Accidental drums

Gated reverb drums, one of the core sounds of 1980s rock music and most famously played in Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” were the result of an accident in the recording studio.

Mixing board
Richardwolffe, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The drum in Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” is an iconic part of 1980s rock music. This is partly because the drum beat doesn’t actually drop until nearly the end of the song, a perfect climax after three minutes of subtle and building anticipation. These twins’ reaction sums up its effect so well:

It’s not just the timing that makes this iconic, though. The drums have a sound that is strong and full without being messy or echoey, and it was so popular that it became one of the characteristic sounds of 1980s American rock music: Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Duran Duran, XTC, and many more.

(Think of that snare drum in Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” – gated reverb again.)

The gated reverb effect was discovered entirely accidentally. Consider the setup of a modern recording studio: there’s the recording space and the mixing space. In the recording space go the musicians and the instruments; the mixing console and sound engineers go in the mixing space. Both rooms are designed to be soundproof to prevent any kind of recording contamination. As a result, if an engineer or a musician want to talk to each other they have to open a channel, and special microphones in each room pick up their voices.

These mics – known as talkback mics – are designed to pick up people’s voices wherever they are in the studio, so their signal is processed with that purpose in mind. The sounds are compressed (flattened), making the loud and quiet noises equally audible… but they’re also gated, meaning that sounds under a certain amplitude were cut off (I assume to cut out annoying background noise during conversation).

Phil Collins was trying out a drum beat for Peter Gabriel’s solo album Peter Gabriel III. The audio engineer Hugh Padgham accidentally flipped the talkback mic on while he was playing. The sound that came through was new, and shockingly effective. The drums echoed off the walls of the recording space, producing a big and punchy sound, but the talkback mic processing cut off the long tail of reverb. The result was a full but sharp sound: the gated reverb.

The opening track of that album, “Intruder,” was the first to use the gated reverb effect; the next year Phil Collins’ own “In the Air Tonight” secured its fame and began its takeover of rock.

[Thanks to Jamie D. for suggesting this topic.]

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