Research Output
‘Keeping the Machines Alive’: Repairing and Maintaining the Fairlight CMI.
  The story of the Fairlight CMI is a story of misuse. Designed primarily as a digital synthesizer for the imitation of acoustic instruments, it was used in the worlds of popular music to sample the sounds of everyday life and pre-existing recordings. Highlighting the contingency of instrument design and use, one of its designers, Peter Vogel told its distributors, Syco Systems: ‘God, don’t sell it for its sampling. We only put the ‘mic in’ on the back as a last- minute afterthought!’ It is also a story that has been dominated by a few high-profile users, almost entirely male, who might also be described as innovators: Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, and Trevor Horn. In this paper, I want to shift the focus away from this well-known history and ask: what happens if we tell the story of the Fairlight CMI by focusing on its use by those who might not be considered innovators and who used the instrument in more mundane ways? What if we continue to move away from the focus on design and innovation towards the use and maintenance of this old technology? In his study about the continued importance of old technologies, David Edgerton writes that ‘the majority [of scientists and engineers] have always been mainly concerned with the operation and maintenance of things and processes; with the use of things, not their invention or development.’ Using interviews with technologists who are involved in the repair and maintenance of Fairlight CMIs, I want to explore what a history of the instrument would like it if it was told from the perspective of its less celebrated users and why it might be important for the historiography of digital synthesizers and samplers to look at the maintenance of old technologies as much as the invention of new ones.

  • Type:

    Conference Paper (unpublished)

  • Date:

    30 June 2023

  • Publication Status:


  • Funders:

    Edinburgh Napier Funded


Harkins, P. (2023, June). ‘Keeping the Machines Alive’: Repairing and Maintaining the Fairlight CMI. Paper presented at Innovation In Music Conference 2023, Edinburgh, UK



Fairlight CMI; gender; historiography; music technology; organology; repair and maintenance studies; samplers; STS; synthesizers

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