The Van Gelder Sound: Characteristics

< Back | Intro Evolution | Next >
Intro
< Back
Evolution
Next >

What is it about the Van Gelder Sound that makes it so easy to identify? Rudy’s sonic recipe included four main ingredients: immediacy, low noise, a large soundstage, and an idiosyncratic piano sound.

Immediacy

First and foremost, Van Gelder used techniques including close miking, peak limiting, and tape saturation that gave the music a substantial sense of immediacy. By modern standards, microphone techniques were still underdeveloped in the late 1940s. As result, only vocalists and instrumental soloists ever sounded “close” to the listener. For smaller jazz groups, this included brass, reeds, and occasionally guitar and piano. Drums and bass were universally slighted in the overall mix, leaving them sounding distant and fuzzy on most records.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that close miking became a common practice. The technique involved each instrument being assigned their own dedicated microphone, which greatly enhanced the overall presence and realism of recordings. Not only did Rudy help popularize this new technique, he also took it a step further, effectively bringing the listener even closer to the musicians. This gave his recordings a strong sense of energy that remains a unique signifier of his sound to this day.

As a listener, if your relationship with a record were likened to that of an audience member at a jazz club, Rudy moved you from sitting somewhere in the middle to the front row. Producer Michael Cuscuna explains:

Rudy loved the way music sounded live—he’d go home from a concert and feel that records didn’t really sound like the live show. He thought he could make records sound better […] He changed the way jazz was heard on record by making it closer to the live experience. (Schaffer, 2010)

Blue Note producer Alfred Lion, one of Rudy’s earliest collaborators, also helped shape the Van Gelder Sound, especially in terms of its immediacy and presence. In particular, Lion had a vested interest in bringing the rhythm section to the fore of Blue Note’s recordings:

[…] I had a chance to tell [Rudy] what I liked to hear in the recording, which was a different sense, somehow. For instance, when I listened to some of those commercial records that the big companies did, the drummer was always put in the back somewhere and you could hardly hear him. I could never hear the [hi-hat]. So Rudy suggested we put a microphone […] there. He was always working, hoping to meet what I wanted. He was very sympathetic and we worked together constantly. (Fox, 1987, p. 68)

Because of this, and because Rudy served as Blue Note’s sole engineer for the majority of the 1950s and 1960s, the phrases “Van Gelder Sound” and “Blue Note Sound” are synonymous. Without fail, the technique was then applied by Van Gelder to all his recordings, regardless of label, making it a hallmark of the Van Gelder Sound.

Immediacy Example
Art Farmer, “A Night at Tony’s”
Prestige Records | 1954

Low Noise

The second key element of the Van Gelder Sound is low noise. Rudy regularly demonstrated an especially strong distaste for noise throughout his career, so much that he was willing to occasionally overdrive the electronic circuits on his equipment to obtain a superior signal-to-noise ratio. This in turn would allow the music to dominate the noise floor of a recording. “Rudy recorded at a very high level in terms of decibels, or dB,” Cuscuna says. “If you listen to a Rudy Van Gelder 1955 tape, he filled it with music. […] If you listen to another ‘55 tape from Mercury or Columbia, you’ll hear a lot of tape hiss because the engineers recorded at a cautious, lower level” (Schaffer, 2010).

To achieve the lowest noise possible, Rudy regularly pushed the meter to the brink of distortion both while recording and mastering, which allowed the music to overpower tape hiss and the surface noise of vinyl LPs. The effect is seen by many to give the sound a favorable character. Blogger Brad Allen Williams wrote in 2016, “So immediate are the recordings that even the occasional defects—the clipping distortion on the [drums], for instance—seem to become powerful signifiers of the moment and its authenticity. And when the flaws in your work become features, you are unquestionably an artist.”

Low Noise Example
Herbie Hancock, “One Finger Snap”
Blue Note Records | 1964

Soundstage

Not always, but more often than not, Van Gelder elected to sonically create a large sense of space, or soundstage, in which listeners could visualize the musicians. Sometimes soundstage is created naturally by microphones picking up the reverberations of the instruments in the room where they are played. But in many cases, the people making a record wish to make the musicians sound as if they were playing in a larger space by using either an echo chamber or artificial reverberation unit. Throughout his career, Van Gelder used artificial reverberation equipment to enhance the soundstage of his recordings.

Soundstage Example
Hank Mobley, “Remember”
Blue Note Records | 1960

Piano Sound

But perhaps the most easily recognizable element of a Van Gelder mix is his piano sound. Of all the instruments in a typical jazz ensemble, the piano is the one that is most likely to give away the fact that Van Gelder engineered the recording. Dense, thick, and often called “boxy” by its critics, it is usually the most caricatured element of a Van Gelder mix.

Piano Sound Example
Sonny Clark, “Bebop”
Blue Note Records | 1957

Main photo: Rudy Van Gelder’s Steinway Model B grand piano (Photo credit: Atane Ofiaja)

< Back | Intro Evolution | Next >
Intro
< Back
Evolution
Next >