Regardless of what you think of the actual music, there is little doubt that the eighties was exciting time when it came to music production. Electronics were taking center stage in the mainstream, technology was coming down in price, and experimentation with new technology was rampant. Although many of the records from that time sound almost quaint now, at the time, these albums were cutting edge. Unsurprisingly, 80's music and production has been back in vogue, with many new artists emulating the techniques and sounds of bands 30 years their senior. So today I thought I would talk a little bit about how to give your drum tracks a more 80's vibe.
1.) Choose Sounds Wisely
A huge part of getting an 80's drum sounds relies on using sounds that were actually used during that time period. This isn't as difficult as it sounds, as although there were tons of instruments to choose from back then, there were a relative handful that found their way on to most of the pop records of the time. Of course the TR-808 is an obvious choice, but remember that the 80's saw the birth of sampling drum machines like the Linndrum, the Oberheim DMX, and the E-mu Drumulator, all of which appeared on countless records back then. And don't forget to add some doofy Simmons toms to the equation. Want to emulate the more "big budget" sound of the time? Try to find some Fairlight CMI drum samples.
2.) Produce Differently
The fact of the matter is, 80's records sound different from modern records. This isn't just the sounds used, but the production techniques. What is probably most noticeable is the way tracks are EQed. 80's records generally have much less low end than modern records, so while your kick drum can have some weight, you might want to avoid the bowel-shaking subs so much modern music centers around. Keep in mind also that with very few exceptions (Peter Gabriel is a notable one), almost all albums recorded during that time were recorded on tape, and not digitally. The effect this has can be subtle, but noticeable, especially if you drive the tape a bit. Sure, buying an old tape deck and recording to it will give you the most authentic sound, but on a more practical level, there are tons of tape saturation plug-ins available out there that can lend this quality when properly applied.
3.) Reverb Differently
Most modern pop music is extremely dry-sounding when it comes to the use of reverb. The opposite was true in the 80's where reverb and effects were used much more heavily, often crossing the line into gimmickry. This might require you to think a bit differently than you do when working on a track with a more modern sound. For instance, while it's quite unusual to hear more than a bit of ambience on a kick drum track these days (trance intros and breakdowns excepted), it was not uncommon for both the kick and the snare drum to go through a reverb for a more bombastic, exaggerated sound. Because this can often turn into mud, producers often used the technique pioneered by Peter Gabriel's producer Hugh Padgham (often mis-attributed to Phil Collins who later used the same technique), which entailed applying a noise gate to cut off the reverb tails. Gated reverbs are not difficult to find in plug-ins (especially among convolution reverbs), but it's an easy technique to do yourself. Just put a noise gate after your snare reverb and adjust the gate's threshold and attack/decay settings to taste. Also try putting some compression AFTER your reverb to exaggerate the reverb effects.
What other 80's production techniques do you like to apply to your own drum tracks?