The latest Toro y Moi album Boo Boo features a plethora of 80s synthpop / alt-R&B textures and beats, sounding simultaneously nostalgic and modern. Most of the 80s vibes on the album come courtesy of a Yamaha DX7, a digital hardware synth released in 1983 that utilises a difficult to program synthesis technique called frequency modulation (FM) synthesis. Many of the DX7's preset sounds are classics and can be heard on countless 80s pop records. Although subjectively cheesy sounding, DX7 sounds are a great way to add an authentic 80s vibe to your own music. DX7s can be picked up from eBay inexpensively, and there are also plenty of alternatives like the portable Korg Volca FM, the software Native Instruments FM8 or the free Dexed.
Also, I recently got this Yamaha DX7s synth. It's awesome. I'm using that on everything right now.
My personal favourite synth sound from Boo Boo is the swirling pad patch on the tracks Girl Like You, You & I and Don't Try. The key elements to the sound are thick, chorused oscillators and an envelope controlled filter with a slow attack. FM synthesis allows you to create some really complex sounds, including hollow, glassy sounds, as heard in Girl Like You and You & I. DX7 programming is a lot more complex than programming traditional synths, instead involving ‘modulator’ oscillators and ‘carrier’ oscillators. Attack Magazine have a great Introduction to FM Synthesis tutorial that's worth checking out to learn more:
Virtual analogue synths start with oscillators generating harmonically rich waveforms such as square or sawtooth waves, and sculpt away frequencies with filters. FM synths work in reverse: their oscillators (usually known as operators) are usually sinusoidal to begin with, and their pitch can be modulated incredibly precisely by other operators. Unlike an LFO, an operator’s pitch is in the audio range, which means rather than a wobbly vibrato effect, this pitch modulation results in the addition of extra harmonics.
You don't need to be an expert in sound design to get stuck into FM synths, you can get started by exploring presets and try editing the ones you like to alter the sound. I've created the Swirling DX sound in Native Instruments FM8 for you to download below.