Books, manuals, schematics, a DX7… It was the ’80’s and Peter dived deep into the world of MIDI, computer programming and synths. Films like Liquid Sky and Electric Dreams, and music made by The Art Of Noise made him fall deeply in love with the sound of the Fairlight. He bought his own in 1995. “The manual that came with it was as thick as two phonebooks. I’ve read it from cover to cover. It took me 48 hours.”
Peter Kersten, born and raised in the south of the Netherlands, grew up in the sixties, listening to The Beatles and learning how to play the recorder. “Back in the day, that’s were you had to start.” In the seventies, he traded in his recorder for the organ. “When you’d hit it real hard, the key contacts made random contact and it would produce sounds in the most peculiar way, reminding me of sound-effects produced by synthesizers. I loved those sounds, so I guess that’s where it all started!”
Gradually, he became more infatuated with electronics and synths. “There was this electronics magazine, providing a DIY-kit for building your own modular synth. That, and music by Tangerine Dream, Rick Wakeman and Klaus Schulze got me into electronics studies.” Later on, he switched to chemistry, got a job and bought his first second-hand synth, a Korg MS-10. In the eighties, after he got his hands on a DX7 in 1983, he decided to learn everything about programming.
“I loved creating my own sounds. It got me interested in using computers for saving the sounds I had made. A DX7 has 145 parameters, writing them all down on paper took 15 minutes, that’s just for one sound! So I started out with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum+, followed by the Commodore 64 and the Atari ST. The one thing about the DX7: you can’t make those thick and big string sounds with it. For that, I bought the Roland JX-8P. That’s when I stumbled upon System Exclusive. I knew my way around MIDI, but didn’t get around SysEx that much. I wanted to know all about it. And so, I dived right into that particular subject and learned all I could.” Unlike most of us, Peter does enjoy reading manuals. In fact: manuals are his favourite form of literature. All this studying made him become quite the MIDI and synth expert. “One thing led to another. I started programming and writing software myself. I wrote an editor/bankmanager for the JX-8P and a universal dump-utility for SysEx. I also started doing Cubase demonstrations and I served as an adviser for musicians and MIDI users. In 1989 I also started to import and sell Geerdes software.”
Later on in his career, he was offered a job as synth expert in a local music store. “For two days a week. Great thing about that: it gave me a chance to experiment and get to know more instruments thoroughly. And yes: I’ve read all the manuals…”
Look, but don’t touch
“Now, the first time I heard a Fairlight; that was back in 1983 when I saw Liquid Sky. Hearing that Sarrar-sound, I thought: ‘This is something special’. The use of the Fairlight CMI was mentioned in the film credits. Well, I fell completely in love. A few years later, I attended this demo show at the Sheraton hotel, Antwerp, where several companies were promoting their products. Synton, the firm that handled the import for Ensoniq and for Fairlight in the Benelux, showed a Fairlight system. It had a price tag of FL 200.000 (about 103.000 USD; 90.755 Euro). The house I live in cost FL 150.000!”
“Sitting in front of that green screen. It’s magic…”
“It was set up in a room. Visitors were allowed to look at it, but they didn’t give a demo; such a shame. That day, I decided to buy an Ensoniq Mirage, the rack version. Although the specs are in many ways similar to those of the CMI, its sound is much less sophisticated. It can’t produce the powerful basses Fairlights are known for. For instance, the bass sounds on Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.… You just know they were using a Fairlight for that, you try to emulate that sound because you’re a fan, and… You end up frustrated, with this big frown on your face!”
In the early nineties, Peter met Michael Thorpe from Touched By Sound. Peter: “Digital synths were taking over and the ‘Oldies’ were being sold for a song. In search of a MultiMoog, I came into contact with Michael. He already was into selling and re-selling vintage gear, and we hooked up. Little by little, people were rediscovering the warmth of true analogs again. We jumped right into that gap, starting a business that turned out to be a very thriving one.”
“Every other day, Michael was sending over faxes, containing long lists of synths he acquired. One day, I spotted a few Fairlights on those lists, and for an affordable price. I thought about buying a Synclavier, I thought about buying the unique and rare Technos Axcel, which was stored in my house at that time, but the Fairlight… It was just more special to me. So, in 1995, I got my Series IIx.”
“It got delivered to me by Michael in person and his colleague. I took it in, stacked it up and spent the first moments just looking at it. I could hardly believe it was actually there. Suddenly, my doorbell rang again. It was Michael, smiling, holding up the ignition key which is needed to fire up the system.
It’s not like you can play it right away. Just the opposite. It takes a lot of learning; you have to immerse yourself in it. Nowadays, you can search the internet, watch tutorials, ask your questions in a Facebook group… Back then, you had to make do with the manual. It was about as thick as two phonebooks. It took me about 48 hours to read it. I didn’t get any sleep, I just couldn’t put it away! When I started using the Fairlight, it exceeded all my expectations.”
A box of pure magic
“According to the serial number, the unit was built in april 1985, and judging from the high serial-number, it’s one of the last IIx’s that were produced. I never saw a higher number listed, so it might even be the last one… The system I initially bought was previously owned by OMD. However, as it turned out, that one was already sold. Instead I got the one that used to belong to J.J. Jeczalik from the Art of Noise, so I wasn’t too disappointed! In fact, I was overjoyed, because I was a big fan of their work! It came with a truckload of floppy discs (over 200!). In truth, I haven’t even checked them all out yet. It’s great to have a collection of famous sounds, but to me, it’s not just about having famous libraries, and I don’t feel the need to do remakes of Art Of Noise-tracks. Why should I? It’s about the instrument itself, and what you can do with it.
“There was this one time a friend of mine dropped by, also a huge Fairlight fan. He felt kind of depressed. I told him: ‘Well, I got just the thing to cheer you up a bit.’ So I fired up the Fairlight and we spent an hour, just listening to a chord put on hold, hearing all the nuances of the Sarrar-sound. Beautiful! Usually, I sit myself down and just play or create new sounds. And before I know it, hours have passed.”
“It’s well-built, outstanding craftsmanship. It’s just beautiful to look at and is able to produce awesome, breathtaking sounds in a way that only Fairlights can do. I’m a huge fan of the IIx and much less of the Series III; this one, the IIx, has much more character. The light pen, the harmonics page, its sound… Sitting in front of that green screen: it’s just magic. I don’t think I will ever sell it, no matter what they’ll offer me. The Fairlight stays with me, for as long as I may live.”