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It is evident everywhere humans go we pine for times long past and places long forgotten. Whether it is watching your favourite Disney films again on a rainy evening or running your fingers along the torn edges of your favourite book – we all love that hit of nostalgia.
This, of course, extends to music too. (And I’m not just talking about blasting your old Robbie Williams CD in the car). Sometimes the medium takes a back seat to the sound waves themselves. A lot of our favourite music being produced today uses sounds and techniques plucked straight from legendary recording studios of the 1980’s and ignites that same nostalgia.
From global acts, such as The Weeknd and The 1975, to critically-acclaimed indie darlings like Tame Impala, a huge slew of artists are aiming to encapsulate the sounds of the past. Whether this be the 70’s, 80’s, or other sounds which capture the essence of a world different to our own today.
Here are two techniques used in music today which encapsulates that retro nostalgia which music fans love:
The drum sound of the 80’s is something unmistakeable: huge cymbals and punchy snare drums. Just listen to the drums tail off after each thwack on Phil Collins’ monumental hit “In the Air Tonight” and you’ll hear the quintessential 80’s drum sound executed to a tee. Usually, the sound of a record in the studio is something which is meticulously planned by the artist or producer, but this drum sound (which came to define the 80’s pop music scene) was something of a happy accident.
A year before this smash record was released, Phil Collins had developed his own technique of drum recording with his former bandmate, Peter Gabriel. While recording in The Townhouse Studio in London, Gabriel recruited Collins to play the drums on his breakthrough third solo album ‘Melt’. In the studio, Collins’ drums were picked up by the overhead microphone used by the engineers to speak with the band.
This microphone was not designed to record instruments, and as such was set up differently to recording microphones. The most notable difference was that this studio microphone included a noise gate and a compressor. Essentially, this means that the microphone amplified quiet sounds, turned down loud noises, and tuned into sounds when it hit a certain volume. It was designed to stop picking up sounds when they dropped below a certain threshold.
While recording Collins’ drums, the studio microphone caused a massive, cacophonous sound that was abruptly cut off after no more than a second. Hugh Padgham, one of the music producers, explained it best as “going from all to nothing in milliseconds”. This drum sound became a staple of Phil Collins’ music, as well as the music of many other 80’s superstars.
This drum recording technique is still used today! Lorde, a pop artist from New Zealand, adorned her latest album with retro drum sounds sprinkled over brooding pop evolved from her first hit album, ‘Pure Heroine’. Meanwhile, MGMT have been long known for using retro sounds in their techno music. But this is best encapsulated in their 2018 album ‘Little Dark Age’ which amplifies that typical 80’s rock drum snare.
As technology evolved, synthesizers became integral to the sound that would largely dominate popular music for the past 50 years. This change in music began in the 1960’s swirling cauldron of countercultural attitudes, distorted guitars, and exciting new tech. Psychedelic Rock was birthed. Bands, such as Pink Floyd and The Doors, were early synth pioneers and set a lot of the groundwork that many popular artists have built upon today.
Speaking on the synergy between rock and electronic music developed in the 1960s, Louis Marcheschi said:
“Rock and Roll is electronic music – because if you pull the plug, it stops”.
This is largely due to the reliance on electronic effect pedals to achieve the spacious, echoing sound of the 1960’s. The sound produced by the guitar itself is manipulated and repeated so much that without the electronic tech and synthesizers, the music would lack the depth and produced sound. This kind of effect-laden sound manifested itself in different ways throughout the popular music of the 80’s, 90’s and present-day music.
Bands such as Depeche Mode and The Pet Shop Boys took it through its first boom in the 80’s. The torch was then handed over to Lightning Seeds who scored two UK Number One Singles – one of which being England’s Football Anthem “Three Lions” released in 1996. However, the best modern-day practitioner of the “Synth Pop” sound is likely Tame Impala, who have created two albums in the last 6 years which have been in the Top 10 UK Album charts. Most recent of which is their 2020 album ‘The Slow Rush’.
As it stands, these retro revivalists are here to stay, and they bring a great soundtrack.
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