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Classic Tracks: Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”

The story behind Phil Collins' classic "In The Air Tonight" and arguably the most famous drum fill of all-time.

Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight"
Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”

If you see someone playing air drums in the car stopped beside you at the red light, there’s a decent chance they’re playing Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” The song is the quintessential air drum number. In fact, during his live concerts, Collins plays the song on piano and leaves the drum fills for the audience to play — in the air. Like most great lyrics, “In the Air Tonight” — and much of his smash hit 1981 solo debut album, Face Value — was born from Collins’ personal pain: When he returned home from a tour with Genesis, with whom he had played drums for a decade, he found his marriage broken and his family gone.

“Around the time of that tour, all the band bought home studios, although they were very primitive in those days,” Collins recalls. “But they bought a desk — an 8-track 1-inch machine — and I remember in Japan, they gave us the early Roland drum machines, but I said I didn’t want one. But when I got back to find that I had a lot of time on my hands because the family wasn’t there, I rang up and said, ‘Can I have my drum machine?’ because I had to start writing some of this music that was inside me. Face Value was all written over a period of a year-and-a-half, and some songs were written overnight. ‘In the Air Tonight’ was just a drum machine pattern that I took off that CR78 drum machine. You could eliminate certain sounds and program bass drums and snare drums, so I programmed a bass drum part into it, but basically the rest of it was already on there.

“I had a Prophet 5 and an acoustic grand piano and a Fender Rhodes and that was really it,” he continues. “If I got it on tape, I was pretty lucky. I didn’t like manuals, I didn’t really know anything about electronic recording, so if I saw the meter moving, I was happy. I got the drum machine working, I got a nice sound on the Prophet 5, which was the sound of ‘In the Air,’ and I found some chords I liked and recorded them.

“I probably added an acoustic Fender piano pretty early. I was coming from Genesis recording and rehearsing history where sometimes we didn’t know what the vocal was going to be doing when we recorded the track because lyrics were sometimes written after the track was recorded. I remember the first principle I had for making my record was that I would get a voice down very quickly so everything else would fit to the voice. The lyrics you hear for ‘In the Air Tonight,’ I just sang. I opened my mouth and they came out. I never wrote anything down and then afterward, I listened to it and wrote them down. I still have got the bit of paper it was written on, a piece of business paper from the decorator. I’m never going to let go of that. [Laughs]

“I did have a drum kit in my studio at the time,” Collins continues, “but recording drums was always difficult because I’d hit the drum and then rush to the fader and then hit the drum and rush to the fader, so I did record some drums on it, but originally, there was no drum fill. It came in where the drums would have come in after the drum fill; very straight-ahead. It wasn’t angry, there were no sound effects, just very cool drumming as a guide. I put a vocoder on my voice and all that was demo’d.”

Later, while delivering Genesis’ Duke album to Ahmet Ertegun in London, Collins shared some of his solo demos with the Atlantic Records guru. “He said, ‘You’ve got to do this and I’ll help you any way I can. You’ve got to record them,’” Collins recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t record them again. I’ve sort of sweated blood getting this far.’ So he said, ‘You tell me how I can help.’” Ertegun agreed that somehow Collins could work with the demos as masters and when Collins called engineer/producer Hugh Padgham into the project, he also agreed.

Padgham had met Collins while engineering Peter Gabriel [3], which Steve Lillywhite produced. And it was working in Townhouse Studios’ Studio 2, recording Gabriel’s “Intruder,” that Padgham first stumbled on a new drum sound that was based around the capabilities of the studio’s brand-new SSL console — one of the first made — which had compressors and noise gates on every channel. “Up until then, that had not been seen before and was deemed to be either unnecessary or an extravagance,” Padgham recalls. “But this was the first console where you didn’t have to say to the assistant, ‘Can you plug in a compressor please or a noise gate?’ You pressed a button and there it was. It allowed us to be more immediate.

“It was also one of the first consoles to have reverse talkback,” Padgham continues. “On a normal console, you have a button to press to talk to the musicians in the headphones, but you did not have a button to press for us to listen to the musicians. To do that, you’d plug a microphone into a spare channel on the desk and listen to your musicians through that. But the SSL had a reverse talkback button and there was a microphone hanging up in the studio already, a dedicated input into the reverse mic input on the console. And on this microphone, they had the most unbelievably heavy compressor, so you could hear somebody who was over in the corner.

“One day, Phil was playing the drums and I had the reverse talkback on because he was speaking, and then he started playing the drums. The most unbelievable sound came out because of the heavy compressor. I said, ‘My God, this is the most amazing sound! Steve, listen to this.’ But the way the reverse talkback was setup, you couldn’t record it. So I had the desk modified that night. I got one of the maintenance guys to take the desk apart and get a split output of this compressor and feed it into a patch point on the jack field so I could then patch it into a channel on the board. From there, we were able to route that to the tape recorder.”

Six months later, Padgham found himself working with Collins as co-producer on Face Value and “In the Air Tonight,” with its Roland drum machine foundation, recorded on a 1-inch 8-track analog recorder made by a company called Brennell. “We transferred my 8-track demos to 16-track,” Collins says, “which is all we had at the time. My eight tracks comprised stereo Prophet, stereo Rhodes, my voice, vocoder and a drum machine. I sang it again because the quality of what I had recorded really wasn’t as good as we needed, but on all of the tracks, I kept all the instruments, and that’s been my method of recording ever since. I always use my demos as the masters: Whatever I do at home ends up being the blueprint for the song.”

“We then recorded the drums, which we decided would have a great big crashing drum sound at the end, the idea being that the song would be moody and quiet and the last thing you would expect would be the big drum thing,” adds Padgham. “When I was mixing the record, it was difficult to find the right dynamic. When the front of the song was quiet enough so the end was loud, the front was generally not loud enough. Plus, we were mixing onto analog tape and we didn’t want too much tape hiss. Also, there were no CDs then and it had to go onto vinyl, so there were all these restrictions that you don’t have nowadays. So it was very difficult to get the dynamic right.”

The famous drum fill, Collins contends, could have been anything. What is on the record is what came out at the moment. “When people talk about the ‘Phil Collins drum sound,’ that is actually a huge variety of drum sounds,” Collins says. “We never left the setup; we always broke it down and started again so we could end up somewhere different. The Townhouse Studio actually wasn’t that live. It was quite tall, but not really a big room — probably smaller than most people’s bedroom. The Genesis studio we designed had a much livelier, bigger room, glass and reflective surface. So when you listen to “In the Air Tonight,” it is not really that live, it’s big. The snare drum and tom toms kind of bark, but it is made from a lot of compression with ambient mics as far away from the drums as possible, and those are noise-gated.”

The drums were recorded with two Neumann U87s compressed with UREI 1176s, 12 or 15 feet from the drums, the reverse talkback room mic [called a Ball and Biscuit, made by a company called STC] with the heavy-duty compressor and a U47 close on the bass drum and a Shure SM57 close on the snare drum. “But 90 percent of the sound was the live room mics and then I’d add a touch of close bass drum and close snare drum to give it a little more snap,” Padgham says.

The vocals were recorded with a Beyerdynamic M88 and an Allen & Heath limiter, which gave him his signature guttural sound. “This limiter probably cost 100 quid or something, and it had one slide kind of knob that let you get either more compression or less compression, and it gave very basic forms of fast attack, slow attack, fast release, slow release,” Padgham says. “Doing the demos at home, Phil realized that if he had the limiter on a very slow attack but fast release, and if he sang a word that began with a sharp consonant like a ‘k’ or ‘t,’ the initial front of the ‘k’ would get through the limiter before it started limiting, so we’d have this very pronounced front to a word that had that kind of consonant. He would sing into this limiter, using it almost as an instrument. Also, there’s a vocoder on the words ‘I remember’ in the second verse.”

The guitars and bass were recorded fairly conventionally, Padgham asserts. John Giblin played bass and Darryl Steurmer contributed guitar “with lots of echo and sound effects. He was probably using digital delay, which was in its early stages then,” says Padgham. “We were made fun of later on because of some of the delays; like on the ‘I remember,’ the delay is a little too fast for the track and it sounds like it speeds up a bit.”

The album was recorded on an Ampex MM1200 24-track analog tape machine, mixed to ¼-inch 2-track Ampex ATR-100. During the mastering of “In the Air Tonight” at Sterling Sound in New York, a visit from Ertegun altered the “In the Air Tonight” single. “He said to us, ‘If “In the Air” is going to be a single, you should have a backbeat on it before the drums come because nobody knows where the front of the bar is,’” Collins says. “And we went, ‘Oh shit, if Ahmet Ertegun says you should put a backbeat on it, we’d better put a backbeat on it.’ So we went back to England and there was no way we were going to get the track out and re-record the backbeat, so we went to 10CCs’ studio in the town of Dorking in the south of England, and we took the ¼-inch master and put it into the console. We plugged a snare drum into the console and we overdubbed the backbeat onto the master. We re-recorded it and edited it back into the main one when the big drums came in.”

The single hit the Top 20, the album the Top 10 and established Collins as a viable solo artist. Today, he has slowed down the touring, but he remains active on many fronts: His new live DVD, Finally…The First Farewell Tour contains all of his best work and 224 minutes of extras. He is also working on a Broadway stage production of Tarzan, based on the Disney animated movie, which contains a number of his songs.

Collins says that when he hears “In the Air Tonight” these days, “I don’t think it dates at all. I used to be very insecure about my vocal performances, so I used to cover it up with all sorts of effects,” admits Collins, “but everything is in its right place to me. Not every song on that record would I feel that way about, but certainly ‘In the Air.’ It had very little on it, but it sounded huge and everybody who came into the studio to hear it was blown away by it. I didn’t quite get it because I had lived with the song for so long, but when I hear it today, I do.”