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Sounding Off: Vintage Samplers

Jem Godfrey By Jem Godfrey
Published April 2006

One man's burning devotion to vintage samplers serves as a cautionary tale...

One of my favourite albums of all time is Peter Gabriel 4 (also known as Security in the US, for some strange marketing reason). I still listen to it now and then and, along with Peter Gabriel 3, it forms the heart of my Gabriel universe and the standard by which all his other albums are judged. It was pioneering stuff at the time.

Sounding Off

Anyway, it was largely produced on the wonderful Fairlight CMI. The Fairlight was one of the first ever samplers, if not the very first. Invented in Australia and originally released in 1979, it cost about as much as a three-bedroom house in London — and the house next to it, too.

It was quickly superseded by better products, and eventually everyone forgot about it. But for a time it was the ultimate musical status symbol — beloved of Peter Gabriel, Tears For Fears, Jan Hammer, that bloke out of New Musik, the Pet Shop Boys and other such compositional wunderkind. For a teenage boy growing up in London in the mid-'80s, it was the stuff of maths-class daydreams.

And then the other week, I found one for sale. A Series 2X! The 'classic' one. This was my chance to finally live the dream! I told my wife about it and she gave me The Look — a facial manoeuvre she developed after the Emulator 2 incident. Let me explain...

The Emulator 2, also known as the E2, was the 'budget' cousin of the Fairlight. Made by a company called Emu (not from Australia, despite the name), it wasn't quite the price of a house — more the price of a decent family car. One of its most famous sounds was the flutey noise in the middle eight of 'Sledgehammer', also by Mr Gabriel. You know — the 'duddle de dum duddle de daaa' sound, in reality a sample of a Japanese bamboo flute called a shakuhatchi. A lovely instrument and wicked in hand-to-hand combat.

Anyway the Emulator 2 was big, blue and gorgeous: the epitome of '80s brashness. So it was with a gasp, a mad cackle and the sudden departure of £500 that I became the proud owner of one about five years ago. I saw it in the shop window on a Sunday morning and by that afternoon, I was home and wading through the huge library of five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks that came with it while my wife looked at the receipt in horror.

To cut a long story short, two years later I wanted shot of it. I'd hoiked all the samples into Pro Tools, and frankly all it was now doing was getting in the way. And it was bleedin' heavy. And every third note had stopped working. And the MIDI was faulty. And it reeked of fags.

So I put a readers' ad on the Sound On Sound web site. Within about 30 minutes I had three firm offers, all for good prices. 'Great', I thought, 'I'll just boot it up and see if it's OK before I send it on its way.' In went the boot disk, click, power on.

It went bananas. Lights began flashing, it started bleeping, the disk drive sounded like it was being mown. Terrified, I switched it off as fast as I could.

'Wife!', I wailed, 'the Emulator's having a paddy.' My wife hated it, so her reply was suitably acerbic and largely unquotable. Anyway, I looked round the back and saw a voltage switcher: 110 Volts or 220. 'Maybe it's just nudging the wrong voltage,' I thought and flicked the switch to what I thought was 220. Disk in, power on...

There was nothing left in the vicinity of the Emulator 2 except my startled face, the terrible silence that follows a large bang and a faint whiff of ozone. Three days later and it was in the hands of the Synthesizer Service Centre — basically dead forever. I contacted my chosen buyer and explained the situation. He still agreed to buy it, but only in the form of spares for his existing E2, and at the new, terrible price of £50.

'Hey ho,' I thought, '£50 is better than nothing.' The next morning I got a call from the guy. He was at the Synthesizer Service Centre ready to pick up the frail blue remains of my experiment in buying and using vintage musical equipment. The only problem was the small matter of the bill... £51. So I bought it for £500 and I sold it for an economically challenging minus one pound.

Needless to say, after I got The Look from my wife, the Fairlight remains unbought. 

About The Author

Jem Godfrey is a songwriter and producer. He recently co-wrote the song 'That's My Goal' for The X Factor's Shayne and has also had three other number ones with Atomic Kitten. He is currently trying to bring prog rock back to the masses.

Published April 2006