THE 1980s were, in every way, an eclectic musical decade. It was time for the kohl-eyed kids to strike up electro-pop poses and for the mules to raise their clenched fists while listening to glam metal. It was also a good time for flat-headed soul boys and neo-romantics. For the rest, there was a clan of pop royalty to line up with, be it George Michael, Michael Jackson or Madonna. Yet, as different as these styles were, they all shared in some way a unique sound from the 80s. This was due to the influence of only one instrument: the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.
The DX7 can claim to be one of the most significant advancements in the history of modern popular music. Perhaps not since Leo Fender attached a pickup to a six-string in 1949, thus introducing the first mainstream electric guitar, that an instrument could claim to have so profoundly altered the soundscape of its time. To get an idea of its impact, consider the research of Megan Lavengood, professor of music theory at George Mason University in Virginia. The DX7 comes with dozens of sounds, from strings to brass to woodwinds. Yet, according to Ms. Lavengood, in 1986 only one of those presets – “E PIANO 1” – could be heard on about 40% of the singles that reached number one in the US market. Billboard graphics. (This is the bell-shaped piano heard, for example, on “Careless Whisper” by George Michael and “Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston). E PIANO 1. The same goes for 61% of R’n’B hits.
Understanding why the DX7 has become so dominant means understanding what came before it. Analog synths of the 1970s, like the beloved Moogs of progressive rock bands like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, were incredibly expensive and came with a printed circuit board the size of a kitchen dresser. This made them accessible only to wealthy rock stars with a suite of roadies. Their use required extensive technical know-how. Their timbres were created “subtractively” – by filtering out the frequencies of a basic sound like, it was said, a sculptor chiseling a block of marble. Keyboardists had to figure out how to tune oscillators, amplifiers, and modulators by turning knobs, sliders, and connecting cables. Even then, they were often monophonic, able to produce only one note at a time.
In the late 1970s, the first digital keyboards began to hit the market. These were less clunky and could play sampled sounds, but they lacked the processing power to make them particularly useful. They also cost a bundle. The Fairlight CMI, released in 1979, was priced at $ 25,000 or, adjusted for inflation, around $ 88,000 today.
The DX7 changed the proposition. Its story can be dated to 1967 and a professor at Stanford called John Chowning. That year, Mr. Chowning discovered how to synthesize sounds using frequency modulation, or FM. (Essentially, using one signal to modulate the pitch of another, thus producing a new sound frequency.) He peddled his new algorithm around some of the most famous electronic musical instrument makers of the time, most notably Hammond. and Wurltitzer. They all rejected it. Then in 1973 he showed it to Yamaha. The Japanese conglomerate was already one of the world’s leading musical instrument makers, but most importantly, it was also teeming with engineers and had an appetite for disruption. He licensed the technology and set out to transform the noble synthesizer into a humble consumer product.
In 1983, he released the DX7. With her, Yamaha had discovered a “magic potion”, says Mark Vail, historian of synthesizers. The combination of digital FM technology and Yamaha expertise has resulted in a small, easy-to-use instrument, full of exciting sounds. Perhaps most importantly, it was also cheap. At $ 1,995, it has stood up to keyboards six times the price. During the four years of its manufacture, it sold around 150,000 units, easily surpassing its competition. No one, not even Yamaha himself, had any idea that the synth market was that big, one of the company’s sound technicians later recalled.
By the mid-1980s, it had become almost ubiquitous. It was the sound of stadium rockers and small bands playing in the backroom of their local pub. This gave meaning to film scores and TV themes, including “Top Gun” and “Miami Vice”. Music tech geeks like Brian Eno have become obsessed with its possibilities. A cottage industry was born from programmers producing patches, brand new sounds that could be added to the keyboard repertoire.
His success was helped by fortuitous timing. The year the DX7 hit the market, a music technology called MIDI was released as well. Musical Instrument Digital Interface, to give the software its full name, remains to this day an essential part of the kit in any studio. It allows synthesizers to communicate with computers and other hardware. For example, games played on keyboards that run the technology can be edited on a computer screen. Notes can be moved and their timbre changed. The sequences can also be synchronized with a drum machine or with other electronic instruments. Being one of the cheapest MIDI compatible keyboards available, the DX7 has become a must have. The most lavish recording suites were naked without her. Aspiring musicians would build studios in their bedrooms, using an inexpensive basic kit, with the DX7 as the cornerstone.
However, the DX7 had its limits. Its string sound was not very warm, its bass sounds lacked a certain fat (listen for example “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley). And by the end of the decade, his distinct tone had become his downfall; it was considered 1980s too. “Synths tend to have a ten-year cycle,” says Nate Mars, music producer and technologist. “After ten years, everyone just wanted a new sound.”
Yet, to the surprise of many, her fall in fashion turned out to be short-lived. Even though the ’90s brought their own style, the influence of the DX7 could still be heard in the house music tracks that filled the urban dancefloors. U2 and Coldplay have used it from time to time (perhaps at the request of Mr. Eno, who produced some of their songs). Today the sound of the 80s has become chic again and there have been attempts to virtually recreate the keyboard. Arturia, a music technology company, recently released a computer program called DX7 V (the “V” stands for virtual). Bands like Morcheeba and trendy producers like Metrik are fans.
And this is where the lasting success of the DX7 lies. It’s a keyboard that sounded like the future even though it came close to the instruments of the past. In doing so, he defined a decade. As Mr. Mars says: “Its sound has always been both retro and futuristic. “