As the 1970’s drew to a close, the by-then familiar sound of analogue synthesizers was starting to become accompanied by something new and a little strange. Join me, Matt Wild, as I explore some of the finest examples of 80s sampler-driven pop in my collection.
Digital sampling synthesizers such as the Fairlight CMI and Synclavier, although only affordable to the top tier of artists at the time, began to allow easy playback and manipulation of recorded sounds in a way that had previously only been accessible through arduous cutting and sticking of reel-to-reel tapes, or by using enormous, restrictive and unreliable tape-based units such as the Mellotron.
The door had been opened to a new world of possibilities for well-off avant-garde and pop artists, which embraced the new-found computing power of these five-figure instruments. Peter Gabriel was one of the first artists to record with one on his self-titled album of 1980 after he was introduced to the instrument by inventor Peter Vogel; he also started the first UK distributor, selling each Fairlight in the UK at a price of £12,000 (nearly £58,000 in 2018).
The distinctive, ethereal-yet-crunchy feel of the Fairlight (caused by the limited sample rate of just 24kHz) could be heard throughout pop music and beyond by the mid-1980’s. Less well-off artists were not kept out of the sampling game for long however as E-mu released the relatively affordable Emulator II in 1984 – at a distinctly bargain price of US$7995! This saw heavy use both in the studio and on the road for a number of synthpop bands, even going so far as to supply every sound (except vocals) in the Pet Shop Boys’ hit single West End Girls.
This playlist brings together several luminary artists of the early 1980’s, each of whom have made use on these songs of early sampling and digital synthesizers – from straight up pop classics (Pet Shop Boys, Michael Jackson, Depeche Mode), through the infectious and funk-laden innovation of European electronic wizards (Yello, Jean-Michel Jarre, Thomas Dolby), to avant-garde sound collages (Art of Noise, Kate Bush) and appropriately rounding off with Laurie Anderson’s 1981 part-poem, part-inquisition of technology and communication, O Superman.