FAIRLIGHT - A GLANCE AN REAL COMPUTERS by Richard Karsmakers
I know it has nothing to do with the ST, but I just could not
resist writing an article about computers as innovate and
advanced as those that are made at Fairlight Instruments Pty.
Ltd. in Australia. For this article, may thanks have to go to
Fairlight's Marketing Co-Ordinator, Mrs. Amanda Reid-Young as
well as Synton Nederland, the distributor of Fairlight computers
in the Benelux.
It all started when I heard the Compact Disc version of Jean
Michel Jarre's "Magnetic Fields". Originally purchased as a
demonstration of CD's magnificent possibilities, this Disc soon
became one of the most used pieces of media my fingers touched
(except for my word processor disk, of course). I was glad CDs
were resistant to all kinds of damages; otherwise it would now
definately have ended up turned completely grey, as had happened
so many times with normal records I had had.
While listening to jets flying over in full stereo, trains
passing through your head and people talking at central station,
I glanced through the booklet that accompanied Mr. Jarre's
masterwork, in which I read that he used the strangest
instruments. Also, he used computers made by a certain company
I suddenly remembered an English pal of mine, who had talked
about the amazing graphics that could be produced using these
devices, as well as fabulous possibilities in the field of
music and sound. He told me many British television
presentations were originally designed and performed on Fairlight
computers. He sighed, then added that these computers were barely
affordable and began talking about a completely different
Fairlight was founded in 1975 by two electronics enthusiasts, Kim
Ryrie and Peter Vogel, who then had a view at creating a much
more sophisticated music synthesizer than was then available.
Their first research (performed in the basement of Kim's
grandmother) was used for launching several commercial projects,
of which specialist colour processing for use with television
broadcasts and office computers were the first.
In 1979, they finally became known through their computer based
musical instrument, the Fairlight CMI. It had the unique
possibility to "sample" sounds which could then be played back
through the keyboard in standard musical pitch. The CMI, in fact,
wasn't a normal synthesizer, but a device that could produce real
Peter Vogel went on a world tour to promote the CMI, but it
proved that most people had already heard of it by word of mouth.
Several people offered to be agents in several places in the
world, and an international distribution network was quickly
formed. Nowadays, many of the world's top musicians work with the
CMI series of Fairlight: Not only keyboard virtuoso Jean Michel
Jarre, but also Kate Bush, Duran Duran (although I am much more a
fan of heavy metal, I hereby force myself to type down that
ghastly name), Peter Gabriel and many others. In Holland, master
mixer Ben Liebrand uses the CMI to mix disco (uugh!) music for
use on the Radio.
In recent years, Fairlight has experienced considerable growth,
and now employs about 90 people in its Rushcutters Bay, Sydney
Office and Factory. One third of these are employed in the
In 1983, Fairlight began to diversify into the field of graphics,
thus creating a low cost video effects device which was to
combine live video and graphic drawing and colouring effects. In
1984, it finally went into production as the CVI - Computer Video
Instrument. In 1986, Fairlight developed the follower-up to the
CMI, the CMI series III and the VOICE TRACKER.
The Fairlight Computer Video Instrument (CVI)
Have you ever seen one of those Music Box or Sky Channel Intros?
And what about the intros from Germany's "Computer Corner"? These
are all said to have been made using the Fairlight CVI. What
makes this instrument so different from others?
Let's have a glance through the technical specifications. At
first, there a 256x256 resolution. This is nothing to get excited
about, since the Commodore 64 offers about that resolution for a
price much less. But let's continue. The screen is built up on 14
bit planes (remember? There are 4 of those on the ST in Low
Resolution) and with 4096 colors. The difference with e.g. the
Amiga (which also possesses 4096 colors) is that all colours can
be displayed at one time, with a vertical resolution that is 25%
higher (256 instead of 200). The software allows the strangest
things to be done with any picture or graphic presentation
currently on the screen with the help of an easy-to-use graphics
pad. It allows real time effects, cut & paste options, the use of
54 textures, chroma-keyed field store (this creates trailed
effects), shatterd images, overlapping mirrors, still image and
lots more. Even the options of "Art Director" are still a bit
amateuristic compared to this. And those don't act on live
images! The CVI is sold in Holland for about 27,000 guilders
(without graphic pad, ASCII keyboard and sequencer expander) or
40,000 all inclusive. An indication for foreign readers: 1 Dutch
guilder is worth about 2.5 dollars.
The Fairlight Series III
This is, in fact, the advanced version of the 'old' CMI, the
Computer Musical Instrument. And even the documentation I
received was utterly and amazingly impressive! What must you
imagine when I am talking about this system?
At first, there's the 'mainframe'-like system box. It can
contain 150 Mb on-line Winchester (that's a hard disk drive, in
case you don't know) as well as a 60 Mb removable tape cartridge
for mass storage. I also contains a 1Mb 8" floppy disk drive
including controller. On the rear of that case, you'll find SCSI
(Small Computer Systems Interface) to hook up any other mass
storage device or even personal computers. Of course, there's
MIDI as well (I wonder when Frank will get a Fairlight CMI Series
III - maybe for his next birthday?).
Further, there's the computer keyboard, a monochrome computer
video display (sometimes refered to as "Monitor") and a musical
keyboard (6 octave F to F, velocity sensitive, pitch and
modulation wheels, eight variable controls, and more). Of course,
it is also possible to use another MIDI keyboard, with e.g.
polyphonic and global aftertouch effects.
The CMI Series III offers 16 voices (expandable to 80 voices), 90
dB dynamic range voice/channel cards, seperate 16 bit D/A
converters, dynamic VCF, VCA for each channel/card, 16 bit and 50
Khz stereo sampling (100 Khz in mono mode), up to 14 Mb waveform
RAM per 16 channels which provides over 2 minutes of sampling
time as 50 Khz, 12 microprocessors (10 6809 processors and - yes,
yes - 2 68000 processors), SMPTE read, write and sync and of
course lots more (SMPTE means Society of Motion Picture &
Television Engineers, it stands for a synchronisation method
which is generally accepted as world standard).
It runs OS-9 (soon available for the ST as well, so I've heard)
Multi-tasking operating systems as well as high level languages.
The computer keyboard is said to be a bit better than that of the
ST, with 82 keys, 15 special function keys (assignable, of
course), high resolution graphic tablet (this can be compared
with the Koala-Pad for 8-bit home computers, one can also be
found on the CVI I mentioned before). It further has dual printer
ports and Telnet communications network hook-up possibilities.
The software also is said to be somewhat better even than the
professional MIDI software for the ST such as CZ Android and
Twenty_Four. There's MCL (Music Composition Language, a text
based composer), RS (Real Time Sequenzer, a 16 track recorder
with graphic note events) and CAPS (Composer, Arranger,
Performer & Sequenzer, up to 80 tracks assignable to internal
voices or externally - through MIDI - can be programmed in real
time, quantitized or non-real time. There's extensive Micro-and
Macro editing as well as track notation as conventional music
It is possible to realise as many as 64 MIDI output and 48 MIDI
The price of a complete CMI series III system lies at almost
225,000 guilders (!).
The Fairlight VOICE TRACKER
Essentially, the Fairlight VOICE TRACKER is quite a simple
device. It takes any monophonic sound source and instantly
analyses and converts it to drive any MIDI or voltage controlled
synthesizer. So a voice can become the sound of a guitar, a
guitar the sound of a saxophone, and so on. You have full control
over the pitch dynamic and timbre of every note. The VOICE
TRACKER also generates a detailed visual analysis of every note
if you connect it to a video monitor.
Being the cheapest device Fairlight offers, the VIOCE TRACKER
sells at about 10,000 guilders.
Fairlight computers are manufactured and distributed by:
Fairlight Instrument Pty. Ltd.
15-19 Boundary Street
Sydney NSW 2011
If you want more specific information, or if you just want to wet
your pants looking at the specifications, etc. of these
magnificent computers, you should write to them, care of Mrs.
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.