Like many of us, Rob wanted to be a musician. And, like many of us, he didn’t quite succeed. He
started out as a drummer, then got inspired by guys like Howard Jones and Gary Numan. ‘Me, being surrounded by synthesizers. That’s what I dreamt of all the time.’ But, diving in the wondrous world of knobs and sliders wasn’t really his cup of tea. ‘And then, there was this big white keyboard, and a screen you could draw on… I thought: ’A computer can do all the work for me. Now, that’s easy!’. Well, easy? He found out there’s a bit of a learning curve involved… But, the failing part turned out pretty well. He started writing about the Fairlight in his blogs, it got picked up and for years now, he’s been the UK go-between for one of the few Fairlight fixers-uppers on the planet.
“A lot of people still want one, but they don’t realise what’s involved.”
It was his favourite hour of the week: Thursday night, watching BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, followed by Top of the Pops while having a nice cup of tea. The episode of Tomorrow’s World in which the Fairlight is demonstrated is a legendary one. “I remember it well. This guy, showing us how to emulate the sound of a timpani drum. First on a MiniMoog, then he moved over to this big machine…. And it was spot on. It looked absolutely cool, the big white box, the screen, the light pen… Just amazing.”
Love letters to the Fairlight
From that moment on, he was hooked. He got into electronic music, collecting some synths, playing around with Cubase, and dreaming about having a Fairlight. “Especially when the IIx came out, everyone was losing their shit over it.” Around 2004, he started writing blogs. “Back then, everybody was blogging, so I thought: I’m gonna start a blog. Why not?” Since he didn’t make it as a musician, Failed Muso seemed a fitting name. He started out writing about all kinds of things: music, synths and other fancy studio equipment. Of course, he dedicated most of his scribblings to the mighty machine. There wasn’t much information on the Fairlight online, so he jumped right in, proclaiming his love for the instrument on many occasions. “People liked it, shared it and it got picked up by manufacturers, which led to all kinds of great opportunities for me. I got to work with a lot of great stuff.” To his pleasant surprise, Peter Vogel got wind of it and contacted him. “He sent me an e-mail, asking if I’d like to do some stuff for him as well, on his iOS CMI app.”
And then, there was an afternoon, in 2013. He had a job to do somewhere in Germany. “I was checking my e-mail during my lunch break, and there was this message from Peter Wielk, Fairlight’s ex-studio manager and Fairlight-expert. He asked if I’d be interested in helping him restore a Series III CMI. Needless to say, it was a no-brainer.” He rented a van and picked it up. “It used to belong to Ian Stanley, the Tears for Fears keyboardist. It had been stored in a stale damp brick outbuilding. It took months to clean it. And months to restore it, because the spare parts had to be shipped from Sydney, Australia. Peter Wielk guided me through the whole process.”
Up until then, he never got the chance to lay his hands on one. This restored machine was the first one he actually got to play himself. Was it what he’d expected to be? “The first time I switched it on and played around with it, I thought… “Well, this is awful!” But then, I realised: this is where it all started. It’s ’80’s technology. You have to un-learn all about modern DAWs and plugins. It takes you about five minutes to set up a simple sound.” He might have had a rough start after finally meeting his hero; eventually, he got the hang of it pretty well. These days, he gets Fairlights delivered to his doorstep on a fairly regular basis. He restores them, with a lot of help from Peter in Sydney, who then does the deal, and Rob sends them off to their new owner.
No Fuss Fairlighting
Obviously, there is still a lot of demand for this legendary machine. “A lot of people want one, but they don’t realise what’s involved. Owning a Fairlight is very much like owning a classic car. You spend months getting it up and running before you can take it out for a spin. You’ve got to love the tinkering. Most people want a Fairlight for the famous sounds. Well, you
can get those from sample libraries or for instance, from the Arturia CMI V plugin. You’ll get the sounds and more for about 200 bucks. A Fairlight in good condition? That’s about 10.000 US dollars.”
Then again, emulating the process within the machine, which gives it the unique characteristics; that isn’t done that easily, because of all the computing going on inside the casing. “Despite it being an old computer, there’s so much going on that if you were to emulate it accurately and completely, it will be eating up a lot of your processor power, which will affect everything else you’re trying to do.”
Telling the story
“What I’d really like to do is educate. The Fairlight is Ground Zero for the way we make music today. Before the Fairlight, you’d have to have massive amounts of gear for creating sounds and sequencing. After the CMI came out, other manufactures came up with samplers, sequencer software, hard disk recording; in a way, all inspired by the Fairlight. And now, it’s all integrated again in DAW software. I feel like it’s important telling people about how it all started. I think it’s important to know where you’ve been, to know where you’re going to go to.” Rob loves to take the Fairlight with him, showing it to all kinds of people who can benefit from learning about music technology. “Telling the story. That’s what I love to do.” One more thing? Yes. “When it comes to synthesizers, you always hear about Bob Moog, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim… Peter Vogel, the inventor of the Fairlight CMI, should be getting the same level of credit and the recognition he deserves.” Duly noted, and acknowledged!
All the fun of the Fairlight on Spotify
Personal favourites? “Too many. Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, Art of Noise… They all used the Fairlight in their own unique way.”