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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