Exploring the Synths That Defined 1990s Ambient

The early ‘90s were an incredible time for electronic music. Fueled in equal parts by the popularization of rave culture, affordable home studio gear, and cheap used analog gear, more people than ever before were running up their electricity bills making mind-melting tunes in their bedrooms.

Along with club music and the concurrent birth of IDM (intelligent dance music), ambient music saw a huge surge in interest as well, with chill-out rooms de rigueur at all of the finer warehouse raves and club establishments.

Polysynth pads, analog bass, and come-down tempos helped ‘90s ambient stand out from the Eno-isms and New Age crystal worshipping that had come before. For fans of downtempo genres and melody in general, it was a golden age of blissed-out music. Classic albums include Global Communication’s 76:14, Selected Ambient Works Volume II by Aphex Twin, and anything on Pete Namlook’s Fax label.

There’s a ‘90s revival happening in electronic music right now, with lots of attention being placed on getting back to basics with hardware setups. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the gear used on some classic ambient and IDM tracks of the ‘90s and see how we can recreate them in a modern home studio situation.

Analog Polysynths

It was a good time to be an analog synthesizer fan in the early 1990s. Thanks to the previous decade of digital technological innovations, prices on used analog gear had fallen to within reach of home musicians. For just a few hundred dollars, you could get your hands on any number of fantastic polysynths. Top of the list for many musicians making ambient (as well as other genres, like house) was Roland’s Juno-106.

A six-voice polysynth released in 1984, the Juno-106 was perfect for making pads and other sounds favored by ambient producers. Though it only had one oscillator, it sounded bigger than its specs would indicate. Its famous two-speed chorus was a big contributor to this. The 106 was also incredibly easy to program and almost impossible to make sound bad. And, as it would be another ten or 15 years before its voice chips would start to fail, it was still an affordable and largely trouble-free investment.

Of course, there were plenty of other polys appearing on ambient and IDM records in the ‘90s, such as Roland’s Jupiter-6 and offerings from Sequential Circuits (like the Prophet 5) and Oberheim (like the OB-8), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more dance music-oriented poly than the Juno-106.


Analog Monosynths

It’s no secret that dance music producers love Roland. The Japanese company’s cast-off gear, like the TR-808 and TB-303, helped birth numerous genres, from hip-hop to acid house and beyond. The SH-101 was another such piece of must-have Roland finery.

Released in 1982, the SH-101 seemed like just another in a long line of SH-named Roland monosynths. There was something different about this one, though. Was it the beefy sub-oscillator? The squelchy filter? The simple design? All of the above? Whatever the reason, it became incredibly popular with electronic music producers in the ‘90s (and indeed remains so today). It could fake a 303 (check out 808 State’s use of it on their seminal Newbuild album) and, of course, provide standard bass and lead sounds.

If climbing prices have turned you off, check out Yamaha’s underrated CS-5 from 1978. Richard James—a.k.a. the Aphex Twin—scratched the liner notes of his genre-defining Selected Ambient Works Volume II album into the bottom of one, so it's safe to assume it was used on that album. It has a unique sound with a particularly smooth filter, which is perfect for ambient music.


Sample Synthesis

One of the reasons that analog was so derided in the ‘90s was the rise of sample-based synthesis. Machines like Korg’s M1 actually sounded like the instrument they were supposed to be recreating, with its piano and organ sounds getting particularly rinsed in dance music. For the average ambient musician, however, the M1 and its successor, the Wavestation were too expensive. That made Kawai’s K1 a popular alternative.

Released in 1988, the K1’s specs were too lo-fi for most serious musicians (8-bit samples! The shame!) but it was an affordable way to add realistic, sample-based sounds to a production. Its choral patch “Aah” was ubiquitous in late-‘80s and ‘90s ambient and New Age music. The landmark 76:14 album by Global Communication prominently features the K1. It still sounds great today—the low bit rate gives it real character. It’s also still very affordable. Snap one up before the PCM revival hits full bore.


Sampler

The ‘90s were the glory days of the hardware sampler. Before computers stole their thunder and made them obsolete, a good sampler (or 10) was all a producer needed to make viable electronic music. Ambient was no exception. While many opted for one of the many entries in Akai’s S-series of hardware samplers—the S950 and S3000, especially—there was another machine that was particularly beloved by ambient and IDM producers.

Until the‘80s, Casio were mostly known to musicians as makers of consumer-grade keyboards. That changed with the low-cost CZ line. The first, the CZ-101, sold truckloads, and convinced Casio to try their luck at more pro-level instruments. They followed it with the FZ-1 in 1987, a full-on professional sampler with an eight-stage envelope and additive synthesizer component.

However, it was its filter—with its tell-tale resonant signature—that made it a firm favorite of electronic musicians of the time. It was used by Global Communication, LFO (it’s the defining sound of Frequencies, their debut album) and Richard James, who, working under the Polygon Window moniker, used it on his Surfing On Sine Ways album. Check out the more modern "fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85]" track to hear him pushing the FZ-1 envelope to its limit.


FM Synthesis

Just as analog was out by the ‘90s, FM was also coming to be seen as a little old hat. Sample synthesis and ROMplers were clearly the way of the future (or so ‘90s synthesists thought). Because of their affordability then, it wasn’t uncommon to find the occasional FM synth in the ‘90s electronic music producer’s arsenal. Yamaha’s DX100 continued to be popular with techno producers, while the TX81Z made a great source for strings, pads and keys.

Originally released in 1987, the TX81Z was a four-operator FM synth and the first to feature oscillator waves beyond basic sine waves. This expanded its range of possible sounds, making it more than just another 4-op budget synth like the DX21. It was used by Future Sound Of London and Astral Projection, as well as Global Communication, who tapped it for Rhodes-type keys on their song, "Obselon Minus." Yamaha’s rackmount FM machine is most famous for its bass patch, "Lately Bass," and this was also also employed by Global Communication (albeit in edited form) on "7:39."

The TX81Z is still a great bargain. It also doesn’t sound like your typical DX7-style FM. It’s a bit warmer and darker, perfect for ‘90s-style ambient.


Effects

Affordable hardware effects were few and far between in the 1990s. Most bedroom producers couldn’t afford fancy reverb units by companies like Lexicon. Instead, they largely relied on Alesis, whose low-cost effects made digital reverbs available to the little guy. One of the more popular units was the QuadraVerb.

Hitting the market in 1989, the 1U rackmount Quadraverb combined reverb, delay, EQ, and pitch effects into one box. The 16-bit effects unit was particularly prized for its huge chorus reverb—think Valhalla plugins in a box. It was instant ambient and was put to use on many a famous recording in the ‘90s.

Mark Pritchard of Global Communication even sang its praises on a forum post, saying, "The signature reverb sound (of the album 76:14) was an Alesis Quadraverb... It was noisy and detuney." Pritchard also identified the Aphex Twin as a user. "Richard Aphex used one as well, coincidentally. I knew because I could hear it on his stuff. He was using DX100 a lot into the Quadraverb.” As he mentions, it was (and is) noisy but that’s part of its old-school charm.

Other hardware effects from the era worth a look are the Boss SE-50 and SE-70, Ensoniq DP/4, and Zoom Studio 1201, which also has a built-in vocoder.


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