In 1979 a new machine hit the music scene—an instrument that claimed to contain all others. The Fairlight CMI was the first commercially available digital synthesizer with a sampling function, a technology able to digitally reproduce acoustic instruments and sample any sound in the world. This game-changer opened completely new scenarios of exploration for new and experienced musicians alike. New genres like techno and sample-based hip hop were born this way.
But how did the Fairlight work? Was it designed to replace orchestras? To create sound they couldn’t? Was it intended as disruptive tech or as a leisure machine? This exclusive playlist will help you discover one of the most influential musical innovations of the 20th century by listening to the music it helped create.
1. Back to life again: the story of a museum object
Robin Scott, ‘Eureka’ (1982)
The National Science and Media Museum’s Fairlight was acquired in 2017, and was kindly donated by musician and producer Robin Scott. Robin was the founder of music project M, best known for the 1979 hit ‘Pop Muzik’, but he also experimented with the Fairlight on his solo albums.
During an event at the museum last year, he explained his decision to donate his Fairlight:
“I just thought: there must be a home for this machine. The best home would be somewhere where people could share its history… The Fairlight is a marker, it marks a seminal moment in the history of electronic music, and technological advances in music in general. I thought it was a good example of this transition and it could be brought back to life. And so I realised that the best place for the Fairlight was the National Science and Media Museum.”
Interestingly, Robin’s Fairlight CMI Series III is one of the first objects specifically acquired for the museum’s new Sound Technologies collection, started in 2016. “I have been fascinated by the Fairlight from the first time I saw it on television,” says Annie Jamieson, Curator of Sound Technologies. “It’s one of the stars of my collection, and always creates a lot of interest.”
2. An entire orchestra at your fingertips
Peter Gabriel, ‘San Jacinto’ (1982)
Can you hear this sweet sound at the beginning of ‘San Jacinto’? It’s not a real marimba. It’s a sound produced by a Fairlight CMI.
Peter Gabriel owned the first Fairlight CMI in the UK, and was the first musician here to release an album featuring its sounds. Initially, he was assisted by Peter Vogel, one of the Fairlight’s designers, who was primarily interested in the use of digital synthesis to reproduce the sounds of acoustic instruments.
The Fairlight did indeed out a wide range of pre-recorded sounds of acoustic instruments at your fingertips: an ‘orchestra for sale’, according to the first sales slogan.
“Insert a systems disc in the left-hand drive, a library disc in the right, and you can explore a world of sound limited only by your imagination”
—Giles Dawson, New Scientist magazine, 1983
Musicians at the time were concerned about being replaced, but in the end they needn’t have worried: the sound quality was good, but not enough to replace the real thing. However, the Fairlight’s capability went far beyond the reproduction of acoustic instruments; there was another feature that transformed this synthesizer in a mainstay of electronic music.
3. A very famous noise: the music of breaking glass
Kate Bush, ‘Babooshka’ (1980)
The Fairlight was also presented as a compositional tool, a technology to allow you to explore your creativity and ideas well beyond what was possible before. In addition to the reproduction of acoustic instruments, in fact, the Fairlight allowed musicians to incorporate any type of sound into their music: it officially began the era of digital sampling. This opportunity was what attracted Kate Bush the most: “What really gets me about the Fairlight is that any sound becomes music. You can actually control any sound that you want by sampling it and then playing it.”
Inspired by Peter Gabriel’s experiments with everyday objects, the singer started to use sampling in Never for Ever (1980), assisted by Richard Burgess. The album features the sounds of footsteps on stairs, buzzing insects, and cocking rifles. But the most famous is the sound of breaking glass that punctuates the first song, ‘Babooshka’. Can you imagine transforming your favourite sound into a musical pattern that you can play on a keyboard?
4. A weird sound called Clarjang: the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Paddy Kingsland, ‘The Whale’ (1983)
With its endless possibilities, the Fairlight CMI quickly moved beyond the realm of music. This innovative synthesizer turned out to be one of the most powerful allies in producing sound effects—and that’s where it met the famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the revolutionary studio that provided sound effects and electronic soundtracks for the BBC.
The introduction of the Fairlight CMI marked the transition of the studio from tape-manipulated techniques and electronically generated sounds towards digital synthesizers. The Workshop’s composers began to use it to create unusual sounds by combining musical instruments with other noises.
Composer Peter Howell describes some of these sounds: “Clarjang is made from a clarinet sound combined with a metallic jangle. Puckvox combines the plucking of a mandolin note with the second half, his own voice.”
Can you recognise these weird sounds in ‘The Whale’, one of the tracks included in the TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
5. Relax: you are in a loop
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘Relax’ (1983)
Did you ever get the feeling that you are going nowhere and so you start goofing around? This is often when the best ideas come up. This is the story of ‘Relax’, one of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s most famous songs. The unique rhythmic sound of the song arose through experimentation with the Fairlight.
In this song, the sounds sampled with the Fairlight were connected with sounds from a LinnDrum drum machine. Programmer J.J. Jeczalik explains the creative process:
“We were kind of getting nowhere really. It just didn’t feel right. I remember saying: ‘Let’s just put an eight-bar loop together’… We just started goofing around, literally goofing around, and cranked the volume up. We were really enjoying ourselves and started to realise that we actually had something… Trevor came back and said ‘What’s on earth’s going on?’ or something. We went ‘It’s just a loop’. ‘No. No. No. It’s brilliant’.”
6. Recycling the sounds of the past: Art of Noise
Art of Noise, ‘Moments in Love’ (1985)
“While the marketing of synthesizer/sampling technologies encouraged users to create the sounds of the future, they could be used to re-create as well as sample the sounds of the past.”
This is how Paul Harkins describes Art of Noise, a synth-pop group formed by programmer J.J. Jeczalik and producer Trevor Horn in early 1983. The Fairlight played a key role in their sonic experiments: they wanted to sample sounds from existing recordings to create collages of high and low culture. This was made possible by a new feature of the synthesizer: the CMI Series II (1982) and Series III (1986) introduced a sequencer called Page R, which enabled the creation of complex patterns of sampled sounds.
The 10-minute song ‘Moments in Love’ contains sounds from previous recordings of both Art of Noise, and other artists. It’s not easy to recognise the sources of their samples: to avoid copyright infringement, and to create new patterns, the group explored the technical opportunities of Page R to disguise the original sounds.
7. Stravinsky in hip-hop
Afrika Bambaataa, Planet Rock (1986)
How did one of the most dramatic orchestral motifs of Western classical music become one of the most ubiquitous sounds of pop, dance and hip-hop songs in the 1980s and 90s? This is the story of ORCH2, one of the pre-recorded sounds available on the eight inch floppy disk of the Fairlight. And it is a story of randomness and serendipity.
A recent interview with the musician and Stravinsky’s lover David Vorhaus reveals how it came to light. “I found a vinyl recording of the Stravinsky Firebird Suite in Peter Vogel’s record collection. I was around in his living room, I just wanted to see how this sample system worked. So I took out that record and I put that particular sample on his Fairlight.”
This one-second track become the most-sampled sample of all time thanks to DJ Afrika Bambaataa, dance producer Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie, who included it on Planet Rock, one of the most influential records in hip-hop history. They had no skills to use the Fairlight nor any time to learn how to sample external sounds: they just searched through the library of pre-recorded samples and figured out how to play eight versions of ORCH2 simultaneously.
Following the success of Planet Rock, ORCH2 started to be used in all sorts of songs: from Michael Jackson to Bruno Mars, from Duran Duran to Yes. ‘The Firebird’ was Stravinsky’s most successful piece and, in an afterlife allowed by digital technology, it again became a worldwide popular hit.
8. Never give up: Def Leppard
Def Leppard, Hysteria (1987)
Hysteria was the first album recorded by Def Leppard after drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a serious car accident in 1984. This might have have compromised Allen’s ability to play but, with the support of the band and the help of technology, a couple of years later he was able to return to the stage, as he explains in an interview:
“I was regularly told that I would never play drums again and it wasn’t until Steve Clark and Phil Collen came to see me that I began to really believe otherwise. I had been practising on a big piece of foam at the bottom of the bed, and with the help of a guy called Pete Harley, who made me an electric kit and is now sadly no longer alive, I learned to play again.”
The band had already used the Fairlight on their previous album Pyromania, and they continued to experiment with digital reproduction of sounds: all the drums in Hysteria were sampled from the Fairlight CMI and mixed with layers upon layers of arrangements and vocal tracks.
As a result, every song of the album was recorded by each member of the band in studio separately, foreshadowing the online music-making process that has become common during Covid-19 lockdown. Hysteria became Def Leppard’s best-selling album, receiving critical acclaim and spreading all over the world its embedded message: never give up!
9. Playing around with ideas: The Fairlight in pre-production
Liza Minnelli, Results (1989)
Not many musicians could afford the huge cost of a Fairlight CMI. That’s why it was more often purchased by institutions such as the BBC or in a joint venture between musicians, producer and music studios.
The Fairlight in the museum’s collection was part of this story: it was used by various artists and producers in their early stage of production at Abbey Road Recording Studios from approximately 1986 to 1989, in a joint venture between Robin Scott and Abbey Road.
“The advantage of having the Fairlight in pre-production is that you can play around with ideas before deciding to introduce real acoustic instruments in your music,” says Annie Jamieson. “You can have a go and see how a brass or string section would sound like before bringing the real musicians in to the studio. It allows you to make decisions, saving time and money.” This was the case when the Pet Shop Boys worked on Liza Minelli’s album Results in 1988.
10. The legacy of the Fairlight CMI: Orchestra Hit
Britney Spears, ‘Lucky’ (2000)
The development of sound technologies increased the quality of pre-recorded orchestral sound and decreased the price of digital synthesizers. From the 1990s, more accessible synths and samplers hit the market, offering crisper variations of ORCH2.
The term ‘orchestra hit’ describes a synthesized sound effect that layers the sound of numerous orchestral instruments to create a dramatic staccato note. Today, this effect can be found in all sorts of digital mixers, and appears in many 90s teen-pop classic hits including Britney Spears’ ‘Lucky’ and the Backstreet Boys’ ‘It’s Gotta Be You’. It is also the symbol of the Fairlight’s legacy, going far beyond the use of pre-recorded orchestral sounds in popular music.
The first digital sampling synthesizer opened the way to a new era of music production: an era where we can generate and manipulate sounds from computers, create music from any source of sound, and make music together in different spaces and times. All these new opportunities originated from a machine that embodied the origins of our contemporary digital culture. A culture where anyone can explore a world of sound limited only by our imagination.
Further reading and listening
- Fairlight CMI YouTube playlist
- The Fairlight CMI on BBC Tomorrow’s World (video)
- The Start of Noise, Rob Puricelli
- Cult Sounds project: An investigation of the origins, applications and effects of dominant individual sounds in popular music between 1960 and 2014
- The sound that connects Stravinsky to Bruno Mars, Vox (video)
- The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine, Robert Fink
- Paul Harkins, Digital Sampling: The Design and Use of Music Technologies (2019)
Thanks to Annie Jamieson, Paul Harkins and Rob Puricelli for the expert guidance in the development of this article.