Fairlight CMI

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Fairlight CMI series II – exhibited at NAMM Show 2011[1]

The Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) is a digital sampling synthesizer. It was designed in 1979 by the founders of Fairlight, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, and based on a dual-6800 microprocessor computer designed by Tony Furse in Sydney, Australia.[2][3] It rose to prominence in the early 1980s and competed in the market with the Synclavier from New England Digital.


Point Piper, New South Wales
Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight CMI was a development of an earlier synthesizer called the Qasar M8, an attempt to create sound by modelling all of the parameters of a waveform in real time. Unfortunately, this was beyond the available processing power of the day, and the results were disappointing. In an attempt to make something of it, Vogel and Ryrie decided to see what it would do with a naturally recorded sound wave as a starting point. To their surprise the effect was remarkable, and the digital sampler was born. In casting about for a name, Ryrie and Vogel settled upon Fairlight, the name of a hydrofoil (named in turn after a suburb of Sydney) that sped each day past Ryrie's grandmother's large house in Point Piper, underneath which Ryrie had a workroom.[4]

By 1979, the Fairlight CMI Series I was being demonstrated in Australia, the UK and the US. In the US, demonstrations were covered by Bruce Springsteen's concert sound engineer Bruce Jackson, who was once Ryrie's neighbour in Point Piper.[4]

At this time the sound quality was not quite up to professional standards, having only 24 kHz sampling, and it was not until the Series II of 1982 that this was rectified. In 1983 MIDI was added with the Series IIx, and in 1985 support for full CD quality sampling (16 bit/44.1 kHz) was available with the Series III.[5]

"Page R" and lightpen on Fairlight CMI II

One of the Fairlight's most significant features was the so-called "Page R" software, a real time graphical pattern sequencer, introduced on CMI Series II. This feature was often a key part of the buying decision of artists, and widely copied on other software synths since.

The Fairlight ran its own operating system known as QDOS (a modified version of the Motorola MDOS operating system) and had a menu-driven GUI. The basic system used a number of Motorola 6800 processors, with separate cards dealing with specific parts of the system, such as the display drive and the keyboard interface. The main device for interacting with the machine apart from the keyboard was a light pen, which could be used to select options presented on a monochrome CRT display.

Fairlight Series III (1985)

The Series III model dropped the light pen interface (the light pen cable apparently was one of the most fragile hardware elements in the system) in favour of a graphics tablet interface which was built into the keyboard. This model was built around Motorola 68000 and Motorola 6809 processors, running Microware's OS-9 Level II operating system (6809 version).

The Fairlight CMI was very well built, assembled by hand with expensive components and consequently it was highly priced (around £20,000 for a Series I). Although later models, adjusting for inflation, were getting comparatively less expensive as the relevant technology was getting cheaper, competitors with similar performance and lower prices started to multiply. For some years the CMI was sought after by those who could afford one, but competition made life increasingly difficult for the company. Fairlight managed to survive until the mid-1980s, relying more and more heavily on its revered name and its products' cult status for sales.

Fairlight went bankrupt a few years later due to the expense of building the instruments – A$20,000 in components per unit. As a last-ditch attempt to salvage some revenue, the final run of machines were marketed as word processors. Peter Vogel said in 2005, "We were reliant on sales to pay the wages and it was a horrendously expensive business ... Our sales were good right up to the last minute, but we just could not finance the expansion and the R&D."[6]

Ryrie subsequently set up Fairlight ESP ('electric sound and picture'), a company which sold the Fairlight MFX range of post-production audiovisual workstations. These were initially based on the CMI III, although later versions were entirely independent developments.[7]

In August 2009, Peter Vogel launched a new company,[8] first called Fairlight Instruments but renamed Peter Vogel Instruments in 2012, with the objective of developing a 'retro' CMI-30A (30th Anniversary). This system is supposed to have the look and feel of the 1979 CMI but will use the latest 'Crystal Core media engine' developed by Fairlight.au. Production is to be limited to 100 instruments.

In 2011, Peter Vogel Instruments (then called Fairlight Instruments) also released a CMI app for the Apple iPad and Apple iPhone. The app includes the complete CMI sound library and an accurate translation of the CMI's renowned Page R sequencer. It is also available in a cut-down version.[9]


A Fairlight CMI keyboard, featuring signatures from 43 celebrity musicians, composers and producers.

The first buyers of the new system were Peter Gabriel, Richard James Burgess of Landscape (who demonstrated it to many British musicians and on BBC TV's Tomorrow's World), Iva Davies of Icehouse, Thomas Dolby, and Kate Bush,[10] In the US, 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.[4] Meat-packing heir Geordie Hormel bought two for use at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles.[4] Other early adopters included Todd Rundgren, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, producer Rhett Lawrence and Ned Liben of EBN-OZN.[11] 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.[4] 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.[12] Titled "Electronic Music from the Outside In," it was adopted extensively in electronic music courses worldwide. Jean Michel Jarre used a Fairlight on Magnetic Fields (1981) and also made extensive use of it on his The Concerts in China (1982) and Zoolook (1984) albums. The 1982 movie Liquid Sky featured a soundtrack entirely performed on the Fairlight CMI.

Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" and its parent album Peter Gabriel (1982) also featured the CMI. In 1981, Austrian musicians Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader started composing a whole symphony Erdenklang – Computerakustische Klangsinfonie.[13] This work premiered live on stage, using five music computers, during the Ars Electronica festival in Linz ,[14] and was released on LP in 1982.

EBN-OZN's "AEIOU Sometimes Y" was the first American single recorded entirely on a Fairlight in 1981/1982, released in 1983 by Elektra Records and Arista Records in London. The first American album recorded entirely via Fairlight was Feeling Cavalier by EBN-OZN recorded in 1983/1984 released in '84.

Producer Tony Mansfield used the instrument heavily on the B-52's album "Bouncing Off The Satellites". The band initially disliked the Fairlight, but guitarist Ricky Wilson died during the making of the album, and the Fairlight was used to make up for the lack of recorded guitar parts on the album. Mansfield had originally purchased a Fairlight CMI in 1982 for his own use with his band New Musik.

Jan Hammer used the CMI to compose the original soundtrack of the 1980s TV drama Miami Vice.

The British new wave band The Art of Noise and producer Trevor Horn used the instrument extensively. In the mid-90's, Art Of Noise member JJ Jeczalik would release a sample CD titled The Art of Sampling, which featured all of the unique CMI samples they had used throughout their career.


The success of the Fairlight CMI caused other firms to introduce sampling. New England Digital modified their Synclavier digital synth to perform sampling, while E-mu introduced a less costly sampling keyboard, the Emulator, in 1981. In the United States, a new sampler company called 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 No Jacket Required that "there is no Fairlight on this record" to clarify that he did not use one to synthesize various horn and string sounds.[15]

Features timeline[edit]

Series comparison
Models Year Price Notable new features Voice# Synthesis Software I/O
Qasar I, II, M8 1975
base price
  • Dynamic harmonic control
  • Waveform editing
  • No sampler
  • Dynamic harmonic control
    (128 harmonics additive)
  • Waveform editing
CMI Series I 1979 ~£18,000  8
  • Sampling: 8bit @ 16 kHz
  • Dynamic harmonic control
  • Waveform editing/drawing
  • Basic keyboard sequencer
  • Musical Composition Language (MCL)
CMI Series II 1980 ~£25,000
  • "Page R" (Rev.10–)
  • Sampling: 8bit @ 2.1–30.2 kHz
  • Dynamic harmonic control
    (32 harmonics additive)
  • Waveform generating/drawing
  • "Page R" Realtime Composer
  • Basic keyboard sequencer
  • MCL
  • CV/Gate interface (optional)
CMI Series IIx 1983 ~£27,000  8
  • "Page R" Realtime Composer
  • Basic keyboard sequencer
  • MCL
CMI Series III 1985 £50,000
  • 16 voices (expandable), 16bit sampling
  • CAPS sequencer, maximum 80 tracks
  • Graphics tablet (instead of lightpen)
  • Sampling: 16bit @ 100 kHz(mono) or 50 kHz(stereo)
  • FFT (additive resynthesis)
  • Waveform editing/drawing
  • CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer Sequencer), 80 tracks
  • MCL
CMI Series 30A 2009/
  • Reissued using Crystal Core Sound Engine
  • Sampling rate: 44.1, 48, 96, 192 kHz
? ? ?
Fairlight Pro App 2011 £29.99
  • Running on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch (iOS 4.0 or later)
  • Sampling (ver.1.1–)
  • Sample player with:
    • entire IIx library (564 voices)
    • selected III sounds (over 100)
  • User sampling (ver.1.1–)
  • "Page R" Realtime Composer
  • "Page D" Display waveform in 3D graphics
  • MIDI input via external interface
  • Import/export CMI data files

Qasar I, II, and (last) M8 (1975–1977)

Made by Fairlight and Creative Strategies
  • Price: $20,000 base price
  • CPUs: Dual Motorola 6800
  • Storage: Hole paper tape reader
  • Memory: 4 kB per voice
  • Voices: 8 voices (no sampling, just numeric additive synthesis with 128 harmonics)
  • Synthesis: Additive synthesis; dynamic harmonic control, waveform editing

CMI Series I (1979)

Musical sampler was introduced.
  • Price: ~£18,000
  • CPUs: Dual Motorola 6800
  • Storage: Two 8" floppy drives
  • Memory: 16 kB per voice, System: 64 kB, Video: 16 kB (512x256 pixels)
  • Voices: 8 voices of polyphony
  • Synthesis: waveform drawing via lightpen; dynamic harmonic control, waveform editing
  • Sampling: 8 bits at 16 kHz (mono)
  • Sequencer: Basic keyboard sequencer, Musical Composition Language (MCL),
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive + slave keyboard

CMI Series II (1980)

  • Price: ~£25,000
  • CPUs: Dual Motorola 6800
  • Storage: Two 8" floppy drives
  • Memory: 16 kB per voice, System: 64 kB, Video: 16 kB (512x256 pixels)
  • Voices: 8 voices of polyphony
  • Synthesis: dynamic harmonic control (Page 4); waveform generating (Page 5); waveform drawing via lightpen (Page 6)
  • Sampling: 8 bits at 2100 Hz to 30.2 kHz (mono) (Page 8)
  • Sequencer: Basic keyboard sequencer (Page 9), Musical Composition Language (MCL, Page C), Realtime Composer (Page R)
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive + slave keyboard
  • I/O: No MIDI, optional CV/Gate interface (Page A)

CMI Series IIx (1983)

  • Price: ~£27,000
  • CPUs: Dual Motorola 6809
  • Storage: Two 8" floppy drives
  • Memory: 16 kB per voice, System: 256 kB, Video: 16 kB (512x256 pixels)
  • Voices: 8 voices of polyphony
  • Synthesis: waveform drawing via lightpen; dynamic harmonic control, waveform editing
  • Sampling: 8 bits at 2100 Hz to 30.2 kHz (mono) (Page 8)
  • Sequencer: Page R, Basic keyboard sequencer, Musical Composition Language (MCL)
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive + slave keyboard

CMI Series III (1985)

  • Price: £50,000
  • CPUs: Dual Motorola 6809 CPUs, and one 6809 CPU for each voice card, one Motorola 68000 (to 68020) for waveform processor card
  • Storage: Hard drive and Tape DC600 Streamer (ESDI, SCSI), one 8" floppy drive
  • Memory: 14 MB, expandable to 32 MB and maximum 64 MB on last hard revision (RAM RAM disk), System: 356 kB
  • Voices: 16 voices of polyphony (expandable)
  • Synthesis: waveform drawing via graphics tablet; FFT; waveform editing
  • Sampling: 16 bits at 100 kHz (mono) or 50 kHz (stereo)
  • Sequencer: CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer Sequencer), 80 track polyphonic, Musical Composition Language (MCL),
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive (MIDI compatible)

CMI Series 30A (30th Anniversary) (announced in 2009, released in 2011)

  • ~$20,000
  • Retro look and feel of the original CMI
  • Sound architecture based on the new Crystal Core
CMI-30A Hardware Specifications
System Components
  • Mainframe — free-standing and adaptable to rack mount, includes 500GB SATA hard drive, DVD R/W drive, USB ports.
            (Welded aluminium enclosure. Width:58 cm, Depth:50 cm, Height:30 cm, Weight:32 kg)
  • Monitor — 17" 1280 x 1024 pixels
            (Width:51 cm, Depth:28 cm, Height:38 cm, Weight:12 kg)
  • Lightpen — Precision machined stainless steel pointer with left/right click button
  • QWERTY keyboard — 85 clicky keys, USB output
  • Music keyboard — Fatar 76 key TP40GH, with weighted keys and hammer action for a real piano feel,
    velocity and aftertouch, pitch wheel, mod wheel, 3 assignable rotary controls, 2 assignable switches, assignable multitouch colour screen
            (Width:130 cm, Depth:44 cm, Height:9.5 cm, Weight:25 kg)
Audio Outputs
  • 12 channels analogue, balanced TRS
  • 2 channels analogue monitor mix, balanced TRS (front panel access)
      (Dynamic range > 100 dB (unweighted); THD < 0.002% @ 1 kHz, −1dBFS; Frequency response +0.05 / −0.15 dB, 20 Hz – 20 kHz)
  • Digital output: 64 channel BNC MADI
Audio Inputs
  • 2 balanced mic/line inputs XLR, phantom power 48V option
      (Sample rate: 44.1, 48, 96, 192 kHz; THD < 0.002% @ 1 kHz, −1dBFS; Frequency response +0.05 / −0.15 dB, 20 Hz – 20 kHz)
Other I/O
  • USB, Pedal x 3
  • MIDI and MIDI Timecode input and output via 5 pin DIN
  • LTC (Linear Time Code) input and output
  • Word clock (for synchronisation to external sources)
  • 100–240V AC — Mainframe & Keyboard: 9W, Monitor: 50W

Fairlight Pro App for iPhone, iPod Touch & iPad, iOS 4.0 or later. (2011)

  • £29.99
  • Entire original Fairlight CMI IIX Sound Library containing 564 voices.
  • 100+ selected CMI III sounds – play the CMI voices from an external MIDI input or the on-screen keyboard.
  • Display voices graphically using ‘Page D’, and change your viewpoint by tilting the iPhone/iPad.
  • Authentic Fairlight CMI user interface.
  • 8 track composition using ‘Page R’ pattern-based sequencer.
  • Ability to create instrument sets that store settings for all 8 channels, including the voices, pitch shifts, volumes, release times etc.
  • Import/export voices, compositions, MIDI and instruments.
  • Audiobus Audio Routing Support (ability to combine in tandem with other running sound processing/recording apps)

Sound clips[edit]

Note: These sound clips require an Ogg Vorbis player. Click here for a list of downloadable players.

An excerpt from Arpegiator (recorded October 1981), highlighting the use of the Fairlight CMI

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Artists who used the Fairlight CMI[edit]

Devo used the CMI extensively on their 1984 album, Shout, but only occasionally after that (mostly being used by frontman Mark Mothersbaugh's music composing company, Mutato Muzika). It also appears as a prop in their home video release, We're All Devo, where it is used by Timothy Leary's character.

Jan Hammer's music video for the Miami Vice theme song features a CMI. It also makes an appearance being operated by Nick Rhodes in Duran Duran's video "The Reflex". Al Di Meola's Sequencer video has many shots of the Fairlight CMI and its software. You can see Fairlight CMI (series II presumably) in the music video "Etude" by Mike Oldfield (track from the album The Killing Fields, can be seen on the Elements DVD). A monitor of a Fairlight CMI appears at the 1985 music video "Machine Age Voodoo (Junk Funk)" from the Band SPK. It can also be seen in the Queen documentary "Magic Years" and on the back cover of Mecano's live album.

Herbie Hancock made an appearance on Sesame Street in the early 1980s demonstrating the Fairlight.

Jean Michel Jarre's 1983 album Zoolook and the single of the same name features the Fairlight's extremely famous Sararr lead throughout the song, predominately in the chorus and with the sampled voices.

David Hirschfelder made extensive use of the Fairlight CMI while recording with John Farnham for the 1986 album Whispering Jack.

Hans Zimmer used the CMI III to make the soundtrack for the oscar-winning 1988 film, Rain Man.


  1. ^ "Mix Announces Certified Hits of NAMM 2011". Mix (28 January 2011). 
  2. ^ "Fairlight History". FairlightUS.com. 
  3. ^ "Peter Vogel history".  — with links to some Fairlight history and photos
  4. ^ a b c d e Stewart, Andy. "Name Behind the Name: Bruce Jackson — Apogee, Jands, Lake Technology". Audio Technology (40). 
  5. ^ Manning, Peter (2004). Electronic and computer music. Oxford UP. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-19-514484-0. 
  6. ^ "Interview: Electronic maestros". New Scientist (26 March 2005). 
  7. ^ "Fairlight CMI – history". 
  8. ^ "Fairlight Instruments 30th Anniversary CMI". Peter Vogel Instruments. 
  9. ^ "CMI App for iPad and iPhone". Peter Vogel Instruments. 
  10. ^ Dawson, Giles (4 August 1983). "Machines alive with the sound of music". New Scientist: 333. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 
  11. ^ "Fairlight – The Whole Story". Audio Media magazine (January 1996). 
  12. ^ Olmsted, Tony (2003). Folkways Records: Moses Asch and Folkways Records. New York, N.Y.: Routledge. ISBN 1-56098-812-6. 
  13. ^ "About us". Erdenklang Musikverlag. 
  14. ^ Erdenklang premiere, entry in the Ars Electronica Archive
  15. ^ "Phil Collins - No Jacket Required". Genesis News. Retrieved 25 April 2014. 
  16. ^ 1984's Under Wraps album was almost all Fairlight-recorded.
  17. ^ As heard, for instance, on her 1988 hit "Buffalo Stance".

External links[edit]