80s Music Flashback: Exploring the Peter Vogel CMI iPad App

You may feel nostalgic about the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) without even knowing what it is.  The CMI rose to prominence in the early 1980s as a groundbreaking way of sampling and playing back sound. It came with several samples provided, but could also record any sound you liked and play it back at various pitches determined by which note you pressed on its piano-like keyboard. Several of its unique sounds were heard in pop music, from Peter Gabriel’s exquisite avant-garde to Michael Jackson’s smash hit, “Beat It” (that electronic gong sound that starts the track is unmistakably the CMI’s “SYNBELL5” sound, found on the “BELLS” disk right next to the famous bell sound used by Band Aid in “Do They know It’s Christmas“).

I love musical gadgets and was fascinated to find old footage of the CMI a couple of years ago in YouTube clips showing, for instance, Herbie Hancock demonstrating the CMI for children on “Sesame Street.” (CMI sounds are heard on Hancock’s “Sound System” album) I would have loved to have owned one, but alas the machine had been out of production for over 30 years and had cost an astronomical amount of money at the time.

Fast forward to this summer. I am playing with a simulation of the CMI released by Peter Vogel, one of the founders of the legendary Fairlight, on my iPad. I have loaded the virtual “DEMO” disk and am playing the “BrassH1” sound. Out come the opening trumpet tones from Devo’s “Shout” album, in which Devo made extensive use of the CMI by sampling and playing back human voices.  It isn’t hard to find the “Orch2” orchestra burst sound that went viral in the 80s, appearing on the title tracks of U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” and Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Insane” to give just two examples of God-only-knows-how-many usages. Trevor Horn gets his own name on the orchestra burst sound (“TREVHORN”) used on Yes’ “Owner of A Lonely Heart.” And there’s the one-of-a-kind breathy pad “SARARR” used by Tears For Fears on “Shout” and by Jan Hammer on the Miami Vice Soundtrack (“Flashback”).  And is that BASSMAR1 the bass sound I hear on Art of Noise’s “Paranoimia”? The more I explore, the more sounds I find from the songs I have been listening to for years.

Lindsey Buckingham obviously liked the CMI, as it appears in several places on his “Go Insane” album. The FUZZGTR3 seems to be what is heard on “Loving Cup” and “I Want You.” Buckingham gets crazy with the CMI sound effects on “Play in the Rain”, using “BREAKGLS” and “POUR” as well as the “KotoRuns11” sound from the SIII Guitars disk. You can’t mistake them.

Vogel’s fellow Aussies Midnight Oil must have been using the “ORCH2” sound on “Who Can Stand In The Way” and the “LITEBULB” on their hit “Power and the Passion” (try the G above middle C on the CMI and compare it to the breaking glass sound at around 1:15 to 1:30 on the record). The sampled vocals on “When the Generals Talk” could obviously have been done on the CMI as well. Charlie McMahon and Glad Reed are credited for the Oils’ didgeridoo and trombone sounds, but if you don’t have their phone numbers you can always settle for the sounds that ship with the CMI, as they’re pretty close.

Peter Gabriel was an early adopter of the CMI as shown in this video, showing Gabriel “in the field” sampling sounds for his fourth album as well as working out songs in the studio. The FLUTE4 sound is a close approximation of the low woodwind heard in “Rhythm of the Heat” and at the end of “San Jacinto,” if not the actual sample Gabriel used. The HONKYI piano sound, played at a very low octave, is doubtless the same as heard on “Rhythm of the Heat.”

As The Police were winding down their career at the top of pop music, drummer Stewart Copeland begin doing film scores using the CMI.  The Rumble Fish soundtrack contains some examples. Copeland used the CMI’s standard sounds extensively on the album “The Rhythmatist” in which he breathtakingly combined these sounds with samples of African music taken in the field and studio drum tracks. The CMI appears in the first minute of this video documenting the creation of the album. The track “Samburu Sunset,” for example, contains at least eight of the CMI’s standard samples, and I had always wondered where such unique sounds had come from. Apparently, the argument that cut short The Police’s 1986 reunion was over whether to use Copeland’s CMI or Sting’s Synclavier to record the only song they finished that year.

In this video, (at 26:50) Thomas Dolby sits side by side with Vogel and recounts that his song “The White City” from his “The Flat Earth” album was inspired by the “ARROW” sound on the CMI’s EFFECTS1 disk. Ask yourself how many CMI sounds you hear in Dolby’s hit “Hyperactive” from the same album (only counting that orchestra sound once!)

Hats off to you, Peter Vogel, and thanks for the memories.

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