Fairlight Goes MIDI
Article from Electronics & Music Maker, June 1985
At last, the CMI frees itself from the constraints of an analogue interface and starts talking MIDI. Paul Wiffen checks out the results.
Two years after its inception, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface finally finds its way onto the Fairlight CMI.
Aside from the odd brief chat with a passing Minimoog or Prophet courtesy of its built-in analogue interface, the Fairlight has done very little in the way of communicating with the rest of the synthesiser world during its eight-year history. Which is a shame, because the CMI's Page R sequencer was one of the few such packages to give some display of rhythmic value in musical terms, and in the past, its versatility could only be applied to sounds that had been synthesised or sampled on the Fairlight itself.
Well, now all that has changed, thanks to Fairlight's engineers taking the decision to implement MIDI. This is a pretty shrewd move, as the interface is now a good bit more widely used in pro studio applications than its opponents would prefer to believe. And the system hasn't just found favour with the major polysynth manufacturers; some of the bigger league machines such as the Kurzweil and Emulator II already have MIDI fitted as standard, and that's something Fairlight simply couldn't afford to ignore any longer.
What I really ought to make clear from the outset is that the Fairlight's version of MIDI isn't just something that's being fitted to the latest production models, because the hardware and software necessary to make the CMI MIDI-compatible is available as a retrofit for existing Fairlight owners as well. One such owner is Fairlight aficionado and occasional Helden member Hans Zimmer, whose studio - Lillie Yard - is currently home of the first MIDI-equipped CMI in Britain.
So, off go Wiffen and battered Cortina in the direction of Zimmer's abode, hoping to find true interfacing love and happiness. And by and large, that was precisely what we found.
The hardware consists of a large metal box that's affixed to the rear of the Fairlight's main unit, and houses no fewer than four MIDI Ins and a similar number of Outs - one for each separate port. There's SMPTE In and Out, too. As for the extra software, this is accessed through a new option on Page I, and comprises four separate display pages (or Sheets, in this instance). Cunningly, these are got at by typing a number between 1 and 4 on the Fairlight's QWERTY keyboard.
In fact, the first of these Sheets isn't actually concerned with MIDI at all. Instead, it deals with the generation of and synchronisation to the SMPTE code. As anybody who read the final instalment of Everything but the Kitchen (E&MM February) should know, SMPTE has now become the industry standard for synchronising film, video and audio tape signals, so it's a natural for an instrument like the Fairlight that finds itself being used in an awful lot of audio-video applications.
Anyway, the top half of this sheet shows the clock rate generated in hours, minutes, seconds and frames (which can be at a rate of 24, 25 or 30 per second according to film, European video and American video standards respectively), and is also capable of displaying the date of the session you're currently working on, should you choose to enter this information into the machine before you set the ball rolling.
Immediately above is a further readout that displays the user-selectable SMPTE offset. For those not in the know, this parameter comes into play when you need a code that doesn't start at zero hours, minutes and seconds, so it obviously comes in useful when, for instance, you want to dub a section halfway through a film or video.
The lower half of the sheet shows the incoming SMPTE clock, and this is decoded in the same format as the outgoing data, so you can see exactly how far through synchronised playback you've progressed. And with a thoroughness that's now become one of the company's trademarks, Fairlight have ensured that their version of SMPTE can be used to drive any of the CMI's sequencing pages, which is good news.
It's on Sheet 2 that we find MIDI routing details of the four ports and the 16 serial channels that each one can independently assign. The first of the four is intended to be used exclusively for Fairlight's new Master Keyboard, which'll use MIDI to send velocity- and pressure-sensing data (amongst other things) to the connected sound-generating hardware. Don't worry - the keyboard hasn't arrived on these shores yet, and as soon as it does, you'll read about it here.
Sheet 2 also allows different MIDI protocols (or dialects, as some people seem to have taken to calling them) to be assigned to the remaining three ports. Currently supplied are protocols for Fairlight, Yamaha and SynthAxe, so that for instance, you can perform previously impossible feats like playing a Yamaha TX816 MIDI Rack from one of Bill Aitken's hi-tech guitar wonders.
This separate protocol arrangement starts to really come into its own on Sheet 3. Basically, this page lets you assign any of the MIDI controllers to the Fairlight's system of switches, sliders and pedals. And what that gives you in practice is an extensive and versatile controlling network (similar to that provided by Yamaha's KX88 Master Keyboard) in which any synth parameter given MIDI access by its designers can be altered using the Fairlight's controllers.
Finally, Sheet 4 endows the CMI with the ability to delve a little deeper into MIDI's internal workings, and to show the results of those delvings on-screen for the benefit of the end user. Thus, you can fill the Fairlight's screen display with incoming MIDI signals, listed in hexadecimal code and separated according to which port they're entering the Fairlight through. You can also freeze an incoming signal if you're interested in analysing the precise MIDI message it contains.
Of course, you're going to need to be pretty well clued-up on the way MIDI information is exchanged to extract much usefulness from this facility. Personally, I reckon the people who'll use it most are probably Fairlight's engineers, as it'll allow them to take a peek into just about every MIDI protocol currently being implemented. Hence Sheet 4's vaguely apposite sub-title 'DeBug'.
The first thing to get across is that this update package provides a neat and convenient implementation of two very different industry standards - SMPTE and MIDI. That alone will no doubt earn it 'must buy' status for many First Division recording studios, especially as more and more of them become attuned to the sort of compositional versatility today's hi-tech musical instruments can provide.
More important for Fairlight's musician ownership are the dual benefits of increased Page R sequencing versatility and the implementation of different MIDI dialects. Now you can hook up any MIDI sound source (analogue, digital, FM, you name it) to one of the world's most flexible sequencers, without fear of MIDI incompatibility casting its all-too-familiar shadow over the proceedings. Overdue, but well worth waiting for.
Further information: Syco Systems, (Contact Details).
Feature by Paul Wiffen
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