52 Producer’s Edge Magazine Fall Winter 08
t is hard to overstate the impact
that the SP-1200 has had on
hip-hop production. It has inspired
countless classic albums, it was
THE go-to machine for a great
many “Golden Era” legends and
there is a good chance that if you
make hip hop beats you owe at
least a little bit of your style and/or
a few of your tricks to this little Gray
box. This edition of Vintage Series
will explore the SP-1200 and its
contributions to hip-hop production.
We will also examine how this piece
might fit into the modern studio.
Finally we will address the tortuous
rumors of an updated SP-1200
(usually known as the SP-1600 or
First, let’s set the stage. It’s the
summer 1987 and if you make beats
there are not a lot of options if you
want to build sample based tracks. You
have the uber expensive and hard to
find Farilight CMI series but they are
incredibly bulky and you don’t have
Peter Gabriel money so forget that.
The Casio SK-1 is at the other end
of the spectrum but its specifications
make it feel like a toy. Its sample “engine” offers 1.4 seconds of sample time at
9.38 kHz. It has no midi, no effects, and did I mention that its memory is volatile
(i.e. your lose you work when you turn it off). Moving right along, you have the
Sequential Circuits 440. Now we are talking. Its got a 12 bit, 8 voice sampler and
a relatively full functioned sequencer. It will hold 50,000 notes across 8 tracks and
has adjustable swing (50 - 75%). To top is all off it has a SCSI port so you can
transfer data between machines. You are sold, right. Wrong! It only has 512kb of
memory and it costs 5 grand! Besides, you just heard that Sequential Circuits is
about to go bankrupt so why hitch to a sinking ship. Finally, the Emu SP12 looks
nice but even the turbo model only has 5 seconds of sample time and the even
though you have heard great things about the sequencer and you have a feeling
those 5.25 disks are on the way out, so no thanks.
Enter the SP-1200!
<Cue Dramatic String Sample>
Its game over! This beast has 10 seconds of 12 bit sample time at 26,040hz (albeit
in 4 chunks of 2.5 seconds), 32 user sample slots, a flexible 5000 note sequencer
with input quantization, midi in/out/thru connections, smpte sync, analog filters,
and 8 individual ¼ inch outputs so you can break things out on a mixing board. To
top it off you can save everything to 3.5 floppies! Now you have a self-contained
way to sample, sequence, mix and save your tracks. Then you realize this thing
is just small enough to take with you just about anywhere which means you will
53 Producer’s Edge Magazine Fall Winter 08
be that much more productive (no
pun intended). You can work on beats
whenever you have spare time (and
a few records) and you won’t have
to deal with a lot of bulky equipment.
Having an essentially mobile studio
means you can track,
collaborate or perform
with more people in more
places. The possibilities
are endless.
Not so Fast!
<Cue sound
of a needle being brutally
removed from a record>
Not so fast you say.
It is almost 2008 and
your phone has more
memory than this thing!
And just about any recent computer
has enough horsepower to provide a
virtually unlimited number of tracks,
many Gigabytes of storage and a sea
of effects to choose from that Magellan
wouldn’t cross. Okay so maybe
endless is a little strong. The
SP-1200 was a great update but
it still had plenty of limitations.
However, there is something to
be learned from this machine and
the producers who mastered it.
That something is the art of “less
is more”. The history of hip-hop
is often the history of artists doing
a lot with very little. Don’t have a
canvas. Find a train. Don’t have
a drum set. Use Dad’s record
collection. As we will see, the
SP-1200 embodies this concept
completely and it does it with
<cue the smell of a dusty
record sleeve>
Lay of the Land
The SP-1200 is a very hands-on
machine. You get 8 buttons that are
used to select sounds for editing and
also to trigger sounds when sequencing.
The bank select button lets you step
through each of the 4 available banks
(A, B, C or D) providing quick access
to all 32 user sounds. Other function
buttons are dedicated for important
tasks. There’s also a global switch to
toggle each trigger’s velocity sensitivity
on or off. The tap/note repeat button
allows you to quickly set sequence
tempo or input notes automatically
at the currently selected quantization
You also get 8 sliders that can be
used for data entry in various edits.
Their function changes depending
upon which mode you are in. You
can use them to control the pitch,
volume, decay or loop point of selected
sounds. They are especially handy in
truncation/loop mode. Sliders 1 and 2
controls control sample start points.
Slider 1 is coarse adjustment and
slider 2 is fine adjustment. Sliders 3
and 4 control sample end points. As
you may be able to guess slider 3 is for
coarse adjustment and slider 4 is for
fine adjustment. Sliders 5 and 6 give
control over coarse and fine loop point
adjustment, respectively. The sliders
can also be used to make edits while
sequencing. For example, you can also
use slider 1 to adjust sequence tempo.
Overall, the user interface of the SP-
1200 is very efficient, especially when
considering it was designed over two
decades ago. Its thoughtful design and
hands-on approach made it easy for
producers to put down ideas quickly
and that rawness was evident in the
music that resulted.
As we said, we are
only talking 4 banks of
2.5 seconds so you will
have to plan carefully
to make the most of this
beast. Most of us by now
are aware of the trick
of playing the record at
45rpm and detuning the
sample at playback. Well,
this machine (along with
the original SP12), were
the initial inspirations for that technique.
By playing the record faster, you could
sample longer phrases and make better
use of your meager sample time. Do
you remember what I said about doing
less with more. An added benefit
is that when you pitch the sample
back down to regular speed the
interpolation that takes place often
yields pleasing results. An almost
ring modulation-like artifacts color
the sample.
The SP-1200 does not allow for
extreme precision when editing
samples. When adjusting sample
start points, for instance, you will
find that the smallest adjustment
you will be able to make will be
about 25 samples. The upside for
some styles is that this can prevent
you from sucking the soul out of
your beat by being too “on”. One man’s
slop is another man’s funk. Additional
limitations include the omission of
things we take for granted today, like
time-stretch. On the SP-1200 there
isn’t any. Also, the pitch adjustment
allows you to only tune in semitones,
as opposed to cents, so matching
samples require a good ear and a little
luck. The multi-pitch feature allows
you to pitch one sound across 8 pads
and each of those pads can be tuned
independently. This allows you to play
your samples in different pitches and
come up with melodic/rhythmic phrases
as you would on a traditional keyboard.
he history of hip-hop is often the history
of artists doing a lot with very little.
Don’t have a canvas. Find a train. Don’t have a
drum set. Use Dad’s record collection. As we
will see, the SP-1200 embodies this concept
completely and it does it with style.
54 Producer’s Edge Magazine Fall Winter 08
As an example, you can have one pad
trigger the sample at original pitch,
one at the fifth interval above or below
original, and maybe one at the third
interval. This can be very useful for
creating basslines, etc.
Sequencing on the SP-1200 gener-
ally involves recording a handful of
segments and then chaining them
together in song mode. While build-
ing segments you can save time by
using auto correct to align hits to a
selected value (1/8, 1/16, etc.). After
your parts are laid you can add swing
at the desired value. They are entered
in terms of percentages. In case you
are wondering WHICH percentage is
the key to achieving perfect bounce,
don’t ask. Just feel it out for the song
at hand. If you are interested in gross
generalizations, then think of the high-
est percentages as more “Jazzy” and
the lower settings as more “rockish”.
Right in the middle is hip hop terri-
tory. It is important to note that many
get great results from not quantizing
or adding swing at all. Find your own
path Grasshoppa! Experimentation is
the key and it lead to one of the most
widely use tricks in hip-hop, namely
the double tempo trick. That is if you
are working on a beat that is 90bpm,
simply set the tempo on the SP to
180bpm. This effectively doubles the
sequencers resolution, giving you
twice as many places to put your hits.
It allows for more nuanced patterns
and enhances other programming
tricks like ghost notes, etc.
Other sequencer features include the
ability to erase notes on the fly which
greatly speeds things along. The note
repeat button can also be useful for
drum rolls or for laying down a quick
hi hat line. As you assemble your seg-
ments you can save additional time by
copying or appending them to each
other. Once you have created seg-
ments for your intro, verses, hooks,
variations, etc. you are ready to chain
them together in song mode. Song
mode is essentially a list of segments.
You can specify how many times a
segment repeats or you can insert/de-
lete segments at will until your song is
fleshed out.
While working you may need to make
detailed edits that are tricky to do in
real time with the note erase feature. In
these situations, you will want to enter
step edit mode. In this mode you can
move through each note in the segment
and insert or delete as desired. Think of
it as microscope mode where you can
slow things down and find that flam or
that bum hit and fix it.
Fast Forward to 2007
So the SP-1200 was a very capable
machine in its day and it enjoyed
a pretty good run until it was finally
discontinued in 1998. The question
that remains is how it fits into a mod-
ern studio. First of all, the SP-1200
could be a killer tone module. Its 12
bit sound and warm analog filters can
be a nice color to have on the palette.
Before you even bring up the cute
little sample rate conversion provided
by your DAW, just stop. It is not the
same. Sorry. As for the filters, you
buy a nice hardware filter module but
it won’t be cheap and it will do only
one thing, unlike the SP. Next, the
sequencer makes the SP-1200 a valu-
able addition to most studios. Even if
you don’t buy into the hype surround-
ing its “magical swing”, this machine
is still one of the fastest ways to set a
tempo, bang out a beat and hook up
a song mode. Right click that. Really
the whole package is a great first draft
engine. You can throw on records,
hook up quick ideas and if you want to
get really surgical you can send dump
the midi and/or audio to your DAW
and enjoy the best of both worlds.
Finally, there is an intangible reason to
include the SP-1200 in your arsenal.
It is hip-hop history. It is hard not to be
inspired by a machine that spawned
so many great ideas.
Final Thoughts
On paper, its specifications are not
impressive by today’s standards, you
get very little sample time, a relatively
primitive sequencer and your storage
options are limited. Nevertheless, the
SP-1200 still draws high bids on eBay
(about 1300 as of September 2007)
and has the respect and admiration of
producers young and old school. The
enduring fascination with this machine
is one part idol worship, one part
nostalgia for the Golden Era sound,
and one part appreciation for its “do a
lot with a little” personality.
The SP1600, SP2400 and Other Urban Legends
ver the years there has been much speculation about the possibility of a new generation of SP. These
fantasies are not totally unfounded. For a time, there was talk at EMU about producing such a machine.
Rumor has it that the new machine would be called the SP1600 (or SP2400) and would, depending upon who
you listen to, would utilize the 16-bit sampling engine from either the Emax II or the ESI-32 samplers or even
a new 24 bit sampling engine. Sadly, the project was supposedly killed because Emu felt it was too much of a
niche product. And so the story goes, one of the chief architects of the new SP project jumped ship and went on
to produce another sampling drum machine you might have heard of: the AKAI MPC 2000. Ouch. To make a long
story short, it is highly unlikely that we will see a hardware update of the SP-1200.
SP 1200 Production Timeline
1987 1990 1993 1998
SP-1200 Original Reissued (Black Version) Final batch of SP-
Launched SP-1200 discontinued w/updated electronics to meet 1200s produced
(Partly due to limited regulatory standards
Availability of SSM
•Grimy 12 bit sound that CANNOT be achieved by sample rate
•Hands on feel (Sliders can be used for mixing, tuning and editing
•Flexible sequencing and input quantization
•Limited sample time-forces you to be creative
•8 mono outputs for mixing flexibility
•Very pricy (still)
•Limited sample time forces you to need additional gear for some
•Discontinued and thus parts and repair options are limited
Pioneers and Masters: Pete Rock, The Bomb Squad, Large Professor,
DJ Muggs, Marley Marl, Da BeatMinerz, Lord Finesse, Pharaoh Monch
(Organized Konfusion), etc.
Hear it in Action: Pete Rock & CL Smooth “Mecca & The Soul Brother”
(1992), Cypress Hill “Cypress Hill” (1991), Public enemy “It takes
a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), Organized Konfusion
“Extinction Agenda” (1994), etc.
Fun Facts:
•The SP-1200 was the first sampling drum machine with integrated
floppy. This encouraged use of it as a portable studio.
•The longest run product in Emu history
•One of the first drum machines to utilize smpte synchronization
Summary of Specifications
Sample Memory
10 seconds at 26,040 Hz in four 2.5-second blocks (12-
bit linear resolution)
SSM Analog Filters
Sequence capacity
5000 notes minimum (depending on density of parts)
Patterns (referred to in the manual as “segments”)
Songs 100
Tempo Range 40-240 BPM
Auto correct with values of: 8th note, 8th triplet,
16th note, 16th Triplet, 32nd note, 32nd triplet and
high resolution mode
Mono mix Individual channels, (eight, programmable.
tip = unfiltered. ring - filtered). MIDI out. MIDI thru,
SMPTE, Metronome/Clock
Sample, MIDI, SMPTE/Sync, Footswitches (3)
MIDI, SMPTE, 24 pqn clock
Data and Sound Storage
3.5” floppy diskette
Optional accessories
Additional sound library diskettes, footswitches