“DEQX puts the speaker through a sort of digital rinse cycle, restoring the original recording by rebalancing frequencies and restoring timing.”
Ryrie is hoping quietly – as is the 69-year-old’s softly spoken manner – that his new audio-tech wizardry may just revolutionise the way we hear, and importantly listen to, music (and movies, or any audio, for that matter).
Not that he is a stranger to turning the music world on its head. Ryrie and his schoolfriend Peter Vogel, an electronics designer, invented the world’s first digital sampling synthesiser, the Fairlight CMI (for Computer Musical Instrument), launched in 1979. In doing so, the two Sydneysiders forever changed the way music was made, totally altering what we listened to from the 1980s on.
It was complete madness, in retrospect. Had we spoken to anyone about what we were doing, they’d have told us, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
— Kim Ryrie
The genius of the Fairlight was its ability to sample real-life sounds and play them back on a keyboard at any pitch – something popularised by some of the biggest names in pop music at the time.
Think of the breaking glass in Kate Bush’s Babooshka or Peter Gabriel’s banging bricks and smashing milk bottles in I Don’t Remember. But it could be any acoustic sound: like the iconic orchestra hit in Planet Rock or the vocals in Yello’s Oh Yeah.
So what was the spark for the Fairlight? Ryrie says he always had an interest in electronics – “as a six-year-old, I was forever ripping stuff apart” – and music, playing percussion in various bands but never an instrument. “I was a frustrated musician,” he says.
When he heard Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach in 1968, made on a Moog analogue synthesiser, he suddenly saw its potential. “It totally blew my mind,” he recalls.
Ryrie (whose father owned a publishing company) used a magazine he had started, Electronics Today International, to show readers how to build a synth, piece by piece, with each issue over a year. In 1975, he approached Vogel, asking whether he wanted to build the “world’s greatest synthesiser”.
“I used those exact words,” Ryrie laughs.
They established Fairlight Instruments, named after the hydrofoil passing Ryrie’s grandmother’s Point Piper waterfront home, where the pair tinkered in the basement on their project (Coincidentally, Point Piper is also where pioneer and inventor Lawrence Hargrave designed box kites in the 1890s).
Initially, Ryrie and Vogel struggled to achieve their original idea of recreating the sounds of real acoustic musical instruments. Then by luck they stumbled across Motorola consultant Tony Furse, who had already built a prototype dual microprocessor.
This was the breakthrough they needed. But it took the friends a few more years of intensive research and development before they hit on “sampling” (a term they coined) natural sounds. “It was complete madness, in retrospect,” Ryrie says. “Had we spoken to anyone about what we were doing, they’d have told us, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ ”
Regardless, the Fairlight CMI was born: big, clunky and, by today’s standards, primitive looking, with keyboard, floppy disks, a monster computer processor, a green-screen monitor and an interactive light pen.
Their machine drew interest from the science community, featuring on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World. But it wasn’t long before a who’s who of the world’s biggest recording artists were lining up to use it: early adopters Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, as well as Kate Bush, Alan Parsons, Thomas Dolby and Joni Mitchell.
Over the next decade Ryrie and Vogel launched second- and third-generation machines. Fairlight II came with another groundbreaking first that proved a massive hit: a sequencer, which graphically represented notes running across the screen.
At the same time, more and more music artists were embracing their instrument. Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Queen and Jean-Michel Jarre were just a few of the many hundreds who would come to use it in their music.
Problems, however, were brewing. The Fairlight wasn’t cheap, ranging in cost from $50,000 to $100,000, and its market was niche. The company, backed by venture capitalists, also had to deal with lower-cost rivals, rapid growth, debt and a stockmarket crash – all of which contributed to its collapse.
In 1989 with new backers, Ryrie relaunched the business as Fairlight Electric Sound and Picture (ESP), focusing more on the post-production market. By now Vogel needed a change and left for other projects.
In the early 1990s, Fairlight ESP came up with the first digital audio workstations, selling them for $US100,000 to the big Hollywood film studios, such as Sony, Warner Bros and Paramount. The Fairlight even won an Academy Award for its editing technology.
Unfortunately, the high-end Fairlight was again up against lower-cost competitors running on PCs and Apple Macs. “Sales were going through the roof, but I knew it wasn’t going to last,” Ryrie confesses.
By the end of the decade, he was dividing his time between Fairlight and Lake Technology (later sold to Dolby Laboratories), which was playing around with virtual surround sound for headphones. While there, Ryrie wondered whether the audio processing technology could be adapted for loudspeakers.
“I’d been in the world’s best recording studios for the past 20 years, so I was used to hearing good audio,” he recalls. “But the gap between what you hear in these high-end studios and what you hear (through speakers) at home was huge.”
Initially, Ryrie started DEQX “as a hobby” in 1997 to tackle the audio world’s “blatant problem” – the failure of speakers to deliver faithful audio. Over the next decade, he developed a processor that focused on removing the digital artefacts compromising sound quality. As processors became increasingly powerful, so he was able to improve audio resolution.
By 2007, he had launched his first commercial box to the pro-audio and early-adopter markets, receiving rave reviews. One early adopter was Abbey Road Studios in London.
In a way, Ryrie has come full circle. He has returned to his “misspent” youth, when he tried to build his own loudspeakers, without much success. “I could never make them sound good,” he remembers.
On his DEQX set-up, Ryrie has switched songs to an a cappella version of The Beatles’ Because, reproduced for Cirque du Soleil’s Love show. Again, there’s that depth and clarity. Background sounds, like bees buzzing and birds twittering, are richer and sharper. Again, it’s like the musicians are in the room.
“That’s how it should sound,” he says. “Normally to get speakers sounding like that you’re paying upwards of $10,000.”
Cue the latest “more affordable” cloud-based series Ryrie is ready to launch to a wider audience. The first three models, costing $5000 to $7000, will target DEQX’s existing high-end customers. More importantly, he is planning sub-$2000 and $1000 releases next year for the home market.
“The biggest impact will be on the mass market, where the technology will make basic speakers costing a few hundred dollars sound more like an audiophile speaker costing thousands,” he says.
NEED TO KNOW
The new DEQX models will be launched at the StereoNET HI-FI Show in Melbourne, June 3 to 5.