The drum sound on Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” is one of the most recognizable in rock music, and its creation was serendipitous.
The Accidental Discovery
While recording “In the Air Tonight”, Phil Collins was playing around with the drums during a break. Engineer Hugh Padgham had left a talkback microphone (a microphone usually used for communication between the control room and the recording booth) open. This microphone was running through a heavy compressor, which is a tool that evens out the dynamic range of an audio signal. The combination of the microphone’s placement, its compression, and the room’s acoustics resulted in the distinctive, reverberant drum sound that we hear on the track.
The Gated Reverb Effect
The specific sound that was accidentally discovered is often referred to as “gated reverb.” Reverb is the natural echo you hear in a space, and a gate is a tool that allows a signal to pass through only when it’s above a certain volume. When the reverb from the drums hit the gate, it was cut off abruptly, creating a big, booming sound that quickly faded, rather than a long echo.
Impact on Music Production
After the release of “In the Air Tonight,” the gated reverb effect became incredibly popular. It was used extensively throughout the 1980s on snares and toms, becoming a defining sound of the decade. Artists across various genres, from rock to pop, began to incorporate this sound into their recordings.
While the gated reverb sound is most closely associated with the ’80s, its influence can still be heard in modern recordings. It’s a testament to the power of experimentation and serendipity in the recording studio. The story also highlights how a unique sound can come from unexpected places and change the course of music production.
In essence, Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham’s accidental discovery not only gave “In the Air Tonight” its iconic drum moment but also influenced a generation of music producers and defined the sound of an era.