To say that the Fairlight caused a sensation when it was released in 1979 would be something of an understatement. There had never been a synthesiser like it.

There had never been a synthesiser as expensive either! The basic model was a 'mere' £17,000 going up to £25,000 with all the options installed. In other words, this was not a synth for ordinary folk. In fact, the kind of folk that did buy it were well-heeled musicians like Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby, Trevor Horn, the Pet Shop Boys, Vince Clark (Erasure) and Peter Gabriel.

In fact, Gabriel bought one of the first ever Fairlights and was so impressed, his cousin, Steven Paine, set up a company - Syco - to distribute it exclusively and I have fond memories of going to Syco in London to get a demo. What I witnessed was (for the time) just absolutely staggering and I spent the journey home wondering how the hell I could ever raise the funds to buy one. Of course, I couldn't and the Fairlight was sadly to remain a pipedream for me.

Of course, most people associate the Fairlight with sampling but it was actually a digital synthesiser first and foremost that just happened to be able to do sampling as well. It could do additive synthesis and you could (literally) draw waveshapes on the CRT with the light pen.

It also had a sequencer and could be driven multi-timbrally with a different sound for each of the eight voices.

It wasn't quite the same kind of sequencer we're used to today, however - you had to 'type' your music in using Fairlight's own MCL (Music Composition Language) - it was tedious but gave you precise control over the music.

However, a software update changed all that with the addition of Page R, the Real-time Composer (right).

This allowed you to place notes (or 'hits' or 'beats') in a more intuitive way (using the lightpen I seem to recall). Each of the eight 'channels' represents a voice and with the sampling facility, you could program 'acoustic' drum patterns. But let's not get carried away here.... let's bear one thing in mind - the sampling resolution in these early Fairlights was 8-bit with a bandwidth not much higher than 11kHz! Let's just say that sparkling snares and sizzling cymbals and hi-hats were not its greatest strength!

In fact, to be honest, in hindsight, sampling quality was pretty poor but that didn't stop a whole industry building up around the Fairlight - there were companies that would hire one out to you for like £1,000 a day and agencies sprang up offering the services of Fairlight programmers who could earn serious money running the thing for producers who just had to have the new toy on their records.

Screen shot by Greg Holmes

As you can see from the screen shots, the CRT was typical of the day - advanced even - and reminds me of the early Amstrad word processors. Filenames were short (DOS type 8.3) and cryptic - outstanding at the time but a far cry from what we're used to today!

Screen shot by Greg Holmes

The user interface was driven by a paging system with each page representing a logical sub-section of the Fairlight's operation.... I guess these are now referred to as 'modes'.

On boot up, you'd be presented with Page 1 (left) where you could access the various pages from the QWERTY keyboard.

As you can see, sampling was not uppermost in the original user interface being relegated to Page 8 of the overall operating menu.

You can see as well that Page R - the page that probably did much to establish the Fairlight as a sequencing workstation - is right down there at the bottom... almost as an afterthought... which it was!

But however quaint this all may seem nowadays, you have to remember that at the time, this was ground breaking, revolutionary stuff... nothing like it had ever been seen before.

The Fairlight really did seem like a glimpse into the future of music making which, of course, it was - the effect the Fairlight had on the contemporary music industry just cannot be underestimated and its invention is arguably as significant as Robert Moog's original synthesisers or the invention of the electric guitar!

But the Fairlight wasn't just a hit on records - it also featured extensively on many science and music orientated TV programmes and heralded as the future of music and much like the Moog synthesiser became a household name, so too did the Fairlight. And rightly so... it was the first ever sampler and it was the first ever 'workstation' and despite its limitations, it deserves a reverential place in music history because it literally changed the face of music as we knew it then and now.

Nostalgia contains all the well-known Fairlight sounds including:

ARR1 Breathy vocals used by Tears For Fears, Thomas Dolby and countless others
ORCH5 Arguably the most famous sample ever
SWANEE Breathy pan pipe sound
PIZTWANG Deep piano-based bass sound used by Peter Gabriel
MARIMBA As used by Peter Gabriel (and ushering in the whole 'wold music' era)
Various strings  
And more....  


For the record, I have - with permission - plundered Greg Holmes extremely informative Fairlight website for screen shots. You should visit it for more in-depth information about the inner workings of this classic instrument:


Greg's excellent site also offers examples of some of the Fairlight's sounds.

For those who may be interested, you can download the original IIx brochure below. Our thanks to Louis van Dompselaar for taking the trouble to scan his crumpled old copy of it and send it to us. It's quite an interesting read!

Fairlight brochure (1.5Mb - PDF)