‘Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument’

Resident archivist Jack Dangers reaches for a rare seven-inch Fairlight demo disc from the dawn of the sampling era

This 1980 seven-inch, ‘Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument’, was produced to show off the first Fairlight synthesiser. They somehow managed to squeeze 20 minutes of music onto the disc, which includes sound effects, music, and a piece for a dance performance. According to the sleeve notes, one of the pieces, ‘Timelapse’ (the theme tune for an Australian sci-fi TV show, broadcast in March 1980 and set in the impossibly distant future of 1991), is the “very first practical use of the Fairlight”. All of which makes this a significant artefact from the dawn of the age of sampling.

It’s pretty rare too. The description on Discogs claims the record was only available if you bought a Fairlight, which would make it a very expensive way to get hold of a seven-inch. I’m sure they were produced to promote the machine, and were probably given out. Having said that, you can’t find the audio on the internet anywhere, and I think only two have ever been sold on Discogs, one of which is the copy I bought in April 2023.

I’ve never used a Fairlight or even been in the same room as one. I had to wait until more reasonably priced technology became available, like everyone else. The financial pecking order of musicians in the 1980s was obvious through their use of samplers.

The first person in the UK to buy one was Peter Gabriel after which he set up a company called Syco Systems to import and distribute them in Europe. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin bought the second Fairlight in the UK, apparently to replace his Mellotron. Next was Richard Burgess of Landscape, who became a go-to guy for Fairlight programming, then Kate Bush, Trevor Horn, Thomas Dolby and Stewart Copeland. New Order waited for the more affordable Emulator.

I got my first sampler in 1986 – a Casio SK-1 with one-second sampling time and a microphone attached on a little lead. I was well aware of samplers before that, but at $70,000 it wasn’t going to happen. By the end of the 1980s, Akai had pretty much killed off the Fairlight.

A quick look on eBay reveals that, as I type, a Fairlight IIx belonging to Blue Weaver – who played the instrument with Pet Shop Boys and Scritti Politti – is for sale. It comes with the original floppies with Pet Shop Boys sounds on them. Yours for just £40,000. The seven-inch cost around £80.

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