Gated reverb or gated ambience is an audio processing technique that combines strong reverb and a noise gate. The effect is often associated with the sound of 1980s popular music. It was developed in 1979 by engineer Hugh Padgham and producer Steve Lillywhite while working with the artists XTC, Peter Gabriel, and Phil Collins at Townhouse Studios in London, and is most famously demonstrated in Collins's 1981 single "In the Air Tonight".
The effect is typically applied to recordings of drums (or live sound reinforcement of drums in a PA system) to make the hits sound powerful and "punchy" while keeping the overall mix clean and transparent sounding. Unlike many reverberation or delay effects, the gated reverb effect does not try to emulate any kind of reverb that occurs in nature. In addition to drums, the effect has occasionally been applied to vocals.
Phil Collins used gated reverb extensively, both in his solo work as well as working with other artists. At Townhouse Studios in Shepherd's Bush, west London, producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham famously applied gated reverb to Collins's drum timbre on Peter Gabriel's 1980 song "Intruder", from Gabriel's third solo album. Padgham discovered the sound accidentally when he opened an overhead mic, intended to be used as a talkback channel, above Collins's drum set when the pair were working on the track. The microphone was heavily compressed as well as using a gate. Collins went on to use the effect notably on his hit single "In the Air Tonight" (1981), produced by Collins and Padgham.
Other examples from Collins's own music include "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)", "I Don't Care Anymore", "I Wish It Would Rain Down" and "You'll Be in My Heart" and the Genesis tracks "Mama" and "No Son of Mine". Lillywhite's and Padgham's work on Peter Gabriel 3 was bookended with their work on XTC's Drums and Wires and Black Sea. In this period they perfected their technique on Terry Chambers' drums, which can be heard most distinctively on Black Sea (particularly songs "Respectable Street", "Generals and Majors" and "Love At First Sight").
One of the first electronic reverb units to be powered by a microprocessor was the AMS RMX16, which was introduced in 1982, and could replicate otherwise expensive and physically large methods of generating reverb effects.
Gated reverb was used on countless drum tracks during the 1980s, to the point that the sound became a defining characteristic of that decade's popular music.
The British band Duran Duran made repeated use of the recording technique, heard prominently on the drums on the 1984 hit single "The Wild Boys" as well as the 1985 James Bond theme song "A View To A Kill". Bruce Springsteen used the effect on his 1984 hit "Born in the U.S.A.", the drums being played by Max Weinberg. The song "Some Like It Hot" by The Power Station opens with a Tony Thompson drum solo that features the effect prominently. The song "Hounds of Love", produced and released by Kate Bush, makes heavy usage of this method. American rock band Haim used gated reverb on Danielle Haim's drumming for their first album Days Are Gone.
In the 1990s, many bands went back to more natural sounding drums. By 2018, several contemporary artists began incorporating the effect in some of their rhythm tracks including Lorde and Beyoncé.
Methods of creation
Live room method
The oldest, most "natural" technique can be executed with minimal electronic processing. The steps for processing are as follows:
This results in a very live-sounding drum that is rapidly cut off with none of the overpowering secondary reflections associated with reverb.
Effects processor method
When using a hardware reverb unit, echo chamber or digital emulation of either, it is possible to replicate the classic scheme:
This setup does not require a "live room" to achieve the enhanced reverberation of the drum sound and therefore the effect can be reproduced at live gigs without great difficulty.
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- on YouTube - Vox, 18 August 2017
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- Effects & Signal Processors article on Harmony Central includes information on gated reverb.
- Vox (18 August 2017): How a recording studio mishap shaped 80s music