Monday, June 1, 2020

The HAL-ICM Frigit - a "Russian Fairlight" we all still want - but will never have, Keyboard Magazine, July 1984

The HAL-ICM Frigit synthesizer from page 16 in the July 1984 issue of Keyboard Magazine. 

Today's blog post is a co-op piece with mu:zines. Please head over to the mu:zines site and contribute anyway you can to help them thrive and grow. 


I don't often collaborate, but this curious instrument's story was brought to my attention by mu:zines in a recent tweet and it was only through a good eight to ten minutes of deep, collaborative investigative work that we could dig up the deets on this gorgeous Russian machine.  That would never be. 

Read on!

News releases can be powerful things. They are always so official looking, and as a retired Corporate Communications lacky I know how enticing a well-written news release can be. So I can see how in 1984, from behind the Soviet wall, news of a Russian Fairlight-killer would end up appearing as a half-page article in what was arguably North America's biggest and most well-known synth magazine. 

The instrument itself, called the HAL-ICM Frigit, was designed by a Japanese-Soviet team, with the head of the music division of the Ukraine Society Academy of Scientists describing it as the "most advanced computer musical instrument in the world". It was similar in appearance to the Fairlight but it's "costs, signal-to-noise ratio, digital recording facility, and synthesizing techniques for both sound and light were far superior to any current system". 

Some of its features included:
  • extendable solar-power panel
  • touch-sensitive display screen
  • a three point headset sensor unit for monitoring and utilizing human brain wave patterns
  • sound and voice-recognition device for triggering responses
  • a laser beam unit
  • a computer graphics interface for syncing visual display patterns to sound
  • MIDI (remember, this is 1984, a year after MIDI actually launched)

Further specs were unavailable but at the end of the article, one of the designers suggested that the instrument incorporated "silicon chips which were originally destined for the Western war machine". 

Okay... in all the years I've been flipping through my Keyboard magazines, I've never given much thought to this article. I'm sure I've come across it from time to time, but it just didn't register. I may have even tried Googling the synth from time to time, but until mu:zines was online, I never would have come across any other information on it. 

That was... until mu:zines tweeted out something curious. 

Whaaaaaaat? April Fools? As an avid April Fools blog poster, I was naturally intrigued. I got in touch with mu:zines to get a few more bits of information and started digging through my magazine archives. 

First - who was the Union of Sound Synthesists? I remembered coming across the name in a 1983 Keyboard magazine article when they were showcased in what would be one of Keyboard's most classic issues "The Great Synthesizer Debate - are electronic instruments putting acoustic musicians out of work?". So I decided to dig out that issue to see if there was an juicy info there.

In the article, we learn about how a local London musicians union passed a resolution 2-1 to "proscribe and prohibit, for the purposes of recording or live performances, the use of all electronic devices that make audible imitation or simulation of any musical/percussive instrument as defined by the Musician's Union directory." 

The English synth community responded accordingly. Some resigned from the union. Thomas Dolby wrote a piece in the June 5, 1982 issue of Sounds regarding the "futility and impracticability of any attempt to halt the advance of electronic music by force".  

Some took a more humorous angle, with one magazine article penning the article "The Great Trumpet Dispute: Should Elephants be banned". And one musician named David Tufnell headed up a group of musicians that "elected to form their own lobbying group in order to actively resist what they saw as the union's retrogressive policies". This group was called the Union of Sound Synthesists and along with the more serious work of supplying the media with info about synths and pushing pro-synth issues to unions and government, they also did hesitate to show their humorous side to the issue with T-shirts and bumper stickers that included slogans like "I'm A Synthesizer Sympathizer", "Keep Synthesizers Live", and "If You're Not One of USS, You're Probably One of Them". 

Ahhhhh. So they have a funny bone. I like that in my musicians union. 

Next up - find the Keyboard article itself. mu:zines suggested targeting 1983 and 1984 issues of Keyboard, so I dug them out of their storage box and flipped through the Spec Sheets and News sections. Sure enough, there it was - a half page "Profile" article in the July 1984 issue. 

I don't blame Keyboard. That's some juicy info! And British humour is well... its even lost on us Canadians sometimes.  :)

mu:zines and I are guessing the letters in HAL-ICM FRIGIT rearrange to R(ussian) CMI FAIRLIGHT. 

And so it was that, a few months afterwards, British magazine Electronics and Music Maker Incorporating Computer Musician decided to do a bit of pre-Internet trolling of their American competition in October 1984:

From mu:zines: "It's curious, isn't it, how jokes get blown out of all proportion.

Which reminds me, how about the piece that's published on page 16 of the July 1984 issue of Keyboard? You know, the one that starts: 'The Soviet Union may be gaining ground on the electronic music battleground. At a recent meeting of the Ukraine Society Academy of Scientists at Minsk, a new digital computer-synthesiser system, the HAL-ICM FRIGIT, was unveiled. A member of the British Union of Sound Synthesists, invited to the gathering by the Soviet cultural attache in London, sent us a report.'

And so it goes on, a verbatim rendering of ESSP organiser David Tuffnell's HAL press release. Well, almost verbatim - Keyboard's assistant editor forgot to look at the date on the aforesaid: April 1, 1984.

So, who was it that said you can't fool some of the people all of the time...?"


Now, I'm not sure what caused them to pick on Keyboard magazine so badly. Maybe it was because "Keyboard" was a much better name for a synth magazine than the really wordy "EMMICM" (I didn't event want to spell it all out again). 

mu:zines noted that it became a bit of a tradition of these magazines to resort to ridiculing their competitors when they could. "It was all inoffensive, and they usually went out of their way by not printing anything libelous, but if they could get a subtle kick in from time to time, it would often happen." 

Those Brits!

The extent of the joke and the subsequent publishing of the article would continue to be felt for months afterwards, as documented in the December 1984 issue of One-Two Testing Magazine, which would write about how the USS was receiving multiple calls, faxes and letters about this Russian Fairlight, and led to at least one company sending someone to Moscow to do some research into it: 

From mu:zines: "Those whacky funsters at the Union of Sound Synthesists are still feeling the breeze from their April Fool joke when they tried to con us into swallowing a Russian version of the Fairlight. Remember we said the American magazine 'Keyboard' had printed the press release, in full, believing the lot. Now USS say they're receiving "a continuous stream of international letters, phone calls and telexes" from the States, all from interested gullibles. "We have, since learnt that at least two major American equipment manufacturers took the story seriously enough to the extent that one company sent a research and development manager to Moscow." Wouldn't be winding us up again would you? Maybe not since they have gone to the expense of producing a booklet containing the original press release, the 'Keyboard' version and a Music Week story. If you want to know how the caper was pulled, the booklet costs a quid, including post and packing, and is available from USS, (Contact Details). Always support a sense of humour!"
Interestingly, back over on this side of the pond, Keyboard magazine received a letter to the editor from Denver, Colorado resident John R. Baude that was printed in the September 1984 issue. 
"After reading your article about the new Russian computer system, the HAL-ICM Frigit (July '84), I was immediately struck by something. It appears that designer Boris Imrikey and company not only borrowed HAL's name from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They also seem to have pilfered the name from "a well known Australian computer music instrument". Just move the letters around a bit and I think you'll see what I mean. Come on, Boris! Somethings a little fishy in Moscow, and I don't mean caviar!"
Seems some Americans got the joke. 

Keyboard responded underneath the letter with:
"There are some competition-level anagram addicts on the Keyboard staff, so we're embarrassed to admit that we didn't notice the word "Fairlight CMI" hidden within HAL-ICM FRIGIT until after the issue went to print We contacted the British Union of Sound Synthesists, which had sent us the report, and were informed by its president, David Tufnell, that the press release describing HAL's splendiferous unveiling was, as he put it, "to be taken with a grain of salt". It seems that the USS, normally a reliable information source, decided to pull a little joke on us by writing up a straight-faced press release on their usual stationery and forwarding it exclusively to Keyboard. Our attempts to glean more information from the USS went unrewarded, when we were able to call during English business hours, no one was there to take our questions. However, because of their past record of accurate reporting, we had no reason to doubt their veracity, and accepted their report at face value. Tufnell assures us that "most" of the story is true. We've asked him for a less fantastic summary of the events in Russia, which we hope to relay to you, with due caution, in the hear future."
Well, sure enough, Tufnell comes clean next month on just how much of the story is true, when his letter to Keyboard gets published in the October 1984 issue. It was obvious that Keyboard was taking some slack over the publication of the info, because prior to the letter from Tufnell, Keyboard's editor prints:
"All right, let's get this Russian synthesizer thing cleared up once and for all. as we admitted last month, we fell prey to a joke when the British Union of Sound Synthesists sent us a press release describing a demonstration alleged to have taken place in Leningrad of a Russo-Japanese digital "super synthesizer". We summarized their account in our July '84 issue. Later on we discovered that the USS was having a bit of fun with us; much of their account was fabricated. We asked David Tufnell, the head of the USS, to send us a letter relating what exactly did and did not happen. Here is his explanation."
The letter from Tufnell is actually quite long. About as long as this blog post (too dang long). So to summarize, the USS received a letter from Bob Moog, dated March 8th, in which he said that Keyboard intended on producing an April '84 issue "full of off the wall articles". For some reason, that did not happen, and only Bob's article was actually an April Fools piece. The USS was hoping to give some useful material, and so they prepared a report for Keyboard's entertainment, duly noted April 1. The report went to a number of magazines and papers in the industry and throughout the world. 

He points out that every other publication realized the joke, but Keyboard went on to print the article months later, editing out most of the "giveaways" that made it the joke it was intended to be. That should have been the end to it, except that at the time there was actual rumors that the Japanese were working with the Soviets on a synth project. As well, while preparing the report, they tuned into Radio Moscow and adapted some of the news they had heard. For example, there was actually a meeting of the Ukraine Society Academy of Scientists that discussed music around the time. 

Near the end of the letter, he assured readers that the USS actually does exist and doing some great work. And that they also have a sense of humor.  :)

It was that little bit of truth that gave this solid April Fools joke even more of a solid foundation. 

I tip my hat to you, USS! 

BTW - we would love to get a copy of that booklet if anyone has it.

And, speaking for myself - I'd still pay thousands for this Fairlight killer. Especially with the solar panel. 

Again - head over and give mu:zines some support! Keep that amazing archive alive!