Fans of 70s rock with a good ear might note that a very similar sound could be heard on an earlier recording, when Brian Eno and Tony Visconti captured a unique drum sound, particularly the snare, on David Bowie’s Low. This sound was created in a much less organic way, however, as the drum recording was fed through an H910 Harmonizer. The H910 was a recording device that was able to pitch shift the notes without changing the length of time they could be heard. The H910 also featured a feedback loop that would send the already pitch-shifted notes back through to be shifted again. The effect was something similar to gated reverb, although instead of a heavy gate the notes quickly seemed to decay because the pitch was so rapidly shifted to an inaudible range that it sounded clipped.
Regardless of the sound’s official origin, it took on a life of its own after what was probably gated reverb’s most famous example, when Phil Collins used it again on his debut solo single “In the Air Tonight”. The trivia, urban legend, and history of this song could fill a book on its own, but what is most important is that it was a huge hit that captivated audiences with something new, and because of its inclusion in TV and movie soundtracks for decades its popularity has continued to this day. “In the Air Tonight’s” thick reverb was a product of the London recording space, in Townhouse Studio’s Stone room, with Hugh Padgham again at the controls. The song’s programmed drums and ominous chords build to such a tense breaking point that when Phil finally plays the now universally recognizable drum fill you almost can’t help air drumming along with him. It’s worth noting that the original single version had the drums recorded throughout the song because, after hearing the demo, a record executive didn’t think the music buying public would be able to understand something with no backbeat.
A year after in 1982, the sound Phil Collins produced on “In the Air Tonight” had taken hold, and what followed was a decade of colossal drum tracks that saturated rock and pop music. That it was able to last for most of the 80s before musicians and fans grew tired of it is impressive, but when you consider that some of the biggest pop and rock songs of all time were produced in this period and utilized gated reverb to such great effect, it’s easy to see why it had such staying power. In 1982 it was heavily featured in the John Mellencamp (then John Cougar) song “Jack and Diane”. Not only did drummer Kenny Aronoff pull off one of the greatest drum fills of all time--more of a short solo--but he did so with the powerful sound of gated reverb to punch above the song’s otherwise programmed drum sounds.
It wasn’t until grunge and independent music took hold, when musicians shrugged off the glitzy sheen of 80s recording sounds, that gated reverb fell out of fashion and virtually disappeared. The goal of these new musicians was to get back to the more natural sounds of punk and rock from the 70s and the artificially big sound just didn’t fit anymore. After decades, gated reverb has made a comeback, and for a few years now it’s been steadily gaining more notability, especially in pop music where it has been used by artists such as Carly Rae Jepson, Lorde, Charlie XCX, HAIM, Drake, and Taylor Swift among many others. These days, a plug-in for the effect is just a download away, a far cry from the big stone room and recording devices that Phil Collins used to record “In the Air Tonight”. Easy access to the software effect and increasing 80s nostalgia may be the reason for its resurgence, but it could also be the catalyst that allows the sound to evolve into something as innovative and interesting as it was when it first appeared. Until then, we’ll just have to wait for the next big thing.