The "80s Sound"

Anyone who was around in the 80s remembers that sound seemingly all mainstream pop/rock had back then: very trebly, drum sounds dominated by booming snares, guitars that sounded totally different than a live perfomance. Here’s an excellent example. How exactly did they get this sound? Why? Who did it first, did it best, and did it worst? And what do they do differently today that doesn’t make modern pop sound like this?

The words “gated snare” come to mind for starters

Gated reverb, and noise gates in general are partly responsible for the sound (jeebus, esp. on that Huey Lewis track). Noise gates were also commonly used on other instruments to “tighten” up their parts by removing lower-level signals from the track. By the end of the decade, folks were putting noise gates on lots of things that didn’t really need them, like cymbals. The cymbals on Metallica’s And Justice for All don’t decay naturally because a gate was used on them, and cuts off the decay.

This was also the age of the click track. It’s basically a metronome track that is played for the drummer while they lay down their part. It will make the record rhythmically precise, but tends to make them have a stiff feel as the drummer plays to the click.

On top of those, digital effects became inexpensive enough for most studios to begin buying. These effects had the advantage of being noiseless (very important with echo and reverb, which tend to add noise), but they have their own crisp, artificial sound. They’re still used today, but the sample rates, processor capability and useful controls have become much more capable (hell, I have a digital delay that actually adds noise in order to sound more like an old delay). As a result, the newer ones don’t have to sound as artificial.
So, like the Eventide Harmonizer in the 70’s, they had new toys to play with.

It’s not just the technology. It’s also the way the recordings were mixed, and mannerisms of the performance, such as the bass playing in the OP’s example. Just listening to it makes me depressed and a little nauseous–the epitome of the bad side of the 80s.

I agree that a different set of mannerisms arose in the 80’s, but i don’t think Huey Lewis and the News were particularly 80’s in their style of playing.

To give an example of one band*, Journey straddled the change from 70’s production to 80’s production styles. Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’ from 78 has a little bit of reverb on the snare and vocals, but it’s pretty light. If they’d turned up the older effects to levels they did later, it would be a muddy mix of reverb. In contrast, Don’t Stop Belevin’ from 81 is positively drenched in echo and reverb. Each instrument has its own reverb (but I think that Schon is probably using an old style tape echo on his guitar). I think the snare and toms each have a different reverb.

To give an answer that is the same song**. Billy Gibbons re-mixed the old ZZ Top records when they were re-mastered for CD. “Just Got Paid” sounded very different on Vinyl vs. the CD reissue. Those tracks are the same performance, even mixed by the same guy. One is a hell of a lot brighter than the other, but has a lot of effects. I think he may have even stuck the rhythm guitar through another preamp to distort it a little more and make it brighter when they re-mixed it. The drums are completely in a different sonic space than they were in 1972. The bass in the original mix sings a hell of a lot better, too. One is a great 70’s mix, the other is a steadfastly 80’s/early 90’s mix.

And just so no one thinks I’m bagging on that style of mixing, I think that Just Like Honey from The Jesus and Mary Chain is the pinnacle of the style. That mix would have sounded like a 70’s-60’s psychedelic or noise band before the 80’s style developed. As it is, it’s crazily majestic.

*That gives me a headache to listen to, but I’m familiar with them. So, I’ll take one for the team.

**Yes, I thought of this example after willfully listening to two Journey songs. I’ve suffered needlessly. Oh well, listening to “Just Got Paid” twice in a row almost soothes it. I love everything about that song, and the original mix is heaven.

There were other technological aspects that fed into the 80’s sound.

One of the important ones was a realisation and understanding of pushing tape to get a punchy sound. Tape was overdriven (ie needles into the red) in a manner that wasn’t done previously, as an artistic mechanism to get a sound. This created a mix of dynamic compression and harmonic distortion that was a clear part of the 80’s sound. (And is sound that various modern effects and plug-ins attempt to emulate.)

Mic’ing guitars became something of an artform, and remains so. Very close mic’ing of the speaker cone, with the microphone sitting right next to a specific part of the cone and angled to tune the frequency response and pickup of other parts of the sound field. Mic’ing like this sounds nothing like a live guitar amp. Different engineers had their own tricks for mic’ing, and some of it became part of the sound of a given guitarist.

Modern recordings sound different for a lot of reasons. Artistically producers and musicians are going for different things. That gated snare sound got old really quickly. Now-a-days we have a new set of clichés to cringe about.

Worst of all, post production mastering tends to involve silly levels of dynamic compression, sucking the life out of the sound. AKA - The Loudness Wars.

There’s just something about the main theme to Beverly Hills Cop that just epitomizes the stereotypical sound to me.

the name you are looking for is New Wave. It derived from, believe it or not, post-punk mixed with electronica, and it defined the eighties-

There’s a bit of a resurgence of it in modern pop, too.

To me it is all about the move to digital. Recording, guitar amps, delay effects like reverb, chorus and digital delay, etc. All of them got digital, analog/tubes got passe and they were really focused on the differences. The pushed the newer tools and we hear it.

All of the examples being discussed exploit new digital whiz-bang:

  • Gated drums
  • New guitar sound - digital pedalboards and solid state amps enabled Andy Summers, The Edge, The Fixx’ Jamie West-Oram, etc. explore all new sounds, and for Mark Knopfler to take a less-used pickup selection on a Strat (an in-between pickup selection that sounds quacky) to create new approaches to guitar.
  • Synths - the Yamaha DX7 and a few other “signature” digital synths dominated. I think of the Orchestral Hit as '80’s-ist synth tone - used by Go West in We Close Our Eyes:

You’ll also find that synthesiser keyboards also have a limited range of voices.

Strictly speaking that’s not true, but what happened was the advent of the FM keyboard, which was very different to the previous analogue devices.

On analogue keyboards you had a range of knobs that you could teak to get some sort of voice - or sound, and it was rather like a recipe where you mix known elements and season with predictable teaks.

When the FM keyboards came out, you had an algorithm to program a voice - what you were doing was specifying waveforms to add into a voice. The problem was that this was nothing like as intuitive as the previous analogue instruments.

It meant that if you wanted something that sounded a bit like a horn, with a bit of tinkling ringing, it was nothing like as easy to predict how to go about generating it. So they didn’t.

So, what happened was that most keyboard players tended to stick with the pre-installed voices, and add a few effects to those, so now if you wanted a tinkly horn sound, you probably had only one that sounded anywhere near what you wanted.

Result is that '80s keyboard parts have a very similar feel to them - and of course the eighties was also the era of electro pop, keyboards played a significant part. You can hear a keyboard based middle eight or bridge and you can know it could not be from any other period but the eighties

We had midi 1, then midi 2 and PCM keyboards - the quality of the sounds produced could be awesome, however they were often very limited in variety. Sampling sounds for keyboards took lots of extremely expensive memory and expensive processing to get it to sound right - and the prices of these didn’t really fall until later - once it did, musicians simply sampled sounds of notes from music of previous eras - and logically they then took whole passages wholesale and somehow called it original music.

Sax. Much of the '80’s music had that overused David Sanborn sound. Heavy on the sax. I liked it when it first started, then it became cliche.

[quote=“Go_Arachnid_Laser, post:8, topic:743931”]

the name you are looking for is New Wave. It derived from, believe it or not, post-punk mixed with electronica, and it defined the eighties-

There’s a bit of a resurgence of it in modern pop, too.


Those are excellent examples. If I heard these on the radio I would immediately suspect I was hearing them in an All 80s Hour on a classic rock or oldies station.

I’m not a sound engineer, but something about the timbre of the vocals being very broad and prominent in the mix. Order of precedence in building a melody seemed to be: 1-vocals, 2-synth, 3-everything else, 4-obligatory sax or guitar solo.

U2, The Fixx, Frankie goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Rick Astley. They all have that ‘vocal resonance chamber’ sound that screams '80s to me.

Nobody escaped it in the eighties! Even blues legend Johnny Winter had an album that was really good but featured very eighties drum sounds and the synthesized hand clapping sound that exemplifies the 80s vibe to me. I’m frustrated that I’m blanking on the name of the album but if I remember, I’ll post it.
There was another sound that really screams eighties to me, it’s the sound of multiple car horns, but tuned to specific pitches to fit the song. Again I’m blanking on a specific example but it sticks out like a sore thumb when I hear it.

To all the excellent replies above, I will also add the Roland TR-808 drum sounds as being very ubiquitous in the 80s, although they can still be heard many decades after.

Another component of the 80s sound was the Roland TR-808 drum machine. That thing was wildly popular, so damn near every time you heard synthetic drums in the 80s, it was coming from an 808. Those weird fake handclaps and weird fake hihats that are all over 80s hip hop and electronica? Thank Roland.

Edit: Argh! Ninja’d the ONE time I have an actual fact to contribute to a music thread…

Wow, trippy ninja there. Thread’s been open for almost exactly 72 hours and we both happen to mention the TR-808 at the same minute. :slight_smile:

Insert joke about “keeping time.”

Like the “click track” is something like a snap track or clap track (couldn’t find a definition on wikipedia).

an example from The Terminator soundtrack:

Here’s the wiki on click track.

Essentially, it’s a metronome. Which theoretically, is the way to go with music. But, it does lend a mechanized, static feel to a song most of the time. I’ve known metal drummers who listen to them live, and claim they couldn’t keep track of the complex beats without them. Obviously, when you’re playing heavily syncopated metal, sounding mechanized is a feature, not a bug.