The true story of the most famous drum fill in music

If there’s one air drumming moment that’s been shared by more people than this one, I can’t think of it.

Wait. Let’s concentrate on just that first bit. For thirty minutes.

What we hear is a gated reverb on Phil’s drums. Phil’s fill (sorry) has gone down in history as one of the most influential of all time.

PSN Europe, a site devoted to professional audio, has this story on how it all came to be.

There are many fashion, cultural and music trends that sum up the 1980s but there is one sound in particular that almost epitomises the decade: the gated drum effect. Big, dramatic and bombastic but also sinister, it burst out of loudspeakers in 1980 and became ubiquitous on numerous rock and pop recordings, especially those of Phil Collins as artist and producer but also XTC, Duran Duran and its offshoot The Power Station, Bruce Springsteen and Kate Bush.

As is not unusual with innovations, it was not something those involved were looking for. It was more, says Hugh Padgham, the recording engineer and later producer who accidentally ‘discovered’ the effect, a combination of factors that created something so distinctive. This confluence happened in 1979 during the recording of Peter Gabriel’s third solo album at Townhouse Studios in west London.

Part of the Virgin Records group, along with residential studios The Manor in Oxfordshire, Townhouse opened in 1978. Padgham, a staff engineer at the time, explains that the initial two rooms were designed to be very different from each other. Studio 1 was in the traditional mould of The Manor, with a dead acoustic based on an Eastlake design and a Helios mixing console. Studio 2 was designed as a break from the norm, featuring two distinct acoustic spaces: a conventional sounding area and the very live ‘Stone Room’. The control room featured one of the first SSL B Series desks to be installed.

A feature of the B Series was an integrated reverse talkback circuit, which allowed those in the control room to hear the people in the studio as well as speak to them. In the Townhouse this was possible though a STC (BBC) 4021 ‘ball and biscuit’ dynamic omni-directional microphone fitted in the ceiling. This came into its own during the Gabriel sessions, on which the former Genesis frontman had invited his old band mate Phil Collins to play drums.

“One day Phil was playing in the studio and I inadvertently pressed the talkback button,” recalls Padgham. “Out came this ginormous sound, which everyone in the control room said sounded incredible. They all said, ‘Let’s have a bit of that on something’ but the problem was that because the talkback was built into the desk it couldn’t be recorded.”

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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