By its sounds shall ye know it. By its oohs and aahs, its orchestra hits and its handclaps.
On the records of Kate Bush shall ye hear it. Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, Stevie Wonder, and, yes, Yes.
It is, of course, the Fairlight CMI, one of the mighty achievements of late-1970s, early-1980s synth technology, the other major triumphs being the Synclavier and the Emulator. These three machines were transformative pieces of technology, the most transformative in popular music since the invention of multitrack recording.
The Synclavier was a synthesiser, the Emulator a sampler. The Fairlight was something of both, as well as an early software sequencer, via its Page R function – the first example of a computer music GUI.
It did all of those things at what today seems an incredibly basic level, but it helped to open up a new world for musicians, especially for musicians who didn’t come from a background in old-school analogue synths.
I’m an acoustic guitar player, and know comparatively little about synths and programming. When recording, I treat the DAW as essentially an intelligent tape machine, using very few VST instruments and getting most of my sounds in front of the microphone with analogue instruments. The world of synthesis and sampling is one where I know enough to be intrigued, and not nearly enough to claim anything like an understanding. I know just enough to be completely in awe of the people who had to do this for real, whether with a room-sized modular synth in the 1970s, or with a Fairlight or Synclavier in the brave new world of the digital 1980s.
In 2016, records made at the very start of the 1980s can sound very strange indeed: dated, yes, but tremendously exciting in the fearless way they look to the future and incorporate all kinds of new ideas – textural and rhythmic – into their basic frameworks. The most fascinating moments come when the new technology meshes seamlessly with the old.
Consider Kate Bush’s Never for Ever.
Listening to the record, you hear a mix of traditional analogue instruments and cutting-edge sampling and synthesiser technology, filtered through Bush’s one-of-a-kind melodic and lyrical sensibility.
The Fairlight had been demonstrated to her halfway through recording sessions for the album, so while she immediately grasped the machine’s potential, she initially used it to augment songs that had already written and were partially recorded – the famous breaking-glass noise in Babooshka, for example. As such, Never for Ever is a fascinating tipping-point record: you only need to listen to the first few tracks of her next album The Dreaming to hear the profound effects that composing with Page R sequencing – in effect, using the Fairlight as a compositional tool – had on her music. The traditional drum kit (and most notably its cymbals) are entirely missing, with all kinds of sampled percussion and found sounds assembled into rhythm tracks, instead.
But as innovative as The Dreaming is (or Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo record – sometimes called Security but officially titled Peter Gabriel– to take another example), there’s something about that moment where the emerging technologies were employed at the same time as the old that really speaks to me – the stuff I’m familiar with in dialogue with the stuff I don’t understand and find eerie and uncanny. It’s the tension between the two that’s so thrilling.
Kate Bush with Fairlight, early 1980