The Synths Behind 8 Classic TV Theme Songs: Miami Vice, Doctor Who, and More

When it comes to synthesizers, classic movie soundtracks of the '70s and '80s are often recalled fondly, with works by John Carpenter and others mentioned as being pinnacles of the era. But for many of us, television was likely the first place we heard the synthesizers that we lust after now.

Whether it be cop shows of the 1970s or action and science fiction in the 1980s, synthesizers were all over TV soundtracks. With that in mind, we're going to take a look at a collection of synths that grace eight great TV themes.

Have favorites that we've missed? Let us know in the comments.

Miami Vice's Roland Jupiter-8

Perhaps the peak of the synthesizer/TV-theme crossover era, Miami Vice married pastel suits, espadrilles, and action to Jan Hammer's blistering synth work. A member of fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra, Hammer pioneered a solo synth style that mimicked the electric guitar. Starting in 1984 and running for five seasons, the show really helped make the sound of the synthesizer ubiquitous in pop culture. And, as each episode was uniquely scored, it kept Hammer busy for much of the 1980s.

Although the explosive main theme, with its Fairlight CMI percussion, got the lion's share of the attention at the time, it's the more plaintive "Crockett's Theme" that has become something of a standard. Although a number of synths can be heard, such as the Fairlight, it was the Roland Jupiter-8 that provided the backbone for the song in the form of an arpeggiated bass line.

Released in 1981, the Jupiter-8 was Roland's flagship polyphonic synthesizer for the first half of the 1980s. Its gorgeous sound graced countless pop hits and soundtracks as well. In "Crockett's Theme," it acts as an anchor, holding down the rhythm section so Hammer can solo over the top.

The Rockford Files' Moog Minimoog Model D

Speaking of solos… in 1974, a show debuted about a down-on-his-luck private eye. Although it was a slow starter, The Rockford Files, starring James Garner, soon grew into a monster. During its second season, its theme song was released as a single and stayed on the charts for 16 weeks, picking up a Grammy along the way for Best Instrumental Arrangement.

Written by a then-young Mike Post, who would go on to write many more memorable themes, and Pete Carpenter, the song was notable for its main melody, which was played on a Moog Minimoog Model D.

In the late '70s, the sound of the synthesizer would become ubiquitous thanks to new wave and synth pop, but in 1975, when the theme was released as a single, it was still something of a novelty. Of course, it didn't hurt that the theme was catchy as hell, and really showcased the playability of the Minimoog. Just check out that glide between notes, reminiscent of the Ohio Players' "Funky Worm." TV themes would go on to incorporate synthesizers more and more, but The Rockford Files was one of the first (and best).

Doctor Who's Yamaha CS-80

The theme music for the long-running Doctor Who is often lauded as a pioneering piece of electronic music. Written by Ron Grainer and realized by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills in 1963 at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the music was pieced together using musique concrète techniques. In 1980, for season 18, with Tom Baker as the doctor, Peter Howell recreated the theme using analog synthesizers, and it is this version that people of a certain age will remember most.

Although a number of synths were used, including the ARP Odyssey MKII, EMS Vocoder 5000, and Roland Jupiter-4, the galloping bassline was made with none other than the Yamaha CS-80.

Made famous by Vangelis in his soundtracks for Chariots Of Fire and especially Blade Runner, Yamaha's massive poly was renowned for its playability and expressiveness, and, of course, its sound. Although usually thought of as a pad machine, it's just as good at bass and effects. In fact, the ring mod stinger that kicks off the 1980 theme was also made with the CS-80.

Twin Peaks' Roland MKS-70

David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks originally ran for only two seasons, starting in 1990, but its influence on pop culture can't be overstated. That extends to music as well, and Angelo Badalamenti's work on the cult series is nothing short of sublime.

For "Twin Peaks Theme" (aka "Falling"), Badalamenti used a variety of synthesizers and keyboards, including a Yamaha DX-7, Roland D-550, and E-Mu Emulator II. But it was the strings sound that we're most concerned with today. Anyone who's heard the song can instantly recall those gorgeous, haunting strings. They were played on a Roland MKS-70, the rackmount version of the JX-10, which is most famous for the preset called (appropriately enough) Soundtrack.

The MKS-70 and JX-10 were the last of Roland's classic analog synths. Because they were released at a time when analog was going out of style, they were designed to sound a little cleaner, a little more "digital." While the oscillators were DCO (digitally controlled), they were definitely analog. And, as the MKS-70 and JX-10 were like having two JX-8Ps in one box, they were capable of rich, soaring sounds. Which, we're sure you'll agree, were used to great effect on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. For a deep exploration of the main theme and "Laura Palmer's Theme," check out our "The Synth Sounds of Twin Peaks" videos.

Airwolf's Oberheim OB-8

Running from 1984 to 1987, Airwolf was part of the action series boom that dominated TV in the mid-'80s. With a high-tech military helicopter and starring Jan-Michael Vincent, the show rivaled the movies for Cold War action fun. Of course, the driving synthesizer theme certainly helped. Written by Sylvester Levay and played by Jim Cox, the theme features the Oberheim OB-8 prominently, driven by a Roland MSQ-700 sequencer, with a LinnDrum providing the backbeat and an E-Mu Emulator filling out the mix.

The Oberheim OB-8 was the last of the giant Oberheim poly series, which also included the OB-X and OB-Xa. Released in 1983, the OB-8 is generally considered to be the "softer" of the series, but one listen to the pulsing bass and hard-hitting, unmistakable Oberheim brass of the theme and you'll know that this is a relative term. The Oberheim legend lives on in the Tom Oberheim/Sequential update, the OB-6.

Law & Order's Yamaha DX7

In the late '80s, it was hard to avoid the Yamaha DX7. It was all over the radio, movie soundtracks, and TV themes. And, as the machine was infamous for being hard to program, its stock presets were used. And used. And used.

One particular favorite of TV composers was EP1, the electric piano preset, and it features prominently on Mike Post's theme to the 1990 crime drama show, Law & Order.

Released in 1983, the DX7 was a breakthrough synthesizer, in that not just synth heads but keyboardists in general had to have it. It could do electronic sounds, but it also excelled at more traditional instrument sounds, like marimbas and pianos. It also had an eminently playable key bed, which helped attract musicians more comfortable with piano-style keys.

Although this theme is a great example of the DX7 in action, it's actually "chung chung," Law & Order's famous transition sound that gets most of the attention. However, as this wasn't made with synthesizers, it's unfortunately beyond the scope of this article.

Seinfeld's Korg M1

Running from 1989–1998, Seinfeld is often referred to as the best sitcom ever made. What you may not know is that each episode has a uniquely played theme, with each synth bassline performed to fit around Jerry's opening standup monologue. The theme was written by TV soundtrack veteran Jonathan Wolff and featured beatbox-style percussion and a distinctive sampled slap bass sound. Although some claim it came from a 360 Systems MIDI Bass unit, it was in fact a Korg M1.

Released in 1988, Korg's M1 was a monster synthesizer hit. In fact, it's the best-selling synthesizer of all time. With its selection of sampled transients, sustained waveforms, and percussion, it offered a kind of realism of sound that hadn't been heard before. This is evident by the number of people who thought the bass in the theme was real and not a PCM sample.

Although rarely heard now outside of ironic references to the time, the M1 slap bass wasn't the machine's only popular preset. The piano and organ presets were staples in dance music at the time and, to some extent, remain so to this day.

Stranger Things' Oberheim Two Voice

It seems fitting that we end this piece on influential TV synths with Stranger Things, the revivalist 2016 sci-fi show that helped bring 1970s- and 1980s-style hardware synths back to the conversation. Referencing the movies of Steven Spielberg and John Landis, and the stories of Stephen King, Stranger Things is set in the 1980s—and so needed a period-perfect soundtrack. The show's creators, the Duffer Brothers, turned to Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, two members of the Austin hardware band Survive, who created a theme that is both a tribute to the past and a beacon for those just getting into the world of hardware synthesizers.

Although Dixon and Stein used a number of beautiful synths in the evocative theme song, such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Roland SH-2 and Korg Mono/Poly, we're going to call attention to the Oberheim Two Voice, which provides the main arpeggio line.

More mood than melody, the track is led by the fluctuating Two Voice, which provides the focus. Part of a series that included the larger Four Voice and Eight Voice units, the 1976 Two Voice was essentially two two-oscillator Oberheim SEM expanders packaged together with a keyboard and sequencer. As each SEM was a self-contained unit, each SEM's filter and envelope could be adjusted separately, leading to some creative and unique synthesis possibilities. (For more info, check out our "The Synths Sounds of Stranger Things" video.)

Here's hoping that the recent resurgence in interest in hardware synthesizers will result in more synth-driven TV themes and soundtracks, which will in turn inspire another generation of future synth heads.


About the author: Adam Douglas is a musician and synthesizer fan based in Tokyo, Japan. He writes about synths on his blog, Boy Meets Synth.

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