Alternately hailed and reviled for excess, one aspect of the 1980s has drawn surprisingly little attention--the technology that allowed its stars to push their instrumental and recording capabilities further than ever before. Keyboards, guitars and drums took a quantum leap in capability, paralleled by similar advances in recording technology. In contrast to the bare bones 1970s, stars like Thomas Dolby--whose stage name derived from the audio compression technology of the same name--hailed the marriage of music and technology, with plenty of help from behind the scenes. Guitar crafters like B.C. Rich and Floyd Rose remained largely unknown to the public, but no less important in helping the musicians they served make a lasting imprint on rock 'n' roll and popular culture.
Musicians dissatisfied with the constraints of 1970s recording technology would not have to wait long for liberation. In 1983, the introduction of Music Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, technology, allowed drum machines, samplers and synthesizes to control each other, dramatically altering the equation from "real time" musical performance to electronically programmed parts that could be reproduced by pushing a button. After the introduction of sequencers--hardware and software designed to oversee computer-generated music--and "beatboxes" such as the Linn Drum computer, drummers suddenly had to become programmers if they expected to keep their jobs, at least in the recording studio. Many of these innovations occurred in the worlds of dance and hip-hop music, whose priorities decidedly differed from those of rock--indeed, the first generation of rappers helped to popularize digital sampling, the practice of using portions of a song throughout a musical track. This became increasingly feasible in 1982, following the introduction of the Emulator--a keyboard-based system that stored sound samples onto a floppy disk.
No instrument escaped the intermarriage of music and technology as the 1980s progressed. This proved particularly apropos for keyboards and synthesizers, which became more integrated than ever before with computers--a critical feature of the DX7 and the Fairlight, two of the decade's most widely favored models. As the first polyphonic digital sampling synthesizer, the Fairlight proved especially crucial in shaping the era's predominant sounds, such as the Trevor Horn-produced single, "Relax"--whose pulsating bass lick actually owed its life to the sampled contributions of sessioneer Mark "Thumbs" Cunningham, and precious smaller contributions from its featured band, Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The increasing accessibility of this technology allowed for a greater intermarriage of rock, pop and dance music--particularly in Britain, where bands such as New Order openly borrowed from their German heroes, Kraftwerk, to create pulsating dance floor smashes such as "Temptation," and "Blue Monday," one of the era's biggest-selling tracks.
Guitars underwent a similar overdose of bigness, driven by the mass market popularity of heavy metal music--as typified by the glam- and pop-oriented approach of Kiss, Poison and Warrant, which splintered decisively from the raunchier, grittier world that Bay Area thrashers such as Exodus, Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer inhabited. Regardless of which approach held sway, however, guitars underwent a serious dose of steroids--including pointy headstocks, triple custom pickups and the tremolo arm. As if that weren't enough, companies such as B.C. Rich, Ibanez--makers of possibly the decade's most ubiquitous guitar used by heavy rock players--and Kramer, among others, rolled out colorfully customized models with odd shapes, such as the "skull" guitar sported by Randy Piper of WASP. For star players such as Eddie Van Halen, the Floyd Rose locking tremolo system represented another major advance, allowing its users to remain in tune--yet bend their strings to a degree that had never been possible on older systems.
For its critics, the most prominently negative aspect of 1980s music stemmed from its increasing stress on production--which naturally shifted the dialog away from what bands could actually play, in favor of an aesthetic that leaned more heavily than ever on extensive overdubbing, remixing and tape editing. By the decade's end, recording became totally divorced from the inherent limitations of magnetic tape, in favor of digital technology--which inevitably drew purists' complaints that the resulting sound was not as warm as its analog cousin had been. Hardcore punk and roots rock bands reacted by pursuing what many labeled as an "anti-production" aesthetic--one that harked back to the 1950s and 1960s, in favor of quickly recorded takes on eight-, four- and--in the case of Californian punk-funkers, the Minutemen--two-track tape.
On the positive side, the increased technology allowed for an expansion of the sonic palette--most notably with the inclusion of former non-rock instruments such as the saxophone, into pop-rock smashes such as Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart" and Ian Hunter's "All Of The Good Ones Are Taken." Artists Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads also made a point of incorporating ethnic riffs and sounds into their work--something that would probably have taken longer without the use of digital sampling to incorporate them, instead of the classic 1970s technique of manually editing magnetic tape with a razor blade. The explosion of technologies such as Boss Dr. Rhythm drum machines and portable Tascam four-track recorders also made it easier than ever for fledgling acts to hone their sound at home--instead of risking problems with an expensive studio and an unsympathetic engineer.
Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.