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Following the Instruments, Designers, and Users: The Case of the Fairlight CMI

Harkins, Paul



The focus of this article is the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI), which is generally regarded as the first commercially available digital sampler. However, its designers, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, were primarily interested in the use of digital synthesis to replicate the sounds of acoustic instruments; sampling was a secondary concern. Users of the Fairlight CMI began to use it to sample the sounds of everyday life (Richard Burgess, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel) and create the sounds of new instruments (Peter Howell and Roger Limb at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). To develop a conceptual framework for understanding the historical and contemporary uses of musical instruments such as the Fairlight CMI, it may be useful to enter the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and engage with the work of scholars such as Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch. Their focus on the ‘user-technology nexus’ initiates a shift in the writing of histories of technologies from a focus on the designers of technologies towards the contexts of use and ‘the co-construction’ or ‘mutual shaping’ of technologies and their users. As an example of how musicians use instruments in ways unforeseen by their designers, my argument is that a history of music technologies such as the Fairlight CMI and other digital sampling instruments needs to be a history of the designers and the users of these music technologies.


Harkins, P. (2015). Following the Instruments, Designers, and Users: The Case of the Fairlight CMI. Journal on the Art of Record Production,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date May 1, 2015
Online Publication Date Jul 1, 2015
Publication Date 2015-07
Deposit Date Oct 18, 2016
Print ISSN 1754-9892
Publisher Association for the Study of the Art of Record Production
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Issue 10
Article Number 5
Keywords digital sampling; Fairlight CMI; organology; synthesizers; technology
Public URL
Publisher URL