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Recreating the Sound of the 90s

Updated on April 4, 2016
Nirvana, performing live in 1992.
Nirvana, performing live in 1992. | Source

The 1990s may be the last decade to bring about any sort of progress in music. Like all eras, the musical styles of this decade had a distinctive sound and characteristics. Learn how to play 90s music styles and make your band sound like it came from the age of grunge, new jack swing, early hip hop, gangsta rap, Britpop, and boy bands.

Samplers

Samplers had already been around for a while, and they are still being used, but they seem to have peaked in popularity in the 90s. Nearly everybody was using them, especially the Akai S series; producer Butch Vig even used an Akai S1000 for editing on Nirvana's Nevermind. In general, heavy use of Akai samplers will make anything sound more 90s.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails playing a keyboard.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails playing a keyboard.

Another popular sampler was the Emu Emax. It was used by Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Ice MC, Orbital, Die Krupps, Saint Etienne, and Mouse on Mars.

Sampled drum loops were popular in the 90s. This is especially true of hip-hop; samplers are responsible for the “gritty” drum sound of old school hip hop. However, drum loops can also be found in other 90s music genres, such as alternative dance. Alternative dance acts such as Jesus Jones and EMF combined indie rock with dance music, often incorporating drum loops into their sound.

Vocal samples were also popular in the 90s. Sir Mix-a-Lot's “Baby Got Back” features a sampled line of dialogue from the movie Full Metal Jacket. “Unbelievable” by EMF includes samples of comedian Andrew Dice Clay. “Mausoleum” by Manic Street Preachers contains a sample of author J.G Ballard explaining why he wrote his controversial novel Crash.

Guitars

When playing 90s music it is essential to get the right texture. Guitars were often heavily distorted with feedback, fuzz, and distortion pedals. This is particularly associated with grunge, but was present in many rock styles such as shoegaze. Popular pedals include the Pro Co Rat distortion pedal (used by Kurt Cobain, James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers, Peter Buck of REM, Dave Grohl, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine), as well as various Electro Harmonix (the Big Muff was used by bands such as Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr.), MXR, and Boss pedals. A 90s guitar tone usually sounded “sludgey” and riffs should be a bit sloppy rather than precise.

Guitars and amps were pretty standard. Fender guitars were probably the most popular, and Fender, Marshall, and Mesa Boogie amps were widely used. The Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars experienced a revival amongst alternative rock guitarists of the 90s, used by artists such as Kurt Cobain, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Shields' signature "glide guitar" sound was created by modifying the tremolo systems on these guitars.

The same is true of bass. However, one distinguishing feature of a 90s bass tone is that the bass is often run through guitar pedals (distortion, fuzz, overdrive). Also, boost the mids and highs on the EQ.

Drums

Drums were usually recorded in a large room, with little or no processing.

As previously mentioned, sampled drums were also common. Drums may be sampled from a recording, a drum machine (usually a Roland TR 808 or 909), or a live drummer.

Some popular drum samples include the break from James Brown's “Funky Drummer,” appearing in songs such as “The Boomin' System” by LL Cool J, “Jackin' for Beats” by Ice Cube, “International Bright Young Things” by Jesus Jones, “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” by Sinead O'Connor, “Scarlet Begonias” by Sublime, "Deep, Deep Trouble" by the Simpsons, and “Freedom '90” by George Michael. The break from “Ashley's Roachclip” by the Soul Searchers appears in tracks such as “Strugglin'” by 2Pac, “Unbelievable” by EMF,”First Cool Hive” by Moby, “Come Undone” by Duran Duran, and “Super Mario USA” by Ambassadors of Funk. A sample of The Incredible Bongo Band's “Apache” features in “What's It All About” by Run-DMC, “Ace is in the House” by Tone Loc, “Heliosphan” by Aphex Twin, and “Sweet Thing'” by Mick Jagger.

Drum machines weren't very popular outside of electronic dance music and new jack swing. The latter featured a drum machine such as the Emu SP-1200 or Roland TR 808 playing a “swung” hip hop beat.

Keyboards

Although keyboards weren't very popular in most of the music of the 1990's, they were used in industrial music, some pop, and the various forms of electronic dance music that became popular in the decade (house, rave, techno, acid, etc.). Commonly used keyboards include the Korg M1, Korg Prophecy, Roland SH 101, Roland JD 800, Roland JP 8000, Roland Juno 106, Access Virus, and the Clavia Nord Lead.

The piano preset on the Korg M1 synthesizer was a staple of 90s dance, featuring in tracks such a Madonna's “Vogue” The organ sound was also popular, and can be heard in tracks such as “Plastic Dreams” by Jaydee, “Show Me Love” by Robin S., and Double You's cover of “Please Don't Go.” Both the piano and organ patch were used in “Gypsy Woman” by Crystal Waters. Below is a video demonstrating some patches from the Korg M1.

It isn't technically a keyboard, but the Roland TB 303 bass synthesizer provided the bassline for much of the electronic dance music of the 90s. It was often put through distortion or overdrive pedals for a harsher sound.

If you're going for a 90s rock/pop sound, it should be more guitar based. Keyboards, if present, shouldn't be too prominent or the song may sound more like it is from the 80s or 2000s.

Fusion

It seemed to be a trend to fuse two or more musical genres. A number of 90s groups, such as Sublime and No Doubt, fused elements of ska, pop, and punk. Pop punk acts such as Blink-182 and Green Day combined the energy of punk with catchy hooks and melodies of pop. Rap rock bands such as Limp Bizkit also achieved some success, by combining elements of rock with elements of rap. New jack swing merged R&B vocals and melodies with hip hop beats. Furthermore, grunge can be considered (a bit over simplistically) as a merging of punk and heavy metal.


New jack swing group Boyz II Men combined hip hop beats with the vocal styles of rhythm and blues.
New jack swing group Boyz II Men combined hip hop beats with the vocal styles of rhythm and blues.

Other tips

Common lyrical themes of the nineties include angst, anger, apathy, and alienation. This is applicable to most genres.

Songs were usually harmonically simple, relying on mostly power chords and major and minor triads. The overused pop-punk chord progression (I-V-iv-IV) and its variant, the sensitive female chord progression (iv-IV-I-V) was quite common; examples include “Dammit” by Blink-182, “Today” by the Smashing Pumpkins, “When I Come Around” by Green Day, “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Head Over Feet” by Alanis Morissette, “Love is On the Way” by Celine Dion, “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John, “One of Us” by Joan Osbourne, “Zombie” by the Cranberries, and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins, and "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails (beginning on the V chord).

A lot of 90s songs feature a shift in dynamics; this is especially associated with grunge. One example is “Heart Shaped Box” by Nirvana, in which the chorus is significantly louder than the verses.

The feel of 90s MIDI sequencing is usually attributed to an Atari computer running Cubase, as this was the most popular setup. It would be difficult to faithfully replicate with more modern equipment, so you should consider purchasing an Atari ST computer if you want a retro MIDI sequenced sound.

As for recording, production, and mixing, 90s tracks were recorded on DAT and mixed on an analog mixing board. A lot of compression was used, but 90s songs sounded less compressed than those recorded in the 21st century. Use reverb sparingly, or your mix may sound too 80s. Overall, your song shouldn't sound too polished.

By applying these traits to your music, you can write songs with a vintage vibe and recreate the sound of the 1990s.

What is the greatest 90s band?

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