Exchange the Experience: Kate Bush and the Fairlight CMI

Header photo by Chris Moorhouse/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Forty years before Stranger Things re-introduced her single "Running Up That Hill" to a younger generation of curious listeners as the character Max's favorite song, a 24-year-old Kate Bush would release her fourth studio album The Dreaming. Not only does it remain among the British art-pop provocateur's boldest statements, but it would also be the first of several albums she'd produce herself.

As a showpiece for her signature storytelling, The Dreaming's oblique sample-based palette pulled lyrical inspiration from a wide variety of suspenseful subjects—among them Viet Cong soldiers, Harry Houdini, and the struggle of Aboriginal Australians as depicted on the title track. But what was the canvas that Kate used to turn these tales into sonic experiments?

Origin Stories

Appropriately enough, the story begins Down Under in Sydney, 1975: recent high school graduates Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie had recently discovered Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos, that 1968 classic of early synthesizer music in which Bach inventions and fugues are performed on a Moog. As Vogel tells it on his personal website, "Kim was very keen to develop a better synthesizer, and knowing my interest in electronics, he suggested we join forces… it was obvious that combining digital technology with music synthesis was the way to go."

Fairlight CMI Series III
Fairlight CMI Series III

The pair would soon start a home business to manufacture synthesizers, naming it after the Fairlight ferry that passed on the Sydney Harbor which the home of Ryrie's grandmother overlooked. The following year, they would join forces with the engineer and Motorola consultant Tony Furse, who introduced them to microprocessor technology.

After months of trial-and-error experiments, Vogel made a breakthrough in 1978 as he studied the harmonics of acoustic instruments. He recorded a split-second of piano from a radio broadcast, and discovered that playing said recording back at different pitches delivered a realism that differed from the piano presets of that era's synthesizers. Soon after, sampling as we know today was born.

"After four years of working around the clock," Vogel wrote, "we had the first working prototype of what was to revolutionize the music industry." That product would be the Fairlight CMI, introduced in 1979: an early sampling synthesizer and DAW complete with computer display, a QWERTY-style keyboard, floppy disk functionality, and a "light pen" stylus.

Kate Bush collaborator Peter Gabriel demonstrating the Fairlight CMI

That summer, Vogel found himself in England demonstrating the machine for Peter Gabriel while he was at work on his third self-titled solo album at his home near Bath. Much like the cover of that 1980 record, it was a facemelting experience for everyone in the studio that day. "The idea of recording a sound into solid-state memory and having real-time pitch control over it appeared incredibly exciting," said Gabriel's cousin Stephen Paine, who was in the room. "Peter was completely thrilled, and instantly put the machine to use during the week that Peter Vogel stayed at his house."

Indeed, Gabriel would use a microphone plugged into the Fairlight's sampler to capture everyday sounds such as glass bottles breaking that would end up on the record—by the end of Vogel's visit, he convinced the former Genesis frontman not only to buy the first CMI, but to also act as UK's de facto importer and distributor for Fairlight.

Never for Ever

Also present at the sessions for the "Melt" album was a twenty-year-old Kate, fresh off the only concert tour in her five-decade career, aptly dubbed The Tour of Life; she would contribute background vocals to "No Self Control" and "Games Without Frontiers". Gabriel is often credited with introducing Bush to the Fairlight, and though there's no record of her initial encounter with the machine, the story is worth sticking to: the CMI would make its first appearance on Kate's music in the album to follow.

During the production of Never for Ever—also released in 1980—Kate brought on two members of the synth-pop band Landscape, Richard James Burgess and John L. Waters, to program the Fairlight at Abbey Road Studios. The bandmates already had ample experience with programming the CMI, having worked extensively with Fairlight's distributor Syco Systems, which had just been developed by none other than Stephen Paine.

Official video for "Babooshka" from 1980's Never for Ever

Pulling another move from Peter Gabriel's playbook, the end of the album's first track "Babooshka" is punctuated with the sound of broken glass processed through the CMI. As Burgess tells it, "We took glasses, I guess, from the kitchen. We had, I seem to remember, a concrete block or something in the studio and we just threw them down and recorded it. We had several samples and we stacked them up, and then just found a combination of keys that made the best sounds. The pitch changing is all from the keyboard on the Fairlight and mostly they were semi-tone clusters."

A later Side B highlight, the sparse anti-war ballad "Army Dreamers", would incorporate the sound of cocking rifles using a similar system of keyboard-mapping. "The older brother had an arsenal of guns," Burgess detailed. "He brought in a bunch and we tried them all, cocking them and recording them—actually, it wound up being multiple weapons on top of each other so it gave it a much more substantial sound. The real thing often doesn't sound like the real thing."

As Never for Ever was released in September 1980, Kate and her bassist boyfriend Del Palmer caught fellow Fairlight customer Stevie Wonder at Wembley Stadium. He was on tour supporting the double LP Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants", a fascinating rare commercial flop for the Motown star that served as the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name by filmmaker Walon Green. Stevie incorporated his CMI into the keyboard rig for these shows to replace his Computer Music Melodian, another primitive sampler used on the record.

Official video for "Sat In Your Lap" from 1982's The Dreaming

After attending the show and meeting Stevie backstage, Kate's inspiration was revitalized: the next day, she sat at the piano and with the assistance of a Roland CR-78 drum machine, tracked the demo for what would become "Sat In Your Lap"—the guns-blazing opener on The Dreaming. When the album was released two years later, the song's completed studio recording would see the CMI take center stage—processing swooshed bamboo canes played by her brother Paddy, as well as a tinny horn section programmed by Geoff Downes of Yes.

The Dreaming

While Never for Ever was a collaborative production with Jon Kelly—who would later go on to produce work for other seminal synth-focused British bands like Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue—Kate decided over the course of The Dreaming's demo process to go it alone behind the boards this time. Perhaps this newfound sense of freedom was catalyzed by further familiarity with her workstation of choice.

Though the Fairlight is capable of modifying waveforms on top of sampling at separate frequencies, Kate more often than not deferred to working with the natural envelope to emulate other instruments. "Quite often there's very little that needs doing to it," Kate admitted in an interview with Electronic Soundmaker in 1983. "Occasionally I quite like reversing [the samples]."

She cited the production of the title track of The Dreaming as an example: "I wanted a didgeridoo, and as the Fairlight is an Australian instrument, it happened to have a didgeridoo as one of its present samples." Kate turned said preset into a loop which lingers throughout.

Official video for "The Dreaming"

Kate was also fascinated by the instrument's computer display, which allowed users to view waveforms while they worked. "That's something that's very useful: you can actually see a sound. Incredibly ugly sounds can look really beautiful. It's really like another dimension: visual interpretation of the world rather than audial."

Though The Dreaming was met with divided critical reception at the time of its release in 1982, it developed a reputation as Bush's most daring and experimental release, influencing a wide range of disciples from Björk to Big Boi. This is surely partly to do with what Bush referred to as the "human element" of the Fairlight: "I'm very into natural sounds—particularly taking them out of their range. I suppose I like the distortion of natural things."

Hounds of Love

In the summer of 1983, Bush built a 24-track studio in the barn behind her family's home in southeast London that she could use at her own leisure. It was a move she would call "the best decision [I] ever made". She embarked on a project that would take the form of two side-length suites: a set of five straight-away pop songs, and a song cycle inspired by an Arthurian vision quest through death and rebirth. The tracking sessions for Hounds of Love utilized acoustic piano, a number of traditional Irish instruments, and a Georgian men's choir, with the Fairlight CMI once again taking the wheel.

It was during the production of Hounds of Love that Bush's relationship with the CMI evolved from a studio tool to a full-blown compositional aid, replacing her usual piano. The hypnotic, string-section-driven "Cloudbusting", a ballad inspired by the close relationship between psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and his son, was fully written and arranged on the Fairlight.

"It gives me much more control over arrangements, particularly," Bush told MTV while on a press tour for the album in 1985. "As soon as I'm writing now, I'm working with a sound that is sparking off a particular atmosphere." That sense of atmosphere is perhaps most present in the popular consciousness on the album's opener, "Running Up That Hill", where the Fairlight's cello samples were altered for both the main riff and the ethereal pads that sit under Del Palmer's charged LinnDrum programming.

Official video for "Cloudbusting" from 1985's Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love's critical reception in the UK was overwhelmingly positive upon its 1985 release. It not only saw Bush sharpening her songcraft, but documented her use of sampling technology, drum machines and synthesizers to their full potential, making a deep impression on songwriters and producers alike.

As synth manufacturers embraced sampling technology towards the end of the '80s and developed more ergonomic and portable products—Ensoniq and E-mu among them—the Fairlight CMI was quickly rendered obsolete by the turn of the decade. That said, the workstation's legacy and pervasiveness in the pop music industry is impossible to underestimate—there's no mistake that the monster that Ryrie and Vogel created brought the art of sampling to the masses.

"Sampling was a phase that we all had to go through," Ryrie reflected to Audio Media Magazine in 1996. "It was good to have done it first. I certainly don't feel ashamed. Sampling was a start in the electronic era. We've only just started, and it's far from over." Three decades on and one could argue that the technology the Fairlight team built from the ground up still contains worlds of possibility.

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