Fairlight CMI-30A

The most expensive sampler

Retail price: £14,500

Peter Vogel Fairlight CMI-30A

Peter Vogel Fairlight CMI-30A

Samplers might not seem very likely to be valuable or desirable in 2013. The development of software samplers like NI Kontakt destroyed the hardware sampler market. Rack units which commanded eye-watering prices in the 90s can now be picked up for a fraction of their original price. Of the few hardware samplers which remain in production, even top-end sampling workstations like Akai’s flagship MPC5000 are relatively affordable. But there’s one major exception to the rule: the Fairlight.

The story starts in the early 70s when Australian synth enthusiasts Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel set about developing hybrid synthesis methods and enlisted the help of digital synthesis expert Tony Furse. Fast forward a few years through numerous iterations of prototypes and the Fairlight team realised that their chosen approach – digitally sampling sounds to use as the basis of synthesised tones – allowed them to recreate real life instruments with much greater accuracy than conventional synthesis would allow.

The revolutionary Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was actually a lot more than just a sampler. Its combination of sampling, synthesis and sequencing was revolutionary when it went on sale in 1979. The one flaw was that it was staggeringly expensive: about £18,000, roughly the same as the average house price in the UK that year. By the time the new and improved Series III model went on sale in 1985, a full system cost over £60,000.

Mark Thompson of Funky Junk recalls Fairlights “lurking in the corner” of studios throughout the 80s. “My closest encounter was when working with the producer David Lord on Icehouse‘s Measure For Measure album. Iva Davies lived close to Peter Vogel in Australia and used the Fairlight to record his demos. I’ll never forget Iva wheeling the Fairlight into the control room at Crescent Studios and preparing to play his latest demo. Whoops… Iva pressed the wrong button and for 20 minutes we sat there patiently while his last few years’ accounts chundered out of the machine. For those who don’t know, the CMI was based upon an early word processor, and Iva used it not just for demos but for all his office accounts as well. And of course, notoriously, the early Fairlights had no ‘undo’ button – once you’d instructed it to print a set or ten of accounts, there was no going back.

“But when Iva pressed the right button, his demos sounded fantastic, better than many finished records. And there was a quality to the sound that nothing else had offered before or has offered since – a kind of ‘otherworldly’ strength to the samples that made you feel you wanted to leap into the sound and splash around, cloudbusting.

“You know what I mean. It’s that sound that runs through Gabriel’s fourth album, through Kate Bush’s ‘Army Dreamers’, Trevor Horn’s classic productions with Frankie and Yes, Go West, Tears For Fears and hundreds of other 1980s classics. If anything can be said to be the sound of the 1980s, then it must be the CMI.”

Fairlight unsurprisingly went bust when cheaper alternatives to the CMI flooded onto the sampler market, but if you’re looking for a staggeringly expensive sampler in 2013 you’re in luck because a new version is back on sale. The 30th anniversary CMI-30A produced by the original designer’s new company, Peter Vogel Instruments, is a bargain in comparison to the original. Which is a polite way of saying it’s still seriously expensive. At 25,000 Australian dollars (just under £14,500), the new Fairlight is a niche product by anyone’s standards.

For the rest of us, Vogel’s Fairlight apps for iOS are probably a more sensible option.

Author Greg Scarth
30th September, 2013

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