Since the synthesizer was introduced in the early 60s, it has had a profound effect on 20th-century music. Whether its Wendy Carlos’ spaced-out reinterpretations of classical music, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, or the synth-pop explosion of the early 80s, the synthesizer has revolutionized nearly every aspect of both popular and classical music.
The emergence of the synthesizer has also spilled out into the world of cinema, with composers such as Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, and John Carpenter, among others, using the synth to create a certain atmosphere that is unmistakably moody, otherworldly and futuristic. Whether composers want to depict the future, give a chase scene urgency, or just create a sense of general weirdness, nothing sounds better than a synth.
In this article, we will look at what we consider to be the 10 greatest / best synth soundtracks ever put on film, the composers that made them, the influence they would have on music in general, and the synths that they used. Read on to see what we picked!
Top 10 | Best Synth Soundtracks
1. Scarface | 1983
Director: Brian DePalma
Composer: Giorgio Moroder
Synthesizers used: Roland Jupiter-8, Yamaha CS-80
Scarface is the ultimate tale of excess. Anchored by a balls-to-the-wall performance by Al Pacino, this modern rags-to-riches-to-rags again gangster story needed a score as big as its titular character. “Tony’s theme”, Moroder’s ice-cold, ominous and over-the-top composition, centers around huge minor chords, rising and falling like the fate of the movie’s protagonist. Yet, “Gina and Elvira’s theme” — created for the women in the film — with its lush, high-timbre sound, injects a much more poignant and melancholic tone, displaying the brutal effects of Tony’s actions. This is all complemented by choice electronic synth-pop classics such as “Push it To The Limit” and “She’s on Fire.”
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
Synthesizers used: Yamaha CS-80, ProMars, Jupiter-4
When evoking visions of the future, the synthesizer is your friend. The world of Blade Runner is advanced but also degraded, combining overcrowded city streets with flying cars and massive neon advertisements to brilliant effect. Vangelis imagines this world as a hazy dream, perfectly complementing the movie’s central conflict of figuring out what is truly real. Just as Blade Runner was a turning point for what science-fiction could do, the soundtrack would prove massively influential, as seen in the scores for Japanese anime such as Akira and Ghost in The Shell. Fun fact: the synthesizer sound in Blade Runner is so recognizable that Logic Pro X even has a pre-programmed synth sound named Los Angeles 2019.
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Composer: Wendy Carlos
Synthesizers used: Early version of the Moog and Vocoder
With A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick creates a bizarre future-version of London where the conventional standards of morality are gone, and a young man named Alex roams, a violent delinquent with delusions of grandeur. One of the most controversial films made at the time, its soundtrack features a series of brilliant classical reinterpretations by Wendy Carlos. She uses an early Moog synthesizer — something she helped create with Robert Moog — to reimagine Beethoven’s Ninth, “The Thieving Magpie” and “The William Tell Overture”. Forward-looking while remaining fiercely classical, it is the perfect way to express Alex’s character and to complement the icy-precision of Kubrick’s frames.
4. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Director: Hugh Hudson
Synthesizer used: Yamaha CS-80
The soundtrack to Chariots of Fire has become so iconic it feels almost detached from the movie that it scores, depicting two runners training for the 1924 Olympics. The eponymous title track, soundtracking the main characters running on the beach, has taken on a life of its own, often used and parodied in various television programmes, adverts, and sporting events, including, of course, the Olympics. Perhaps most notably, it was the choice of music used when Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer in 1984. Other songs from the film are equally sweeping, stressing the Olympian grandeur of sporting prowess.
Director: John Carpenter
Composer: John Carpenter
Synthesizers used: Moog III Modular System, Ribbon Controller and Minimoog
John Carpenter is such a unique director as he composes his own scores. This means that the theme and subject always have something of a symbiotic relationship as if they come from the same place. Many of his scores could have made the list, including The Fog, Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13, yet the soundtrack to Halloween really stands out simply due to how damn creepy it is. A stalking piano melody in the unusual time signature of 5/4 is bolstered by heavy synth pads, giving Michael Myers’ terrifying movements all that more menacing weight.
6. Midnight Express
Director: Alan Parker
Composer: Giorgio Moroder
Synthesizers used: Roland SH-2000, Minimoog
The chase scene was never the same again after Giorgio Moroder made “Chase”. Using a Roland SH-2000 to play the melody and a Minimoog synth to create that pulsating bass sound, complemented by a unique flanging effect, “Chase” has an effect way beyond the Turkish crime drama it scored. Along with the Donna Summer song “I Feel Love”, it is widely considered to give birth to the hi-NRG genre, which changed the face of dance music forever. But, in a testament to Moroder’s talents, “Theme from Midnight Express” is equally compelling, helping the soundtrack to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1979.
7. Drive (2011)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Synthesizers used: Arturia Mini V, Yamaha CS-15, Roland Juno-106, MicroKorg
An experiment by Zane Lowe of Radio 1, in which the unique Drive soundtrack was replaced by a new curation of songs, highlighted the importance of the music to the film, as the remixed film lost most of its unique charm. Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack is a wonder, allowing the noir-romantic themes of the movie to speak for themselves. But it is not just the score that is brilliant, original sounds such as “A Real Hero” by College and “Nightcall” by Kavinsky, helping to set the synth-wave aesthetic of the 10s. Now the Drive music aesthetic has bled into everything from nostalgic vaporwave on YouTube to Netflix’s Stranger Things.
8. Suspiria (1977)
Director: Dario Argento
Synthesizers used: Minimoog, System 55
Horror was one of the first genres to understand the otherworldly aspect of the synthesizer. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is so iconic thanks to its soundtrack, which immediately establishes us in a nightmare world without having to show us a single scary thing. Provided by the Italian progressive rock band Goblin, the soundtrack contains an eerie blend of Church organs, violins and synthesizers that feels like its coming from another dimension. Add in illegible singing, and you have a classic horror hit on your hands. With a remake coming out later this year, it shows the enduring popularity of the film, including its soundtrack.
9. Twin Peaks (1990)
Creators: Mark Frost, David Lynch
Composer: Angelo Badalamenti
Synthesizers used: Yamaha DX7, Roland D50
There are few director-composer collaborations as fruitful as that between David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, who have been together since Blue Velvet came out in 1986. For Lynch’s foray into network television that would alter the landscape of the medium forever, he enlisted Badalementi to create the soundtrack. And its a doozy! The opening theme, in particular, uses dreamy high synth sounds and luscious guitar riffs, Badalementi conjuring up a nostalgic slice of Americana that plays right into the show’s central themes of love and loss. “Sarah Palmers Theme” in particular would be sampled by countless composers, most notably Moby in “Go”.
10. Akira (1988)
Director: Kasurhio Otomo
Composer: Geinō Yamashirogumi
Synthesiser used: Roland D50
No overview of synth music in film would be complete without mentioning the world of Japanese anime. Japan was a crucial part of the development of the synthesizer, big brands including Yamaha and the Roland Corporation. This is especially true in the massively influential Akira, which blended gamelan sounds, and ritualistic Noh-inspired chanting with heavy synths sounds to create a steampunk vision of the urban world that is both weirdly exotic yet deeply emotional. There was nothing really like it in film before, going on to inspire the sounds of anime as diverse as Ghost in The Shell and Paprika.
Redmond Bacon is a film obsessive and amateur music producer who can easily spend all day either at the cinema or making fresh beats. Catch his writing over at redmondbacon.co.uk.