80s Electronic Music Can Teach You About Creating Soundtracks
Most of the soundtrack I write is electronic in nature. I use various synthesizers to create my own sounds, and then I compose using MIDI. The 1980s were a golden age for electronic music, and many of the innovations that were created back then are still in use today.
I’ve written before about how you can use soundtracks from cartoons and anime to learn about creating your own soundtracks. But there’s another great resource for anyone who wants to understand how to create electronic soundtracks: 80s electronic music.
Many popular songs from the 1980s used electronic instruments as a key element and were written by people who have gone on to have successful careers in film scoring (Thomas Newman and Alan Silvestri, among others). And while some of those songs might not be held up as examples of high art, they nevertheless provide valuable lessons for anyone looking to create their own soundtracks.
The 1980s were a wonderful time for electronic music. The technology used to create it was new and groundbreaking, allowing musicians to explore new sounds never before heard in popular music.
The use of electronic instruments was not limited to techno, however. Rock and pop artists were quick to experiment with the new technology as well, which is why you may find yourself listening to 80s synth-rock or synth-pop when you need inspiration for your own soundtrack.
It’s not just about the sound, though. Electronic music of the 80s can also teach you a lot about how to structure a piece of music, how to choose the right instrumentation for each part of the track, and how to transition from one section to another.
At the time, electronic music was a risky proposition. Most people thought it sounded cold and inhuman. A lot of the earliest electronic pioneers fought to make their music sound more “human,” adding swing, improvising on synthesizers, or singing lyrics about love, sex, or politics.
But a few producers went in the opposite direction. They embraced the idea that electronic music could be different from what had come before: colder, nakeder, more mechanical. For them, this was not a bug but a feature; they wanted to explore what happened when you stripped away all the familiar musical conventions.
The resulting tracks were unlike anything anyone had ever heard. And because they were so different, they did something no one expected: they became popular with young people, who didn’t know any better and liked the newness of it all.
Even outside of music these sounds were heard. The distinctive bass rumble of an 808 kick drum can be heard in countless movie soundtracks from the 80s and 90s (usually as part of a synth-heavy score).
The lesson is clear: if you want to create a soundtrack for a movie or video game that is going to stand out from the crowd, take inspiration from some of the great electronic musicians of the 1980s
Despite the fact that most modern videogames today come equipped with fully orchestral soundtracks, there’s no denying that their electronic roots are still very present.
In fact, electronic music has helped to define entire generations of games. Think about the first time you played Super Mario Brothers. It’s likely impossible not to hear those iconic 8-bit melodies in your head right now, because they’ve been so ingrained into our collective consciousness and nostalgia as gamers.
The same is true for many other electronic soundtracks throughout history, including many in the 80s, when electronic music was taking off in popular culture. Here are a few of my favorite tracks from that era, which can serve as inspiration for your own game soundtracks or compositions:
In 1977, the original Star Wars movie was released — and the same year, Meco’s disco version of the movie’s soundtrack reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100.
This wasn’t just a one-off coincidence. Disco versions of movie soundtracks were incredibly popular during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was a time when electronic music was starting to take off, and record companies were experimenting with new sounds. It was a new world for film composers, who had long been limited to writing orchestral scores.
In this article I’ll look at how 80s electronic music changed how movie soundtracks were made and marketed. I’ll use two examples from the era: Meco’s Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band and Toto’s Africa. But first we need some background…
80s electronic music is not a genre everyone will enjoy. It’s filled with cheesy synths and badly recorded drum machines, but the biggest downside is that the sounds are very dated. The songs on this list were not created by studio professionals in $500,000 sound studios. These tracks were made by bedroom producers using whatever technology they could get their hands on, but the end result is something truly inspirational. If it was good enough for people like Vince Clarke, then it’s good enough for us.
Many of the most iconic video game soundtracks of the ’80s were composed using chip-based sound hardware. The audio capabilities of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles and computers were crude, and they could only render a limited number of waveforms — square waves, sine waves, sawtooth waves, triangle waves and more.
Yet it was these primitive waveforms that gave these early games their unique personality and atmosphere. Most importantly, they helped players to identify with the onscreen action. Even today, the most diehard fans will tell you that no modern remake can top the original versions.