SP-1200 Sampler

When his iconic SP-1200 sampler received a 30th anniversary reissue, designer Dave Rossum took us through the moment he first tested its predecessor and realised he had changed music creation forever with an infinite pee…

The looped sample was born in November 1980 at 417 Broadway, Santa Cruz, California. Within a few short years it would open up a new universe of reappropriated sounds and melodic vignettes, turning the common rubric of music making on its head and eventually precipitating a hip hop revolution. The vehicle for this innovation was called the Emulator, a keyboard sampler designed by Dave Rossum and his team at E-MU Systems, and was tested for the first time in the upstairs bedroom at that same address.

“At the end of 1978 or 1979, E-MU was located in Silicon Valley,” recalls Rossum. “The lease on our building was up and the landlords had decided to triple it. Silicon Valley was booming! I lived in Santa Cruz at the time, and we ended up buying this Victorian house that fell within a commercially zoned area. 417 Broadway.”

At this point, the only sampling instrument available was 1979’s Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument). Quickly finding fans in the likes of Hans Zimmer and Peter Gabriel (who owned the first one in the UK), the Fairlight was expensive and unwieldy, akin to a desktop computer, complete with its boxy monitor and QWERTY keyboard. 

“We had just come back from NAMM [National Association Of Music Merchants] having seen the Fairlight,” explains Rossum. “And we saw that sampling was the thing everyone was interested in.” 

While the Fairlight had caught Rossum’s attention, it was only scraping the surface of what he perceived to be possible. E-MU was known as an analogue synthesiser company at that point, but Rossum decided to start work on a different kind of instrument entirely.

The key to the Emulator was not just the ability to record and play sounds, but to apply that principle in a musical setting and make it user-friendly to players. 

“The conversion was straightforward,” continues Rossum. “That is, you could get a sound in and play it back. But the real magic on a musical instrument is being able to hold a key down. And the Emulator was designed so you didn’t have to sit there with a light pen or a keyboard and so forth, you just moved the sliders. We got it working around the end of the summer of 1980. Then it was time to start putting together the software.”

On that auspicious day in November 1980, Rossum was hard at work on an exploded Emulator prototype in the bedroom of 417 Broadway when his girlfriend paid him a visit. 

“It was all circuit boards… laid out on a wooden work bench, with the main board and then the other boards all scattered around it, and my software development computer next to it. The tiny bathroom was right next door because it was a bedroom after all! 

“I’d just finished, and my girlfriend – now my wife, Karen – came up and asked me what I was up to. I said, ‘I’ve got this thing here, let’s try it out’. I pressed the button and said, ‘Speak into the microphone here’, and she spoke into it, saying, ‘Mary had a little lamb’.

“I said, ‘Watch this’. I hit the key on the keyboard and it went, ‘Mary had a little lamb’. Then I started fiddling with the two sliders and it went, ‘Mary had a little-little lamb. Mary had a little-little-little-little-little lamb’. I could also pitch shift it up or down and things like that. All of a sudden, everybody in the building was crowding around. So, then I had to do it on a non-voice sound, because voice sounds are pretty easy to loop.” 

At this point Rossum, who’s speaking from his California workshop, leans forward in his chair looking sheepish and mischievous in equal measure. He then creases with laughter. 

“So… I took the mic into the bathroom, and I peed. It was only a few seconds, but playing it back, if I held the key down I could pee for three-and-a-half minutes! I knew the splicing was perfect because you couldn’t hear it! That was the second sample – the infinite pee.”

But it was the third sample taken by the Emulator that would go on to cement its musical applicability. 

“About a month later, we got the circuit boards packaged up inside its metal casing – it was built like a tank. We invited our friend Ken Provost to come over with his violin. I had gone on some kind of an errand, leaving the others with the instrument there, and I came back after they had looped the initial set of violin samples and put them on the keyboard. 

“They were just ablaze with excitement. It was still a prototype, with glitches here and there. But everybody was saying, ‘We’ve really got something. This is working great’. It was at that moment, when we heard the first-ever multi-sampled violin on the Emulator, we knew sampling was really going to take off in a big way.” 

It’s hard to overstate how right they were. The owner of Emulator 0001 is Stevie Wonder, who is said to have hugged it at NAMM 1981 before making arrangements to purchase it. The Emulator also found a home in the arsenals of New Order, Genesis and Tangerine Dream and had a profound impact on the production of a litany of albums, from Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ to The Residents’ ‘The Tunes Of Two Cities’. 

“It was just a very exciting moment,” reflects Rossum. “I can still picture it in my mind – coming downstairs in that Victorian house, them there in what would have been the living room, crowding around this prototype saying, ‘Dave, you won’t believe this. Listen to this!’.” 

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