Since the ’70s, synthesizers have been an indispensable part of rock and pop music. Initially, it was rock bands with a knack for experimental things, such as The Who or Pink Floyd, but from the ’80s and onwards, there was no stopping what Kraftwerk or Jean-Michel Jarre created. Entire musical genres such as Italo Disco or Synth-Pop were based almost exclusively around synthetic sounds and even in rock, keyboardists were allowed to play more than just boring pads. We’ve picked out 15 songs that every synthesizer fan should know. 🎹
1. Depeche Mode – Just Can’t Get Enough
The song appeared on Depeche Mode’s first album Speak & Spell in 1981 and remains their most iconic song to this day. The third single was created by synth guru Vince Clark, who later enjoyed further success with other synth-heavy bands such as Yazoo and Erasure. Just Can’t Get Enough is produced completely synthetically (except for the vocals of course). The distinctive lead sound comes from the much too often underestimated Roland Jupiter-4.
2. Yazoo – Don’t Go
Let’s move on to one of Vince Clark’s post-Depeche Mode projects. Yazoo would never have been as successful without Alison Moyet’s outstanding voice, but the sound around it came entirely from synthesizers. Yazoo provided us with just two albums between 1981 and 1983, but songs like Only You, Nobody’s Diary and Don’t Go are still cult hits today. The intro of Don’t Go, which makes you recognize the song after a fraction of a second, comes from the ARP 2600, the bass from the Sequential Circuits Pro-One pushes along powerfully and another bass from the Roland Juno-60 makes it thick. Perfect sound for a soulful and powerful female voice!
3. Harold Faltermeyer – Axel F
The title track to Beverly Hills Cop (starring Eddie Murphy) was made with just five instruments, which might be a lot for a rock band, but is usually extremely little for 80’s synth songs. Munich-born Harold Faltermeyer used a Linndrum for the drums, a Moog Modular for the bass, the Roland JX-3P for brass sounds, the often-used Marimba from the Yamaha DX7 and nothing less than the Roland Jupiter-8 for the lead sound. I wouldn’t mind a 4th movie. I’d see it just to hear the song one more time!
4. New Order – Blue Monday
The best-selling maxi single of all time is driven at 131 BPM by the beat of the Oberheim DMX. The bass drum of this drum machine hammers like the disco hits that were in vogue at the time, because that was the direction New Order wanted to take. And since Kraftwerk was already a great role model in the days of the predecessor band Joy Division, you can hear the chorus of the song Uranium from the album Radioactivity as a sample in Blue Monday. Combine that with the eighth-note bass from the Moog Source, a sequencer that doesn’t always play in sync, synth strings, a few effects, guitar, bass, drums – and of course Bernard Sumner’s unmistakable voice and BAM: You’ve got yourself a hit!
5. Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls
While New Order released Blue Monday, the Pet Shop Boys sat at their jobs and decided to do exactly what they heard on Blue Monday. So perhaps it’s not surprising that West End Girls kicks off with the beat of an Oberheim DMX, followed by Strings from Oberheim’s sampler legends Emulator I and Emulator II. The bass was played by Chris Lowe on a Roland Jupiter-6 and layered from there via MIDI with a percussive patch from the Yamaha DX7. A concise vocal performance is also added on top, this time by vocalist Neil Tennant.
6. Van Halen – Jump
This masterpiece can’t be missed, because actually 99.7% of the success formula of this 1983 song (the rest being Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo and David Lee Roth’s voice) consists of the synth riff played by Eddie Van Halen with the Factory Preset A1 of the Oberheim OB-Xa. It can be that simple: turn on the synthesizer, select the first sound, hammer a few chords and one of the biggest hits ever heard is ready. If only it were that simple…
7. Europe – The Final Countdown
Yet another rock song, which became an unmistakable anthem mainly because of its distinctive synth sound. The idea of the song came from singer Joey Tempest, who composed the famous riff on a Korg Polysix. But one oscillator per voice wasn’t fat enough for the rest of the band, so they had to get a Roland JX-8P and a Yamaha TX816 to make the fanfare sound the way it does now. It was worth it!
8. Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams
Ever heard of the Movement Systems drum computer? Exactly! The beat of Sweet Dreams was made with it! What looks as if it had just been standing on the table of a technician from Moonbase Alpha 1 can be seen as a prototype in the accompanying video and has always been extremely rare. The synthesizer that generates the distinctive bassline is quite different: It was a Roland SH-101 which was used in a gray, red or blue finish by many keyboardists of the ’80s!
9. OMD – Enola Gay
You wouldn’t believe it, but the iconic drum machine that starts this song was recorded pretty much at the end of the creation process. OMD still play the song from 1980 as the last track at every live show and leave the audience alone with this beat when they finish their set. And yes, it’s of course a Roland CR-78, which is also well known from the beginning of In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. The lead sound of the song, named after the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, comes from a legendary Korg Micro-Preset from the year 1978. “Enola Gay, you should have stayed at home yesterday”.
10. Visage – Fade to Grey
You can get a cool feature from dysfunctional instruments – here’s a great example! A Minimoog was supposed to play the bassline on Fade to Grey, but it just wouldn’t work during the recording. It was planned in combination with the legendary “Vox Humana” preset of the Polymoog oversynth. But nothing helped. The Polymoog was used again, this time with a brass sound. And it is exactly this sound that makes Fade to Grey so unmistakable.
11. The Art of Noise – Moments in Love
This list would not be complete without a song produced by Trevor Horn. The list of bands he produced is endless, from ABC to Frankie Goes to Hollywood to t.A.T.u. And time and time again he used the Fairlight CMI, an incredibly expensive sampler by today’s standards, which came out at the end of the 1970s and became famous especially for its fantastic factory sound library and its somewhat scratchy sound. We chose Moments in Love because this song is based on a famous sound from this library, the sample ARR1. They added a sample of a blues singer named Sarah on top of the ARR1, and that’s the combination that created this distinctive sound.
12. Underworld – Born Slippy (Nuxx)
Underworld combined techno beats from the Roland TR-909 with further synthesizer elements and wonderfully distorted vocals in the ’90s and brought their sound to the big festival stages. The song Born Slippy, which can also be heard in the cult film Trainspotting – New Heroes, is still their biggest hit today. The Roland Juno-106 is also to blame: It provides the sound for the famous chord sequence. The other synths that were used is still a mystery.
13. Faithless – Insomnia
Pizzicato to the Max – that’s how you could summarize the basic idea behind this song. Faithless jumped on the pizzicato wave that reached its peak in the techno clubs in 1996 and created a pop monument to it with Insomnia. The sound? According to keyboardist Sister Bliss, it came from a Roland JD-800, but Roland also sold this sample in various other synthesizers and rompers of the ’90s, knowing that this was one of the most important synth sounds of the decade.
14. Tame Impala – Let it Happen
Enough ’80s and ’90s, let’s turn to songs that have yet to become classics, but still stand out for their synthesizer sounds. Kevin Parker, the head of the Australian band Tame Impala, was known at the time of Let it Happen in 2015 mainly for the use of two synthesizers from the company Roland: the Juno-106, a typical analog representative of the ’80s, and the JV-1080, the epitome of the ’90s romper. You can also find live recordings in which he uses other synthesizers, for example by Moog because after all: It’s the right mixture that makes it what it is.
15. Molchat Doma – Na Dne
The band Molchat Doma from Minsk was only founded in 2017, but has long been known to many fans of New Wave and Industrial. Perfect music for the extensive use of synthesizers, which can also be heard on their song Na Dne from 2018. The bass – as fat as it is – comes from a Minimoog. The drums were programmed with samples of a LinnDrum. Other synths used by Molchat Doma include mainly classics like Roland Alpha-Juno, Yamaha DX100 and DX7 as well as a current Roland Jupiter-X.
More Synth Sounds: Thomann Synthesizers
Want even more input from the synthesizer world? Go check out our Thomann Synthesizers YouTube channel. Fat sounds, tests of synths & equipment, stars of the scene and tutorials with tips and tricks are waiting for you!
Which song is your personal favourite? One from our list or a completely different one? We are looking forward to your comments! ✍