Video: The Enduring Appeal of the SP-1200

In a clip from a documentary on the making of his 1998 album, Soul Survivor, New York-born producer/DJ Pete Rock can be seen in Battery Studios chopping up a single strummed guitar chord. Sampled from a recording of the classic mid-'70s cartoon Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids, it would be hard to imagine this minimal, incidental sound as the potential bedrock for a potent hip-hop tune.

The resulting composition, "Verbal Murder 2," finds Common, NORE and Big Pun trading bars over a bouncing, head-nodding beat. That single guitar strum is chopped and pitch-shifted into a four-chord progression; its tremolo effect puts to mind what Italian Soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone would sound like if he tried his hand at boom bap.

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Throughout the documentary, there are ample moments like this: Pete Rock chopping and manipulating impossibly small bits of sound, rearranging and fleshing them out into rich, fully realized hip-hop instrumentals. Twenty-two years later, Soul Survivor remains a landmark production, with each beat crafted on Pete's instrument of choice: the E-Mu SP-1200 sampler and drum machine.

Following on the heels of E-Mu's SP-12 ("Sampling Percussion 12-bit") from 1985, the SP-1200 found its way onto countless classic hip-hop records and was the go-to instrument of choice for hip-hop producers from the time it was originally released in 1987 until the late '90s.

The list of hip-hop producers who have used the SP-1200 as their primary instrument reads like a who's who of Golden Age rap music: in addition to Pete Rock, DJ Premier, J. Dilla, Madlib, Lord Finesse, Large Professor, and his mentor, the late, mythical producer Paul C. In "The Dirty Heartbeat of the Golden Age," a 2007 Village Voice piece on the SP, Public Enemy/Bomb Squad cofounder Hank Shocklee describes the inventive production tricks that '80s and '90s hip-hop producers would use to push the technical limitations of the SP-1200 and realize their rich creative visions:

"There's little tricks that were developed on it. For example, you got 12 seconds [10.07, according to the manufacturer] of sample time to divide amongst eight pads. So depending on how much you use on each pad, you decrease the amount of sample time that you have. You take a 33 1/3 record and play it on 45, and you cheat the system. [Another] aspect that we created is out of a mistake—one day I was playing "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" and it came out real muffled. I couldn't hear any of the high-end part of it. I found out that if you put the phono or quarter-inch jack halfway in, it filters the high frequency [Ed: The sound was an equivalent to a high-pass filter]. Now I just got the bass part of the sample. I was like, 'Oh, shit, this is the craziest thing on the planet!'"

The SP-1200 came stock with MIDI in/out/through, 5,000 note memory, and 10 seconds of sampling time at 12-bit resolution, divided into four banks. Combining a sampler and drum machine into one compact, portable unit, the SP-1200 arrived on the market as a more versatile extension of the concept pioneered by machines like Casio's RZ-1 from 1986. With eight outputs in the back, memory dedicated to 100 songs and 100 patterns, and a filter system based on the SSM voltage-controlled filter chip, the SP-1200 is a powerful workhorse and a standout for its time. Often used in combination with Akai's S-950 rackmount sampler, the SP-1200 and its gritty sonic character ruled the '90s until E-Mu discontinued the unit in 1998.

In the 2000s, before jazzy, instrumental hip-hop was rebranded as "lo-fi," a small cadre of underground producers like KicDrum Products, Reggie Reg, Loopwhole Beats, Damu the Fudgemunk, and many more, kept their SP-1200s. Sourcing samples from vinyl like their forebears, these producers stayed true to the gritty, beautifully muted sound that the machine was famous for, while a new generation was learning about the machine's legacy and dreaming of capturing its signature sound for their own productions.

In the years since the SP-1200 was discontinued, the interest around it has built up to nearly mythic proportions. Articles were written, YouTube tutorials and testimonials were uploaded, and books were published (like Pbody and KicDrum Products' SP-1200: The Art and the Science). As the machine continued to gain notoriety, demand increased and the price tag attached to the SP grew. While the SP's original retail price was about $2,700, today, an SP-1200 can fetch more than $7,000.

In response to this demand, a number of manufacturers have found inspiration from the SP-1200, introducing new products into the market that allow producers to get that classic SP sound without shelling out top-dollar for the original unit.

Dibia$e, Cookin' Soul, and Jonti make beats on Low-Hiss' eSPi.

Earlier this year, Low-Hiss Systems released the Beta version of their highly anticipated eSPi app. A number of SP-12 experienced producers like Kenny Dope, DJ Rhettmatic, Lord Finesse, DJ Scratch, and more have worked with early versions of the beta, singing the unit's praises. Compatible with Android, iOS, MacOS, Windows and Linux, the stand alone app emulates the warm filters and high-end "ringing" sound of the original SP samplers.

For users looking for hardware, E-Mu co-founder Dave Rossum has released a 35th Anniversary SP-1200 reissue—which, like the originals, is itself selling for a premium price— while Isla Instruments S2400 will be available for $949.

Talking with Reverb, Veteran DJ producer William "Kencut" Smith sheds some light on the SP-1200's enduring appeal:

"I have an SP-12, SP-1200, an Emulator II and yes, I use my SP-1200 to this day—the best thing that could happen to music. I wouldn't trade the SP for the world, and the sound you get out of it is awesome and doesn't have that computer sound. Whatever you put in is the exact sound you're going to get coming out….that rugged boom bap sound!"

Over three decades after it was first introduced to the market, the SP-1200 continues to serve as the backbone for an untold number of hip-hop records. In a musical landscape where "vintage" is king and countless VSTs are rolled out every quarter designed with the intention of capturing that elusive, throwback sound, the SP-1200 remains a standard bearer. As long as there are musicians who want their sound a little bit gritty and imperfect, its legacy will continue to grow.

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