– How 80s music influenced the session musician landscape –

Or: keyboards = 80s music band in a box

Welcome to my book report and personal interpretation of the electronic evolution of music that led to what we know as the 80s sound.  There will be no quiz at the end. This is up your alley if you’ve ever wondered why some of the most popular songs of all time – many of which stem from the 80s – sounded really different from the chart toppers of previous decades. This might also be REALLY BORING if parts of pop music’s history are not of interest.  I’ll try to keep it as moderately interesting as possible.  I mean, come on.  Who DOESN’T want to know where that sound at the beginning of “Beat It” came from?  Or which synthesizer generated That Opening Sound in Rush’s “Tom Sawyer?” Or how to recreate the iconic opening to Van Halen’s “Jump?”

…. oh.  Most everyone?  uhh.  Well then!  I’m going to ramble on for a while and you’re invited to stay for story hour!

Stay a while and listen

Back in the “olden days” of recorded music, the moving parts to getting something on repeatable medium was an interesting prospect.  A space to record in, Nigeria’s deficit’s worth of recording equipment, and ridiculously talented musicians hand picked by people in suits who believed they had “the ear.”  What we now consider to be Nashville’s national export.  From that point forward, a variety of different types of music would make their way onto wax cylinder/tape, albums crafted and sold, and the industry churned.  One of the things that made all that possible was the musician.  Enter the performer!

The big bands of the 50s, small bands of the 60s, the big and small bands of the 70s.  With the exception of a few preposterously talented multi-instrumentalist folks like Prince Rogers Nelson (Prince), Georgios Kyriacos Panayiutou (George Michael), Thomas Earl Petty, or Michael Trent Reznor – plus others I’m failing to mention – making an album required lots of bodies.  Many performers.  Drums, bass, horns, strings, guitars, ukuleles, lutes, horns, pipes, lyres, trigons, and every kind of music.  Someone had to play those instruments.  They took up space, studio time, amenities, and mostly: money.

As nice as it would be for altruism to exist in the world of music for the sake of the music, the bottom line was the bottom line.  Record label executives – like any other business person – wanted the highest return on their investment.  Spend less, earn more.  Rinse and repeat.  The end.

Another rationale behind synthesis: reliability.  Plug in a performance via a sequencer and it’s exactly the same every time.  Consistency and speed = $$$.

Things started to get a little interesting when the concept of synthesis as a musical instrument was found to be viable.

Side note: Yes.  George Michael was preposterously talented.  Any live instruments you heard on any of his albums were reportedly performed by him.  Isn’t that wild??

Synthesize this

We’re going to gloss over a BIT (read: a ton) of the history.  The importance of the Hammond Organ Company’s “Novachord” in the late 1930s cannot be overstated, as well as the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer in the late 50s.  The latter of those two used punched paper tape for sound recreation.  Cue the ticker-tape parade except it’s more like boxes of form-feed paper.  Which is heavy and cumbersome.  It would also look really weird in a parade.  Moving right along, we are going to jump a bit later to the 60s where synthesizer technology was more -accessible- to more than one or two people.

Enter Robert Moog’s “Moog Synthesizer.”  If you’re not able to presently go and view this demonstration by the incomparable digital music pioneer Wendy Carlos, picture if you will what looks like a telephone operator’s switchboard.  If you’re of a newer generation and have never seen one of those, think of an IT closet with a billion routers, each of which has an ethernet cable plugged into it.  Closest equivalent I can think of.  One of these years I’ll figure out how to embed pictures.

The Moog Synthesizer was composed of modules that took an initial sound and cascaded it through different modules to change it.  The end result: new instrument!  The sounds that were generated by the Moog were unlike anything else at the time.  Its little brother – the Minimoog – coming to market in 1970 suddenly made synthesis accessible to more people as it was actually sold in music stores.  Their predecessors could not be so easily used.

Availability is king

If availability is king, then the plebeians are not likely to revolt.  The land of plenty is where the intersection of desire and capability thrives.  There are several units that are considered to be the foundation of the 80s lexicon.  Here’s a small itemization of some of them.

The Synclavier. First developed in the late 70s, its model II brought with it easier use with the availability of a built-in keyboard.  People whose parents forced them into piano lessons during their childhood suddenly found a new lease on life for previously dormant skills.

The Yamaha DX7.  You might not know its name but you’ve heard it more than you realize.  The DX7 came in a form factor that was easy to use which helped foster widespread adoption.  At just under $2,000 1983 Earth Dollars, artists were able to access fantastic new tone banks without robbing their cash banks.  The DX7 continues to enjoy used market trading and recording to this day.

The Roland Jupiter-8.  Compared to the DX7, the Jupiter-8 lived up to its namesake certainly in the way that its size dwarfed Yamaha’s outing.  Released in 1980, it was significantly more expensive at $5,300 and arguable lived up to its cost.  Its advanced set of features made for different and thicker sound capabilities and it was also found on countless studio recordings of the era.

The Oberheim OB-X.  Roughly as expensive as the Jupiter-8, the Oberheim offering brought sound creation in a completely different manner than what was available by any other options at the time.  Many pop artists utilized the availability of this machine and it can be heard in some of the most iconic albums ever conceived.

There are SO MANY MORE that built the 80s music sound that we could dive into.  The Linndrum machine. Roland’s D50 (one of my absolute favorites). Korg M1. PPG Wave. Roland Juno.  Fairlight CMI.  Maybe another entry could be crafted to dive into those examples but for now this is a good place to start.

What makes it t(h)ick

I was going to make a joke about Clock Cycles as a component of what makes these things tick but that would be silly so I’m not going to do that.  Instead, let’s review the “fatness” of the sounds that come out.

The easy sound is: Layers.  Just like when you put on seven coats to survive a waddle across the street in Quebec City during the dead of winter, when you pile on layers of synthesizer sound you end up with a massive sonic landscape that fills frequency ranges and stays there.  The proverbial thickness of something whose viscosity measurement you can’t actually tangibly take but the feeling is there nonetheless.

Ultra nerd warning: A more technical explanation would have to do with some of the synthesizers utilizing more than one oscillator.  Two wave forms layered together with one or the other having an ever so slightly wavering pitch create a larger sounding beast.  I -really- want to get into more detail on that but this is a blog.  Trying to explain sound thickness in a blog is like trying to tell someone why a 7th chord sounds so good without demonstrating it.  In the absence of my own video demonstrating, please bring your gaze to this fantastic demonstration over on the Tube of Yous.

In the context of 80s music, this tracks (no pun intended) due to the larger than actual life sound that was already prevalent in the live instrument category.  Double triple quad guitar recordings to give a sense of massive walls of amplifiers.  Drums that had what is called “gated reverb” to make them sound HUGE while not actually being any larger or smaller than they were or recorded in any different of a studio. Vocal reverb for miles.  The thickness capabilities of synthesizers fit like a glove.

Popular music examples

This is the fun part.  Now we get to link to where you’ve heard these sounds before.  This also means you’re still with me.  Yay!

Rush – Tom Sawyer.  Vocals aside, it’s difficult to get through a life of music without hearing this song at least once.  The Oberheim synthesizer makes this opening sound possible.  It is also responsible for several other Rush classic pieces.  The Camera Eye is another example of Oberheim’s vast arsenal.

Michael Jackson – Beat It.  Again with the intros.  The opening sound is a factory patch of the Synclavier.  The sound engineers all wanted everything to be unqiue on the sonic landscape.  Michael Jackson, however, loved the sound and convinced them to keep it.  There’s an interesting article about that sequence of notes as well.  It actually exists in another recording.  Copyright infringement comes up when discussing this opening. Lots of fascinating articles are available to peruse if interested.

Madonna – Papa Don’t Preach.  Actually, the entire landscape of Madonna’s first album.  Papa Don’t Peach.  Who’s That Girl.  An entire swath of 80s music backbone is the success of this album.

Van Halen – Jump. Who knew Eddie Van Halen – rest in peace – was a fantastic piano player in addition to one of the most revolutionary guitarists of all time?  This video is a playing of that legendary opening line.  If you were a radio listener ever, this was on your radar.

In conclusion (read: ad nauseam)

This entry is significantly larger than originally planned.  Thanks for sticking around for a data dump on one of my favorite topics: music.  80s music is the victim of nostalgia goggles for me and I’ll never not love that classic sound.  It’s also considered classic which is terrifying because that means I’m old!



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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