“‘Escape’ is just one of the standout tracks found on up and coming synthwave artist Neon Exdeath’s debut album of the same name. Neon Exdeath sets themselves apart by not failing to spill emotivity through their soundscapes without allowing it to resonate as saccharine.” – A&R Factory
That quote was a long time coming, the most recent review my album received before I got signed to a great netlabel, We Are The New Underground, and my debut synthwave album took on a life of its own. In this post, I’m going to talk about the apps and plugins I used most often to get that smooth, vintage sound. I’ll discuss my mixing techniques, distribution service, and marketing tools that helped along the way. You can stream the entire album almost anywhere at this point. Click whichever service you prefer via linktr.ee/neonexdeath, or you can stream it in full on the Spotify embed below:
Hey, crazy idea, you could even listen while you read! Or don’t. Live your life. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.
I was born in the 80s. I’ve been a fan of cyberpunk anything since day one. I’ve been an electronic musician since the nineties. I grew up obsessed with acts like New Order, Kraftwerk, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and more or less the entire Warp Records catalogue. The future nostalgia, for me, is very real. I’ve dabbled in many electronic genres along the way – idm, glitch, hip hop, noise, performance art, house, drum ‘n bass, you name it. I’ve also fronted a band that played around LA, and I have a live-looping YouTube channel with over 100K views. No, I’m not going to link it, but thanks for asking.
One thing that always connected most of my songs was a strong sense of melody, and that’s a big part of what retro synth tracks are all about. Whether it’s a catchy bassline, smooth synth, cutting sawtooth, or wailing alto sax, a good strong melody is what ties this whole vibe together, man.
Retro electro has always been around, but a few years ago, artists like Kavinsky and Carpenter Brut inspired a resurgence of a new incarnation, vaporwave and the New Retrowave movement, that captured the hearts and imaginations of producers everywhere. It had been inching into the forefront already with mega-acts like Daft Punk, but the reality is that this genre focuses mostly on the love of the vintage rather than making a ton of money. That focus on future nostalgia appealed to me a great deal.
It didn’t hurt that my brother, my friends, and I all listened to this stuff constantly, whether while driving, at parties, as background while working, whatever. I actually happened to be at a party with close friends over the summer when a pivotal moment occurred. Some synthwave videogame remix came up on a YouTube channel and, for whatever reason, we all really enjoyed the moment together. I announced then and there that I was going to make a synthwave a track. I started it the next day.
What happened next was sort of magical. But first, let’s talk nerdy for a sec.
Ableton Live + Softsynths
I’m an Ableton guy and have been since version 5. But, while it may be my main DAW, I rarely use it for the native synths. I often use Operator, though, to get a basic, low-RAM synthesis of what I need, and of course Simpler is an amazing tool. I also highly recommend playing around with Wavetable, if nothing else just to familiarize yourself with synthesis. But for Neon Exdeath, nearly all of the software synthesizer sounds came from Reaktor and, to a lesser extent, Serum (mostly the bass, the plucks, and a few hard leads).
Serum is a classic VST plugin made by frequent deadmau5 collaborator Steve Duda. It’s frankly better suited for dubstep and trap, but I ended up using it way more than Sylenth or Synth1. I used a few others, like the nifty (and free) Zebralette plugin from u-he, who have a whole suite of free ones I highly recommend checking out. That’s more or less the entirety of the melodic plugins I used, but we need to talk a little more about Reaktor, and especially an ensemble called The Mountain.
This one’s a beast. Reaktor patches are called ensembles, and part of the reason for that is they’re more like a collection of modules that have a signal path. It’s a really fun system to play with, and a great learning tool besides for when you start making your own patches in any environment.
In this case, The Mountain (created by cool guy Peter Hurton, aka DJ Flash Peters) has a really lovely signal flow specifically designed to recreate the warmth, waver, and various artifacts from an 80s studio setup. It goes like this: SEQ > Drift > Oscillators 1, 2, Sub and Noise > Mix > LFO > VCF > VCA > EQ > Drive > Crush > Flange > Width > Chorus > Delay. This means you can bake in things like tape chorus, machine noise, drift/flange, etc before your sound emerges to be carried forth toward its track in Ableton. I’m pretty sure all twelve songs on Escape have at least one track running this ensemble.
As the summer went on, I used The Mountain less and less as I got better at making my own patches/effects chains that sound legit. I now have pretty close emulator ensembles of a Juno, a Jupiter, and several Moogs. Basically, Reaktor is capable of a dynamic sound that I find more satisfying than its competitors. And the best thing about most of its ensembles is that they’re community-based, i.e. free or very affordable once you own Reaktor itself.
The Mountain has its own native tape chorus, but that isn’t always enough. If I’m using Serum or another non-vintage-oriented software synth, I’m definitely going to need a chorus effect really often. Not only will this add the analog vibe, it can also help a sound cut through the mix without having to get drastic with your volume, compression, or EQ. Ableton has its own chorus plugins, which aren’t terrible, but far more often I used the super badass (and also free) TAL-Chorus-LX, which emulates the famed Juno-60 chorus. It’s a tiny, simple yet effective tool. Cannot recommend enough.
TAL also has a vintage modulated plate verb called TAL-Reverb-4, which I ended up using more than the Ableton reverbs. I enjoyed the straightforward controls and modulator knob that ups the vintageness to 11 when necessary.
I used various distortion effects, but the FuzzPlus from Audio Damage was on the most tracks by far. I really like it on the drumkit and bass. It’s modeled after a plain ol’ vintage fuzz pedal.
Ableton’s native amps and compressors did all my sidechaining, because that makes the routing roughly 6,000% easier. Same routing ease goes for the vocoder – I know some people are really disappointed by that, but until I can afford to drop $800 on a DigiTech talkbox, the digital native vocoding is what you get, okay? And while we’re on the subject of routing, let’s talk about the default session I developed over the course of the album.
The Default Ableton Session
My default Ableton session will forever be a work in progress. I always think I have it set up perfectly at long last, only to tweak it again when I’m halfway through the next track. The levels and limiters change with every new song, too. But here, generally, is how it’s organized when I open a fresh save file.
- Reference track. I don’t always use a reference track, but when I do, it lives muted at the top of the session (insert Dos Equis guy meme).
- Bass group. The bass group track has a light vintage warmer, EQ, a limiter, and a spectrum visualizer. Level is set to -9.5db with a very light -1db limiter (to preserve sidechaining). A lot of synthwave tracks switch back and forth between at least two bass patches. This can include separate lanes for your arpeggiated bass and the non-arp. Or sidechained and not, or A section and B section, or whatever. In case you were wondering why this is a group and not just one track.
- Treble group. This entire group lives beneath a -7.5db limiter. This is always the group containing the most tracks, and has several subgroups: Leads, Arps, Pads, and Sidechain. Other tracks in this group may also be sidechained, but it helps to have a dedicated, layered group for it all the same. The treble group track also has a hard shelf cutting off everything below 120 Hz. Don’t rely on this EQ to cut everything for you – that’s terrible mix practice. You should be applying a high pass filter to all of your non-bass, non-drum tracks, but having one on the master is like a mix failsafe. If you have vocals, I’d recommend putting them in their own group, but you can also put them here and instead have a dedicated Send track. This allows them to bypass the limiter and really stand out. Mixing vocals is weird and subjective, and since I only used vocoder for Neon Exdeath, and even then sparingly, I’m going to stop at that in this rundown.
- Drumkit group. Drums start with a small amount of distortion and a hard -10.5db limiter to start with that almost always gets adjusted later. I really smash my drums, folks, YMMV. I went through several iterations of my personal retro drumkit, which I built completely from scratch after downloading hundreds of samples and demoing for days on end. I ended up sticking with the sixth kit I built, which uses various old kits mostly from Simmons and Roland. I will probably be tweaking it for sounds, levels, pitches, etc. for the rest of my life. The whole upper keys section of it consists of like 30 claps and toms that I still never really got quite right, in my opinion. Producing is a journey. Oh, and start here to learn more about gated drum effects in Ableton.
- Cymbals/FX group. Cymbals are cut below like 500 Hz and limited at -16db. I just like that crushed, floaty sound. FX are subjective and come in all shapes and sizes. That would be things like rises and falls and whatever else weird shit I’m throwing in like a crazy person. For example, in the opening track of my album, Lightcycle, the final section has a whole host of ancient 70s and 80s arcade game samples that live here. The reality is that you don’t really have a track until you figure out your crashes and big crescendos and whatnot. You can make rises/falls/etc easily in Ableton, or download free packs of them, sometimes by the hundreds.
- Samples group. Starts with a -6db limiter. Here there be all the nerdy movie quotes and whatever didn’t fit elsewhere. Assuming I didn’t load them into a sampler or something. Which I may have.
- Sends. I usually have three, one for delay and one for verb, and a third I can pipe into so whatever part I’m currently recording is louder than everything else. The Escape title track has a fourth Send for the vocals.
- The master track. For your master, compression always goes first in the signal flow. Next comes EQ. Personally, I always hard cut everything below 10 Hz. At least. Because you can’t hear it. And most of us aren’t playing stadiums where you can feel that. Meaning all it does is muddy up the track and take up valuable volume space. TL;DR, for a standard album, cut the subtones for punchy bass. Beyond that, I actually quite like Ableton Live 10’s mastering EQ/all-in-one presets as a starting point. I definitely recommend playing with those on your master chain to sweeten things up. Finally, assuming you’re not sending your tracks out to get profe$$ionally ma$tered, have a final limiter here to get the correct levels for output (we spam limiters here, can you tell?) and then a spectral visualizer if you like. Go here for a good primer on Ableton mastering chains.
And that’s roughly what every Ableton session on this album looked like. To summarize, every track has limiters and EQs. The drums and bass always have compression, and often have distortion. Cut out as much of the low tones as you can, and don’t be afraid to really gut a sound with a bandpass if it’s hogging your mix. The rest… is up to you.
For controllers, I keep it simple. I have an Axiom 2-octave MIDI controller with mod and pitch wheels, complete with a 2×4 array of drum triggers. I have an Alesis vortex MIDI keytar that I’m borrowing from a friend for when I really want to get into a solo (or make a video). I have a really lovely 76-key weighted keyboard I bought for $80 from a friend who was moving to NYC and couldn’t fit it in his car. And I have a Rode NT1-A condenser mic that I have had since college. Maybe one of the smartest $200 I have ever spent in my life.
The Rode condenser recorded my friend Ryan playing the woodwinds, and myself for all the vocoded vocals. Microphones now are insanely cheap for the quality, though. You could probably do better for less. Probably.
I mix on a pair of close-range speakers I bought on Craigslist. I have a studio pair of Sony headphones that I pretend sound close enough to airpods. (Narrator: They don’t.) My soundcard is a MOTU Traveler, so ancient I’m not even sure if they make it anymore. It has to go through two adapters just to plug into a modern iMac.
It helps to have a musical network who can help by lending gear or talent, or just encouragement. Also a girlfriend who is incredibly supportive and doesn’t mind low-pitched booming noises coming through the bedroom door all day and can also design your album cover because she does that for a living. That one is pretty key.
Next, I’ll talk about the uploading, the social media-ing, the distributing, the marketing, and beyond. Hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard and seen so far, and found at least some of this info useful.
The First Upload
This past summer was hard for a lot of people, and I was not spared. In short, I had a lot of free time on my hands and no money in my pockets to do anything about it. In Los Angeles, one of the main past-times is going out and spending too much on food and booze, then regretting it later. I needed something to do all day that helped me avoid that, but was more than watching movies and playing through Sekiro for the twelfth time.
When I made the decision at that party to produce a synthwave track, I didn’t have much of a plan. I gathered up all the intel and samples I could and started to freestyle produce. The result was a ten-minute original mix that was later split into two tracks on the album: Demon and Summoner. I called it the Summoner Mix because of all the Final Fantasy samples, then added outrun visuals by an artist named Cherik, who gave me permission with his blessing. I put it up on YouTube and posted it to a bunch of relevant subreddits.
When I listen back to this mix now, I feel a little embarrassed. The levels are pretty bad, the sidechaining is a disaster, and the bass range has neither punch nor kick, verily. But, for whatever reason, reddit liked it anyway. It rose to the top of several subreddits like Outrun and NewRetroWave, and a lovely place called Cyberpunk_Music. I received many kind comments and words of support on YouTube and Soundcloud as well, especially for the half of the mix that eventually became Demon. While I’ve since hidden that mix from most search results, this initial reaction gave me the confidence to move forward.
In a frenzy of validation from total strangers, I immediately started on the first standalone track. I finished it in three days. I forced myself to focus more on the mix, did a car listen like you’re supposed to, and got a final result that sounded much more professional. This was Lightcycle, the opening track, and upon upload it got an even stronger response, including living at the top of r/Cyberpunk_Music for almost two days. I’m sure the Johnny Mnemonic and OG Tron samples helped. (Narrator: They totally did.)
By this point, I knew this was going to be A Thing for me. I used a vague conceptual narrative for the album: three prisoners make a future robot prison break, navigating a seedy cyber underbelly and eventually taking down the dystopian authoritarian system that controls the world. This was mostly a tool for my own inspiration, you won’t find mention of it anywhere else. I didn’t always stick to that narrative, but, for example, at the end of Lightcycle when all the arcade samples happen, I imagined the prisoners getting drugged or gassed by their pursuers, hallucinating even as their getaway succeeds.
The videogame influence was strong, and so I finally decided on what I’d call myself. The name is a pun on one of my favorite JRPGs of all time. It’s not hard to Google if you want to know more.
Weekly Retrowave Release
I started putting out a song a week. I stuck to that pretty closely, rarely missing a week in the following months. I posted every new release to YouTube and a Soundcloud playlist called Weekly Retrowave Release. I got a handful of followers, not to mention people asking where they could buy it or support.
The project became my life for three months. Every track I put out was a labor of love. Most of them have a theme of some kind, based on some beloved movie or videogame. Station 19 is Escape from New York. Rouge City is AI: Artificial Intelligence. Overworld is the overworld theme from an imaginary SNES RPG that never existed. I tell people to imagine that track was composed by Nobuo Uematsu if he were part cyborg and also an 80s synth head.
The visuals became a big part of the fun. I learned that retro and outrun visuals (like on this one from the magically talented visualdon.uk) generally perform better than cinemagraphs. At first, I painstakingly tracked down and asked every artist before posting a video, but eventually figured out that they always say yes and are happy to support other indie artists. Just be sure to always, always credit the artist in all your content descriptions and directly tag when possible.
The months went by. I didn’t tell anyone but those closest to me about it. I didn’t post anywhere that would associate it to my name. I wanted it to live in the vacuum, completely dissociated. The weeks ticked by one upload at a time, until, by the end of August, I had an album ready to release. I spent a week doing a final pass on the mixes and fake-master (because if you do it yourself, it’s always a fake-master). When it was all said and done, I put the album on my phone, got in my car, and blasted the whole thing with the windows down as I drove all the way up the coast to Malibu and back.
This was a triumphant drive for me, for obvious reasons and for a lot of complex, much more subtle reasons that hearken back to when I first arrived in LA over a decade ago with $17 to my name and a dream.
After that final listen-through, I only had to make a few tweaks, and then it was done. As an added bonus, earlier that week I had learned that I had finally secured gainful employment in time to release the damn thing. This turned out to be the absolute best stroke of lucky timing imaginable, because of the following personal maxim I have developed, for my sins.
Produce Broke, Promote Employed
As previously mentioned, I had almost no money while I made this album. But when I released it, a new day job allowed me to take some risks, which is the entire basis of a marketing plan.
I distributed through DistroKid. In 2019, if you’re on a budget and go with anyone else, you’re frankly making a huge mistake. They are by far the cheapest, and easily the most thorough, when it comes to ensuring an acceptance to various online services accessible to solo indie artists. Spotify lists them as a Most Preferred, fast track distributor. Just use them, trust me.
I was very fortunate to get rapid acceptance to the Big Four: Spotify, Apple Music, Google Pay, and Amazon. I submitted my album on a Monday, and it was streamable by Wednesday. It was finally time to take the project public. On September 25, 2019, Neon Exdeath went live.
I switched my Instagram and Twitter accounts to represent the name. I started submitting to a bunch of blogs on SubmitHub, a paid service with which I’ve had a lot of fun and some great success (shoutout to Dark Life Experience for my favorite review of Demon thus far). I got my awesome review on A&R Factory quoted above, reblogs at cool spots like Headphones for Robots, Synthpop Your World, and MishkaDJ, and even some plays on Twitch. This also got me on a few Spotify playlists, which currently account for (checks notes) exactly 7 out of my 6,000 streams on Spotify. Goes up to 9 if you count Release Radar.
I also submitted to several synthwave YouTube playlists, of which (to my knowledge) I’m on just one, N E U R A L on Darksynth Sanctuary. Speaking of which, I joined a ton of Discord servers. Join Discord servers! I have several upcoming videogame remix releases through collectives that communicate mostly through Discord. It’s a seriously amazing resource.
And, finally, I made a list of record labels. As I’ve mentioned, this is a pretty niche scene, which conveniently helps narrow down who I can and can’t submit to. Uploading music videos to reddit really helped me figure out my style. I definitely meander through several subgenres of retrowave. In this album, I cover cyberpunk, darksynth, chillwave, saxwave, and even the nebulously (heh) defined spacewave. Overall, I consider it some sort of retro cyberpunk futuresynth (shoutout to r/futuresynth), so that was my elevator pitch.
I won’t go too deep into how to submit to a label. Most of them will give you some guidance on what they want from you. Find them by finding artists you like and who represents them. For emailing, I used a Soundcloud playlist set to ‘private’ with free downloading enabled. I had a full album version and a 4-track demo version. I told them all that the the title track was the single, and linked to both a Google Drive and Dropbox download to a full promo package. I had a full track breakdown for a few of them who asked.
Long story short, I submitted to five netlabels, and one of them got back to me: We Are The New Underground, a.k.a. WEATNU Records. Here I am on their Bandcamp!
I released worldwide via WEATNU this week, and so far they’ve been a dream to work with. I can continue to use the same distribution I already had while marketing to a much, much wider built-in fanbase. Additionally, they have added me to services I can’t get on as an indie artist, like Pandora and, some time in the next few days, Beatport, which has been my preferred method of discovering new electronic music for years. WEATNU also has some neat stuff in the works (like an indie radio station!), and some artists I already know and enjoy, like Adryelle, Jazzykat, and AR89. I’m happy with my choices so far, and looking forward to what the future may hold.
This story is nowhere near done. Obviously the message here isn’t, oh hey, I made it, you can, too! We’re just getting started. But, considering I only started my first synthwave track five months ago, I feel good about where I’m at so far. Next up, live shows!
So, find a little space you can escape to. Be there as often as you need to for as long as you need to. Drive up and down the beach sometimes, if you can. Ask questions. Be yourself. Stay hydrated. And, before you do anything else, remember to always keep things