For more than 30 years now, Jean-Bernard Emond has been buying, selling, repairing and restoring audio equipment, especially the complex and vintage ones. Quite a number of classic synths and audio equipment were brought to his workshop, including Jean-Michel Jarre’s CMI II.
“Ever since I was a kid, I have been obsessed with musical instruments, but I also had many other passions: astronomy, rockets and computer/electronics. For years, I just listened to music and I read magazines and books. I was introduced to the classics of the genre: Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, Art Of Noise, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Mike Oldfield, and many others. In the ’80’s, I discovered the use of samplers and in particular the CMI, I was drooling over photos of the mythical Fairlight CMI and the NED Synclavier. I remember Jean-Michel Jarre’s Magnetic Fields video, and Concerts in China, with video shots of his CMI.”
How it all began
He started out, tweaking sounds on computer systems such as Sinclair, Atari, Commodore, Amstrad, Acorn, Apple and IBM. “I used to have a lot of computer systems, such as I did some freelance work in the development of computer games (Ubi-Soft, Ere, Loriciel).” He got his first synthesizer, a year after he moved out with his parents. “That was 1990. I bought a Yamaha SY77. It was a crazy year. I had bought or recovered other machines; Akai, Kawai, Roland… In that same year, I bought my Fairlight CMI IIx !”
‘I don’t like to wait when I’m tinkering.’
Jean-Bernard is among those who prefer the I, II and the IIx. “Definitely! First of all, this granular sound; it’s so specific. Its dinosaur looks are so friendly and its design is incredible, a machine that makes you want to use it and explore it, to make sounds! Because the samples are short, because the 2.5 to 32KHz frequency, 8 bits and limited to a memory range of 16KB, the sound manipulation is very fast. So it is a rather fast machine, compared to similar machines. And this makes it very pleasant to use, indeed I am impatient; I don’t like to wait when I’m tinkering. And I really don’t like wobbly interfaces. If you have to read 300 pages of documentation to use a machine, for me, it’s a sign that its interface is bad. This is not the case with the CMI software, which is largely intuitive and accessible, either through the graphical interface via the light-pen or through text commands. In addition, the documentation is available online. But, we have to admit:: it’s an old machine; sometimes the interface isn’t much practical or intuitive. But hey, it’s a 40-year-old machine, built to last!”
What I regret is that the OS of the Motolora MDOS is limited in terms of FAT for floppy disks and therefore difficult to adapt to the FAT of a hard disk. The only solution Fairlight had found to mount hard disks on the CMI IIx was to emulate several partitions the size of a floppy disk on the hard disk (QDOS Takitron driver 5.09) or User command in CP/M OS. Nowadays, these problems are solved, for flash drives and SD cards are used as a substitute for floppy disks. This solution also allows the import and export of CMI files to the computer world for manipulation, backup or exchange.” He adds: “Another thing: they are much faster during sound manipulations than its successors: the CMI III and the MFX machines, who’s sound (16 bits) is too clean for me. And, the I, II and IIx: I love their design. I know, it isn’t rational!”
The road to recovery
The CMI he bought in 1990 has a British history. It was purchased by the BBC for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Now, that’s really something: it has been used in lots of shows that have been broadcasted on the British and the international airwaves. Most famous appearance is undoubtedly BBC’s Tomorrow’s World. Jean-Bernard: “Later on, it was sold to a studio in France, and it was used for several years before I bought it from this studio. It had some failures (dead light-pen, unreliable CMI-02 card, power failure). At the time, I was young and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I had bought the CMI for a small fortune. As I often reminis with my friends: ‘it was either a CMI or a car’. Looking back on it now, I still think I made the right choice! For a few months, I enjoyed the machine. And then, it really broke down. At the time I had entrusted it to the French importer, Studio de la Frette. For a few thousand Francs they returned it to me without specifying what they had repaired. Too bad, because a few months later, the breakdown was back. At that time, I moved to the south of France and I couldn’t make the time to take care of the CMI. A few months later, I contacted La Frette to find out if they could repair my CMI again. Unfortunately, they were no longer servicing CMI’s I asked them if it was possible to get the schematics. They told me to check with Fairlight, Australia. So, I contacted them. Yes, they could help me out, for the amount of 2300 Francs (€350,- / USD 385,-). I made the transfer and for months, nothing happened. So I contacted La Frette, they shook up the Fairlight company a bit and a few weeks later, I finally received a package. (Funny and ironic: 30 years later, Olivier Bloch-Lainé contacted me to have me fix his Fairlight CMI at Studio de la Frette…)
I was surprised by the thickness and weight of this package. To my pleasant surprise, It contained all you need to manage a broken down CMI IIx. Finally, I fixed it with a friend. A few years later it broke down again after a move. This time, it was the QFC9; another new repair. Meanwhile, I went back to Paris for work, that’s where I started sharing the Eprom and Prom documents and binary files that you still can find all over the internet. Together with Greg Holmes, I was one of the first to have a site on the Fairlight CMI. I decided to share all the documents I had about this Australian company. Having many other interests, I gradually handed the website to my friend David Cilia’s. The information is much better shared on his website.
“For years, I wanted to participate in the popularisation of synthesizers. I have already participated in several exhibitions with some of my ‘vintage’ machines such as the Synclavier II + VPK, DKI Synergy II+ with Kaypro and the Fairlight CMI IIx.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to repair and completely restore Jean-Michel Jarre’s mythical Fairlight CMI II. It should not be forgotten that this is the CMI used on the albums Chants magnétiques, Les concerts en Chine, Musique pour supermarché and especially the illustrious album Zoolook! I was very honored to be able to take care of it, and at the same time: to preserve all Jean-Michel Jarre’s disks. I converted all 8″ floppy disks to my Flash-Kit (HxC-based).
In the summer of 2019, I presented a masterclass on LowFi sampling ‘Autour de Zoolook’‘ at Synthfest France, Nantes. I asked and received permission from Jean-Michel Jarre to use his sounds for my presentation. So, me and my friend Cyril Do Espirito Santo, went through his collection of floppy disks for a few weeks, to prepare some demonstrations based on the Zoolook-album. A crazy and a much exiting job! Finding the legendary Zoolook-sounds one by one; it’s a most interesting activity!”
Nowadays, Jean-Bernard got his hands full with restoration work. One might expect, he is making a full living out of it. “Restoration / repair of musical instruments isn’t my actual job, it’s just a hobby. At first, it was just the machines I bought. Later on, it extended to doing repairs for my friends, friends of friends, etc, etc. I’m working as a IT engineer at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.), which is the largest scientific research center in France. I spend a lot of my spare time on musical instruments and it is not always easy, combining my daytime job, my family life and the audio maintenance workshop.” Over the past ten years or so, there have been a few repairers in France. “But, for large digital machines like Fairlight CMI/MFX, NED Synclavier, E-Mu Emulator, PPG Wave, or other curiosities, it’s rare and I’m one of the only ones in France and also in Europe.” He also knows his way around the large modular classics such as Moog 3P and Arp 2500, as well as polyphonic synths like the Yamaha CS80, Oberheim OB-X and the Roland Jupiter 8. “When I started, I accepted almost every repair work, Now, I’m concentrating on certain brands, exceptional, rare or high-end machines, or special cases that arouse my curiosity. I have my work cut out for me, for years!”
Mutual machine lovers
I confess I have a preference for old machines. But from time to time, there are some nice surprises on the market. The last machines that really interested me was the Arturia Matrix Brute which is for me the best mono analog synthesizer since the VCS3, I also have a crush on the Baloran The River, a sublime analog polyphonic synth from my friend Laurent Baloran. It’s funny, but these two machines are French, It’s not a choice, it’s just a coincidence. What modern machines reproach is the complexity of their operation, they are not intuitive enough. Real gas plants, too many choices they do too many things but wrong. I prefer a simpler machine that does only one thing but does it well.
“When I finally find out which parts no longer work in a broken-down machine, especially when it takes me a long time to trace the problem, that’s always a great pleasure!’
“Parallel to all these repair activities, I was looking for information on the machines and this allowed me to meet and exchange with many people with their own experiences in the world of electronic music. That’s how I was given my Synclavier I. The deal was to get it up and running again. Mission accomplished, years ago now. A few months back, I saved all the floppies on one of my Synclavier II. And I just mounted a flash drive on this old machine to do comparative tests for a German friend (who just sold it to one of my clients) who also has a broken down Synclavier I. Together with my wife, who is also a passionate musician, we acquired some machines that I wanted to have. I have a beautiful collection of rather vintage digital instruments including some exceptional machines such as the Synclavier with Ork and VPK keyboards, DKi Synergy II+, a Kurzweil K250 and many curious machines and specific computers dedicated to sound. And of course my Fairlight CMI IIx. My current dream? A full PPG Set : Wave and Waveterm.
Jean-Bernard came up with a few much needed CMI enhancements: “Initially I was interested in what seemed to be the most crucial thing to find a substitute for: the disk drives, because by the end of the 1990s, it became very difficult to find 8-inch diskettes, or they were sold for crazy prices. And in general, diskettes became unreadable. Losing your much loved sounds; it’s the worst nightmare of many a musician…”
“First, I had to find a solution to save the floppy disks; to make binary images of them. I built a dedicated PC with a suite of tools (ImageDisk, Teledisk, 22Disk, Anadisk, etc). Later on, I also tried to use KryoFlux and I developed some tests to archive and restore. I absolutely wanted to be able to write the disk images to an 8-inch drive! After some trial and error I found the right settings. Second, in 2008, I went to a vintage computer geek-meeting, to present a NeXT Cube with IRCAM DSP/Audio card to the Infoticaires. By chance, I met Jean-Francois Del Nero and Gregory Estrade who presented their prototypes of “HxC drives” (Pic and FPGA), they had already talked about it on the Silicium Forum (a French vintage computer forum). We talked and I told them I wanted to have this kind of emulator on some audio machines. A few months later, I started testing the compatibility and adaptation, whilst having long series of email exchanges with them. In the end, we managed to adapt the solution for regular computers to be used in CMI’s. The third step was the validation testing phase, which was long because it was necessary to check if it worked with all of the models. Finally, I started marketing the Flash Kit in 2013. Since then, about 50 kits have been installed in CMI’s around the world.
During my years of maintenance, repair and restoration work, I have been building up a small stock of parts. I redesigned and produced some boards for CMI I, II, II, IIx and III and MFX. Also, BUS extenter boards, essential to perform repair tests, 256KB and 32MB memory cards; specific for QFC. Soon, I will release new made cards, especially the CMI-01-A and CMI-02, as well also some main cards of the CPU part. I also redesigned some accessories for the facade door in 3D printing. I also made custom front panels to replace the 8-inch floppy drives (double or single width) or hard drives. And last but not least, I have a couple of solutions to make machines more quiet.
Virtual Musical Instruments
Over the years, Jean-Bernard helped out several company’s such as UVI and Arturia with the development of virtual CMI’s. Jean-Bernard: “Maybe, it seems like a bit of a contradiction, being someone who loves authentic hardware machines… Several companies took an interest in the sound banks that I own and in the virtualisation of some of the instruments that I have. This has resulted in some productions at UVI (U1250, The Beast, Synthox, ENERGY, Darklight IIx) and Arturia’s CMI V. Arturia contacted me thanks to the recommendation of my friend Yves Usson who is nothing less than the Godfather of analog synthesis at Arturia, and the Brute branch (Mini, Micro, Matrix). We are also colleagues at the CNRS. My contribution to the CMI V software is primarily the loan of my Fairlight CMI for almost a year, and I have also contributed to the documentation and specification of filtering and descriptions for the audio file formats. In particular, for the structuring of synthetic sounds (MODE 1). I also provided them with all the official Fairlight sound libraries that I have compiled and reconstructed over the years.
To conclude the story…
Does he make music himself? Jean-Bernard: “I don’t have that pretension, I’m a simple sound handyman, I have a few things here: https://soundcloud.com/mustudio“
And, any final words?
“Longue vie aux Fairlight !”