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It’s hard to imagine what music would have been like over the past three decades had the Fairlight not been introduced in 1979. This was the instrument that introduced the world at large to sampling, though oddly enough, sampling itself was an afterthought to those who conceived the thing. Indeed, the Fairlight was intended as an advanced synthesis tool, wherein waveforms could be drawn using the attached light pen and monitor.
Nevertheless, it was the Fairlight’s sampling facility that shook the world of music production and, along with the DX-7 synthesizer, dominated the sound of the first half of the '80s. The sampling specs were impressive: 16-bit, 100kHz sample rates, looping and resampling functions, all of which could be accessed through that high-tech monitor.
Looking for all the world like an Indica Gallery exhibit with its sterile, stark white veneer, it was all very futuristic and just the thing for the ensuing MTV-friendly, fashion-conscious new waver.
Still, at $40,000 to start, this was not and instrument to be afforded by the kids playing in the garage next door. This was a big money machine and it sold to big money artists like Thomas Dolby, The Cars, Prince, Trevor Horn, et al. In other words, musicians whose music was always going to saturate the airwaves, thereby imprinting the sound of the Fairlight (and sampling itself) onto our collective cultural consciousness.
Everyone wanted a Fairlight, and those that could afford ‘em signed on the dotted line. The rest of us would have to wait until other instrument manufacturers took up the baton and brought the price of sampling down to Earth. And that’s precisely what happened. In fact, there is a very direct example of the Fairlight’s influence: Dave Rossum of E-MU Systems was trawling the aisles of the AES show in 1980, when he witnessed the Fairlight doing its thang, and begun thinking about how he could bring an instrument solely dedicated to sampling to market for a reduced price.
The Fairlight would evolve over the years, remaining at the cutting edge of technology. Eventually, it would be toppled by the very instruments it inspired. Oddly enough, things have come full-circle and the original Fairlight CMI, with its quirky, distinctive sound is now seen as an example of retro chic, while those alter instruments have all but faded into memory.
Fairlights still trade for (relatively) high prices in the used market, but that isn’t to say that a battered second-hand unit is your only option. In a completely out-of-the-blue move, Peter Vogel, one of the men behind the original has revived the old dear and is offering a 30th anniversary edition. Now where’d we put that skinny tie?
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