Classic Drum Sounds: 'In The Air Tonight'

Producer Hugh Padgham on recording 'In The Air Tonight' with Phil Collins
Producer Hugh Padgham on recording 'In The Air Tonight' with Phil Collins

In the February 2014 issue of Rhythm, on sale now, our monster cover feature presents the stories behind 10 of the most iconic drum sounds ever recorded and we show how you can create them yourself, with audio and video examples, mixing techniques, miking ideas and more!

As part of the feature we spoke to some of the drummers, producers and engineers involved in the tracks to add their expert take on things. We got so much information we couldn't fit it all in the magazine, so here we present some bonus material, deleted scenes if you will.

In this interview famed producer Hugh Padgham remembers arriving at the unique and iconic sound for Phil Collins' drums on 'In The Air Tonight'.

When did you first discover 'the sound'?

"The whole sound really was discovered on a completely different album when Phil was in playing drums on Peter Gabriel's third album on a song called 'The Intruder'. Phil was a guest player on the album and he was mucking around with a drum sound. The Solid State Logic console was quite a new console then and it had a compressor noise gate on every single channel which before that had never happened. You had external compressor or external noise gates but you had to patch them in, whereas with the SSL it was in every single channel. All you had to do was press a button and it was on, and also an outboard compressor was a compressor, an outboard gate was a gate. I don't believe anybody made a single unit that had both of those things in it. The whole essence of the sound is the compression of it which makes it sounds really fat and then the second that there is a lull in the sound the gate just shuts it off. The fact that the drums were in a very live room, when you compress a sound in a live room it brings up all the background noise and the echo in a room. When you compress a drum sound in a live room like that it makes it just sound much bigger and it makes the room sound bigger as well. Therefore when you go from something sounding big to nothing, i.e. a sort of anechoic chamber, you get this feeling of massive contrast. That is the whole essence of why the sound was so interesting because it is going from all to nothing in milliseconds.

"What happened was, Phil was playing this drum pattern and on the Solid State console there was what's called a Listen Mic, which was also a new feature on that console. If you needed to listen to somebody talking in the studio in the old days you had to either listen through the microphone that they were playing into or put up a separate microphone that they would talk into and that's how you would communicate with the artist, and then you would communicate with them through their headphones. The Solid State Logic decided to have a dedicated microphone hanging up in the studio that, if you pressed the button on the console it immediately let you listen to them speaking, so in other words you didn't have to plug in a separate microphone. They designed it with a huge great compressor on it as well, so that there was one microphone hanging down from the ceiling and if somebody was talking quietly in the corner you'd still hear them as well as if somebody was shouting at you in the middle of the studio.

"When Phil was playing the drums one day, I opened this microphone to speak to him to hear what he was saying while he was still playing the drums and out came the most unbelievable sound. Everyone went, 'oh my god', that sounds incredible. So we go okay, that was the compression on the mic. Then we had the compressors and noise gates in each channel so I said okay, let's put up some room mics, listen to the drums through those and compress them. That's what I did, but we hadn't discovered the noise gate side of it yet. When I pushed the button for the compressor on the console, there was a noise gate already in the chain and he stopped and the sound suddenly went to nothing. It was like, 'oh my god, that's amazing'. But the compressor of that compressor gate didn't sound as good as the one through the Listen Mic in the ceiling. The next day I got the maintenance engineer to take an output from the Listen Mic hanging in the ceiling, because it was only rigged up to work on the monitors - you couldn't record it - so I got him to take an output from this compressor and feed it into the console as a separate channel so we got the compression sound from the Listen Mic that we were then able to record. Because it was coming into a channel on the desk I could then use a noise gate on the desk.

"It sounds rather complicated but that's basically how that drum sound was invented and was able to be practically recorded onto tape. We had this drum sound that was amazing and Peter thought it was amazing. There was no song there at all but he said to Phil, let's just record you playing that drum pattern for five minutes and I'll write a song around it. We had a very simple metronome, or a very early drum machine so that Phil could play exact time, because he wasn't playing to anything other than himself, so he recorded five or six minutes of this drum pattern going, 'Dung-dung, dang, dung, dung, dang,' and then Peter wrote the song 'Intruder' around that and that's what you have to listen to, that was the, not wanting to use the word, genesis of that drum sound to make a pun out of it!"

You then went on to record Phil's solo record?

"Through my work on that and through meeting Phil during the Peter Gabriel third solo album, that's how Phil then asked me to co-produce with him on his solo album. I said yes. Then he had this song 'In The Air Tonight' and he said, wouldn't it be great if the drums came in at the end? Let's revisit that drum sound from 'The Intruder'. So that's exactly what happened."

Did you mix any close mics with the room mics?

"There were close mics on the drums but the sound was predominantly the room mics and then I would just feed in a little bit of the close mic bass drum and a little bit of the close mic snare drum, but not very much."

Did Phil use his single-headed toms for both of those recordings?

"Yeah, at that time as far as I remember the whole kit other than the snare drum was single-headed drums. We had just one head on the bass drum as well. That was quite normal in those days. Single-headed toms were quite unusual but I don't know, it was just part of the way Phil's kit was. That was it, really"

You and Phil Collins worked together extensively, you got along well?

"I think so, very much, that's why we had such a long working relationship. I really loved recording the drums. I just got the feeling that in the '70s a lot of engineers didn't necessarily take that much time recording drums. Obviously one can't be that general, but I think the trend was for studios to be very dead and dampened in the '70s and everything became overdubbed as opposed to in the '60s where studios tended to be more acoustically bright because everybody recorded at the same time and you needed the air to move.

"When I started working for Virgin in the late '70s and we had the Manor Studios near Oxford and then we built the Townhouse in London, we were one of the first studios to really revisit the whole idea of much liver recording rooms and that went along with the whole New Wave/punk advent of bands that wanted to react against the close mic'd, dead-sounding records of the early '70s. So that was the reasoning behind it all and of course once you've got a much liver room I tend to find you want to use less mics and that goes back into the old days of the '60s, like recording The Beatles at Abbey Road or whatever. They only used to use three or four mics on the drums at the most. Suddenly in the '70s it became 15-plus mics on the drum kit depending on how many toms you had."

Old Motown hits were recorded with one overhead mic, one in the kick drum.

"Yeah. Those were just great accidents of sound. I'm almost sure that that overhead mic would have had a really nice, good, old fashioned compression on it that pulls it all together. On these live drum sounds the compressor is the magic tool. You couldn't get the sound together without a compressor. It's the number one most important aspect. I think compression is one of the most used tools in the whole recording process. It is pretty well impossible to record vocals without compressors because the human voice is just so dynamic that you need something to keep it in control.

"Tape, as it was in those days, or even now when you listen to something through speakers, whether it be the radio or whatever, the dynamic range that they can handle is much less than your ears can take in real time. To me, the compressor is the most important tool in the whole studio."

Any other recordings with favourite drum sounds you've done?

"The problem is the Phil Collins drum sound ended up being a monkey on my back because everybody wanted that sort of drum sound for a bit. I used to get rung up, 'can you come and record a session? We want that drum sound'. I like experimenting and I like mucking around but the sound of the drums has to compliment the music around it and so therefore, whatever sounds right for the music is the right drum sound as far as I'm concerned. I think we got a really good drum sound with The Police records that I made, for instance. Stewart Copeland was a great drummer.

"Having a great drummer is usually the way to a good drum sound. We have this old saying, if you excuse the language, that you can't polish a turd. I think it is the same with not just drummers but with all musicians, the better the musician the more likely you are to get a great and interesting sound. I'm proud of tons of drum sounds I've got on records. I've worked a lot with Vinnie Colaiuta, with Sting later in Sting's career when he was solo and he was an absolutely brilliant drummer and we got some fantastic drum sounds on some of the tracks we did with him. Manu Katche. Each drummer has his own sound in a way, his own style. Manu was great, he never played the same thing twice, that's what made him great. I'm really lucky to have worked with such amazing musicians. It's just lovely when you feel lucky enough to get to the top of the tree in that respect - I'm not blagging or anything, but when you get to work with great bands and great artists, by definition you're going to be working with the crème de la crème of musicians because you can. I always said that, even if you are just getting a regular, basic drum sound, if you've got a great drummer who knows how to tune his kit and knows how to play it then your job as the engineer or producer putting the mics up and getting a good drum sound is made infinitely easier than some guy who hasn't got a clue what he's doing and you end up having to try to tune his drums for him and he can't play very well. If the drums don't sound good, nothing else sounds good. Drums and bass are the backbone of any rock record, really."

When you were finished with 'The Intruder' and 'In The Air Tonight', did you have to give Phil and Peter crib notes to give to their front of house guys so they could get that sound live on tour?

"That's a good question. I think what happened was, out of the back of this drum sound, obviously the drum sound is because of the reverberation of the room that is enhanced by the compression and at that time the electronic room simulators - in other words digital reverberation machines - were just beginning to come on to the market then. I think there was one particular one called AMS which had what they called a non-linear reverb which was vaguely based on that drum sound. They used to send me prototypes of the sound to see if we thought it sounded a bit like it, so when that came out on the market, it was very popular for getting an artificial version of that Townhouse Studio 2 drum sound. I would have thought, that came along pretty quickly after we had done the Face Value album so I would imagine that's what they would have used live. The actual model number was the AMS RMX16 Digital Reverberation System. They were a small company that were in Burnley. They actually ended up buying NEVE out in the end; in the late '80s, early '90s it was called AMS-NEVE. That was one of the first really popular digital reverbs and many, many others followed, Lexicon and all sorts of makes."

Has the possibility for creativity been lost in the digital revolution?

"I think very much that is the case. We had to work really hard to find different sounds, not just 'we', I'm taking about if you listen back to Pink Floyd or Sergeant Pepper's, Pet Sounds, those were seminal albums, all these sounds, there was no outboard equipment apart from reverb plates, rooms and compressors and equalizers in those days. Nowadays the world is your oyster with plug-ins. You can just get whatever you want. There isn't that same searching because virtually everything is available. If you want phasing on something, you just plug in your phaser. If you want this, you just plug in this. If you want that, you just plug in that. The whole methodology of making records has changed completely and utterly beyond what anyone would have ever thought really but you can't change change. It's good because anyone can do it. It's good because it's cheap. In the old days you couldn't do any of this unless you were in a studio that cost a lot of money. There is good and bad. The bad is that all the studios have closed down virtually and how do you record a good drum sound in your bedroom? So now there are these ridiculously complicated sample drums where they get whoever to go into the studio and they do 20 million different samples of the same drum kit and you can spend hours and hours at home programming it up. There is good and bad in everything but I don't think with all this technology music certainly does not sound any better to my ears. If anything it sounds worse because it is all digitally electronic. I'm talking about the actual quality of the sound. It is the only media business that has gone backwards if you think that CDs don't sound as good as vinyl and now everyone listens to MP3s that don't sound anywhere near as good as CDs and yet memory is ridiculously cheap. It's crazy. In video it keeps going. The advent of vinyl was black and white TV. It then went to colour TV, then high definition TV and now we've got 4K video and 4K TVs will be affordable in the next couple of years. It has just got better and better and better. 3D as well if you want it. Quadraphonic sound or Surround Sound, none of them have caught on and the quality of the sound has gone down, so it's a bit of a shame. There is no reason, because memory is so cheap now, there is no reason why MP3s should still exist."

Want your drum recordings to sound like Phil Collins on 'In The Air Tonight'? Find out more in the latest issue of Rhythm.