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synth and its subgenres explained

'synth' this and 'wave' that. it all sounds too much right? chances are you probably don't have a f*****g clue what a lot of the different subgenres of synthwave even mean. my hope is that this page will dispel some of those confusions. admittedly, there aren't huge differences between some of the genres, but subtle hints can be heard throughout some of the songs, whether it be; tempo, how much the synthesizer is used and it can even come down to other instruments used within the song.

To begin to extract these differences, it helps to know a bit about the roots of synthwave as well as it's core concepts. take some time to head over to the other pages on this site that talk about the history of synth. 



It's a common misconception that the word 'synthwave' is used as an umbrella term to encompass all synthesizer music. it must also be noted that synthwave does not include any synth music made between the late 70's and early 90's.

synthwave is an entirely modern music genre that began to show its face in the latter half of the noughties. as a whole, it is fundamentally a salute back to the art and pop culture music of the 80's.

there are two quite obvious halves to synthwave imagery, the first being science and technology. gridlines, neon lights, Ferraris and computers are all used as a visual representation of the love affair that many synthwave producers have with the sciences and its subsequent technology. you can also see some elements of 80's horror movie visuals in the artistry.

The second constituent of synthwave is an extremely glamorised version of California, even quixotic in appearance, perhaps a reminder that the good times will probably never come back. think, palm tress, beaches, roller-skating on boardwalks, speedboats and arcades all enjoyed in a perfect summer daze. sounds like paradise huh?

the foundations were being laid in the mid to late noughties throughout a lot of dance music as well as 'nu disco' which is a form of U.S. 70's and European 80's inspired disco and dance music. the earliest synthwave used these sounds and then combined them with various videogame, film and television soundtracks. another strange influence was that of jingles made for adverts and new programmes.

synthwave may have a heavy reliance on the sounds and images of the 80's, but it should be noted that the genre in itself is not simply a second-attempt at re-enacting the 80's decade. it has in-fact been described as a 'retro futuristic evolution of elements from the past, amalgamated and taken in to an alternative timeline with suitably distinct musical and visual aspects' by 'Iron skullet' on his website:

it was only about 5 years ago that there were clear lines surrounding the genre of synthwave, people knew what they were getting. recent times however, have seen a huge influx of producers and musicians bridge the gap between synthwave and many other genres including dubstep, ambient, metal and alternative rock to name but a few. The last year has certainly seen the grey areas of where one subgenre ends and another begins, get even greyer.

synthwave therefore is a dying genre, or at least the original version that we've grown to love and know over the last decade is! But don't despair!! for there are a whole load of creative 'synth-heads' out there chomping at the bit to create the latest signature piece! Below this you will find a number of different terms currently used in and around the umbrella genre of synthwave. Chances are these terms will alter over the coming years and we'll see even more and the goalposts will shift once again.


my hope is that classification over time will become easier as more artists release tracks and albums to solidify each particular genre. here's hoping the grey areas f**k off so that I can simply enjoy the ride without having to explain this music to my unwitting friends...


Retrowave as a word is much the same as synthwave, it is used as a general term to encompass all forms of synthwave music. however, there is one stark contrast between the two. as discussed before, synthwave refers to the music whereas retrowave is a term that encapsulates all the accompanying artwork, videos and other media that illustrate 80's nostalgia.




dreamwave is the much softer underbelly of synthwave quite similar and often referred to as an extension of outrun, it showed its face in the late noughties, and has gone on to be one of the more successful subgenres of synthwave. the use of slower tempo and gentle vocals give it a much more delicate feel compared to the sounds of darksynth and futuresynth (which are mentioned below). dreamwave actually has quite a broad outreach throughout other genres and can often be head in collaboration with indie, chillwave and popwave.

Some of the biggest artists of the synthwave spectrum can be included within the realms of dreamwave such as 'timecop 1983', 'FM attack', 'let em riot', 'trevor something' and 'electric youth' who are responsible for the most notable dreamwave track 'A real hero'. it was made famous in the cult-classic film 'drive' back in 2011 and also featured the artist 'college'.



outrun to put it simply, is synthwave. or at least it was the word used to describe synthwave before it was called that? it wasn't until the end of 2014 that outrun was replaced by retrowave and synthwave. 2007 marks the beginning of recognised outrun from artists such as Kavinsky and futurecop!

outrun was quantified by  lively synthesizers and encompassed a lot of the nostalgic musical elements of the 80s from video games, movies and tv as well as some 80's synthpop. the genre was progressed further by releases from 'Miami nights 1984', 'mitch murder', 'lazerhawk' and more from kavinsky through until about 2013.

in terms of the foundations for outrun, its roots lie in French house, some nu-disco and as mentioned earlier, various forms of 80's synthpop. the beat was often quite simplistic and repetitive in nature. and it is also notable that the earlier stuff was almost entirely instrumental. it wasn't until 2012 that we started to see the use of vocals on outrun tracks from the likes of 'dana jean phoenix' and 'kristine'. as a genre, outrun does still remain popular and we continue to see artists such as 'ace marino' release tracks that are slight tweaks of the original outrun structure, but are predominantly still in sync with classic outrun.



Chillwave or as it is also known; dreampop, is a subgenre of synthwave that is characterised by a dreamy retro pop sound. The the mellow vocals entail lyrics about days at the beach on long hot summers, probably not in the uk then huh?! the tempo is low to moderate, there is often heavy use of reverb andthe aesthetics are of a psychedelic nature.

2008 is attested with regards to the origins of chillwave and many other genres of music had their part to play in the beginning of chillwave including; vaporwave, shoegaze, psychedelia and of course, synthwave. if you look on any site, you will see that the best-known chillwave track is 'feel it all around' by 'washed out', and to be honest with you I can't think of a better track to tell you either.

other prominent artists in the genre include 'neon indian' and 'toro y moi'. a personal favourite of mine is 'crash' by 'the northern lights'. if you're lucky enough to live in a country that has legalised the use of marijuana, the chances are you have spent some time listening to chillwave.




the origins of darksynth began way before the subgenre took off in 2012. you can actually hear the first clues of this sound in some of the songs from 'kavinsky's' early eps 'teddy boy' and '1986' such as 'wayfarer' and 'deadcruiser'. and these were released a solid 5 or so years prior to the genre gaining some real traction.

in a nutshell, darksynth is everything that outrun is not. the visions of California beaches and boardwalk sunsets whilst sipping on a bud are replaced with 80's horror b-movies and twisted comic book narratives. soothing and dreamy melodies are swapped for more industrial sounds. a lot of it stems from metal influences from the 80's and 90's.

some of the bigger releases in the earlier days of darksynth include; 'megadrive's vhs' and 'carpenter brut's ep1'. my favourite falls to the brilliant mind of 'perturbator' with his album 'terror 404'. 'dance with the dead' has gone on to be one of the main household names despite joining the party quite late in 2013.

such was its popularity, we even saw artists usually associated with outrun and dreamwave coming forward with their own attempts to create darksynth, most notably 'futurecop!'s effort titled 'the movie'. even mitch murder got involved, and let's be honest, darksynth matches his rather sinister name better doesn't it? darksynth then had arguably its best period to date in 2016 and 2017 when it swelled in popularity and stood next to synthwave rather than being a part of the main genre.

elements of other genres such as; dubstep, metal and drum n bass were added to the dense rhythms of modern darksynth and completely set it aside from the pop melodies of synthwave. the usual bigwigs of the genre (carpenter brut and lazerpunk) have now distanced themselves from the original outrun sound of kavinsky to such an extent that they can now no longer be considered synthwave artists.

you may also be pleased to know that there are other terms for darksynth, because let's be honest, there aren't nearly enough microgenres of synthwave already! and most of them have the same goosebump enabling names such as; terrorwave, dreadwave and horrosynth. part of me thinks we'll be hearing even more over the next couple of years.


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