Innovation

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When asked to describe his sound, in typical tight-lipped fashion, Rudy Van Gelder only divulged the following:

I do feel that it is unique. I can recognize the difference. I feel comfortable with the difference, and I don’t feel it has [been duplicated] anywhere else. (Clark & Cogan, 2003, p. 206)

The Van Gelder Sound has remained exclusive and without imitators at least in part due to its crafter’s intense secrecy. But there is also substantial evidence of Van Gelder being a pioneer in his field whose work has inspired countless engineers over the years.

For starters, he was the first audio engineer to make his presence felt and heard by the people listening to the records. He did this not only by creating his own recognizable sound, he was also the first engineer to be consistently credited for his work. Beginning in 1951 with a 78 R.PM. shellac record, his name would start showing up on album labels and the back of album jackets. By 1954, phrases like “Recording by Rudy Van Gelder” were a standard seal of quality for all LPs recorded by Van Gelder.

Decades later, when the CD supplanted the LP as the industry’s standard format, the initials “RVG” would be seen on the packaging for hundreds of reissues remastered by Van Gelder, a reminder to jazz fans of the central role he played in both the creation and reissuing of these classic albums.

As the sole proprietor of his own studio, Van Gelder was also one of the first independent engineers to have his recordings distributed and celebrated on a national level. At a time when acquiring the equipment, space, and expertise necessary to compete with the majors was all but unheard of, Rudy went toe-to-toe with the big New York studios and succeeded at winning the favor of many important jazz musicians and labels. Today, this feat continues to inspire home recordists and private studio owners pursuing a similar path of creative independence and business entrepreneurship.

But perhaps above all, Rudy Van Gelder was one of the first recording engineers to approach recording with a creative mindset. As an outsider whose reputation quickly surpassed established professionals in the field, he was afforded the unprecedented opportunity to influence and shape his recordings in a way that would have been impossible at a major studio. Armed with this freedom, he elected to use his equipment in new and interesting ways that created emphasis and texture that were otherwise absent from the studio performances. In this way, Rudy Van Gelder introduced the technique of abstraction to the field of audio engineering. He played a central role in liberating the audio engineer from a strictly scientific outlook, and through proprietary techniques that produced the unique sounds on his records, he is one of the first well-known instances of an audio engineer being recognized for their artistry.

When asked in 1995 if he saw himself as both a technician and an artist, Van Gelder replied:

Absolutely. When you mention the technical end, the first thing I think of is making sure all the tools are working right. The artistic part is what you do with them. The artistic part involves everything in this [studio]. There’s nothing here that isn’t here for an artistic reason […] The whole environment is created to be artistic. (Rozzi, p. 46)

Others took note, specifically Alfred Lion. “Rudy is more than an ordinary engineer in his knowledge of jazz,” Lion said, “and the way he applies it to the recording of different musicians puts him, to my mind, in the class of a creative artist” (Robertson, 1957, p. 58).

The compelling sonic textures we hear in the vast majority of recordings made today are rooted in Rudy Van Gelder’s unique approach to audio engineering. While his secrecy prevented others from imitating him in direct and obvious ways, the practice of using recording equipment to shape sounds beyond their natural characteristics nonetheless managed to become a standard approach to making records in virtually every genre of music.

Main photo: Herbie Hancock at Englewood Cliffs during the recording of the Wayne Shorter album “Speak No Evil”, December 24, 1964 (Photo credit: Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images LLC)

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