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.