Popular music of the 1980s is remembered today as having a “sound” that is somehow unified and generalizable. The ’80s sound is tied to the electric piano preset of the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. Not only was this preset (E. PIANO 1) astonishingly prevalent—heard in up to 61% of #1 hits on the pop, country, and R&B Billboard charts in 1986—but the timbre of E. PIANO 1 also encapsulates two crucial aspects of a distinctly ’80s sound in microcosm: one, technological associations with digital FM synthesis and the Yamaha DX7 as a groundbreaking ’80s synthesizer; and two, cultural positioning in a greater lineage of popular music history. This article analyzes the timbre of E. PIANO 1 by combining ethnographic study of musician language with visual analysis of spectrograms, a novel combination of techniques that links acoustic specificity with social context. The web of connections created by the use and re-use of DX7 presets like E. PIANO 1, among hundreds or maybe thousands of different tracks and across genres, is something that allows modern listeners to abstract a unified notion of the “’80s sound” from a diverse and eclectic repertoire of songs produced in the 1980s.
What Makes It Sound ’80s?: The Yamaha DX7 Electric Piano Sound
Megan Lavengood is an assistant professor of music theory at George Mason University, where she teaches undergraduate core theory and graduate courses in advanced theory topics. Her research primarily deals with popular music, timbre, synthesizers, and recording techniques. Her dissertation is titled “A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre.”
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Megan Lavengood; What Makes It Sound ’80s?: The Yamaha DX7 Electric Piano Sound. Journal of Popular Music Studies 3 September 2019; 31 (3): 73–94. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jpms.2019.313009
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