Inside Views: Fairlight
Continuing our series that looks at hi-tech companies and design personnel working in the field of music and recording technology, Paul Gilby talks sampling with Kim Ryrie, President of Fairlight Instruments of Australia.
A look at hi-tech companies and design personnel working in the field of music and recording technology. This month, Paul Gilby talks with Kim Ryrie, President of Fairlight Instruments.
Founded twelve years ago by two electronics enthusiasts, Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel, Fairlight Instruments of Australia have become famous the world over for their pioneering work in the field of sampling technology and for influencing a whole new generation of software-based sequencer packages derived from the Fairlight CMI's popular Page R real-time sequencer. The list of top musicians/producers who own and use both past and present generations of Fairlight products is long and testimony of the high esteem in which their instruments are held.
During an exhibition in Los Angeles, we spoke to one of Fairlight's founding fathers, Kim Ryrie, whilst Jan Hammer was on stage demonstrating how he now uses the Fairlight Series III to produce the soundtrack music for the 'Miami Vice' television cop show. Kim began the conversation by explaining the events that lead to the formation of the company.
"I started the company with an old friend of mine, Peter Vogel, in 1975. Prior to that I had been working on the design of the 4600 synthesizer with Electronics Today magazine, a publication which I originally started in Sydney, Australia. It was later sold to an English publisher and I believe Electronics Today International, as it is known, is still going strong.
The story behind the design of that particular project was simply that I wanted my own synthesizer, and since we had the design facility available, I thought lots of other people would also like to have a synthesizer - this was just after the first Moog came out. I thought the best thing to do was to design one to run as a project in the magazine and people could build it up themselves.
This turned out to be a massive undertaking as nobody at that time really knew how synthesizers worked.
After the experience with that project, I very quickly became frustrated with the analogue synthesizer technology that was available then and started to think initially of building a digitally-controlled analogue synth. I started working with Peter (Vogel) along those lines in '74. Then in 1975, we decided to establish the Fairlight company.
Soon after that we met up with a person called Anthony Furse, who had been working in Sydney for four or five years on various types of digital synthesizer designs. He'd already been experimenting with frequency modulation techniques and decided that FM really wasn't capable of producing very good natural sounds, so he moved towards Fourier Analysis and re-synthesis. Anthony developed a system based on those techniques but it didn't, at that time, allow you to sample real sounds into waveform memory - that was a bit too expensive to do in those days. The initial machine that we are talking about here had only 4K of waveform RAM, shared between eight voices... and it used to run 'red hot' and cost thousands of dollars!
The idea at that time was to analyse sounds and animate a number of cycles which, in effect, gave you an impression of the natural sound. In practice, that turned out not to work very well and we ended up scrapping the whole design. However, this was by no means wasted work, but very much a foundation stone, because that system used the same architecture that we are using in today's Fairlight Series III. Instead of having just 4K of RAM, we are now talking about a machine that has 28 Megabytes of RAM!
Anthony designed that original system back in 1973 and Peter and I spent the next two years getting it to work. During that time, 16K dynamic RAM chips started to become available, and we thought that was amazing. We re-designed the whole system to have 16K per voice... this just seemed like an unimaginable amount of memory!
We were now getting closer to what we wanted and it was from that design that the original Fairlight CMI developed. In 1979 we sold the first instrument to Stevie Wonder. From then on it was a case of developing the techniques that we had employed and providing more control of the waveform, vibrato, keyboard controller etc.
With the new Series III, we have in some ways gone back to the original concept of our shared memory system developed on the little 4K unit, whereas the Fairlight CMI (Series I) had memory allocated per voice. In the Series III we've got a total of twelve microprocessors, including a couple of 68000 chips, and in fact we're just bringing out a 32-bit option which allows you to expand up to 28 Megabytes of memory per 16 voices, with a total capacity of 80 voices."
Returning to the Series I, was the continued development of the instrument largely in response to what musicians wanted or did it all happen in the lab?
"We used to get a lot of feedback from users and integrate it with our own ideas.
Most of the user comments tended to be things like asking us if there was a way of not having to hit a particular button so many times, and if we could make all of those tasks happen with just one press of a button. I guess, in the early days, the main conceptual developments of the instrument were all in-house. You see, the system wasn't really conceived and developed into its final form then taken around to financial investors to see if they would fund the project; it was really just an ad hoc growth. Neither Peter nor myself had business management experience and so we were basically just running the company on whatever finances we could find, and when we sold an instrument the profits were ploughed right back into the company to help develop the next step."
The original Fairlight CMI did much to establish the company's name throughout the world, how did you go about popularising the instruments?
"We largely relied on the users of the machine to publicise it for us, as we didn't have any money initially for a marketing campaign. When it began to be used on records by the more adventurous musicians, such as Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel, that helped enormously.
I remember at the AES show in 1979, we had people coming up to the instrument, which was being used to demonstrate how you could play natural sounds, and they couldn't understand what it could be used for! It was a case of, 'Yes, that's great - but who can make music with such a thing? ' As a matter of fact, we shared our exhibition space that year with Roger Linn who was there with his first drum machine. He too had the same comments - people couldn't see why you would want to use a machine with sampled drum sounds in it. By the end of the show, Roger was about ready to give up and slash his wrists! ...Times have really changed."
"Today, we have grown to a size where we employ about 100 people back in Sydney, and we have now produced two other products: a video visual effects generator - the Fairlight CVI - and the Voicetracker unit, which allows voice or acoustic instruments to control the Fairlight or any other MIDI controllable sound generator.
We bought the design for the Voicetracker from a guy living in Northern California. He'd spent some four years working on the design, exploring various techniques of pitch conversion, when he eventually stumbled on the version we have today.
Peter and I had at one time been involved in trying to design a pitch-tracking system ourselves and so, initially, we weren't too keen. However, when I actually heard his design, I was amazed by its performance."
Most pitch-tracking systems suffer from a lack of stability when trying to lock onto the fundamental musical note and tend to jump erratically up to the strong harmonics in the sound. How have you overcome that very basic problem?
"Well, it's a secret! All I can say is that the system is software-based and there are some very clever routines at work in the program. It asks questions like, whether or not a human player would have just played a certain combination of notes - beyond that I'll say nothing."
Returning to the Series III then, do you see a different kind of user buying the system today or is it still rooted in music?
"I think about half of the present Series III owners are using them for film-related work because of the SMPTE timecode facility. The rest are still firmly devoted to record production and have naturally followed the development of the instrument as it has evolved.
Film work, as demonstrated at this show by Jan Hammer, is a very exciting area. Until we looked at people using the Fairlight in this application, I didn't realise just how little of the soundtrack is recorded during the original filming. All those footsteps, gun shots and screams are all synced to film afterwards. This obviously takes weeks on a long film. Here, Jan Hammer is showing how he can turn an episode of 'Miami Vice' around in five days. From writing the background music to fit the visual action - and via the SMPTE link, sync it perfectly to picture - to giving the finished work to the TV company who just need to drop a few sound effects in the right place and it's finished!"
Was the original Fairlight conceived to be an integrated package, or was it just a sampling keyboard?
"No, it's always had a strong sequencer as part of its design. In fact, we came out with ours about the same time as Roland launched their first MicroComposer sequencer. A few years later we introduced the now famous Page R real-time sequencer. It is most definitely an integrated system, with the sampling section, waveform analysis, sound editing and the sequencer.
On the new Series III we're about to complete the CAPS software - Composer, Arranger, Performance, Sequencer. This is a fully-integrated composition aid which helps the user create music very quickly - it's not just a straightforward sequencer program. Even when CAPS becomes available I think many musicians will still use Page R and convert across to the new software, because Page R has a more rhythmical approach, whereas CAPS is more recording orientated. I suppose it really depends on how people write their music."
Although the Series III has only recently been introduced, I'm sure the company is already looking ahead to future systems. Are you able to say anything about where you are heading?
"We don't try and predict the future too much, we tend to look at the technology that's available and decide if we can utilise it in our products. Obviously, we have some very long term concepts of what the Fairlight production studio maybe like, and mass data storage is perhaps one of the more important areas. We don't, however, feel that we want to leap into the hard disk based multitrack approach, because you need an awful lot of fairly high cost tape to back up the system's hard disk for security reasons. We have also kept the Fairlight Series III fairly portable, and that's important.
Our thoughts about the future lie more along the lines of the RDAT digital audio cassette system or possibly erasable CD optical storage. It is technically possible to run an RDAT cassette at a faster speed so that you can turn it into a digital multitrack system.
At the moment, we feel that you can't really surpass that sort of media because it's both portable, low cost, and has a perfectly acceptable audio quality. We know of at least one company who are going to introduce that sort of system and Fairlight are going to be working with people in that area."
Feature by Paul Gilby
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