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“Stranger Things” – The Synths of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” #1 Hit Song



Netflix used the song in their top-rated show, and 37 years later it’s reached the top of that hill again.

1985: poodle hair, t-shirts under linen sport jackets with their sleeves rolled up, colorful sweaters, VH1 launches, Quincy Jones produces We Are The World to benefit Africa, The Space Shuttle makes its first flight… and Kate Bush releases Running Up That Hill.

Cut to this summer, and Running Up That Hill is #5 on Billboard’s Top 100, and the number one song on iTunes. That’s because it was used in Netflix’ “Stranger Things.”

“Running Up That Hill” had 85 million streams this week alone!

Running Up That Hill’s resurgence is a great excuse for a quick look at the instruments and music technology Kate Bush used on it. On one hand, it makes one appreciate how advanced and inexpensive the tools and instruments we have today are; on the other, it’s a reminder of how well a lot of them still stand up (as fans of vintage synths and their recreations know full well).

Tools of the day… 

MIDI was only two years old in 1985, and it seemed like every musician in the First World was dropping $ a couple of grand on a Yamaha DX7 synth. Its sound was quite remarkable for the day, but its FM synthesis technology couldn’t match the realism of sampling, which of course uses actual recordings (leaving aside that sampling is useful for much more than emulation).

The problem was that sampling requires memory, which was very expensive in those early days of the digital revolution. There actually was a popular sampler in the DX7’s price range – the Ensoniq Mirage – but for a more “pro” instrument you were looking at five times the price, for an E-mu Emulator II.

Above that was the Fairlight CMI, which incorporated a digital synthesizer, sampling, and a “digital audio workstation” – what we’d now call “a computer running dedicated music software.” CMI stands for Computer Musical Instrument.

And the Fairlight CMI, plus the LinnDrum, was what Kate Bush used to write Running Up That Hill.

Fairlight CMI. Kate Bush paid approximately £18,000 for her Fairlight CMI Series II, which would have been in the $27,000 range – maybe $70,000 in today’s dollars. Considering the release price was £30,000 it sounds like she got quite a deal.

Bush was drawn to the organic quality that starting with real sounds brought to her music, and never regretted spending so much. Remember, that way of working was new and the sounds were all fresh at the time.

The original version of the Fairlight, Series 1, had 16kB of sample memory, 208kB of RAM total. (Consider that the Word doc this story is being written to is about 110kB!) It was an 8-bit sampler using a variable sample rate between 8kHz and 24kHz, with a maximum sample time of up to a whopping one second. The low sample rates resulted in a lot aliasing (which we’ll explain in a second).

Whether the aliasing was charming or bad is a subjective call, but Fairlight nonetheless raised the sample rate to 32kHz in the subsequent Series II system. That’s still below the CD rate of 44.1kHz, but it’s quite an improvement. Series II instruments also had 64kB of sample memory.

(For the uninitiated, aliasing is a swooshing sound produced when you try to sample or play back a sound that’s higher than half the sample rate. One wave cycle has a positive and negative excursion, and you need both sides to record/reproduce the waveform.)

The CMI used one of old those green-on-black CRT computer monitors, but as you can see below, it was capable of displaying graphics – such as a 3D waveform. It had a regular QWERTY keyboard, and that silver stick to the right of the monitor is a light pen that could be used for drawing waveforms.

Fairlights included a library of sounds on floppies, the most famous being an orchestra hit and the breathy vocals sound heard on Running Up That Hill.

One of the Fairlight’s innovations was its graphic pattern sequencer, which today would be called a step sequencer.

Page R produced the strictly quantized sound that a lot of ’80s music is known for.

You can certainly hear that on Running Up That Hill. But another important part of the sound is the LinnDrum, programmed by Del Palmer, who worked with Kate Bush a lot. They’re also hard-quantized.

We asked inventor Roger Linn, and he feels those “Running Up That Hill” drums are probably from the LinnDrum, which came out in 1982.

The snare sounds different from the fixed sound in his first model, the LM-1 (née 1979), which didn’t have changeable chips.

But as we all know, compressors, gates (but not on this track), EQ, and other processors can change drum sounds so they’re very different from how they started out. You can also pitch-shift drums to the point where they’re unrecognizable.

The LM-1 Drum Computer was the first drum machine to use digital samples. Linn added crash and ride cymbals to the LinnDrum, which sold for $2995. It featured 12 voices and 15-part multitimbrality (meaning up to 15 sounds can play simultaneously). Each sound had control over its level and pan, and you could pitch the snare, toms, and conga up or down.

The LinnDrum had 15 pads, and it came with 42 preset drum patterns. You could store an additional 56 user patterns in 49 songs. It had DIN sync, but you could retrofit it to sync to MIDI.

Reasonably astute viewers will see that it stored patterns on cassette tapes – a common storage format for data in those days. Certain writers around here who almost lost a week’s worth of work stored on a cassette that broke still fight off anxiety attacks when the subject is brought up.

But the LinnDrum is a very cool-looking instrument with a unique sound – a drum machine that sounds very obviously like… a drum machine. Users include Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Michael Jackson, and many other famous musicians.

Kate Bush has said that she couldn’t imagine writing songs any way other than in private.

Hounds of Love – the fifth studio album by Kate Bush with “Running Up That Hill”

And in fact the original tracks for Running Up That Hill were done on her 8-track tape machine, before being transferred to a 24-track for overdubs.

1985 was still fairly early for a major artist to be working in a project studio. That’s another thing we don’t even think about anymore.

And in 2022…

If you want the Fairlight sound without the expense, Arturia has a software version with all the factory sounds for somewhat less than the original: $149.

There’s also an iPad version. A player version is $10, and the pro version that records and has the Page R sequencer (along with the waveform editor, Page D) will set you back $50.

Roger Linn now offers the Linnstrument, a very interesting controller. You can find samples of his original drum machines scattered all over the Internet.

Meanwhile, Running Up That Hill is only one oldie that’s a hit again. Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams and Tom Odell’s Another Love are just two songs hitting the charts with a bullet again, and they won’t be the last.

While we certainly don’t want to see new music crowded out, we like it!

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