“Ahhh… cartoons. America’s only native art form. I don’t count Jazz because it sucks.”
– Bart Simpson.
Well, Bart and Rudy Van Gelder could never have been friends.
Rudy, regarded as one of the World’s Greatest Sound Engineers in the Jazz music, is credited for almost all sessions on the iconic Blue Note label from 1953 to 1967. He is also the engineer behind the recordings of jazz music’s numerous ground breaking classics.
Starting from 1953, Rudy recorded majority works of the most revered jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. Rudy’s skills are reflected in the works of guitarists like Wes Montgomery, Grant Green or Kenny Burrell, or pianists such as Bill Evans, Horace Silver, and Herbie Hancock.
The Blue Note Sound
Though Rudy worked as an engineer for hire with labels such as Prestige and Savoy, he majorly worked with the Blue Note Records, co-founded by producers Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.
The Blue Note sound was distinctive due to the way Rudy managed to balance loud instruments and soft instruments. One could clearly hear the bass, the different levels of drum work between the drums and the cymbals on the records.
As unbelievable as it may sound, Rudy recorded the first session of Blue Note in his parent’s living room. Rudy had been wanting to build a recording studio. He designed the living room acoustically with various alcoves, nooks, and little archways. He built a control room with soundproof glass in a corner for professional recordings.
Rudy’s recordings are laden with a rich, natural tone of each instrument which clearly distinguishable hence one could hear every sonic detail. He would somehow capture the sonic vibes of the musicians and producers which is still a mystery. The man would tamper with the compression, equalisation, and reverberation as also altering the sound of the individual instruments while and after recording.
Rudy The Mysterious
As a sound engineer, Rudy was extremely protective of his techniques due to the widespread aping of the ‘Van Gelder sound.’ He would never disclose the idea behind the placements of mics or even the type of mike. He would even camouflage the mics he used to refrain the world from knowing his set of equipment and also the recording gear. Rudy would remove microphones when bands were being photographed in the studio. The record producers were made to sit at a fair distance from the recording and dubbing rooms. Rudy was never interested in lending any musical opinions and would simply answer, “That went Ok!” to questions asked about a particular recording.
Rudy was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2009 and received lifetime achievement awards from the Recording Academy in 2012 and the Audio Engineering Society in 2013.
“I thought of all the great jazz musicians I have recorded through the years, how lucky I have been that the producers I worked with had enough faith in me to bring those musicians to me to record.”
– Rudy Van Gelder on being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Visionary Sound Engineer
The man remained a supporter of technological advancements throughout his journey. He was optimistic about the move from analog to digital technology.
“The biggest distorter is the LP itself. I have made thousands of LP masters. I used to make 17 a day, with two lathes going simultaneously, and I am glad to see the LP go. As far as I am concerned, good riddance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don’t like what they hear in digital, they should blame the engineer who did it. Blame the mastering house. Blame the mixing engineer. That’s why some digital recordings sound terrible. I am not denying that they do, but don’t blame the medium,” said Rudy in an interview.
In 1999, Rudy remastered the analog Blue Note recordings into 24-bit digital recordings in its RVG Edition series. Rudy’s final recording session was with the Jimmy Cobb Trio on June 20, 2016, 2 months before his death.
But he wasn’t the favourite for some. Rudy received quite a few brickbats for tampering with the sounds of the instruments. He was denounced for his use of compression and boosting the high-frequencies. Rudy was hailed more has a sound engineer with imaginative and inventive sonic vision rather than an unparalleled technician.