It wasn’t that long ago that people like me, people with a passion for vintage samplers such as the Fairlight, Synclavier, Emulator, WaveFrame, et al, had very little to go on when it came to possessing some of those sounds that we had grown up with, to use in our music. It was a strange situation, if truth be told. Here we were, in the 21st century. Our smartphones possessed more processing power than one of those sampling giants and yet, no one had managed to recreate them using all the whizz bang technology we had come up with. Access to the sample libraries was scarce, mainly because the libraries were scarce themselves, but also because those who owned them really didn’t want to share them. There exists to this day, a degree of gear snobbery the likes of which is not seen anywhere else, when it comes to these machines. Sadly, some of these individuals go to great lengths to disparage products such as Darklight, Emulation II and other attempts at bringing the unique and important sounds of these machines to the masses. It is disappointing and I’ll talk more about this later on in this article.
Anyway, the rest of us plebeians had to make do with small pickings found around the internet, many of which were of questionable origin or quality. And then things started to change. And one of the first things to emerge was the Fairlight library ReFill by Patrick Fridh of Bitley. His extensive sample library, gleaned directly from a CMI IIx had all the original samples, lovingly re-sampled and then a whole host of new sounds created using these samples. It really is a magnificent collection of sounds and for people like me, who use Reason, it was an absolute pleasure to own. But of course, it was limited to Reason. There is a Kontakt version, but it is nowhere near as extensive.
Then, Peter Vogel, co-inventor of the Fairlight announced that, with current technology, it wouldn’t be possible to faithfully recreate and model the insides of a IIx but that it WAS possible if he was to use some state of the art DSP cards, ironically made by Fairlight US, the company that grew out of the ashes of his old business! Peter set about designing the soon to be released CMI 30A which does everything a IIx can do, including looking and operating like one, and then some! Building a limited run of 100 of these dream machines, Peter was able to also develop the Fairlight iOS app. Whilst this didn’t recreate the processing and signal paths of an original IIx, it replicated a lot of its features very faithfully, and included the entire IIx factory library as well as a good chunk of the Series III library too. And I was incredibly honoured to work with Fairlight Instruments on this project, producing the launch promotional video for them and doing beta testing and the like.
And so it seems that over the last couple of years, more and more opportunities to possess these sounds are emerging. Of course, it is an absolute given that none of these libraries are a direct replacement for the real thing. Anyone who has ever borne witness to a IIx or Emulator EII in the flesh knows that there really is nothing that sounds quite like the real thing. There is something about the old technology that shapes and colours the sound in such a unique way that it cannot be accurately be modelled on the cheap. But we understand that and for the most part, most users simply want those iconic sounds to use in their modern day systems. And to be honest, not everyone wants a CMI IIx in their studio, clunking and wheezing away, having to use a primitive green on black screen with a temperamental light pen! (Ok, I would DIE for that, but that’s beside the point! 😉 ) No, the vast majority of musicians would just like quick and convenient access to the sounds and nothing else.
And today, in 2012, we have more options than ever before. And this week, those options grew, with the release of UVI’s new library, Darklight IIx.
Now, nowhere on the packaging or marketing do UVI mention the Fairlight. Sure, they allude to it, refer to it’s mythical status and judging by the graphics, it is plainly obvious where this library comes from, both in content and inspiration. And being a fan of both Fairlight and UVI, I think I’m perfectly placed to review what they have done with my beloved off-white object of desire!
So, as per usual, this library is for UVI’s own free Workstation app, which comes in VST, AU, RTAS and MAS flavours, as well as a standalone version. To use Darklight, you will need the latest version (2.0.6) and the obligatory iLok key. Upon opening the library, we’re presented with three options, or “Pages”, an obvious nod to the various pages of applications found in the Fairlight. We have Page P, where all the instrument patches are stored, Page B, a clever beat box programming function that apes the original Page R sequencing page of the Fairlight, and Page U, a pattern sequencing page that uses the UVI Workstation’s neat little pattern sequencer to allow you to layer and trigger 3 different voices to come up with some very nice patterns, loops and phrases. All of this is served up on a beautifully scripted interface that resembles the old CRT monitor of the IIx. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but UVI do not hold back on their interfaces, making them not only very useable but extremely pretty to boot.
So, let’s take a look at Page P.
The library is divided up in a very familiar fashion, with categories spanning the obvious (Bass, Drums, Bells, Guitars, Pianos, Strings, Organs, etc) to more specific categories like Orchestral Hits (kinda obvious with the Fairlight!), FX, Winds, and naturally, “Fair Voices”, where you know you’re going to find instances of the ubiquitous ‘Saraar‘ sound. And we’re not let down. Pretty much all the obvious sounds are here, albeit under new names, but obvious enough to pick out. The sampling is, as expected, very good, and they have captured the aliasing in the far reaches of the register at both ends. Hit those C1 or C6 notes, and you can hear a lot of the artefacts that the primitive technology of the late 70s applied to the sounds. Purists might argue that this should be cleaned up, but it is these characteristics that make these sounds unique. So, the instrument patches are plentiful (over 250 of them) and UVI have included a new FX unit in the Workstation called SparkVerb that is used to good effect on a number of these patches.
Calling up one of the patches presents you with the normal UVI set of parameter controls, only this time in an authentic green on black stylee! Amp & Filter envelopes, filter settings, stereo, pitch and drive controls and the very useful multiple modwheel assignments are all present, plus direct control knobs to the right of the screen to control the built in FX such as phaser, delay, reverb and bit crusher. Easy to tweak to make these patches your own.
And how does it sound? It sounds good. Very good. All the old favourites are here and there are some nice new creations too. I understand that some of these were created in the Fairlight itself before sampling, which is interesting. The ‘standards’ are as good as I’ve heard outside of a Fairlight. UVI’s sampling team have done their usual sterling job, and the samples have been mastered at a very high standard. I’ve come to expect little else. My only criticism? Well, clearly due to legal reasons, a lot of the patch names have been changed so as to minimise the risk of copyright infringement, I would imagine, and so for people like me who know the original names and the sounds associated with them, it means digging around to find them. But this is ok, because it gets you right into the library and you may discover stuff you would never have done.
Page B is a one off load that presents you with a page that more than resembles the famous Page R step time sequencer of the original machine. There are eight tracks, each of which can have a drum or percussion sample assigned to them, and there is a massive collection of sounds to choose from. Each lane has its own pan and tune controls followed by their own 16 step sequencer, allowing you to click on each step to place a beat, with two levels of accent. To the right of the ‘monitor’, there are individual filter controls for each lane which effectively allow you to slide between a low pass and high pass filter. Useful for tailoring each part of your beat. As usual with UVI libraries, each sample is also assigned to a key on your keyboard with C4 being used to trigger the loop. There are 25 preset rhythms but the possibilities are almost endless with the number of sounds you can choose from as well as the beat programming on offer.
Similarly, Page U is a one off load that then presents you with 3 step sequencers which, if you’ve used UVI products before, should be instantly familiar. Load up a patch into each of them, set your resolution, pan, volume, gate and number of steps and then either click or draw your pattern in using your mouse. Each layer is independent of the other and allows you to build up some quite complex and evolving patterns and phrases. You can have a LOT of fun with these! And to further shape the sound, direct access controls to delay and reverb for each sequencer appear to the right of the screen.
Once again, UVI have wrapped up a great sounding collection of samples in a gorgeous interface that is eminently useable.
In conclusion, you get a lot of sounds and a lot of functionality for your money. The quality is typically superb as we have come to expect from UVI. I would’ve liked to have seen a faithful recreation of the original library but understand that this might not have been possible for various reasons, mostly around copyright, I guess. Nevertheless, there is plenty to use here an plenty to keep Fairlight fans happy.
How does it compare to the Bitley library? Well, this is useable in all the places the Bitley product is not, i.e. outside of Reason, so it has that going for it. But the Bitley product is massive. And it makes use of Reason’s incredibly powerful rack and all the units contained therein. It also comes with a wealth of non Fairlight stuff too. Oh, and it is considerably cheaper, by over 40%, sometimes more when it is on offer. But until now, there hasn’t been a good VST/AU/RTAS plug in that contains these iconic sounds, and for that, UVI must be commended. It is an excellent library and if you are even half interested in these sounds, their history and the appeal, you will want this.
Of course, one criticism levelled at these kinds of packages are the ones that berate them for either trying hard to emulate the original and failing or not trying hard enough. The simple fact of the matter is this. If you want a 100% Fairlight experience, buy a Fairlight. You can pick up a good example of a Series IIx or Series III for anything between £4000 and £8000. If you can find one, that is. Those that remain are either dead and useful for spares only, or lovingly restored with price tags to match. But that’s the price you are going to pay to own one of these devices.
Or, you could invest $20,000 AUD in a Fairlight CMI 30A, that is if Peter hasn’t already sold all 100 of the limited run.
I hope, one day, to own my own IIx, but until then, like the vast majority of you, I will have to make do with other options, such as this. And it is a very suitable and affordable medium.
Which brings me back to the point I mentioned at the top of this review. This isn’t a Fairlight in software. It’s a software sample library that sits within a very good playback device that affords a good degree of control over the sounds but it is NOT a CMI IIx, nor does it ever claim to be, no matter what you read into the clever marketing spiel. I’ve spoken with a number of people at UVI, who by the way are really, really nice people with a deep passion for everything that they do and everything they produce. They wanted this, just like all their other libraries, to be a hugely enjoyable tool based on a piece of legendary hardware that is out of the reach of most of us. They wanted to bring an essence of those machines to ordinary folk who don’t have the funds or space to buy an ageing machine that will need a lot more money to keep going. They’re passionate and enthusiastic about what they make, and it really comes across. I am not “in their pocket”, nor will I ever be, but I am just recounting how I find these people and the drive behind what they do. If owners of the real deal think that products like this, or Bitley’s ReFill, are a slur on the name of what they hold dear, well, sorry guys, but unless copyright law is in fear of being breached, these sounds should be enjoyed by as many people as possible because they were, and still are, hugely inspirational sounds that are still relevant today. If anyone researches Darklight, Emulation II or WaveFrame and truly believes that for $99-$199 they are going to get a like for like replica of a Fairlight CMI IIx, Emulator II or AudioFrame, then they clearly haven’t researched it properly. Are these the next best things? For a lot of people, yes. They want the sounds, more than anything else. I’ve programmed on Page R and it’s a chore. A lovely, nostalgic chore, but a chore nonetheless. But give me those sounds, and a degree of control over them and allow me to use them in my DAW of choice, then I’m in!
For $199, the UVI Darklight IIx library gives you a wealth of useable sounds from a Fairlight, enough power to shape yet more sounds for your own use and a lovely retro style interface that evokes a pleasant sense of Aussie sampler-based nostalgia. It is not an accurate Fairlight clone, doesn’t claim to be yet satisfies the most ardent fan of the sound of the Fairlight.
Oh, and I would like to point out, because given the nature of the debate occurring on the Darklight video page on YouTube it will get asked, no, I am not paid to review UVI’s products or any other products for that matter. In fact, I had to go out and buy the iLok to use them for the purposes of review. I also recently bought a Mac to help me do more reviews across all platforms, so I’m actually out of pocket! As with anyone that carries out product reviews, I am provided with a review copy that is strictly policed and accounted for. I am unbiased and would challenge anyone that claims otherwise. I make no money or profit from my endeavours and do it purely as a hobby. It just so happens that what I do is well regarded by manufacturers that they send me stuff to review, and by readers who trust me to be impartial, honest and fair.
Now, for the multimedia stuff!
Here’s my video review…
Here’s a collection of audio demos…
And here’s the promotional video that has caused a stir amongst a handful of people… 😉