We Built This City – A Look at the Tools That Made the 80s
It’s always a funny thing, hearing a solid back-and-forth about music gear. The repetitive and enthusiastically shared sentiments of, “Ooh!”, “Oh, man!”, and “Oh baby!” moments that you’re likely to hear in such a conversation can either be off-putting or downright irritating to a bystander who has no emotional connection to what’s being discussed. Really, who could possibly care THAT much about where a drum beat came from or why a synthesizer would be so sought after and worth thousands of dollars?
Which is why for Synconation’s 80s Week, I chose to focus my article on some of the many pieces of music gear that were widely used in the 80s and continue to be used and embraced to this day. Hopefully after reading this article, you’ll be able to see what some of the hubbub is for when you hear or read about people talking your favorite 80s artists using a certain piece of gear. I also hope to break Synconation’s record of “Most YouTube Videos in a Blog Post!”
I will also say that this article is one of the more comprehensive pieces that I’ve done. I realize that there is a vast array of musical equipment that one could potentially spend hours, days, or even weeks listing items for a piece such as this. But it is for precisely that reason that I chose only a select few to highlight from this versatile, musical era. Be that as it may, this turned out to be quite the undertaking. Hopefully, you’ll find all of this as informative and interesting as I did!
DISCLAIMER: This post contains multiple references to various jargon, technical mumbo jumbo, and all-around gear-head hoopla that may or may not be of interest to you. Reader be warned!
Well… Now that that’s out in the ether, let’s get started, shall we?
I’ve always gotten this roboticized sort of feeling whenever I listen to music from the 80s. So much music from that time period almost feels too accurate and precise to be true. This may be due, partially, to the advent of the drum machine and its wide use during the 80s. The first drum machines predate the 80s by about 50 years give or take, with the initial concepts having been developed by minds such as Leon Theremin (inventor of the groovy theremin) and Henry Cowell (see his Rhythmicon). With impeccable accuracy, musicians and engineers of the 80s were able to program complex and hard-hitting drum patterns, thus accomplishing what a drummer may not have been able to realistically perform while at the same time saving money by not having to hire a session drummer in the studio. As is the case with so many of the instruments in this article, I only chose a select few to highlight.
Ahh, the 808! Possibly one of the most popular drum machines used to date. You and I know the 808 for its incredibly fat kick drum sound in practically any hip hop music you listen to today. Hip hop’s forefathers took notice of the 808 and subsequently put it to use for them. Heavy hitters like Run DMC, Afrikaa Bambataa, and Beastie Boys all made good use of the 808 to create hard-hitting party beats that went on to make those groups rich and famous. While the sounds on the 808 were hardly reminiscent of a live drum kit, it did offer its own personality with its warm and at times comical (check out the cow bell on it!) voices that it was capable of producing.
Roger Linn is known for helping to revolutionize the way that musicians made music in the 80s. His famous LinnDrum drum machines were instrumental (no pun intended) in crafting that “drum sound” that people instantly recognize from the 80s. The LinnDrum series of drum machines allowed the user to program a variety of beat sequences, up to 56 patterns, using 35kHz drum amples such as bass, snare, hi-hat, and more. The LinnDrum machines were favorites among pop icons of the day and you can hear their distinct sounds on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Prince’s “I Would Die For U”, and Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” to name a few.
One of my personal favorite drum machines from the neon era would have to be the Oberheim DMX. Note the fact that this drum machine stands out with 8 level sliders which allow the user to seamlessly mix in and out various drum voices (i.e. the kick drum, the snare, the hi-hate, and so forth). While not as seemingly robust as the LinnDrum, this bad boy offered 24 fat drum sounds and allowed the user to program up to 100 sequences and 50 songs. While this device garnered more and more attention from the then-pubescent hip hop community towards the end of the decade, the DMX found a home in the hands of bands such as The Thompson Twins, Prince, and New Order (see New Order’s Blue Monday). This device still gets some play today! Just listen to New Jersey native Com Truise’s brand of sci-fi funk to hear the drum samples in a modern context!
Digital and Analog Synthesizers!
No gear list from the 80s would ever be complete without the mention of everybody’s favorite iconic instrument: the synthesizer! The synthesizer has had a long and exciting history as technology progressed. It’s important to distinguish the difference between the two kinds of synthesizers we’re talking about here. Let’s start with the basics:
- When we refer to a digital synthesizer, we’re talking about a synth that uses a processor to send digital signals (series of 1s and 0s) to create sounds. Think of a digital synth as a kind of computer, in a way.
- When we refer to an analog synthesizer, we’re talking about a synth that relies on specific analog circuitry to create a specific sound.
Both types of synthesizers have their own set of unique characteristics, where digital synthesizers are generally known for having a more “cold” and “icy” sound whereas analog synths are revered for their “warmth” and “fat” sounds. There are differing opinions as to what technology is superior and the owners of those opinions will readily argue their points to the ends of the earth. Fortunately for you, I won’t delve into that realm in this post, but it may help to distinguish between the two when you hear songs that use either analog or digital synthesizers.
Yamaha’s DX7 synthesizer proved to be an incredibly popular instrument in the 1980s. With their DX series, Yamaha introduced a new form of digital synthesis called “frequency modulation” or FM. Without going into too much technical detail, frequency modulation refers to the way that the timbre of a waveform can be changed by a modulated frequency in the same audio range. If you’re nerdy and want to know more, feel free to do some extra reading on this subject. In the case of the DX7, this allowed a user to program surprisingly fat, percussive sounds and warm strings for a digital synthesizer. I should know, I own one! The synth’s icey, percussive sounds have been notoriously used by R&B acts but have also been used by famous artists such as Level 42, The Cure, and Synconation favorite, Phil Collins!
If you’ve been alive for the past two decades or so and still haven’t heard of a Moog synthesizer, then you should probably crawl back under the rock that you came from. You’re not ready for the world yet.
Bob Moog, the founder of Moog Music, invented the world’s first analog syntheszier in the 1960s. Since then it has had a numerous amount of stylistic applications ranging from experimental avant-garde, to modern day house music. In the 1980s, the MiniMoog in particular was sought after for it’s thick, juicy bass lines that it was capable of producing. The MiniMoog was a monophonic synthesizer (meaning that you could only play one note at a time) but over time modules were developed that allowed for polyphony (you guessed it, multiple notes at a time). It was also a favorite in the disco scene for its amazing, squealing lead sounds that you could get from it. Musicians also lusted after this instrument for its gorgeously constructed wood body. Innovative, sturdy, and chock full of flexibility, the MiniMoog was a huge hit in the 80s, and also helped to make hits for people like Michael Jackson, Blondie, and Yes.
For me, some of the sounds that I loved most about the 80s were the amazing, synthetic, atmospheric, swirling pads and strings. Such warmth and fatness really give those songs a life in itself. One synth that was able to accomplish this in spades, was Roland’s magnificent JUNO 60. Talk about warmth and fatness, this analog baby [opp! there’s my “Oh, baby” moment! (see above)] boasted 6 voices of polyphony, two chorus effects, and a host of other features that made this synth one heck of a classic. This highly sought-after synthesizer was used by big names such as The Cure, A-Ha, and Flock of Seagulls (<– haha they use Myspace…).
So as I mentioned in the outset, there were simply TOO many pieces of equipment to list and far too little time to stuff it all into one post. But I would be remiss to if I were to fail to mention 80s favorites such as gated reverb (while not technically an instrument, this audio effect made 80s drums sound the way they do) and the digital sampler, such as the uber-cool Fairlight computer. Dig this video of Herbie Hancock making some jams on the Fairlight!
It really is funny when you think about how much an era can impact someone who has the least bit of chronological attachment to it. I see kids younger than I am (I was a kid in the 80s) wearing the clothes, making the art, and now, making the same music with the same instruments that kids in the 80s used. I guess it just shows that life truly is a cyclical thing. And what we do with the tools we use to build and define who we are as a generation today might just earn us a dedicated week on someone’s blog in the future.
Whatever happens, if we ever get to this point again, someone PLEASE have the decency to end my life for me. Cool? Thanks.