Personal Approach

< Back | The Digital Era Innovation | Next >
The Digital Era
< Back
Next >

Any recording studio owner will tell you how important interpersonal relations are to conduct a successful recording session. Unlike larger studios with extensive staff that usually includes a studio manager, independent studios are often run by single individuals, the engineers themselves, which makes it that much more important for them to have good people skills.

Largely self-taught, Rudy Van Gelder was one of the first well-known examples of an engineer building and running their own home recording studio. As a result, his clients were in the habit of booking time at professional studios and radio stations when Rudy first started out. So why did so many jazz labels end up preferring Rudy?

First, he kept his rates low, which he was able to do largely because he didn’t need to pay any staff wages or rent. Studios in the city, on the other hand, had higher overhead and needed to charge more. As an example, while Fine Recording, located on West 57th Street in Manhattan, charged $50 an hour in 1959, Rudy was only charging $35 at his new, state-of-the-art Englewood Cliffs studio, an effective discount of 30% (Fine Recording Inc., n.d.).

Second, he loved the music he recorded. A record collector from an early age, Rudy would record jazz programs when they came on the radio. He also frequented Manhattan jazz clubs. Then in 1956 he got the chance to prove his knowledge of jazz in DownBeat magazine’s “blindfold test”. Rudy performed incredibly well, correctly identifying either a title, soloist, or location for an astonishing seven out of eight records by ear (Feather, 1956).

Rudy’s work also created the circumstances for his love of jazz to grow into a personal adoration for the musicians and producers he served. When asked about the sound of his records in 1999, Van Gelder explained:

You say it’s ‘my sound’, really what it is is my feeling and my approach to the musicians I’m recording at a particular session. I really don’t like to think of it as being ‘my sound’. What I’m doing really is trying to let the musicians be heard the way they want to be heard. What it really is is the musicians’ sound. (Hovan, 1999)

Bob Weinstock, founder of Prestige Records, worked side-by-side with Van Gelder for many years and witnessed the unfolding of this relationship firsthand. “There was always mutual respect—the musicians for him and him for the musicians,” Weinstock said. “He wasn’t a bullshitter. He loved the music. Even before he recorded it, he loved the music. And he loved the musicians […] So it wasn’t some guy just doing it for the money. He put his heart and soul into it” (Skea, 2002, p. 68).

Finally, Van Gelder created a welcoming atmosphere for musicians to perform in. Musicians loved the homey feeling of the Hackensack living room, and the trip to Rudy’s often served as a much-needed opportunity to escape the noisy, crowded city. The same went for Englewood Cliffs. Though a larger studio with a more professional atmosphere, Rudy still made every effort to make the musicians comfortable. He was always prepared for sessions ahead of time. When the musicians arrived, the microphones were set up and his recording equipment was ready to roll (Myers, 2012). He also shared his sense of humor with his collaborators; sometimes he would surprise musicians with funny sound clips piped into the live room through the speakers.

While Rudy took great care in establishing positive relationships with the musicians and producers, he was always a serious professional. From a business perspective, this was a major selling point. It was also something the musicians couldn’t help but take note of. Pianist McCoy Tyner, who logged nearly 100 sessions at Englewood Cliffs beginning in 1959, said of Rudy:

When you were with Rudy, you knew you were home. He dealt with us like we were family […] We all loved him, even though he was very firm about some things he wouldn’t tolerate, like bringing supper into the control room itself […] He would fraternize with us on a limited basis—once you got to know Rudy and got to talk to him like when the session was over, he’d comment on the session, sometimes he’d laugh. But he was there to make sure everything was set up, and during breaks he would check everything. He had things to do. (Kahn, 2003, pp. 88-90)

Drummer Elvin Jones, a regular fixture of both the Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs studios, adds that “Rudy was a meticulous guy […] It was like he was doing an eye operation or something [laughs]. He was wearing gloves when he was handling the microphones, ‘Don’t touch the microphone!’ We used to laugh about that” (Kahn, 2003, p. 90).

There were occasions where Van Gelder’s exacting personality could prove challenging. In the introduction to a 1993 feature for National Public Radio, interviewer Susan Stamberg shared her honest impression of Van Gelder with listeners:

A thorough professional, he is excruciatingly protective of his work, determined not to give out any trade secrets. Rudy Van Gelder, who rarely speaks to reporters, set ground rules for our meeting. I was not to ask about the types of microphones he uses or how he places them to get the best sound. In fact, about two minutes after I arrived, when I clapped my hands together, as broadcasters do, to hear how the sound reverberated in that famous studio, Rudy Van Gelder became enraged. His smile disappeared. He turned beet-red, grabbed my tape, and began erasing the clap […] It took some time for Mr. Van Gelder to calm down enough to be able to sit for an interview.

Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd, who had worked with Van Gelder in 1956, also took note of Van Gelder’s private nature: “He was secretive. You couldn’t ask him, ‘Hey, Rudy, what mic did you use there?’, or, ‘What echo chamber?’ No comment.” (Kahn, 2003, p. 90).


It’s probably a stretch to call him “paranoid”, but Van Gelder was very protective of his trade secrets. His unwillingness to share his methods even went as far as allowing rumors to circulate that he would swap out the real microphones he used for stand-in “dummies” before photographs were taken during recording sessions. The legend might stem from an interview he gave to Audio magazine in 1957, in which the engineer said, “Of course […] Telefunkens are likely to appear in a photograph of a date, but that reminds me of the story of the company which recorded with one make of microphone and then brought out another make for pictures” (Robertson, p. 56). Decades later, producer Michael Cuscuna, who knew Van Gelder personally, would explain the impractical nature of the myth:

By the way, let me put to rest the rumor that Rudy would sometimes change microphones so photographers would not capture what he really used. That would have been making work and he was more secretive of his [control room] equipment and recording techniques than of his mic choices. (Cuscuna, 2018)

If Rudy was too busy to swap mics for photo ops in an effort to remain competitive, he was, however, in the habit of covering up brand names on his equipment with electrical tape. He would also regularly dodge questions from interviewers about his methods.

While the vast majority of musicians and producers found a way to deal with Van Gelder’s eccentricities, at least one collaborator found them intolerable. Bassist Charles Mingus, who recorded for Savoy and his own Debut Records at Hackensack over a period of eight months in the mid-1950s, made this famous public critique of Van Gelder during Mingus’ own DownBeat blindfold test in 1960:

He tries to change people’s tones. I’ve seen him do it; I’ve seen him take Thad Jones and the way he sets him up at the mike, he can change the whole sound. That’s why I never go to him; he ruined my bass sound. (Feather, p. 39)

Mastering engineer Steve Hoffman echoed Mingus’ sentiment during a 2008 interview for Stereophile. Hoffman, who had the privilege of working with Van Gelder’s original master tapes firsthand, also points to the way in which Rudy shaped the sound of his recordings, albeit in a more flattering way:

The beauty of working with a Rudy Van Gelder master is that he’s a very predictable engineer. Everything has a similar sonic signature, which makes it very easy for us. He favored a vibrant, slightly over-the-top coloration. It’s a fairly bright sound. Even though he had a very high ceiling in his cutting room, he rode his equipment a little harder than usual. (Serinus, 2008)

While Van Gelder had a strong personality capable of conflicting with other headstrong individuals like Charles Mingus, countless world-class musicians returned to Rudy over and over again, decade after decade, happy with their recordings. In 1993 Van Gelder put forth his own theory as to why this was the case:

[The musicians] get albums that sound the way they want them to sound, and the rest of it can all be very difficult—including me, personally and [in any other] way. But I try to make sure that nothing leaves here that’s not flattering to the musician and that is not what the musician wants. When they tell me that they like what comes out of here, then that’s my reward. (Stamberg)

Main photo: Rudy Van Gelder with Roger Dawson (right of Van Gelder) and others, 1980s

< Back | The Digital Era Innovation | Next >
The Digital Era
< Back
Next >