What gives shoegaze its characteristic dreamlike sound? It’s due almost as much to its production as it is to its instrumentation and songwriting . But production has changed significantly since the first shoegaze and British Indie Music artists emerged (in the 1980s, by most accounts).
Suppose you’re a producer or engineer who works or would like to work with modern shoegaze bands. In that case, it will be helpful to learn a little about the history behind the genre’s recording and production conventions, along with the methods of the present and future.
Or suppose you’re a budding self-produced shoegazer or a seasoned pedal junkie looking to modernize your workflow. In that case, you should find this guide helpful regardless of how familiar you already are with the genre's history.
Let’s start with a bit of background first; then, we can go into technical details.
What Is Shoegaze Music?
Shoegaze is a subgenre of alternative rock and indie, characterized by a unique mixture of elements, including dreamy, obscured vocals, guitar effects and distortion, high-volume sounds, and feedback. Melody Maker called it "the scene that celebrates itself."
History of Shoegaze Music
The etymology of the term “shoegaze” lacks consensus, but it most likely has a lot to do with playing with pedals . If it isn’t evident at first listen, shoegaze guitar tends to play through many different effects (often an entire pedalboard), causing shoegaze guitarists to look down a lot. But the term also alludes to shoegaze fans’ tendency to stare at the ground when you listen to this often introspective playing.
Other instruments include the typical rock setup (drums, bass, vocals, etc.) with the occasional addition of synthesizer, strings, and anything else that can push sonic boundaries while not drowning out the rich harmonies and melodies essential to this dynamic yet distinctive musical style.
The music’s influence spans far and wide, with more and more bands identifying with the shoegaze moniker (or as shoegaze-adjacent) with each passing scene wave or era. And while it has deep roots in subgenres of rock like surf and psychedelia, two predominant shoegaze bands are almost universally regarded as pioneers of the genre: My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive.
Kevin Shields formed the group My Bloody Valentine in 1983 and has since cemented himself among the most influential figures in modern rock. The current lineup for the group includes members from Ireland and England. However, their origins are primarily associated with Dublin’s early post-punk scene. While their first record (1988’s Isn’t Anything) was released, it established them as shoegaze forerunners. Their widely-acclaimed 1991 follow-up Loveless defined the sound for years to come.
My Bloody Valentine’s sound includes an immersive, dreamlike atmosphere and, notably, a great deal of amplitude. The band’s performances have been so loud that several members have sustained hearing damage, a level of which is likely only comparable to their contemporaries in the Heavy metal space (which incidentally has overlapped with shoegaze on occasion in recent years).
In 1989 (right around when their MBV predecessors were starting to gain traction), British guitarist-vocalists and childhood friends Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead formed the band Slowdive. Like My Bloody Valentine (and others in the shoegaze realm), their music features both male and female vocals among fuzzy guitar tones and a dreamy atmosphere.
Other notable shoegaze artists include bands like Ride, Liars, Bedhead, Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Mazzy Star. Prominent bands that incorporate shoegaze elements into their songs (and have likely influenced it to some extent) include Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., among many other artists in the indie and noise rock scenes.
And musical styles like dream pop, slowcore, and blackgaze are often (if not always) closely linked with shoegaze.
Characteristics Of Shoegaze Music
Shoegaze music is often characterized as ethereal, heavily distorted, and downtempo. However, that's not to say that there isn't uptempo shoegaze as well. Regardless of the speed or structure of a particular shoegaze song, you'll often find heavily effected and distorted guitar tones, noisy effects pedals, melodic, reverb-drenched vocals, intelligible lyrics, and droning riffs. The British Music Press described the bands as "overwhelmingly loud."
Shoegaze as a Genre
Shoegaze and "dream-pop" are often related to one another when it comes to genre categorization. Simply put, shoegaze is simply a subgenre of the even more obscure alternative rock genre.
Many people believe shoegaze isn't a genre necessarily, but a collection of bands and artists that utilize many of the same tools. As you listen to different shoegaze groups like My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Kitchens of Distinction, you'll notice how vastly different they sound from one another, even though they all share a few similar elements of the shoegaze "genre."
The style offered a stark contrast from the metal and grunge scene.
While shoegaze bands seemed to die off at the beginning of the 90s with the introduction of grunge music and nu-metal, the past decade has been very kind to the genre, providing tons of new influence. While many of the classic shoegaze bands are still around, including bands like MBV and Jesus and Mary Chain, there are plenty of new shoegazing bands stepping onto the scene.
10 Best Shoegaze Bands of All Time
- Greet Death
- Peel Dream Magazine
- The Spirit of the Beehive
- Cocteau Twins
- My Bloody Valentine
DIIV is a New York shoegaze band formed in 2011 by singer and guitarist Zachary Cole Smith, best known for his work in Beach Fossils. The band released its first studio album back in 2012, titled Oshin. The sound of the band ranges from wide and dynamic textures to gritty yet lush elements, all surrounding Smith's long-haul recovery from Heroin addiction.
Greet Death was featured on the Alternative Press's "10 up-and-coming artists from Detroit you need to know" back in 2019. It was then that the band released its second full-length album titled New Hell. The band is often described as punky and post-roc with majestic and hellish sounds.
Madeline Johnston, a singer and guitarist who also played with the band Sister Grotto, started Midwife. With crushingly beautiful, ambient mixes, she has self-described her band as "heaven metal". Midwife's music is uniquely hopeful considering its slowcore, drone-pop approach to sonics.
Peel Dream Magazine
Peel Dream Magazine is a fairly new project from singer and guitarist Joe Stevens, which started back in 2018. After the band's release of Modern Meta Physic, they were quickly cemented as one of the top shoegaze bands in the modern industry. The band's sound is often described as minimal yet dynamics, using elements of electro-pop and avant-garde.
The Spirit of The Beehive
Though this band might still hang out in the Philly underground, The Spirit of the Beehive came out on top with its 2018 release of Hypnic Jerks, a mixture of punk, noise, drone, and psych-pop. People often boast about the band's vigorous live shows, as they offer concertgoers a unique mixture of confrontation and escapism.
Daniel Monkman's self-described "Moccasin-gaze" music stems from his heritage as part of the First Nations. Beyond what you would expect to find in this kind of album, you also get droning chants, hand drums, and shakers. The music from this band holds powerful yet delicate translations, inspired by Monkman's deeply spiritual roots, making it quite a unique record in the easy-to-characterize genre.
Cocteau Twins was a Scottish shoegaze band that made its debut in 1979. The band quickly earned praise when they hit the scene for Elizabeth Fraser's ethereal and reverb-drenched soprano vocals. Many say that Cocteau Twins pioneered dream pop in the 1980s, drawing influence from bands like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Lush was a shoegaze band that formed back in London during the late 1980s and was the very first band given the "shoegazing" label. Shoegaze fans also say that Lush made the genre far more palatable for the masses by championing interest in electronic music through remixes by Drum Club and Spooky.
Slowdive is still rocking to this day even though the band formed back in 1989 and went through a few lineup changes. Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead, both childhood friends, delivered several incredibly albums utilizing a then-new mixture of jangled guitars and ambient productions. To this day, the band's album Souvlaki remains one of the best shoegaze albums of all time.
My Bloody Valentine
Ireland's My Bloody Valentine was formed back in 1983 on Creation Records, alongside other Creation Records bands like Swervedriver and Jesus and Mary Chain, and still plays to this day. The band did more to pioneer the new subgenre known as shoegaze during the late 1980s, using a mixture of androgynous vocals, dissonant guitars, and unorthodox production techniques. Loveless tops many lists as one of the best shoegaze albums of all time.
Best Shoegaze Albums
Best Shoegaze Albums of 80s
- Isn't Anything - My Bloody Valentine (1988)
- Taste - The Telescopes (1989)
- On Fire - Galaxie 500 (1989)
Isn't Anything - My Bloody Valentine (1988)
One of the first jangly guitar sounds most old shoegaze remember came from the band My Bloody Valentine's 1988 debut album release, Isn't Anything. From straightforward noise rock tunes like "Sueisfine" to seemingly transcendent pieces like "Several Girls Galore," this album represented the beginning of a genre.
Taste - The Telescopes (1989)
The Telescopes was a band that long walked the line between psychedelic, noise rock, and shoegaze since the late 80s, and their debut album Taste became a stepping stone for what would become a musical movement a few years later. This debut of droning songs, distorted guitars, and swooning vocals shocked the population of the late 80s, giving them something they had never heard until then.
On Fire - Galaxie 500 (1989)
On Fire was noted by Rolling Stone as one of Galaxie 500's best albums and also made it on F act's 100 Best Albums of the 1980s. With fairly simple songs and atmospheric production, this band crafted a sound that would inspire some of the best modern bands of the 20th century, including The Velvet Underground.
Best Shoegaze Albums of 90s
- Loveless - My Bloody Valentine (1991)
- Souvlaki - Slowdive (1993)
- Nowhere - Ride (1990)
Loveless - My Bloody Valentine (1991)
Loveless was one of the top albums of the early 90s featuring some of the best tracks in the genre to this day. The recording process for Loveless spanned over the course of two years and in 19 studios. Overall, something along the likes of 45 engineers worked with the band to bring this legendary second album together. People often categorize it as a guided meditation on absence and love, using grand, sonic landscapes and layered guitar sounds to distill the human experience.
Souvlaki - Slowdive (1993)
Another great release from the early 90s was a lush, lo-fi shoegazing record called Souvlaki.
Souvlaki was a rare sophomore album effort from Slowdive that proved a band could top its debut album. With a blend of striking textures, feedback, and dub overtones, this second album one of the most influential works of all time. It is also worth noting the two collaborations with Brian Eno on Souvlaki.
Side note: you should also check out the fourth album from the band, namely titled, Slowdive.
Nowhere - Ride (1990)
In the summer of 1990, when the band members were barely out of their teens, they finished off their debut album. You can hear elements of the Stone Roses, Sonic Youth, and the Cure in Nowhere, though this album presented a unique and recognizable strain of classic rock using stomping drums and McCartney-esque basslines.
Best Shoegaze Albums of 2000-2010
- Jesu - Jesu (2004)
- 23 - Blond Redhead (2007)
- Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts (2003)
Jesu - Jesu (2004)
Justin Broadrick and his band members quit his 2002 metal outfit Godflesh and started planting the seeds of Jesu in 2001. In 2004, he released this sad, slow, and beautiful self-titled album with hints of slowcore, shoegaze, post-rock, and industrial. The 10-minute "Sun Day" is an instant classic thanks to its breathlessly gargantuan sonic landscape.
23 - Blond Redhead (2007)
Blond Redhead has been a cult favorite for quite a while, though it wasn't until the thrilling and neurotic release of 23 that the band truly found its lane. With warm, sprawling guitars, tinny percussion, and a mixture of featherweight and distorted vocals, every song on this album is unique in that they lack any boundaries one might try to instill around them.
Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts (2003)
While Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts marked the first international success for M83, it was obviously not their last. Many felt it was the most original take on the dream pop and shoegazing genre in years, with the songs ditching overwhelming guitars for sawtooth synthesizers, 8-bit effects, and digital drum sounds. Most Shoegaze groups might not be as accepting with labeling M83 as a shoegaze band, though this second album from the group proved otherwise. In our opinion, it is one of the hidden gems in the shoegazing community.
Best Shoegaze Albums of 2011-2019
- MBV - My Bloody Valentine (2013)
- Tired of Tomorrow - Nothing (2016)
- Deceiver - DIIV (2019)
MBV - My Bloody Valentine (2013)
When My Bloody Valentine released its m b v record, the world stopped in its tracks. The album started with the croony exhaust titled "She Found Now" and closed off with a six-minute cacophony of noise and grime titled "Who Sees You." Even after being ripped off and played out for nearly two decades, this album somehow felt entirely distinct and separate from the cliches of shoegaze.
Tired of Tomorrow - Nothing (2016)
Nothing houses a group of former punk rockers who decided to go the shoegaze route, bringing an element of sweeping, anthemic guitars and rasping vocals into the gazing dreamworld. Domenic Palermo, the ex-con frontman, writes with such graphic intensity that he shatters any preconceptions of what it is to craft beautiful lyrics.
Deceiver - DIIV (2019)
Zachary Cole Smith has undergone some pretty incredible yet daunting tasks to restore himself from his long-haul heroin addiction, which he has been pretty open about on his songs since the band released its debut record. He details his story in DIIV's 2019 album Deceiver. With the band's darkest sound yet, it takes a unique approach to dynamics and clarity, similar to counterpart bands like Deafheaven, with who DIIV spent quite a bit of time touring.
Best Modern Shoegaze Albums of 2020/21
- Agitprop Alterna - Peel Dream Magazine (2020)
- Vice Versa In Such Things - Avenade (2020)
- Luminol - Midwife (2021)
Agitprop Alterna - Peel Dream Magazine (2020)
The tracks of Peel Dream Magazine's Agitprop Alterna record offer a space-age odyssey with lush, loungey tones, droning production, blown-out guitars, and filtered vocals, delivering minimalism with newly showcase electro-pop elements. With new live musicians, Joe Stevens was able to achieve a far more dynamic and intensified sound compared to his release of Meta Physic in 2018.
Vice Versa In Such Things - Avenade (2020)
Emotionally ferocious and lyrically powerful, the songs in Vice Versa In Such Things feel like a fever dream. The record will get under your skin with brilliantly layered textures and sonic consistency taking you on a journey. Even if you're not a fan of the scene in general, you will likely find this rollercoaster of an album incredibly contagious.
Luminol - Midwife (2021)
"Ambitious" and "communal" is what Pitchfork used to describe the third-release from Madeline Johnston's experimental dream pop group. All of the tracks were written during the pandemic, giving them a unique sense of universal relativity. In terms of sonic characteristics, it's hard to find a dream pop album in 2021 that feels quite as expansive and gut-wrenching.
Shoegaze guitar chords often sound open and dreamy, which is why shoegaze guitarists often experiment with open tunings so that they can play a variety of chords with as many open strings as possible.
Start by working with an open tuning, like D. When playing in this tuning, fret down two or three of the lower strings at a time, leaving the higher strings open so that they ring out. To accentuate the openness of these chords, use a fair does of distortion, delay, and reverb.
Adding nots to regular major and minor chords is a great way to get that dreamy, suspensded feel. From sus chords to maj7 and min7 chords, experiment with adding notes atop normal triads. This same technique can be applied when playing shoegaze chords on piano.
Modern Shoegaze: Ethos, Equipment, And Production Techniques
Like much of post-rock music, digital technology has helped shoegaze grow rather substantially from its comparably humble beginnings. Aside from the natural boost the music received from digital distribution platforms in the commercial and file-sharing spaces, digital music technology is beneficial to shoegaze artists, given the style’s heavy emphasis on effects and overall atmosphere.
Pedals often seen in the average shoegaze guitarist’s eye line have featured effects like chorus, distortion, fuzz, reverb, reverse reverb, phaser, flange, tremolo, and delay. The whammy bar has also played a key role in shoegaze guitar (notably in the work of Kevin Shields). The tremolo/vibrato systems in the Fender Jaguar and Jazzmaster have helped achieve that signature loud and warbly MBV sound.
While much of shoegaze music has considerably sophisticated production quality, there’s also been a crossover between shoegaze and lo-fi music . Small multitrack decks and other consumer-level equipment could replace fancy studios and huge recording budgets in the nineties. But nowadays, the lo-fi sound is more of an aesthetic preference than an economic imperative.
Analog recording has always treated the smooth, fluid, and often very legato sound inherent to most shoegaze music quite well. However, digital recording and mixing techniques have made shoegaze music production more accessible and better equipped for high dynamic range and diverse instrumentation.
Miking And Recording Shoegaze Artists
When it comes to recording, everything depends on your resources and the physical space available. When treating your recording space, keep in mind that as shoegaze often uses very liberal amounts of reverb, solid and reflective surfaces (possibly at odd angles) can help produce some of that effect organically (for better or worse).
Since shoegaze music emphasizes sustain/release and not so much attack, distant miking can help add some ambiance (especially in larger rooms). There are digital tools to help achieve this effect artificially. But a ‘fix it in post’ mentality is rarely a good strategy. So the best way to ensure a struggle-free mixing process is to record the best possible source.
With drum set miking, there are several different patterns worth considering. Spaced-pair and ORTF can make the drums sound big and wide, which is excellent for shoegaze. More narrow-sounding patterns (like X-Y) may also work if you want the drums to sound more focused or centered (this often works well with slower-paced drumming).
If you’re new to recording and mixing drums, then you may want to experiment with both wide and narrow audio configurations. Mid/side drum miking is a reasonably simple way to compare wide vs. narrow stereo imaging on the fly. The setup includes two drum microphones, a cardioid (unidirectional) and figure 8 (bidirectional), pointed directly at one another. Further, the figure 8 mic’s null is pointed right down the center of the cardioid’s pickup pattern).
The more gain you add on the cardioid, the more narrow the sound image in the mix. By contrast, increased gain on the figure 8 mic will, in turn, widen the sound image since it’s picking up areas surrounding the drums and not the drum set directly. You probably don’t want extremely wide or extremely narrow, so try boosting/cutting gain on each until you find a good balance. Just keep in mind that the quality of the wider gains (from the bidirectional mic) will, to a large extent, depend on the room’s acoustic treatment.
Software And Plug-Ins For Shoegaze Music
Finding the right plug-ins will require some searching, and different DAW programs have their own plug-in compatibility. But there are free plug-ins available for effects like tremolo, reverb, delay, fuzz, and a lot more. On the commercial side, plug-in pricing can range from under fifty bucks to hundreds or even thousands of dollars (in the US).
Reverb , for example, is one of the most common effects in shoegaze music. In the higher price range, there’s Altiverb. Altiverb is a convolution reverb plug-in famous for its capacity to simulate different rooms or environments and sound incredibly natural. It’s an industry-standard plug-in, and it costs an industry-standard price (you’ll have to check the current pricing, but it typically runs somewhere between five hundred and a thousand USD at the moment).
Toward the lower end of the price spectrum, you have FabFilter Pro-R, an algorithmic reverb plug-in with an attractive and intuitive user interface. While not the cheapest, it’s one of the more modestly priced reverb plug-ins at a little under two hundred US dollars (you’ll have to look at current pricing for yourself, but that’s around what it is at the time of this writing). It has a lot of functions and is helpful in writing or demo recording and even professional production.
You’ll need to be aware of several different plug-in formats to make sure your plug-ins are compatible with your audio software and hardware. A few of the most common include Virtual Studio Technology (VST), Avid Audio Extension (AAX), and Audio Units (AU). VST is a versatile format compatible with many audio programs and includes both free and commercial plug-ins. AAX is Avid’s proprietary standard, so it should work on most if not all Avid systems (like Pro Tools). AU is for Apple software and is like the iOS version of VST.
Mixing And Mastering Shoegaze Music
During the mixing process, pay special attention to EQ as the sheer volume and variety of frequencies can easily cause muddiness. Use high/low pass filters and carve out those lower midrange (200-500 Hz tends to be the most vulnerable) muddy areas whenever necessary.
A relatively consistent characteristic of shoegaze music related to the recording, mix, and even performance is the subdued vocals. While many other musical styles prop up the vocals prominently in the mix, shoegaze often features vocals that sound far away (like something out of a David Lynch movie or a dream). This method isn’t the only way to mix shoegaze vocals but is quite common (and somewhat unique) to the style.
After the final mixdown, be sure to master your shoegaze music properly so that all of the careful work that you did mixing that vast range of frequencies doesn’t go entirely to waste. In the past, this often required a seasoned professional charging professional rates. But now, there’s automated mastering online with eMastered that will get you the quality you need for less than the cost of a new pair of shoes.
Is Shoegaze Still Popular?
Though shoegaze seemed to drop off the map in the early and late 90s with the rise of grunge and nu-metal, you can hear a lot of elements of shoegaze returning in modern records. One term that has become quite popular in the modern genre is Blackgaze.
Is Shoegaze Emo?
Though many would never categorize these two genres in the same way, they share a lot of the same elements, including jangly guitars, distorted vocals, emotional lyrics, and layered landscapes of guitars.
Is Shoegaze Ambient?
For many listeners, shoegaze is ambient music. Though its inspired by heavier form of goth rock and post-rock, shoegaze production often uses dreamy production techniques and ethereal effects to create dreamy and expansive soundscapes.
How Do You Get Shoegaze Tones?
Shoegaze guitar tones are often heavily effected, almost to the point where they sound like synthesizers. Use heavy distortion, long delay, and expansive reverbs. Don't forget to throw some modulation in your chain at some point, especially chorus effects.
What Is The Difference Between Dream Pop and Shoegaze?
The shoegaze community categorizes the genre as guitar-centric, using tons of reverb and delay effects, layered soundscapes, and punk influences, much different that dream pop. Dream pop bands, on the other hand, use sparser production techniques, maintaining the ethereal, atmospheric elements of shoegaze with less aggression.
How Do You Get Shoegaze On Garageband?
To get shoegaze tones using Garageband, consider using the stock pedals and amp modelers, such as light overdrive, distortion II, and octafuzz. You might consider finding out what kinds of equipment some of your favorite shoegaze bands use and try to reverse engineer it.
What Guitar Is Best For Shoegaze?
Kevin Shields, arguably one of the most prominent guitarists in the genre, was known to use Jaguars and Jazzmasters. Telecasters and Mustangs are aslo excellent choices thanks to their surfy tones and tremolo arms.
How Do You Write Shoegaze Riffs?
Shoegaze riffs often include open chords with open tunings, as well as power chords. When writing shoegaze riffs, try and use distortion, reverb, and delay to inform the direction you want to go.