Canadian Musician - May/June 2021 | Page 60


How an AMS RMX16 Preset Defi ned a Generation of Drum Sounds

By Charley Ruddell

In 1983 , Susan Rogers ’ first task as Prince ’ s engineer involved repairing his AMPEX MM- 1200 tape machine and installing a new API console in his home studio as he underwent pre-production on Purple Rain . Soon after , she found herself thrown into the role of staff engineer as the Purple Rain recording sessions began to take shape . She oversaw his prodigal talent unfold in the studio in real time , often for 20 hours straight or more , working at light speed to record any and every instrument he could get his hands on .

The sounds of the 1980s began to shift and crystallize ; synthesizers replaced guitars , rock and roll was no longer a dominating force , and drum sounds were manipulated and engorged . As indicated in most of his work through 1983- 87 , Prince was partial to the punchy sound of the Linn LM-1 drum machine , a flagship sampler of the decade .
As Rogers recalls , Prince had her apply a gated reverb preset called “ Non Lin 2 ” from an AMS RMX16 digital reverb unit to the Linn LM- 1 , a unique production method that was highly favoured and emulated at the time . In fact , the AMS RMX16 ’ s “ Non Lin 2 ” can be heard all over Purple Rain , from the cracking snares on “ When Doves Cry ,” to the crashing drum sounds of the album ’ s resolute title track , and well beyond his 1984 triumph , notably on the pulsing kick drum of his hit single “ Kiss .”
What made the effect such an interesting sound was its response to volume . Unlike natural reverb , which gradually diminishes in volume , gated reverb actually increases in volume upon impact . It combines a hollow effect with a punchy , back-end kick that was revolutionary in its time . It ’ s a sound so identifiably ‘ 80s , from a time when gated reverb reigned supreme , a feat owed greatly to the AMS RMX16 .
Elsewhere in 1983 , Kate Bush constructed her own studio in a farmhouse in Welling , England . Amidst the 24-track recording consoles , her trusty Fairlight CMI , and a cluster of contemporary gear lining her studio , the AMS RMX16 found its way onto her studio racks , eventually earning a notable feature on the drum production of Hounds of Love ’ s title track .
The inimitable AMS RMX16 and its signature “ Non Lin 2 ” gated reverb sound would go on to shape the drum sounds of numerous chart-topping and timeless releases through the 1980s , like John Cougar Mellencamp ’ s “ Jack & Diane ,” and Van Halen ’ s “ Jump ,” but before the distillation of the effect into a compact and portable audio effects unit , gated reverb was just an abstract concept , and emulating its sound was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle .
It all started by accident in 1979 . Engineer Hugh Padgham sat in the recording booth in London ’ s Townhouse Studio 2 listening to Phil Collins fiddle around behind his drums . They were both enlisted by Peter Gabriel to record a song that would become “ Intruder ,” the opening of his 1980 album Melt . The isolation booth where Collins was recording was a stone-laden room with an impeccable live sound , and the production booth was outfitted with the first SSL 4000 B mixing console . The talkback microphone in the studio ’ s live room was wired into the console with a heavy amount of compression so engineers and producers could adequately hear all of the musicians talking from the live room .
In a moment of waning focus , Padgham accidentally left the talkback microphone on while Collins was playing , yielding an intense , booming sound that came crashing through the studio monitors . The combination of the microphone ’ s heavy compression and the natural reverberation of the studio ’ s stone room had created a choked reverb sound .
Because the talkback mic was unable to be recorded on the SSL console , Padgham immediately rewired the board in order to record his intriguing discovery . Collins and Padgham would utilize the same process – now with an added noise gate – less than a year later while recording Collin ’ s international hit “ In the Air Tonight .” The song ’ s groundbreaking success and popularity set the template of ‘ 80s drum production and spurred a generation of musicians to recreate the idiosyncratic sound of gated reverb .
Five years before the breakthrough of “ In the Air Tonight ,” former aerospace engineer Mark Crabtree founded Audio Music Systems , known as AMS , with the intent of designing state-of-theart audio manipulation equipment . By 1981 , AMS had already established success in their market when requests for a gated reverb began flooding his offices .
This launched Crabtree into designing an effect that emulated the Studio 2 drum sound to include in his newest system , the AMS RMX16 , the world ’ s first microprocessor-controlled digital effects unit . The unit ’ s “ Non Lin 2 ” preset is solely based on Padgham and Collins ’ happy accident .
The RMX16 ’ s “ Non Lin 2 ” and its meteoric rise through the 1980s is beholden to a studio mishap and the greatest drum fill of all time . Cutting edge tastemakers like Prince and Kate Bush used it to create some of their most long-standing and beloved bodies of work . It ’ s a sound that defined a generation of music , waded into obscurity , and was reborn decades later as something distinguished and imaginative on albums by artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift . The everlasting AMS RMX16 will likely never die ; we may get sick of it , but its likeness will permeate for ages .
Charley Ruddell is a writer for the online instrument and music gear marketplace Reverb . com . This column has been edited for length and republished with permission from Reverb .