Hear 508 Hours of Songs Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder (1924–2016), the Engineer Who Created the Sound of Modern Jazz

van gelder collage

The art of audio engi­neer­ing is most­ly a dark one, an alche­my per­formed behind closed stu­dio doors by peo­ple who speak a tech­ni­cal lan­guage most of us don’t rec­og­nize. That is until recent­ly. Musi­cians ama­teur and pro­fes­sion­al have had to get behind the con­trols them­selves and learn how to record their own music, a func­tion of dec­i­mat­ed stu­dio bud­gets and eas­i­ly avail­able dig­i­tal ver­sions of once rar­i­fied and pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive ana­log equip­ment. As with all tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments that put more con­trol into the hands of laypeo­ple, the results are mixed: a pro­lif­er­a­tion of quirky, inter­est­ing, home­made music, yes, and artists with total con­trol over their pro­duc­tion meth­ods and the means to release their music when and how they please…

But with the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of record­ing tech­nol­o­gy, I fear we may begin to for­get what real­ly great, real­ly expen­sive, audio engi­neer­ing sounds like, an unheard-of con­sid­er­a­tion in the fifties and six­ties, when the process may as well have been mag­ic to most record buy­ers, and when engi­neer Rudy Van Gelder record­ed some of the greatest—and best sounding—jazz albums ever made. A Love Supreme? That was Van Gelder. Also Miles Davis’ Walkin’, Her­bie Hancock’s Maid­en Voy­age, Son­ny Rollins’ Sax­o­phone Colos­sus, Horace Silver’s Song for My Father… Dex­ter Gor­don, Don­ald Byrd, Wayne Short­er, Art Blakey…. You’re get­ting the idea. “Thelo­nious Monk com­posed a trib­ute to Van Gelder’s home stu­dio,” writes The Guardian, and “record­ed it there in 1954.”

What made Van Gelder’s albums so amaz­ing, his skills so in-demand? Hear for your­self, in the incred­i­ble playlist below fea­tur­ing 508 hours of music record­ed by the man. (Need Spo­ti­fy? Down­load it here.) We can also let the engineer—who died at his New Jer­sey home and stu­dio at 91 last Thursday—tell us him­self in rare inter­views, and demys­ti­fy some of the intrin­sic prop­er­ties of the record­ing process. “When peo­ple talk about my albums,” Van Gelder said, “they often say the music has ‘space.’ I tried to repro­duce a sense of space in the over­all sound pic­ture.” His use of “spe­cif­ic micro­phones” locat­ed around the room to cre­ate “a sen­sa­tion of dimen­sion and depth” show us that record­ing isn’t sim­ply repro­duc­ing the sound of the instru­ments and play­ers, but of the space around them, which is why stu­dio own­ers spend mil­lions to build acousti­cal­ly treat­ed rooms.

But for all his pro­fes­sion­al­ism and pio­neer­ing use of top equip­ment like Ger­man-made Neu­mann micro­phones, we should note that Van Gelder got his start, and did some of his best work, in his bed­room, so to speak. The fas­tid­i­ous record­ing engi­neer, who wore gloves while record­ing and dressed like a cor­po­rate accoun­tant, actu­al­ly worked as an optometrist by day for over a decade, mak­ing records, The New York Times writes, “out of a stu­dio in his par­ents’ liv­ing room in Hack­en­sack, N.J. Not until 1959—by which time he had already engi­neered some of the most cel­e­brat­ed record­ings in jazz history—could he afford to make engi­neer­ing his full-time occu­pa­tion.”

That same stu­dio in Van Gelder’s par­ents’ liv­ing room is the one to which Monk paid homage in ’54. Not only that, but like many of today’s self-taught home engi­neers, Van Gelder “was involved in every aspect of mak­ing records, from prepa­ra­tion to mas­ter­ing.” Which goes to show, per­haps, that maybe great engi­neer­ing, like great musi­cian­ship, isn’t about access to expen­sive gear or high­ly spe­cial­ized train­ing. Maybe it’s about some­thing else. Van Gelder “had the final say in what the records sound­ed like, and he was, in the view of count­less pro­duc­ers and lis­ten­ers, bet­ter at that than any­one.” How? Aside from vague talk of “space” and “dimen­sion,” writes Tape Op, Van Gelder “nev­er dis­cussed his tech­niques,” even in an inter­view with the respect­ed record­ing mag­a­zine. Maybe there real­ly was a kind of mag­ic involved.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Released 50 Years Ago This Month

Jazz on the Tube: An Archive of 2,000 Clas­sic Jazz Videos (and Much More)

A 96-Song Playlist of Music in Haru­ki Murakami’s Nov­els: Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, the Beach Boys & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • David Fell says:

    It would be great if you could post the list as text. Some of us use oth­er ser­vices besides Spo­ti­fy and might like to repli­cate the list on our cho­sen ser­vices. Only 200 tracks are dis­played, which is prob­a­bly not the whole 500+ hour list!

  • Andre Kibbe says:

    There are playlist con­vert­ers, like Song­Shift or Stamp, that you can use to get the playlist on your pre­ferred stream­ing ser­vice.

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