The Gated Reverb Conundrum

Do I know someone over at Vox? Perhaps there's some psychic mind-link? I ask because the music topics the site covers in its ongoing video series are coming from my unbeknownst internal wishlist.

I mean, here's an eight-and-a-half minute video on gated reverb. Holy cats.

Okay, so we've got to talk a little bit about music production trends. These trends represent sounds, styles, and motifs that, at best, enhance a song and, at worst, shackle the recording with the baggage of its era. This is a prison where the Yamaha DX-7 electric piano serves jail time with the drum n' bass time-stretch. The gated reverb drum part is in a curious place as past uses of this technique do often sound dated, but also curiously contemporary in some examples.

I think that Peter Gabriel's use of the technique still holds up (listen to "I Have The Touch"). This may be due to the artist's objective. I always believed Gabriel embraced the gated sound not for trendiness but because it evoked the big tribal drums that shaped his rhythmic fascinations. In this way, the huge drum parts create an uncanny overlay to his songs. This reminds me of Jon Hassell's definition of fourth world music: "unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques."

Notwithstanding a period's technological limitations, if an artist makes production choices that are evocative and intentional, as opposed to 'on trend,' there's a better chance for the music to have persistence. In the case of the gated drum, Gabriel and his cronies helped set the trend, but you get the picture.

On the other hand, you get the preponderance of heavily gated kits (kick drums included, yikes) that overtook some strains of '80s electronic music and a couple of Cocteau Twins albums. Of course, much of this is enjoyable, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with being anchored to a particular era of music production. But the key is to be mindful. I'm not convinced Cocteau Twins would have gated the kick drum if they were making those records now, but I'm sure Phil Collins would still add the reverb to the drums of today's "In The Air Tonight."

Vox notes gated reverb is being rediscovered by modern producers and is trendy again. I can't say I would have noticed at first as these productions are so processed overall. And I think there's a distinct difference to those using the technique to fill out the aesthetic vision of the song and those looking to evoke 'that '80s sound.' Both processes are intentional, but the passing years will tell if they are timeless (or, unstuck in time, as the case may be).

I ran across the blog Songs From So Deep which provides some closing thoughts on the subject:

This is the thing. Production fashions are an arms race. This is how it happened last time gated reverb was the thing. One artist does something, the next one repeats it but takes it further, everyone piles in until a point is reached where someone says, OK, enough, and sets their own trend.

When I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, listening to contemporary rock music and forming my own tastes and preferences, nothing could have sounded older, more tasteless or garish to me than a big, gated-reverb drum sound. It was the preserve of poodle-haired corporate metal bands. Later on when I’d grown up a bit, I had to train myself to put those objections aside, to listen past the obvious signifiers and give the music a fair hearing. But nevertheless, my tastes were formed in the era they were formed in, and despite this being the sound of the popular music of my childhood, it’s not my sound. Perhaps the folks making these records are too young to have these hang-ups.

Side Note: Susan Rogers is interviewed for the Vox video. That gives me an opportunity to highly recommend this interview with Rogers over at Tape Op. It's one of the best production-related behind-the-scenes interviews I've ever read. A must for Prince fans, too.