How the AMS RMX16 Defined a Generation of Drum Sounds

Kate Bush (1980). Photo by: Devid Redfern. Prince (1985) Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer. Getty Images.

In 1983, Susan Rogers was working as a studio maintenance technician in Los Angeles before applying for a job at a recording studio out in Minneapolis. She got the gig and headed for the frigid Twin Cities, embarking on a monumental four year period engineering records for her new boss: a 24-year-old autodidact virtuoso named Prince.

Rogers’ first tasks for Prince 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.

Prince & The Revolution - "When Doves Cry"

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 favored and emulated at the time (“He loved that gated reverb,” she told Vox back in 2017). 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 began constructing her own studio in a farmhouse on her family’s land in Welling, England—Bush was preparing to undergo production on her fifth studio album Hounds of Love. Amidst the 24-track recording consoles, her trusty Fairlight CMI, and a cluster of contemporary gear lining her Wickham Farm home studio, the AMS RMX16 found its way onto her studio racks, eventually earning a notable feature on the drum production of the album’s title track. Hounds of Love went on to top the UK album charts in 1985.

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.

Studio 2 was equipped with several unique features. 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 SSL 4000 B mixing console—the first ever to be installed in a recording studio. The talkback microphone in the studio’s live room was wired into the SSL console with a heavy amount of compression so engineers and producers could adequately hear all of the musicians talking from the live room.

Peter Gabriel - "Intruder"

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” back in Townhouse’s Studio 2. The song’s groundbreaking success and popularity set the template of ‘80s drums 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 the art 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 AMS RMX16 debuted in 1982, with Prince and Kate Bush amongst the first to popularize and normalize its use in studio production. Peter Gabriel would recruit the “Non Lin 2” preset for his hit song “Sledgehammer.” Hall & Oates would follow with 1984’s “Dance On Your Knees,” as well as Dire Straits in 1985 with “Money For Nothing.” By the mid-1980s, nearly every major studio was equipped with an RMX16, as artists around the world were chasing the singular sound of the “Non Lin 2” gated reverb as heard on tracks from Bruce Springsteen, Duran Duran, Public Image Ltd, and countless more.

By 1990, popular music had changed, as it always does, and the charm of gated reverb had worn off. “We really kind of used it to death,” Rogers recalled to Vox. “By [Prince’s] Sign ‘O’ the Times, I was pretty sick of it.” And just like the double-neck guitar and bell bottom jeans before it, gated reverb had dissolved into the lexicon of episodic nostalgia, and left largely untampered for a number of decades.

AMS RMX16

Sometime in the mid-2010s, pop music had once again shifted, albeit back into an old familiar sound. Gated reverb was slowly making a comeback in drum production. In 2013, Pro Tools released an RMX16 plugin complete with the “Non Lin 2” preset. Pockets of buzzworthy musicians in New York and Los Angeles received critical acclaim on records with heavy amounts of gated reverb on the drums.

Artists like Dev Hynes and Carly Rae Jepsen embraced the archaic sounds of the 1980s, resurrecting the fad. Taylor Swift would follow suit. Earlier this year, AMS (now merged with Neve Electronics to form AMS Neve) announced the reissue of the RMX16 as a smaller 500 series model, which includes the original presets, and an additional 9 unique aftermarket programs. Now, the sound of the ‘80s is omnipresent once again nearly 40 years later.

No other sound has triumphed quite like RMX16’s “Non Lin 2.” 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. The everlasting AMS RMX16 will likely never die; we may get sick of it, but its likeness will permeate for ages.

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