Nostalgic music buffs embrace the return of the Fairlight

May 5, 2013
Chris Johnston

Meet The Man Who Revolutionized Music

Peter Vogel, co-invented the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument in 1979 and its sampling technology Revolutionized Music. More than 30 years after its birth he's bringing out a retro version for collectors.


For A Certain Kind of a music nerd, or a music nerd of a Certain Age, Australian Peter Vogel is a messiah figure. To them, he is the'' man who changed the world''.

With an old school friend called Kim Ryrie, Vogel invented a strange and important musical instrument (of sorts) called the Fairlight in 1979. The ungainly keyboard, processor and huge clunky old green-screen monitor was hailed as the world's first sampler - a digital sampling synthesizer.

Its full name was the Fairlight CMI, with Those letters standing for'' computer'' musical instrument. The pair developed it in Ryrie's grandmother's house in Point Piper, Sydney. And it was popularized by the household names of international pop music through the 1980s, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, Devo.

Stevie Wonder bought the first Fairlight.

John Farnham's Whispering Jack is basically a Fairlight album. Herbie Hancock played one on Sesame Street in 1983.

Vogel and Ryrie's first commercial sale was to no less than Stevie Wonder and shortly after was John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

The machine's workings, and size, seem obsolete now - floppy discs, primitive software and memory and a light-pen instead of a mouse. But it worked, and it allowed musicians and Producers to take existing sounds and manipulate them into entire sonic universes years before sampling would have been thought possible.

A Fairlight cost between $ 50,000 and $ 100,000.

The Fairlight esd co-invented by Peter Voge.     

Police's Stewart Copeland. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Jean Michel Jarre at the controls.

Says Vogel, still in Sydney and still an inventor:'' It was the object of a lot of musicians' wet dreams.''

Paul Doornbusch, the associate dean of Melbourne's Australian College of the Arts and author of a book on Australian electronic music,'' says the Fairlight certainly helped popup and sophisticated sound design studio musicians '80s''.

In many ways it defined the '80s That sound is now back in vogue, especially in dance music.

In 1986, with the pop charts full of songs featuring his instrument, Vogel's company went bankrupt. The hand-built machines were expensive to make, with parts couriered around the world for repair.

'' It was a financial disaster,'' Vogel says. '' We spent more on support than we made on sales.''

Yet now it is back. Despite the music production software Pro Tools dry as being commonplace - and despite GarageBand being bundled free with every new Apple computer - it has returned, a testament to the cyclical nature of fashion and culture.

This time around, Vogel (now without Kim Ryrie) is selling an updated version of his Fairlight CMI on what he calls the'' nostalgia'' market. '' The retro market for collectors,'' he says. '' It's not cutting-edge and futuristic any more. It's a big, clunky, heavy piece of furniture. But it looks and works the same. It even smells the same.''

But Vogel had to fight through the courts to get his Fairlight back on sale. He originally wanted to get them out for the 30th anniversary - in 2009 - of Stevie Wonder's first purchase. He had also noticed renewed demand and prices of up to $ 10,000 for Fairlights on eBay.

His primary markets are overseas, so he applied for Austrade grants through the Australian Trade Commission for export marketing. Applicants can get half of Their expenditure back: he would have been due $ 40,000, mostly for a launch at a big music trade show in California in 2011.

Yet he was knocked back. Austrade told him he had already got the maximum number of grants in the '80s and he could not have any more.

Vogel asked for an internal review - and was knocked back again.

Then in February, he fronted the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in NSW, representing himself, to make the case:'' It is a radically different business to what it was in the '80s. It has a different ACN and different people. It's not a cutting-edge product any more, it's for collectors who want to be in the '80s.''

This time he won and has since sold 20 Fairlights for $ 20,000 each in Brazil, America, Japan, Switzerland, Austria and Spain.

At the trade show in California in 2011, when he first unveiled the prototype, Vogel says people cried. '' More than one person shed a tear when they saw it. They said the instrument Changed Their Lives. It was the first real home studio.''

During his musical hiatus he invented medical and TV equipment, Including an electronic TV programming guide That the Nine Network tried to stop him from making. But he still got calls from Fairlight tragics''''. This continues to happen because his name, email and phone number are easy to find online. Most mistake the phone number for a help line, so often his phone rings in the night with someone in Europe wanting a part, or support.

Source: canberratimes.com.au 

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