Fairlight CMI

1979 – 1988

Fairlight CMI Series III

Fairlight CMI Series III

If you were forced to pick two defining characteristics of sampling technology in 2014, chances are that affordability and processing power would be near the top of the list. Today’s musicians can pick from countless sampling tools, many of them free. Any DAW can achieve results which would have been unthinkable just a couple of decades ago. Looking back to the first generation of commercial samplers, the story couldn’t have been much more different.

By today’s standards, the most advanced sampling technology of the early 80s were severely limited in scope and flexibility. Eight-voice polyphony and 8-bit sampling at 16 kHz might sound primitive now, but at the time it was quite incredible. We went into the development of the Fairlight CMI in more detail in a recent article so we won’t repeat ourselves here; instead, let’s consider the direct impact of the Fairlight on dance music. What’s interesting about this iconic, revolutionary instrument – a tool which undoubtedly helped shape the sound of modern dance music – is just how few dance producers have ever used one, let alone owned one. The Fairlight’s historical importance is undeniable, but its impact in terms of dance music is almost entirely indirect.

As you’d expect for an instrument on the cutting edge of digital audio technology, the Fairlight was staggeringly expensive. As a result it was most likely to be found in the studios of the mega rich: the likes of Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel and Jean-Michel Jarre. But dance music producers? Dance music in the modern sense of house, techno and everything which followed? Not so much. By the time producers began sowing the early seeds of house and techno, cheaper alternatives were available (alternatives which, as Thomas Cox points out in his recent column for us, were still beyond the reach of the vast majority of house and techno producers).

By today’s standards, the most advanced samplers of the early 80s were severely limited in scope and flexibility.

The second generation of slightly more affordable samplers – E-mu Emulators, Ensoniq Mirages and the like – played a much more direct role in defining the history of dance music production, but the Fairlight is the pioneer. There’s absolutely no denying its long-term impact, but if you’re looking for a sampler which directly played a part in inspiring dance music producers you need to look elsewhere. Perhaps to our next selection…

1st April, 2014

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