Fairlight: An Iconic Name in Digital Audio
The Australian company Fairlight Instruments became one of the biggest names in the recording industry with its digital sampling technology in 1975. Forty years later, the company is still leading with a full line of products that their technologists design, engineer in house, and produce with a network of EMS companies. In this interview, Business Development Manager Emilijo Mihatov shares insights and strategies for succeeding by thinking differently.
Barry Matties: Please share a bit about the history of Fairlight.
Emilijo Mihatov: Fairlight has been making professional audio tools for musicians and audio professionals for 40 years. Back in the late '70s we invented the keyboard sampling system and we sold it to people like Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder.
Matties: All of the heavies of that time.
Mihatov: All the big heavies bought our sampler. It was a very expensive system. Then people started using our system for film post-production, because we have very good synchronization capabilities. Some good examples of that are "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Miami Vice." They used Fairlights for the soundtracks for every single sound. There's one famous album credit that we have for Phil Collins' "No Jacket Required." If you look at the back, you'll see he has a credit that says, "No Fairlights were used on this album." We were so ubiquitous that people were actually forming movements to stop using this thing.
We got into the audio post business and then we basically took over Hollywood. You couldn't go into a dub stage in Warner Brothers, Sony, or Glen Glenn Sound without seeing Fairlight's equipment. One of the products I was responsible for was the digital audio dubber (DaD), which revolutionized the way films were mixed. Suddenly, you could go from having mixes that were maybe 30 tracks wide to having mixes that were 576 tracks wide. We won an Oscar for that; Renee Zellweger presented it. I got to hold the statue and have my photo taken.
One of the reasons our products were so successful was that we had dedicated hardware control surfaces, and there was a dedicated key for every function. As the software got more and more complex and people were requiring more and more features, it became more difficult to have a button for every feature, so you had to have layers which meant that you started having hidden functions.
Matties: There's some complexity there.
Mihatov: There was complexity, so we had to come up with a way of solving that. Another problem that we had was that we were becoming very successful in Asia. A lot of our customers were demanding that we produce control surfaces that were in kanji characters. Having a different sort of bill of materials and a different control surface for every region is not a very efficient way of doing business. Our CTO, who just thinks on a completely different level than normal human beings, came up with the idea of having a self-labeling keyboard. He sort of sought out the technology from Incom and created the control surfaces that we use here.
The concept behind this is that you have different modes. For quick edit, you have a palette of commands that are here. For basic edit, you have a different palette of commands. If you're in mixing, you have another palette. If you need to type something, it will switch back to a QWERTY keyboard and you can type it. If you need a numeric keyboard to enter the time code location, you hold down a button and then a numeric keypad appears. When you don't need it anymore, it's gone.
You can have many layers of functions but what happens is that the operator ends up developing a motor memory for these functions. After using the equipment for a short period, they stop looking at it.
Matties: It's ingrained.
Mihatov: It's built into the brain. You try to do that with an instruction manual and you just can't. There are so many advantages to creating user interfaces that actually tell you what the functions are as you hold down those operator keys. You memorize them and if there is a function that you haven't used in two or three weeks, you scan for it and say "OK, it's there." There's no looking it up in the manual and then trying to memorize it, just rote memorization. This builds that memory into your brain. You'll notice here that we haven't covered the entire 15-inch display in buttons. We've exposed a section of the screen to use for additional user interfaces. That goes straight across into this panel.
You can see here you have a bit of the screen exposed for the app. If you can imagine a kiosk, a vending machine, or applications where you need a variable user interface—these are very common. For many consumer applications, a touchscreen is perfect. For the others you need a tactile physical key; maybe if it's a repetitive task, an industrial application, or there is safety involved and you're not allowed to take your eyes off the road, for instance, or you're operating heavy machinery. Maybe it's a timing-related thing. You know you have to push that button but you couldn't push it until… now!
You can feel your button. Your finger is still on that key. It hasn't moved but you haven't pushed it yet. If it's a touchscreen, you're hovering. You may have touched it. You don't even know because you're looking elsewhere, so for those applications you really need a physical key and a variable user interface. Picture key technology is perfect for applications dealing with safety, timing, precision, etc.
Matties: Where is Fairlight equipment manufactured?
Matties: Are you sending things out to EMS companies, or are you manufacturing your products in-house?
Mihatov: We use a number of contract manufacturers, and we are constantly looking for others
Matties: When you're looking for contract manufacturers, how do you audit them? What's your process for the selection?
Mihatov: First and foremost we choose manufacturers based on the capabilities that we need. Word of mouth is important, and seeing the work that they do and finding out where a particular bit of kit is made. It's reputation basically. We can't afford to make a mistake; we have to go with something that's proven. Although that may be difficult for a smaller company that's just starting out, we look at what they make. If they make something that we like, then we will go with them once we have thoroughly tested it.
Matties: What about the circuit design? Is that in-house?
Mihatov: It's all in-house. We have our own people.
Matties: What drives your technology when you're sitting around with your designers and you guys are looking at the next generation?
Mihatov: A blend of customer requirements and innovation drives our design. We have a number of high-profile customers, big broadcasting corporations for instance. They tell us they want a particular feature and we review its suitability for our range. For instance, here is an EVO which is a post-production editing system. We sold these to post-production editing production facilities all over the world. However, we sold a number of them to a sports broadcaster in the USA. They started using them for live production, which is not what they were built for. They said to us, “Geez, it would be great if you guys could actually make a live console.” So we did. We actually adapted the software and added additional buttons for a live console and added various other functions.
Matties: Did they come in with some concurrent engineering ideas with you guys?
Mihatov: They said, "If you can do all these things, then it would be great and we'll buy a number of them," and that's exactly what we did. We wrote it, designed it and won "Best in Show" at IBC and NAB for the EVO.Live console.
This is a live console for producing a live television production like "The Voice," "The X Factor," "America's Got Talent," or "American Idol," that sort of thing. You do the live production and that will go to air, but you're also recording something like over 150 tracks of audio and two tracks of HD video onto the system while you're doing the live production. At the end of the live production, you press a button, the whole thing flips over, and it becomes a post-production editing system for finessing and fine-tuning for the syndicated version, the catch-up TV version, or the archival video or highlight packages, that sort of thing. You can do all that work on the same console.
You are controlling the lighting cues. You are doing a live recording of audio and video. You're doing a live mix and then you're actually posting and mixing and mastering that on one machine. That's like five different $100,000 units in a single system, at a fraction of the price.
Matties: They came in, you designed it, you built it, and they buy it, and now you have a new product to take out to market.
Mihatov: Exactly. It's been very well received. Our customers inspire our development. They always have.
Matties: You're the designer and the engineering and you're letting the manufacturing happen with capable EMS companies. That's a great strategy for you.
Mihatov: Absolutely. We have our own hardware development in-house, as well as our own software development in-house. We have some board-level capabilities.
Matties: Thank you very much.
Mihatov: No, thank you. It's been nice talking to you.