Out Of The Blue
The CMI and Blue Weaver
A journey through the intricacies of the Fairlight Computer at Blue Weaver's studio.
"So there I was, minding my own business of a Summer's evening last year", explains Blue Weaver, "When there was a muffled cry that came from my studio containing the Fairlight. I dashed in from the garden and there he was, a client who had been trying to find a sound in the Fairlight... gone! Vanished. Not a trace. I'm currently working on a program that will enable me to get him out from the computer. He's probably trapped in Page G having his harmonics analysed. Nasty business."
This apocryphal anecdote was related to me by Blue Weaver, the rare Amazonian butterfly (actually, he's of flesh and blood like you and me, but sounds as if he should be a rare Amazonian butterfly). When you've been keyboard player and songwriter for Amen Corner, The Strawbs, Mott The Hoople and that well-known toothpaste group, the Brothers Gibb, you deserve a name a little out of the ordinary. And out of the ordinary he certainly is, with a small studio at the back of his home, filled with the most massive console you have ever seen, a few outboard effects and tape recorders, and the 'passionate love' of his life the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument. "I feel a bit hard done by I must say; whereas I am three years older than when I first bought it, the CMI is actually now younger than the day it was born." He was alluding to the continuous process of improvement in the software (instructions for the computer) which are issued by the makers/inventors from Sydney, Australia, which keep the CMI wrinkle-free and abreast of the latest technology. "I joined the Bee Gees just before their great leap forward with 'Jive Talkin', and it was about that time we discovered and bought this Fairlight, and a Synclavier as well. The hardware (the mechanical and electrical bits) is exactly the same as when I first bought it."
Now Fairlight are coming out with a modification that will make the CMI even quicker to obey orders punched into the keyboard or accessed with the futuristic light pen on the Visual Display Monitor. "Sometimes it takes a little time getting used to having to work at getting a sound instead of just twiddling a knob as with your Prophet or Oberheim. I had a Prophet Ten and I paid my dues programming that. I got as far as I could recreating drum sounds, strings, explosions, you know. Then the Fairlight appeared as the most logical step forward. We used it on all the Bee Gees stuff, though it was tough at the outset because there was no documentation on the thing, and it wasn't until Kim, one of the inventors, came over, that we began to see the (Fair) light. For instance, I hadn't realised that you have to go out and capture the sound you want, and bring it back kicking and screaming for the CMI to sample. I had been using the demonstration programs and of course they didn't suit the Bee Gees' sound at all". He hung his head in shame at the embarrassment of it all; "God, I was so naive!"
He soon got the hang of it and discovered the sheer power, the undiluted force of his adversary; "yes, it's amazing what you can find by accident! On an analogue synth you aim for a sort of sound and you normally get there without too much trouble. Unless you're deaf, or drunk. On the CMI, you can be aiming for a sound, and on the way, because of the vastness of the land you have to cover, you discover countless other sounds which are all one bit more enticing than the previous one." These by-products are for Blue quite legitimate accidents — there is nothing virtuous in being able to program a synthesizer without veering left or right.
"Most of my sounds are discovered by keeping my ears open and my mind open and going whichever way the Fairlight leads me. Do try," he warned me, "to avoid calling the Fairlight a synthesizer. It is a computer developed for musicians. It doesn't synthesize. It doesn't have to. It recreates. Now the Synclavier", he said, dusting off his pet hate, "is a synthesiser. It is quite unbeatable in the sphere of making up sounds; the sheer quality of sound is not matched by the Fairlight, and it's obvious that if you are not into sampling then the Synclavier is the one for you. But if you want sampling to form the basis of your sound library, then it's equally obvious you'd go for the CMI". Blue explained how the optional sampling on the Synclavier (which costs so much the ink in my pen ran out writing the noughts) has been used on albums Stateside to correct the pitch and intonation of some Very Famous Stars. Because of its 100-second capability, even though it is only monophonic, you can load in complete phrases and replay them via the keyboard. But without the sampling it's just a synthesizer, and for virtually the same money you can get the CMI with the sampling built-in. "Sampling is for me the greatest thing in the music world since the invention of the mouth organ. You see, once you have sampled the sound, that's when the fun starts. You can play around with the very basis of the sound itself and give it several new leases of life."
Often the sampled sound is better than the original. "Take the snare of my Linn 1 Drum Computer. I've done things to that in the Fairlight that defy the laws of the space-time continuum, so that the finished article is irresistibly good instead of just being an ordinary snare. I could for instance graft the way the trumpet player plays his trumpet (the shape of the sound) onto the sound of the snare, and get a snare that's played like a trumpet."
Then, inevitably, we reached the prickly subject — sharp intake of breath — of ethics. Far from being a county to the east of London, ethics is a hot potato in music circles. Where, I wondered, did Blue find his sounds for sampling? "There are several sources. The best raw material, as it were, is when I can record directly into the Fairlight with a microphone. I get a friend in who plays, say, violin and get him to play a variety of styles, all of which I load into the CMI. Then I might get a guitarist to do various strums — the key doesn't matter because I can choose the key on the keyboard. The next-best source is when I go out and record a sound on a high-quality portable recorder — motorcycles, scrap yards, water, doors shutting, dogs barking. All these things can be used either as effects or as musical sources, and I'm aiming to build up a library of sounds which would normally be considered to have no musical value at all, but which, once processed by the Fairlight, can be used to provide totally unconventional textures."
"Other sources to satisfy the seemingly voracious appetite of the Fairlight's sampling come from previous commercial tape-recordings and records." No one really knows what to do about this question of synthesis or sampling. The loose rule-of-thumb is that an electronic instrument 'should not' be used if it is actually replacing a conventional instrument and thereby putting an innocent session player out of work. "But it's all so relative — the Solina string machine, which we used to use before the Bee Gees, was ostracised for taking away string-players' work, but now it's totally accepted as a sound." Sampling is a different kettle of fish (ever tried sampling a kettle of fish? Nor have I). The sound is so real that you can do without vast orchestras at vast expenses. "I'm a producer. Such things are beyond my budget. If I had to use real string players or whatever at session rates every time I produced a master I wouldn't bother. And then you wouldn't hear any classical instruments on any more singles."
"Take the snare of my Linn 1 Drum Computer. I've done things to that in the Fairlight that defy the laws of the space-time continuum."
Musicians are on the whole pragmatists; not for them the pros and cons of the 'should you — shouldn't you' debate. If it works, they'll use it, quite apart from the futility of resisting the forces of technological progress.
"I'm very aware of the limitations of the Fairlight. Memory is expensive, so the Fairlight samples up to two seconds only. But even that short time is more than enough to capture the essence of the sound." If the source is on tape, or is badly recorded with all sorts of ambient reverberation, you cannot clean it up. "If I do a complete song on Fairlight, you can spot those sounds which were originally taken from tape — the hiss is definitely there. The Fairlight isn't transparent." It's an artform in itself, recording the sample, because if you choose to use the computer's power to lengthen the note, the original note has to be very stable. 'Looping' is where the computer repeats the last segment of the note and if done properly, makes the original sound last as long as you keep your finger on the keyboard. "Looping is a relatively long process — getting it right, but because I'm my own master, I can handle it. I don't have heavy hire charges or studio time to worry about.
"There comes a time," he said, returning to the subject of sound, "When you've got to stop saying: what's that sound, what's that sound? And just get down to the business of using it. It's only by this process of exploration that people (the market) will gradually accept that there are more pleasant sounds around than they realise. Some recent records already use sounds which are not just synthesizers, guitar or whatever: it's irrelevant what the sounds are, so long as they work." Would he ever go back to using conventional synthesizers? "Oh sure! I'd sample their sounds and stick them in the memory!"
Blue is open for business for people who want to put new ideas into practise, at such a reasonable rate it would seem churlish to refuse. "The Fairlight goes so deep that you don't really ever reach the bottom of it — analogues seem so shallow by comparison". At this point he played me a track with Jimmy James on vocals. The name of the game is deception. If you hadn't known the track was all done on Fairlight, you wouldn't have questioned it's authenticity: there is nothing to come between you and the pleasant sounds you hear. The Fairlight doesn't shout "I'm here, listen to me!" It gets on quietly with the processing of sound. "You're always hearing Jupiter 8s and Prophets and Oberheims on the radio because they have distinctive sounds. The Fairlight doesn't. What you can say, though, is; that's such a weird sound, used in such an unusual way, only a Fairlight can do that. But the Fairlight doesn't have a sound of its own, and is all the better for it".
The last thing I heard before taking leave of his golden disc-lined studio was a track featuring some demented nightingale clearing its throat. And no, it couldn't be; did I also really hear a distant cry for help from inside the computer? Prospective clients, beware the Fairlight. It will lead you to places you've never been: Bromley, Croydon. And with Blue Weaver, the famous rare Amazonian butterfly, you'll get there cheaper than you thought possible.
Blue Weaver Studio (Contact Details)
£250 per day including everything except VA
Eden Studios Custom Console 24 channel
Soundcraft 24-Track Recorder
Revox PR-99 2-track plus Mitsubishi Digital
JBL 4311B + Visonik 502 Monitors