Classic synth sounds revealed

Discover the machines behind the great synth moments

Just as there are classic guitar tones, certain synth sounds have passed into the public consciousness. MusicRadar celebrates some of the best-known synth moments in music history and reveals the tools and methods that were used to create them. You may not like some of these sounds, but you’ll almost certainly recognise them…

Pink Floyd - On the Run
All sequencing burbles and musique concrète, this synth workout is credited to the EMS VCS 3 on the liner notes for The Dark Side of the Moon, but it was actually made with the nearly identical Synthi AKS. The VCS 3 has no sequencer, y’see.

Aphex Twin - Windowlicker
It’s the worst kept secret in underground music. By now you probably know that a spectrographic analysis of the second of Windowlicker’s three tracks will reveal a portrait of Richard James himself! Indeed, the terrifically unmusical sound in question was created using U&I’s marvellous Metasynth.

Van Halen - Jump
It may have shocked and dismayed metal fans, but Eddie Van Halen’s instantly recognisable brassy, ballsy synth intro sent the band straight into the mainstream pop charts. It’s well known that it was played on Oberheim’s pricey OBXa.

R2-D2
How can a series of indecipherable electronic bleeps and belches say so much? Sound effects man Ben Burtt initially used a combination of ARP 2600 and his own voice to generate the lovable droid’s squeaks and squawks. In the later movies, a Kyma was brought in to recreate the classic sound for the modern age.

Daft Punk - Around the World
Is there a sound that defines Daft Punk? Well, vocoders, to be sure, along with, according to the band, every analogue synthesizer ever made. More specifically, they’re big fans of the Roland Juno 106, the ARP Odyssey and more than a few Minimoogs. Oh, and lots of compression.

Jazzy Jeff – Summertime
You know the riff: sliding, gliding analogue that soars ever higher and higher – the perfect sound to describe a hot, lazy summer’s day. So how did they do it? Well, they didn’t, actually. The sound was lifted from another balmy classic, Summer Madness by Kool and the Gang, who slathered the sound of the oh-so-desirable ARP 2600 all over it.

Harold Faltermeyer - Axel F
In 1984, it was nigh-on impossible to escape Faltermeyer’s instrumental ode to Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop (though some of us certainly tried). This infectious electronic instrumental was recorded with a mere three synthesizers: a Roland JX-3P and Jupiter-8, and, of course, the ubiquitous Yamaha DX-7. In other words, it’s the epitome of the 80s!

Benny Benassi – Satisfaction
Saws, saws and more saws! Grab a simple sawtooth wave from any analogue subtractive synthesizer, sidechain compress the living daylights out of it and you’re pretty much there.

John Carpenter - Assault on Precinct 13
Could this be the single greatest example of synth music ever to grace a soundtrack? The massively influential title theme to John Carpenter’s gritty homage to Howard Hawks was written by the director himself, while Dan Wyman patched all of the sounds on a Moog Modular Series III. Check out Mark Shreeve’s masterful cover on his Assassin album for some more true grit.

Human Resource - Dominator
Dizzying, distorted and utterly, well, dominating, this sound rules the rave. Though a relatively recent phenomenon, the sound itself was originally a preset on the Roland Alpha Juno 1, circa 1986. Called ‘What The..?’, it was tucked away in the special effects patches.

The Tardis
It may be the single most recognisable sound effect on this (or any) planet: the grinding, groaning, wheezing sound that signals the arrival of that singular blue police phonebox. The noise itself, created in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, is often assumed to be a product of synthesis, but it was actually made by treating the sound of a key being scraped across a piano string! 

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