The Van Gelder Sound
When you’re listening to jazz in, I would argue, its greatest and most significant incarnation, a folk-based, body-based chamber music recorded during the 1950s – Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane et al – it was probably recorded by Rudy Van Gelder on analogue equipment in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, a room specifically designed for their son’s sound recording and where he made use of hallways and alcoves to tease out acoustic effects. By day, Van Gelder worked as an optometrist in Teaneck. He died yesterday at the age of 91.
The Van Gelder sound is synonymous with high-end jazz recording. Almost every important jazz album you’ve ever listened to from Prestige, Savoy, Blue Note, Impulse, Verve was recorded by Van Gelder, or someone trying to imitate him, first in Hackensack, then, after 1959, in nearby Englewood Cliffs, the town just north of Fort Lee, where I was raised. Monk has a tune, a tribute, called ‘Hackensack’. Coltrane has another, called ‘Route 4’, after the highway he would have travelled by car or bus from New York to record in Hackensack. I don’t know how many records were recorded in the Van Gelders’ house between 1954 and 1959, at least a couple of hundred, surely. When I was learning to tie my shoelaces on 6 May 1955, Rudy Van Gelder was recording Herbie Nichols, with Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums, play ‘Cro-Magnon Nights’ a few miles down the road.
While recording at a high level, with only two microphones on a stand, Van Gelder managed to get a clarity from the drums and bass that no one else had. In fact, he caught the sound of an entire rhythm section – bass, piano and drums – in proper perspective, something other engineers hadn’t thought possible. Using real and electronic echo, Van Gelder pulled sound and power from horn players unheard of outside of live performance. When Van Gelder moved to Englewood he built an elaborate studio with churchlike ceilings and cross-beams. By this point, he’d dropped the optometry.
Here’s the not entirely sold engineer Steve Hoffman describing the Van Gelder sound in an interview from some years back:
Take three or four expensive German mics with a blistering top end boost, put them real close to the instruments, add some extra distortion from a cheap overloading mic, preamp through an Army Surplus radio console, put some crappy plate reverb on it, and record. Then, immediately (and for no good reason), redub the master onto a magnatone tape deck at +6, compress the crap out of it while adding 5 db at 5000 cycles to everything. That’s the Van Gelder sound to me.
Van Gelder came to digital technology rather late. Always secretive about his techniques, and a perfectionist, he presumably wanted to get the new technology down to his satisfaction before having a serious go at it. In a rare interview he gave to Ben Sidran in 1985, he discusses what was gained and what was lost with digital multitrack recording. What was gained wass a consistently clean sound. As for what was lost:
Sidran: So the event nature of what you were all doing back then had to do with the fact that people were having to make live adjustments in order to get the music down.
Van Gelder: Absolutely.
Sidran: And these days we’re talking about ways of removing each individual from the live process.
Van Gelder: That’s exactly right … If you wanted to think of a way to inhibit creativity in jazz music in a studio, I would come up with a multitrack machine. A 24-track recorder that you could overdub on.
Sidran: Once you’re into that, then you’re into the whole concept of earphones, and you’re into the concept of doing it again, and you’re into the concept of doing it later. ‘Fixing it in the mix.’
Van Gelder: It’s inseparable. It’s a machine of mass destruction [laughs] – artistically.