With all the buzz around iPad music apps and accessories, it’s hard not to think back to the Fairlight CMI, a unit that may have written the standards for on screen music creation. For our readers that might not know as much about what the Fairlight is, I thought I’d get a little more in depth in this NAMM preview.
The sound engine on the Fairlight CMI was the first of it’s kind to use a recorded wave form as the base of the sound. This would usher in an age of digital sampling workstations that would drastically change the music industry. Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush were just a few of the studio heavies that worked with the Fairlight CMI, mainly because they could afford too. The touch screen interface was clearly way ahead of it’s time when it was designed in 1979, but the hardware it required to achieve this put it’s cost out of reach for many. Still, the almost science fiction like way of communicating with sound captivated many.
Keyboards like the Emu Emulaotor and the Ensonique Mirage would make sampling synthesis more affordable and wide spread in the studio, but the touch screen interface that literally let your draw in your waveform and sequence settings went to the wayside. Enter computer based recording and Digital Audio Workstations and we again had the audio we were working with in front of us on a screen. Drawing midi notes into the piano role of a midi sequencer is now a standard part of digital music creation. Several synth plug ins and applications like SPEAR let you draw in your waveform or draw over the waveform of any sound. Computer music now makes any synthesis and sampling technique available, but large touch screens weren’t affordably available until now with the entrence of Apple’s iPad among other tablet devices and computers.
A touch screen provides endless possibilities for interface design, and now that Apple is going to support core MIDI in their iPad we should see plenty more hitting the app store. This could lead to a new age of music software innovation, but doesn’t make hardware worth writing off all together. Just as a traditional music instrument has it’s own unique sound, with any hardware device comes limitations. Some people work well within these limits, pushing boundaries and discovering new ways to work within them as a source of inspiration. Korg has released an iPad version of their popular Electribe drum machine offering the same sounds and hardware like limitation on the touch screen. Pushing buttons and tweaking “knobs” on a touch screen is a bit awkward though. In fact there many not be any other hardware devices that have set a precedence for a integrated touch interface. Enter the Fairlight iPad app:
While Fairlight is now making a 30th Anniversary edition of the full CMI system the cost puts it just as out of reach as it was the first time around. Their iPad app offers the sound set and functionality of a series 2 CMI with some updated features. If they make it playable with something like the Akai Synthstation 49 you now have the opportunity for the same style of hardware/touch screen interface in a way less expensive package. The classic sounds of the CMI are then available the way they were supposed to be played.
In addition to the classic sounds, the “vintage” looking CMI interface appeals to me aesthetically because I’m one of those people who finds inspiration working within the limitations of dated gear. I sometimes have a hard time coming up with ideas within the computer. Anything seems possible when staring at a blank DAW session and it’s hard for me to focus on a starting point without getting hands on. Soft synths reflect the desire of a lot of musicians to have a hardware like interface, and the virtual CMI takes this to the next level in iPad form. More then as just a software emulation though, I think Fairlight is in a unique position to take their app further and really shape some new standards for touch screen music interfaces. It’s nice to think that what’s next for touch screen interfaces could be as classic and inspiring as a musical instrument, while also being newly versatile and expansive given the ability of a touch screen.