Ashton James Brown opens our new feature, “The Sampleface Museum”, with an examination of the influential E-mu SP-1200.
Welcome to The Sampleface Museum, a new series of articles where we take a look at various iconic samplers, synthesisers and drum machines. We discuss their functions, the role they’ve played in shaping the sound of hip hop and other genres, their cultural impact and how they have influenced music technology. Our first exhibit is the E-mu SP-1200.
Among hip hop producers and music tech aficionados out there, the mere mention of the words “E-mu SP-1200” elicits a particular sort of reaction. The name is like an incantation that instantly conjures up fond memories of the choppy samples, crunchy drums and dirty bass lines that typified the “boom bap” sound of the “Golden Age”. For many hip hop heads, this style of production was – and to this day still is – the definitive sound of the genre and with the SP-1200 having been used to craft the soundscapes of some of the most acclaimed albums of the time, it too has taken on an iconic status.
Technologically speaking, the SP-1200 was nothing to write home about. It was released in 1987 as an update of the SP-12 and its capabilities were soon superseded by samplers such as Akai’s MPC60. However, much of its success was attributed to its technological limitations, specifically its 26.04kHz sample rate and 12-bit resolution. Alongside its SSM2044 filter chip, these three components were responsible for the SP-1200’s characteristically warm gritty sound texture, reminiscent of the crackle you find on records. It can be said that the paltry sampling time of ten seconds (which was a huge improvement over the SP-12’s five seconds) fostered creativity amongst its users who would extend the sample time by sampling 33⅓ RPM records at 45 RPM and replay the sample at a slower speed by using the Multipitch and/or Tune/Decay features.
Apart from the elements already mentioned, the SP-1200 was also one of the first pieces of portable music gear that allowed a user to compose a whole song. This all led to its enduring success, with E-mu Systems continuing to manufacture the 1200 until the late 90’s. The influence of the sampler also extended beyond the borders of hip hop, with electronic musicians such as Daft Punk, Alan Braxe, The Prodigy and Todd Terry known to dabble with the sampler. The SP-1200’s strengths and limitations were responsible for moulding the sound of arguably hip hop’s most artistically innovative era, thus cementing its place in history as a legendary piece of music technology.
Below is a list of iconic albums that feature production from the SP-1200 and some videos showcasing its capabilities, including Grap Luva using his 1200 to great effect. Join us again for our next exhibit!