What Is Synthwave?

Updated on January 8, 2018
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John is a fervent writer, avid gamer, and guitar lover. He earns his sandwiches fixing automatic transmissions.

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You may have heard of this increasingly popular genre of music. You may think you know the genre I’m referring to, but actually be mistaking it for it's earlier incarnation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In either case, if you’re not a seasoned synthwave aficionado, this article should soon have you well-versed in the music, the influences, and the culture. Let’s get started.

The Original Synthwave

First, let’s briefly touch on the first version of synthwave. The original, if you like, though the new synthwave I'll discuss here is not merely a modern version of this.

Synthwave in this incarnation—also known as techno-wave, synth-pop, electropunk, and a host of other names—is a style of synthesizer-based music that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It spawned from the New Wave genre of rock music, swapping out guitars for electronic keyboards, and had some big names under its umbrella, such as Depeche Mode.

But that’s what this modern incarnation of synthwave is not. Let’s look at what it is. From here on out, when I say “synthwave”, unless otherwise stated, I mean the new stuff!

Depeche Mode were one of the biggest names in the first incarnation of Synthwave.
Depeche Mode were one of the biggest names in the first incarnation of Synthwave.

So What is Synthwave?

If I were to oversimplify what it is, I would just say that synthwave is a genre of music inspired by movie soundtracks of the 1980s. And that would be, broadly speaking, true. It is a little more complex, however.

For one thing, synthwave draws a great deal of influence from video games as well as movies. It draws heavy inspiration from music composed by John Carpenter in particular (though not exclusively). Films by John Hughes are also particularly popular within synthwave culture. And it has become something of a culture in its own right, with synthwave artwork and videos spreading across sites like Instagram and YouTube. But we’ll focus mainly on the music.

Synthwave is a genre of music inspired by movie soundtracks of the 1980s

Labels

Like the original, this incarnation of synthwave can come under many names. Unlike the original, this list of names is a tad longer! Some of the most common names (besides “synthwave” itself), are outrun, retrowave, vapourware, and futuresynth. In truth, most of these alternative names are more akin to subgenres, and each have their own style. For example, the name “outrun” is inspired by the 1986 racing game, Out Run, and tends to feature faster tracks that, as the inspiration might suggest, are suited more to listening while driving. The formation of this particular sub-genre is widely credited to synthwave artist Kavinsky, who’s 2013 album—titled OutRun—is generally thought of as the origin.

A Little History

Synthwave as a wider genre first started making synthwaves (sorry) in the early 2000s, largely as instrumental music much like the soundtracks it is inspired by. It would be the early 2010s before it started to get some real popularity, such as with the aforementioned OutRun by Kavinsky. The 2011 movie, Drive, featuring Ryan Gosling, is probably the first really mainstream use of synthwave. Drive was, by all reasonable metrics, a very successful film, winning awards and grossing around five times the cost of making the movie.

The 2011 movie, Drive, marked one of the first really mainstream uses of synthwave music.
The 2011 movie, Drive, marked one of the first really mainstream uses of synthwave music.

Growing Popularity

Since then, synthwave music has found its way back onto the big screen in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, and into one of the biggest television shows of the 2010s, Stranger Things.

Some of the more popular synthwave acts, such as FM-84 and The Midnight (to name a couple), have played a number of successful live shows, indicating a growing popularity beyond online niches.

Controversy

Around 2015, a subgenre of synthwave music emerged that has been called “Fashwave”. In most respects, fashwave music is no different from regular synthwave music. It is mostly instrumental and uses all the same techniques and influences as the rest of the genre. Where the controversy comes in, however, is that fashwave music was politically charged.

Whether the tracks just carried a political title, or featured soundbites, they were inextricably linked to self-identified fascists and other extreme right-wing ideologies.

How Synthwave Is Made

Synthwave is typically made using software modelled instruments called VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology), although this is largely a matter of cost. Analogue synthesisers are very expensive, and original models that were used in the 1980s—some of which can’t legally be made anymore—prohibitively so.

Synthwave artist, Perturbator, describes synthwave as mainly instrumental, often containing 1980s cliche elements. These elements commonly include analogue synthesisers (or VSTs of analogue synthesisers) and electronic drums. It also makes use of modern production techniques, like sidechained compression, and treating the bassline and kick drum in a fashion more akin to electro house and other modern electronic music genres.

Synthwave is quite unique in that a large proportion of the fanbase of the genre are also creators of the music in their own right.

The Synth Sounds of Stranger Things

Marketing and Merchandise

Though some synthwave artists have been signed to record labels, most synthwave music is released through a more self-published model. Bandcamp is typically employed to sell music and merchandise, and the more popular albums in the genre will often see limited runs on older mediums such as vinyl or cassette. SoundCloud is also popular for putting out new music.

YouTube is a very significant piece of the puzzle when it comes to synthwave publicity. It has become common practice to release synthwave music accompanied by a video made by cutting together clips from a 1980s film that fits the synthwave aesthetic.

One of the bigger players in this respect is the YouTube channel New Retro Wave. This channel takes submissions for new synthwave tracks and posts some of those submissions on its channel, typically meaning tens of thousands of views of the song.

As mentioned above, a large proportion of synthwave fanbases are synthwave creators themselves. For this reason, some popular artists release “patches” for purchase. Patches are custom presets for popular VSTs which they have used on some of their more successful songs.

Notable Synthwave Artists

Here are a few notable artists in the genre. Please note, this is not a list of “the best” artists, or most successful, it is merely artists within the genre whom I feel are notable. It’s my opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree in the comments below. Just remember that I’m not claiming to be the authority here!

Kavinsky

Mentioned above, Kavinsky (real name; Vincent Belorgey) is widely credited as the originator of the outrun subgenre of synthwave, and is one of the larger names in the genre as a whole. His music was featured on the soundtrack for the movie Drive, which is a landmark events in the growing popularity of the genre.

Gunship

Another big name in the genre, Gunship is notable for being made up of former members of the alternative rock group, Fightstar. Gunship are also known for putting out well produced music videos, including a claymation video for “Tech Noir”, and a video game inspired pixel art video for “Revel In Your Time”. They have also collaborated with John Carpenter himself.

Com Truise

Also known as Seth Haley, Truise’s name (if you haven’t worked it out) is a spoonerism of Tom Cruise, a very successful actor during the 1980s (and every decade since!). Com Truise has had his work featured on the Tron: Legacy Reconfigured album. His music is often categorised as “chillwave”, another subgenre of synthwave that, as the name suggests, is more laid back.

Miami Nights 1984

Otherwise known as Michael Glover, Miami Nights 1984 is perhaps one of the most recognisable names in the scene, if only because it epitomises the aesthetic of the genre. While an established synthwave artist in his own right (his “Ocean Drive” track has had over 4 million plays on YouTube) he is also known for founding “Rosso Corsa Records”, a recording company that has pushed a number of successful synthwave acts.

GUNSHIP - Revel in Your Time

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 John Bullock

    Comments

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      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        7 months ago from Ohio

        Very interesting article. I read it thinking I didn't know what it was, but then I realized (having grown up in the 80's) that I did.

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