8 Tips for Mixing and Producing '80s Sounds

Technology in the 1980s changed the game for record making, as synthesizers, drum machines, automation, sampling and other studio trickery entered the market. Draw inspiration from the era’s sounds for your mixes.

By George Shilling

8 Tips for Mixing and Producing '80s Sounds


Improvements in technology had given 1970s records greater fidelity than their 1960s predecessors. In the 1970s, the trend was for warm, dry and dead sounds, i.e. close micing and less reverberation. But as the 1980s unfolded and digital delay and reverb units started appearing in studios, this all changed. Engineers began to design recording rooms to be reflective and “bangy” for bigger sounding drums. Adding a huge, long bright reverb on the snare drum became de rigueur.

Tape machine formats had settled down to a generally accepted 24 track 2” standard, and the big changes came in other areas. Solid State Logic 4000 Series consoles dominated, with their ability to recall mix setups, accurately synchronize fader and mute automation, and their famous bus compressor, all of which influenced the sound of records of the era. Drum machines and sampling technology allowed for the evolution of hip hop, but even the rock records used sampled and triggered snare drums and machine-generated claps. Studio wizards like Trevor Horn became ever more ingenious, experimenting with outlandish techniques to push the boundaries for more dramatic sonic impact. Here we’ll go through 8 tips for inspiring ‘80s sounds you can create in your mixes and productions.

1. Gated Reverb

During the 1980s, studios started acquiring digital reverb units for their racks to supplement the enormous EMT plate reverbs hiding in the attic. Digital reverbs sounded denser and brighter, and could easily be edited for different effects. Popular brands included Lexicon, AMS, Klark Teknik, Quantec and Yamaha. Reliant on early digital converter technology, they sounded brash and grainy. Famously, engineer/producer Hugh Padgham invented the now-classic gated reverb sound using the compressed talkback mic circuit on an SSL console, and noise gates to abruptly curtail the decay of room reverberation. Digital reverb could create similar sounds, and AMS’s RMX-16 Nonlin setting and Yamaha’s SPX90 soon replicated it.

You could create this effect with an elaborate chain of reverb, compression and gating, but the gate reverb sound can be more easily emulated by H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb. Click the Load button, and near the bottom of the Hardware folder is 16 Nonlin which is a re-creation of the AMS gated reverb effect. Click the Expand button to reveal the EQ settings and bypass the low-mid boost for a more authentic sound; the original was a bit thinner and more ringy. Experiment with different Early Reflection settings too (ER Select, just below the Reverb Time display). Also in the Hardware folder are presets including emulations of various Lexicon devices and the characterful Klark Teknik DN780, all worth trying. There’s also a folder called Gated which contains a great preset ‘That 80s Snare’ where you can easily edit the reverb time to suit your song.

Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” used the gated reverb gimmick to great effect; wait for the tom-tom fills!

I remember the 80s extravagance of a mix engineer working with a well-known band regularly renting six top-of-the-range digital reverbs for six different settings for different instruments. You could legitimately try three different reverbs for snare, tom-toms and kick drum. Bass drums often tended to be drier, so add a tiny amount of shorter gated reverb or use the 16 Room A2 setting in H-Reverb.

Tears For Fears’ “Shout” popularized the huge exploding snare sound.

2. Vocal Reverb and Delay

Vocals were often treated with longer digital reverbs and digital delay. There are myriad choices in H-Reverb, and 224 CD Plate A in the Hardware folder is a typical ‘80s Lexicon setting. In IR-1 Convolution Reverb with the full preset library installed, near the bottom of the list is the Virtual Acoustics-Devices folder where there are some further Lexicon-inspired presets to explore. Using tape for delay quickly went out of fashion when the convenience of digital delay units took over. The aforementioned AMS sounded more ‘hi-fi’ compared to tape. Vocals often had a heap of delay added, as well as a big reverb. H-Delay Hybrid Delay will replicate all kinds of ‘80s delay settings, from ‘slap-back’ to longer rhythmic effects. When adding delay, don’t forget to also send some of the delay’s output to the vocal reverb.

3. ’80s Style ADT & Chorus

Double tracked and ADT processing was popularized in the 1970s, but in the 80s, digital delay units took over from tape delay and bucket-brigade transistor delay units for what tended to be a ‘shinier’ and colder sound. There was a very particular trick, mainly used for vocals, with the new digital delays and harmonizers that had recently been installed in many studio racks. I mostly used the AMS DMX 15-80S (which launched in 1979). Feeding vocals from a send would add a glossy and magical width, sheen and depth.

To re-create this effect, insert Doubler on an aux and load Ross Hogarth’s Doubler 1 preset. To vary the subtlety of the harmonizer settings, change the Detune values which are set at +6 and -6. The AMS also included a VCO section for modulating the delay, and setting this on a fairly slow setting typified the popular chorus effects of the time. Starting from the same Doubler preset, adjust the Depth of each voice to -30 and +30 and slow the Rate to about 0.7. Send guitars and even bass guitar to this for a wonderful rich chorus effect, typical of records from the ‘80s by The Cure and Psychedelic Furs.

Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” with a typical wide stereo chorus on the bass guitar.

4. Delay Tricks

One favorite trick was using two Lexicon PCM42 mono units and panning them hard left and right, then feeding some of the output of the first one to the second one and vice-versa to create a stereo ping-pong effect. The PCM42’s X2 button halved the sample rate for a more lo-fi effect. H-Delay has a Ping Pong mode button at the top so engage that, and to emulate the X2 mode of the PCM42, engage the LoFi button under the Tap button. Then, set Delay and Feedback to taste. This is often effective just for special moments rather than throughout a track, perhaps for a breakdown section, so you might want to automate the send. Unless of course, you’re trying to emulate The Edge from U2, in which case you’ll probably want to set it up with the guitarist when recording.

U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with ping-pong delay on the guitar.

5. Console EQ and Compression

The SSL consoles of the 1980s had a brighter sonic character from their warmer Neve, Helios and API forerunners. SSL E-Channel emulates the E Series console strip. Most notably, the SSL’s EQ section featured fully sweeping frequency controls and bandwidth knobs for more precisely honing in on sounds. The later era “Black Knob” EQ modeled here was even more precise than the earlier Brown Knob version and with tighter curves. I used the first-ever example of a Black Knob desk to engineer some of the hits I had in the late 80s and early 90s.

For an 80s bass-drum sound, I would usually scoop out some low-mids with the blue band, often with the frequency knob fully counter-clockwise at 200Hz, then I would boost bass-end with the Bell curve selected, and perhaps move the High Pass Filter knob up to eliminate any unwanted rumbling. Set the low-frequency knob to around 90Hz for a small boost, but more importantly, emphasize upper-mid “smack” with the green band, and add a 5kHz Bell boost with the red band. Another unusual feature of the SSL desk was the Dynamics section. In the ‘80s, I routinely used the expander on all channels for basic noise reduction when working with tape to reduce hiss. You won’t need to do that with your DAW, but gating was frequently used to curtail decay on drum hits, so you can experiment with that. The compressor is also useful for adding punch to drums. For other sources, the fast attack setting combined with a fast release setting can usefully be quite brutal.

6. Saturation

Another trick with the SSL was to use the mic input to deliberately distort signals for crazy telephone effects, ramping up the gain, then bringing the level back down with the fader. This can be achieved authentically using CLA MixHub, turning up the red mic gain knob while pulling down the fader. Be sure to have the Analog button engaged. And of course, CLA MixHub also emulates the SSL E-Series sonics accurately, and allows you to get even closer to the SSL mixing experience by grouping multiple channels into ‘buckets,’ and mixing them in the same window. Its alternative “Bluey” compressor mode emulates the Urei 1176 compressor which was still very popular in the ‘80s for vocal compression.

Jennifer Rush’s “The Power Of Love” has the clicky bass drum, various reverbs and delays, and that huge snare sound.

7. Master Bus Compression and EQ

Until the SSL desk came along, you had to patch in outboard compressors if you wanted to process the entire mix. But the Quad Compressor changed all that. It was so easy to lean across and enable the compressor, and the sound of compression was usually so much better than a dry signal, so this became a big part of the sound of ‘80s records. For a punchy pop track, load the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor on the master bus and try a 4:1 ratio, a fairly fast attack setting of .3mS, a fast release of .1, and allow the gain-reduction meter to waggle down to about -4dB. For a more invisible character, slow the attack to 3mS and try the auto release setting.

In the ‘80s, limiting the track wasn’t such a big thing as it is now and was strictly left to mastering engineers, so maybe go easy on the overall squash to keep some dynamics. Don’t be afraid to EQ your mix; a lot of ‘80s tracks were quite bright, with perhaps less low end than we are accustomed to today. Try the SSL G-Equalizer or the H-EQ Hybrid Equalizer which has curves emulating various consoles, and add some 8-9kHz for some of that shiny ‘80s tone. The Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain was still used through the 1980s, so it would fit to use this for some final shaping.

Yes’s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” from 1983 still sounds great today.

8. Tape and Vinyl

Tape was still king for multi-tracking and mixing down. Even though digital formats were starting to creep in towards the end of the decade, most records were made entirely on analog tape. J37 Tape has plenty of flexibility. Choose the EMITAPE 815 setting for a more modern tape formulation. Dolby SR had all but eliminated tape hiss by the mid-80s, but not everyone liked using it, so a touch of noise might be appropriate. Stick with 15IPS to keep things relatively hi-fi. You could also add some authentic vinyl warmth and grit with the Abbey Road Vinyl plugin. The Mastering Starting Point preset really brings a mix to life, turn down the clicks and tweak from there!

David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” incorporates many of the typical ‘80s sounds: gated reverb on the drums, some ping-pong snare delay near the end, all with a hint of tape saturation.

Want tips on producing ’70s sounds? Get tips on making your mix sound more authentically 1970’s.

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