Fairlight CMI History

The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was, in 1979, the first commercially available digital sampling instrument. For the first time, natural sounds could be played on a keyboard and used in compositions. It was a revolution.

The CMI consisted of a computer mainframe, music and typewriter keyboards, and a monitor with a light-pen that could be used to “draw” sounds on the screen. Those were the days before the mouse! Today every sampler, digital synthesizer, sequencer and audio workstation can trace its lineage back to this legendary machine. Known for its solid, hand-built quality and iconic sounds, the Fairlight CMI holds a special place in history and in the hearts of musicians everywhere.

The CMI was designed by two Australian engineers, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, who worked in Kim’s grandmother’s garage overlooking Sydney Harbour. At that time a hydrofoil boat used to travel across the harbour from the city centre to Manly, a beach suburb. The name of that hydrofoil was “Fairlight”, which was adopted as the name for the new company.

Kim and Peter, circa 1979, from Sonics Magazine

Kim and Peter, circa 1979, from Sonics Magazine

Kim and Peter had no marketing team, but a chance meeting led to Peter taking a system to show to Stevie Wonder. He bought one immediately. So, subsequently, did Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Thomas Dolby, Herbie Hancock and a host of other innovative musicians who embraced the ability to use natural, as opposed to synthetic sounds in their music.

A later development was “Page R”, which was the world’s first screen based rhythm sequencer. Here, musicians could create whole songs in the machine, which would change forever the way music was made.

Only about 300 Fairlight CMIs were ever built, each costing between $25,000 and $75,000 at the time. The “app” you have in your phone or pad is easily as powerful as the first Fairlight CMI. Enjoy this little piece of history in your pocket and watch out for the soon-to-be released CMI-30A … the legend returns.

Famous Owners

Here are some of the artists who owned and used the Fairlight CMI:

  • Alan Parsons
  • Annie Lennox
  • Barry Gibb
  • Billy Gibbons
  • Bono
  • Boris Blank
  • Brian Eno
  • Brian Wilson
  • Chick Corea
  • Daryl Hall
  • David Gilmour
  • David Hirschfelder
  • Elvis Costello
  • Geoff Downes
  • Hans Zimmer
  • Herbie Hancock
  • Howard Jones
  • Iva Davies
  • Jan Hammer
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Jim Kerr
  • JJ Jeczalik
  • John Paul Jones
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Kate Bush
  • Keith Emerson
  • Laurie Anderson
  • Lindsey Buckingham
  • Mark Knopfler
  • Mark Mothersbaugh
  • Midge Ure
  • Mike Oldfield
  • Mike Rutherford
  • Nick Rhodes
  • Pet Shop Boys
  • Peter Gabriel
  • Roland Orzabal
  • Sir George Martin
  • Steve Winwood
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Stuart Copeland
  • Thomas Dolby
  • Todd Rundgren
  • Trevor Horn
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