The SP-1200: A beatmakers relic

    Do you make beats? Or did you ever try to? Or do you know someone who does? Chances are you do or did. Nowadays it’s not all that hard; download any digital audio workstation (like Ableton Live, Reason or FL Studio) and voila, you will be able to create something sounding pretty reasonable in a matter of hours. Personally speaking, if it wasn’t for “Fruity Loops” back in the day, I’d probably never gotten into music production myself. I held myself in low regard musically, and never imagined I’d be making beats in my little bedroom. Aside from the learning curve, digital music production is accessible for anyone who knows just a little bit about hiphop, and the available software allows for endless experimentation. Before I knew it I was addicted.

    Little did I know at that time about all the hardware my favorite producers used though, and the limits the hardware had at the time they produced their classics. After numerous failed attempts at creating that gritty boom bap sound with digital software, I started researching what software my beatmaking heroes used. Yes, back in the days I sincerely thought they mostly used software. This might be a good moment for you to stare away from the screen for a second or two and gently perform a facepalm.

    Anyway, after getting baptized with the knowledge that most “golden era” producers used hardware such as the Akai MPC 2000 and the E-mu SP-1200, I got humbled by the fact they made such dope tracks on machines with extremely basic interfaces. Back in the day it might’ve been the sickest piece of hardware on earth, but when looking back from a 2013 perspective, I can’t do anything else but bow down and salute all those cats for their creative workarounds to the challenges posed by these old school machines. Times have changed, and these old school machines have left their marks on the genre in a huge way.

    Let me specifically explain what limits I’m talking about: The SP-1200, (a sampler/drum machine originally launched in 1987 by E-Mu Systems) allowed for a total sample time of 10 (!!) seconds. On a side note, that is roughly the amount of time it takes me to guzzle down a cup of coffee. Also, each individual sample couldn’t be longer than 2,5 seconds. Producers such as RZA, Pete Rock, DJ Muggs, Grap Luva, Madlib, Large Professor, DJ Premier and many more used the SP(1200) to create countless classics. During the late 80’s, sampling was a relatively new practice, and suited the limited options of the SP perfectly. Producers sampled their 33 rpm records at 45 rpm, effectively saving precious sample seconds on the SP, and afterwards tuned the sample back to the proper pitch with the SP’s built-in tools. Gotta love creativity! That little detail meant tons to me, as nowadays it’s easier than ever to sample, thanks to our computers, but at the same time it has never been so hard to “clear” a sample for commercial use as it is nowadays, as copyright laws are all over the place in 2013.

    In 2013, many musicians, including me, thus fall into the category “bedroom producer”. It’s a hobby/lifestyle, but I am well aware that 50% of my beats are commercially unusable due to the samples used. The fact that samples have become harder to clear, but abundant in hiphop, paired with the limited functionality of the SP make this machine a true monument of classic hiphop, that we all should see as a timeless piece of equipment that has defined the genre in a multitude of ways: The sound quality is unique, and roughly half of that of a CD, giving the beats a rugged crisp and crackle that is hard to emulate on modern equipment, and the limited sample time posed a challenge that producers tackled in many fresh ways, creating a whole generation of hiphop that’s still as hot today as it was back in the day. Think Gang Starr, Wu-Tang, Beatnuts, etcetera. So after delving into this subject, I kinda laugh at my self in retrospect for thinking I could make any sound with a digital audio workstation. Some machines just bring a special buzz and crackle to a sound which is almost impossible to emulate, and trying to make SP1200 beats on a high end audio computer is like buying a Ferrari to enjoy the feeling of riding a crippled horse.

    Though I am in no way a “gearhead” or the next Pete Rock, I did feel kind of tempted to buy the SP-1200 after finding out about it. After seeing the prices for this device, I quickly put the idea out of my head, but if you are willing to fork up 2000 bucks to experience the beauty of this old beast, you have my props. The device looks like it came straight outta some 1970’s B-movie spaceship, and the “pads” used to drum in your sounds look like somebody stole them off a soviet typewriter. It’s as classic as it gets, and still in it’s own way an incredible machine. After realizing Madlib produced “Quasimoto – The unseen” (2000) entirely on the SP-1200, I am somewhat convinced that being limited in options brings out insane creative freedom. That album is sick, the beats have such a distinct vibe, it doesn’t get any doper than that. Taking a 13 year old device, to craft music that sounds like it’s years ahead of it’s time, that right there is skill, ladies and gentlemen.

    To wrap this up: I used to think (and yell at my hardware admiring brethren) you could recreate almost every hardware sound with (VST/virtual synthesizer) software, but now that I am finally getting into hardware , I realize how wrong I was. Devices like the SP-1200 are like your old walkman, or my (or your) first Sony. Icons of an era, and the SP largely shaped the way music production is done nowadays, or at least left a giant imprint on the genre.

    I think it’s fitting we give the SP a little praise today and spin some old Large Pro, Pete Rock, Gang Starr or my personal SP1200 reccomendation “Quasimoto – The Unseen” and enjoy how this great culture is so deeply intertwined with the hardware that was used to bring these sounds into our lives. Monuments of the culture, time to pay our respects.