Fairlight's Father (Part 1)
TechTalk: Kim Ryrie | Kim Ryrie
Article from Music Technology, May 1987
In an exclusive interview, the co-founder of the Fairlight company and father of the CMI talks about the machine's development, and outlines his plans for the future. Simon Trask pops the questions.
In the first half of an exclusive two-part interview, Fairlight co-founder Kim Ryrie outlines the background behind the CMI's invention, and gives a sneak preview of what his company may be doing in the future.
"The first sampled sound came from a dog that belonged to one of the programmers... We sampled it onto the first prototype hoard, and it ended up in the original sound library."
"We didn't get rich doing that, but it certainly made us enough money to keep going. That lasted for about two years, which was long enough for us to start being able to sell the CMI I."
Ironically, it was Japan's entry into the business computer market which prompted Fairlight to phase themselves out of that area, feeling it would no longer be profitable for them.
The Series I CMI made its debut in 1979, with sampling as the star of the show and the original additive synthesis system relegated to a supporting role on Page 4. The Series II followed a few years later with essentially the same architecture, but offering improved fidelity, and replacing the 6800s with dual 6809 processors.
Today, the Fairlight has achieved such fame that even non-musicians are aware of what it does. But what did musicians and producers make of the CMI when it was first launched?
"We had the CMI at an AES show in New York in 1979, and the reaction was universally: 'Oh my God, that's amazing - what would you use it for?', which was a bit depressing."
While the CMI's sampling ability stole the limelight, there was another aspect of the Computer Musical Instrument which had a profound impact on the musicians who actually used it: the famed Page R. How did the rhythm page come about?
"While working on the sampling, we were also working on a keyboard sequencer which we called Page 9. It was an overdubbing keyboard sequencer that recorded key velocity, but which didn't really have good editing facilities at all.
"I think it was at the 1980 AES show that Roger Linn came along with his drum machine. We let him share our booth, and we gave demonstrations on the half-hour, alternating demos with Roger. I honestly thought that Roger was going to slash his wrists by the end of the show. Everyone was coming in and playing with his drum machine, and saying: 'That's amazing. What would you use it for?'. He was so depressed...
"I was quite impressed by the organisation of his drum sequencer, with patterns and so on. I thought that approach could work on the Fairlight with all our sampled sounds. So I drew up a very simple display page with blobs for the notes, and we thought we could call it the Rhythm Sequencer. Our programmer, Michael Carlos, wrote Page R from that basic specification, and although we intended it to be rhythmically oriented, we found that people were using it increasingly for more general music composition.
"So we added more and more features that we felt composers would want, and Page R developed into a very interactive sequencer because of the way the memory is structured. It has a block of memory with X number of bytes in it all the time, whether they're used for notes or not. So it's incredibly inefficient as a memory storage system, but it's terribly interactive because of that structure. That's why it's only 16 monophonic channels - eight on the Series II - and of necessity is quantised to some degree.
"The new CAPS sequencer for the Series III is the more traditional form of sequencer, in that it records note-ons and note-offs and so forth. The idea is that you can use Page R to get the structure of your song together, and once you've done that you can transfer across to CAPS and move on to the rest of the song."
As you may already know, CAPS is an 80-track sequencer which integrates MIDI into the Fairlight scheme of things. The software is only just being made available on the Series III, but Fairlight are already planning dramatic new developments.
"We've just purchased the exclusive rights to something called 'Clynes' microstructure', which we're intending to make available in the second stage of CAPS.
"Dr Clynes is the head of the electronic music department at the New South Wales Conservatorium. He spent about five or six years researching what he calls the 'pulse' of composers. His claim is that all of the classical composers, for example, have an inherent 'pulse' - the way that they play things. For instance, the third microbeat in some part of music will always be played slightly ahead of time by a few milliseconds, and perhaps at a slightly lower amplitude, and perhaps the note will attack and decay in a slightly different way. He spent an awful lot of time analysing all this on his department's computers, and he's come up with all these pulses for all the classical composers.
"We'd been sitting on the sidelines watching all this develop, because we were a little bit sceptical. But the results are absolutely startling. You could play in a piece of Bach and it might not sound particularly authentic. But you would then run his software through the composition - in this case the Bach algorithm - and the music would actually come back sounding like Bach.
"We added features we felt composers would want, and Page R developed into an interactive sequencer because of the way it's structured. It's inefficient as a memory storage system, but it's very interactive."
"In fact the way that it's played seems to make it sound more like Bach than the notes themselves, because you could then run the Beethoven algorithm on the same piece of music and it would come back sounding more like Beethoven than Bach, even though it was Bach who had composed the notes.
"We're working on the next generation, which may allow a more powerful system to be produced more cheaply, but our mind is always on what can be produced rather than how much it costs."
Another reason for the CMI's success has been its emphasis on user-friendliness. As Kim Ryrie explains, there's a good reason why that has always been a priority.
"Well, I hate computers. I've never been able to sit down at a computer and program it. I have an Apple II at home which I use only when I absolutely have to.
"I know the way musicians feel about computers. The hard thing is to get programmers, who love typewriter keyboards, enthusiastic about the idea that some people like knobs and buttons and seeing things on screens and not having to type much - being able to poke at things with pens rather than having to type at 300 words a minute.
"So user-friendliness was part of a very early philosophy, and Peter was always in agreement about that. And because we had quite a number of musicians working on the project, they also felt strongly about that aspect of it. It became a bit of a thing to see who could make the most user-friendly display page.
"That wasn't too difficult with Series I and II, but with Series III it became a big problem. Whereas you could teach anyone how to use the Series II in 10 minutes, the III was a whole different ball-game. Instead of having sounds that were always 16K in length, you suddenly had 14Mbytes of RAM, variable sample lengths, 64 subvoices per voice, as many voices as you liked in an instrument...
"It's been a real challenge getting the Series III software as user-friendly as the Series II was, because there's so much more involved. Just to give you an example, control parameters such as vibrato rate and attack and decay rates can be set for subvoices as well as voices - local and global parameters - and that's quite hard to orchestrate and make accessible to the user."
WHILE THE JAPANESE music industry concentrates on producing ever more sophisticated instruments at the budget end of the market, Fairlight has remained resolutely at the top end. But although we're unlikely to see a £2000 instrument from the company just yet, times are changing.
"We work towards a system that will allow what we consider to be state-of-the-art production. If we could do it for £2000, we would do it.
"In fact, we've had a lot of interest from people who can't afford a Fairlight who have asked us if we could do a smaller, cheaper one. But the amount of R&D that goes into the Fairlight is so enormous that we feel we really just want to concentrate on one design at a time. That's not to say that we aren't working on the next generation, which may allow a more powerful system to be produced a little more cheaply, but our mind is always on what can be produced, rather than how much it costs - though we do try to get the cost as low as we can.
"What we are doing is bringing out a new configuration of the Series III which will use 20Mbyte floppy disks rather than hard disk. It'll use the Series III's hardware and software — so, for instance, it'll have CAPS - but a typical configuration will probably be eight voices with 4Mbyte of RAM. The advantage of that may be that some people would be able to afford to make it part of their production system, and then add to it as money allows - it'll be upgradable to the complete Series III system.
"The eight-voice/four-meg configuration allows you to play virtually any Series III sound that is now around; most multi-sampled sounds on the III take about 4Mbyte. So what it means is that people who can't go for the full system will at least be able to get those sounds that they can't get using the cheaper sampling instruments. That's something that we're hoping to bring out quite soon..."
Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2
Gear in this article:
Interview by Simon Trask
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!