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80s Pop Production

80s pop manages to have both a complex and yet uniform sound. It was still largely based on traditional elements from rock, funk, etc. (drums, guitar, bass and vocals). The bass and guitar were often heavily influenced by funk (‘My Own Way’ by Duran Duran and ‘Pretty Young Thing’ by Michael Jackson are two examples of this).

Roland Jupiter 8 (Used on Thriller, Rio and many other records)

However, on top of those traditional elements, or occasionally in place of them, were electronic sounds that had previously been reserved to more niche genres or artists (Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre, for example). It was the first time that synths like the Roland Jupiter 8 (used on Thriller and Rio), Yamaha DX7 and Mini Moog, as well as drum machines such as the Linndrum (used on Thriller), Oberheim DMX and the, now wildly famous, Roland TR-808, had entered the mainstream in a big way. But, it was also before they diverged from mainstream pop into there own electronic genres in the 90s. It also came at an interesting point in the timeline of synthesizers as the early 80s was when digital synths, like the DX7, started to replace analogue synths: the Mini Moog, Jupiter, SH-101, etc (which had been used since the late 60s).

The Yamaha DX7 was the first successful digital synth and changed the way music was made

Glam Rock and ‘Hair Metal’ were also popular at the time and influenced pop. That influence often came in the form of massive, screaming guitar solos (for example the solos throughout Prince’s 1984 album ‘Purple Rain’ and the Eddie Van Halen solo on ‘Beat It’). This style of guitar solo was created with a high output humbucker, usually on a Les Paul or Super Strat, with a floating style bridge (in order to achieve the immense pitch modulation and dives) and an extreme amount of distortion.

Eddie Van Halen playing alongside Michael Jackson

Possibly the most famous/infamous and recognisable production technique of 80s pop is gated reverb. Gated reverb was most commonly used on drums (specifically snare and toms). It allows you to create a sense of massive ambience without flooding the mix with reverb that tails on for too long, muddying the mix. The technique was discovered accidentally by Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and their audio engineer Hugh Padgham when the drums went through the talk mic on the studio’s new mixing desk. The talk mic had a gate followed by heavy compression causing the natural reverb from the room to be amplified and suddenly cut off. It became a defining technique throughout the 80s after the first digital reverb units came equipped with the effect as a preset: making it much easier to achieve the sound. Prince was especially fond of the sound and it’s noticeable across his music from the 80s but it’s possibly most prominent on the title track to his previously mentioned album ‘Purple Rain’.

These production techniques and the overall style of 80s pop is still influencing current music. It inspired relatively new genres like Outrun, Retrowave and Synthwave that first started in the mid-2000s with artists like Kavinsky and later became massively popular in the 2010s after being prominently featured in films and TV shows (Kavinsky in the 2011 film ‘Drive’ and S U R V I V E who created the soundtrack for Netflix’s hit show ‘Stranger Things’ in 2016). These artists still use techniques/equipment from this period of pop such as gated reverb, a similar style of guitar solos as well as a lot of the same hardware synths. However, most (if not all) artists now use digital interfaces, DAWs and some digital emulations of analogue synths and equipment to record and produce their music rather than tape due to the flexibility and ease of use that a digital workflow provides.

Kavinsky was one of the first artists credited with starting the revival of 80s style music

Digital was still in an early stage of development and hadn’t yet been adopted by larger studios so 80s pop was still almost entirely recorded fully analogue on tape. This was generally 24 track, although 16 and 12 track formats were also occasionally used (for example the entire rhythm section for Thriller was recorded on 16 track as the noise floor on the 24 track was too high). Since digital systems like Pro Tools were introduced there has been a debate about whether analogue or digital is better. Some claim that tape has a warm sound caused by subtle, natural distortion and compression that can’t be replicated digitally. However, tape has many disadvantages, namely: it degrades over time, its sound can be affected by environmental factors like humidity and temperature, it’s limited to 24 tracks, it can be very expensive and takes up a lot of space. Roger Taylor (Duran Duran’s drummer) said that, due to the nature of tape, he’d often have to start over on a 5 minute take because overdubbing small mistakes was too difficult.

The 24 track tape machine was the best way of recording music for a large portion of the twentieth century

Overall, new technology such as synths and drum machines entering mainstream popularity gave 80s pop a futuristic sound that continues to influence modern music.