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

Friday, October 5, 2012

Toward a personal pop art theory of synthetic sound

I’m not, and have never been, an art student. I say this because the concepts that I’m about to talk about are probably covered in the first week of Art School™ in terms of “why are art” and “what am representation” and so on. They’re probably covered in higher level language and basted in theory and approving nods. I’m sure they justify the career of Andres Serrano and that guy that sews filthy stuffed animals together. That said, I have come to these ideas through my own experience of doing little more than consuming music, films, books, comics, video games and writing songs, making music, and writing words since 1992 or so. Another way to look at this is as a long answer to “why do you like synthesizers so much?,” which I’ve been asked by several people and have done a lot of navel-gazing about. Once I started actually digging into this, I found myself working towards a personal pop art theory of synthetic sounds.

I think that I like synthesizer sounds for much the same reason, or in much the same way that I like comic art, video game-derived pixel art, old timey cross-stitch, Lego™, 1970’s California airbrushed van murals, or anything else - it just turns my crank and makes little neurotransmitters fire off in my brain in a really pleasing way. Clearly I’m not alone, as these things are all enormously popular among certain audiences or demographics - people just dig this stuff. But it’s generally true that people tend to like art that isn’t perfectly realistic or simply a flawless capture of some naturally existing thing; instead, we respond to style, to a warping of representation that reveals the influence of the creator’s hand in the process. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night endlessly appeals in a way that’s entirely independent of and more satisfying than just going outside and looking at the stars or viewing a high-resolution photograph of the stars. The style, the revelation of a human hand and perspective in the process are things that we like.

The simple response is that all art is a form of communication, and those cues that tell our brains that we’re being communicated with, that we’re receiving and decoding a message from another entity, are pleasing. We see and feel the person involved, we experience their perspective on their subject. It’s exciting. When it’s done well, it’s the closest thing that we experience to psychic communication from one person to another of subjective experience.  

There’s also something essentially gratifying about minimal, reductionist approaches to depiction or representation - conjuring something out of nothing, out of barely anything. Comics. Cross-stitch. Cave Paintings. The most essential concept of a thing rendered with only the most essential components, where we have to do a little bit of work to decode the message but then the little cognitive payoff explosion is twice as gratifying, like hearing a good joke.

From "I Lego NY"

The most gratifying art and media, for me, seems to exist exactly at that intersection of “feeling” another person’s attempt to render something and doing a tiny bit of mental interpretation and decoding. This is the fulcrum on which the whole neurological Rube Goldberg machine pivots, ultimately lighting up the little neon mushroom cloud of joy that always floats two or three feet above my head, invisible until the jackpot is hit. This is probably what all “Art Appreciation” is, and is probably taught in week one of art school. But I arrived at it on my own, through introspection and navel-gazing.

I love all music, and anyone who doesn’t is giving into tribalism, teenage youth rebellion, or just plain dullness. But much like photorealistic drawing -

just doesn’t excite me nearly as much as a great piece of stylized comic art -

From Love and Rockets, the best thing ever.
 - I just never get nearly as excited by an acoustically perfect live recording of real musicians playing real instruments in a room together as I do hearing interesting, artificial, stylized sounds. There’s something about clangy, mechanical spring reverb - the sound of 1950’s garage inventors trying in vain to create “real” acoustical space with primitive electromechanical devices - that I’ll always prefer to hearing a beautiful cathedral’s reverberant cavern captured with exact, high-quality binaural microphones. I’d rather hear compressed, individually mic’ed drums in perfect, dead thumping Steely Dan studio sterility than to hear a live drum kit most of the time. Seriously, if you haven’t recently stood near a real drum kit in a room with someone beating the hell out of it, you should. It’s atrocious and vulgar, and it’s easy to forget because drums on records never actually sound like drums, not even when Steve Albini records them.

Just like with visual art, when it comes to music and sound, my tastes run to the stylized, the artificial, the human hand and mind ironically revealed more through synthetic recreations of real things than in simple recordings of real things. But it’s not even enough for me to just hear acoustic drums turned into not-drums via the artificiality of the recording, mixing, and effecting process - I’m actually happiest when I hear electricity turned into “drums” via analog circuits.


The Roland CR-78 snare is like a cartoon drawing of a real snare drum. Lichtenstein drums. Jack Kirby beatnik jazz. It simultaneously sounds nothing like a real snare drum while perfectly “suggesting” a snare drum in the most primitive, minimally representative way. It’s not far off from the hissy spurt of a can of hairspray - and yet our brains accept it as a “snare drum” when we hear it on the 2 and the 4 and combined with other sounds that similarly barely suggest their acoustic drum kit counterparts.

It’s always amazing to me how easily the ear accepts these sounds as “the drums” of a song, even in concert with entirely synthetic sounds used for the other traditional melody/chord progression/bassline. It shouldn’t work, but it does.


Every accountant dad and soccer mom everywhere has jammed out to the CR-78 drum machine without even realizing it. We further accept the entirely synthetic sound when juxtaposed with more traditional instruments.

Analog synthesizers and primitive drum machines initially took off as imitators, replacements for “real” instruments. Imitative synthesis enjoyed a heyday with Wendy Carlos, Isao Tomita, and the like, traditional composers straining to recreate classical orchestration with rooms full of oscillators and filters. Though I love traditional classical orchestration and have even played in orchestras, I still find Tomita’s work in particular to be more interesting to listen to than even the best “real instrument” orchestra. It’s just more exciting to my ear and brain - it’s just cool sounding, even before you factor in the amazing and geeky way that he managed to put it all together with such primitive tools. 

I’d argue that synthesizers actually went on to be “culturally imitative” or “conceptually imitative” even as they left the orchestral context and stopped trying to actually replicate traditional instruments - that is, they do the same job or fill the same role in songs as traditional instruments in arrangements while sounding more purely synthetic. If you want to see Rick Wakeman wank on Moog leads like proto-Yngwie Malmsteen, you can google that on your own. I’d rather at least stick to tasteful examples.


Prince famously pioneered the “Minneapolis Sound” by replacing the role of horns in funk/R&B music with polyphonic synthesizers - not to specifically recreate the brass sounds synthetically, but to sit in the same sonic, mental, and cultural space in the arrangement and mix while simultaneously pushing the whole vibe forward toward the future. Even in postpunk music that’s completely built out of analog synthesizer sounds, people mentally “accept” the role of the sounds. We hear and accept basslines in pure square waves, we accept chord progressions created by sawtooth arpeggios. Daniel Miller’s Silicon Teens project epitomized this, with early postpunk renditions of classic American Graffiti pop music. It’s not even really a stretch. We just accept the sounds. They work. They’re cool.

To say nothing of Miller’s actual punk material, which defined a generation. We don’t hear experimentation, we hear basic punk rock. We hear drums and stabs of sound that fill the same roll as the guitars of his 7” contemporaries. Of course he went on tour with Stiff Little Fingers! 
  From that long Mute Records lineage (first through Depeche Mode) comes Vince Clarke, demigod of analog synthesizers in pop music. With Erasure, Vince makes what can best be described as Adult Contemporary Pop Music, suitable for being included in playlists along with Michael Bolton and Celine Dion and for listening to while getting one’s taxes done, eating a submarine sandwich, or getting a filling at the dentist. And yet, even in spite of that, it’s completely and totally awesome music. Half of that is that Vince is a phenomenal songwriter - songwriting being a subject to be covered in at least a few forthcoming posts, good songwriting being a quality that transcends genre and arrangements and styles - and the other half of that is that Vince more often than not deftly arranges his songs with what can best described as the most amazing collection of the best analog synths ever made. 

Click here for more of Vince Clarke's home studio 

When he’s on in this mode, the instrumental arrangements are as sophisticated as Aphex Twin. I can’t blame you for not noticing this, though, between Andy Bell’s acrobatic, melismatic crooning and copious gospel mama backing choirs. Adult Contemporary! 

Truth be told, I still listen to Husker Du records more than I listen to Erasure records, even though I love them both a lot. But I do secretly wish that Husker Du records had been made with analog synths and primitive drum machines - then they’d actually be perfect and I’d never have to listen to anything else. But in all seriousness, I feel just as much of that human communication, the style and hand of the creator involved, in Erasure’s “Always” as I do in the pounding real instrument-based rock songs of Bob Mould and Grant Hart. It’s not just that the synthesized sounds are cooler, more novel to my ear and brain - I do believe that I’m actually perceiving Vince Clarke’s viewpoint on whatever subject he’s writing about, filtered through his more idiosyncratic (than most other musicians, in the grand scheme of things) way of conveying that. At the end of the day, someone thrashing at a guitar in a room is ultimately inherently less nuanced and more conservative - and therefore less of a precise personal communication, more of a participation in the grand 50-year-old popular rock construct - than someone pullings sounds out of thin air, made from scratch, from electricity, for that one part of that one song. It’s like the difference between an amazing comic panel and a beautiful, flawless photograph. I love looking out the window at nature, but I’ll stare at that comic panel for hours, basking in that psychic connection with another human, subjective perspective revealed more perfectly via their flaws and style. I’m here; I’m listening.