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Why Synthesizers Dominated the Eighties

Updated on October 23, 2014

"No one cares, no one sympathizes. We just sit at home playing synthesizers"

--Flight of the Conchords

Author Simon Reynolds of "One Nation Under Moog" reminded me of the fact that synthesizers started really emerging in the sixties. If you think of Pink Floyd’s early Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the melting psychedelia is provided mostly by guitar riffs and of course the legendary Syd Barrett. By ’69 with the release of Dark Side, the band slowly transitioned to full-blown synth music or Art Rock (keeping music tools Syd left out). Prior to the sixties, synthesizers had been “expensive” and “hard to handle (History Of Synth Pop). The first useful ones were made in the 1960s by Robert Moog and Don Buchla, which were analogue or controlled by moving controls.

The MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, was agreed upon by musical manufacturers in 1983. This protocol allowed sounds by any MIDI controller, like a drum pad or keyboard, to be recorded on computer sequencing software. The software could be edited and played back on another MIDI instrument, allowing one person to play different musical parts at once. Home-based studios were now more possible, and this growing technology also allowed keyboards to become smaller and convenient.

“What once cost as much as a small house became something you could buy for a hundred quid…groups who’d been inspired by punk’s confrontational rhetoric and sartorial provocations but who found the actual sonic substance of punk rock to be too ye ‘ol Rock and Roll seized on the cheapo synth as the real coming of ‘do-it-yourself.’” (Reynolds)

Cue the flood of British artists so prevalent in the 80’s—Human League, Flock of Seagulls, Depeche Mode. These British acts entered the U.S. with guidance to give, like an older sister teaching her baby sis the ways of fashion. Author of Are we Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Run of the 1980s Theo Cattoris explains that these foreign artists were underground from the main American radio, making them seem ‘modern’. The U.K. artists would dominate TV, learning how music could be a complete package with MTV on deck (case in point, the first MTV music video being “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles).

In addition to the British flooding America, music advanced with technology. As more and more genres expanded, they also began to overlap. This is why the odd mixture of Aerosmith and Run DMC would prove magical in their remake of “Walk this Way.” Synthesizers “became the main ingredient” (Cattoris 64) because of the cheaper synths available.

About five months ago, my Yamaha keyboard I have had since the age of twelve decided it wanted to die. After trying to repair it—literally taking it apart and welding noticeable cracks in its metal together—I realized its fate, but haven’t been the same since. I haven’t been able to record or finish any of my songs, because while I like playing my guitar it just doesn’t seem complete without the variety of sounds my Yamaha used to provide. It had the sounds of every instrument, around 100 different rhythm loops, and seven different synthesizer settings.

Because of the development of cheap keyboards in the eighties, artists like myself have the opportunity to create. They transformed Pop music in addition to other genres. I can’t wait to buy another one and get back to songwriting!

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