How a Recording Studio Mishap Created the Famous Drum Sound That Defined 80s Music & Beyond

It’s not a sub­tle effect, by any means, which is pre­cise­ly what makes it so effec­tive. Gat­ed reverb, the sound of an airbag deploy­ing or weath­er bal­loon sud­den­ly blow­ing out, an airy thud that per­vades eight­ies pop, and the work of every musi­cian there­after who has ref­er­enced eight­ies pop, includ­ing CHVRCHES, Tegan and Sara, M83, Bey­on­cé, and Lorde, to name but a very few.

Before them came the pum­mel­ing gat­ed drums of Kate Bush, Bruce Spring­steen, Prince, Depeche Mode, New Order, Cocteau Twins, David Bowie, and Grace Jones, who turned Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” into a strict machine with the gat­ed reverb of her 1980 cov­er.

Roxy Music caught up quick­ly with songs like the love­ly “More Than This” on 1982’s Aval­on, but Jones was an ear­ly adopter of the effect, which—like many a leg­endary piece of stu­dio wizardry—came about entire­ly by acci­dent, dur­ing a 1979 record­ing ses­sion for Peter Gabriel’s eerie solo track “Intrud­er.”

On the drums—Vox’s Estelle Caswell tells us in the explain­er video at the top—was Gabriel’s for­mer Gen­e­sis band­mate Phil Collins, and in the con­trol room, record­ing engi­neer Hugh Padgham, who had inad­ver­tent­ly left a talk­back mic on in the stu­dio.

The mic hap­pened to be run­ning through a heavy com­pres­sor, which squashed the sound, and a noise gate that clamped down on the rever­ber­at­ing drums, cut­ting off the nat­ur­al decay and cre­at­ing a short, sharp echo that cut right through any mix. After hear­ing the sound, Gabriel arranged “Intrud­er” around it, and the fol­low­ing year, Collins and Padgham cre­at­ed the most icon­ic use of gat­ed reverb in pop music his­to­ry on “In the Air Tonight.” “Thanks to a hap­py acci­dent,” says Caswell, “the sound of the 80s was born.” Also the sound of the oughties and beyond, as you’ll hear in the 38-s0ng playlist above, fea­tur­ing many of the pio­neers of gat­ed reverb and the many earnest revival­ists who made it hip, and ubiq­ui­tous, again.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

Two Gui­tar Effects That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Rock: The Inven­tion of the Wah-Wah & Fuzz Ped­als

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Henk Lasschuit says:

    Well, this is strange: a sto­ry on gat­ed reverb and not a word about Led Zep­pelin’s When the Lev­ee Breaks (1971)! It is one of Phil Collins’ favourites.

  • Dave says:

    FYI. It’s ‘pad­ham’ — you don’t pro­nounce the G in Hugh’s sur­name.

  • Steve says:

    My favorite exam­ple of this in-your-face wall of drum sound is the begin­ning 30 sec­onds or so of SOME LIKE IT HOT by Robert Palmer and the Pow­er Sta­tion, feat. the Thomp­son Twins, etc etc. If you search for it on Youtube you will be rich­ly reward­ed with a total­ly naked drum-and-bass, gat­ed into obliv­ion.

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