A Guide to Synthwave: Part I -Beginnings

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By Jack

The synthesiser has become so central to the sound of popular music that it is ubiquitous in almost every genre. It has proven an easy and relativity cheap way to embellish a track, and can communicate a wide variety of emotions.

However ‘synthwave’, a burgeoning sub-genre of electronic music, is dedicated to the synthesiser. Here the beat, bassline, harmony and chorus are all played on various analogue or emulated synthesisers and drum machines.

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Tracing the roots of synthwave is difficult. It stems back to the first use of the synthesiser.

The Hammond Organ, for example, was one of the first popular instruments capable of additive synthesis. Here ‘sine waves’, considered to be the building blocks of sound, are combined to produce a particular effect. Any complex sound can be made up of these smaller terms, and this is essentially how an organ works, by combining different pipes to produce a larger timbre. It allows a single instrument to play the equivalent of an ensemble.

However the origin of synthwave rests in three crucial soundtracks which were among the first to realise the instruments’ true potential. Blade Runner by Vangelis, Halloween by John Carpenter, and Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack for Midnight Express.

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In these three albums, you can hear the core essence of synthwave music. Droning basslines, synth harmonies and a moody atmosphere. The distinct sounds of these three projects are based around three central machines: the Yamaha CS-80 (Blade Runner)Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 (Halloween) and the Moog Modular (Midnight Express). These iconic sounds, through emulation and imitation, remain at the emotional core of synthwave.

Whilst synth music exploded with movements such as new wave and the new romantics, some still pioneered the use of the synthesiser as the basis of a composition, rather than as an accoutrement. Phillip Glass, Tangerine Dream and especially Jean-Michel Jarre continued to experiment with an expansive sound.

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The 80s came to an end and interest in synth music waned. The sound of youth culture moved on to grunge, indie rock and hip-hop. However by the mid-noughties there was already a generation of young musicians who had grown up on B-movies and arcade games, and wanted to recapture that sound.

Deciding on a particular track or artist that kick-started the synth resurgence is almost impossible. Certainly one of the earliest and most enduring synthwave tracks is ‘So Electric’ by LIFELIKE, released in 2007.

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At six minutes it’s a little over-stretched, but the synthetic bassline and non-conventional structure are unmistakable.

This was followed up by one of the most important works of the genre, Secret Diary by College in 2008.

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Secret Diary is a gorgeous album, and stands up to this day, but it is especially notable for it’s title track which is a clear early and alternate version of the song that would feature in the film Drive, and truly kick-off the scene.

This article is part 1 of 3. You can read part 2 here.

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