The Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) was the first digital sampling synthesiser. It was designed by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie in Sydney, Australia in the late 1970s, and rose to prominence in the early 1980s. The first buyers of the new system were Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder, and the first commercially released song to use it was Gabriel's Shock the Monkey (although this is debated because it also found use on Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights album).

The Fairlight was a development of an earlier synthesiser called the Quasar M8, an attempt to create sound by modelling all of the parameters of a waveform in real time. Unfortunately, this was rather 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 as a starting point. To their surprise the effect was quite remarkable, and the sampler was born. By 1979, the Fairlight CMI series 1 was being demonstrated, but the sound quality was not quite up to professional standards, having only 24kHz sampling, and it wasn't until the series 2 of 1982 that this was rectified. In 1983 MIDI was added, and in 1985, support for full CD quality sampling was available.

The Fairlight ran its own operating system, a version of QDOS, and had a GUI, of sorts. The basic system used a number of 6800 processors, with separate cards dealing with specific parts of the system, such as display driver, keyboard interface, etc. The main device for interacting with the machine (apart from the keyboard) was a lightpen, which could be used to select options presented on a monochrome green-screen. The later series 3 model dropped the lightpen interface in favour of a graphics tablet interface which was built in to the keyboard. This model was also built around the Motorola 68000 chips, running the OS9 operating system (n.b. not to be confused with Mac OS 9!). One of the Fairlight's most significant software features was the so-called "Page-R", which was a real time graphical pattern sequence editor, widely copied on other software synths since. This feature was often a key part of the buying decision of artistes.

The Fairlight CMI was very well built, and consequently very high-priced. A series 1 with all options sold for close to 1 million US dollars, though later models were significantly cheaper as well as more advanced. A Fairlight CMI can be seen in the Devo film, We Are Devo.

Artistes using the Fairlight CMI

Technical Info

  • 16 voice polyphony (expandable)
  • Sampler: 16 bit, 100kHZ (mono) or 50kHz (stereo)
  • Memory: 28Mb, expandable
  • Synthesis: freeform waveform via graphics tablet; FFT; waveform editing
  • Effects: None built-in
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive
  • Control: MIDI, SMPTE
  • Sequencer: CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer Sequencer), 80 track polyphonic, Musical Composition Language (MCL),