An Exploration Into The Drums, Sounds And Effects Of Synthwave Music

The synth is back. Not the instrument per se, that’s a staple in any electronic music production. But the sound. The huge Vangelis-like chords drenched in plate reverb and jangly chorus. Everything we consciously or subconsciously connect with “that 80s” sound has slowly been coming back in the past few years under the umbrella of Synthwave. Closely connected to the so-called Outrun aesthetic, this genre has exploded over the electronic music scene.

With its origins in the early 2000s and artists like Kavinsky creating a new but very retro sound, acts like Justice, Com Truise or M83 were soon very successful. But it was the soundtrack to Drive that brought the Synthwave sound to the masses. And then the Stranger Things intro. And then all of Blade Runner 2049 And then … It’s everywhere!
Today we’ll show you how to do your own synthwave epic.

This is what we’ll be building: Today we’ll show you how to do your own synthwave epic.

Drums

As much as Roland’s gigantic trifecta (?) of 707, 808 and 909 is held to be the most important electronic drum sound, that is far from the truth in Synthwave. If you think big sounds, 80s ballads and huge tom fills, there can only be one drum machine: the Linndrum.

Manufactured only between 1982 and 1985, it was all over 80s pop. Its thunderous “thung” tom sounds can be heard in songs like “Shout” from Tears for Fears, “Take on me” from A-ha and “Rela” from Frankie goes to Hollywood.

The LinnDrum sound was EVERYWHERE. Buying a used one today will surely cost you your Christmas money of the next ten years, but luckily we’ve got the internet and people who love to sample everything the get their hands on. And even release it for free. Like the plug- in makers Wave Alchemy did on their 8th birthday two years ago

Since Synthwave is – you guessed it – all about the synths, the drums need to leave room. No polyrhythmic shenanigans in this genre. Each hit of kick and snare needs to leave loads of space in between. But first things first: the tempo. Each genre has its typical BPM range. Synthwave sits between 100 and 120 BPM.

The drum programming in Synthwave is all about the tom fills. The rhythm of the beat is super simple with snare and kick playing quarter notes respectively and the Hihat either playing eighths or sixteenth notes. Like so:

Now for the tom fills. Since there is so much space between each beat in each measure, these fills can be long. And typically are. Let’s create two. That we’ll sparsely – SPARSLEY! – use throughout our track. Why just two? As much as a drum fill is supposed to break up things and lead transitions, it quickly gets very confusing if you do a different one each time. We’re not doing prog.

Fill 1 is just a little break that we’ll use every four bars in the verse section to keep things interesting.

Fill 2 is a bigger, longer one that leads into the chorus. We’ve kept it similar to Fill1, to kind of deceive the listener.

Effects

Gated-reverb. No other spatial effect is as iconic as the cutoff reverb tail on 80s snares and therefore in nostalgia drenched Synthwave, we mustn’t forget it. The basic principle is that you put a noise gate effect behind your reverb send. A noise gate is typically used on live drums and vocals. It cuts of everything below a certain level.

We’ll use Ableton Live’s Convolution Reverb Pro with an impulse response from the digital Reverb Lexicon 480L, another staple of 80s sound (you’ve seen the white box (?? On just about every picture of a studio console from that era). After the plugin we’ll put the gate effect and set the threshold to a level that ensures that the reverb is audibly cut off before the next snare hit. Viola gated-reverb.

At the end of the article we’ve put all the project file, the racks and midi-files up for you to download.

Synths

With the 80s being THE synthesizer decade there were many iconic synths: the E-MU Emulator II, the Korg Polysix, Yamahas DX7, many OBERHEIM synths and the Juno and Jupiter series from Roland among others. Since we can’t buy them or all the plugins, let’s try to re-create the analogish-ness with Ableton’s stock synths. Analog as in the synth sounds should have a certain amount of irregularity in terms of pitch, distortion and velocity. And chorus. Loads of chorus.

The Bass

We’ll try to stay in Moog-land for this one. Many Synthwave basses follow a similar pattern in terms of sound and melody. The monophonic Minimoog is a staple. We’ll use Ableton’s soft synth Analog. How fitting.

We’ll use saw waves on both oscillators and detune the second one slightly to introduce the first part where things are moving. Then we’ll send both oscillators into Filter 1, where a typical LP24 filter filters out the highs. We’ll set the cutoff at about 1 kHz and apply an envelope with a very quick attack, the sustain all the way up and a reasonably short decay. Also we’ll add another envelope to modulate Filter 1, with a quick Attack, no sustain and a short release. The decay setting will determine how big of bass will get through.

To add all to that irregularity, we’ll set LFO1 to a relatively slow speed, with a noise wave, which will make it wonderfully random. The pitch, cutoff, panning and level will all be modulated by this LFO in very tiny amounts, around 0.02% each. Much more would just result in noise.

Since we’re computer music wizards, not Keith Emerson, we’ll also at an Arpeggiator as a MIDI device to play eighth notes for us. Again, we’re aiming for a bit of chaos, so after the arpeggiator, we’ll add a “Velocity” device, that randomizes the velocity of the incoming MIDI notes a bit in a set range. Viola, the bass.

The Pad

The general mood of synthwave tracks of one of longing, of being lost and driving aimlessly. Thus we need driving (ha!) chords. Not in a rhythmic sense, but we need them huge, to fill up that void and we need them moving, so our thoughts can wander with them, while staring out the window.

Analog will again be the synth of our choice here. First we’ll set both oscillators to saw waves with Osc 2 an octave higher and a slight detuning. That alone brings a bit of phasey movement. Then we’ll use the LP24 filter to take out the Highs and set a filter envelope with a slow attack so the filter will audibly open. Don’t forget to set the filter envelope amount in the filter settings for this.

For the amp envelope we’ll use a classic pad setting with long attack and release times, so the chords will mesh into each other. Both LFOs will be used with fast, chaotic settings, but very minimal amounts on pitch, cutoff, panning and volume. Movement to the next level! Finally, we’ll add a pretty noticeable amount of vibrato, raise the Unison amount to its maximum, increase both the maximum voices to 16 and the unison voices to 4. Now, that is a beast of a pad machine!

To further increase the amount of analogishness, we’ll add an effects chain, with a saturator, a Chorus, an Auto-Filter with the OSR-Filter’s drive turned up, and a reverb (all stock plug- ins). And to take it to the next level, we’ll put this chain into a instrument rack (group it with STRG/CMD+G), double it, pan both pad machines left and right respectively and add a simple delay to just one side, with very short delay times. Can’t get much wider than that! Besides the usual EQ and compression we’ll also add the one modern music production technique that’s all over Synthwave: Sidechain. Audible, pumping sidechain compression.

Lead

For the Lead, we’ll keep it simple.

To differentiate it from the pad, we’ll use square waves, instead of saw waves. Again, with slight detunings, a relatively strong lowpass filter, and an amp envelope that has a pretty low sustain, so the sound pokes out of the arrangement in the beginning of each note.

Vibrato and LFO modulation is also all over the place, but we have also added a bit of Glide, to further set the sound apart from the pad. Then it’s reverb, Saturator, Pedal, another Reverb, a pretty wacky preset in Live 10’s new delay wunderkind Echo, and again some EQ and compression to stabilize all that Analog (ha!) chaos.

Arrangement

We’ve kept this to a pretty standard song structure with intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus- bridge-chorus. This and the arrangement of the instruments kind of ask for some angelic singing, but we’ve got the cold and Tom Waits-like growling wouldn’t really work here, so stop asking for vocals, this it, thank you very much.

We added volume automation in just about every track, some aditional automaion on EQ8’s low pass filter for the pad. Keep it moving.

This is a starting point. Synthwave has strong roots in 80s synth genres, with modern production techniques all over it. The analog synth sound, that audible irregularity in pitch and loads of chorus and reverb are what makes this sound. Have fun!

 Julian Schmauch

Julian Schmauch

Contributor

Julian is a Sound Designer, Remixer and Audio-production-teacher based in Berlin. He also freelance writes for some of Germany’s biggest music and music production blogs like Tonspion, Bonedo, and Prettyinnoise. And sometimes he plays the drums like Animal in his Band Chaos Commute. 

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