of music". New Scientist: 333. Retrieved 19 July 2010.
  16. Stewart, Andy. "Name Behind the Name: Bruce Jackson — Apogee, Jands, Lake Technology". Audio Technology (40).
  17. "Fairlight – The Whole Story". Audio Media Magazine (January 1996).
  18. Olmsted, Tony (2003). Folkways Records: Moses Asch and Folkways Records. New York, N.Y.: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-56098-812-0.
  19. "About us". Erdenklang Musikverlag. Archived from the original on 21 April 2008.
  20. Hubert Bognermayr; Harald Zuschrader. "Erdenklang - Computer-Acoustic Dance Theatre". Ars Electronica 1982. Ars Electronica (aec.at). Archived from the original on 28 January 2006. (see also other archive)
  21. "Phil Collins - No Jacket Required". Genesis News. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
  22. COIL - Part 1 - rare unedited May 2001 interview w/ John Balance & Peter Christopherson (video). YouTube.
  23. "2015 Registry additions". National Film and Sound Archive. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
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