8 Essential '80s Plugins

It doesn't take more than a few scans on the radio dial to know that the synth and studio sounds of the '80s remain a dominant pastiche in the contemporary pop music landscape. While you'd need a studio's worth of outboard gear and racks of Junos and Prophets back then to achieve the sound, today's rich landscape of handy software plugins can get you most of the way there.

Take a look below at our picks for eight essential '80s-tastic plugins to get your DAW up to speed with that unmistakable sound that's at once wholly retro yet undeniably modern.

1. TAL UN-O-LX Synthesizer

If it's '80s synths you crave, you need a Juno somewhere in your setup and the UN-O-LX soft synth from TAL is about as faithful a recreation as you're going to find. This plugin nails the ubiquitous Juno 60 and offers up a masterful recreation of the classic Roland analog chorus for good measure. Its scalable interface and extensive MIDI mapping gives you modern flexibility with a totally vintage sound.

2. Valhalla DSP Vintageverb Reverb

Of course, you won't get very far on your throwback journey without some flexible Reverb options. Enter the Valhalla Vintageverb, which replicates the outboard studio Reverb of the '70s and '80s. This suite comes stocked with 15 algorithmic Reverbs including a classic Lexicon-style “Chamber” preset. What's really special about this plugin though is three coloring modes for "70s", "80s" and "now," which flavor your signal with the bandwidth, sample rate and modulation style of each era.

3. Cytomic The Glue Compressor

If you make music that requires real force behind the beat, you need some serious buss compression and The Glue from Cytomic delivers exactly that. This plugin offers SSL-style buss compression as heard on countless '80s hits. Its interface is easy to use, and its compression is ideal for “gluing” drum busses or entire mixes.

If you're an Ableton Live user, be sure to check out the built-in “Glue Compressor” which also is made by Cytomic.

4. Soundtoys Echoboy Delay

Once you've got your reverb, compression and a couple of soft synths nailed down, it's time to jump into the rich and rewarding world of '80s delay. The Echoboy Delay from Soundtoys is a great starting point that's easy to get into, but also includes powerful controls for deeper editing and delay customization. It faithfully emulates a wide range of classic delays from pristine digital to grungy tape and is the sort of plugin that's easy to lose hours to, especially once you discover Rhythm Echo mode.

5. u-he Diva Synthesizer

The Diva synth from u-he is essentially one vintage synth emulator to rule them all. Not only does this plugin accurately recreate the pantheon of classic synths, it actually lets you mix and match oscillators, filters and envelopes from different synths to frankenstein your way to a distinct sound that's totally retro yet entirely new. Unfortunately, Diva is a very CPU intensive, but recent updates have improved this a bit.

6. Arturia Spark Vintage Drum Machine

Now that you're deeper into the '80s milieu and actually want to start composing tracks in the spirit of "Sussudio" and "Planet Rock"—and who doesn't?—you're going to need some legitimate drum machines. With actual hardware 808s selling for upwards of $3,000, your best bet is a VST, and you can't go wrong with the Spark Vintage Drum Machine from Arturia. This package features virtual analog recreations of Roland’s TR-808, 909, 606, and others, with an extensive library of other classic samples. Its step sequencer interface is fast, fun, and easy to jump into and supports any hardware controller. Pro tip: try the DMX library for instant Prince beats.

7. Audio Damage Fluid

And of course, what stroll down '80s memory lane would be complete without a whopping helping of stereo chorus? Check out the Audio Damage Fluid for a straight-ahead chorus effect that avoids the over-processed sounds of so many onboard DAW choruses. Unlike some of the heavier hitting plugins on this list, Fluid's low CPU usage means you can put it on everything and really channel your inner Robert Smith.

8. Native Instruments FM8 Synthesizer

With some of the above mentioned soft synths, you’ve got your analog emulation covered and then some. But if you're looking to embrace FM synths sounds, you should consider the FM8 from Native Instruments. This suite recreates classic '80s basses, bells, pianos and, of course, FM synths like the Yamaha DX7; it even supports DX7 patch import. Its graphical interface also makes FM synthesis slightly easier to control than the original hardware units.

Well, there you have it. Your ticket to '80s sonic paradise by way of eight readily available plugins. Now you just need some hairspray, a couple of home-recorded best of MTV VHSes and a fresh pop hook or two.

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