Born in Sydney in 1938 Tony Furse was passionate about electronics from an early age. His interest in all things technological led to him using the electronics and communications equipment available from army disposal stores in the post World War II period to create his own inventions which ranged from crystal sets to high voltage generators.
In the late 1950s, Furse's interest in creating electronic music had resulted in his earliest invention, an electronic clarinet. This clarinet, which could be played with one hand, was made by converting a secondhand clarinet into a working electronic instrument powered by a car battery. Played using a keyboard-like attachment, electric solenoids were used to cover and uncover the holes.
Curious about the nature of harmonics, Furse began looking at the different sounds produced by electronic organs (which used signals produced by radio valves). He wondered why, among the range of sounds available, there was no option to produce percussive or string sounds. His subsequent research included reading an English translation of the work by German physician and physicist Hermann Helmholtz, 'On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music' 1, which talked of the two extremes of sound, from noise at one end to musical tones at the other. Also inspiring for Furse at the time were the American accoustical engineering pioneer Harry F. Olson's 'Elements of Acoustical Engineering' (1957) and American musicologist, Charles A. Culver's book, 'Musical Acoustics' (1956).
While Furse spent the 1960s and the early '70s working as an electronics engineer in the computer industry, in his spare time he was still applying his technical skills to the creation of electronic music.
A major breakthrough came for Furse when in 1964 he read an article written by James and Potok titled 'Repetitive Function Synthesizer and Spectrum Display'.2 The article, which mentioned 'digital sampling' and a device that made this possible, enabled Furse to develop the first 'all digital waveform synthesiser'.
His attempts in the early 1960s to build the equivalent of today's microcomputers had involved using too many transistors to make it a viable concern - it was only in the mid 1960s, when the appearance of integrated circuits, (capable of holding increasingly large numbers of transistors within a chip) made his research more affordable, that Furse's research took off. But although the 'proto digital waveform generator' that Furse had invented and used from 1966 to 1969 allowed him control over harmonics, the sound produced still fell short of his idea of a realistic reproduction of actual instruments.
Leaving his job in early 1972 to concentrate on further developing his inventions, Furse set up his own company, Creative Strategies Pty Ltd, which he operated from his home in Sydney's Neutral Bay. His first invention was an 'analogue/digital hybrid synthesiser' which he named Qasar 1. As well as breaking new ground in its design, another attractive feature of the synthesiser was its affordability. To market this invention, Furse enlisted the help of David Bross, a computer salesman and talented keyboard player, who, after quickly mastering the Qasar 1 synthesiser, joined Creative Strategies as a company director.
Another person instrumental in providing support for Furse at this time was Don Banks, the noted composer of jazz, classical music and electronic music who, following a number of years studying and working in England, had returned to Australia in 1972. The following year he was appointed head of composition studies at the Canberra School of Music, setting up the School's electronic music studio. He took an interest in Tony Furse's next invention, a 'digital/analogue hybrid sound synthesiser' named the Qasar II, operated by a keyboard control panel, which had been developed with the assistance of a grant from the Australian Council for the Arts-Banks purchased the Qasar II for the School of Music.
Furse's next project was an all-digital synthesiser, which he named the Qasar M8 (Multimode 8) synthesiser. In addition to a keyboard, Furse had developed a graphics display which, with the use of a light pen, allowed the operator to create an instrument or voice using waveforms. After having made a deal with the large American electronics company, Motorola to use their programme development system, Furse was able to develop the MUSEQ 8 sequence playing system. The idea was that the MUSEQ 8 system, when used in conjunction with his M8, could be used by composers of all kinds of music, not just electronic, for the composition and the performance of music. Another major innovation with the M8 synthesiser was Furse's use of two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors in an unusual parallel configuration which greatly speeded up data input and output.
In late 1974, following the success of Furse's lecture and demonstration of the Qasar M8 in Canberra before an audience from the Canberra School of Music, the Australian National University and the College of Advanced Education, Don Banks, who realised the potential of Furse's invention for the School of Music, requested a similar model be made for the School's electronic music studio. Furse continued to work on the prototype making use of the latest technology by incorporating floppy disk storage using the newly released 8 inch floppy disks The disks worked differently from tape recorded music in that a piece of music could be reorchestrated without altering the data on the disk.
In mid 1976, Furse ended up selling the prototype to the Canberra School of Music. He continued to write software for the M8, making several trips to Canberra for this purpose, also incorporating software written by software expert Bruce Williams.
It had also been around this time that Furse came into contact with synthesiser enthusiast Kim Ryrie (who in 1971 had created a magazine called Electronics Today International, ETI), and his business partner, electronics designer Peter Vogel. They had also been trying to design a synthesiser which could reproduce natural and acoustic sounds as well as musical instruments.
To this end Ryrie and Vogel had formed a company in December 1975 which was named Fairlight Instruments after the Fairlight ferry that crossed the harbour in front of the basement workshop of Ryrie's grandmother where they had been carrying out their early experimental work. Impressed with Furse's digital synthesiser (to date they had only been able to develop an analogue synthesiser which didn't produce the results they were after) they approached him with a deal for manufacturing the synthesisers and marketing the computer as a separate entity.
From 1976 Furse worked with Fairlight on the project, which included producing circuit boards from the circuit board schematics and reconfiguring the synthesiser's keyboard resulting in the production of a totally redesigned version of the synthesiser which was known initially as the M8 CMI (Multimode 8 Computer Musical Instrument). In early 1979 Tony Furse, with less involvement in the project, signed a licence agreement with Fairlight, allowing them the use of his intellectual property for both the synthesiser and the computer.
The Fairlight CMI, which included a 73 note keyboard, two 8 inch floppy disk players, a monitor and light pen used four Motorola microprocessors and was able to perform 8 different sounds at once.
Released onto the world market in 1979 the 'Fairlight' synthesiser, which was capable of playing any sound at all, was an instant hit with composers and recording artists, among them Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Jean Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk and Herbert von Karajan of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Thus Furse's technology for the Qasar M8 formed the basis of what was to become known as the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument). In 1987 he was awarded the CSIRO's Medal for Research Achievement for the invention of CMI technology.
1 First published in 1863, English translations of the book's various German editions appeared between 1875 and 1912)
2 Article 'Repetitive Function Synthesizer and Spectrum Display' by J.R. James and M.H.N. Potok from Electronic Engineering, Dec 1963 pp.792-800
Written by archivist Jill Chapman using material from the Qasar/Tony Furse archive and the listed websites:
96/382/2-9/9 Qasar/Tony Furse archive:
1] article Computers that make waves, Jim Farber, p.64 Rolling Stone, USA edtition, Jan 1980
2] article Computer music in/concert in high places, Helen Meredith, Pacific Computer Weekly, 30 Oct-5 Nov 1981
3] article Australian synthesiser cracks the world market, Neville Williams, Electronics Australia, August 1982 pp.30-32;
www. anerd.com/fairlight/fairlightstory 'Fairlight -The Whole Story', Audio Media magazine, January 1996