I can trace my love of synthwave music and 1980s beats to early exposure to 16-bit computer game soundtracks coming from my dad’s Amiga computer as well as numerous other sources including the Miami Vice TV show, 1980s science fiction movie soundtracks, British synth pop music and synth music from the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis plus 80s American Electro and early techno records.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of 80s nostalgia, the arrival of Stranger Things on Netflix, a sonically and visually stunning Bladerunner sequel and the launch of CD Projeckt Red’s much-hyped Cyberpunk 2077 video game, all of which have inspired an increased interest in all things Cyberpunk and more people listening to synthwave type music than ever before and it’s a genre of music that has found a massive following on social media thanks to the likes of Lost Years, FM 84, Mitch Murder, Com Truise to name just a few.
How to make Synthwave Beats?
Looking to make your very own Cyberpunk and Synthwave beats and tracks? Below I have a carefully curated selection of VST plugins, Kontakt Instruments plus a synthwave sample pack too – everything you need to get started creating the tracks of tomorrow today!
1. Beatmaker VICE
UJAM have made something of a name for themselves over the past couple of years thanks to their ever expanding range of easy to use plugins which cover everything from beat making to guitar thrashing and crazy effects. A couple of UJAM’s Beatmaker plugins have made it onto this list here, of which VICE bags the top spot.
Fire up VICE in your DAW and you’re greeted with an eye catching plugin that positively screams synthwave. Sadly, the image of the car in the center doesn’t actually do anything – it’s just a static image – which I think is something of a missed opportunity! It looks pretty cool, anyway!
This being a Beatmaker plugin it is at heart – beyond the flash interface – a very fancy sample library and preset playing device. This isn’t your typical simplistic drum Rompler with limited controls, however – VICE offers plenty of controls over the included sounds, kits, patterns and effects to ensure you can easily put your own stamp on things.
If you’ve used a Beatmaker plugin before then the core features are the same with VICE so you’ll be able to get stuck in without even needing to read a manual. If not, the easiest way to get started with VICE is to load it up and then play through some or all of the included presets via your MIDI keyboard or your DAWS piano roll (or by triggering sounds in the plugin’s GUI itself).
As with other Beatmaker plugins, pressing MIDI keys in the C3–B4 range plays the groove part presets (verses, choruses, fills etc) while MIDI notes C1–D#2 represent individual drum hits in your current kit (of which you get 10). Individual drum sounds in your kit can be tweaked via Volume, Decay, Pitch and Filter controls and can be muted or soloed as well as output to individual channels in your DAW.
With your kit selected, VICE gives you 12 ‘smart-mix’ presets all geared towards creating an authentic 80s vibe. A ‘Time Control’ slider lets your morph your drums from a 1980s vinyl style through to an imaginary year 2080 (when UJAM assume all beats will feature plenty of pumping compression!)
Overall the sound quality is fantastic – there’s all the drum sounds you here to create hundreds of Synthwave, Retrowave, or Futuresynth tracks.
VICE syncs to your DAW but you have further control over the speed and timing of your beats and can play back beats at half speed or double speed of your DAW.
A very useful MIDI drag and drop feature lets you take any of the preset patterns out of the plugin and dump them straight into your DAW’s piano roll which opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to quickly creating your own unique drum patterns, fills and variations.
If you’re looking for an easy to use plugin that will enable you create retro inspired soundtracks and music quickly then VICE is well worth checking out. You can download a demo version of VICE from the UJAM website.
2. Beatmaker Nemesis
Coming in a close second to VICE is Beatmaker Nemesis. While VICE focuses on the cooler Synthwave side of things, Nemesis is all about killer Cyberpunk and gritty science fiction music vibes – perfect for those dystopian movie and post-apocalyptic video game soundtracks.
Much of Beatmaker Nemesis’s core functionality is the same as VICE but whereas VICE offers a time machine slider, Nemesis gives you a ‘Pressurize & Hypercharge’ slider. Turn the sider up to engage ‘Hypercharge’ and apply multi-band distortion for a more aggressive sound. Turn the slider down to engage the ‘Pressurize’ mode and apply multi-band compression to squash the signal. There’s no visual feedback here to show you what is happening to the sound so you’ll need to judge it by ear and adjust to taste.
Beatmaker Nemesis is a great choice of ready to use sounds if you’re looking to make futuristic trailers, intros, stingers and the like. This plugin is packed with heavy-hitting drum sounds while the mix presets provide different types of distortion and compression to help the drums cut through your mix.
Beatmaker Nemesis or Beatmaker Vice? I actually own both and just use whichever one I think is most suitable for the job at hand – if I’m working on dark and aggressive science fiction music then I will plump for Nemesis for its explosive and intense sounding presets while VICE’s 80s vibes are more suited to recreating a nostalgic atmosphere, or a touch of cool. That’s not to say that you can’t use VICE for darker music or science fiction scores too of course.
You can download a free demo version of Nemesis from the UJAM website.
3. Beatskillz Synthwave Drums VST
Synthwave Drums is a virtual instrument from Beatskillz. This VST plugin collects a decent selection of samples in both dry and processed versions. Rather than ‘merely’ sample the same old vintage drum machines, developer Beatskillz have sought to process the sounds in the same ways that sounds were sampled, processed and recorded to vinyl in the 1980s so that there’s no need for you to wonder how to get that authentic 80s sound when using these samples in your own productions.
This is a pretty useful library of convincing, ready to use sounds (100 preset banks featuring 12 sounds per preset. Over 1200 drum sounds in total).
As well as the sounds you get two slightly different versions of the plugin (with two separate installers) with one giving you a stereo mix output of the entire drum kits and the other giving you a Multi-out version which lets you put each of the 12 sounds in a kit/bank onto its own channel in your DAW for further processing the sounds as per your liking. (Obviously the Multi-out is the most versatile of the two and the one most producers will want to install).
Global effects are pretty basic with just a pitch control, reverb and volume to tweak and there’s also individual pan, volume and release parameters for each drum sound in your chosen kit.
Beatskillz have thoughtfully included all the .wav samples in their own folder too so you can bypass the entire plugin GUI if you just want the individual sounds in your DAW or you could feed them back into your own drum machine for further manipulation.
On the downside, there’s no step sequencer in Synthwave Drums but on the plus side Synthwave drums can often be picked up for next to nothing during the seasonal sales including Black Friday.
If you’d like a bigger, slightly more expensive and feature packed plugin with a similar vibe then check out Sequel below.
4. Beatskillz Sequel VST
Building on the success of their RetroHit, Synthwave Drums and Breakdance Drums plugins, Beatskillz’s Sequel is a drum sampler with an integrated 8 part sequencer.
Sequel comes with over 600 drum sounds, 100 drum kits and 150 sequencer patterns and ﬁlls. You can create and customize patterns with the included sounds or you can import your own sounds.
The sounds included are a great selection of vintage drums sounds, well organized into both kits and single category hits (kick, snare etc). When you want to import your own sounds just drag and drop a sample ﬁle onto one of the pads (or use the plugin’s ﬁle browser).
Sequel functions as an easy to use drum sample mangler with the ability to pitch shift, filter and reverse samples and you can also trim samples by adjusting the sample start and end points.
To add instant retro vibes to your sounds Sequel features a useful “Vintage” knob effect which allows you to downsample, bit-crush, and ﬁlter your sounds. Beatskillz have also included a drive control that emulates the drive of analogue pre-amps built into the vintage samplers.
You can also process sounds using the multi-output for each sample pad to your DAW channel and use your own plugins such as tape saturators and the like.
Besides the great selection of presets, what I really like about Beatskillz Sequel is that it strikes a good balance between simple to use drum romplers and more complicated (and more expensive) drum machine VSTs such as Battery, Punch 2, Spark 2 or Maschine. Yes Sequel has less features than some of its bigger rivals but it offers a very quick and fun way of working with your own drum samples and one shots – perfect for when you need to knock out those backing tracks quickly and with a minimum of fuss.
5. Neon Drive Maschine Expansion
If you’re a Maschine user looking to get into synthwave and melodic synth pop then you can’t go wrong with the Neon Drive Expansion from Native Instruments. This is a stunning collection of individual sounds and kits that takes inspiration from a variety of British, European and American 80s synth music.
Neon Drive is bursting with 80s spirit, power and emotion. While there are plenty of aggressive, hard edged sounds here, there’s also plenty of ice cool sounds too, as well as good time party vibes and warmth all of which makes Neon Drive a great choice if you’re looking for a sound palette that can cover multiple bases (or genres).
Native Instruments don’t skimp on the content when it comes to their Maschine expansions and Neon Drive is no exception. In all you get 299 drum samples, 347 individual one shots, 45 ready to use Maschine kits and 50 Battery kits plus presets for Massive VST, DrumSynth, Reaktor Prism VST and more besides.
6. AizerX Hybrid Cyberpunk Toolkit
Part of Keepforest’s Aizer series, AizerX Hybrid Cyberpunk Toolkit is an inspiring Kontakt Instrument that looks as good as it sounds! I challenge anyone to fire up this Kontakt Instrument and not be inspired to create something exciting!
This instrument is powered by the AizerX-engine tool and while it is geared towards composers and sound designers working in video games and science fiction movies there’s plenty of inspiring sounds that could find a home in your aggressive or ambient electronic music tracks too.
If you do happen to be working in games or movies then the included braams, hits, pulses, alarms and other heavily processed sound effects are a great starting point for your projects.
There’s 70+ playable instruments, a great selection of tempo-synced drum loops and a variety of stems which you can combine in numerous ways.
The Hybrid Cyberpunk Toolkit also features various artist created stems and cues from established producers in the movie trailer industry.
If you need a set of sounds to establish a grim, futuristic vibe then the AizerX Hybrid Cyberpunk Toolkit makes a great starting point.
Note that AizerX Hybrid Cyberpunk Toolkit requires a full version of Kontakt 5.8.0 – it is NOT compatible with the free Kontakt Player.
7. Loopmasters Synthwave Generation Sample Pack
If you want to bypass plugins and grab a library of ready to use synthwave sounds to use in your own drum machine, sampler or DAW projects then check out Loopmasters Synthwave Generation sample pack.
Synthwave Generation is a 1.36Gb pack of 707 loops and one shots all of which are sampled from vintage hardware drum machines and synths or an authentic synthwave vibe.
There are some plenty of useful sounds in this library and you get pretty much everything you need to start creating authentic synthwave including basslines, drum loops and individual drum hits, percussion loops, Rex2 Files, Reason Kong files, multi-sampled basses, 60 MIDI loops and much more.