There are new subgenres and microgenres popping up all the time, and some of them are growing rapidly. Here we’ll take a look at several different genres you should have your eye on in 2021 and how to get started with producing them. The 4 genres covered in this article are:

  • Synthwave
  • Ambient music
  • J-pop
  • Nu disco

1. Synthwave

Synthwave is a combination of 80s sci fi soundtracks and modern electronic production techniques. Modern movies like Tron: Legacy and Bladerunner 2049 extensively use synthwave to hearken back to their predecessors while incorporating cutting edge production techniques and electronic music styles. One of the most significant aspects of this subgenre of EDM is the challenge on the producer to accurately reference the sounds of 80s synth pop while still making their mixes sound highly polished and current.

There’s a plugin called RC-20 Retro Color from XLN Audio, and it can instantly re-create magnetic tape degradation, pitch fluctuations, and mechanical distortion — all of which are typically undesirable effects, but are unique to the recording mediums used at the time when 80s synth pop began to emerge. In the 80s, VHS tapes were the most common way to distribute movies, and they weren’t perfect by any means — their imperfections contributed immensely to the sounds we remember from that period, and recreating them is vital to making true synthwave.

One of the key elements of synthwave is the percussion — and it’s quite tricky to get right, because the kick and snare must lie in between the sounds of the 80s and of modern music. Normally this would require a series of compressors and distortion modules, but UJAM created Beatmaker VICE to consistently produce the exact sort of electronic production that straddles the line between retro and cutting edge production techniques. For chords, use a lot of supersaws (multiple sawtooth waves stacked together and slightly detuned) and a lot of filter sweeps, and add gentle degradation effects like those mentioned in the paragraph above. Analog modelled monophonic synths like Native Instruments’ Monark are an excellent way to quickly create an authentic synthwave bass in minimal time. There’s no one correct way to do this, but you’ll start to get a feel for things the more your practice!

2. Ambient

Ambient music has been around since Brian Eno released Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978, though it has its roots as far back as Erik Satie’s minimalist style of composing. ‘Furniture music,’ as Satie called it, was designed to be enjoyed as a background atmosphere for dinner events, and ambient musicians used early sound design-oriented synthesizers such as the Buchla to create textures that were designed to be listened to at an almost imperceptible volume (hence, ‘ambient’). Writing ambient music requires a distinctly different mindset than almost any other genre, because you need to focus on atmosphere and sound design, while often completely eliminating any percussion.

If you can play the piano reasonably well, ambient music should be fun to try out — it might sound silly, but if you noodle around slowly on the keyboard and use a lot of chord extensions, you’re already part of the way there. Find a short loop you like, and set that to repeat for a while. You’ll add to this later, but make sure you get your core chord progression right before venturing out. Then comes the best part: adding effects!

To nail ambient music, it’s vital that you get your use of reverb just right. Ideally, you want to create an infinite, deep palette of sounds that changes timbre fluidly, and one of the best ways to smear transitions is with an ‘endless’ reverb. UJAM’s Finisher NEO contains excellent presets for exactly this purpose, plus crazy delays and pitch shifting to enrich any synth or effect and turn it into an evolving soundscape. Your source material can be almost anything — pianos, synths, household items, animal sounds, you name it. It’s arguably far more important that you get the processing just right.

3. J-pop

J-pop has been around in (close to) its present form since the 1990s, but it’s rapidly growing into a broad international market through more Japanese animes and movies being subbed, dubbed and subsequently streamed around the world. It features bright, hyper-processed vocals and instrumental tracks, and typically falls into EDM, rock, or ballads. Even acoustic instruments take on a mechanical, highly polished feel that has only become possible in the last decade or so. To get a feel for modern J-pop, listen to Perfume — their music is a fantastic example of hyper-processed pop music, and Spring of Life is a great song to start with:

The obvious first step is getting a vocalist — but don’t worry if you don’t know any international singers! Getting the style right is far more important, and some J-pop is even written in English. And there are plenty of examples of underground Japanese electronic music that’s fully instrumental, inspired by anime and video games (often called ‘doujin,’ or ‘self-published’ music).

You’ll want to practice getting very comfortable with compression, which is where most of this perfectly controlled sound comes from. J-pop also tends to have a lot of different elements going on at the same time, so you’ll likely need to include a lot of different instruments and synths simultaneously and balance them with EQ and volume leveling. Like everything else on this list, mastering J-pop takes time — but if you dive in, you may find it’s one of the most fun genres on this list to create!

4. Nu disco

Nu disco has a similar origins to synthwave: It focuses on recreating the sound of a particular decade and throwing into a modern light, but instead of the 80s, in this case it’s the 70s. Disco is one of the original ‘four on the floor’ styles of music, and emerged out of the urban nightlife scene in the United States. Its original run was brief, but producers are starting to bring the genre back … with a twist. Nu disco is a far more dramatic departure from 70s disco than synthwave is from 80s synth pop, with fully electronic drums and heavily processed vocals. It also presents one of the most fun opportunities to get your hands dirty with purposefully over-processing songs.

There’s an approach to frequency balance called the ‘smiley face EQ,’ which is a playful reference to how producers and engineers often heavily cut the mids in their tracks to reduce clutter and make them louder. (Cutting out this range eliminates the ‘bunching’ effect that causes a limiter to activate at a lower perceived volume, and allows the producer or engineer to push the track harder into the limiter without distorting the signal) While it’s easy to overdo this in most genres of EDM, nu disco is very forgiving toward you cutting into the mids, so you can feel free to push this harder than you normally would.

You typically want to trigger the kick on every beat, and the snare on beats 2 and 4. There’s more flexibility with the hi hats, but you probably want to stick to eighth notes (possibly layers with very light 16th notes), most closed but with some open hats thrown in every now and then. Nu disco vocals often have a high shelf EQ pushing up the high end to add a lot of shimmer, and depending on your preference you can add heavy phasing / flanging. Go crazy with sidechain compression off the kick, too — if you’re not familiar with sidechaining or would like a refresher, check out this article from MasterClass.

Wrap-up

This is a wide variety of genres — jump into whichever one seems most fun and run with it! Over time, feel free to experiment with all of them. It’s invaluable to venture into an unfamiliar genre every now and then, because you always add a little something new to your style even if you don’t realize it yet. Don’t feel obligated to do this, but if it’s a great way to change things up when you feel stagnant.

And you’ll likely find a ton of growing genres that didn’t make it onto this list — experiment with them too! Consider riding a genre on the way up and catching it before it peaks, because that could make it much easier to get discovered. Regardless, don’t commit to a genre unless you love it — you don’t want to miss out on the most rewarding part of the journey!