fairlight

RITA STREET narrates a true story of revelation, resource, and random access.

Warning: Although the following story may sound like a 25-year history of the legendary Fairlight Company, it is really a Grimm's fairy tale in disguise.

So, if some nasty twists and turns make you squeamish, I strongly suggest you move on to the next feature. If, however, you enjoy a business story that involves evolution on the Darwinian scale, good old human passion, the rise and fall and then rise again of an unusual set of heroes and their ground-breaking tools, then read on.

Like all enchanted tales, this one begins late one night on a continent far, far away. It is set in the home of a young, self-proclaimed electronics geek in the land of Australia. Like most nerds, our hero is burning the midnight oil, tinkering and fiddling, attempting the impossible — to develop a philosopher's stone for waveform manipulation; a pure real-time digital synthesizer capable of producing an acoustic instrumental sound without an acoustic instrument.

The year is 1976 and the young man, Peter Vogel, is an expert in the field of electronics design. "In those days," says Vogel, "the term 'geek' had not been invented, but I surely was one. I was building computers at age ten, when PCs were not yet available and transistors were quite expensive. So I used valves salvaged from radios. I think I qualify for some sort of proto-geek award for making a computer using valves."

On that particular night, however, Vogel was stumped. Things weren't going well for the basement-operated venture that he and partner Kim Ryrie had been working on for the past year. They had come up with a great name for the company - a water nymph diminutive based on a Sydney harbour hydrofoil called Fairlight — but as for turning 1s and 0s into digital violins, they might as well have been trying to turn tin into gold.

Vogel was particularly upset, as their first product, based on a licensed dual-microprocessor design from Motorola consultant Tony Furse, was definitely a changeling. Even though the QASAR M8 included radically new tools, like a graphics interface and a lightpen for manipulating soundwaves - in effect, the tools to actually see sound - it was unwieldy in size and use, unable to analyze the entire breadth of a waveform due to memory constraints and, well, wasn't particularly nice to look at or listen to.

Still, geniuses will be geniuses, and suddenly the proverbial lightbulb did flash. Here, in his own words, Vogel tells the tale of the moment that changed music forever. "Tony was right up on the leading edge of microprocessor technology and had achieved miracles with a pair of 1MHz processors. His QASAR synthesizer was based on FFT synthesis. He had planned to allow sampling as well, although at that time 4k memories were a big deal so the prospect of megabyte samples was not realistic. But along the way, we decided to sample sounds so that we could Fourier analyze them [to decompose a waveform into similar parts], to help figure out what makes interesting sounds.

"On a whim I decided to see what would happen if I changed the software to allow the sampled sound to be replayed at a pitch determined by the keyboard. The sampling time was less than a second and the first source connected to the ADC was a radio I had going with some music playing. I captured a fragment of a piano note and when I played it back on the keyboard I was surprised how good it sounded, especially polyphonically. "I phoned Michael Carlos, a musician who had been working with us — he hadn't been to bed yet either — and he came over and couldn't believe what he heard." And the rest is history.

History came in the form of the Computer Musical Instrument or CMI, Fairlight's evolutionary product that was released upon the unsuspecting music industry in 1979. In a move that, at the time was either extraordinarily naive or extraordinarily wise, Vogel took the CMI to the UK and began a series of in-house demonstrations that turned the industry on its ear. Vogel soon landed himself on the doorstep of Peter Gabriel's Ashcombe House, where he demonstrated his discovery. Gabriel knew he was hearing the future that day, and the CMI earned its first pop music champion.

Says Vogel, "Because I was spending all my time being a geek, I had no idea about the musical world. I had heard of Beethoven and the Beatles but that was about it. Next thing I know I'm in London and Los Angeles with the CMI, being introduced to all these pop stars who I didn't know from a bar of soap. So I kept my mouth shut and assumed anyone was potentially a famous musician.

"Everyone I showed the CMI to was blown away - remember that until then it had never been possible to play anything but electronic sounds on a keyboard, Moog and Mellotron was state of the art. So it was amazing to play a keyboard and hear a piano or a saxophone.

“Still most musicians had no idea what they would do with the CMI. Most thought of it as a novelty, not an instrument. Also, the cost was prohibitive. It wasn't until the more visionary musicians like Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel started using it that others realised the CMI's potential.'

Gabriel not only purchased a CMI, but along with his relative Stephen Paine, he agreed to form a UK distribution firm for the product, called Syco Systems. By September of 1982, Gabriel's Shock The Monkey, became the first hit song to include sounds produced with the CMI. Soon major stars like Kate Bush, Herbie Hancock, Alan Parsons, and Todd Rundgren were devout CMI users. As Karl Seglins (title tk) of Fairlight USA points out, "By the mid-80s, everybody had a CMI."

Even though the original instrument, and its successive series evolutions, were wildly expensive - their use soon filtered down to the entire music community. The Series II cost $30,000 and a Series III would have been over $100,000. Today, the 'vintage' CMIs are selling for about 1/10th of their original price. Explains early user and continuing CMI enthusiast Greg Holmes (for fascinating CMI anecdotes see www.ghservices.com/gregh/fairlight/), "You didn't have to be an artist to use the CMI. In the same sense that there is only one Leonardo da Vinci and a whole bunch of clones; while Gabriel was unquestionably creative, the CMI allowed other [producer-types] to quickly knock off dance songs."

The instrument's flexibility and ease-of-use, combined with the fact that it was a truly new tool, created reverberations throughout the market. Suddenly a community of digital artists was born — artists and engineers with, as Holmes describes it, "big ears, grabbing microphones in the tradition of musique concrete to record anything from a sneeze to a dog bark, that could then be used as a snare drum or a melodic instrument."

Everyone was trading, swapping, and evolving digitally created waveforms. It was, as Holmes explains: "a renaissance." However, as with all fairy tales, there came along an evil and jealous step mother. The Fairlight success produced an angry uprising from the traditional music world. Acoustic musicians worried about the future. "When I was in college," remembers Holmes, "there was a backlash against Fairlight. One of my teachers was head of the musician's union and knew I was using a Fairlight. Maybe I'm making things up, but more than once, it seemed like he gave me a dirty look as I walked down the hall, as if it was me specifically putting him and his fellows out of business."

By 1985 the Fairlight sound was such a staple of the standard pop song that the liner notes of the Phil Collins release No Jacket Required actually stated that the contents were produced without the aid of a CMI. Yet more detrimental to the future of Fairlight than the overuse of its product by enthusiastic users was the sudden arrival of affordable equipment from the camps of Fairlight's competition. “The CMI was often employed by impresario producers who were not musicians," says Holmes. "The next wave of samplers were cheap enough so that many artists could afford them, which meant that the artists could wrest control away from the producers and their hired guns (me and my CMI).'

Even though the CMI and the Series II were known throughout the industry as extremely well-made products, (it was said of Fairlight's quality control that any circuit board that survived would run virtually forever. Fairlight has many reports of original CMIs still in use after 25 years in operation.) with extremely user-friendly interfaces, such as Page R (Holmes explains this graphics tool as a display that describes the rhythms of notes for a single bar), price point competition from Akai and Atari drove the company to bankruptcy by 1988.

But like all great heroes, Vogel and Ryrie were not to be defeated by a little thing like total desolation. Interested in post production, specifically sound-to-picture, the team personally invested in R&D, concentrating on a plug-in to the CMI for sound design called Music and Effects or MFX. Their work attracted the attention of investors from Aussie-based Amber Technology and by 1989 a new company, Fairlight Sound and Picture, was formed. Released the same year, the new product featured eight tracks of simultaneous playback, with short bursts of capability in the 16-track realm.

By the mid-90s the MFX3 was a fully evolved post-production solution with an installed base that was increasing by 50 percent a year. Although Vogel moved on to other ventures (he has just completed development of a new product and is seeking financing through his company Right Hemisphere), Ryrie remained. Alongside Amber's David Hannay, he continued the company's commitment to quality and innovation. In less than five years, the manufacturer introduced an entire family of products aimed at serving the diverse needs of the "total post production facility."

Says Seglins, "We've always been dedicated to providing, as near as possible, real-time up-dates as a graphics component to our hardware/software systems. If you're a creative person, the point at which you think, 'this is what I'm going to do', is the point when you want the machine to reproduce that notion. Just like a painter picking up a brush, the artist doesn't want to wait for a result. The search for instantaneous feedback is our underscoring philosophy. That, and broadening our reach from a one-product company to one that services the needs of the entire audio community."

In addition to the MFX3Plus DAW, Fairlight offers the audio mixer editor known as Fame2, the non-linear digital video system designed as a companion product to the MFX3 and Fame2 called the ViVid, the integrated recorder/editor/mixer dubbed Prodigy,the disk-based multitrack recorder called Merlin, and the playback solution known as DaDPlus. To connect Fairlight products throughout a facility or with other topologies, Fairlight also offers MediaLink, their real-time fast audio networking solution.

"Plus we're very cognisant of the Internet as an influence on our customers," says Seglins. "Fairlight On Air, our division devoted to the professional radio broadcast market is emerging as an automation solution for Internet broadcast." Purchased from a Dutch concern late last year, Fairlight On Air is already offering systems for capture, management, and distribution of radio product.

Still, the company's flagship remains the MFX. Like its CMI forebear, the MFX is known for the kind of stability that enables artistic experimentation and musicality essential to the Hollywood market. Paul Huntsman, Supervising Sound Editor for New Line's recent release, The Cell, explains: "I'm not a techno-guy. I pride myself in that because I don't believe movies are about digital bits; they're about stories. The Fairlight has an elegant user control surface that mimics the way editors work with film - from a dialogue point of view and an auto assembly point of view. It also records 24 wide on one hard drive, which minimises file management issues and failure rates. Since sound editing is like throwing paint on a canvas — you try to build up what works in order to support the drama — you need a capable machine like the Fairlight to support your creativity."

"For The Cell, much of the effects work was created to resemble music. To maintain the budget; to avoid another day of the composer coming up with electronically-based music, we were asked as sound effects editors to create low-level beds of atmospheric musical treatments. For instance, there is a moment in the movie when a character is cranking a music box and singing a little nursery tune. As the crank turns we easily replaced 'mares eat oats and does eat oats' with the sound of a piano-like Central African calimba."

As John Faranis, President of Burbank, California-based Sound Storm attests, the MFX also helps artists work in a highly-efficient manner. Re-mixing the upcoming DVD re-release of Superman, Farnais' team proved how the Fairlight adds to seamless workflow. "We had a Fairlight hooked up to the stage so we could do everything at once... hear playback to make decisions, record and immediately cut and remix. And, when other elements were added, we were never slowed up — especially elements that we discovered, like missing quarter-inch coming in from London. We'd have that transferred on the Fairlight before we were even done with the reel. That sort of thing used to take days."

It is this global approach to solving the needs of its clientele that continues to set Fairlight apart — not only as an R&D solutions provider but now, as a worldwide service network. In an effort to think globally yet act locally, Fairlight ESP has made two important investments. It has moved its headquarters to Hollywood and added financial backing to its already strong service orientated philosophy.

Seglin: "The great thing about our move is that it makes good time-zone sense. We can actually reach all of our clients and offices around the world in one very long day. Plus we're right at the heart of our largest installed base." Seglin adds that the Fairlight operating philosophy is now geared around three major missions: affordable products with clearly-defined features; an upgradable hardware and software foundation for future client growth; and the best professional service and support possible.

When asked how a company can do all this at once, Seglin says it all comes down to dollars and sense... and hiring people with attitudes who reflect the passion of the early years of Vogel and Ryrie. "It's definitely expensive to build this sort of infrastructure, but part of the solution lies in our people. If somebody calls our office, even the sales manager can walk them through a problem." Fairlight personnel are, to put it mildly, a tad obsessive.

Take Andrew Bell for example, director of product development in the Sydney office. He is so personally involved in the future of the company and the success of its products that he takes even the most unexpected minutia to his artistic heart. "The Merlin console," he says, "started as a layout of buttons with certain functions in mind, then took a sharp turn when we started thinking about the nature of the buttons. We wanted keys that are illuminated from behind, so that the switch labelling and its ON/OFF status are combined through different levels of illumination, and the labelling is right on the key, which avoids parallax problems for the user. We came up with the idea of back-lit silicon keys with the content reversed out to provide coloured letters, and then extended that concept to provide two functions per button with different coloured illumination for each function. Of course, we were also aware that the overall effect of many backlit keys would be very pretty, and we deliberately chose blue as one of the main LED colours, despite its higher cost, because it's got a very strong hi-tech flavour. It also fits with our tradition of having blue as the colour for 'shifted' keys in our MFX and FAME range of consoles."

For the AES, Fairlight continued its commitment to growing their product line in both a user-friendly and artistic fashion with the new Prodigy 2, upgrades to the MFX3plus, Pro Tools File Exchange enhancements and - something users have been screaming for - a Vivid upgrade for compatibility with MFX3plus, Prodigy, and FAME.

Twenty-five years after Peter Vogel first did the impossible, Fairlight is still growing strong. Not only has the company survived, it has continued to evolve, creating products that fit the needs of an ever-widening user base. Fairlight has, in a very real sense, found appeal with anyone who has the rather magical need to both hear and see sound.


© 2000 IMAS Publishing UK Ltd. All rights reserved.