Audio In Pictures – Sounds of the 80’s Part 1

The photo above shows a city in the late evening, glowing with thousands of small light sources increasing in density towards the horizon. The highlight of this image is the red and white trails of light twisting and turning off into the distance, almost like streams of energy running through the landscape. It gives off a somewhat futuristic vibe as these ominous yet vibrant energy streams flow, untethered to the physical world. We wanted to represent this feeling in the form of a music track, that’s why for this week’s post we decided to explore and create the retro-futuristic aesthetic of Synthwave.

A Key to The Past

Synthwave is a genre that draws heavy inspiration from music and soundtracks from the 1980’s, it’s aesthetically infused with vibrant neon colours and night life culture, and perfect for listening to while driving in a car at night. Its attempts to sonically represent the concept of ‘cool’ and ‘nostalgic’ calls back to those movies in the 80’s where synthesizers and drum machines featured heavily in the creation of their soundtracks. In this post, we’re going to break down how we created a track inspired by this aesthetic.

First, we began with the most important element of this track, the bass. The sound consists of a saw wave being passed through a low pass filter with a fast envelope applied to give the sound its attack. Effects were added such as a flanger, a chorus, a small amount of distortion, a short reverb and a dimension expander to give the sound some subtle width. The purpose of the flanger and chorus was to add slow textural movement to the bass to keep it interesting. A multiband compressor was used to balance the bass and high end of the sound and a subtle EQ was used to control the frequency content more surgically. The result sounded close to bass commonly heard in the Synthwave genre.

After the bass sound was completed we moved on to the drums, the kick and snare were samples taken from a LinnDrum, a drum machine that was manufactured in the 1980’s. The kick sounded good without any processing, however a small amount of EQ was applied to accentuate the thump and transient of the sample. The snare required much more work to fit it to the track, the LinnDrum sample was lacking in presence and had a soft transient, therefore a separate snare was high passed and layered over the top to add what the initial sample was missing, post processing began with a compressor to add more of a snap to the sound, as well as a transient shaper to increase the attack and decrease the sustain by a very small amount. A combination of algorithmic and convolution reverbs were used, then gated to cut the tail just before each kick. The gated reverb technique was very commonly used in the 80’s for snare sounds, they are an excellent way of filling empty space within a track without letting the reverb bleed into other elements, such as the kick drum. For transitions, we used a simple sweeping white noise riser with a high passed EQ, convolution reverb and a delay.

For the pad sound, pulsewidth modulation (PWM) was used to create a supersaw-like sound with two square (pulse) waves detuned slightly. The PWM utilised two LFOs looping at different speeds to control the width of the square waves independently of one another, this gave the sound some timbral movement to prevent it from becoming too repetitive to the ear. A low pass filter was used with an envelope applied to give the sound more of a stab quality, this also prevented the high end of the sound from ringing out for too long, as well as adding dynamics to the sound.

The final musical element for this piece was the lead, this was made with two detuned saw waves with a low pass filter, the filter was modulated by an envelope in the same way as the pad, however the resonance was dialled to a higher value to give the sound a sort of brassy texture, like a synthesised trumpet. The effects used for this synth were a flanger, a dimension expander, a chorus, delay and reverb, with a multiband compressor and EQ for processing. A technique was used to achieve a pumping delay effect with the use of sidechaining. The synth was routed to two different mixer channels, one of the channels contained the final sound, while another contained the same sound but with a delay effect added with 100% wetness. The signal from the former channel was used as a sidechain trigger for a compressor on the latter channel, which meant that whenever the original synth was playing, the level of the delay is reduced to near silence, however when the synth stops, the sidechain releases and the delayed signal increases in level, so the delay is only present whenever the original sound is not being triggered.

Rewind the Tape

Check back next week for part 2, where we explain how the introductory soundscape for the track came together, how it was inspired by the image above, and some thoughts on the composition of the music track.