Fairlight- The Whole Story
Reproduced from Audio Media magazine, January 1996Technological developments in the 20th Century have been tumultuous, dramatic, and increasingly fast-paced. They have also greatly affected the course of history. During this century, almost all aspects of human life have been radically transformed by technology, and sound reproduction and music are important examples. Two developments in these areas were crucial. The first was Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877, which introduced the notion of mechanical sound reproduction. After that Poulsen's micronograph, Berliner's gramophone, wire recording, vinyl 78s, 45s, and 33s, the tape recorder, compact cassette, and finally the CD, are all part of a development that made storage and mass production of sound increasingly cheap and simple. The second was that of musical instruments: the introduction of electric instruments in the '30s, and the electronic instruments of the '60s and '70s radically changed the nature of music itself.
The 1980's saw a third sonic revolution, namely digital audio, and it caused changes that were almost as radical as the two that went before. Yet when it was introduced, few people realised its momentous implications. Initially digital sound was regarded as little more than a high tech replacement for the analogue tape recorder. It took a while before it became clear that digital audio would turn every aspect of sound reproduction and music making upside down. At the cutting edge of this digital technology revolution was, and still is, the now legendary Australian company, Fairlight.
Fairlight pioneered the two innovations that transformed music making, namely sampling and sequencing. In the process, it was the first to apply computer technology in the world of sound to a serious degree, and it invented interfaces between man and microprocessor that influenced everything that came after it. Today, more than 20 years after the company was founded, Fairlight is still coming up with highly innovative digital products.
But I'm getting ahead of the story. First, back to the mid '70s, when two Australian men in their early 20s were trying to design a digital synthesiser. They were Peter Vogel, an electronics designer, and former school friend Kim Ryrie, a synthesiser enthusiast. Ryrie had founded a magazine called Electronics Today International, for which he had developed a build-it-yourself analogue synth, the ETI 4600. Frustrated with the limitations of analogue synthesisers, he suggested to Vogel that they start a company to develop digital synthesisers. In December 1975, they founded Fairlight to this end - named after the hydrofoil ferry that passed before Ryrie's grandmother's house on the waterfront of Sydney harbour. In the basement of the house, they struggled for six months to little avail, before stumbling upon Motorola consultant Tony Furse. The latter had, in association with the Canberra School of Electronic Music, developed his own digital synth, using two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors in a novel parallel configuration. Furse's instrument synthesised waveforms digitally but couldn't do harmonic partials, so the sounds that it produced were rather sterile.
Vogel and Ryrie were interested in the processing side of the machine and licensed the design of Furse's dual microprocessor-driven synth, which already featured the light pen and some of the graphics that would later become one of Fairlight's trademarks. Incorporating Furse's technology, Vogel and Ryrie kept working on their digital synthesis idea, and in 1976, after more than a year of hard work, they came up with the QASAR M8. The QASAR was an 8- voice synth, with a keyboard and a 2 x 2 x 4 foot processing box. It was huge, it was heavy, it was complex, it was costly, and it was unsuitable for mass production and servicing. Moreover, it didn't sound particularly good. Ryrie now calls it a 'research design'. It was at this stage that the idea of taking real-life sounds entered Vogel and Ryrie's minds. Unbelievably, it didn't come as a flash of inspiration that saw a brave new world ahead, but as a last-ditch attempt to produce truly interesting and complex digital sounds. Laughing, Ryrie remembers that he and Vogel regarded it as 'cheating'. "We felt it was unacceptable behaviour, but it was fun," said Ryrie.
It's ironic, and some may find it hysterical, that one of the most influential technological ideas ever, emerged from two despondent young men who were desperately trying to make a failing innovation work, and who didn't think very highly of their solution. "We had set out to develop real-time pure syntheses technology, that allowed us to control every parameter of the sound," says Ryrie. "We wanted to digitally create sounds that were very similar to acoustic musical instruments, and that had the same amount of control as a player of an acoustic instrument has over his or her instrument. Sampling gave us the complexity of sound that we had failed to create digitally, but not the control we were looking for. We could only control things like the attack, sustain, vibrato, and decay of a sample, and this was a very, very severe limitation of the original goal that we had set ourselves. We regarded using recorded real-life sounds as a compromise - as cheating - and we didn't feel particularly proud of it."
Clearly, Vogel and Ryrie had no inkling of the storm that they were soon to cause. And strangely, it appears that their initial aim was to develop something reminiscent of what's now called acoustic modelling, so they were ahead of their time with their initial idea as well, even if they couldn't made it work. Mildly deflated, but greatly enjoying playing around with their new direction anyway, they continued work on their digital apparatus, whilst financing themselves with designing and building office computers for Ermington ("a horrendous exercise, but we sold 120 of them"). Soon afterwards, in 1979, Peter Vogel set off with a single CMI to travel around the world, looking for prospective buyers and distributors. Not sure whether anyone would be interested at all, he found reward and recognition for their 'cheat' beyond his wildest dreams. The world, having never seen the likes of the CMI before, gasped with astonishment, and its more affluent representatives soon bought it in droves.
The instrument that Vogel and Ryrie unleashed on an unsuspecting world consisted of a music keyboard, a VDU screen with interactive light pen, a QWERTY keyboard, and a large 1 x 1.5 x 3 foot box - the CPU (central processing unit). It was capable of doing things that had never been done before in 1979. Sampling elicited, of course, the most interest, but the light pen and graphic, 3D representation of sound on the VDU also caught the imagination. But with its green on black screen, limited 208 KByte RAM, a variable sampling rate with a maximum of 24kHz (maximum frequency response 10kHz!), 8-bit dual processors (the Motorola 6800), 8-voice polyphony, the CMI was, by today's standards, unbelievably primitive. One of the CMI's biggest problems was the short time span of the samples, averaging between a half and a whole second, depending on the sample rate used. To save memory and to create longer samples, the sample rate could be as low as 8kHz, giving a bandwidth of 3500Hz, and samples of several seconds in length.
The sound quality of the Fairlight's samples was extremely crude, but the Fairlight was nevertheless initially hailed for its capacity to emulate real instruments 'perfectly', the 'orchestra-in-a-box' syndrome. This was partly due to the fact that Fairlight presented the machine with a collection of orchestral samples (they were obviously still thinking along their original real instrument simulation lines), stored on 8-inch 500KB floppy disks, that could contain 22 sounds each. Coming across like a piece of science fiction, the machine initially drew as much interest from the world of science (it was featured on the UK TV program 'Tomorrow's World') as from the musical community. Predictably, as visions of canned digital orchestras were emerging, the Musician's Union was soon up in arms against what it perceived as a lethal threat to its members.
Stephen Paine, a relative of Peter Gabriel, who is now Financial Director for Tyrell Corporation, remembers his first encounter with the machine. It was the Summer of 1979 and he was hanging out with Gabriel at the latter's residence, Ashcombe House, near Bath, where the artist's third solo album was being recorded. Peter Vogel had somehow found his way there, and demonstrated the machine to an amazed Gabriel, Paine, and whoever else was working in the studio at the time, including Hugh Padgham and Steve Lillywhite. "The idea of recording a sound into solid-state memory and having real-time pitch control over it appeared incredibly exciting," says Paine. "Until that time everything that captured sound had been tape-based. The Fairlight CMI was like a much more reliable and versatile digital Mellotron. Peter was completely thrilled, and instantly put the machine to use during the week that Peter Vogel stayed at his house."
Gabriel immediately grasped the idea of using odd sounds, like smashing milk bottles and banging bricks, instead of acoustic instrument sounds, and applied them of a couple tracks on the album. At the end of the week, a happy Peter Vogel left again with his demonstration model. He had killed two birds with one stone by convincing Gabriel not only to buy a CMI, but also to act as UK importer and distributor for Fairlight. Completely smitten with the Australian Pandora's Box, Gabriel and Paine set up Syco Systems to this end. Despite its high price, at around12000 Pounds Sterling, Paine soon flogged the CMI to a list that reads like a who's who of music industry luminaries. John Paul Jones was the first buyer, quickly followed by Boz Burrell, Kate Bush, Geoff Downes, Trevor Horn, Alan Parsons, Rick Wright, Thomas Dolby, and many others. In the USA, the machine proved equally successful and soon found its way into the eager hands of artists like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Todd Rundgren, and Joni Mitchell.
Most of these early sampling pioneers soon came to the same conclusion as Gabriel, namely that the Fairlight was a rather poor orchestra-in-a-box, and that sampling was best applied as sonic fantasy. Paine recalls that "it became clear after a while that it was impossible to achieve the expressiveness with a keyboard that players of acoustic instruments have with finger and/or mouth control." The Musician's Union might even have gone back to sleep, were it not for yet another next ground-breaking innovation that Fairlight brought on the market.
The first Fairlight CMI had been capable of recording a player's movements on keyboard and storing up to 50,000 notes, and it also contained something called MCL (Music Composition Language). However, MCL was criticised for being rather too complex and laborious for practical purposes. To resolve the problem, Fairlight launched the CMI Series II in 1982, which incorporated their now legendary Page R, the first serious music sequencer, which, according to Paine, "simply blew people away".
The Series II, shockingly expensive at over 30,000 Pounds, was a slightly upgraded version of the first CMI: still 8-bit, but with a maximum sampling rate of 32kHz to sustain a sampling frequency response of up to 15kHz , thus giving better overall sound quality. Page R though was the real novelty, and it had an impact amongst musicians that was almost as great as that of the introduction of sampling.
Page R's strength was the graphic representation of notes, layered in horizontal streams running from left to right, that were easily accessible and editable. Moreover, it introduced quantisation, as well as the concept of cycling patterns of bars, to which sounds could be added or taken out, and was a far cry from the opaque MCL, that was laid out as a kind of electronic tape recorder. Paine comments: "Nowadays all sequencers work in a similar way to Page R, but at the time, it was a phenomenally original idea, and people just went nuts over it. There were people who bought the Fairlight from us purely because of that facility."
It was a breakthrough that made the sound of the Fairlight virtually omnipresent in records produced in the early and mid '80s. Courtesy of Page R, the Fairlight ceased to be the exclusive domain of accomplished keyboard players and 'serious' musicians, like Gabriel, Bush or Wonder, and could now be used by anyone who wanted to make music and had the money to buy or hire the machine. In an echo of the punk 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.
The job of the music programmer was born, and this enabled self-declared 'non-musicians' like JJ to use the Fairlight to great effect seminal records like Frankie's 'Relax' and The Art Of Noise albums. Although two other sampling instruments had come on the market during the early '80s - the more down-market Emulator 1, and the astronomically expensive Synclavier, also an advanced hard disk recorder - the Fairlight remained the computer and sampling instrument of choice for most. Page R, as well as a highly characteristic colouring of the samples, was largely responsible for its continuing popularity.
Fairlight kept developing their CMI Series II, one of the main upgrades being the IIX, which introduced MIDI, and in 1985, they made another giant leap forward with a completely redesigned CMI, the Series III. It was the world's first modern sampler. Its price had, at 60,000 Pounds, gone completely through the roof, but for that it was the first to offer 16-bit, 44.1kHz, CD quality sampling. It also featured 14 Megabytes of RAM, equalling almost three minutes of stereo sampling time, 16-voice polyphony, and much more powerful graphics and editing facilities, with the lightpen now working with a tablet next to the QWERTY keyboard, rather than directly on the screen. There was also SMPTE time code link, an improved Page R, a new sequencer package called CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer, Sequencer) that would, however, never equal Page R's popularity, and something called Eventsync, a SMPTE-based post-production tool. The company was truly on a roll in 1985, and also introduced the Voice Tracker, a pitch-to-MIDI converter for voice or acoustic instruments, and the CVI (Computer Video Instrument), the first low-cost video graphics, effects, and paint device. It was not long, however, before dark clouds would begin to appear on the horizon.
The first ominous signs were the introduction of the MIDI-equipped Atari ST computer, and Akai's S612 sampler (a snip at 899 Pounds) in 1985, followed by the S900 and the famous 1000 sampler in the years afterwards. They made sequencing and sampling available at a fraction of the Fairlight price. The result was that by 1987 the UK sales of the CMI had gone down to such a degree that Stephen Paine of Syco Systems decided to stop acting as Fairlight importer and distributor. Apart from the competition of the S900/S1000 and the Atari, they also judged the music market to be saturated with CMIs. After having sold about 50 in the UK alone, there were very few potential clients left who could afford it. Also, reading the writing on the wall, Fairlight was shifting its focus towards the post-production market, a market with which Paine was unfamiliar and consequently felt ill equipped to deal with. HHB took over as Fairlight's agent in the UK - and didn't manage to sell a single system.
All was not entirely well within Fairlight either. Kim Ryrie remembers that he and Vogel had very little business experience. To attract marketing and management experience, and extra capital, they had decided to involve a consortium of venture capitalists, headed by Western Pacific, in the mid '80s. The company was nevertheless "growing too quickly during the '80s. There were dangerous and expensive mistakes made, especially in setting up and managing the USA office." Moreover, after the stock market crash of October 1987, people tended to hold on to their money, something that didn't help with the sales of Fairlight's pricey products. Meanwhile, New England Digital, the manufacturers of the Synclavier, had managed to raise US$5 million just before the crash and were afterwards able to act as financiers to customers who bought their product. It was yet another factor that depressed Fairlight sales.
From all these factors, it would appear that the famous downfall of Fairlight in late 1988 was inevitable, but Kim Ryrie maintains that the company was actually still shifting plenty of product. The CVI was selling well, and a new sound design addition to the CMI called MFX (Music and Effects) was also attracting new sales. There was a short-term cash flow problem, but this was to have been resolved by the venture group who had controlled the company for over a year. Sadly, due to some 'boardroom manoeuvring' (the story of which Ryrie would only convey off the record for fear of being sued), the venture capitalists got cold feet, suddenly and completely unexpectedly withdrawing their support. The directors had no option but to advise the bank, who threw the company into receivership.
In the wider world meanwhile, sampling and sequencing had become omnipresent, and the chops-challenged threatened to degrade innovative and exciting music making tools to a lowest common denominator - quantisation and emerging sampling libraries made many records sound robotic and identical. It appeared as if the Fairlight fairy tale had ended in tears, musically as well as financially.
Yet Vogel and Ryrie were in no mood to lie down. With the same resourcefulness and determination that had led them to invent the CMI and turn it into one of the world's most successful musical instruments, they stuck to their guns and financed the R&D department out of their own pockets, whilst they were looking for new financiers. They found them in early 1989 in the form of Amber Technology, noted Australian pro audio equipment importers and distributors. A new company, Fairlight ESP (Electric Sound and Picture) was set up in April 1989, in which Amber was the largest shareholder; Ryrie remained as a major shareholder, and functioned as Chairman and Director of Product Development. Peter Vogel left to pursue a career as a freelance contractor, and Amber's David Hannay entered the new Fairlight company as Managing Director.
Fairlight ESP's first move was to focus its attention entirely on the post-production market. Realising that its music market was shrinking quickly, the old company had already made moves towards post-production during 1987/88. It had then developed options for the Series III like Eventsync, the Cue list sequencer, the Waveform Supervisor (providing the industry's fastest access to sampled sounds from hard disk), MFX sound design, and a basic software 8-track hard disk recorder. During 1988, the R&D department was busy designing a separate 8-track hard disk recorder, that was, remembers Ryrie, "similar in architecture to the (AMS Neve) AudioFile". It was nearly finished when the company went into receivership and was shelved after Amber moved in. Instead Fairlight designed a completely new hard disk recorder architecture, and called it the MFX. David Hannay explains the company's move into post-production.
"We decided to drop the CVI in 1989, because although it was selling well, the ongoing R&D costs would be too high. Also, there was little point in Fairlight carrying on in the sampling market. Fairlight's business is not to compete with the high volume, mass-produced consumer products, and it never has been. It's to be leading edge with the latest technology, improve processing speed, and provide a high level of sophistication for the professional user."
Ryrie adds: "The high-end music market was disappearing for the product that we could offer, so we shifted to the post-production market. It felt very natural. We didn't feel that we'd abandoned the music market because it was being well catered for. There were many people still using Fairlight CMIs, and we kept supporting them, but the post-pro market was in the greatest need of solutions. The way they were working at the time was really amazingly inefficient, so it was a real challenge and a lot of fun to find the solutions. And it's still an ongoing process."
The first solution that Fairlight offered, the MFX hard disk recorder/editor, came on the market in 1989. Still based on the electronics architecture of the Series III, it was announced as software revision 9.0, but the green on black VDU and QWERTY keyboard/light pen interface were gone, and the music keyboard had become an optional extra for music users. Post-production users of the MFX would acquire a CPU unit that looked identical to that of the Series III, a new colour screen, and a hardware console that was very similar to the original MFX sound design console, yet with completely different software. The software of the original MFX was used to design and trigger special sound effects for music or post-production purposes. The new MFX software was based on the 2-in/24-out architecture of the machine, which provided eight tracks of simultaneous playback and could sustain 16 tracks for short periods of time.
Targeting mainly the Asian and American markets, Fairlight slowly but surely made inroads into the post-production industry there. It was successful enough to be able to develop the MFX2 and release it in 1991. Still based around the architecture of the Series III, and thus useable both as a disk recorder and a sampler, it was the first machine in the world that could sustain simultaneous playback of 16 tracks from a single disk drive, and its graphics display could now scroll the waveforms of all audio clips in real-time. Combined with improved editing capabilities, the MFX2 turned into the world's fastest hard disk editor, and it became a firm favourite with many post-production engineers working in film, video, and broadcasting in Japan and the US. Fairlight started to emerge as one of the main contenders in the post-pro markets in these regions.
1994's MFX3 further exemplified Fairlight's reputation for leading edge innovation. Released a year after its originally planned completion date, because the task the designers had set themselves turned out to be gargantuan, the MFX3 boasts an impressive set of features that make it an ideal tool for post-production. At around 38,000 Pounds, and sporting 24 inputs, it is also perhaps the first genuine alternative for the 24-track digital tape recorder in the music market. Finally abandoning the architecture of the Series III (and thus also its sampling facilities), and based on an entirely new 40-bit floating point DSP architecture; the MFX3 is a dedicated hard disk editor/recorder, that became, once again, a world first. It can sustain 24 tracks of simultaneous playback and record from a single hard disk drive. Uniquely, all 24 tracks are phase locked. It also has powerful DSP facilities that provide real-time EQ, time compression/expansion, level control, and crossfades. Storage time is 30 minutes/24 tracks per hard disk drive and a maximum of six drives can be installed.
Look, No Pages!
The MFX3 is not only a quantum leap forward from the MFX2 in terms of processing power and storage capabilities, but also puts the final touches to the extremely fast and user-friendly interface that Fairlight had already started work on with the MFX back in 1989. The most essential characteristics are the combination of dedicated control buttons and the possibility to do almost all work from one single page on the screen. All 24 tracks can be viewed on-screen at the same time, with the waveforms inside each track drawn on the fly. The 24 tracks scroll under the central cursor, which can be interpreted as a record/playback head. Instant zoom, in and out of specific tracks, allows the user to switch from a view of only six frames to an 8-hour timeline in a split second. This means that the operator always knows exactly where he or she is, and always has an overview of the whole project, or of several projects at the same time.
For a music user, looking at the MFX3 screen is a little like looking at a moving track sheet, making it extremely easy to orientate oneself. With its 24 inputs/outputs, and extremely fast and simple dedicated interface, operating the MFX3 results in that familiar 'aha' experience - the recognition that this is where we knew digital was heading all along, but we didn't know it until we saw it. Contrary to Mac or PC-based editors or digital multitracks, of whatever form, that always felt like intermediate stages in some ongoing process, with no-one quite knowing where things are going. The MFX3 actually feels like the first, completed step. But to witness the MFX3's 'aha' logic in the mid '90s begs the question why it has taken so long for someone to come up with this seemingly self-evident concept, and for digital editing and recording to come of age.
In response, Kim Ryrie stresses that the interface approach was already part of their vision seven years ago. "Although we focused on the post-production market for a while, we still had the future music market in the back of our minds. This was the reason why the original MFX was planned as a 24-track format, even though we could only simultaneously play back eight tracks at a time. With the MFX2, we worked very hard on the user interface. When you're working in post-pro, it's very tiring and distracting to have to look at the screen as well as the picture for 12 to14 hours a day. So our brief to the R&D department was that we wanted the operator to be able to do any edit on the system without looking at the MFX screen. It set a fairly major problem for the development guys [laughs]. This led to a combination of hard and soft-keys that do all the edit functions and track selection. We then decided that the graphics had to be meaningful and simple, so there weren't going to be any pull-down menus."
David Hannay comments: "We're very opposed to the idea of multiple windows and pull-down menus. We think that philosophy of working is completely flawed. It's all right for something that you need only occasional access to, but to regularly perform that action all day long is inefficient and ineffective. You really need to have your work in front of you all the time."
"To make the idea of the single screen that moves under the cursor work," Ryrie elaborates, "we had to develop a 64-bit graphics engine, and this was five years ago, before any of these things appeared on the PC. It's become one of the main attractions of the MFX. The other thing that is different is the idea of organising audio in 'clips' that can be merged and copied and layered across the screen. This has also become a fundamental part of our user interface."
The MFX3 has become very popular in the post-production markets in Asia and the USA, with the world's largest post-production facility, Todd-AO, now owning a staggering number machines. On its way to becoming market leader in Pacific post-pro, it is rather odd that the MFX hasn't made more inroads into the area of music production. Ryrie explains that they were waiting for solutions to the two problems that still hamper hard disk multitracking: audio storage and compatibility between systems. The former should be solved early 1996 with the introduction of the new generation of 2.6 GByte optical disks that can play 24 tracks of audio from a single removable disk. Also, Exabyte will be bringing out a new drive, the Mammoth, which can transfer more than 24 tracks in real-time. Yet Ryrie acknowledges that compatibility remains a problem, although the MFX3 can communicate via the Open Media Framework format.
"OMF was designed as a transfer medium, and is not ideal as a native file format. This means that although, in theory, you should be able to transfer data from one hard disk recorder to another, in practice, you may suffer some loss of editing flexibility in the process."
With regard to the future, Fairlight have recently begun to diversify, bringing out the Dali 2T, a digital two-track editor and recorder that comes as a 3U rack with a small console. It has similar DSP powers to the MFX, with an emphasis on time compression/expansion, varispeed and varipitch, and is targeted at radio broadcasting and music mastering. They are also about to release the DaD, (Digital Audio Dubber) a playback unit for 24 tracks of magneto-optical with the ability to slip tracks. And the first quarter of 1996 should see the Fairlight FAME, an automated mixing control surface, integrated with the MFX3. It has been developed by AMEK, uses the MFX3's powerful DSP engine, and targets the same market as the AMS Neve AudiFile/Logic 3 combination. With regard to future developments on the MFX, Ryrie is remarkably candid about the fact that the 44.1 kHz sampling rate is technically too low a standard for digital audio and reckons that a new standard, possibly 96k, is not too far off.
"96kHz will provide a better sound. The highest harmonic below half the sampling rate is virtually a square wave. Good DA filters turn it into sine waves, but in the process, there's distortion. The higher the sample rate frequency, the less there is a problem with the high end. Professional people tell me that they can hear the difference between a 44.1/48kHz and a 96kHz sampling rate, and I think that's to be expected. But to move to 96kHz is a commercial and a technical problem, because it doubles your storage and DSP requirements. The MFX could only sustain 12 tracks and would be more expensive. But I do think that the arrival of the new high density CD and CD-ROM standard may drive consumer demand for a superior digital format."
These futuristic sounding are a long way from Fairlight's 28kHz, 8-bit beginnings. Looking back now, how does Ryrie feel about his and Vogel's original 'cheat'? It is hard to imagine he would feel ashamed, but is he actually proud of it now?
Laughing he says, "Sampling was a phase that we all had to go through. Some of the early music that was made with it was very good, but now... well, it's become a bit of a meat market. But it was good to have done it first. I certainly don't feel ashamed. It was fun to do, and the way it is applied is up to the person using it. Sampling was a start in the electronic era. We've only just started, and it's far from over."