Friday, October 12, 2012

The Emu SP-1200 as Digital Retrofuture Heritage and TRUTH pt. 1: Biography

I wanted an Emu SP-1200 from 1998 until I got one about a month ago. In other words - for around 14 years or so. This is by far the longest period I’ve gone through between onset of desire for a piece of music equipment and eventually actually getting it.

Man, the wait was totally worth it. But not even for the most obvious or expected reasons. Instead of just getting a cool thing to make neat beats with, my 1200 accidentally took me on an ethnomusicographic journey inwards. It's less a beatbox and more a...tulpa facilitator? Digital memory totem machine? I seriously hate to contribute to the sheer volume of mystical cultural apocrypha that has accumulated around this machine, but I find myself with no choice. Yet, the real magic here is different, or operates on older rules than most of what you hear. I seek to write new myths.

The Funky Fax Machine is back.
The SP-1200 is one of the very first sampling drum machines. It came out in 1987, when I was seven years old. It samples at 12 bits, with a low sampling rate, for only 10 seconds of total sampling time - and yet even then in only 2.5 second (maximum) chunks at a time. Man, it sucks.

It’s also one of the most truly magical pieces of gear ever created - and not necessarily for the reasons that most people think and talk about. But we'll get to that.

The SP-1200 is best known as the classic Golden Age Hip Hop machine - and to a somewhat lesser extent, the classic French House Music machine. In other words the machine’s devotees tend to not people that tend to get all introspective and nerdy about which SSM filter chips were used in the internal mix buss, why we like flawed representation of the “real” in our art, why digital aliasing sounds instantly nostalgic and reminds us of a lost Arcadian vision of hazy cold war youth, and so on.

Nope, they’re way too busy just making totally dope beats on the thing for that. All that other mess is my territory, for better or worse.

Hey, you’re here too, right?
I caught the SP-1200 bug in 1998 via two albums that I had just gone crazy for - the Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty and Daft Punk’s Homework. While those two albums in particular clued me in to the 1200’s existence and role in their sound, it was simultaneously the missing link in my music production education that suddenly made an entire world of sound make sense. See, I had just graduated from high school and obtained my first two pieces of music gear - a Roland Groovebox and accompanying sampler - but I didn’t understand why they didn’t sound like the records that had inspired me to buy them in the first place, and which I was attempting to emulate. They sounded too clean, too professional, too bright, too slick - nothing like Portishead’s Dummy, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, the Beasties’ Ill Communication, and a bunch of super embarrassing records that I won’t even mention here and will instead hoard for my forthcoming I Was A Teenage Trip Hop DJ article (seriously).

Through reading tons of interviews and talking to older DJ’s on internet mailing lists, I soon learned about 12-bit sampling and the role that the degraded sound quality of the SP-1200, Akai MPC-60, Sequential Circuits Studio 440, and other primitive samplers from the eighties played in creating “that sound” - darker, thicker, lower quality but all the more vibe-laden because of it. It was the hip hop analog to the Lou Barlow 4-track cassette recordings that I had gone crazy over the previous summer. Less “studio,” more bedroom. And, of course, totally impossible to achieve with my expensive, hi-tech Groovebox. It’s like I had bought one of those embarrassing eighties no-headstock future guitars to try to make a Jandek record.

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Malkmus.

Coincidentally, just a few months later Fatboy Slim would make a zillion-selling worldwide hit record with little more than a 12-bit sampler (the Akai S950) and an old Atari computer triggering it. 


“I like this cut a lot. Just straight up hip hop. Like a lot of our songs, it's arranged like a hardcore [punk] song. Mathematical. Intro - verse - chorus - verse - chorus - break - chorus - verse - chorus - end. Nice. The flute line is from the elusive Jeremy Steig. Off the SP1200 it sounds nice.” - Ad-Rock, The Sounds of Science liner notes for the Beastie Boys song “Sure Shot”

I think it was actually this moment - reading the liner notes to the Beastie Boys’ The Sounds of Science retrospective - that cemented the SP-1200 as “the one” for me. Ill Communication was my first real rap record, and I spent most of the nineties frustrated that I couldn’t find other rap records that sounded like it. To be fair, I was too busy buying Letters to Cleo albums (Kay Hanley is still hot) and didn’t know to seek out Pete Rock, Gang Starr, or A Tribe Called Quest because I was a terrified little white boy. I’d get into all of that stuff later on in a major way, but being able to finally conclusively put together the SP-1200 with “that Ill Communication sound” just made the lightbulb go off. Ka-pow! On the bucket list.

[On a side note, Ad-Rock would later go on to publicly disavow the SP-1200 in a paid promotional endorsement video for the popular computer software Reason. If you watch his eyes closely at 2:23, as the corporate training film muzak plays, you can actually see his soul wither and die. It can’t be a coincidence that the Beasties’ Reason-fueled To the 5 Boroughs was a completely irrelevant, mediocre, and just plain dull record.]

But it was ultimately Madlib’s album Quasimoto -The Unseen that truly cemented the 1200 in my heart. The entire record was made on the SP, and I went completely crazy over it in the summer of 2000. I’ve listened to that record more than many others, and I maintain that it’s the perfect SP-1200 record, showcasing everything that makes the machine great - the “crunch” that it imparts on drums, fuzzy lo-fi digital aliasing that creeps in on anything melodic, and the primitive way that its capacity and workflow pushes users to chop and flip samples into new combinations because it can barely do anything else, damn it, and you have no choice but to innovate.

In the intervening years between 1999 and present, my personal musical endeavors moved entirely away from sample-based music and anything resembling hip hop in favor of creating the ultimate voltage-controlled analog synth studio to end all voltage-controlled analog synth studios. But I never stopped carrying the torch for the SP-1200. Whenever I listened to those french house records, old rap records, more modern experimental uses of it - to say nothing of revisiting The Unseen at least once a year - I just wanted to check one out. I wanted to mess around with it, to see where the magic came from. I wanted to feel the sliders and buttons, hear the floppy disk drive whir. I wanted to hear that fuzz and crunch applied to whatever I decided to feed into it, just for the hell of it. But they’re hard to come by - I’d never even encountered one in person. And considering that it doesn’t even really fit into my all analog synth studio, and how hellaciously expensive they are, I could never justify actually buying one just to have that experience.  

And then one basically fell into my lap.

Onward and upward to Part 2

1 comment:

  1. Similar journey to me. Was that the Boss DR202 and SP202 that you got, perchance?