The retrowave vs synthwave debate is one of those constantly discussed subjects by the fans and rightly so, as the two have a lot in common, but also differ in many, subtle, ways.
Both genres get inspiration from past sounds offering a nostalgic vibe, and combining elements of 80s music, film, and culture to create an innovative experience.
However, it can be difficult to distinguish between them due to their similarities and this is what lead to the debate, with many people believing that these names are synonyms with one another.
Even if it’s true that one can, at times, be part of the other and that Wikipedia (wrongly) places the two terms together, that is not always the case and in this article, I will try exploring the differences between the genres.
Retrowave vs Synthwave
Both styles have been gaining popularity in the past few years but what really defines them?
If you start browsing around the internet, you will find that a lot of music producers, musicians, and fans alike, consider a very big variety of different music to be synth and another big chunk to be retro.
Although they share some similarities, there are distinct differences between them.
Further in the article, I will provide examples of music from these genres for you to enjoy and analyze, but for now, let me explain what the genres are about.
A quick look at Synthwave
I am convinced that the best way to look at it, is by understanding that this is the word describing all music that heavily relies on synthesizers and nostalgia.
As such, it becomes a macro genre, sheltering a lot of different ones under his wings as all synthesizer-based music created to evoke a sense of nostalgia or inspired by the past scores of movies, games, or pop stars, fall under this definition.
A Quick Look at Retrowave
On the other hand, this is a microgenre part of the bigger and broader synth-based one and describes only a very specific kind of music that not only relies on the usage of synthesizers and nostalgia but has a very specific focus on the recreation of the same sounds we used to hear in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
To clear some more confusion, think of Cyberpunk or Dreamwave: both of these rely heavily on synthesizers and both are meant to evoke a sensation of nostalgia in the listeners.
Neither of them focuses on recreating the sounds of the 80s and the production and sounds used in both are usually more modern compared to the ones that you will hear in retrowave tracks.
If you’re still feeling confused do not worry, we’re now going on a little historical discovery of the styles and, for both of them, I will provide examples that’ll surely help you understand the differences.
The rise to fame can be attributed to its unique blend of 1980s nostalgia and futuristic synths.
Born out of a variety of influences, ranging from disco, new wave, and electro to fully-fledged movies and videogame scores, it’s an eclectic mix of memorable melodies, vintage synthesizers, and driving rhythms.
It was born in the early 2000s when independent musicians started experimenting with blending the nostalgia of the past with modern techniques for music production.
Key Synthwave Artists
Let’s now start with a small list of memorable artists you might want to check out to get a proper understanding of what this genre is and has to offer:
Of course, we’re also part of the scene, and some of our songs, like “Above” (created in collaboration with Liquid Modern), are a perfect example of synth-pop. While tracks like “Dangerous Getaway” are perfect examples of music inspired by movie and game scores.
You can listen to our music on Spotify or support us on Ko-Fi with the buttons below.
Probably the most representative band of the synth scene as of today, The Midnight is made up of Tyler Lyle and Tim McEwan.
Their signature sound blends elements of 1980s-inspired synthpop with a modern production crispness and impactful nostalgic lyrics, creating an emotional resonance that captures both nostalgia and hope.
Their album “endless summer” is a personal all-time favorite of mine as stated in our “top 10 best new retro wave albums of all time” post.
Considered by many the Queen of synthwave, NINA released some absolute stunners in her career with “Sleepwalking” being another personal favorite of mine.
A super sweet voice pairs with superb emotionally driven lyrics to create something amazing sure to hit all the right emotional strings of one’s soul.
The undisputed king of Dreamwave, Netherland producer Jordy Leenaerts brings beautiful soundscapes and emotions to all of us from 2014 and his style of music is definitely something to keep an eye out for.
Few artists manage to create uplifting and magical synthpop as Michael Oakley does.
We actually call his music “summer synthpop” for the most part, and usually play him while traveling on sunny days.
No matter how strange it might sound, I do not think the Retro genre was actually invented by anyone in these past years.
We could go as far as saying that it is the name we decided to give to a specific kind of music that never really disappeared from when it was “invented” in the 70s and 80s, only that, at that time, we just called it pop, or cinematic.
As the music sound evolved over the years, all these styles of music evolved with them and as such we couldn’t just keep categorizing those tracks in the same way.
They’d become retro-sounding pop or retro-sounding cinematic tracks.
The term is the name we came up with to describe this music that keeps sounding like it never really evolved from those magic years.
Notable Retrowave Artists
This part will be crucial to get a proper understanding of the differences between genres.
Be sure to have listened to our suggestions on the synth part so you can compare the difference in sound.
Also notice that finding artists creating real retro music is a little harder, as such we’ll be updating this shorter list in time. In fact feel free to suggest bands and producers in the comments so we can check them out!
Le Groupe Fantastique
Le Groupe Fantastique is an almost unknown band that really deserves so much more.
As we said in our review of their latest album (which you can find by CLICKING HERE) their music is probably the perfect example of what this genre is.
The Powers Divide is probably the only pure retrowave album we managed to find in a very long time.
Even if not pure retro like the previous work and with influences that I believe are from electronica, Maxx Silver music definitely winks at the genre and is an awesome example of music that can really bring listeners back in time.
Retrowave and Synthwave have become two of the most popular genres of modern electronic music and with good reason as both of them are extremely catchy and powerful, with a lot of emotional weight.
Both delve into nostalgia, both rely heavily on synths, and both wink to the past, especially the 80s but there are some key differences in the way they do these things that really set them apart.
For the seemingly never-ending talk of Retrowave vs Synthwave, I hope it’s now clear that the second doesn’t really rely on recreating the same sound of the past: its aim is mainly to create nostalgia of the past, with some retro-sounding synths produced with a much more modern approach both sound and melody-wise.
Retro music on his accord aims at bringing the past back exactly as it was, with a much more organic approach to both production and vocals and accepting, if not specifically aiming at, more imperfect and “dated” sounds.
The Retrowave vs Synthwave debate is a long one and even if I did my best to explain what the differences are, I’m sure there will be a lot of people that will disagree with my conclusions, turning the whole discussion into a never-ending one that will never have a defined answer.
I’m interested tho: what did you take from this article? Do you agree with my view on it? What are your thoughts? I’d love it if you left a comment letting me know in the section below.
To end it all, let me just finish with one single phrase: “Music genres do not matter, the important thing is enjoying music in any form and supporting the creators of it, as it’s them providing the soundtrack to your own life“.
All the best,