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Recreating the Sound of the 80s

Updated on April 14, 2016
Simple Minds, whose hit "Don't You Forget About Me" is considered a defining song of the 80s.
Simple Minds, whose hit "Don't You Forget About Me" is considered a defining song of the 80s. | Source

Which Song Best Represents the Music of the 80s?

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How to Make a Recording Sound "80s"

There is a distinctive sound to music recorded in the 1980s, but how does one achieve that sound? Consider, for instance, the track “Always Something There to Remind Me.” The original version, recorded in 1964, sounds like a 60s pop song, while the 1985 cover by Naked Eyes sounds 80s. What differentiates the two versions? There is no “80s chord progression” or scales unique to the decade (most 80s songs relied upon the standard major and minor scales). Rather, instrumentation, arrangement, and production are key to creating the 80s sound.


Below is the A-ha's "Take on Me," one of the most popular and recognizable songs of the eighties, but what makes it sound 80's? It features an analog synthesizer melody (played on a Roland Juno 60), a bassline played on a Yamaha DX7 keyboard, a beat provided by a Linndrum mixed with real drums, a digital reverb effect on the vocals (courtesy of a Lexicon 224), heavy use of an AMS digital delay, and sequencing by a BBC Micro computer running UMI MIDI software; it was recorded on a 24-track Studer A80 analog reel to reel tape recorder and mixed on an SSL console; it is a fast tempo (169) with a I-V-iv-IV chord progression in the chorus. These traits are all common to the music of the 1980's and shall be explored in further detail throughout these articles. This article, the first, discusses instruments and how they were utilized in the 80s.

Synthesizers

The instrument most identified with the 80s. A memorable synthesized hook dominates many 80s tracks, including “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats and OMD's “Enola Gay.” Synthesized string sounds were a part of the post-punk/goth sound, used by bands such as the Cure and Joy Division. Synth brass was essential to the Minneapolis Sound (Prince), was used by rock bands such as Van Halen on “Jump,” and featured on many new wave songs such as “Don't You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds. Pads were popular in most genres, used much in the same way as a string ensemble in an orchestra (as in Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time). Ostinato sequences were common, often taking the form of arpeggios (Duran Duran's “Rio” and "Hungry Like the Wolf" are grand examples). A delay effect was often added to these synthesizer arpeggio sequences.

Guitar

The stereotypical eighties guitar tone is bright, clean, chorused, and melodic. This was usually achieved by using a guitar with a single-coil pickup (usually the Fender Stratocaster), a chorus pedal (usually the Boss CE-2), and a solid-state amplifier (usually the Roland Jazz Chorus 120, sometimes the Vox AC 30).

80s guitar is characterized by heavy use of pedals, especially chorus, flange, delay, and reverb. If the listeners can't determine if they are hearing a guitar or a synthesizer, you have succeeded. Boss pedals, new and cheap at the time, were popular and sound very 80s. MXR and Electro Harmonix pedals were also widely used. Tape echo units such as the Roland RE-201 Space Echo were often used with guitar, and sometimes vocals and keyboards. The Heet Sound EBow, a device that vibrates the strings, was responsible for some of the unique tones of artists such as Stuart Adamson of Big Country (who used an E-Bow to create the bagpipe effect on the song "In a Big Country"), Daniel Ash (Bauhaus, Love and Rockets), the Church, Kajagoogoo (on "Too Shy"), John Ashton of Psychedelic Furs, Modern English (on "I Melt With You"), A Flock of Seagulls (on "Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)"), Robert Fripp, Warren Cuccurello (Missing Persons, Duran Duran), and Will Sargent of Echo and the Bunnymen.

One particular guitar effect that was popular in the 80s was the dotted eight note delay, heard in many songs by U2 and A Flock of Seagulls. All that is required for this effect is a delay unit and basic math. You must first calculate the time per beat in milliseconds (as most delay units measure delay time in milliseconds). Use this equation (where t=tempo): (60/t)1000. Then multiply that by .75 (as a dotted eight-note is 3/4 of a beat). The result is your setting for a dotted eight delay.

Solid state amplifiers were very popular in the 80s, but tube amps were still in use. The Fender Twin Reverb was as popular in the 80s as it was in any other decade, Mesa/Boogie amps were fairly popular, the Marshall JCM 800 can be heard on many recordings of the era, and the Vox AC30 amp from the sixties experienced a revival in the 80s. However, the quintessential 80s amp is the Roland JC120. The Jazz Chorus was intended for jazz guitarists (as its name suggests) but became the amp of choice for new wave and heavy metal guitarists due to its loud and clean tones. Notable users include James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Tom Tom Club), Johnny Marr of the Smiths, David Byrne, Andy Summers, John McGeoch (Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees), Will Sargent, Billy Duffy of the Cult, Paul Reynolds of A Flock of Seagulls, and David Rhodes (Peter Gabriel, Blancmange, Random Hold).

As for the guitars, the standard models were most frequently used-Stratocasters, Telecasters, Les Pauls, etc. Lead guitars were often played in a highly melodic style and heavily processed, while rhythm guitars were often played in a funk style (Talking Heads, Devo, etc.).

Drums

When one thinks of 80s drums, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the gated reverb snare drum, most associated with Phil Collins (“Against All Odds”) and Prince (“Purple Rain”). This sound is achieved by applying a noise gate to a heavily reverbed snare drum, which abruptly cuts off the reverb, giving the drum a great punchy sound.

A notable aspect of eighties music is that drums were often heavily processed in the eighties; the most common effects were compression, delay, and reverb, usually with each piece of the kit being recorded on a different track and processed differently. Close miking the drums was the most common method to achieve this, one example being the drums on "A Forest" by the Cure. They were close miked and recorded with C-ducer contact mics, each piece of the kit with its own microphone, allowing each sound to be recorded onto a separate track and processed individually. Other times, separate overdubs were used for each drum; producer Martin Hannett (Joy Division, New Order, Magazine) used this technique often.

Programmable drum machines were a new technology in the 1980s, and became a defining element of the decade's music. The most popular models include the Linn LM-1, the Linn LM-2, the Oberheim DMX, the Emu Drumulator, the Yamaha RX-5, and the Roland TR series (especially the 808 and 909). Drum machine hand claps are synonymous with 80s dance music, heard in songs such as "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" by Dead or Alive, "Living on the Ceiling" by Blancmange, and "Faith" by George Michael.

Electronic drums, such as the Synare, achieved success in the 70s, featuring on a number of disco tracks. Steven Morris of Joy Division is credited with bringing the Synare into rock/new wave, with his signature drumming style influencing many 80s drummers. Synare drums feature on tracks such as "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes, "Vienna" by Ultravox, and "Lawnchairs" by Our Daughter's Wedding. The most popular electronic drums of the 80s are the classic Simmons drums, known for their hexagon shaped pads. The toms were especially popular; a Simmons tom fill can be heard in many pieces of music from the 80s.

A popular technique was to combine acoustic and electronic drums; this prevented the track from sounding “rigid”, which was a consequence of the robotic perfection of the drum machine. Often the drum machine would play pattern while a human drummer would add fills, overdubs, and additional percussion. One example of this is A-ha's classic track “Take on Me,” where real cymbals and hi-hats complimented the Linn drum machine's bass drum and snare beat. On the Police track "Every Breath You Take" Stuart Copeland added real percussion to a kick drum pattern provided by an Oberheim DMX. Alternatively, a human drummer may augment a beat box rhythm; Phil Collins and his acoustic kit accompanied a Roland CR-78 on “In the Air Tonight.”

As for the actual drum patterns, they were usually pretty standard, but one drum pattern particularly associated with the 80s is the “motorik” beat popularized by 1970s German bands such as Kraftwerk, NEU!, and La Dusseldorf, all of whom were instrumental in shaping the sound of the following decade. The motorik beat is a 4/4 beat characterized by a snare on beats two and four, a bass drum playing every eighth note except beats two and four, and a hi-hat playing eighths.

Bass

The bass sound most identified with the 80s is the “Slap Bass” patch (preset 12) on the Yamaha DX7 keyboard. It can be heard on tracks such as “Take on Me.”

Octave bass lines (usually played on an analog synthesizer) were common, especially in hi-NRG styles. This consists of playing a note (C2, for example), then playing the same note one octave higher on the next beat (C3), then returning to C2 on the next beat, then C3 again, etc. Examples include Kraftwerk's “Europe Endless” (recorded in the 70s, but influenced 80s music) and New Order's “Blue Monday.”


Many bands, especially “goth” types, relied on high melodic bass lines run through a series of guitar pedals. This style of playing was pioneered by Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order. Many 80s bassists, such as Simon Gallup of the Cure, were influenced by Hook's style.

Samplers

Samplers came to prominence in the 80s. The Emu Emulator II sampler defined the sound of mid-80s Depeche Mode. Rather than sample songs, as is often done today, samplers more often provided audio clips (Paul Hardcastle's “Nineteen”), simulated real instruments (the strings on “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by the Smiths), or reproduced sound effects (Depeche Mode's “People Are People”). Sampled orchestra stabs were also popular.

Unconventional Instruments

It was quite common in 80s rock and pop music to use instruments seldom seen in rock and pop styles. The saxophone was perhaps the most popular, frequently used by bands such as Huey Lewis and the News, Psychedelic Furs, Tears for Fears, Quarterflash, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins, Bruce Springsteen, Haircut 100, Wham!, Wang Chung, and the Beat. A number of Ultravox tracks featured keyboardist Billy Currie on viola. Talking Heads added African percussion to many of the tracks on Remain in Light. A cor anglais was played on Lionel Richie's “Endless Love.” Alannah Currie of Thompson Twins played vibraphone or xylophone on many of their hits. "Come on Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners had a prominent fiddle riff.

World Music

World music, or non-Western tradition music, was first combined with rock/pop in the 1960s. This practice was revived and expanded in the 80s. Peter Gabriel's “Sledgehammer” features a sampled shakuhachi, Culture Club drew inspiration from reggae and calypso music, Adam and the Ants drummer Dave Barbarossa was influenced by Burundi drumming, and Blancmange made use of Indian instruments and Eastern scales on tracks such as “Living on the Ceiling” and “Don't Tell Me.”

Studio Techniques

In the 80s there was a strong emphasis on production values, as there was a plethora of new technology introduced in this era.

Excessive reverb is essential to achieve an 80s sound. Add digital reverb to everything. When you think you have enough, add more. Digital reverb and delay units were a new technology in this era and were used extensively. Popular models include the Lexicon 244, the AMS RMX-16, and the Yamaha SPX 90.

Studio experimentation was big in the 80s, with producers such as Brian Eno, Conny Plank, Martin Hannett, and Trevor Horn creating their own signature sound through innovative techniques. Dare to break the rules sometimes. That is how all legendary producers, from Phil Spector in the 1960s to any of the aforementioned 80s producers, made their work so recognizable.

Everything was big in the 80s, including sound. This was achieved by layering sounds and instruments. Synthesizers were often layered to create a fuller sound. This was especially necessary with the earlier monophonic synthesizers, which sounded thin. The secret to fat analog 80s synth bass is layering multiple synthesizers, each one set to a slightly different bass patch. Layering could also be used to create original sounds; the Depeche Mode track “Behind the Wheel” features a Minimoog bass, layered with a sampled guitar pluck, layered with a sample of a hand hitting the end of a vacuum cleaner tube. Producer Trevor Horn made extensive use of layering to create an orchestral sound on albums such as ABC's Lexicon of Love.

By following these guidelines, any track can be made to sound as though it was recorded in the 1980s. However, you should always feel free to deviate from the rules and the norms. That is how these artists developed the 80s sound, and their own sound. This may sound cheesy (like a lot of 80s music), but the most important thing is that your music sounds like you.

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      overmatik 18 months ago

      Thank you very much for both pieces on the 80s sound. A lot of useful information as a reference guide.