Heard of synthwave music but aren’t sure exactly what it is? Well you’ve come to the right place!
In this guide we’ll explain what synthwave music is. We’ll go over the definition and history, and give you a short list of tracks and artists to check out.
Definition: What Is Synthwave Music?
Firstly, what is synthwave, and how is it different from other genres?
Synthwave has a few different names you may recognize. The genre is dominantly referred to as synthwave, but you may also hear the terms outrun, retrowave, or futuresynth. Regardless of the name, the genre is considered a “microgenre” — a highly specific genre that focus on a smaller subject of music rather than a larger term like “progressive rock” or “indie.”
Synthwave is a relative newcomer to the EDM scene. As a microgenre, it’s also harder to define directly or find something that fits purely into synthwave. It’s also difficult to find artists that are “only” synthwave artists, as the overlap within the EDM scene often sees artists branching out.
Due to its smaller size, synthwave isn’t as popular as broader terms like trance, techno, or dubstep. However, it also brings in characteristics of these genres.
Within synthwave, some microgenres go deeper. Darksynth, fashwave, dreamwave, and a few offshoots of vaporwave can also be found under the synthwave umbrella.
Here are some of the signature characteristics of synthwave music.
Synthwave Music Characteristics
Synthwave is a primarily-instrumental genre. Though some songs have lyrics, such as several of the examples we’ll give below, it’s more common to find synthwave songs that are purely instrumentation.
Synthwave is also a genre with a slower tempo. Most songs have tempos of around 80 to 118. More upbeat tracks may have tempos up to 140 BPM, but these are less common.
One of the most important characteristics of synthwave is nostalgia. This is far from a unique characteristic of synthwave in the EDM world. Other genres, such as vaporwave or chiptune, also have a strong nostalgic vibe to them.
Synthwave’s nostalgia is focused more on the 1980s aesthetic, most specifically of arcades. The music is also inspired by films from the same era, with composers like John Carpenter and Jean-Michel Jarre most commonly cited as influences. Because of these influences, synthwave often appears in association with video games or movies.
7 Examples of Synthwave Music
Now that we understand the genre better, we can look at some examples of synthwave tracks. These 7 songs give a good look into what the genre has to offer.
However, please note that these songs aren’t purely synthwave tracks. Some, such as KLOUD’s “FOLLOW ME” show deep influence of dark techno and deep house. Each song here has synthwave aesthetics and themes, making them a great sampling of what synthwave can offer as a genre.
“FOLLOW ME” by KLOUD
Our first example is KLOUD’s “FOLLOW ME.” KLOUD’s music is best described as having a darker influence than many others in the EDM scene. Instead of being loud, boisterous, and violent, like some dubstep acts can prove, KLOUD’s music tends to bring the slower tempos of synthwave.
“FOLLOW ME” is a quiet, somber track most defined by the vocal performance and slowly-growing synths. With a gradual start-up to the track, the song begins in earnest about 40 seconds in.
The vocal performance is a rarity in synthwave, but the headphone-wrapping bassline and distant synthesizer notes help make this a great synthwave song. If you’re only testing the waters of the genre before taking your dive, KLOUD can whet your appetite for what the genre can hold.
“Running in the Night” by FM-84 feat. Ollie Wride
FM-84 is one of the most iconic synthwave artists. In your exploration of the genre, the DJ is a name you should expect to see frequently. Their hit, “Running in the Night,” is one of synthwave’s most iconic songs.
Despite having vocals, this track is a textbook example of synthwave. With a distant, echoing drum machine for a snare and layered synths, this track has everything that synthwave can offer.
The nostalgic tones of the song are complete with the iconic album cover for the track. With a VHS aesthetic, heavy synths, and an 80s vibe, your playlist isn’t complete without “Running in the Night.”
“Future Club” by Pertubator
Another name you should expect to see frequently in the genre, Pertubator is a pillar of synthwave. “Future Club” is one of his most iconic bangers as well as making for a perfect example of the genre.
“Future Club” is without vocals and brings a slow tempo to bear. With distant and menacing bass, the track brings an ominous and threatening atmosphere.
From the cover art to the song itself, this track shows some of the strongest arcade influences in the genre. “Future Club” could be the soundtrack for any 1980s arcade boss battle and fit perfectly.
“So Far Away” by Lazerhawk
Lazerhawk is a name that you’ll spot across multiple genres, but the producer fits most in synthwave. The track “So Far Away” is another fantastic example of what the genre can bring.
With a somewhat melancholic tone, listeners can nearly trick themselves into thinking the song has no vocals. However, in the far distance of the track, you can make out a quiet voice carrying an effects-saturated note.
Though the song feels melancholic thanks to its slow BPM and distant vocals, the synths bring an uplifting tone. It’s the perfect song to put on during a late-night drive when you’re the only person left on the road.
“Fallout” by Neon Indian
Neon Indian is usually seen as an indie or pop-electro artist. Some of their biggest hits land under synthwave, and “Fallout” shows some of the deepest influences from the genre.
Featuring soft vocals layered in effects and soaring synths, “Fallout” is a heartbreaking break-up song about needing to lose feelings for the narrator’s lover. It’s another ideal driving song, and while it doesn’t perfectly summarize synthwave, it’s a good example of what you can find in the genre.
“Sentient” by Pertubator feat. Hayley Stewart
With our second Pertubator track, we have another song with vocals. While his previous track fits an old arcade perfectly, this song has one of the more movie-inspired vibes. With Hayley Stewart’s vocal talents perfectly complementing the track, this iconic synthwave song is a can’t-miss.
With a slow BPM and an ominous, almost gothic feel, “Sentient’ is an ideal introductory to the scene. If you’re a fan of old dystopian cyberpunk-esque films like Blade Runner or its relatively-recent sequel, this track will perfectly match your tastes.
“Tech Noir” by Gunship feat. John Carpenter and Charlie Simpson
Simply being influenced by Carpenter’s compositions isn’t enough for everyone – some bring the composer onto their track. Such is the case with Gunship’s iconic “Tech Noir.”
“Tech Noir” is an incredible synthwave track that no synthwave playlist is complete without. Undoubtedly one of the most popular in the genre, this track is responsible for millions of EDM fans discovering the genre. If you only listen to one song from this list, make sure it’s “Tech Noir.”
5 Top Synthwave Musicians
With a better understanding of what the genre can offer and the vibe the songs bring, who are the best artists? Here are five artists you’ll see across the genre as you explore.
As a note – these aren’t necessarily the five best artists. There are hundreds of synthwave artists out there for you to explore! But if you’re taking your first dive into the genre, these are the artists you’re most likely to be exposed to.
Garrett Hays, better known by his stage name Lazerhawk, is one of synthwave’s most famous producers. Whether he’s releasing the track under his own name or producing for fellow artists, his influence is found all over the genre.
Lazerhawk is most known for being a founding member of Rosso Corsa Records. Beginning his career through social media in the late 2000s, Lazerhawk’s music leans more toward outrun with a darker tone.
Another instantly-recognizable name, many say that FM-84 is responsible for exposing millions of fans to synthwave. The alias of Scottish artist Col Bennett, FM-84’s music is described as “sun-soaked 80s-inspired cinematic synthwave,” representing “the sound of a summer long gone.”
FM-84’s music is based deeply in nostalgia and tends toward brighter, more upbeat synthwave tracks. The artist’s music is often seen as the soundtrack of summer, lacking the darker and more menacing tones his contemporaries bring.
If making our list of songs twice wasn’t enough, James “Pertubator” Kent is also one of our top 5 artists. Based out of Paris, France, Pertubator is one of the most outspoken and notable names in synthwave.
Pertubator is mostly seen as one of the spearheads of the “darksynth” microgenre within synthwave. His mixes bring a darker, menacing, melancholic tone that accompanies a slower BPM. You can find him on playlists of all EDM genres with chill vibes and atmospheric tracks.
Vincent Belorgey, best known as Kavinsky, is another synthwave artist out of France. Most label his genre as “French house synthwave,” carrying the influences of dozens of genres.
One important note of Kavinsky is that he’s a few years older than many of the artists in the genres. While some, like Lazerhawk and FM-84, are making music nostalgic for a time they hadn’t lived through, Kavinsky brings the influence of growing up in the 1980s to bear.
Many fans recognize Kavinsky most for his work on the soundtrack of the hit movie Drive. One song in particular, “Nightcall,” is responsible for bringing synthwave to countless fans of the movie.
Our fifth artist, Gunship, is one of the most prominent EDM artists available today. But would you be surprised to learn Gunship isn’t one artist? While the other DJs (and most EDM acts) are single individuals, Gunship is a British three-piece.
Made up of Dan Haigh and Alex Westaway, the two added drummer Alex Gingell to their lineup. Their music is cinematic, deeply inspired by Carpenter’s pieces, and usually slower in BPM.
Some of their songs are so cinematic that they’re practically short films. If our above-suggestion “Tech Noir” left you wanting me, we suggest Gunship’s album Dark All Day.
The History of Synthwave Music
With everything we’ve discussed, you likely have a fair understanding of synthwave. But the details of the genre are still hidden! Despite only reaching prominence in the last decade, synthwave has been around significantly longer.
Synthwave began on social media in the mid-2000s. Most of the genre’s prominence began to grow on sites like Myspace and YouTube, with SoundCloud somewhat slow to pick up the genre (though that’s certainly changed).
As the microgenre grew, it became popular enough to grow some other microgenres. While terms like “outrun” were originally synonymous with synthwave, it’s now seen as a separate genre focusing on 1980s instrumentation like electronic drums.
Though he wasn’t responsible for its birth, many credit Kavinsky as the one that most popularized the genre in the mainstream. EDM.com describes Kavinsky as the pioneer of the genre, contemporary Carpenter Brut is given such a tag.
Arguably the biggest hit in the genre is Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” from the movie Drive. This movie’s release in 2011 helped push a massive wave of growth for the genre.
Today, the genre is extremely prominent in popular culture. Recent trends of 1980s nostalgia have helped bring music from the decade into popularity. Since synthwave deals dominantly in 1980s nostalgia, it’s been caught up in the recent sweep.
You can find synthwave on the soundtracks of popular shows like Stranger Things, where the opening theme shows heavy influence. Popular games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Hotline Miami help bring the genre more into the mainstream. Recent releases like CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk: 2077 also use the genre.
However, of these games, one would argue that Hotline Miami is the most prominent as far as the synthwave soundtrack goes. While the soundtrack was mostly done by synthwave artist M|O|O|N, Pertubator completed several tracks for the game. Other artists like Sun Araw, Scattle, Carpenter Brut, and more are featured in the game’s iconic soundtrack.
In short, synthwave is a genre that’s reached the height of its popularity in the last 10 or 15 years. The genre is continuing to grow and spawn more microgenres, helping it become popular in the EDM scene and popular culture alike.
What Is Synthwave Music? Final Thoughts
Synthwave can be found from hit Netflix originals to indie game soundtracks, influenced by 1980s nostalgia, arcade culture, and movie scores. Whether you’re listening for the uplifting nostalgia of FM-84 or to Kavinsky’s cinematic masterpieces, there’s something for you!
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