When you hear a piece of music that was released in the 1980s, you can tell almost immediately. There are certain features of the sound that are unique to this time period and which give '80s music that particular feel. This is largely down to the way the music was made at the time.
If there is one feature of '80s music that truly marks it as being of that era, it is surely the synthetic percussion that underpinned the most popular music in that decade. Music technology, in general, was beginning to mature during the 1980s, and this can be seen in the widespread adoption of synthetic sounds into all genres of music during the period.
Of course, some musicians were more successful than others in this regard. The final studio albums from Led Zeppelin and The Clash both incorporated electronic instruments and synthetic percussion in a way that just didn’t gel with their analog sounds.
Not everyone was shoehorning synthetic drum sounds into their music - there are plenty of artists from the era who stuck with the traditional means of percussion. In fact, some of the easiest songs to play - not to mention the most fun to jam to - from the era used conventional drums. Both Queen and Guns N' Roses resisted synthetic drums in the '80s. But even some songs that were recorded using computerized drumkits can still be played on a regular drumkit.
VOX And Autotuning
One of the many musical technologies that came into fruition in the 1980s was digital filters. By the time the 1980s rolled around, effects filters were already a well-established part of music, but they had rarely been applied to vocals before. During the 1980s, it became much more common to hear a vocal track that had been edited or fixed in some way to make it sound ‘better’.
The most common manifestation of this technology was autotuning, a seemingly magic technology that could turn even the most out-of-tune vocal performance into something usable. Autotune soon became a staple of '80s pop, enabling a whole generation of singers who couldn’t sing to become popstars.
Even singers who were able to hold a note and could sing at the correct pitch increasingly turned to vocal effects to give their performances a little something extra. For pop music, the kind of vocal effects pioneered during the '80s would soon become a staple part of the genre and vocal effects are regularly applied today to perfectly good vocal performances.
Drone chords are commonly found throughout music from the 1980s. A drone chord is created by a keyboard player using their right hand to play different chords for the song’s melody while their left-hand continues to play the same bass note or vice versa. This technique was used on lots of popular '80s hits, including Survivor's "Eye of The Tiger."
Another feature of music in the 1980s that hadn’t really been observed before then was the blending of different musical genres. Avant-garde and experimental music already existed, but advances in technology meant that different genres could be blended together in ways that weren’t possible before. During the late '80s and early '90s, sampling began to be used more frequently in order to mash-up different tracks, having them play alongside one another. Late '80s hip-hop is full of examples of sampling being used to incorporate significant components of other tracks into their own.
When you hear '80s music, you just know that you are listening to something from the era. As well as the technicalities of the music itself, the sound of '80s music was also defined by the available recording and listening technology. Regardless of how it was composed, it is the sound of that '80s technology that really defines the music.