In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins – Hugh Padgham – 1981



Begins with a subdued drum machine pattern that is far from simple. A big distorted, distant electric guitar strum rings out. Gentle, eerie electric guitar solo wailing far off in the distance over the top of sustained and restrained organ chords that feature a kind of jangling bubbling bell sound very faintly.

The lead vocal enters, with a short delay, perhaps ADT, gives it a small room sound. This first vocal is actually the chorus lyric but sung in a restrained way. Big distorted electric guitar finishes the chorus. Then the verse lyrics follow. The only variation in the verse is electric guitar fading in and out in the background, wailing and yelping.

First chorus features backing vocals thickening the vocal sound, with medium delays repeating the end of each line. Big distorted electric guitar finishes the chorus. Some guitar flourishes continue in the chorus, as well as a high, xylophone like keyboard line.

The next verse starts with vocoder on the vocal, reverse reverb effect fading into it. The rest of the verse features all kinds of vocal effects; vocoder, delays, doubles, harmonies. Plus extra synth pads fading in and out around the vocal.

Big gated reverb drum entrance introduces the final choruses. When the chorus begins a bass guitar riff matches the kick. In amongst all the drum fills there’s bursts of distorted electric guitar, still pushed back in the mix. There’s vocoded backing vocals all through this section.

Fade out is very very long, starting about a minute before the end of the song. During this long fade the lead vocal starts to ad lib melodic variations, reaching a climax.

Overall quite a stunning production. The famous drum break is the climax of the song (although it relies on the bass line and unrestrained singing as well) and it is made so much more dramatic by the gated reverb effect. However, the rest of the song is also full of amazing production especially on the second verse vocals, but also all the background details (electric guitar, keys) which have the space to be heard because of the restrained nature of the main organ and drum machine progression.

Notes: this is the album version. The single version has drums added to the drum machine for the first 3 and a half minutes of the song, somewhat spoiling the impact of the gated reverb drums, in my opinion.

Hugh Padgham invented gated reverb by accident when working on Peter Gabriel’s third solo album on which Phil Collins played drums. The mixing desk they were using allowed for sound to be sent back to the control room through the talkback. It overly compressed the sound, and one day Collins was playing the drums when it was heard in the control room through the desk. You can hear the gated reverb effect most noticeably on the trackIntruder by Peter Gabriel (1980). The drums were recorded in a large reverberant barn, then processed using compressors and gates to truncate the reverb.

I Will Follow – U2 – Steve Lillywhite – 1980


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A novel way to start a rock song – the first eight bars have a distant sound. After a strange tape starting sound, there’s a shouted but very distant count in and then the electric guitar riff starts. It is so ‘far away’ sounding it is almost sounds like a bad recording. Then the glockenspiel comes in, all up front and sparkling, with some percussion hits and then the pounding toms with big reverb making them sound distant – all reminiscent of the ‘underground carpark’ sound of the Stone Roses – see my I Wanna Be Adored post.

A spoken word introduction and then the bass and drums kick in and everything switches to an upfront, clear and present sound. The lead guitar is slightly to the left and the drums are slightly to the right. Vocals and bass dead centre.

The lead vocal has a little reverb on it – you can hear it on the sibilant words. The chorus vocal is doubled, as is the end of the first verse ‘Oh why?’

There’s definitely a second electric guitar part in there but it is so well mixed with the lead guitar it is hard to differentiate at times.

There’s an acoustic guitar panned hard left that appears in the middle section. The middle section features sound effects – bicycle wheels spinning with cutlery in the spokes, glass bottles bouncing and breaking. Some of these sound effects return for the final section. There is a big reverb on the lead vocal for this part and the final part of the middle section vocal is layered and reverbed to drift off. The chiming electric guitar, reverbed vocal and sound effects make for a very atmospheric sound for this part and breaks the song nicely, leading to the return of the riff for the big climax.

There is a strange synth sound that throbs in the final section and is very noticeable as the final sound in the short fade out. (It is actually there in the very first distant 8 bars …)

Overall a very involved production with a lot added to the simple guitar/bass/drums/vocal line up of the band. The glockenspiel in particular is a major part of this production. It is still totally reliant on the guitar riff, the forceful drumming and the pleading vocal but the distant sound at the start, which emphasises the entry of the full band, and the glock and sound effects throughout add so much interest and colour to the song. When played live this song has none of those details mentioned above. It still works but it relies totally on force. This recording has more light and shade and even delicacy – who would’ve thought of adding a glockenspiel to such a violent post-punk riff?

I Want You Back – The Jackson Five – Berry Gordy – 1969


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Stereo is used in this production to separate the instruments. Only three positions are used (left, right and centre) and nothing moves from its fixed position.

The track begins with a piano glissando from high to low, panned left and ending with a bass note centred and a cymbals splash panned right. These will actually be the pan settings for the piano, bass and drums for the whole track. But the effect created here at the beginning is of movement from left to right.

Straight away the four bar intro begins with a funky electric guitar jangling away on the right, bass line and hand clap in the centre and piano doubling the bass line on the left. For the second four bars of the intro strings and bongos are added panned left which shifts the balance of the track off to the left.

Another piano glissando and the balance is restored with all the instruments arriving in their stereo positions. Drums and backing vocals join on the right and the lead vocal is centred for another four bars of introduction.

LEFT = bongos and tambourine, strings, piano
CENTRE = bass, hand claps, lead vocal
RIGHT = drums, electric guitar, backing vocals

The first verse actually sees the drums drop out, leaving only the funk guitar and occasional backing vocals on the right, tilting the balance to the left again, as the piano, bongos, tambourine and strings continue on the left and the lead vocal, hand claps and bass fill the centre.

The chorus sees all the instruments return again.

The bridge still features all the instruments – except the strings drop out. The different parts create a different sense of space. The lead vocal does a call and response with the backing vocals. The backing vocals on the right – a rapid monotone ‘I want you back’ – are doubled by the strings on the left. The drum part breaks down to just kick and snare, the piano vamps on high notes while the hand clap pattern changes.

The second verse and chorus return to the instrumental parts of the first verse and chorus but with a bit more activity in the strings on the left and the backing vocals on the right.

The middle section actually breaks the rule I claimed was in place for the whole song – the funk guitar appears in the left suddenly. This middle section comprises of a breakdown with the drums, strings, bass, piano and percussion dropping out. This leaves just the funk guitar on the left and the backing vocals on the right. The bass returns in the centre, and the bongos return on the left. A second vocal (one of the four backing vocalists I presume) sings a new part on the right which then gets doubled by the lead vocal in the centre before they switch into a call and response pattern. With the return of the lead vocal the tambourine returns on the left. The drums return as a climax for the middle section.

And into the chorus with everything returning to their previous pan positions. A little bridge with backing vocalists doing some solo parts on the right. Then another chorus, then another little bridge, another chorus and so on as the track fades…

The fade is the classic 15 second long fade that has become standard.

Overall a full sounding production is given space and clarity through stereo placement, with 3 elements in each of the three positions at the height of the track. There are no other real production ‘tricks’. Except for the whole track fading out, there are no fade ins or fades outs, no edits, no overt use of effects. You can see that this was a well polished, well worked, well rehearsed live band that didn’t need to be enhanced in the studio except for finding space in the mix for all the elements. It is quite representative of the mixing style of the time – each element is given a place in the mix, both in terms of width (stereo placement) and depth (volume) and it stays there for the whole song. The switch in funk guitar from right to left for the middle section and back again is the only exception to this rule.

I Wanna Be Adored – The Stone Roses – John Leckie – 1991



Begins with a long fade up of ambient noise, sounds like a big echoing underground car park – but is probably created with artificial reverbs, slight clicking beat gives a hint to the song about to arrive.

Bass guitar riff is the first to emerge from the noise, fading up. Nice woody tone gives it bite and cut. This bass riff is almost the song’s hook (or one of them at least) so it is important that it stands out, almost becoming a lead instrument. Rhythm electric guitar chugging joins the bass. Then the lead guitar. The electric guitar plays soloing lead lines but is distant in the mix, soaked in reverb.

The hi hats join in, then the kick as the drums are played quietly then get progressively louder.

The full band sound kicks in at about 1 minute 30, which is a very long intro for a ‘pop’ song. The snare has a big reverb on it and the whole band sounds like it too is in an underground carpark even though the ambience now is lost in the instrumental sound. The lead guitar plays the main riff but it still sounds back in the mix.

The lead vocal arrives and it too is reverb soaked, adding atmosphere to the half whispered, half sung style. It sounds like it may be doubled or ADT (automatic double tracked) or there’s a short slap echo.

The cymbal crashes that are part of the short instrumental break in between verses sparkle and tinkle as they decay, almost like breaking glass scattered over concrete… it must be the remnants of the ambient sound heard at the start of the track – all the squeaks and squeals (like car tyres in an underground carpark) with big reverb.

There is an amazing difference between the distant, reverbed crash cymbals and the up close dry hi hats, when the drummer alternates between the two it feels like the drum kit is huge with a big physical distance between where the hi hats are (close to the listener) and where the crash cymbals are (away in the background).

At the end of the middle instrumental section, just at the end of the first vocal ‘Adored’, there is big beautiful steel string acoustic strum. Here the track gets sparse enough to allow the ambient noise to reveal that it is still there. The track goes from this break down to build up to the final climax. It does so by relying heavily on the rhythm guitar chugging and the drums getting more intense. The lead guitar is really warbling in the low register and is EQed and reverbed to get really muddy and swallowed in the track, before it bursts back into life for the final riff.

The final measure is played at a slower tempo, emphasising the beat. The ambience is maintained during the following fade out with guitar feedback, and a howling subway tunnel sound.

Overall a very unique atmosphere sound on this track, mostly provided by the background ambience heard at the start and end of the track. This would seem to be very clearly the producer’s doing as the rest of the track is fairly simple guitar/bass/drums rock. But the reverbs on the drums, guitars and vocal work with the background ambience to emphasise a certain sense of the epic.

Hurt – Johnny Cash – Rick Rubin – 2003


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Simple plucked acoustic guitar intro on two guitars, one left and one right, for four bars. Vocal comes in right in the centre, closed mic intimate. After the first four lines of the verse a piano chord joins in on the 2 count.

First chorus features heavy low piano chords on the changes. A sustained (organ?) fills in the latter part of the chorus. The guitar playing becomes more strident.

Second verse intro goes back to acoustic guitars, slightly more piano than the first verse, this time on the 1 counts. Latter half of verse features a flute sound (harmonium?).

Second chorus is backed by sustained woodwind/strings, second half features a big bass sound underpinning the chords. At this point the track starts to really push the limits, getting more and more distorted as it progresses, especially the vocal.

The music stops for the delivery of the final vocal line, which is no longer distorted.

Overall a simple but powerful production. There is nothing that sounds processed or treated, no overt reverbs or effects, keeping it sounding raw and natural. Therefore the distortion is quite a bold move, because if you are producing with a view to creating a totally natural sound you wouldn’t dream of going near distortion, especially on the vocal. But it makes perfect sense in the context of the song – the lyric being about self-harm and Cash singing it at a time when he was so old and frail. Plus it being originally a Nine Inch Nails song, famed for processed, heavy distortion, makes this production move all the more inspired.

Rubin shows that production doesn’t have to be about bells and whistles but it does have to be appropriate to the song and the artist.

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