Casio SK-1

1985 – 1990

In many ways, the Casio SK-1 is the polar opposite of the Fairlight. Where the Fairlight was powerful, expensive and professional, the SK-1 was quite emphatically none of the above. But while the Fairlight was only likely to be found in the studios of ultra-rich professionals, the SK-1 found its way into the bedrooms of a generation of musicians.

Released in 1985, the SK-1 looks like a toy, feels like a toy and by today’s standards it most definitely is a toy (it was actually fairly expensive when it was released, selling for around $250). Alongside most other samplers, the sampling engine of the SK-1 is almost comically basic. With 4-voice polyphony and 8-bit resolution at 9.38 kHz, the SK-1 wins no prizes for fidelity, but that’s not really the point. The SK-1 sparked the imaginations of thousands of 80s babies, many of whom went on to become dance music producers. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but talk to producers of a certain age and it’s surprising just how many have fond memories of messing with an SK-1 when they were younger.

the SK-1 looks like a toy, feels like a toy and by today’s standards it most definitely is a toy

We won’t pretend the SK-1 is the definitive sound of thousands of club tracks. It certainly hasn’t been used by a huge number of artists, with most early adopters no doubt moving onto slightly more professional alternatives as quickly as they could. Autechre claim to have used the SK-1 and its bigger brother, the SK-5, on a lot of their earlier tracks, but they also modified theirs, which is where you’ll find the majority of the SK-1 action these days; it’s revered on the modding and circuit bending scene, with countless upgrades documented and supported by professional modding companies and DIY kits. You can even add MIDI to bring it right up to date. Kind of.

But whether you attack it with a soldering iron or just use it to make your dog sing a melody like Rufus the basset hound, the SK-1 played a unique role in introducing a non-professional audience to the concept of sampling. For an entire generation of budding producers, the SK-1 was the entry point to the world of electronic music – and don’t forget its drum-based sister product, the RZ-1, either.

If there’s a modern equivalent of the SK-1 it might be the excellent Samplr iPad app, or perhaps the Simpler device in Ableton Live: intuitive, basic but incredibly creative tools for manipulating sound.

1st April, 2014

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