The Casio RZ-1: An Entry-Level Sampler Behind Top-Tier Beats

DJ Prince Paul (2011). Photo by Jemal Countess. Getty Images.

Originally released in 1986, the Casio RZ-1 was a unique instrument for its time. There were many older, analog drum machines on the market, but it was the release of cutting-edge sampling-based digital drum machines like the RZ-1 that would change the course of music-making as we know it.

Unlike popular (and more expensive) '80s drum machines like the Oberheim DMX, Roger Linn's LinnDrum and Roland's legendary TR series (the 808 and 909), the RZ-1 was a fully digital drum machine with onboard sampling capabilities—and arrived as a more affordable alternative to pricier sampling drum machines like the Korg DDD-1 and the E-Mu SP-12.

But while it was an entry-level sampler, hip-hop producers would soon use it for top-tier productions.

Inside the RZ-1

The RZ-1 comes with 12 factory drum sounds (bass drum, snare, open and closed hi-hat, clap, cowbell, ride, crash, and three toms). Users can control the playback volume of each drum sound with 10 volume faders, while stereo outputs let you route sounds into an external mixer. The machine also has a backlit LCD display screen and MIDI in/out/thru sockets. The RZ-1's internal memory has room for 100 patterns and 20 songs.

Unlike the analog drum machines that preceded it, the Casio RZ-1's internal sounds are based on PCM technology. PCM, or pulse-code modulation, is a method of creating digital representations of sampled analog audio signals. In the mid-'80s, the PCM method was used in the sound engines of instruments like Roland's legendary D50 synthesizer and drum machines like the DDD-1. The Casio RZ-1's internal drum sounds are charmingly lo-fi, with audio specs registering at 12 bit/32Hz resolution.

With a sampling memory that allows for just 0.8 seconds of sampling time, the RZ-1 is extremely limited by today's standards—or even when compared to contemporary machines like the E-Mu SP-1200, which was released a year after the RZ-1 and sported a massive (for the time) 10 seconds of sampling memory.

In addition to the RZ-1's factory drum sounds, assigned on 12 pads, the RZ-1 comes with four open user-assigned banks/pads, where users can either assign four samples of 0.2 seconds to each or one "long" sample up to 0.8 seconds.

RZ-1's Role in Hip-Hop

Released at the onset of rap music's first Golden Era, the RZ-1 was popular amongst first-generation hip-hop producers who were learning to make beats. With its affordable price tag, the RZ-1 allowed budding hip-hop musicians to pre-produce records in their homes, forgoing booking unnecessary hours in the expensive professional studios of the day.

Veteran DJ/producer Prince Paul cut his teeth in the '80s as a member of pioneering Long Island rap act Stetsasonic—a group that is widely acknowledged as the first (self-contained) hip-hop band. Following his stint with Stetsasonic, Paul linked up with an idiosyncratic rap trio named De La Soul. Their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, mixed up sampled sounds from a wide range of '60s and '70s artists including Eric Burdon & War, Steely Dan, and The Turtles.

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Over three decades after its release, the album remains a watershed moment in hip-hop and sampling history. Speaking with The Guardian in the 2014 article "How We Made 3 Feet High and Rising," Paul gives some insight into the album's creation, name-checking the RZ-1 as an essential piece of its production:

"We made the whole of 3 Feet High and Rising for $13,000, using just a Casio RZ-1 drum machine/sampler and another gadget called an Eventide harmonizer, which allowed us to match songs that had totally different pitches—we could put Daryl Hall's voice over a Sly & the Family Stone record. It was amazing."

When Reverb asked Paul about the RZ-1 for this piece specifically, he emphasized the machine's usability, saying, "It's like a Dollar Tree SP-12... not quite the name brand but still gets the job done."

Before the MC, producer, and Wu-Tang Clan cofounder RZA would employ the SP-1200 and Ensoniq sampling keyboards to create countless hits in the '90s, he got his start crafting beats on the Casio RZ-1. In a 2015 interview with Kotori Magazine, RZA talked about his teen years, producing on the RZ-1 and making beats for his friends in the neighborhood:

"Now I had to tell my man that I know how to make beats too, but I had never had that kind of equipment. I also had a Casio RZ-1 but I didn't have that SP-1200, which was the best thing you could ever get. It took maybe a year and a half until I finally got a hold of one. So I was about 19 when I first got my SP-1200, and on it I made 'Bring The Pain' and a few other classic Wu joints."

In the 2019 HULU series Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a dramatized version of teenaged RZA can be seen rocking an RZ-1, reflecting the producer's real-life history with the machine.

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Rapper/producer Beans of the legendary avant-rap trio Anti-Pop Consortium also cut his teeth making beats on the RZ-1. APC's production was a radical mixture of gritty hip-hop beats and minimal, experimental sounds. Unlike Paul and RZA, Beans would also use the RZ-1 as a live instrument with APC and when playing with his mythic live electronic ensemble, The Blank Slates.

Speaking with Reverb, Beans goes into detail about his work with the RZ-1:

"Before Anti-Pop was a group, [High] Priest and I had a side project called The Blank Slates, which was more free-jazz-oriented and reminiscent of Basquiat's band, Grey, that consisted of me on vocals and RZ-1, saxophonist Micah Gaugh, Meg Man Manny on Moog Source synthesizer, and Priest triggering live samples. The way that I utilized the RZ-1 drum machine during live performances for The Blank Slates and APC was running the RZ-1 through guitar effects pedals, mostly through three or four different delay, reverb, and phase-shifters. The pedals made the RZ sound dirty and crunchy while the delay pedal made the RZ kicks sound way harder."

The RZ-1 Today

In the years since the RZ-1 helped shape the sound of '80s hip-hop producers, the machine has also gained a small but loyal following among the circuit-bending/instrument-modifying community. Even a quick Google search will lead you to forums with enthusiasts discussing techniques to expand and modify the RZ-1. On the circuitbenders.co.uk forum, a user called gmeredith explains the ways in which the RZ-1's sample memory can be expanded:

"You know that you can do a sample memory expansion for the RZ-1, exactly the same as the sample expansion I did on my SK-8. I expanded my SK-8 from 4 samples (just like the RZ) to 128 samples! That sample RAM chip ... can be taken out and replaced by a much bigger capacity RAM chip. The expansion won't give you longer sample times, however, just more samples of the RZ's standard sample times. For the RZ, it will give you 128 banks of the 4 samples = 512 samples, at the push of a button!"

Like any great instrument, the musicians that have employed the Casio RZ-1 continue to embrace its quirks and push past its limitations to make some truly great music. The fact that musicians have been utilizing and tweaking the machine more than three decades would've been impossible to predict when it was first manufactured way back in 1986. Despite this, the Casio RZ-1 became an unlikely learning tool of a generation of hip-hoppers, beat-makers, and circuit-benders.

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