Fairlight Restoration

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In July of 2013, at the request of Peter Wielk, I ventured into a restoration project involving a Series III Fairlight CMI, previously owned by Ian Stanley of Tears for Fears. As you will probably be aware, if you read this blog often enough, Fairlight is a bit of an obsession of mine so this is something that excites me very much indeed. I plan to document the entire process on the blog, but thought a dedicated page would also be worth having, so here you will find the collected postings, pictures and videos I make throughout the process of this restoration.

Enjoy 🙂

July 9th 2013

Ok, I can’t lie. So here’s the truth and the facts.

Yes, I am getting a Fairlight.

No, I won’t be owning it (not unless a rich uncle drops dead or a set of randomly chosen balls happens to match a set of numbers I picked at random)

Yes, I will get to play with it.

No, my wife isn’t happy.

Yes, I’m feckin’ ecstatic!

So this is the deal. Some weeks ago, I was contacted by Peter Wielk. Peter has often been mentioned on this page because he is, without question, the best Fairlight engineer/restorer on the planet. Having worked at the original Fairlight company with the legend that is Peter Vogel, and having purchased much of the left over stock when that incarnation of the company bit the financial dust, Peter soon found a nice little sideline in keeping CMI’s around the world functioning at their best. Even today, when he visits the U.S. or U.K., Peter is besieged by CMI owners to arrange meetings to swap parts, get tips and have the Fairlight doctor diagnose and cure their CMI ailments.

Anyway, Peter and I talk via email quite a bit. We tend to follow the pattern of shooting the breeze about the good old days and then aspire to do some stuff together, like build a proper website for his business, but we’re both so busy with our respective lives that it never gets properly going. But when I got an email about three weeks ago, our conversations took a rather pleasant turn. I was in southern Germany at the time, down by the Rhine near Wiesbaden, doing what I do for a living to pay the bills. I read the email and got decidedly giddy. Peter told me he had acquired a Series III CMI whilst in the U.K. and was planning on restoring it, making sure it had the latest and greatest of everything, and then selling it on. But he didn’t want to ship it all the way back to Australia. He felt he could easily sell this in Europe, so decided to leave it here. What Peter was after, however, was someone to do the restoration work, under his remote stewardship. And Peter had decided to ask me! How could I say no??

There was one final detail. This particular CMI, like many of the ones that remain in existence today, has a rather illustrious owner. This machine was once the property of Ian Stanley, one part of British pop act Tears for Fears. Ian was/is a bit of a musical genius, a member of the “Bath Massive”, as I like to call them. The South West of England seems to breed and cultivate incredible musical talent. It’s the home of many a great musician, Peter Gabriel for example, and Ian was part of that too. After offering Roland & Curt (Orzabal and Smith) some studio time, they went on to write and record the first TFF album, ‘The Hurting’ and subsequently their 1985 masterpiece, ‘Songs From the Big Chair’. He went on to work with them on their “difficult” third album, 1989s ‘The Seeds of Love’, but left part way through due to musical differences. He’s also worked with Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, A-ha, The Pretenders, Howard Jones, Ultra, Republica, Naimee Coleman, Stephanie Kirkham, Natalie Imbruglia, DNA, Propaganda, The Human League, Tori Amos, The Sisters of Mercy and The Beautiful South. To the best of my knowledge, he still resides in Ireland, or possibly France and has, allegedly, retired from the industry. I hope to try and make contact with Ian sometime soon.

Tears+for+Fears+1984

Anyway, Peter bought this via Mark Frith and Chris Hughes who still work in the South West of England, and now, very soon, this machine will be here at Failed Muso Towers, where I will be, amongst other things, restoring it under Peter’s expert guidance. As I write this, there is a box of parts, including at least one hard drive, about to wing its way to me for insertion into the main unit. The Series III was launched in 1985, the same year that ‘Songs From the Big Chair’ was released so unless Ian had a CMI SIII prior to a commercial launch is unclear. I will be contacting Peter Vogel to see if he can remember. But there is every chance this may have been used on a subsequent tour (all components are suitably flight cased) and given that work began on ‘The Seeds of Love’ in 1987, it may have even seen use on those sessions. Initial investigations are proving to be unclear, with Mark & Chris stating that this was one of three Fairlights used in the studio at the time. Yes, you read that right. Three Fairlights!

So, my intention is to document the whole process, from collecting the system (sometime in the next week or so), through its restoration, testing and demonstration, possibly even writing some original music on it, and then finally selling and shipping it off to its new owner which, unless I start pooping solid gold eggs, won’t be me 🙁

Please stay tuned for updates and if anyone has any information about this particular machine and its unique history, please do get in touch.

To get things started here are some pictures taken by Peter…

Keyboard Case

Ian Fairlight III 1

Mainframe case

July 20th 2013

So, the day came yesterday for me to collect the Fairlight CMI III and bring it home in preparation for its restoration.

I had sourced a van to hire and being incredibly mindful of cost, decided to go for a “compact” van, namely a Ford Transit Connect. Not sure if that’ll mean much to anyone outside the EU but these are small vans with big insides! Peter had given me approximate measurements but right up until we loaded the system, I was a bit nervous that I had made a bit of a cock up!

So, myself and my good friend Howard, himself a closet muso with a passion for music tech, set off from sunny Suffolk towards Lincolnshire. With the incredible weather we’ve been having, it really was a pleasant drive across our amazing corner of England. I’ve always been very proud of East Anglia and this trip on a warm summer’s eve further reinforced my local pride.

We eventually arrived in the small village where Peter’s friend Kent had been looking after the system after Peter had left it there before he departed back home for Australia. Aside from Kent’s spectacular home and surroundings, Howard and I were made incredibly welcome and we were shown into a room where the CMI sat, ensconced in bulletproof flight cases. Kent’s wife Claire tried to persuade me to buy an old 24 track mixer (more on this another day) and the room in which the Fairlight had been resting seemed full of amazing things. Anyway, not wanting to impose and out stay our welcome, Howard and I started to shift the cases to the van. There were three ‘Bulldog’ cases, still solid as a rock and showing their age by virture of the fact that the Bulldog phone number in London was still prefixed 01! UK residents will remember when ALL London phone number began with 01. Nowadays, there are numerous prefixes for our great capital city.

There was clearly some corrosion on the substantial clasps that held the crates together and a distinctive “damp” smell about them, a combination of a couple of decades of fustiness, good old fashioned “gear smell” and some kind of water ingress. However, everything seemed ok, so we quickly loaded the cases into the van. There was also a cardboard box that contained a hard drive and tape streamer, along with numerous 8″ floppy disks and a raft of tape cassettes.

Once loaded, we set off for home, stopping only for a McDonalds 😉

Howard had to be dropped off before i got home, so it was down to me and my pyjama wearing wife (bless her) to unload, which we did with more ease than I had expected, leaving the cases in the lounge overnight.

This morning, after a trip to the shops, I began clearing space in the studio, casing up my Alesis Fusion and boxing up my Prophecy, which made me a little sad, but space is at a premium here! Meanwhile, my wife moved things around in our garage in preparation for the empty cases. First up the stairs was the mainframe. I had hoped it would fit under my desk but as it happened, it was just a smidge too wide. I’ll be perfectly honest here. I knew these things weren’t small but they weren’t kidding! And the build quality is immense. These systems really were hand built and crafted from premium materials with strength and solidity being paramount. I guess in today’s market place where companies charge premium prices but often deliver less than premium goods, stuff like this just doesn’t exist anymore. A Fairlight really is worth every single penny, in every single respect.

Next up the stairs was the musical keyboard, which again is pretty hefty, being made of solid wood. Thankfully this did fit where I wanted it, replacing my two remaining hardware synths on a sturdy double braced stand. Finally, after receiving some cleaning attention from my wife, the monitor and alpha numeric keyboard took pride of place atop the iconic musical keyboard.

I have to say, seeing the system set up in my room was a pretty special moment. For someone who has dreamed about owning a Fairlight since the early 80s, seeing one set up in my own studio is pretty damned amazing. It’s kind of difficult to describe the feeling I get when seeing this machine at close hand, a machine that I yearned and lusted after for so many, many years. And I know I will be a wreck when we get to power it up and i can really start diving into all it can do.

So, here’s a video and a gallery of pictures from today. A box of parts is already crossing the globe from Australia, so hopefully, I can get started on bringing this beast back to life. I envisage that the mainframe will be up and running first, and that I’ll be able to trigger it from other devices first because the Fairlight keyboard will need some work before it’s capable of controlling.

Keep checking back for updates! 🙂

July 21st 2013

Here are a few pictures of the various disks and datasettes that came with the Series III. Looking closely at the titles, there is definitely some intriguing stuff contained in here. All disks and tapes look in great condition. Let’s hope that nothing has become magnetically damaged.

July 26th 2013

On Thursday, I received a letter from Parcel’Farce’, a parcel courier here in the UK, informing me that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs had decided to levy import VAT on a parcel from Australia. One the one hand, I was delighted as this was a major step towards firing up the CMI. On the other hand, I was gutted at being mugged for £50 simply to receive a bunch of 28 year old computer components. Still, this is what you expect when transporting goods halfway around the world.

Anyway, this box contained, pretty much, a CMI Series III without the keyboard and case!

1x Output Mixer card + loom
1x Stereo sampling card
1x Colour VGA card
8x Voice cards
and 4x cards I can’t accurately identify but will update when I have. (It’s late on a Friday evening after a busy week!)

There was also a 3.5″ IDE hard drive and all the Series III manuals on a CD. That’s my holiday reading sorted then!

If I’ve understood correctly, once these components are fitted, we should be able to fire up the CMI and have it running without the music keyboard. Hopefully, we can hook up a MIDI sequencer or external MIDI controller and start playing some sounds out of it. I have to be honest and say that I am more than a tad excited about sequencing the CMI from Reason 7, given that Reason 7 is, IMHO, probably the DAW that relates most closely to the original CMI concept, and that it has only just gained MIDI Out capability. It’ll be like the grandchild taking the grandad for a walk in the park 😉

It’s going to be a few weeks before we get around to fitting and testing these components, but you’ll be able to hear about it first right here.

Here are pictures of the booty I received today…

Until next time, Fairlight fans! 🙂

August 12th 2013

Since picking up the Fairlight, I’ve not had much time to do anything to it, what with work and then having two weeks vacation. Similarly, my ‘supervisor’, the Fairlight Grand Master, Peter Wielk, has been globe trotting, primarily in America (New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco).

You will have seen that a box of goodies turned up from Australia and these have sat, tantalising and tempting atop the mainframe but I didn’t want to start popping things in and out of the card cage without definitive instructions. After all, this doesn’t (presently) belong to me 😉

Anyway, this weekend just gone, Peter dropped me a couple of emails and some instructions on getting some power coursing through the CMI’s veins, firstly to check whether the boot process was working, and secondly to check the condition of the original monitor. We’ll be fitting a VGA upgrade card that will allow for the connection of a regular LCD panel but it would be nice to sell with an original VDU.

So, this evening I decided to start work. I popped out the old Q133 Debug card from slot 23. This card connects to the RS-232 alpha-numeric keyboard, front panel and the audio backplane and is necessary for successful booting into the BIOS. The existing card had the wrong ROMS on it so Peter supplied an up to date card, which I installed. The front card cage is a very clean and organised space, clearly labelled and everything slides in and out with a pleasing sense of solidity. Peter also sent me a picture of his test bed machine back in Australia to help with card locations…

Testbed1

Once the card was in, I reconnected the various edge connectors and plugged in the monitor cable. This single, five pin, latching cable carries both power and image signal. And then the moment of truth…

I connected the power, flicked the front switch and she sprung to life. Seconds later, the BIOS information appeared on screen and a sigh of relief was exhaled 😉 Here’s some video for you…

So, we’re one step towards completion. Next up will be the eight voice cards and a few other assorted replacements and additions and then we should be able to make her sing.

Stay tuned!

October 5th 2013

Well, it’s all gone a bit quiet on the Fairlight restoration front, so I just wanted to give you a brief update, for those that are curious.

Basically, as I detailed earlier, we discovered that the mainframe was suffering from some stability issues in as much as it would intermittently boot up, and at other times it wouldn’t. When it did, it would be ok for 5-15 minutes and then freeze and crash. So Peter has been making and testing new boards to send over to me and these are due to ship any day soon, along with some new cables and connectors for the music keyboard. We hope that this will resolve the issue and the old boards can go back to Australia to be checked and fixed for the next machine to appear.

In the meantime, I’ve taken delivery of two Panasonic Magneto-Optical drives as Peter has a substantial amount of library and multi-tracks on MO disks, so one will stay with this machine and the other will go to Australia for use at Horizontal productions. I’ve also now hooked up Sarm Studios old Roland VS-880EX to the Fairlight, ready to start recording once we get her stable 🙂

So, keep checking back as I hope to have some developments for you soon 🙂

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April 27th 2014

I know, I know!! It’s been ages since any kind of update on the Fairlight restoration. I have good reason, having recently moved house. That whole process takes time (and money) and today I finally managed to open up the flight cases and bring the beast upstairs to my new studio. So, it’s in my face and demanding attention, of which it shall get. The first job will be to sort out the music keyboard before ironing out the stability issues.

Anyway, for now, here she is in her new home…

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More soon! 🙂

May 22nd 2014

Apologies for the title, especially to Ian, if by some chance he is following the progress of my restoration of his old Fairlight, but all is explained in the video below, which I shot the other day as I began work on restoring the music keyboard of the Series III CMI that I have here.

Aside from the aforementioned hairiness, the intoxicating smell of electronic components mixed with years of flight case storage is still a heady blend and still permeates the studio as I type this.

Hopefully, in collaboration with Peter, we will begin to make progress on getting this most iconic of keyboard controllers up and running again. It just doesn’t seem right, playing a Fairlight via a modern MIDI controller.

Anyway, enjoy the video. More to follow soon…

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