Evolution of the Van Gelder Sound

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While the defining traits of the Van Gelder Sound were constant over the decades, the sound evolved in ways that did not sacrifice consistency. We first begin hearing it come into form between 1952 and 1954, the first two years Van Gelder recorded professionally. The most telltale characteristic of this era is the lack of an electronic reverberation device, which makes way for the natural reverb of the Hackensack living room to be heard:

Al Cohn, “Jane Street”
Progressive Records | 1953

Critics tend to agree that the Prospect Avenue living room had a special sonic magic. Mastering engineer Steve Hoffman, who has remastered many of Van Gelder’s recordings, shared his praise in his online forum. “Some of the Van Gelder living room recordings really take my breath away,” said Hoffman (2007), “something that sounds so good recorded so long ago. It’s amazing.” While the living room had parallel walls and floors that were not ideal for recording, Van Gelder has attributed the charm of the room’s sound in part to the high ceiling and other features like the alcove to the dining room and the hallway in the room’s northeast corner (Sidran, 1985; Clark & Cogan, 2003).

Around April 1954 the Van Gelder Sound underwent its first major transformation, at which time the effects of a new reverb unit begin creeping into the engineer’s mixes. Van Gelder always admired the sound of larger spaces like Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan (Cuscuna, 2004; Sickler et al., 2011), and the effect was probably implemented primarily to make the musicians he recorded sound as if they were playing in a larger space than a living room:

Sonny Rollins, “I Want to Be Happy”
Prestige Records | 1954

But the technology wasn’t quite where it needed to be for Van Gelder to fully realize his vision. This new reverb device, which employed vibrating metal springs to imitate the reflections in a larger room, created a rather artificial sound, easy to detect when contrasted with the living room’s natural soundstage.

A year later at the end of 1955, Rudy finally started cutting back his use of the unit to a minimum, and by early 1956 the room sound of his mixes had returned to a more natural state:

Miles Davis, “If I Were a Bell”
Prestige Records | 1956

A Revolution in Reverb

Then in 1957, the field of artificial reverb was revolutionized by the German company Elektro-Mess-Technik or EMT. The company’s new model 140 reverb unit was light years ahead of Rudy’s old spring reverb device. It utilized a massive vibrating metal plate to create smooth, natural-sounding reflections. All in all, the unit was 7 feet long, 4 feet high, and weighed 600 pounds. Eager to make his mixes sound bigger in a less artificial way, Rudy wasted no time acquiring serial number 44 in early 1957. The rest of the music industry followed, and EMT plates eventually became staples of professional studios everywhere.

By the fall of 1957 Rudy had finally found the ideal settings for his plate reverb unit and began using it more liberally. This signified a shift from the drier small room sound Van Gelder had been getting for the past year-and-a-half to an expansive, dark soundstage more closely aligned with the larger recording spaces he admired. Rudy continued to apply the effect with much success throughout 1958, and as the Hackensack era drew to a close in early 1959 he was getting a room sound staggeringly similar to the sound he would get in the much larger live room of his next studio:

Sonny Clark, “Cool Struttin'”
Blue Note Records | 1958

Englewood Cliffs

The Van Gelder Sound continued to evolve at Englewood Cliffs. Once Rudy got set up and comfortable there, he immediately started perfecting a new room sound that blended the natural reflections of the live room with the EMT 140 plate reverb. This beautiful, spacious soundstage quickly became a centerpiece of Van Gelder’s earliest mixes at the new studio:

Oliver Nelson, “Stolen Moments”
Impulse Records | 1961

A few years later in 1964, we hear a marked shift in the Van Gelder Sound. Although not characteristic of all his mixes at the time, Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” was a huge hit for Blue Note in the summer of 1964 and has an especially hyped-up, radio-friendly sound. Van Gelder used a similar style of aggressive mixing for Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father”, the second radio hit for Blue Note that year:

Horace Silver, “Song for My Father”
Blue Note Records | 1964

Rudy would largely relax the processing on his mixes the following year, making way for a smoother, gentler sound with more dynamics:

Bobby Hutcherson, “Components”
Blue Note Records | 1965

While Van Gelder’s Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs studios each had their own unique sonic fingerprints, the key properties of the Van Gelder Sound are present on recordings made in both spaces. The differences between record labels are subtle as well. Though Van Gelder has explained numerous times that he always tailored his approach depending on the particular musicians and producers for a session (Forlenza, 1993; Hovan, 1999; Kahn, 2002), the consistency of the sound largely dominates any potential differences. If it weren’t the case, the phrase “Van Gelder Sound” wouldn’t be the essential part of the jazz vernacular that it is to this day.

Main photo: The Van Gelder Studio exterior in 2019 (Photo credit: Atane Ofiaja)

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