Famous Samples Part 2: Fairlight Strings

Last week I spoke about how the Emulator was a much more advanced sampler than the Fairlight. The Emu machine used shared memory, so all of the samples could be mapped across the keyboard for polyphonic playing. The Fairlight being a much earlier machine was more crude. There was one memory for each of the 8 notes. So while you could map samples across the keyboard it was not possible to play all of those samples polyphonically, although it was “multi-timbral” in that you could play eight different sounds at the same time. The Emu could do that too, but in a much more musical manner because of the shared memory.

Perhaps because of this limitation Fairlight sounds tend to be more special sounding whereas the Emu tends towards utilitarian, for example replacing string players, rather than doing new things with sounds. Because only one sound could be sampled into the Fairlight people tended to put a lot more time and effort into them, and that one sound became a focus of attention. You had to have a sound that worked well across the entire range of the keyboard. The Fairlight transposed the sound by changing the playback speed, whereas the Emu basically left out bits of the sound instead, because it was not possible to change the speed of each sample separately with shared memory- it would change the speed of all samples in memory, which would bet pretty annoying! Also because the Fairlight was the first sampler, artists who desperately wanted to work with natural sounds would have used that first, so the gloss of the new had worn off by the time the Emulator came along. Bear in mind that tape allowed artists to work in a similar way, but it was vastly more time consuming and complicated.

Our famous sound for this week is (usually) called LOSTR2 (download the Fairlight strings zip file here) in the official Fairlight library. I say usually because there were at least three, possibly more, versions of the “complete” library. There is another quite different sound with the same name. So it actually took me a few years to find the original version of this sound. It seems to be from the series I machine, which means it was sampled at only 16kHz. There  isn’t really a single official library, partly because there were 3 versions of the 8 bit Fairlight (I, II, IIx) and also at some point the extant sounds were edited so that they were properly tuned and looped for the IIx. This was done by the Fairlight programmer Peter Weilk, apparently by recording the sounds back to tape and varispeeding them! He still sells and services these wonderful machines today.

LOSTR2 is one of those rare single samples that sounds great above its original pitch and below it. So I’ve included two versions of the sound. One was taken from the analogue outputs of a famous Series III, the other is directly from a disc image file so it’s an 8 bit 78kbyte audio file. There’s a lot of mileage in editing the start point on this sample to change the attack, as you can hear in these two Kontakt programs.

Here’s a madtheory track called Avez Vous…? featuring extensive use of LOSTR2.

This is a very powerful sound, and probably got used just as much as Marcato Strings, but is probably not as widely known. Perhaps the most famous song it’s used on is Mike Oldfield’s international hit Five Miles Out where it’s cleverly vocoded with the guitar and also doubling the bass at another point. If you have the album you can hear it in a more exposed form on the long instrumental “Taurus II”.

Equally well known would be the middle section of U2’s Unforgettable Fire, programmed by Brian Eno on a hired machine in Dublin. You’ll also hear the ORCH5 orchestra hit for which the Fairlight is best known. It’s an excellent bit of arranging, with Fairlight VPIZZ pizzicato. And lots and lots of reverb 🙂 Here is Keith Emerson trying to convince us that the Fairlight sounds real:

The 8 bit Fairlight was never very good at loops. In Jean Michel Jarre’s“Night in Shanghai” you can hear that he stops sounding the note before it gets to the clunky loop point. Later in the song he lets rip on the keyboard- you can still here the loop but it’s covered by the other sounds and some echo and reverb. This is a nice genuinely live version of the song  from the China concerts in 1981. The opening shot is on stage so you can see him playing the Fairlight:

Here’s an older blog post where I did an analysis of Kate Bush’s use of Fairlight sounds, with audio examples.

Here it is on The The’s song “Twilight of a Champion” from their classic album “Infected”.

And here’s a Yello B-Side from 1983, the first time I ever heard this powerful sound and was fascinated by it:

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