The Definitive Guide To Synthwave Subgenres

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  • What is Synthwave music? 
  • What are the characteristics that define Synthwave? 
  • Learn all you need to know about this electronic sub-genre…

Synthwave is a relatively new genre within the electronic music category.

Electronic music has hundreds of sub-genres, and you may find it difficult to determine which tracks are categorized as Synthwave, especially when there are many other similar sub-genres such as Synth-pop, Ccifiwave, and Vaporwave. 

What is Synthwave Music?

Synthwave music is an electronic sub-genre inspired by popular synthesized music of the 80s.

The majority of inspiration from the genre comes from sci-fi and action music from video games and movies during the 80s.

Synthwave Origins

The Synthwave genre was first introduced around the mid-2000s and grew in popularity in the late 2000s.

One of the originators of the Synthwave genre was Kavinsky.

His 2007 EP, aptly named 1986, was one of the first to emulate the music style from games and films in the 80s. The track “Wayfarer” from the EP is an excellent early example of Kavinsky using the 80s as inspiration. 

One of the most prominent elements of Kavinsky’s music is his aggressive driving basslines, a prominent technique used by composers in the 80s.

An early example is in the game Restan Saga, specifically the track “Overworld Theme.” 

When you listen to this track, it is hard not to draw a comparison to the Synthwave genre that has been made popular in recent years, albeit far more basic.

This is mainly due to the limitations at the time.

Using modern technology, Kavinsky reimagined this style and shed this era of music in a new light. Improving upon the production quality and clarity of the music. 

One of the most important moments for the Synthwave genre is arguably from the 2011 film ‘Drive’.

Kavinsky’s track “Nightcall” was featured in the film and has since amassed 250 million streams on Spotify.

This exposure transcended the genre to new heights, spreading the genre to a far wider audience. 

Another important figure in the emergence of the Synthwave genre was Collage.

His 2008 EP Teenage Color certainly increased the popularity of the genre. Collage and Kavinsky are very similar in using the 80s retro aesthetic.

Using bold neon colors and 80s pop culture references in their artworks, their work highlights features that are very prominent in the Synthwave genre aesthetic today.

When comparing the work of both artists, it is clear their impact in inspiring a new generation of Synthwave artists.

Inspiration Behind the Genre

The main inspirations that led to the creation of the Synthwave genre were video games and films from the 1980s. 

Cinemas influence

One of the most influential composers of the genre and electronic music as we know it today is Vangelis.

Most notable was his work composing the Blade Runner soundtrack in 1983.

If we look at the piece “Blush Response,” it is clear to see his influence on electronic music.

Yes, the piece was written with orchestral influence. However, when you compare the arpeggiated lead, synths drenched in reverb, and punchy drum samples, it clearly demonstrates the influence he has made upon electronic music.

Vangelis was certainly a catalyst in the emergence of the Synthwave genre. 

Video Games Influence

The type of music produced by consoles of the 80s is commonly known as 8-bit music. This era was very influential in the development of electronic music. 

Regarding video games in the 80s, there were huge hardware limitations, especially regarding memory.

This meant those game developers often had to re-use sounds throughout a game.

These consoles also had limitations regarding the number of voices that could be used.

The commodore 64 was considered one of the better consoles for audio during the time, and even this could only play four basic voices. The console produced a combination of a square, triangle, sawtooth, and noise. 

Video game music has been a huge inspiration for the Synthwave genre, with most artists staying loyal to the limitations of the time.

Most synths in synthwave use square, triangle, and sawtooth waves and reject sine waves to create sound. 

Fast forward 20 years to 2002, GTA Vice City was released.

Set in 1986, the game’s style and aesthetic created nostalgia for older players and an immersive 80s experience for the younger audience.

This was also apparent in the music, including rock, rap, and synth-pop tracks from the era.

The aesthetic and use of synthesized songs were a huge influence in the re-emergence of synthesis-based music and the Synthwave genre.

With 17.5 million copies sold worldwide, it became the highest-selling game of the time. It’s hard to argue against the fact that this game had a huge impact on the creation of the Synthwave genre. 

Synthwave Sub-Genres


This sub-genre didn’t initially have a name and was a part of the Synthwave genre. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that it became a genre of its own.

Dreamwave music is very similar to Synthwave. However, there are several noticeable differences between the 2.

One of their main differences is that Dreamwave is downtempo, and generally, the tempo tends to sit between 80 and 110 BPM.

Another key difference is that Dreamwave tends to have a higher tone and more of a high-frequency focus.

Whereas Synthwave tends to be more bass driven. Dreamwave also has a softer texture with heavier use of pads within the mix.

Many Synthwave artists dip into the Dreamwave genre with their music, however. Artists like DOOMROAR and The Abyss are two great examples of Dreamwave-focused artists.


This is one of the Synthwave subgenres that moves away from the typical 80s production.

As the name suggests, this genre has a heavy sci-fi influence. This genre is certainly a bigger step away from Synthwave than Dreamwave.

There is a far more cinematic and orchestral influence upon the structure of Scifiwave.

The genre is also far darker in comparison to its counterparts and is more comparable to modern-day video game music.

While Scifiwave producers stay true to the genre, using 80s-style drum samples and large amounts of reverb on tracks.

They are far more experimental in their production, being less restricted in terms of the samples they use and the way they modulate their tracks.

This genre is walking a fine line between typical EDM production and Synthwave music.

Scifiwave is one of the lesser-known sub-genres, but I would highly recommend listening to the artist Dynatron.

Also, Daniel Deluxe is another big figure in the genre. Their track “Star Eater” is an excellent example of the Scifiwave genre.


People often confuse the Synthwave and Vaporwave genres however they are very different in terms of style and sound.

We have done a deep dive comparing Vaporwave vs Synthwave, so check out that article out too

If you want to dive straight into the genre, I would recommend listening to FM Attack. Their 2009 album Dreamatic is fantastic and worth a listen. 


The Sovietwave subgenre originated after the Soviet Union fell. Similarly to the Synthwave genre, this was born out of nostalgia.

The genre often samples and uses recordings of radio shows and speeches from the time.

Musically, the inspiration comes from synthpop and elements of lofi hip hop and resembles the Synthwave style.

If you want to check out the genre, I recommend starting with PERMSKY KREY.

This artist uses all the typical techniques and styles found in Sovietwave music and will provide you with a better understanding of the genre.


You may have heard the name Retrowave thrown about before, and this is somewhat of an Umbrella term for genres such as Synthwave and Vaporwave.

It isn’t an independent sub-genre with its own style and characteristics.

Characteristics of Synthwave

When identifying whether a track is Synthwave or not, several key elements will determine if it is Synthwave or not:

Time Signature

Synthwave is almost always in a 4/4 time signature with the kick on every beat of the bar.

Some tracks will use quavers at the start of the bar to double up the kick. Then the snare always hits on every bar’s 2nd and 4th beat.

This is the driving component of a Synthwave track, and a different pattern is rarely used.

This acknowledges synth-pop music in the 80s that used the same formula. 


Another key component of Synthwave music is the drums.

In the 80s, machines like the Oberheim DX/DMX Drum Machine and Linn Electronics LM-1 Drum Computer were extremely popular among producers.

Most synth-pop from the 80s used one of these machines to produce and create drum samples. The tight, punchy sound these machines produce is prominent in Synthwave music today.

Another very prominent effect used on drums in the 80s and now in Synthwave is gated reverb.

Gated reverb was used on other tracks however was predominant;y used for drum production.

If you are unfamiliar with gated reverb, it is essentially the combination of a long decay reverb and a noise gate.

This creates a huge sound for drums without impeding on and muddying the rest of the mix.


The most important characteristic of Synthwave music is certainly the synthesis.

Inspired by the simplicity of the synth sound produced in the 80s. The synthwave genre typically uses the four basic waveforms; sine, triangle, square, and sawtooth, with very little modulation. 

With modern DAW software, we can now modulate sounds easily.

However, Logic and Cubase weren’t introduced until the mid-1980s, so most audio engineers were sticking to their original recording methods. 

With DAW software still in its infancy in the 80s, most of the sounds had to be recorded live.

This meant there was very little modulation of a sound as the performer had to have at least one hand on the keys.  

The State of Synthwave Today

Synthwave has been growing in popularity ever since its emergence in the mid-2000s.

The genre has been the beginning of an assortment of micro-genres, such as dark synth, chillwave, and vaporware, to name a few.

It’s often the case that things come full circle, especially regarding fashion and music. The nostalgia provided by the Synthwave genre has certainly been a huge reason for its success.

The genre is now one of the biggest influences in music today. An example is The Weekend’s “Blinding lights,” the biggest song of 2020, and has since amassed 3.2 billion streams on Spotify alone.

Blinding lights has all the typical characteristics of a Synthwave track, a sequenced driving bass line, crunchy drum samples, and synths drenched in reverb.

Accompanied by the 80s-inspired visuals, it’s obvious where they got the inspiration from this track.

Another great example of current artists using the Synthwave genre as inspiration is Dua Lipa.

Most notably in her song “Physical”. Like “Blinding lights,” there are several elements in this track that have taken inspiration from the Synthwave genre.

The music video for “Physical” is also a direct call back to 80s fashion and workout videos of the time.

Unfortunately, the genre, outside of its use in the pop charts, isn’t as popular as it once was.

There are very few “big” purely Synthwave producers out there today. Most successful examples of Synthwave have been from mainstream producers dipping their toes in the genre.

However, there are still some artists finding success within this niche genre.

Artists such as Synthwave Goose, Gunship, and FM-84 have been keeping the genre alive and would be a good place to start if you’re wanting to get into the genre.