SP-1200: The genesis of modern Hip Hop production
Two historically significant drum machines released during the mid 1980’s were the E-MU SP-12 and E-MU SP-1200 in 1985 and 1987 respectively.
Conceived by American sound equipment company E-MU Systems, these “samplers” were essential to the development of Hip Hop production, especially the SP-1200: its four memory banks enabled users to combine multiple sample loops. This gave users the freedom to produce the bulk of a song on a single machine, a first in the music industry.
The SP-1200 could simulate several pieces of equipment, hence studio costs were lowered significantly. Producers on a budget were now able to create more complex “beats” in small home studios. This led to the emergence of independent labels and ultimately more creative freedom for the artists.
Back to the future: We’re in 1986
By 1986 Hip Hop music was evolving from a perceived fad to a true musical revolution and the SP series would play a huge part in shaping the sound of New York rap. Around 1984, Marley Marl the concept of sampling drum sounds by accident, a technique he would develop on early records with MC Shan. When samplers like the SP-12 first came out, they attempted to democratize the practice of sampling breakbeats and drum sounds.
In the summer of 1986, Rick Rubin was overseeing the sessions for the Beastie Boys’ debut album License To Ill. On “Rhymin & Stealin” he used the SP-12 to beef up the track’s drums, adding extra weight to the John Bonham samples he borrowed from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”.
The SP-12 was embraced by the first generation of modern electronic producers and musicians, in a similar fashion as to how early DJs had repurposed the turntable. When you erased the preset drum sounds, you were free to squeeze as much as you could into the machine’s memory and play the samples in an intuitive, rhythmic manner. Acknowledging the situation, E-MU released a “Turbo” update that expanded the machine’s sampling memory to 5 seconds. That being said, it would be the SP-12’s successor, the SP-1200, that would truly unleash sampling’s potential and mark the start of a golden era of Hip Hop beats as well as dance music classics.
The SP-1200 remained in production for about ten years. E-MU Systems played to the machine’s popularity in the burgeoning Hip Hop and dance music arenas by completely getting rid of the preset drum samples and moving the storage to RAM, which you could fill with a floppy disk. The machine retained the same eight touch pads but added four banks for a total of 32 possible samples. Sampling time was doubled to 10 seconds (in 1987 this was a large amount) and the rate was reduced to 26.04 Khz to accommodate better memory usage. Equipped with SSM2044 filter chips, the machines were designed be “punchy” and “crunchy”.
Limitation drives innovation as they say. The SP series’ weaknesses: crunchy, lo-fi sounds; short sampling time became strengths.
In 1993, E-MU was acquired by the global Singapore-based technology company Creative Technology, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary. From then on, E-MU has gradually focused on the sound module and sound card markets.
Fast forward to 2019: The SP series still has a strong cult-following
Today, the SP series has still a sizable cult-following. A major reason for this is the emblematic lo-fi sound both machines produce; a big contrast with the pristine sound of modern production equipment.
Both the SP-12 and SP-1200 have become collector’s items, often selling for US $5,000 and up on ecommerce platforms like eBay.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this story on older music production hardware. If you’d like me to write an article on another drum machine, synthesizer or turntable, feel free to drop a comment.