Written by Paul Tingen
Phil Collins’ 1981 debut single, “In the Air Tonight,” is one of the most influential pop songs of all time. The song has many striking features. It starts with drums from a Roland CR-78 drum machine and an electric guitar, after which a pulsating synth pad and a Fender Rhodes piano come in. Together they set a strong, melancholy mood, over which Collins angrily and sadly ponders the separation from his wife. The CR-78 beat is mixed in the background, providing punctuation rather than a groove, making the song sound like a low-key ballad.
The ballad feel lasts for a full 3 minutes and 40 seconds, with the only moments of true drama provided by Collins singing “I remember,” masterfully dramatized by a Roland VP-300 vocoder, delays and a panned cymbal roll. At this point most people would expect a saxophone or synth solo, and for the song to end. If that had been the case, the song would most likely have sunk without a trace.
By contrast, at 3:41 one of the most dramatic, legendary and talked-about moments in the history of music arrives: the entrance of Collins’ gated drums, in particular THAT astonishing 10-note tom-fill, leading to a proper backbeat and the introduction of John Giblin’s bass.
The gated reverb drum sound was first heard a year earlier on Peter Gabriel’s song “Intruder,” on which Collins also played drums. Engineer Hugh Padgham heard Collins play drums through the heavily compressed reverse talkback mic on a new SSL desk, which also had noise-gates on every channel, and was awe-struck by the unexpected new sound. Gabriel and Collins also loved it, and the SSL was duly rewired so the talkback mic could be recorded easily.
For “In The Air Tonight” a year later, Collins and Padgham recreated the sound with heavily compressed and gated ambient mics.
The resulting thunderous gated drum sound has since been imitated countless times, and is now so deeply engrained in popular culture that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it was at the time.
This was brought home recently by a social-media event that went viral. In July 2020, the Williams twins from Indiana released a First Time Hearing YouTube video of the song on their channel TwinsthenewTrend. As the song winds its way through the ballad section, they gently nod along, tapping their chests, thinking it’s all about heart-energy.
Then, the entrance of the drums clearly blows their brains. “I ain’t never seen nobody drop a beat three minutes in a song! That’s unique! He killed that!” they exclaim, perplexed and excited. Of course, everyone familiar with the song was waiting for that moment. The twins’ reaction got millions of views, and as a result the song climbed up to number two on the US iTunes chart. Some things never get old.
So how did this astonishing piece of music come into being? It was recorded, mixed and co-produced in 1980 at The Townhouse Studios in London by Hugh Padgham, at the time a young up-and-coming engineer, now one of the true legends of the studio industry. During a masterclass he gave in the late eighties, organized by yours truly, he explained what went on behind the scenes, using the original 24-track tape to illustrate his points.
“I put 21ms delay on the Roland drum machine,” said Padgham, “and spread the two parts a bit to the left and right. That delay is so small that it’s not going to get in the way of rhythmically. It’s just taking away the dryness without making the result sound as though a reverb was added. The guitar in the beginning has quite a lot of echo on, which gives it a kind of spooky effect. When I remixed it, I added another reverb through an autopanner.”
“The main keyboard that provides the backbone to the song is a standard preset on an old Prophet VS. On another track on the tape the same part is delayed by 100ms, and then both parts are panned left and right to give more space. The next thing in the song is a high, tinkling Fender Rhodes. This was EQ-ed in the upper mid-range to bring out its bell-like sound. The bass was kept dry. Putting too many effects on the bass can make it really indistinct and while a straight bass sound might seem rather boring on its own, in the track it will sound quite different.”
“Then there’s the vocal. I always record vocals dry, apart from the limiting. Often Phil’s singing on records sounds guttural and hard. That’s down to the type of mic we use, a Beyer M88 dynamic, and an Allen & Heath limiter, which is a very cheap, old, vicious-sounding machine. I always set it on a slow attack time. It lets the initial signal through and then grabs it, giving a very hard effect, accentuating the consonants. The ratio was probably around 6:1.”
“Yes, the mic and limiter are cheap! Although I’m recording in these posh studios, I’ve never been into flash gear. I mix everything on a pair of $200 speakers! In the mix we had the voice almost dry, apart from a tape repeat echo. The only other thing which is used on the vocals is a vocoder. We used that on the phrase ‘I remember,’ combined with a cymbal roll, panned from left to right.”
Finally, as in the track, those drums. Starting with the tracking of the drums, Padgham explained, “there were four channels of room sound using different microphones: two Neumann U87 mics and two ribbon mics, which ere compressed with Urei 1176 limiters, and one of them was heavily treated with an SSL noise gate. I also had close mics on the kick and snare drums, and toms, and overheads, to get more definition.”
“Both U87s were about 15 feet away from the drums, and compressed to death. Because of the room they’re each sounding different. One off the ribbon mics gave a big, hard, more ‘toppy’ sound than the other tracks, obviously with less ambience. There was also an old military sort of microphone, called a ball and biscuit. It’s a ribbon mic made by STC, and it used to be the talkback mic in the studio. The two U87s provided the main drum sound and mixed in the other sounds whenever I wanted them. If I’d used only the U87s, it wouldn’t have sounded as impressive.”
“This is one of the things about making a record. You’re talking about an aural illusion, if you like. Sometimes you do things that actually don’t sound good at all on their own, like that military mic. But in the track it might give the effect you want. With most things, unless you’re in a really dead room, the further away you can get your mics the better, unless you’re going for a particular sound or need the separation. But you don’t listen to a snare drum with your ear right next to the head, so why should you put a mic there?”
To conclude, Padgham explains that the idea of keeping the first 3:40 of the song very minimal was very deliberate, “to pave the way for the massiveness of the end.” Atlantic Records’ head, Ahmet Ertegun, initially didn’t get it, and insisted on a version with the drums playing throughout for the first release.
Mercifully, the version with the long-delayed cathartic moment won the day, and helped turned the track into an all-time classic, albeit at the cost of a few broken speakers here and there. Padgham recalled, laughing, “The idea was always to have people listening to it in their car and then blow their radios up with a surprise when the drums come in. It was quite sadistic, really!”