How the Yamaha DX7 Digital Synthesizer Defined the Sound of 1980s Music

There is a lot of cre­ative­ly revised his­to­ry in the Net­flix hit show Stranger Things, and I’m not just talk­ing about extra-dimen­sion­al mon­sters and Sovi­et sci­en­tists under shop­ping malls. There’s also the puls­ing synth score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Deserv­ing of all its praise, the music nonethe­less gives the impres­sion that the sound of the 1980s was made by instru­ments of the 60s and 70s—analog syn­the­siz­ers like the Min­i­Moog Mod­el D and effects like the Roland Space Echo.

Such clas­sic instru­men­ta­tion does cre­ate the per­fect weird, fuzzy, wob­bly, lush accom­pa­ni­ment to the show’s com­pelling mix of sci-fi body hor­ror and cud­dly nos­tal­gia. But the 80s was the gold­en age of new sound tech­nol­o­gy, dig­i­tal, and the dawn of syn­the­siz­ers like the Yama­ha DX7, released in 1983, the year the saga of the Upside-Down begins. Along­side mas­sive­ly-pop­u­lar dig­i­tal synths like the Roland Juno-60, the DX7 defined the 80s like few oth­er elec­tron­ic instru­ments, quick­ly ris­ing “to take over the air­waves,” as the Poly­phon­ic video above explains.

Bri­an Eno, Ken­ny Log­gins, Whit­ney Hous­ton, Her­bie Han­cock, Depeche Mode, Hall & Oates, Van­ge­lis, Steve Win­wood, Phil Collins, The Cure… one could go on and on, nam­ing a major­i­ty of the artists on the charts through­out the decade. Why was the DX7 more appeal­ing than the ana­logue sounds we now asso­ciate with the height of synth qual­i­ty? Poly­phon­ic explains how the DX7 used an algo­rithm called FM (fre­quent­ly mod­u­lat­ed) syn­the­sis, which allowed for more refined con­trol and mod­u­la­tion than the sub­trac­tive syn­the­sis of ana­log synths built by Moog, ARP, Buch­la, and oth­er spe­cial­ized mak­ers in the 70s.

That meant dig­i­tal key­boards had a wider range of tim­bres and could con­vinc­ing­ly sim­u­late real instru­ments, like the marim­bas in Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F.” Dig­i­tal synths were pre­dictable, and could be pro­grammed and cus­tomized, or used for their many already excel­lent pre­sets. And just as Fal­ter­mey­er’s Bev­er­ly Hills Cop theme was inescapable in the mid-80s, so too was the sound of the DX7. It was “damned near ubiq­ui­tous,” writes Music Radar. “After years of exclu­sive­ly ana­logue synths, musi­cians embraced the DX7’s smooth, crys­talline tones and for a while the air­waves were rife with FM bells, dig­i­tal Rhodes emu­la­tions and edgy bass­es.”

Though it’s hard­ly as well known, the DX7 may be as influ­en­tial in 80s music as the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Yama­ha’s dig­i­tal synth was so pop­u­lar that it “almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly spawned the third-par­ty sound design indus­try, and forced oth­er syn­the­siz­er man­u­fac­tur­ers to take a hard look at how they were build­ing their own instru­ments.” Learn about the his­to­ry, ver­sa­til­i­ty, and cus­tomiza­tion of the DX7 from Poly­phon­ic in the video above. And stream a playlist of songs fea­tur­ing the DX7 below. While our 80s nos­tal­gia moment favors the rich­ly har­mon­ic tones of ana­log synths from ear­li­er decades, you’ll learn why the real 1980s belonged to the dig­i­tal DX7 and its many com­peti­tors and suc­ces­sors.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

How the Moog Syn­the­siz­er Changed the Sound of Music

The Roland TR-808, the Drum Machine That Changed Music For­ev­er, Is Back! And It’s Now Afford­able & Com­pact

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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