All You Want to Know About Synthwave: Part 1

Synthwave has become one of the fastest-growing genres of non-mainstream electronic music in recent years. I’ve been fascinated and delighted to watch the growth of the #synthfam community on Twitter as I’ve interviewed synthwave artists.

I invited people from the #synthfam to respond to questions of what people are enjoying about synthwave music and the synthwave scene. Here’s the first piece of the big common interview.
 

Karl Magi: The First Topic of our Discussion is the Musical Elements and Directions that Synthwave is Taking. Why They are so Intriguing?

For Moonrunner83, the most intriguing artists are those who focus on new sounds and interesting high-end production with “oodles of automation and groove”. He’s also interested if they have unique equipment and use plenty of outboard gear. He wants to hear from the artists who are pushing the boundaries of synthwave because they bring new sounds to a “sprawling landscape of kids using the Polysix plugin1 and Nexus patches2.”

In Inexedra’s view, the most intriguing aspect of the genre’s expansion is its versatility. He points out that, for many people, the term synthwave puts a “vision of a refined ‘80s strip mall or a beach in Los Angeles in mind”. But he finds the ever-expanding list of synthwave sub-genres continuing to baffle him. He says that, for example, darksynth sounds retro but has taken on new structure and subject matter to the point that it has formed its own genre.

Cyberpunk synthwave is the genre that Inexedra is most interested in because it’s starting to “evolve the regular ‘cyberpunk’ genre as its own entity once again. All of this is inherently rooted in synthwave, and the fact that such uniquely contrasting styles can synergistically cooperate is pretty awesome to me.”

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In Mirrorvoid’s opinion, synthwave, and its offshoots are becoming more polarized. In that chill, synth is getting softer, slower, and more lo-fi while cyberpunk/darkwave is getting cleaner and harsher.

The high level of sound design work on albums intrigues him, but he’s not averse to using presets in the right context. “I recently bought the Retro KZ Rompler3 from the bargain bin, and I enjoy playing around with the Beat It Synclavier preset (I would never use it in production though… well…). But sometimes a song calls for that DX7 bell sound, so why stop yourself if it works and nothing else does?”

Including vocals is something about which Mirrorvoid has mixed views. He prefers instrumental synthwave because it allows him to project his own imagery. “In the right context, if a song calls for a voice and no other instrument works, why not?”

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One of the musical elements that producer Arctic Mega Defender is intrigued by is the increase in references to ‘80s soft rock. He feels that the soft rock elements “merge very smoothly” into synthwave and add a nostalgic dimension because of the iconic songs written in that era.

He also sees a major trend towards referencing shoot ’em up and cyberpunk video games of the ‘90s as well. He concludes, “I think both of these directions can be ascribed to an increasing number of younger producers.”

The synthwave producer Hazmat echoes Inexedra’s comment about the versatility of the genre. He was raised with rock and jazz influences which have mixed into synthwave with surprising ease. He concludes, “The more I implement new sounds within my music, the more I see the limits of the genre vanish.”

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KM: Where Do You Feel the Balance Between the Retro/Nostalgic Elements VS the General Musical Qualities of the Genre Lies?

Producer milicow says that he’s not intentionally trying to write something with a retro nostalgic vibe. He doesn’t have any specific goal in mind other than in finding a melody or chord progression that sounds right by “messing around on my MIDI keyboard.”

He explains, “A certain melody or chord progression could sound beautiful on one instrument, but not that great on some other instrument. So, I stumble on an idea that hooks me and leads to more ideas. I follow the ideas from there, and that’s the only way I can make music.”

millicow says that he can only tell when a song is finished is after he feels its ‘vibe’, think about the possible meaning and can name it. “I can’t set out to write in a certain style or mood. That never works, probably because I’m not musically adept enough to control what comes out.”

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Moonrunner83 feels the balance falls towards music quality, production fidelity, and the elements of a song serving it well. In his view, retro sounds and more modern production don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “I’ve always focused on a blend of nostalgia and high-end production along with elements I just enjoy listening to.” — he says.

In his experience, mixes that lack decent production seem to also be lacking in listeners. And the general listenership for all music gravitates towards polished production.

On the other hand, he notes that poor arrangement and songwriting with polished production will also struggle to gather listeners. He concludes, “As with everything, a balance needs to be struck.”

The most critical element for Inexedra is “controlled technical imperfection”. He defines this term as “detuning synths, using old mixing techniques, gentle bitcrushing4, sampling old drum machines, etc.”

In his opinion, being as concise as possible in instrumental and vocal writing is a must. And “The calculated imitation of analog gear coupled with clever musicality opens a lot of creative doors in synthwave that may be harder for some to accomplish with other forms of electronic music.”
 

KM: What Sorts of Things are Happening Musically or Thematically that You Find are Pushing the Boundaries of Synthwave?

How the expansion of synthwave is ushering in creative ideas and unique sounds is what interests Inexedra. The cyberpunk music that he’s hearing has the “controlled technical imperfection” he’s interested in, but with the clear intent to sound more like 21XX and less like the ‘80s or ‘90s.

“[It’s] a progressive evolution. I think the cyberpunk style has needed for a while now. In my opinion, it’s an untapped creative gold mine of immeasurable magnitude, and I look forward to hearing how deep people go.”

In response to this question, Arctic Mega Defender mentions the fact that many current synthwave producers were born in the mid-to-late ‘80s and even later. In his view, this pushes the retro frame of reference forward, and that helps develop the genre. “When I hear a track with a rad reference or a new idea, it triggers my own set of references and inspires me to make my own track that continues down that road.”

Synthwave artists are on a map that spans two axes that go from retro to modern. The first axis is the composition, and the second is sound. “The sound has more dimensions to it. For example, you can process modern drums to get a retro feel, and those dimensions open up a lot of interesting new ground.”

In his view, the balance lies in the retro direction, but he is willing to concede that it might be an odd opinion, so he understands the other points of view. “Luckily, #synthfam has a lot of new artists who are amazing retro composers.”

The synthwave scene is a broad culture in which it’s of paramount importance that artists flirt with nostalgia and have others in the community pick up on it. “While this can temporarily have a conservative effect, the need to resonate with the ever-younger synthwave crowd will eventually always drive us to new frontiers.”

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While millicow says he doesn’t pay much attention to the music scene, he’s in agreement with the idea that the scene is expanding rather than shifting. In his view, producers don’t need hundreds of dollars of equipment or hundreds of hours of instrument practice. They need an understanding of a DAW — digital audio workstation — and basic music theory, along with mixing and mastering. “As you keep writing, you can refine those skills more and more.”

He cites free software like LMMS5, all of the available samples and VST6 instruments that are either free or accessible for a low price. “This availability and ease of production have allowed many small, independent artists, like me, to create music despite the limitations and demands of our own busy lives. And put it out there for anyone who might enjoy it.”

The music that draws Moonrunner83 in has to have “skilled production, stellar arrangement, and great songwriting.” He points out that it is also nice to hear synthwave which doesn’t lean on the same “LinnDrum samples and eighth note Polysix basslines that we’ve all heard a million times before (not that we don’t still enjoy hearing them).”

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He goes on to say that, for him, synthwave should create a cinematic experience for listeners. “Storytelling and imagery all play a role in pushing the boundaries of the genre. Vocals are a big part of that.”

Synthwave fans are divided over whether or not tracks should include vocals, but vocals are a positive addition to the music. “It takes something extremely special — to be able to write compelling lyrics, deliver a great vocal performance, and mix vocals to sit elegantly into a busy synthwave mix.”
 
 
1Polysix plugins mimic the Korg Polysix analog synthesizer.
2Nexus patches are virtual instrument patches.
3A rompler is a virtual instrument that plays pre-fabricated sounds based on audio samples. In this case, the sounds are based on ‘80s movie and TV soundtracks, as well as ‘80s, pop music.
4A Bitcrusher is a lo-fi digital audio effect, which produces a distortion by the reduction of the resolution or bandwidth of digital audio data. The resulting quantization noise may produce a ’warmer” sound impression, or a harsh one, depending on the amount of reduction.
5LMMS is a free, open-source digital audio workstation
6VST — Virtual Studio Technology — is an audio plug-in software interface that integrates software synthesizer and effects in digital audio workstations.

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