Since the 1970s, synthesizers have been highly prominent in popular music. And from Moog, to Roland, Yamaha, and others, some of those synthesizers have achieved an iconic status equal to that of any of the artists who made use of them.
Here, we’ll take a look through nearly 50 years of popular music, identify some of the most significant synthesizer sounds ever recorded, and dive into the instruments and techniques behind each one.
Synthesizers controls (2017)Original Source: Wikimedia
Kraftwerk – Das Model
“Das Model” was originally released in 1978. In much of the world, it’s better known in its English-language incarnation, which appeared as a B-side to 1981 single “Computer Love” and eventually hit number one in the UK. Here, Ralf Hütter (singing) plays the lead on his Polymoog synthesizer.
Kraftwerk - The Model (2009 Remaster)Original Source: Kraftwerk YouTube
Moog Polymoog Introduced in 1975, the Polymoog was a sophisticated polyphonic analog synthesizer – with a price tag of more than $5,000 to match. The sawtooth-wave-based lead sound on “Das Model” gains its distinctive character through subtle modulation of the synth’s filter with a low-frequency oscillator (LFO).
You can also hear the Polymoog on much of Gary Newman’s work (the “Vox Humana” preset is responsible for many of his string sounds) as well as on tracks by Cat Stevens, Prince, and Mike Oldfield.
Vangelis – Blade Runner Theme
Few artists become as inextricably linked to a specific instrument as Greek composer Vangelis and his Yamaha CS-80. It’s used heavily throughout his best-known work, the iconic score to 1982’s Blade Runner.
Vangelis - Blade Runner ThemeOriginal Source: YouTube
Yamaha CS-80 The hulking Yamaha CS-80, released in 1977, was packed with forward-thinking features. The ribbon controller above the keyboard – used for gliding between pitches – is a notable example that can be heard on much of the Blade Runner soundtrack.
Like Kraftwerk’s “Das Model” lead, the distinctive brass sound from the Blade Runner theme begins with a sawtooth wave. In this case, it’s a slow envelope on the amplifier and the filter that cause the sound to gradually swell into existence. By detuning the synth’s oscillators relative to one another, a chorus-like effect is achieved, emulating the slight pitch variations you might expect to hear from a human brass section.
Ohio Players – Funky Worm
This 1973 single by funk group the Ohio Players was a big success in its own right, peaking at the top of the US Billboard R&B Chart. But the track's enduring legacy has been its influence on G-funk – a genre of hip hop that rose to prominence throughout the 90s and is often characterized by both samples and emulations of the Funky Worm's gliding lead melody.
Ohio Players - Funky WormOriginal Source: YouTube
ARP Pro Soloist To create the Funky Worm, as the sound itself has become known, The Ohio Players used a Pro Soloist made by ARP Instruments in the early 1970s. The simplicity of the patch, however – essentially a single sawtooth wave set to glide between pitches – means that many synthesizers are capable of passing imitations.
Legendary hip hop producer Dr Dre first sampled the “Funky Worm” lead on NWA’s “Dope Man,” before recreating the sound with a newly acquired Minimoog (leading some to believe the original sound was a Moog) on NWA’s followup and much of his subsequent work with Snoop Dogg.
Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill
British singer, songwriter and producer Kate Bush is known for her experimental approach to pop music – as well as a degree of secrecy surrounding her methods. 1985’s “Running Up That Hill,” her most successful single, is no exception. The source of the “yelping” melody heard right from the track’s intro remained the subject of much speculation until relatively recently, when forum users uncovered its true origins.
Kate Bush - RUNNING UP THAT HILL (HQ)Original Source: YouTube
Fairlight CMI Launched in the late 1970s, The Fairlight CMI workstation contained one of the earliest digital samplers to hit the market. While perhaps only Kate Bush knows the exact signal chain involved, users of the Sound on Sound forum tracked the mystery sound’s origin down to the machine's built-in CELLO2 patch in 2010.
It's also speculated that this same patch may be responsible for many of the other sounds on “Running Up That Hill”. Due to memory limitations, however, samples loaded onto the machine needed to be extremely short – so creating those long, held notes would have required no small measure of studio trickery.
Van Halen – Jump
Now regarded as one of the most iconic synth intros of all time, Van Halen’s 1983 single “Jump” was at the time most notable as a radical departure from the guitar-centric sound that made the band famous. The track was written by guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who can be seen in the video performing on an Oberheim OB-Xa.
Van Halen - Jump (Official Music Video)Original Source: YouTube
Oberheim OB-X While the "Jump" video features an Oberheim OB-Xa, it's thought that the synth heard on the recording is this earlier variant, known as the OB-X. The "Jump" patch itself is relatively simple and could have been recorded with just about any polyphonic synthesizer by pairing detuned sawtooth oscillators with short, sharp attack and release settings.
More interesting here (and trickier to emulate) is the fact that Van Halen reportedly recorded the synth through a Marshall guitar amplifier stack at high volume, giving it an aggressive, overdriven sound.
Berlin – Take My Breath Away
Co-written by legendary Italian composer Giorgio Moroder for Top Gun, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” arguably has one of the most iconic – some might say clichéd – sounds of the 1980s. And it owes much of that to its distinctive bass line performed on the Yamaha DX7, definitely one of the most iconic synths of the 1980s.
Berlin - Take My Breath Away (Official Video)Original Source: YouTube
Yamaha DX7 The Yamaha DX7 FM synthesizer was notoriously hard to program, and many artists chose to work instead with its built-in presets. Moroder's keyboard player Arthur Barrow did just that for "Take My Breath Away", employing the 16 Bass 2 preset, which was designed to emulate the sound of a fretless bass guitar. You can hear this same bass patch at work in Commodores’ 1985 single “Nightshift”.
One of the best-selling synthesizers of all time, the DX7 was ubiquitous throughout 1980s pop music. You can hear it in most of Whitney Houston’s electric piano ballads, in many of Brian Eno’s productions, and layered with a Roland Juno-60 for the lead part of A-Ha’s “Take on Me”.
Europe – The Final Countdown
No round-up of classic synth sounds would be complete without Europe’s anthemic “The Final Countdown”. The melody that plays from the beginning was created (mostly) using a Roland JX-8P.
Europe - The Final Countdown (Official Video)Original Source: YouTube
Roland JX-8P Introduced in 1985, the Roland JX-8P was an analog polysynth somewhat held back by its DX7-like data-slider control scheme. Nevertheless, it proved popular and can be heard on tracks from Tangerine Dream, Depeche Mode, The Cure and others.
Europe’s keyboard player Mic Michaeli has stated that his JX-8P had a little help on this particular track. The main brass sound (likely based on the Roland’s Stab Brass preset) was layered with a similar patch on the Yamaha TX-816 – a powerful rack-mounted synthesizer based on the same FM synthesis techniques as the DX7.
Daft Punk – Revolution 909
French Electronic duo Daft Punk released this instrumental single in 1998, partly in response to the French government’s percieved attitude towards raves and electronic music in general. Aside from its nod to The Beatles’ “Revolution 9”, the title pays homage to the classic drum synthesizer behind its driving groove – the Roland TR-909.
Daft Punk - Revolution 909Original Source: YouTube
Roland TR-909 First released in 1983, the 909 was initially considered a commercial failure. It soon found favour with producers of dance-floor oriented styles like techno and house. Its distinctive sounds – particularly that punchy kick drum – soon became staples of both genres.
Much like other classic drum synthesizers, the 909 presents relatively few options for tweaking individual sounds – the kick module is designed to always sound like a kick drum, and the snare, a snare, etc. Artists who made heavy use of these machines instead created musical interest through careful programming and arranging of the available sounds.
Frank Ocean – Pyramids
Following the success of his Nostalgia Ultra mix-tape, Channel Orange was the debut album that firmly established Frank Ocean as a favorite of both the underground and the mainstream. It’s second single, “Pyramids”, was coproduced by Malay, who employed a wide range of classic synthesizer sounds – both real and virtual – across the track’s nearly ten minutes.
PyramidsOriginal Source: YouTube
Arturia CS-80 V3 The dreamy, ascending arpeggios heard in “Pyramids” come from a virtual version of the aforementioned Yamaha CS-80. The CS-80 V3 is part of Arturia’s V collection – a bundle of software versions of classic instruments by Moog, ARP, Roland, Yamaha and others.
The part in question is a saw wave patch played using the CS-80 V3’s built-in arpeggiator. Elsewhere on the track, you can hear an Oberheim OB-8 pad and a bell-like sound created with a Roland Juno-106.
The Weeknd – Blinding Lights
Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, is one of the most commercially successful artists of the past decade. With 2020 single “Blinding Lights”, he revisits some of his 80s influences, including some of the classic synth sounds associated with the era. Right from the start of this live performance, we see the track’s hook performed on a Roland Juno-60.
The Weeknd - Blinding Lights (Time100 Live Performance)Original Source: YouTube
Roland Juno-60 Produced from 1982 to 1984, the Juno-60 sold well at the time and remains popular today. It combined classic, analog sounds with some of the benefits of the digital technology that was starting to emerge at the time – stable, digitally controlled oscillators; the ability to store and recall patches; and MIDI connections for interfacing with other instruments.
The bright, brassy “Blinding Lights” lead patch is a classic Juno sound based on a sawtooth wave, a mostly open filter, sharp attack, and just enough release to help the notes blend into one another. There’s also a healthy dose of 80s-sounding reverb contributing to the track’s retro feel.