Rudy Van Gelder: The Jazz Engineer

Some Background:

When it comes to recording Jazz, Rudy Van Gelder was at the top of the game. Born on Nov 2, 1924, this New Jerseyan would eventually engineer hundreds and hundreds of Jazz under his name, more than anyone in history.

Van Gelder’s interest in audio and music stretches back pretty far. At the age of 12, he ordered himself a “…home-recording device that came with a turntable and blank discs.” During high school, he was a trumpet player in the school band, and soon began operating a ham radio.

Yet, as fascinated with audio as he was, Van Gelder actually didn’t go straight into the world of recording, but instead attended the Pennsylvania College of Optometry. After graduating, though, he found himself back inside a radio station, and from there on out, he knew what his calling was.

With finance from his work as an optometrist, Van Gelder started out recording local artists onto aluminum lacquer-coated discs that were copied to 78 rpms. He also used Neumann condenser microphones, which would turned out to be eventually extremely popular.

As for where Van Gelder recording everything, he started out in his parent’s home. More specifically, he recorded in a studio, complete with a control and live room, he and his father built with great enthusiasm from both parties. This is where he recorded many 78 rpms before marrying his wife, Elva, and moving onto bigger projects.

Once moving and hiting the 1950’s, Van Gelder discovered magnetic recording tape, and was one of the first to jump on it. Instead of just one and only one take of an artist’s work, this new technology allowed him to rerecord takes, overdub more parts, and cut/edit effectively. He says that “With tape, I was able to move closer to my vision.” With that Van Gelder eventually recorded Gil Mellé ‘s New Faces, New Sounds in 1953, his recording career began to take off.

The main studio Van Gelder did all his engineering in was located in Englewood Flidds, New Jersey.


Analysis: Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder :

The Sidewinder was engineered by Rudy Van Gelder in 1963. It wasn’t too long after did it become quite popular and helped establish the soul-jazz genre.

First thing I noticed is that the main cymbal that’s keeping time is panned more toward the right, and it’s also the loudest part of the drum kit. The quietest part of the music is the upright bass, which sits in the back. There’s also a piano, which blends together with the snare in the background when a lead instrument is present. However, the piano does sprout to the front when it gets to lead. In fact, every instrument gets to lead and is put up front at some point thought the album. The two horns, though, when played are usually the leads and get put in front of everything else, each horn panned to one side of the stereo field. These themes are present everywhere in the album, and allows each song to flow into the next (when that eventually happens). This all gives a very complete feel to The Sidewinder. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear people talking/singing every once and a while.

Normally, this wouldn’t be my first choice of music: if I listen to jazz, a calmer, more mellow style is what I prefer. But I like it. If I catch myself in the mood for it, I would definitely listen to it.

Here’s the full album on YouTube. Not ideal, but at least is isn’t horrible:


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