Fairlight Series III
Simon Trask takes the bull by the horns and previews the latest 16-bit, £60,000 version of the Fairlight CMI. Millionaires have never had it so good, and there's more to come from Australia...
As technology gets cheaper and low-cost instruments start offering facilities that were once the preserve of expensive computer systems, we preview two new upmarket machines — the Series III Fairlight and PPG's Realizer — that ensure the big boys stay ahead of the pack.
'RELAX. Take a few deep breaths, think pleasant thoughts. It may take a little while to become expert with the CMI III, but it will be worth it. Now get the CMI III up and running... When you and the machine are both ready, there are a few explanatory notes about using the CMI, and a tutorial, designed to lead you through some basic routines... After that, you will be confident of success.'
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you read when you get your Series III Fairlight home, extricate the manual from its packaging, and open it up on Page 1. To be fair, there's no other obvious way of introducing an instrument so sophisticated, it makes its predecessor look like an Alba valve radio.
Mind you, the Series II CMI was a hard act to follow. When it was unveiled seven years ago, it was musically, technologically and conceptually streets ahead of almost everything else — and it took everyone else a good while to catch up. But catch up they have, and the Series II is now being challenged on all sides by cheaper sampling keyboards and MIDI-linked computer/sampler/sequencer combinations.
But for the last three years, Fairlight's engineers have been aiming higher, and the result of their endeavours is the 16-voice Series III CMI. It's still a sampling-based instrument, but its power is orders of magnitude greater.
The machine is now starting to appear in small numbers in the UK, but if you fancy shelling out a cool £65,000, you might be in for a bit of a wait — there's a mile-long list of takers at Syco, Fairlight's British distributors. For Series II owners, the massive cost is alleviated by the fact that 'old' Fairlights can be traded in for new, after which they're whisked back to Australia; what happens to them after that is anybody's guess.
In appearance, the new Fairlight doesn't look greatly different from its predecessor. The most obvious changes are a new slimline alphanumeric keyboard with inbuilt graphics tablet (much more effective than the earlier lightpen) and a new monitor. The keyboard is unchanged, which means it's six octaves (F-to-F) long and has plastic keys, and is sensitive only to attack velocity. This compares unfavourably with the new Synclavier keyboard, which is weighted and includes polyphonic aftertouch, but you could argue that with MIDI now forming such an integral part of the III's design concept, you could just as easily use a high-quality MIDI keyboard as controller.
On the storage front, the new Fairlight has both a 2Mb eight-inch floppy disk drive and a 140Mb hard disk drive onboard, while a tape streamer for backing up the hard disk can be added via the SCSI interface (of which more later). Transfer of sample data between internal memory and hard disk uses Direct Memory Access, a procedure that allows memory-to-memory transfer without tying up the central processor. Samples can be loaded from hard disk while a sequence is playing, and loading is so fast that a sample can be loaded as it's being played.
The Series III is also a multi-tasking system, which means that unlike E&MM's Editor, it can do several things at once. Thus you could be running a sequence while working on or loading samples, or altering MIDI allocations. It's rumoured that you'll be able to run two monitors to take advantage of these capabilities — should be great for people with two heads.
BENEATH the surface, the CMI software is written on top of the 6809-based, Unix-like OS9 operating system, itself modified by Fairlight. It's possible to exit from the CMI software and indulge in such pastimes as word-processing, playing games, and rewriting the Fairlight software (well, maybe). Like its predecessor, the Series III is actually based on two 6809 processors; one of these runs the bulk of the system while the other concerns itself primarily with sequencing. There are also two 68000 processors, one dedicated to handling MIDI and SMPTE, the other acting as an all-purpose waveform processor complete with its own 512K of RAM. Each of the eight dual-channel audio output cards has its own 6809 processor and 64K of working memory. The modular hardware design concept of the previous Fairlight has been retained, and here consists of 27 slot-in cards which handle, in addition to the above, such features as disk drive interfacing, video display and SCSI interfacing.
Impressive as these technical details are in themselves, it's the implications they have on the Series III's performance that will draw most attention. The main areas of improvement lie in sample quality, sample storage, voice organisation, MIDI and sequencing.
Let's start with sample quality. The old Fairlight's samples were eight-bit, of course, and the maximum sample rate was around 30K. The Series III allows you to sample in eight- or 16-bit modes, and in mono or stereo; all combinations can be mixed in performance. Default sample rate is the CD-standard 44.1 kHz, but for stereo sampling this can be increased to 50kHz (actually 48kHz due to channel switching of the ADC, apparently), and for mono sampling a staggering 100kHz — though whether anyone actually needs to sample at 100kHz is debatable. The maximum playback rate is 200kHz, allowing samples recorded at maximum rate to be replayed at up to an octave higher than their original pitch. Series II Fairlight users will be extremely glad to know that their current sample libraries can be used on the III, courtesy of a conversion program; the same applies for Page R sequences.
SINCE the original appearance of the Fairlight, the cost of memory chips and peripheral storage media has fallen drastically. This has enabled the Australians to adopt a much more flexible internal architecture, so that whereas the Series II's samples are stored in a modest 16K of waveform RAM on each of its eight channel cards, all the Series III's sample data is stored in a common 14 Megabytes of RAM. The above-mentioned waveform processor card handles the transfer of samples to the dual-channel output cards. This allows for great flexibility in determining the number and duration of samples that are to be held in memory.
Voice organisation has been expanded as a direct result of the new massive storage capacity. At the highest level is the System, which consists of Instruments, which in turn consist of Voices, which in turn consist of up to 128 Subvoices, or individual samples. The Instrument is what appears on the keyboard; the Voices which make up each Instrument are assigned an 'Nphony' value (this term is retained from the II, and refers to the number of Fairlight voices, up to the maximum 16). You can have one 16-voice polyphonic Voice or 16 monophonic Voices, or any combination in between. Voice layering depends on how many Voices are allocated to an Instrument — two Voices give you a simple dual voicing.
But the organisation is a lot more versatile than that. For each Voice, you can allocate as many as 128 samples across (and beyond) the keyboard. Thus you can have a different sample on each key, or indeed any combination that takes your fancy, from simple two-way split upwards. How many of these samples you can play at once depends on the 'Nphony' chosen for the overall Voice.
Whereas MIDI was an add-on to the Series II, it's been fully integrated into the new system. And with three MIDI Ins and four MIDI Outs lurking on the main unit's rear panel, this is unlikely to be a half-hearted implementation. As noted earlier, one Instrument can be played from the CMI keyboard at a time, but several Instruments can be resident in memory as part of a System. However, using the MIDI inputs (for instruments or sequencers) it's possible to play all the Instruments simultaneously, within the Fairlight's 16-voice limit. It's also possible to patch any input channel (MIDI or CMI) to any output channel (MIDI or slave CMIs). The range of possibilities is vast.
The Series III's version of MIDI is also closely tied in with the new machine's highly specified 80-track CAPS sequencer. With four MIDI Outs, the latest Fairlight can accommodate up to 64 separate channels of MIDI data, which could in turn account for 64 of CAPS' 80 polyphonic tracks. That should provide more than enough scope for most people, and offers more than enough channels for the inclusion of multitimbral MIDI instruments, which are starting to become more common.
Continuing the sequencing theme, we find the Series II's Page R has been so phenomenally successful, it would have been inconceivable for it to be omitted on the Series III. It's now known as the Rhythm Sequencer, and is 16-voice polyphonic, with the voices structured as they are for Nphony; in other words, if you have a four-voice piano you can sequence it (in real or step time) in that format, though you can also choose to work on voices monophonically. In most other respects, though, the Rhythm Sequencer is unchanged from its predecessor. This applies also to the song construction page, where songs are built up from Sequencer patterns. There are 26 sections, each of which can chain as many as 255 patterns; these sections are in turn chained into songs, with each section capable of being repeated up to 127 times, or infinitely.
The centrepiece of the new Fairlight's sequencing power is undeniably CAPS, though. CAPS stands for Composer/Arranger/Performer/Sequencer, and sad to say, the software has yet to be seen in finished format. In fact, information on the system is extremely scarce. Apparently, it'll be an 80-track system featuring on-screen music notation, and will include MCL (Music Composition Language) in its array of facilities. It will be SMPTE-compatible (as the Rhythm Sequencer is now), and files will be interchangeable between the Rhythm Sequencer and CAPS.
FUTURE options will include sample-to-disk (stereo or mono, 8- or 16-bit), music printing, a film music processor based on SMPTE, and a facility for connecting a whole gaggle of Series III slave units, should your wallet be able to take the strain.
As well as MIDI interfacing, the Series III has a Click Out (which can be set in software to any frequency known to man), four Clock Outs (ditto), a metronome output, Roland DIN sync and SMPTE In and Out. Also included is an SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) connector. SCSI is an industry standard interface for connecting computers and peripherals, and in the Series III's case will allow for the connection of up to four slave Fairlight units, a second hard disk and optical disk storage. This last option, available towards the end of the year, will apparently be of the Write Once Read Many - WORM - type, and will offer storage capacity in the gigabyte league. WORM disks (of all the great Fairlight acronyms, WORM is the greatest) are currently the nearest anyone has got to read/write optical storage, and in the Fairlight's context, will be best suited to master recordings.
The front end of all this increased power has inevitably undergone some changes as well, though there's a lot that'll be familiar (or at least half-familiar) to existing Fairlight users. Essentially, you still work within a page-based system, though windowing techniques have been adopted for the ever-useful Help pages and for disk directory listings, and the pages themselves are constructed of windows.
At the moment there are six pages: Page One, FFT (Fast Fourier Transform), FX, Sample, WE (Waveform Edit) and RS (Rhythm Sequencer), though some of these are further broken down into subpages.
Page One is where you define voice organisation and MIDI Input and Output routings. The FX page allows you to define parameters for individual Voices and Subvoices, while a subpage allows subvoices to be mapped onto the keyboard. The WE page lets you zero in on any section of a waveform for editing purposes (inverting, reversing, zeroing, rotating and so forth). A Fairlight wouldn't be a Fairlight without Fast Fourier Transforms, and the III offers increased power in this area, for whereas the Series II could handle 32 harmonics and had a fixed phase, its successor has a mind-boggling 255 harmonics, while control over both amplitude and phase of each harmonic is possible. As it turns out, the FFT page is an amalgamation of several pages from the Series II, including waveform drawing and display along with harmonic 'faders' on screen.
It's not possible, within the confines of this introduction, to do more than scratch the surface of the new Fairlight's capabilities. But one thing is clear. Fairlight have reaffirmed their superpower status with a machine that sets new, higher standards in sample quality and quantity (both excellent) and, just as important, in sequencing power. The Australians have rightly perceived that an instrument in the Series III's category should offer a powerful sequencing section that'll incorporate any number of other instruments via MIDI, giving it access to and control over a sound section far beyond its own capacity.
Thus the new Fairlight differs from its predecessor in being not only a powerful sampling instrument in its own right, but also the centrepiece of any music production environment.
Wonder how long it's going to take everyone else to catch up this time.
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Review by Simon Trask
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