Records made in the 80s have an instantly recognisable sound. Our resident studio hound Chris Lyth shows you how to recreate that sound using today’s equipment
The production aesthetics of the 80s are still very much with us. Indeed, it could be argued that their influence has lasted almost three times longer than the decade itself. The 80s were a decade that saw huge leaps forward in music technology, and the 80s sound is enshrined in dance music legacy. Today, the likes of Com Truise, Chromeo and Dam-Funk are all heavily influenced by the era, and with more eclectic DJs digging deep and pulling out dusty 80s dubs, there’s no excuse not to fire up the DeLorean for a trip back in time…
It’s all about the drums
One of the main signifiers of the age in which music is made are the drums. Drum machines were pretty new in the 80s, and very much å la mode. To capture that 80s magic, get yourself some quality samples of classic machines such as the LinnDrum, DMX, CR-78, TR-707, TR-808 and Simmons SDSV.
Processing these machines with FX was crucial and they would often be compressed aggressively. Drums were typically treated heavily with reverb, which itself was brighter than most reverbs used today. Feel free to boost the high-mid and high frequencies of your reverb for typical brashness. Gated reverb on the snare is such a classic technique it could be argued that it made the 80s the 80s.
Close the gate
Gated reverb in all its bombastic glory is a simple concept, the advantage being that it sounds huge and punchy while keeping the overall mix clean and spacious. To create an authentic gated reverb, send your drums to a reverb with a medium room or hall setting. After the reverb, place a noise gate in your chain and set the threshold so that it’s stopping any reverb coming through. Next, go to your side-chain and have it triggered by your drum of choice, typically the snare. Now adjust your threshold so that it starts letting the reverb through. The threshold will need careful attention so you don’t get any untidy fluttering in the reverb tail. Experiment with the attack, release and hold settings to fine-tune to your track.
Extra headbands, pop socks and kudos for getting an emulation of a Lexicon 224/480 or AMS RMX16.
The sound of an era has everything to do with the equipment used, and the Yamaha DX7 is the quintessential 80s machine. Add a little reverb , dial in any sound and you have instant 80s. The same could be said of the Roland JX-3P and D-50, which are as strong with the 80s vibes as Luke is with The Force. Glassy bells, pianos and thick staccato basses are a good place to start. Other choices would be the Casio CZ series, Prophet-5, Roland SH-101, Juno-106 or, indeed, any other Yamaha DX synth. All of these units have been recently reissued in mini or plug-in format.
Bits and pieces
All of the first generation of samplers such as the Akai S950 operated at lower bit rates, which gave the samples a certain lo-fi grunge and punch. Many producers today still swear by older samplers for the tone that they impart - to drums in particular. If you can’t get hold of a hardware unit, use a bitcrusher or set your soundcard to work at a lower bit rate: 12-bit should do the trick.
The age of limitation
Hard disk recording is a luxury that we now take for granted, whereas reel-to-reel multi tracks were the only way to record in the 80s. Less was more, track counts were limited and computers couldn’t play back hundreds of tracks. Bold, upfront mixing with big FX to fill the space was the order of the day. If your track count is getting higher than 24, you’re seriously losing your 80s cool. Hang up your shellsuit in shame.
I don’t think I’ve ever made a plug-in recommendation which pertains to a particular style or genre, but I’ll make an exception here as the SSL channel strip was so integral to the era’s sound.
The SSL was the most sought-after console of the 80s, not only because it was the first desk to have total recall to revisit mixdowns at a later date, but also because its sound was cleaner, sharper and more aggressive than anything else on the market. Its compressor works great on drums and its EQ is tight and punchy. I’d recommend putting this plug-in on every channel as a way of mimicking having an SSL desk. Look for the Classic SSL Console Channel or Waves SSL E-Channel.
Analogue tape is a vital component of the 80s production aesthetic. If you want to get some serious warmth into your tracks, a multitrack tape machine would be a great acquisition. It would be a great buy for making any style of music, to be fair, but they’re expensive and tricky to maintain. A cheaper strategy would be to pick up a cassette tape recorder and record all of your stems onto the tape, then bounce them back into your DAW.
An easier, but less fun way would be to get a tape simulator plug-in and patch your groups through it.
Crystal clear guitar
Clean, glassy, processed-sounding guitars were the zeitgeist tones for our six-stringed comrades. Use lush, thick chorus and spacious reverbs to lend guitars that era-defining character. Experiment with reverbs, but generally a good place to start would be with medium or large hall settings and a decay of around two seconds. For chorus, keep the rate low so it’s not wobbly, but add plenty of intensity to get that lush shimmer. If you have a copy of the Roland Dimension D chorus by UAD, then half the battle is won.
Big hair, big snares
You can’t mention 80s production and not talk about snares that sound like a cannon going off! Often these were acoustic snares layered up with a drum machine snare or clap. If you can get hold of a real snare and an SM57 for a few days, why not record a load of your own one-shots?
Firstly, tune the snare low so that it sounds almost tom-like. Dampen it down, using tape or a muffling ring, so that it’s tight and doesn’t ring out. Get the mic in close so it will pick up the low end of the snare. Then absolutely hammer with compression! Try a ratio of 6:1 and take off 10dB of gain reduction - don’t be scared to go completely overboard here. Then, once you have started programming, maybe add something like a DMX clap or even some white noise and then send them all to a dedicated snare group. Add a little more compression to glue the elements together, mix boldly and voila… big snares. To make them extra wide, duplicate your track, pan both hard left and right and then slightly pitch one down a semitone.
A typical 80s mix was tonally very forward in the high midrange and top end, with a tight, punchy low end that was rolled off below around 60Hz. The low-mids were also fairly scooped out, giving the mix a crisp punch. Use bus compression on drums and vocal groups and make the most of the space afforded by a lower track count. Load in a few reference tracks by Prince or Let’s Dance-era Bowie and balance your mix accordingly. As both a studio engineer and live engineer, it’s interesting to note that many mixes made back then often sound tighter over a large system than some modern tracks, where a heap of sub-bass often tends to pull down the overall volume.
Many of the techniques here are just as applicable to ultra-modern production, and although pioneering in their day have become production staples. Pick and choose what works best for you and your music. Anyway, have fun, I’m off for a couple of pints of Malibu…
Words: Chris Lyth
Tags: 80s, 1980s, LinnDrum, DMX, CR-78, TR-707, TR-808 and Simmons SDSV, gated reverb, Lexicon 224, Lexicon 480, AMS RMX16, Yamaha DX7, Roland JX-3P, Roland D-50, Prophet-5, Roland SH-101, Juno-106, Akai S950, Classic SSL Console Channel, Waves SSL E-Channel, Roland Dimension D