SP-1200: The Sampler That Changed Hip-Hop Forever

Beat Making
SP-1200: The Sampler That Changed Hip-Hop Forever

The birth of hip-hop in the late 1980s coincides with the launch of the E-Mu SP-1200 for a reason—the sampler revolutionized beat making and is largely responsible for the sound of boom-bap drums.

It’s possible that hip-hop wouldn’t have gotten where it was without the SP-1200 being such an inspiring tool that was reasonably affordable for the producers making rap beats in New York, LA and beyond.

Today, pretty much every sampler and groove box in existence takes its cues from the SP-1200—both in terms of design and sound.

So it’s no surprise that many producers are curious about incorporating the legendary sampler’s sound into their own tracks.

In this article, we’ll explore the functionality of the SP-1200, the mechanics behind its gritty lo-fi sound and a handful of ways you can get your hands on its sounds.

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What is the SP-1200?

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The E-Mu SP-1200 was an early digital sampling workstation released in 1987 by American hardware company E-mu Systems.

Built to improve on the earlier SP-12, the SP-1200 provided producers with the sampling and sequencing power to produce entire tracks.

Its unique sound, creative workflow and affordable price made it the sampler of choice for pioneering hip-hop artists of the late 80s and early 90s.

Reissued continually over its decades-long history, the SP-1200 finally ceased production for good in 1997 when E-mu could no longer source the components required for its unique filter design.

Since then its reputation has been cemented as an essential ingredient in the sound of the golden age of hip-hop.

Hip-hop wouldn’t have gotten to where it is now without the SP-1200.

the E-Mu SP-1200

History of the SP-1200

The release of the SP-1200 coincided with a turning point in the history of hip-hop, which is why it’s widely considered to be the original hip-hop sampler—and why it remains a sought-after piece of vintage gear today.

It’s widely considered to be the original hip-hop sampler

Although it was originally intended to be used for dance music production, hip-hop producers were drawn to it for its vinyl-like sound and learnable interface.

Plus it was one of the more affordable samplers on the market, making it accessible to cash-strapped New York producers.

One of the major constraints of the SP-1200 was its limited sample memory. 10 seconds wasn’t very much to work with, especially if any longer melodic samples were desired for use.

Creative producers overcame this hurdle by pioneering unique sampling techniques like recording samples at a higher pitch and then pitching them down on the SP-1200.

Putting the SP-1200 pitch functionality saved valuable seconds and contributed to a grittier, more bit crushed sound that fit the sound and aesthetic these hip-hop producers were looking for.

Why did the SP-1200 sound so good?

The early digital technology of the SP-1200 came with a distinct set of limitations.

To squeeze the most sampling time from its 256 KB of RAM, the SP-120 recorded sound at a resolution of 12 bit/26.04 kHz.

This lower-quality audio format meant the samples had a warmer sound with fewer low and high frequencies.

This lower-quality audio format meant the samples had a warmer sound with fewer low and high frequencies.

On top of that, producers developed a creative technique to squeeze even more sample time from the SP-1200.

Although it allowed roughly 10 seconds of possible sampling time, the total was divided into four blocks of 2.5 seconds each.

To increase the available time in each slot, producers would play back their vinyl records at 45 RPM and then use the SP-1200’s pitch features to compensate.

This reduced the sample rate even further, leading to the distinctly gritty digital textures of early hip-hop samples.

How to get the SP-1200’s sound in your own productions

Because of its status as an iconic genre-defining sampler, the SP-1200 fetches incredibly high prices on vintage gear websites and auction houses.

In recent years, mint SP-1200s have gone for prices in the $15,000 range—owning an SP-1200 is truly a crowning jewel for the highest-end of high-end studios.

But, you don’t need to buy an SP-1200 to make great-sounding tracks—there’s so many options out there that’ll get you very close if not better sounds that’ll absolutely do the job.

Here’s a few options for you if you’re looking to incorporate the SP-1200’s sound into your productions.

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Get an SP-1200 Sample Pack

Your most affordable and arguably best option is to just grab samples made with the sampler itself.

A hi-resolution recording of the SP-1200’s sound is completely adequate for getting great drum sounds—especially if they come from a good production house.

Jon Tejada’s Boom Bap sample pack is an excellent option. In it, he shares a ton of incredibly good-sounding kicks, snares, hats and other drums that came directly from his SP-1200.

Whether you’re looking for loops or one-shots, this pack is such an incredible option for getting truly authentic SP-1200 samples from a high-caliber producer.

It’s remarkable that Tejada would even let us in on this juicy collection.

It’s remarkable that Tejada would even let us in on this juicy collection.


Hear the sample pack

Check out other great groove boxes

If the workflow and feel of working with a piece of hardware is part of what’s drawn you to the SP-1200, you have a handful of options.

For one, you could grab a re-issue of the classic sampler for a significantly lower price than a vintage machine—but even a re-issue will cost you several thousand dollars.

There’s great modern options out there like the Digitakt, which comes with an excellent built-in bit reduction effect.

Or, you might want to check out any equally iconic MPC drum machine.

Vintage MPC 2000s go for totally reasonable prices and the modern MPC One is definitely capable of handling SP-1200 style sounds, and a lot more.


The 5 Best SP-1200 VSTs

Of course, there’s always the option to use VST plugins in your DAW of choice.

Most DAWs come with some kind of drum machine-style sequencer, and there are plenty of effects plugins that are designed to add vintage sound to your drums.

Plus, you can always grab digital re-creations of the SP-1200 itself.

Here’s 5 great VST plugins to try out if you want to achieve the SP-1200’s sound in your DAW.

1. LANDR FX Beats


Try LANDR FX Beats

LANDR FX Beats is a versatile plugin that’s designed to help your produce the best drum sounds possible.

With its incredibly easy-to-use one-knob interface and a handful of polished presets built by a team of talented pro audio engineers, FX Beats makes it easier than ever to add the perfect effects chain to your drum bus.

And of course, it features hip-hop-influenced effects settings that are more than qualified to add crunchy SP-1200 sounding effects to any of your drum samples or recordings.

You can grab the plugin or get the entire LANDR FX bundle. Or, for the best possible deal grab a subscription to LANDR Studio and get access to the entire LANDR FX suite plus everything LANDR has to offer including mastering, distribution, samples, plugins and much more!

2. D16 – Decimort


Decimort from D16 is a very high-quaity plugin that does a lot more than your basic bit crusher plugin.

Its build is directly inspired by circuits of the E-Mu samplers that producers so often desire to emulate—plus it comes with some pretty advanced options adding filter and dither to your samples.

The plugin comes with a ton of presets, many of which are named after the samplers they aim to emulate.

Whether you’re looking to add a light touch of grit or to create a dramatically different sounding sample, the Decimort is a tasteful, professional option.

3. Baby Audio – Super VHS


Super VHS from Baby Audio is an interesting and highly versatile plugin for adding lo-fi effects to your sound.

This is a dedicated lo-fi plugin that’ll add however much color and grit to whatever you’re working on.

It comes with a relatively simple three-knob interface that allows for easy manipulation to dial in lo-fi whirl to your track.

4. Initial Audio – Analog Pro


Analog Pro from Initial Audio does what it says on the tin—it’s a pro-quality plugin that’ll add analog characteristics like extra warmth, saturation and grit to your sound.

The plugin comes with a variety of meticulously designed filters, saturation, EQ and more to warm up your sound with added punch.

Analog Pro really is capable of making your tracks sound like they’re being played on vinyl or tape.

5. LANDR Samples Plugin


Get the free LANDR Samples plugin

If you choose to go with an SP-1200 sample pack, definitely take a look at the handful of SP-1200-themed sample packs on LANDR Samples.

Every now and then, say once or twice a decade, a new instrument comes along and changes music production forever.

To make it easier to hear the samples within the context of your track and to make browsing samples easier, grab the LANDR Samples plugin which is makes it simple to browse sample from one window in your DAW.

And, if you pick up a LANDR Studio subscription you’ll get access to both the LANDR FX Beats plugin and LANDR Samples so you’ll be able to fully customize your SP-1200 samples.

The SP-1200 Changed the History of Music

Every now and then, say once or twice a decade, a new instrument comes along and changes music production forever.

Arguably, these instruments don’t just change how music sounds, they empower artists to create new genres, open new creative avenues and ultimately change music history.

Without a doubt, the SP-1200 falls into that canon of instruments—it changed the course of music history by inspiring a generation of boom-bap beat producers.

Next time you hear a track from Nas or KRS-One come on the radio, remember the producers who used the SP-1200 to make those drums hit so hard and capture the imaginations of listeners decades ago.

Get inspired by the SP-1200 and give it a try in your music!

Alex Lavoie

Alex Lavoie is a drummer, music producer, songwriter and marketing professional living in Montreal, Quebec. He works as a staff writer at LANDR by day and writes indie post-punk tunes in his band UTILS while moonlighting as drummer for folk-rock outfit The Painters. Connect with Alex Lavoie on LANDR Network!

@Alex Lavoie

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