Fairlight CMI

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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 in September 1982 (although this is debated because it also found use on Kate Bush's The Dreaming). It was also used in Jean-Michel Jarre's 1981 LP Magnetic Fields.



The Fairlight sound 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 I 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 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 was available with the Series III.

The Fairlight ran its own operating system known as QDOS and had a primitive (by modern standards) 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 driver, keyboard interface, etc. 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 green-screen. The Series III 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 Motorola 68000 processors, running Microware's OS-9 operating system. 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 artists.

The Fairlight CMI was very well built, and consequently very high-priced. A Series I with all options sold for close to 1 million US dollars, though later models were comparatively cheaper as well as more advanced. A Fairlight CMI can be seen in the Devo film, We Are Devo and Jan Hammer's music video for the Miami Vice theme song.

Fairlight went bankrupt a few years later owing to the expense of building the instruments — AUD$20,000 in components per unit. 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 couldn't finance the expansion and the R&D."


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 for the first time to the average musician. Though the Ensoniq Mirage was essentially a poor man's sampler with significantly inferior hardware specs, at less than $2000, it was nevertheless sufficiently powered (8-bit microprocessor) to signal the end of the CMI. In addition to these low-cost dedicated systems, very cheap add-in cards for popular home computers started to appear at this time, for example the Apple II-based Greengate DS3 sampler card, and new computer systems such as the Apple Macintosh featured built-in sampling sound systems.

Technical specifications

Quasar I, II, and (last) M8 (1975-1977)

  • $20,000 USD base price
  • Based on the Motorola 6800 processor chip
  • Made by Fairlight and Creative Strategies
  • 8 voices (no sampling, just numeric additive synthesis with 128 harmonics)
  • Memory: 4KB per voice
  • Synthesis: Fourier synthesis; dynamic harmonic control, waveform editing
  • Tape reader

CMI Series I (1979)

  • 12,000 British pounds
  • The first musical sampler
  • 8 voices of polyphony
  • Sampling specification: 8 bits at 16 kHz (mono)
  • Memory: 16KB per voice, System: 64KB
  • Dual Motorola 6800 CPUs
  • Synthesis: freeform waveform via lightpen; dynamic harmonic control, waveform editing
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive + slave keyboard
  • Sequencer: Basic keyboard sequencer, Musical Composition Language (MCL),
  • Video RAM: 16KB (512x256 pixels)
  • Two 8" floppy drives

CMI Series II (1980)

  • 15,000 British pounds
  • 8 voices of polyphony
  • Sampling specification: 8 bits at 2100Hz to 30200 kHz (mono)
  • Memory: 16KB per voice, System: 64KB
  • Dual Motorola 6800 CPUs
  • Synthesis: freeform waveform via lightpen; dynamic harmonic control, waveform editing
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive + slave keyboard
  • Control: MIDI, SMPTE
  • Sequencer: Basic keyboard equencer, Musical Composition Language (MCL),
  • Video RAM: 16KB (512x256 pixels)
  • Two 8" floppy drivea

CMI Series IIx (1983)

  • 20,000 British pounds
  • 8 voices of polyphony
  • Sampling specification: 8 bits at 2100Hz to 30200 kHz (mono)
  • Memory: 16KB per voice, System: 256KB
  • Dual Motorola 6809 CPUs
  • Synthesis: freeform waveform via lightpen; dynamic harmonic control, waveform editing
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive + slave keyboard
  • Control: MIDI, SMPTE
  • Sequencer: CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer Sequencer), 80-track sequencer, Musical Composition Language (MCL),
  • Video RAM 16KB (512x256 pixels)
  • Two 8" Floppy drive

CMI Series III (1985)

  • 76,000 Australian dollars
  • 16 voices of polyphony (expandable)
  • Sampling specification: 16 bits at100 kHz (mono) or 50 kHz (stereo), System: 356KB
  • Memory: 14MB, expandable to 32Mo and maximum 64Mo (RAM cache disk)
  • Dual Motorola 6809 CPUs, and one 6809 CPU for each voice card, one Motorola 68000 (to 68020) for waveform processor card
  • Synthesis: freeform waveform via graphics tablet; FFT; waveform editing
  • Keyboard: 73 note unweighted velocity sensitive (MIDI compatible)
  • Control: MIDI, SMPTE
  • Sequencer: CAPS (Composer, Arranger, Performer Sequencer), 80 track polyphonic, Musical Composition Language (MCL),
  • Hard drive and Tape DC600 Streamer (ESDI, SCSI), one 8" floppy drive

Sound Clips

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

Artists using the Fairlight CMI

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