Phil Collins & His Accidental Magical Drum Sound That Changed The 80s
If you aren’t familiar with the iconic drum fill in Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” which marks the climactic end to nearly 5 minutes of building tension, do yourself a favour and listen to the epicness below.
It’s tribal, it’s raw, and it turns what would be a solemn ballad into a driven anthem of emotion.
The fill is simple in technique.
However, when Collins is behind the kit it sounds massive, thanks to a unique recording technique Collins accidentally discovered with Peter Gabriel and producer Hugh Padgham.
Along with Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, Collins discovered a technique that would go on to define the sound of 80s drums.
“Gated Reverb” is an effect you’ve heard outside of Phil Collins’ work from artists including Springsteen and Prince.
Before gated reverb drums sounded dry and didn’t cut through songs, even in legendary tracks from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
In 1979, Peter Gabriel recorded “Melt,” his third solo album. Collins played drums on most of the album.
Gabriel wanted no cymbals, strictly toms.
In the studio, Collins sat behind the kit playing a simple beat. The new recording console had a mic allowing audio engineer and producer, Hugh Padgham, to talk to the band while recording. That mic picked up and recorded Phil’s drumming, creating a thick, full, and cavernous drum sound.
The drums would hit with a punchy fat reverb, then vanish in an instant. This is the result of the mic having a condenser and a noise gate removing sounds at certain frequencies.
You can find the origins of gated reverb drums in Peter Gabriel’s album opener, “Intruder.”
The track itself is nothing to write home about, but producers and engineers in the industry took note of the unique sound.
Soon other 80s artists began using the technique to make their own anthems, but none would come close to the mastery of Collins and Padgams’ 1981 track “In The Air Tonight.”
Collins tried to replicate the success in future tracks such as “I Don’t Care Anymore” & Genesis’ “Mama.” Both songs feature a tribal tom-driven beat similar to Gabriel’s Intruder.
Collins also drummed for Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, Howard Jones, and Chaka Khan. In 1984, Collins played drums with gated reverb for the Band Aid classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
I personally feel that Collins’ final experiment with gated reverb in Mama is his best work with the sound. Commercially, “In The Air Tonight” is his biggest success. The song remains quite solemn and haunting throughout, with no drums until the iconic fill where the kit sounds full and epic compared to “Mama” or “I Don’t Care Anymore” where drums play as the track builds.
No matter which gated reverb track is your favourite, it’s hard to deny that Collins discovered a drum sound that went on to define most of the 80s and change the landscape of modern music.