'80s Studio Rock
by Barry Walters | April 26, 2013
Nothing time-stamps popular music like its drum sounds, and there's no time in history when this is more apparent than the 1980s, a decade when snare hits loomed as large in the mix as teased hair towered on the heads of its pop stars. It was a period when drum machines went from occasional novelty to mainstream saturation, and when actual drums were intentionally manipulated to sound unnatural through an engineering trick known as gated reverb, a technique that magnifies a drum beat's echo and then abruptly cuts it off. Although similar effects cropped up on late-'70s records by David Bowie and Chic, British producer Hugh Padgham is credited with (accidently!) discovering it while recording Phil Collins playing on a 1980 Peter Gabriel album, and then showcasing it on Collins' own 1981 solo smash "In the Air Tonight." Once Chic's Nile Rodgers applied it to blockbuster productions for (again!) Bowie and Madonna, gated reverb quite literally became the sound of the '80s.
Due to their drastic reduction in size, price and ease of use, synthesizers spread through the decade's popular music, too, creating near-instant futuristic effects that in previous decades would've taken days to program. It's an oversimplification to say that synths killed the session star, but these rapidly evolving instruments were no longer the near-exclusive dominion of highly skilled progressive rock and jazz musicians, and almost overnight, they shrunk the number of parts generated by session players on pop, rock and particularly R&B records. The old pursuit of how to get the most realistic acoustical representation of a room full of musicians was largely replaced by the new goal of how to create a synth sound that no one had heard before.
As with our previous playlists, '60s Studio Rock and '70s Studio Rock, this one favors sounds impossible to replicate in live performance, with particular emphasis on the star producer/musicians of the day, including Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Trevor Horn, Thomas Dolby and Brian Eno. Many had direct ties to dance music, and although disco had been famously declared dead in the final months of the previous decade, its production techniques had become more ingrained than ever. Punk and the earliest New Wave returned rock to leaner and meaner grooves in the late '70s, but MTV ushered in an English rock and pop wave that rapidly built arrangements and studio productions back up again. Success begat excess, but also paid the bills to buy the latest technological toys that enabled the experimentation and innovation on universally known rock hits and underground club jams alike: The synth-generated vibraphone solo on The The's original 1982 version of "Uncertain Smile" is but one of the decade's many how-did-they-do-that marvels. Enjoy.