Retro cultures: retro sounds

Photograph of a man playing a keyboard

© Mark McNulty

Alongside advances in recording and instrumental technology, older popular music technologies have, from time to time, been rediscovered. Beginning in the late 20th century numerous instruments, recording technologies and computer programmes from earlier eras have started to be valued for their distinctive sounds. These rediscoveries range from 1950s guitars to 1960s mixing desks to early 1980s '8-bit' technology (which was to create the soundtrack music to computer games on 1980s computers such as the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64) .

The contemporary use of sounds from the 1980s is a good example of the way in which certain technologies and the sounds they produce become associated with a given era of popular music, and keep these associations when they are recreated. When 1980s technologies, especially 'analogue' synthesisers, are used today it is usually in a consciously 'retro' way, in a deliberate attempt to create a 1980s sound. At the same time it might suggest a wider reference to 1980s popular culture or to particular groups of the era.

This is not to say that the use of such technologies is necessarily backwards-looking or sentimental. The successful Liverpool band Ladytron, for example, use old analogue synthesisers and vintage drum machines in order to create a sound that has its roots in synth-pop whilst also incorporating contemporary dance and experimental music. Ladytron's re-use of these technologies has had a significant influence on various types of dance and pop musics of the 2000s. The band's interest in analogue synthesisers of the late 1970s and early 1980s is in itself part of a broader rediscovery of analogue equipment. In the 1990s many musicians began to value the 'hands-on' nature of such instruments and their ability to move away from preset sounds, as well as the qualities of the sounds themselves. For example, Tim Gaine of Stereolab commented about Moog synthesisers:

"I love the Moog's personality, because it's all about imagination. To me it's about infinite possibilites." (quoted in Relic, 1997: 82)

Some Liverpool acts of the late 1980s and early 1990s were interested in other areas of musical and technological rediscovery. The La's for instance deliberately sought out vintage recording equipment from the period of classic rock, whilst the rhythm and blues band the Stairs had a number of releases in mono sound, rather than using the more common stereo sound. In what was perhaps a deliberate reaction to the polished (and to some overproduced) recording conventions of the time, these acts attempted to evoke the values of craft and authenticity that they perceived in the rock acts of the 1960s. In a 1990 appearance on the BBC 2 TV show 'Rapido', the La's lead singer Lee Mavers expressed his disappointment in the effect of contemporary recording technology on the band's previous releases. He commented;

"Our sound is very acoustic based and... more organic than, say like, the usual sounds of today. It's hard to capture in a modern studio which is geared up to DIing [direct inputing] synthesisers and all that. It's all geared up to that these days."