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Synths & Simmons: The sound of the 80s

There’s no mistaking the super-sized sheen of an 80s rock album – but what’s the story behind that sound, and does it deserve such criticism?

The popular perception of an 80s rock record goes something like this. A gated snare drum going off like a gunshot. Synths, samples and digital drums jostling for elbow room in an airtight multitracked mix. A production job as shiny as the compact disc sliding into a yuppie’s Bang & Olufsen. And, most of all, a sense of unsustainable size, like bubblegum blown up too far.

It’s a glib stereotype, of course – but only just. “Everything was pushed to the limit in the eighties,” Europe frontman Joey Tempest remembers. “It was a decade of flamboyance and pushing all the faders, a hundred per cent. But it was charming, too. A wonderful decade.”

Rewind just a little further, to the 70s, and rock’n’roll wasn’t rocket science. Back then a studio was a bare-bones, all-analogue world with a human heartbeat, where records lived or died on the skill of the musicians on the floor. “If you had a drummer that could keep time, life was good,” recalls veteran producer Keith Olsen, famed for his work with Fleetwood Mac, Ozzy Osbourne and Whitesnake. “If you had a great guitar player, it was wonderful. If the songs were there, it was even better. Y’know, it was songs, performance and sound, in that order.”


From the archive

From the archive

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