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Recording and Mixing Vaporwave in Spire Studio

by Charley Ruddell, iZotope Contributor January 23, 2020
Steeped in irony, wrapped in hazy nostalgia, vaporwave is a genre you can’t ignore.
Steeped in irony, wrapped in hazy nostalgia, vaporwave is a genre you can’t ignore.

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Explore this article’s session file to dive into a vaporwave production in the Spire App. 

Somewhere after the boom of chillwave at the dawn of the 2010s, the internet invented vaporwave, an electronic micro-genre steeped in 1980s nostalgia aesthetics, lounge music irony, and obscure memes. Vaporwave takes most of its influence from 1980s and '90s “mood music” (think elevator music, or hold music on a phone call). A staple of the genre is primitive, retro-sounding production that makes its signature smooth instrumentals feel vintage, dense, and proto-analog. Artists like James Ferraro and Ramona Xavier as Vektroid use these qualities to create songs that feel like waiting room music inside Windows ‘97. 

Emulating these production techniques in Spire Studio is much simpler than you might expect. A few of the recognizable vaporwave staples—tape distortion, gated reverb, etc.—can be recreated using Amp Simulators and Vocal Effects. Effects like Bass Amp can emulate the sound of a low pass filter, while Classic Stack can turn a beat into a primitive drum machine. With just a little bit of reimagining, these Spire Studio effects can be used in an entirely unsuspecting way. 

Let’s dive deep into the subconscious of the internet to build a vaporwave song using Spire Studio’s recording effects. But first, take a listen to our own track for reference:

Final Vaporwave Mix

Vaporwave is as much an aesthetic as it is a genre.

Keep drums deep and wide

Most vaporwave tracks sound like they’re being played on an FM radio inside a cave, and much of that has to do with the reverberated drum sounds. The major component to achieving those blown-out sounds in Spire Studio is by creating two of the same drum tracks while using opposing effects. 

Take a listen to our isolated drum tracks:

Vaporwave Drums

This effect was created by recording one drum track using the Bass Amp simulator, and the other using Classic Stack on low drive and with a considerable amount of reverb. 

Using amp simulators on drum machines creates that primitive vintage sound that is so prominently featured in vaporwave. Adding reverb to one of the tracks builds upon that retro production sound while also making the drums feel distant.

Square bass or bust

A distinct feature of many vaporwave songs, like “Midnight” by luxury elite, is the articulated, yet hefty bass sound. When searching for a synth patch that best fits the sound of vaporwave bass, try starting with square waves. The box-ier, the better. 

Vaporwave Bass

Falling in line with your drum sounds, running the synth bass through an amp simulator will achieve the vintage production sound needed for an authentic vaporwave song. Bass Amp is a great choice for your synth bass because it adds low end depth, but also for the additional Drive option which can add further muddiness to your mix. 

When writing your bass part, staccato and syncopation should play a major role. Treat your bass line as an additional rhythmic instrument by adding movement and complementary rhythms to your drum tracks. The bass line is really the driving force here. 

Get wavy, baby

Mid and high range synthesizers are the signature washed out colors in your vaporwave song’s sonic aesthetic. Soft, warbly synths are a must in any vaporwave song. Just take “Watching Your Dance” by 18 Carat Affair as an example. 

The key to fully vaporwave-ing your synth patches is to add reverb and drive to fill up space and create distance in your mix. As far as amp simulators go, Bass Amp and Classic Stack on low drive will add crunch and a bit of low end to your synths which will allow these tracks to blend more effectively with your bass track. The Bass Amp effect will mimic a low pass filter effect, a commonly used feature in vaporwave tracks. 

Vaporwave Synths

Wormhole in Vocal Effects is a nice option for a softer EQ approach. This effect also allows you to adjust both delay and reverb on your track; use these effects liberally to get a wavy quality to your master track. 

Pro tip: Avoid using Spaces and Pedals when tracking your vaporwave synths. An ideal vaporwave track has a contained, yet faraway sound. Spaces and Pedals will add a closer and cleaner quality to your tracks that will feel separate from the rest of your mix. 

Vaporizing the mix

As mentioned, you’ll want to make your mix feel contained by avoiding too much width in the stereo field.

Start by slightly panning your drum tracks. Place them on either side of the imaginary center vertical line. Next, mix in your bass track dead center between the drum tracks. Pan your main synth tracks just shy of the hard left and right. Keep these synth tracks level with your rhythm section. Mix in any secondary synth tracks in between your rhythm section and panned synths.

By keeping your bass centered, carefully placing rhythm tracks around it, and avoiding hard panning, your track will obtain that signature contained vaporwave sound.

Conclusion

So there you have it: the mysterious electronic genre deconstructed. When creating your project, it’s vital to keep in mind the primitive production sounds of 1980s electronic music. To achieve these sounds, use Amp Simulators and Vocal Effects to create distance and add crunch. Avoid using Spaces and Pedals to make the mix feel contained and purposefully dense. Just add your own bit of waviness to make your project as smooth as the music you hear while on hold on a phone call.

Learn more about recording different genres on Spire Studio

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