Month: October 2018

Klaus Himmelstein – music and science teacher

He listened to Mike Oldfield. He saw the pictures on the albums and he read about ‘this thing called a Fairlight’. Which raised Klaus’ curiosity about this ‘Computer Instrument’. Fellow keyboardists told him it was a mission impossible, getting your hands on one. But Klaus managed to find the holy grail…

‘To me, It’s still fresh. I can use the Fairlight to create sounds no one’s ever heard before.’ 

”I was lucky enough to find a Series II, back in 2010. It’s quite a historical piece, for it used to belong to Synthesizer Studio Bonn, one of the only two Fairlight retailers in Germany. They bought it in 1982. It was their demo machine and It was kept in their shop until 1999. They went bankrupt, and the Fairlight was sold to a synth collector, who went bankrupt as well. He had to sell a lot of his equipment, including the Series II. I got it for a good price. But I do hope I won’t be the third one to go bankrupt.” 

Klaus Himmelstein has been a music and science teacher on several German international schools for about twenty years now. He developed a special interest in electronic music, but originally he is a classically trained violin player. ”That’s how I started, at the age of 8. My parents took me to violin lessons, because they discovered I have perfect pitch hearing. I really love to play the violin and I still play it. Through the years, I got more and more interested in electronic instruments.” 

Green screen, big box

”I remember getting my hands on a Yamaha DX7 for the first time, when I was about 12 years old. That was in 1986. I didn’t know what any of these knobs were for. I tried out the presets and I tried to tweak them, to get some other sounds out of it. Around that time period, I also heard about the Fairlight for the first time. I listened to Mike Oldfields’ albums and I read he was using a ‘Fairlight computer’. So I thought: ’What the hell is a Fairlight computer?’ And then, I figured out it was this funny machine with this keyboard and this green screen and a big box, pictured on some of his albums.”

Klaus Himmelstein's new studio

He bought his first synth in 1991. ”A Roland D-5. Not to be confused with the famous D-50. The reason I bought it was because it is multitimbral. I already had an Atari ST computer. I used this set-up for making my first compositions. And, around that time, I started asking other keyboard players about the Fairlight. Some people didn’t know anything about it. But the people who knew about it, they’d be saying things like: ’Oh boy, that’s the holy grail…’, ’15.000 Deutsche Mark’, ’You won’t get your hands on one’ or ’That’s only for the big studios’. By the end of the nineties, Klaus had built himself quite a studio with a decent amount of vintage synthesizers. ”I started looking on eBay, checking for Fairlights. I’ve learned there are two types of Fairlight-ads: either the refurbished machines which cost a fortune, or just crap.”

Closing the deal

In 2010, an acquaintance of his – the guy from RetroSound, who publishes videos of pretty much every vintage synthesizer you can think of – notified Klaus there was a Fairlight for sale. “He knew I was looking for one, through my posts on forums. So one day, he sent me an e-mail. He knew there was one for sale, somewhere in the Eiffel area. A Series II, not in perfect condition, but good enough. He offered to put me in touch with the seller. 

So, in the end, I went to this guy, checked it out, talked about the price and closed the deal. It was pretty easy going. I picked it up myself, for I don’t trust companies like UPS and DHL too much handling valuable packages. I had a huge car back in the day, a station wagon. I put lots of cushions and blankets in the back of the car. I wrapped it all up and drove back to my studio, which was located in the city of Münster. I set it all up and after that, people didn’t see me for quite some time, for I was in the studio all of the time.

I went through all the floppy disks. They contained a large collection of samples from Synthesizer Studio Bonn. They made their own samples, their own sounds. It was used for demo sessions. I checked out all the sounds; quite some unique stuff in there.”

Nothing like the real thing

”I was always fascinated by its sound. That was one of the reasons I wanted to have one. Not just for collecting purposes. I’m not treating it like some piece of history that sits in my studio, like some precious artefact, being polished every day. I really want to use it for making music.” Of course, it took some getting-used-to. Klaus: ”When you start to work with it, you’ll probably find out it’s quite difficult. For instance, the light pen isn’t as accurate as you think it might be; no drag ’n drop, no pull-down menu’s. But in the end, after a couple of days, I’ve found my way around it.

Klaus Himmelstein, working with his Series II in his old studio

I also figured out, and this is a thing I learned from other users as well: after two or three hours working with the light pen, your arm gets really tired. And that CRT monitor, that green screen compared to todays monitors.… It isn’t too comfortable. But that sound, it makes it all worth while. I think the percussive sounds are the best in the world. And it’s that 8-bit sound… I don’t know why exactly, but I think it’s just the best. It’s unique. You don’t get that particular sound out of todays software. For instance, Arturia’s CMI V, it’s really nice, it’s a good reproduction. But if you want that original particular sound, there’s nothing like the original Fairlight CMI.”

Warm community

”I bought it back in 2010 and I have been using it ever since. It’s still in quite good condition, except for the CRT-monitor. It’s a little bubbly and not quite clear around the edges. But furthermore, the light pen is still working, one of the floppy drives still works, as well as the 8 voice cards. At the age of almost 40 years, it’s still a good machine. Together with Jean-Bernard Emond from France, I’ve made some modifications. For instance, we’ve replaced on of the floppy drives with an SSD-drive.  Peter Wielk helped me out with one of the voice cards. I had a dead one. He had one in Australia, so he sent it to me. 

I have two Emulators, and one of them just serves as a box of spare parts. I figured out there aren’t too many people familiair with repairing an Emulator. And it’s very, very difficult to get spare parts for it. With the Fairlight on the other hand, there’s a well grown community, pretty much world wide. You can get parts from France, from Australia, from the UK…  There’s always someone somewhere in the world, with a great love for the instrument and lots of knowledge, who can help you out with any issue you might have.”


“In my studio, there are at least 25 keyboards and a whole lot of modules and other stuff. The Fairlight is a part of ’the orchestra.

I’m a big fan of Tangerine Dream, that is to say: their early work. Everything after about 1989 began to sound like pretty much everything else. They used cutting edge technology. But the funny thing is: they never used a Fairlight. According to Edgar Froese, they used a Synclavier, and Emulators. Their music comes close to what inspires me. Some people are comparing some of my work to Tangerine Dream. Others are saying it reminds them of Jean-Michel Jarre. The perception is quite different. I’m totally happy when people like my tracks. If they don’t? That’s fine with me. I’m working on my ideas and I’m enjoying the proces. That’s it. Sometimes, I get involved in some recordings, I made a couple of jingles for radio commercials and I once made a small movie score. Sometimes, I play keyboards and violin in bands. I’d prefer doing a little less teaching and a little more music production. The good thing about being a teacher: it’s a steady job. The bad thing about being a musician on the free market: you’re never sure of income. I prefer the more secure way. Teaching music actually is a lot of fun. Recently, we performed a few pieces with some students. I love teaching music to kids. But, I don’t take many of my synthesizers to school. My Moog Rogue is the only one I bring from time to time. They can tweak on pretty much every knob or slider; it doesn’t go out of order. But I’m not bringing the Fairlight to school. I don’t want to transport it too often.”  

Final thoughts

“The Fairlight CMI, it’s a particular part of history. It has integrated sampling into modern music. Without the Fairlight, things would have happened totally differently. Back in the early 80’s, it was the latest thing to go on, the latest way to produce new kinds of music. I love that particular sound. For me, it’s still up to date. It’s not old-fashioned, it’s not vintage. For me, it is still fresh. In my opinion, I can use the Fairlight – as well as the Emulator – to create new and fresh sounds that have never been heard before. I’m convinced of that.” 

Listen on Soundcloud

Stéphan Schällmann – producer/composer

The electronic sounds used in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds had a great impact on him. And he liked ABBA as well. He got really interested in synth sounds through techno and rave music. “It was all over the radio when I was a kid. I always had a taste for melodies and catchy hooks.” He bought his Series Iix after years of searching and waiting for the right moment.

‘The old lady needs a little love and some maintenance’ 

The Grand Three Systems

The first serious piece of gear he got was a Technics AX5. “That’s how I came up with the name Tax-5′ By that name, he has been producing electronic music with dark ambient influences since the early 2000’s. His first synth was a Korg M1. His specific interest in the Fairlight CMI? “It must have been somewhere around 2003. A friend of mine had a studio full of juicy gear. PPG Wave, Jupiter 8, MS10, MS20…  We talked a lot about synths, and how to create certain sounds. And as always, we ended up talking about The Grand Three Systems, being the PPG Waveterm, the NED Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI.” 

Amazing looks

And so, Stephan decided he wanted one. Badly. “It was like that with most of the synths I heard about: I wanted it either badly, or not at all.” Given the whopping price tag, buying a Fairlight remained something of an impossible dream for a long time. But, he kept on checking the trade-topics on the synth forums religiously. And one day, there was a Series IIx for sale in his area. “I instantly send the guy a PM.” Stephan had never seen a Fairlight ‘in the flesh’, let alone played it before. “There was, and still is, a lot of false and misleading info about the machine. But I just knew it looked awesome, and that it should be sounding awesome.” 

Great, yet outdated 

“It was in 2009, somewhere in spring time when I picked it up. Of course, it felt exiting. I had large car back then; a Chevrolet Caprice 1992 with a powerful V8 in it. The Fairlight took up the whole space in the back of the car.  I got home, I installed the machine on it’s designated place, set it all up, and then I just loaded all discs and listened to the presets.” The previous owner was a musician from Switzerland. It was once traded for a EMS Synthi-A,  a very expensive system from the early ’70’s. 

It took Stephàn years of searching and yes, it took all of his savings. Was is all worth it? “Yes and no” he says. “It was a very cool experience, working with this kind of high-end gear. But to be completely honest: it’s brutally outdated. I didn’t use the machine as much as I had expected. It’s an old lady with some problems. She needs a little love and some maintenance. Which is interrupting my workflow.” 


“The machine got me a lot of attention. Several interviews, friends who wanted to see it, and synth manufacturer Clavia contacted me. They wanted to create a sample library of Fairlight sounds for their Nord instruments users.” Another remarkable story is the one about the Matterhorn Project. “They wanted to re-release their album and cult-hit called ‘Muuh!‘; a funny song full of sampled cows. So, they came in with their old disks and we re-sampled them, so they could use them in a modern digital audio workstation. That was fun!” It’s certainly nice to know the cows are save and sound in a brand new shed. 

Listen to some music by Tax-5

Peter Wielk – product specialist / former employee

From 1980 to 1988, Peter worked at the original Fairlight company. As their Product Specialist, he’d give ‘the grand tour’, giving customers the opportunity to learn as much as they liked about the machine before buying one. Peter is still up to his elbows in Fairlights – he revives the oldies and sells them to a new generation of enthusiasts. “I could sell one every week, but unfortunately, there aren’t that many around now.”

Growing up in London, Peter Wielk lived through an interesting time musically, with psychedelic rock, punk and the early days of electronic music using the first synthesizers and drum machines. ‘I’ve been lucky to be involved in music technology pretty much all my life.” After studying electronics and music in the late 1970’s, he worked as a technician for Peter Gabriel, one of the very first Fairlight adoptors.

Travelling through Asia, and finding himself in Sydney, Australia, Peter looked up Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel, Fairlight’s inventors, with whom he’d been corresponding with from London. “I’d been looking to work with them, and was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Fairlight’s success meant they needed more people, and I seemed to have the required abilities. Needless to say, I was in heaven working for one of the most interesting companies in the world, and my very first job was sorting out the sound libraries for the CMIs” 

Not your regular nine-to-five

‘‘I helped design and then run the Fairlight studio, which allowed me to play with these amazing machines whilst testing the stuff the R&D-guys came up with – it was a dream job, really. It was like no company I’d ever worked for” 

“Most of the people drawn to Fairlight were young, and extremely talented. Skilled software and hardware designers from all over the world came together in this creative atmosphere. It was a hugely enjoyable experience”. 

“No two days were the same. For example, one day would involve taking a CMI into Long Bay prison to show the inmates, the next might be taking one to a television studio for a demo to be broadcast that evening.” 

Peter was also the Product Specialist, showing the Fairlights’ capabilities to people who might be interested in buying one. These were mainly musicians, producers and other creatives, but also educational and scientific establishments.
Peter: “We would meet them, either at our HQ or at their own houses or studios. We’d set up a system, and they could spend as much time as they needed to get to know the machine, just to make sure it was right with them.”  So no unsatisfied  customers? Peter, laughing: ‘People were really sure when they eventually signed the cheque.” 

‘I’ve worked with lots of creative and talented people, however with Fairlight it was a dream job.’

He recalls showing the Fairlight to the guys from Duran Duran. “They were in Sydney working on an album, and were interested in a Fairlight, so I spent about a month or two with them. They were very into it. People might deride them for the suits and hairstyles, however I got to know them as very professional musicians, loving what they were doing and very interested in experimenting with this new technology. It was a pleasure working with them.”

So, no boring stuff on the job at all? “Well, the days we had to spend at trade shows were torture, but other than that it really was a dream job.”

National treasure

There were only about 350 – 400 Fairlight CMI’s ever built. “Back in the day, we sold lots of Fairlights in Europe, especially in the UK. We have Peter Gabriel to thank for that.” Peter Gabriel introduced the Fairlight to Kate Bush and a few other British artists. His cousin Stephan Paine then set up Syco, a London based company that would distribute Fairlight CMIs and sell other leading synthesisers and audio technology.  “Of course, we sold quite a few in the USA as well. Stevie Wonder was one of the first to buy one. But I think the Synclavier, being US made, was possibly more popular. There were a few Fairlights sold to China and Japan.” What about the Middle-East?  Peter, thinking: “No… Not that I’m aware of…” 

You might expect the Fairlight became one of Australia’s national treasures. No, not quite. Peter: “In the late seventies, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie were saluted for creating a ground breaking invention coming from Australia. Nowadays, most people aren’t even aware the Fairlight CMI, the first commercially available sampler, was an Australian invention. They assume it’d been invented in the UK or the US. A lot of great things are coming from Australia, especially in the fields of art and culture, but people just aren’t aware of that. It’s called here the cultural cringe.” 

Going horizontal

Spare parts and tools are scattered all over the place and a few of those famous white keyboards are stacked up against the wall of his workshop. Undoubtedly the biggest eye-catcher is the enormous Fairlight logo hanging on the wall. “It’s a left-over from the original company. They asked me if I wanted to have it.”  Peter left the company in 1988. “When I finished working with Fairlight, I bought one myself and I’d hire myself out for making film music and any other musical really. I was based at Studio 301 where I’d previously worked with the Durans.” The Fairlight company subsequently changed its course, moving more into post production tools for film and television. Peter stayed involved with the machines, doing maintenance work, and helping out users who were having problems. Nowadays, Peter and his UK-associate Rob are restoring ‘the oldies’ before shipping the fully refurbished Fairlights to their new happy-to-be owners. Peter: “It’s both technical work and crafting. For instance, the monitor fronts and music keyboards are made from MDF, which falls apart if it gets wet. In this case I have to completely remake them. And some of the parts are very hard to come by, so I’m re-manufacturing them.”

Vintage fun

“I could sell one every week but unfortunately, there aren’t that many around.” He adds: “Back In 1985, they cost about 60,000 dollars. You could buy a decent house for that amount of money”. Nowadays a lot of people are interested in vintage synths. Either young people who listened to their parents’ records, or folk that grew up in the eighties and got inspired by the sounds. Some want to own a piece of that nostalgia.” 

“It’s a bit like being into classic cars. You could buy a brand new Toyota which is totally efficient and reliable, and also completely boring. Or, you can buy a great classic car, like an old Mercedes, Jaguar or Porsche…. It’ll need of lots of love and attention, but will be ultimately far more rewarding to own and drive. One of the nicest aspects of what I do is getting feedback from new users. A common theme is “I’m just enjoying playing with this thing so much!” 

 “I use Fairlight systems every day and I still love them. I’m a bit old fashioned, and I haven’t embraced working on modern computers at all. The CMI is a very intuitive instrument with a great sound. It is a computer, however the hardware and software were designed from the ground up to make music elegantly. It was an incredibly interesting time then, and you can hear the influences in new music. It defined the way we make music today.”

Cris Blyth – film maker / graphic designer

His father was a musician, an artist, a Renaissance man. Like him, Cris is what you call a typical example of an autodidact. As a young boy he taught himself to play some instruments and he built his own multitrack recorder. His first keyboard was a Casio VL-tone his father gave him. He encouraged him to get into computer graphics and programming. That turned out to be a pretty good move. His love for the Fairlight arose when he heard Jean Michel Jarre’s The Concert at China. ‘But with the Zoolook album, it got burnt in my heart.’

It’s raining cats and dogs. You can hear the clattering on the roof of his studio in Nairobi, Kenya, where he and his wife are running a company specialised in creating and producing content based on storytelling. “It’s hard work, a labour of love. There’s little money and the local authorities are not very cooperative, but it’s very rewarding, there’s so much talent here; so many opportunities for this to grow.” He gradually shipped some studio equipment from LA to Nairobi. ”Most of my synths are still in LA. I really wanted to bring the Fairlight over here.” It’s that one piece of equipment he just can’t do without.

The whole proces

Cris started out as a graphic designer at Team17. Did you play a lot of computer games in the nineties? Chances are you might have heard of Wormes, which was very popular. He created the opening sequence. One thing led to another. He moved to LA and built himself quite a resumé. His work can be seen in lots and lots of tv and film productions.

Photographer, film maker, director, graphic designer, collector of camera lenses, music producer… “I’m a jack of all trades”, he says. ”I’m involved in the whole creating process, and I love creating music and sounds for the projects I’m doing. In the industry, this is a very uncommon thing. People want specialists. When you’re famous for doing car commercials, they will hire you to do a car commercial. See, I’m a director, and I’m creating the music because I love to. But I’m not necessarily telling people I did the music as well.”

Remotely loved

At Method Studio’s he had worked with the Fairlight MFX II. “I convinced them it would be a good thing having one in our studio. When I got to work with it, I thought… “I don’t know … Help!”, but I’ve learned how to use it along the way. For years, it was the heart of my production and editing process.” He still cherished the desire to have one of his own.”For a long time, I just loved it remotely. I think it started about after seeing Jean Michel Jarre’s ’The Concert at China’, but ever since I heard the Zoolook album, hearing the things you can do with this instrument; it got burnt in my heart.” He read about it in magazines and he often talked about it with fellow musicians. ”Some of them had been using the Fairlight. They said they moved on and they’d ask me “Why would you want one anyway? It’s outdated technology”.”  Yet, it still remained a dream, safely hidden somewhere in the back of his mind. And so, he had forgotten about an e-mail alert he had once set. To his surprise, he got an alert about an advertisement in which a Series III was offered.

Striking gold

”It used to belong to Robert Ferris. Or to be more specific: to Kevin Gilbert, who was a musical prodigy.” Kevin Gilbert played several instruments, he played in several bands and he was part of the Tuesday Night Music Club, where he introduced his then-girlfriend Sheryl Crow. He died at the age of 29. ‘His Fairlight ended up with Robert Ferris, one of his bandmates. There’s a tiny black spot on the white casing, but other then that it was in mint condition. Even the cables were. Robert likes to keep things clean and tidy!”

It took a while before he could enjoy his purchase. His wife asked him to head over to Africa for a film project. His Series III was left behind in LA. The only thing he took with him was the manual, which he read during his flight. After a year, he managed to ship it to Kenya, where it got impounded by the authorities at the airport. They searched the Internet, they stumbled on the sparking new anniversary model, the 30A, and charged him accordingly. ”It took me days to convince them it wasn’t the same thing.”

Smells like Fairlight!

But now, it is safe and sound, occupying a nice, central place in his studio. ”People come in here, I play them some recordings I’ve made with the Fairlight, recorded into Logic, and they are stunned by the quality of the sounds.” Often, he sits himself down with a glass of wine and the manual.”I’m still learning and I really enjoy it. I like the process of creating my own sounds, working on my craft. With preset-based synths. You can browse through about 200 sounds and you probably still don’t find what you’re looking for. Yes, this soundscaping, it’s a slow proces, but it’s got so much to offer.”

Even after all these years, he keeps discovering and learning new things.”Did you know the Fairlight has a specific smell? It heats up, for it uses a lot of power. You can smell it when you step into the room.” His love for the instrument is deep. ”You know: why would you get rid of a Stradivarius? Because a brand new violin sounds better? The Fairlight is a true work horse. It’s timeless. Every time after I’m done, and I’m switching it off, I say: ‘Thank you, Fairlight!’ “.