There are certain features of the sound that make music from the 80s so unique and allow it to be almost instantly recognizable.
The main reasons why 80s music sounds so unique are its instrumentation and production. During its time period the way in which music was made changed, and from that experimentation a distinct type of sound was born.
One of the biggest changes was the use of synthesizers. Although synthesizers were around from the 60s, the 80s made them much more affordable. Many musicians recorded using the famed Yamaha SX7 and its 32 classic factory patches can be heard on tons of tracks. Presets for arpeggios were also used frequently.
Another iconic part of the sound of 80s music would have to be gated snares. Heavily reverbed snare drums were used to make hits sound more powerful and ‘punchy’. It is a style that was largely popularized by Phil Collins, who used it heavily in both his solo and group projects.
Programmed beats and synthetic drums also started to be used much more widely during the 80s. While not all artists used them, many started to adopt the technology to keep the tempo steady and precise.
As far as vocals go, autotuning slowly but surely became a staple during the 80s – especially in the pop genre. Its technology had already been used previously in the form of effects filters, but the 80s was when autotuning was used heavily to transform out-of-tune vocal performances into something more acceptable.
The quality of sound in general took a big step forward in the 80s too. That was largely because the finesse of the mixing improved as better mixing desks were developed. The Solid State Logic 4000 mixing desk was by far one of the most popular during that time, and is responsible for many of the top hits of the 80s.
Aside from these factors, there are other unique aspects of 80s music that are often cited by fans as the reason for its appeal. Of these the main one is the complexity of its harmony. Bands during the 80s were known for going the extra mile, and even songs in the pop genre often had a certain complexity and depth.
However as true as that may be, it is difficult to say whether or not it is a defining characteristic of the 80s. In fact, research by Betway Sports has shown that music from the 70s and 90s had similar harmonic complexity.
Many of the other iconic aspects of 80s music are often genre specific. For example the 80s was a time when guitar solos were still very common in rock ballads, and many contained dive-bombed guitar lines that went past the 12th fret.
In addition, some genres benefited greatly from crossing-over with genres that were less popular at the time. Songs that featured crossovers between rap and rock were particularly popular among fans.
It could be said that the themes surrounding 80s music were different as well, but that is true for almost any era. Songs written in the 80s often covered dark or political themes in an overt manner.
Suffice to say while instrumentation and music production are big factors that contributed to the unique sound of the 80s, they are not the only ones. It is a combination of the transition the music world was going through that produced a sound that continues to stand out to this very day.
While it is impossible to say whether or not 80s music had the most unique sound, it is certainly up there among the top choices.