Of all the micro-genres to spawn out of 2000s chillwave, vaporwave aesthetic has had the most lasting impact. Drawing almost entirely from the music and culture of the 1980s and 1990s, it has a self-aware and nostalgic quality. Sampling sources as diverse as muzak, elevator music, lounge jazz, City Pop, 1980s synth-pop, R&B and even songs from corporate training videos, it has a synthetic and ambiguous vibe that has somehow endured on the internet since its introduction in 2011.

It is a wholly postmodern genre — considering that songs are situated within an ironic context and are built almost solely from samples — and its rise as an aesthetic is wholly dependent upon the internet, especially the cut-it-up, DIY collages of Tumblr. Vaporwave often slows down samples to near unintelligibility, and then uses that sound and correspondent imagery to create a cyberpunk critique of capitalism. They are often released on Youtube as mixtapes, evoking the feel and vibe of old cassette players and CDs. Part Japanese anime, part Windows 95, a quick look of the genre can be forbidding for most, as if it is some inside joke that is impossible to understand. But don’t worry. In this guide we will look at every aspect at vaporwave, what its intentions are, and how you can make your own. Read on now to find out more!

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Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe

The birth of Vaporwave: Macintosh Plus

The album credited with starting the Vaporwave aesthetic is Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus, released in 2011. Its cover art is typical of the vaporwave look, replete with Greek statues, images of the Twin Towers and old-school computer-generated 3D cubes. The computer inspired alias of Ramona Andra Xavier, i.e. Vektroid, it was released in 2011 to high-acclaim. Chopping up samples of R&B music from the 80s and 90s, adopting a liberal approach to tempo, and evoking the sensation of taking drugs in a shopping mall, it is easily the most popular vaporwave album of all time.

Like lo-fi hip-hop, there is a massive inspiration from Japan, hence all the names of the album being written in Japanese.  “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー |” (Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing) in particular is considered the archetypal vaporwave song, featuring strange, spa-like melodies, a spaced-out drum beat and a slowed-down, often difficult-to-understand sample from Diana Ross’s “Its Your Move”. Floral Shoppe was a crossover success, with many critics listing it as their favorite album of 2011.

The Key to Vaporware | Ironic Nostalgia

Vaporwave is about nostalgia. Nostalgia for lo-fi, analog technology. Nostalgia for the early internet. That strange time between the early 80s and 9/11 (all cover art keeps the Twin Towers in the background). Its also about how previous eras imagined the future and how they got it so wrong. By criticizing the naivety of the past, Vaporware shows how poorly the present has gone. Made in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, it looks at the 80s in particular, the high-point of neoliberalism and corporate banking culture, as the cause of the current world’s problems. The end of this era, 9/11, is seen as a critical loss of innocence.

“Many people even listen to vaporware ironically, while others who started listening ironically find themselves actually enjoying it, venturing out into the strange realm of the post-ironic.”

Written and produced by people who have hazy memories of their childhood, it takes an ironic look at the past that doubles up as a comment on consumerist society. Parody is part of the aesthetic, with the way songs are chopped and screwed up synonymous with its critical approach to hyper-capitalist culture. Many people even listen to vaporware ironically, while others who started listening ironically find themselves actually enjoying it, venturing out into the strange realm of the post-ironic. Vaporwave loves teasing out these types of contradictions: in a way it presaged meme culture in the way one cannot tell the difference between sincerity and irony.

“Is it a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it? Both and neither. These musicians can be read as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound.”

This is what makes Vaporwave so exciting. It is both things at once. It is the allure of internet culture in a nutshell.

What Defines The Vaporwave Aesthetic?

The cover art and videos for vaporware are just as important as the music. As previously stated, the vaporwave aesthetic is rooted in nostalgia, a combination of different and strange ephemera from the 1980s and 1990s. This imagery can include anime, cyberpunk, late 90s web design, the twin towers, early internet message boards, 3D-object renderings, Greek statues, cityscapes, men in suits, IKEA-bought interiors, airport bars, corporate logos, early computer games, especially NES and Nintendo, and shopping malls. It’s also not uncommon for album art to look like old cassette or CD covers. Perhaps a classic distillation of this aesthetic is the description for World Class by Luxury Elite:

“Imagine for a moment if you will, a parallel universe in which Tom Cruise’s 1988 hit Cocktail was actually a gritty noir, full of smoke-filled scenes of low-lit bars and brutalist executive suites. World Class – the new full-length from Luxury Elite – is the essential soundtrack to such a film; a love letter to ‘80s America, smooth jazz, lounge music and skyscraper skylines by night.”

“Songs and album names are often stylised with s p a c e d  o u t  spellings in order to create a dreamy effect and to stress the slowed-down nature of their songs.”

Other films that are considered a touchstone of the aesthetic are American Psycho, Scarface, the films of Gaspar Noé, especially Enter The Void, Videodrome, Fight Club, Wall Street, Blade Runner and nearly any movie where Michael Douglas plays a self-obsessed yuppie. On the Japanese side, anime such as Akira, Paprika and Ghost in The Shell. In more recent years, Drive is an obvious influence on the genre, while the New York crime thriller Good Time was even scored by vaporwave-inspired artist Oneohtrix Point Never.

Additionally, songs and album names are often stylised with s p a c e d  o u t  spellings in order to create a dreamy effect and to stress the slowed-down nature of their songs. Like lo-fi hip-hop, continuous stream videos are massively popular, allowing people to listen on an infinite loop without noticing the change between songs. The concept of w a v e can be added on to anything – for example, there are playlists such as Z e l d a w a v e  and even a tribute to British conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Sub-genres of Vaporwave

Even within the micro-genre of Vaporwave, there are spin-offs. One is Simpsonwave, which pairs music from the genre with washed-out VHS-like footage from The Simpsons, often in the form of hallucinatory gifs or short videos. Other darker spin-offs are Fashwave, which combines Nazi and fascist symbols with vaporware aesthetics, and the self-explanatory Trumpwave, which makes sense considering Trump was considered the ultimate symbol of the money excess of the 1980s. Both these spin-offs have a similar root in nostalgia, looking backward to so-called Golden Ages like the Reagan-dominated 1980s or the perfect early seasons of The Simpsons.

A more significant micro-genre spin-off in terms of sound is Hardvapour, which replaces the chilled, laid-back vibe of vaporwave with harder, faster sounds inspired by gabber and punk music. Additionally, instead of being inspired by Japanese music, it is inspired by Eastern European culture. As a result, many of its artists adopt Russian or Ukrainian monikers and its memes and gifs have a distinctly nihilistic vibe. Created in opposition to its predecessor, Wolfenstein OS X’s End of World Rave (2015) is considered its first proper release.

How To Make Vaporwave Aesthetic | Software, Hardware & Samples

Making vaporwave is relatively simple. Its a genre mostly based around taking samples, slowing them down and adding lots of reverb. To make things sound even weirder its worth lowering the bitrate, increasing distortion and adding flange effects. Songs need not be complex, but the obscurer the sample you find the better, making digging perhaps the hardest task.

In addition, its a question of sounding fresh while staying true to the genre, which many people believe has already exhausted itself. Many people think that all you need to do to make vaporwave is take an old song and slow it down, but this reductive approach is looked down upon by true patricians of the community. Adding your own synth sounds, drum patterns and even extra vocal samples helps to give your songs character and depth. Below we will explain how to make vaporwave, look at the gear you should use and how to find the best samples.

Hardware

To recreate the vaporwave sound organically, you need to buy an FM synth, as these were the most commonly used for games and software until the mid-90s. Classic options such as the Yamaha DX200 and Yamaha TX802 are highly recommended – they can be picked up second-hand for a very reasonable price. Additionally, the Arcano MIDI NES Chiptune Synth II is a very cool little thing that helps to recreate video – game-like sounds. For this genre, the cheaper and dirtier the synthesizer the better – you are looking to recreate the strangest sounds coming out of the era and not something polished like a high-end production.

Software

To help you get the iconic vaporwave sound, there are a whole bunch of plug-ins that you need to download. Whether its bit-crushing, adding flange, chopping up samples, distorting vocals or adjusting EQ levels, the right plug-ins can help you to hone that perfect sound. While a lot will come with your DAW software, its always worth downloading more, either to help create effects or emulate the sounds of synths. We recommend installing these ones which perfectly emulate the feel of old software:

To recreate the vaporwave sound organically, you need to buy an FM synth, as these were the most commonly used for games and software until the mid-90s. Classic options such as the Yamaha DX200 and Yamaha TX802 are highly recommended – they can be picked up second-hand for a very reasonable price. Additionally, the Arcano MIDI NES Chiptune Synth II is a very cool little thing that helps to recreate video – game-like sounds. For this genre, the cheaper and dirtier the synthesizer the better – you are looking to recreate the strangest sounds coming out of the era and not something polished like a high-end production.

Samples

Vaporwave is all about the 1980s and 1990s, so the main kind of genres you should mine are city pop, R&B, smooth soul, muzak, lounge and disco. Yet this is where you can get creative, sources such as YouTube and Soundcloud great places to fall down the rabbit hole and get to find the most obscure work possible. Don’t feel restricted by just the main genres – true innovators find something new to vaporize and make into a sub-genre by itself. If you are looking for sample packs, we would recommend Samplephonics – yet its worth trying to distort and change up these samples as much as possible to make your sound stand out.

Conclusion

Vaporwave was created as a celebration of ephemerality, and how quickly seemingly new things can be outdated. As a result, a lot of people consider Vaporware itself to have burnt out as a genre. But this isn’t strictly true – as the rise of Hardvapor shows, it is only spinning off into stranger, more specific categories. While the hype surrounding it has definitely calmed down since its heyday of 2012, we don’t believe that things are over for the genre just yet. There are always other places to mine from apart from American and Japanese cities in the 1980s and 1990s. Where it goes next is anybody’s guess!

Redmond Bacon

Redmond Bacon

Contributor

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.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting article! I’m honestly very surprised that my program was the first one you mentioned, since I wasn’t actually attempting to emulate any sort of specific hardware with it. Also it isn’t TECHNICALLY a plugin (yet), but if there’s interest I may make a Max for Live version in the future!

    Reply
  2. I came upon vaporwave a s t h e t I c for the first time yesterday and I fell in love. I didnt know, until reading your article, that it is a musical genre as well. Thank you for writing this!

    Reply

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