I'd like to suggest that this review be considered chapter five in a series of reviews I've written called Digital Synthesis: A Collection of Software Synthesizer Reviews [Tape Op #118]. In those reviews I discuss the history and theory of several digital synthesis methods, including additive synthesis, which the CMI V uses.
The CMI V is based on the Fairlight CMI (short for Computer Musical Instrument), which was introduced in 1979, and was a groundbreaking digital instrument along with the Synclavier (which Arturia also re-created, and is reviewed in the link above). One could argue that the Fairlight CMI's most shining moment was when Peter Gabriel used it extensively on his fourth album, which helped to popularize the instrument. It was also used extensively by producer Trevor Horn [Tape Op #89] with the band Art of Noise, and with other records he produced. Though it may have been popular, at $27,000 not many people could afford one! Nonetheless the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier were the first powerful digital workstations. They both had the ability to sample sounds and were hugely influential on popular music styles like hip-hop, house, and techno. While both instruments were also efficient at synthesis, their sampling capabilities overshadowed those functions. Sounds like the Shakuhuchi flute in Peter Gabriel's “Sledgehammer” and the orchestra hits in Yes's “Owner of A Lonely Heart” cemented the instruments reputation as a sampler and ultimately probably helped in it's demise as it was expensive and those sounds did not age well. (Looking back, Gabriel's fourth album holds up well and it's interesting to note not how primitive the instrument and sounds are by today's standards but how well Gabriel was able to use them on the record.)
When Arturia released their Synclavier virtual instrument they wisely focused on the Synclavier's unique synthesis method and chose not to implement sampling capabilities. See my full review for more detail on this. With CMI V, they've gone all the way however, and have completely recreated the original $27,000 machine with all of its synthesis and sampling capabilities. The entire original Fairlight CMI sample library is included with CMI V (as a side note, these samples were originally loaded in one at a time on 7-inch floppy discs!), which also can easily import your own sounds and samples. At $199, this instrument really is a Fairlight CMI for $26,981 less than the original! And as Arturia often does, they've improved the new instrument over the original. The original machine had eight instrument slots (or different sounds) and CMI V has expanded this to ten slots with 32-voice polyphony. The original had a very short sampling time while the new instrument has up to 30 seconds, and, while the sample rate has been increased to up to 24-bit / 44.1 kHz, you can downsample the word length and sample rate as an option for a more authentic '80's sound. The original additive synthesis engine was very powerful at the time with up to 32 harmonics and a separate envelope for each harmonic. Iconic photos of the Fairlight CMI often showed a 3D graphic waveform representation of a sound (Think Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures album graphic) displayed on the green CRT with its unique light pen (like an early version of a mouse) clipped nicely to the monitor. On my Microsoft Surface Pro, I can even use my finger to manipulate the on screen controls like the original light pen! The 3D graphic is implemented in CMI V, but you now have the option to use complex waveforms (or even an imported sample) for the harmonics instead of just sine waves. There is also the Fairlight CMI's powerful cross-synthesis tool that allows you to use an FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) to analyze a sample, and convert it to individual harmonics and their envelopes. Conversely an additive sound can be rendered as a sample. Arturia has also introduced a new technique called Spectral Synth that makes for an easier, more high-level way to create additive sounds. CMI V's main screen is a photo realistic graphic of the original instrument that’s not much to look at in my opinion. But when you hit the tab to move over to the advanced screen, you get the original green CRT monitor look and feel plus access to a huge set of parameters used to shape sounds. But, despite its complexity, the interface is fairly easy and intuitive to navigate. Most users should be able to do basic manipulations of the patches by using the onboard mixer and effects without even glancing at the manual – but to really dig into some of the sound design potential of the CMI V, you'll want to read the chapter in the manual that explains the details of the three sound engines of the Fairlight CMI. Sure there are other additive virtual instruments that can create similar sounds, like Image-Line Software’s Morphine [Tape Op #65] (also reviewed in the link above) for instance, but nothing comes close to adding this much flexibility and sound design power into one fairly easy to use instrument and interface. Lastly, this instrument is a lot of fun! While a lot of the factory patches are deeply rooted in an ‘80s’ aesthetic, it's easy to hear how this instrument can be used in a unique and creative way if you're willing to put a little bit of time into learning how it works. If you are looking to explore the possibilities of digital synthesis and re-synthesis, the CMI V is a no brainer at $199. But if you buy only CMI V, you might want to have your brain examined because for only $499 you can get Arturia's V Collection 6, which includes CMI V and 20 more instruments – including the Synclavier! That's under $24 each per instrument! With their easy to navigate licensing and very fair EULA (5 installs per license), Arturia’s V Collection is hands down the best deal for virtual synths and instruments in the marketplace. Look for more individual instrument reviews in future issues.