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What is Synthwave?

The 2000s was a time of much growth in global commercialism. This was thanks in no small part to the impact of the internet. This resulted in the way we think, interact and share things changing beyond all recognition.

Take a Look ↓↓↓

One could argue… 

The internet’s biggest benefactor in terms of pop culture was music. It provided a platform for not only new music genres to develop but also to become cultural phenomenons. 

One such movement is the throwback Retrowave culture. It influenced many aspects of society, but its biggest offspring is Synthwave music.

Que the pink sun and the pixelated 8-bit graphics filter…

In this article, I’ll be taking a look at how Synthwave music was born, how it developed, and the spin-offs that have been built on the foundation. I’ll also be looking at some defining aspects of Synthwave music as a genre and visual aesthetic. 

What is Synthwave

What is Synthwave? – Origins, History, and Influence

To understand where Sytnhwave came from, you’ll first need to familiarise yourself with the macro-culture that birthed it. Take note that many of these terms were non-existent when the culture that they would eventually describe was being born. 


Retrowave can be said to have many origins. Indeed, the argument can be made that Retrowave has been around for as long as there have been old things to get nostalgic about. However, the term “Retrowave” was properly birthed somewhere in the late 90s or early 2000s. 

Retrowave is essentially a love for all things retro… 

Furthermore, the hardcore Retrowavers prefer the old to the new. The Culture of Retrowave manifests itself in many ways, for example, the resurgence of tape and vinyl, wearing clothing from thrift shops, and buying a kettle or popcorn machine that looks like it’s from the 60s. 

Retrowavers believe that things aren’t made the way they used to anymore. As a result, they prefer to hold on to everything that is still functioning and acquire anything from the past that they can get their hands on. 

The Mid to Late 2000s

There are various theories as to where Synthwave started. Two of these revolve not so much around the people, but around the culture. In particular, video games and films, some of them old and some of them newer. 

Some of the early Rertrowave/Synthwave artists were influenced by pop culture from their childhood during the 80s. The problem is that in the early 2000s, the 80s were viewed as about as lame as you could get. 

All that pink and leopard skin and neon…

What was needed were some vessels to carry this aesthetic and make all the millennials realize how cool old-school could be. Luckily these vessels would arrive right on time.

Firstly, there is a video game – Grand Theft Auto IV: Vice City. The game was released in 2002 and was set during the 80s in a Miami, Florida, amalgamation city called Vice City. 

The success of the game started planting the seeds in people’s minds that maybe the 80s were pretty dandy after all. The attitude towards the aesthetic was shifting to a place that would make a perfect environment for Synthwave, Vaporwave, and many other micro-genres to flourish

There were new vessels for Vaporwave…

But there were also old ones. A track that has been noted by many early pioneers and music publications is “Love On A Real Train” by Tangerine Dream. Almost more important than the track is that it was featured in the 1983 film. Risky Business, starring Tom Cruise. 

Repetitive synths, dreamy pads, funny-sounding chimes, and heavily compressed drum machines. These sounds would resurface in abundance within the Vaporwave and Synthwave genres more than twenty years later. 

Some of the earliest pioneers of Synthwave came from the French Disco scene that was flourishing in France and all over Europe. The sound had taken root in some pockets of the US as well. 

The French Connection

Two names mentioned when it comes to the French side of Synthwave’s ancestry are David Grellier (founder of the acclaimed music project, College) and Vincent Belorgrey (aka Kavinsky). 

For these artists, film scores of 80s Sci-Fi and cyberpunk films were their foundation. The film that would later become the aesthetic and sociological foundation for the entire movement is 1982’s Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford. 

The film would lay a foundation for much of the Vaporwave, Synthwave, and Cyberpunk aesthetic. And the soundtrack (composed by the late great Vangelis) would become the bible for Synthwave students.

Synthwave and Movies

Along with this, there came a love for using 8- and 16-bit video game sounds 1980s. As well as jingles for VHS production companies and popular television broadcasts from the period. And very well-known ads from the 80s. 

Another film that would become important in the annals of Synthwave is the 2011 action thriller Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. The official soundtrack featured songs by Kavinsky, David Grellier, Johnny Jewel, and Cliff Martinez. These names would later become synonymous with Synthwave.

What is Synthwave? – Major Milestones

Major Milestones

Some publications have heralded Kavinsky as the earliest pioneer of Synthwave. Others have put forth fellow Frenchman Carpenter Brut as an example of early Synthwave. 

As a music scene that was birthed on the internet, tracing the history of Synthwave is actually very difficult. There are, however, some events worth taking note of:

  • In 2005, Kavinsky released an EP called Teddyboy. The album contained quite a few hints and clues that foreshadowed Synthwave and the 80s sound and look revival. But, none did so as much as “Testarossa Autodrive.” 
  • In 2013, Kavinsky got around to completing Synthwave Aesthetic. The album took the retro aspect of his work and crystallized it into what many believe to be an archetypal Synthwave album. The album produced two major hits, “Protovision” and “Odd Look.” Music videos were eventually made for these tracks, and in them, the Synthwave Aesthetic is layered on thick. He’s got the glasses, the jacket, the shoes, and even the Ferarri. 
  • In 2007, French composer David Grellier launched a sort of musical experiment called College. He released an EP, “Teenage Color,” and an album, Secret Diary. Both are now Synthwave bibles to prospective disciples of the genre. They were released under the VALERIE label created by Grellier with the sole purpose of celebrating 80s culture from America. To most people, this is the first official embodiment of Synthwave as a musical genre.
  • Groups that came up around the same time as this are Minitel Rose, The Outrunners, Anoraak, and Lifelike. 

Whatever you choose to believe…

What cannot be denied is how much more than just a throwback fad the Retro and Synthwave movements became. The scene has not developed in any traditional way. But, then again, the internet is a platform that grows daily, and this has made Synthwave and other micro-scenes like it possible. 

Since its inception, Synthwave has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. And, whatever you may think of Synthwave, the examples of it in the mainstream consciousness are undeniable. And I’m not just talking about T-Shirts and wallpapers:

  • The 2015 film Kung Fury featured a heavily Synthwave-inspired soundtrack. Featured artists include Betamaxx, Lost Years, and Highway Superstar.
  • Probably the most successful manifestation of Synthwave in the mainstream is the soundtrack to the world-famous Netflix series, “Stranger Things.” As a result, many have annexed this soundtrack as “the sound of Synthwave.”

Defining Synthwave: Musical Characteristics

The best conceptual way to describe Synthwave music is to think of it as picking up where the synthesizer masters of the late 70s and 80s left off. 

What would artists like John Carpenter, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream be doing if they were alive and had access to modern synths, samplers, and drum machines? The answer to that question is Synthwave, Retrowave, and Vaporwave.

As mentioned, the 80s is a decade that is particularly important when it comes to the sound and look of Synthwave

And the 80s meant Science Fiction…

Almost any Sci-Fi or horror movie, book, comic, video game, or gimmicky part of popular culture from 80s America can be seen as forming part of the Synthwave Aesthetic. 

You will often hear sounds from 80s arcade games, films, TV programs, and advertisements used in Synthwave music. A particular favorite is using quotations from the Back To The Future movies

Synthwave generally runs at a lower tempo, between 80 and 118 BMP. Although, some of the more extreme versions can run 128 to 140 BMP. The genre is mostly instrumental, but vocals aren’t unheard of. More popular, though, is the use of audio from famous 80 films, series, and commercials. 

Synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and 8-bit downsampling…

These can be heard all over the genre. Often the base and melody sounds are made to sound as “cliche as possible,” while drums might have a bit more of a modern edge. This gives Synthwave the sound of 80s music that has been modernized but not fundamentally changed.

Outrun: Etymology

You might often see or hear the term “Outrun” getting used almost interchangeably with Synthwave. This is inspired by the 1986 Arcade racing game Out Run, which is known for its soundtrack and distinctive 80s look. 

Kavinsky named one of his releases OutRun after this 80s inspiration. This is viewed by many as the birth of the term. But, eventually, Synthwave won over as the more popular term. 

What is Synthwave? – Visuals Aesthetics

Think of anything bright and cheesy from the 80. Yes, that includes those magenta sunsets and a whole lot of sunset graphics, neon grids, neon lights, 80s sports cars, and wireframe vector graphics. 

Another favorite is making things look like those pixelated 8-bit arcade games we all wasted many hours of our youth on. 

As for fashion… 

Synthwave can be seen on any 80s teenager in a film or TV show from the period. Michael J Fox in Back To The Future, Bender from The Breakfast Club, and Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Of course, most recently is Ryan Gosling in Drive

Modern brands that have adopted the revival of the 80s look are: 

  • Volga Verdi.
  • Akade Wear.
  • Zubaz (as 80s as you can get).
  • MoonLambo.
  • Pit Viper shades.

Is It Still Around?

Synthwave may have had its heyday and peak with the “Stranger Things” soundtrack, but it has by no means diminished in its potency. The original core of followers is still as strong as ever, if not stronger. 

There are entire YouTube channels that play nothing but Retro and SynthWave 24-7, and it seems that new artists are emerging every day. Check out ThePrimeThanatos channel on YouTube for a small sample.

 Some of the most prominent Synthwave artists to have a look at include:

  • Trevor Something.
  • The Midnight.
  • Mitch Murder.
  • Perturbator.
  • Carpenter Brut.
  • Dana Jean Phoenix.
  • Timecop1983.
  • The Northern Lights.
  • C Z A R I N A.
  • Magic Sword.
  • Trentemøller.

Synthwave Offshoots

Synthwave Offshoots

Almost more astonishing than the Synthwave phenomenon is the sheer amount of sub-genres and off-shoots from it. These are all very similar in their love of all things 80s. But they just seem to focus on different things. Some of these include:

  • Dark Synth – A much heavier and brooding-sounding variation of Synthwave. These guys loved the horror and space movies from the 80s more than anything else.
  • SpaceWave – All things spacey and out of this world. Often very ethereal and ambient. 
  • DreamWave – Sounds very dreamy, probably the part of Sythwave that sounds the most like Pop music.
  • Cyberpunk/Cybersynth – Imagine the guy from Blade Runner had decided to stop being a cop and started a band. Very sharp melodic synth hooks combined with big bass pads and drones create an almost cinematic vibe.  

Want to Learn More About Distinctive Musical Genres?

Well, why not start with What Is DubstepWhat Is Techno MusicWhat is House MusicWhat Is Trap Music, and What Is Drill Music to discover loads of new musical styles and artists?

Of course, listening to those new songs will be important. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones for Hip-Hop, the Best Bass Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, and the Best iPhone Earbuds you can buy in 2023.

What is Synthwave? – Final Thoughts

Wireframe background? Check. Super cliche-looking 8-bit magenta sunset? Check. A sportscar that Scarface would have been proud to own? Got it. All you need now is the perfect soundtrack to go with this picture. 

Well, now that you know what Synthwave music is and who makes it, your next 80s throwback party is guaranteed to not only look the part but sound it too. 

Until next time, let the music play, and happy listening.

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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