How a recording-studio mishap shaped ’80s music


This thing keeps happening every single time
I listen to one of my favorite songs of the last 5 or so years. I hear this weird but familiar drum sound
that just cuts right through the track. I love it. Here it is one more time. That punchy, unnatural drum was the sound
of the 80s and it’s back. It’s called gated reverb, and like many of
the greatest inventions, it was discovered by accident. In the 1970s, drums on the radio sounded a
lot like this Host: They’re quite dry aren’t they? They’re just as recorded. To achieve that isolated clean sound, producers
and engineers mic’d the drums all over, including the inside. This was the sound of bands like Pink Floyd,
Earth Wind and Fire, and Genesis. At least up until 1979. That’s when Peter Gabriel was recording
his third solo album. His Genesis bandmate, Phil Collins, was on
the drums playing a simple beat. And here’s where something magical happened. So, according to their engineer Hugh Padgham,
their engineer, they had a brand new recording console with some cool features that included
a mic hanging in the studio to talk to the band. That mic accidentally picked up Phil’s drum
and the result was a thick punchy reverb that disappeared in an instant. The reason? The mic had a heavy compressor on it. Which reduces the volume of loud sounds and
amplifies quiet ones – it sort of crunches a waveform. And the console had a noise gate which only
lets amplitudes above a certain threshold pass through and then it immediately shuts
off. The result was such a crazy sound that Peter
Gabriel wrote his album opener, “Intruder”, around it. Now, if you don’t know “Intruder” you’ll
certainly recognize this – made by Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham a year later. “I can feel it coming in the air tonight,
oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord” Thanks to a happy accident, the sound of the 80s was born. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord” The drums on “In the Air Tonight” were
recorded in Townhouse’s legendary Stone Room – its reverb came from the walls of the
studio. It was meant to sound like a castle. But not everyone who wanted good reverb had
access to that type of space. In the ’80s, once the digital technology came
to the fore not only was the sound of our music changing, but the things that augment
our sounds were changing also. Nothing illustrates this more than the evolution
of reverb. Reverb was achieved in the early days the
most natural way of all, which is to have an echo chamber. You would set up in one corner of the room
a big loudspeaker and in the other corner of the room, you’d set up a microphone. Here’s an echo chamber at Abbey Road Studios. Echo chambers took up real estate and real
estate was expensive so plate reverb was invented. There’d be a big box with an aluminum plate
in it, and the voice would go in one side, travel
along the aluminum plate, and come out the other side with a little bit of reverberation
on it. Plate reverb boxes were 600 pounds or more. Not great for portability. Enter the AMS RMX16, a shoebox sized unit
that created reverb via circuit boards and algorithms. Right there, in a box, we had plate reverbs
and underground garages and big concert halls and small and large echo chambers, and music
clubs. The AMS which debuted in 1982 was the first
reverb unit to be driven by a microprocessor and it had room for 99 presets including a
few that that created that unnatural gated sound with a push of a button. I think a big example was the work that I
did with Prince in the 80s. He loved that gated reverb. Uh, yes, that Prince. Prince used an Linn-LM1 drum machine that
sampled real drum sounds. Susan fed that Linn-LM1 to the AMS reverb
box and used a preset called “nonlinear.” Nonlinear reverb just can’t be replicated
in the real world without technology. Reverb in a natural setting tends to fade
as the audio signal decays. Nonlinear reverb actually gets louder. It makes a drum sound like a whip. Picture it like a tidal wave, a huge wave
suddenly stopping and hitting a brick wall. That’s the sound of gated reverb. That was the classic, quintessential example. That was the big one, that was the fat one. “You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me
on” A year after “In the Air Tonight,” those
huge drums were no longer an accident, the sound was built into reverb technology. Then for a decade, gated reverb was a sound
you just couldn’t escape on the radio. “It’s in the trees! It’s coming! When I was a child running in the night” – drum fill – “Oh, let it rock, let it roll” We really kind of used it to death, and by
the next album, by Sign of the Times, I was pretty sick of it. It seemed everybody else was too. When the 90s rolled around musicians favored
those dry drums again. But here’s the thing. After a about 20 year hiatus, It’s back. “Hey! When I needed!” Here’s Ariel Rechtshaid on Song Exploder
he produced Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest album. That drum fill is something that I always
just had in my head. They were inspired by Jack & Diane by John
Cougar Mellencamp. – Drum fill – “I’m in love and you’ve got me, runaway” Jack Antonoff of Bleachers was born the year
Prince released Purple Rain and here he is in his studio playing that Linn-LM1 drum machine. He produced Lorde’s latest album which has
gated drums. “In your car the radio up. In your car the radio up” And Taylor Swift’s aptly titled 1989. “It’s 2am in your car” The
thing is, producers today don’t need Prince’s drum machine or a physical rack of reverb
units to get that 80s sound. You can go online and download massive Prince
and Phil Collins inspired gated reverb drum sample packs. And that AMS RMX 16? It’s now a computer plug in. Sure, gated reverb drums aren’t a timeless
sound. They bring you back to the 80s, but that doesn’t
mean they don’t sound cool. This episode of Earworm is brought to you
by audible.com If you go to audible.com there are so many
amazing books about music. But there’s one that I defintely want to recommend
and that’s Listen to This by Alex Ross. Alex Ross is a long time music critic at the
New Yorker and he’s written some of my favorite books about music. If you want to understand music more or appreciate
it better, Listen to This definitely has you covered. If you go to audible.com/Vox you can sign
up for a free 30 day trial and download Listen to This for free. And if you choose not to keep the service,
you can still keep the book. On other thing is I made a spotify playlist
for you. The link is in the description. It’s called An Ode to Gated Reverb and it
has some of my favorite songs with gated reverb from the 1980s and today.

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