Getting into Synthwave: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists

We speak to some of Synthwave’s most prominent and prolific artists in order to demystify the production and live show process - we talk gear, live setup and how to portray yourself as a Synthwave artist.

By Eimear O SullivanMusicngear Editor

Article photo - Getting into Synthwave: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists

Vincenzo Salvia

Producer/Composer ( featured in Stranger Things 3)

Musicngear: What gear you would recommend for a synthwave setup?

Nowadays VSTs have reached a phenomenally high level of emulation, and are very easy to carry around for live shows which is why I use them as much as possible. Obviously the dear old analog synthesizers have their charm - I own a Yamaha DX7 which I use whilst looking for inspiration - I must say that "physical contact" with an 80's instrument is always very pleasant and nostalgic.

Having said that, among my favorite and most used VSTs I can mention are u-he Zebra2, Dexed, OP-X PRO II, Minimonsta, FM8 and the wonderful Arturia V Collection. I have used them all since my very first albums, and alternate between them. In my latest productions ("Weekend" LP and "Out Now" EP) the presence of the FM synthesis is very strong (Dexed most of all)

For drums I prefer to use single shots to be placed at my convenience. Since many have asked me, in my track "Italian Gigolo" (which was included in the first episode of Stranger Things 3 when Billy flirts in the pool with Mrs. Wheeler) I did not use VSTs for guitar and bass but I played my humble but beloved Yamaha 420D electric guitar and a basic Ibanez 4-string bass.

Article photo - Getting into Synthwave: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists

Photo credit - Nico Lanubile // Edit by -  Silvia Violante Rouge Photographer

Any practical advice for performing a synthwave production live?

As I said earlier, I prefer virtual instruments because of their practicality. For this reason I suggest everyone, especially those who are doing their first live performances (perhaps with a limited budget for any flights and baggage) to minimize the equipment and the risks. As you play live more and more you can try to make the performances more spectacular and choreographic, but in my opinion without exaggeration. Ours is not a virtuous genre like prog rock, metal, jazz ... (I expect harsh comments) but a style of music that makes you dance, have fun and bring us back with a little sweet nostalgia in the past.

Any other useful tips for new synthwave artists?

If I can give some advice based on my experience in the Synthwave genre, I suggest first of all not to be too critical with your music and try to release as many songs as possible to get noticed. It is also necessary to create a nice brand image, a nice logo, good communication on your socials and try to promote yourself on webzines, podcasts and compilations.

Connect with Vincezo 
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Dana Jean Phoenix


Article photo - Getting into Synthwave: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists
Photo credit - Hayley Stewart 

What gear you would recommend for a synthwave setup?

My go-to synth for beat ideas and jamming is my Roland JD-Xi as I love the analog and digital sounds, its arpeggiator is easy to use, it has great looping capabilities, and it's awesome for programming drum patterns. Plus, it's mini and lightweight, so it's perfect for touring! 

Any practical advice for performing a synthwave production live?

A good rule of thumb, especially touring as an indie artist - be as minimalist as possible. A great show starts with you - and you can build that with just a laptop, Ableton (or your preferred live DAW), audio interface, and a small midi keyboard. You can always expand and add more gear, lights, and costuming to your show once you know how to rock the basics. 

Any other useful tips for new synthwave artists?

Practice setting up your live synthwave rig and tearing down over and over again so that you can do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Synthwave shows typically have multiple artists on one bill, so I also colour code all my equipment and cords with tape so that I never lose a piece of gear while hopping from city to city on tour. Also, know where the local music shops are in cities you play in – an airline once lost my keytar “Jareth” and I had to buy a new one while on tour in Europe! Thankfully I knew where the local music store was.  

For the most part - people I've met in the Synthwave scene are very cool and supportive. Take the leap, put yourself out there, learn from your mistakes, and you'll find a rad community with a ton of heart. 

Connect with Dana
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Morgan Willis


Article photo - Getting into Synthwave: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists
Photo credit - Robin Ono

What gear you would recommend for a synthwave setup?

In the studio, I work with several synths including the Roland System-8, Korg microKORG & Novation UltraNova. I am also acquiring a Korg Wavestate and a Behringer Poly-D in the next few weeks. I use a MXR M 222 Talkbox and then for drum programming I work with a Roland SPD-SX Sampling Pad and I often use Native Instruments products like Maschine, Native Instruments Maschine Jam and Battery 4. I use Ableton Live as a sequencer with NI Komplete and Arturia V Collection products. I work with VSTs such as U-HE Diva, TAL-U-NO, Oberheim & Massive. I also have an Akai APC 40 controller and a Midi NI Komplete Kontrol keyboard. 

Any practical advice for performing a synthwave production live?

When I perform live, I have two setups dependent on where I’m travelling to and what the venue stage plot looks like. Usually I work on Traktor with the Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8 controllers, Maschine, Machine Jam and a Kontrol 25 midi keyboard, otherwise I run Ableton with a Ableton Push 2 and an Alesis Vortex.

Any other useful tips for new synthwave artists?

In terms of the visual design around album teasers, singles and album artwork and music videos, my inspiration is always derived from cinema themes, particularly from the 80s era.  I generally start with the design of a story board and then I develop a story that I try to tell in music. Once the idea is well established, I work with artists like Marquee Adam, Milwoki or Foreigner Art to develop the final visual assets and to consolidate the project. 

The visual elements are very important from project to project. When I perform live, I work with the promoters to provide aesthetically-pleasing visual projections behind me. UK-based synthwave promoters Outland (who also act as my booking agent and label) always provide amazing bespoke visual elements that are usually mixed in real-time by their VJ at each show. I think anywhere people go to see live synthwave now, there’s always a visual element to the show.

Connect with Morgan
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Award nominated Producer/Artist/Musician

What gear you would recommend for a synthwave setup?

The tool I have used most for synthwave is definitely the TAL-U-NO-62 soft synth. This is a free download and has dozens of free user created sound packs out there for it too.  Websites like PluginBoutique were a treasure trove for me when I started out as they had all sorts of soft synths and plugins to try out and get familiar with. 

Article photo - Getting into Synthwave: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established ArtistsSynthwave is usually based on a specific set of vintage sounds but everyone has their preference. I tend to lean towards analog rather than digital sounds but with a lack of actual equipment I always found myself manipulating sounds with basic Logic plugins in an attempt to make them sound more human. The Logic tape delay is quite good for adding a bit of ‘wonk’, as is the XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color, which I’m using quite a bit these days. 

There are quite a few things I swear by these days. My Korg Minilogue, the Soundtoys Plugins, Spitfire Labs stuff and above all, experimentation as that’s when it gets interesting. 


Any practical advice for performing a synthwave production live?

Everybody has a different take on what a live setup should be and what works for them. When I started doing this stuff live I had no idea what I was doing, I was basically playing a keyboard over the top of some tracks. Now I’m using ableton for my live shows and that makes things a lot more interesting as well as giving me the ability to mix things up on the fly. 

I’m running Ableton suite from my MacBook, using a Novation Launch Control and a Novation Launchpad Mini to launch clips and midi from Ableton. This is something I’m still getting to grips with but it certainly makes for a more compact setup. I run those through a Kaoss pad for the occasional bit of effect. What’s happening in Ableton is a mix of track stems and various samples I’ve collected over the years. Every show is different and Ableton makes it fairly easy to mix the set up as when it’s needed. The end goal is to add synths, maybe a drummer, but most of all some sort of light show. Easier said than done!

Any other useful tips for new synthwave artists?

The thing I would recommend most to any and all artists is to experiment and to do it as often as possible. The end result almost doesn’t matter, it’s the doing of the work that counts, in my opinion anyway. And nothing is ever finished, once you release something you’ll always want to make changes. Besides, every listener will have a different experience with it and THAT is the whole point of art anyway.

Every musician and artist is different so it’s really up to you how you package yourself and in theory, that shouldn’t matter. I’ve always focused on just making the best music I can make. As long as you like the music you make then you’ll be ok. I know plenty of artists trying to please labels or a certain fan base and that’s not entirely honest in my opinion. Please the artist in you and nobody else. Stick to that and you’ll be fine!

Connect with Arvo
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Photo credit - Willy Woods

About Eimear O Sullivan

Eimear Ann O Sullivan is a multi-genre music producer, audio engineer and vocalist. After receiving a Masters in Music Technology from the CIT Cork School of Music, she went on to operate as a producer under the name Blakkheart. Her releases have received critical acclaim from Ireland's biggest music publications, such as District Magazine and Nialler9, alongside receiving heavy commercial radio airplay. She currently works in Cork recording studio Flashpoint CC. Previous clients of hers include the likes of Comedy Central’s Dragony Aunt star Candy Warhol, rapper Darce and Outsider YP. (Photo credit @Fabian Boros)

Contact Eimear O Sullivan at

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