If you're not a jazz musician or a producer over age 70, then you are probably seeing the exterior of Rudy Van Gelder's recording studio at 25 Prospect Ave. in Hackensack, N.J., for the very first time (above). The studio where Rudy engineered hundreds of jazz sessions between 1946 and 1959 was located in his parents' home, which has since been demolished. The studio was in the taller, center section of the Pueblo-modernist stucco residence. [Photo by Rudy Van Gelder, courtesy of Rudy Van Gelder]
Why would producers and musicians bother to make the half-hour trip over the George Washington Bridge to record? At the dawn of the LP era in the early 1950s, most 78rpm engineers were struggling to figure out how to maximize the sound of microgroove albums. Rudy was ahead of the curve. He already had experimented and developed painstaking strategies for capturing music so the results sounded much more realistic than other albums of the period. [Pictured: Movie still of John Garfield in 1948 with the George Washington Bridge in the background]
In Part 3 of my five-part conversation with Rudy, the secretive engineer talked about the technological innovations that gave him an edge:
JazzWax: I was warned not to ask you to explain why your recordings sound so much better than many other albums.
Rudy Van Gelder: Good [laughs].
JW: But you did more than turn on the lights to the studio, yes?
RVG: People always ask me how I did it, and I rarely if ever discuss the technical side of things. But I'll tell you something most people don't know: In the late '40s, nearly everyone was using RCA and Western Electric microphones.
JW: And you?
RVG: I used Neumann condenser microphones before anyone else did. I had the second Neumann ever sold in this country [in 1949]. A studio in Manhattan [Reeves] got the first one. In the 1960s, Dr. Neumann had an office near my Englewood Cliffs studio, and a salesman brought him by to see me. It was a thrill for me. I think it was exciting for him, too.
JW: What made Neumann microphones so special?
RVG: Their extreme sensitivity and warmth. They could capture sounds that other microphones couldn't. They had limits and defects, of course, but those issues were solved over time.
JW: How you've placed the mikes matters. I’ve been told that you once wrapped a mike in foam and stuck it into the piano's tone hole to get the right sound.
RVG: All I'll say about that is, nothing is simple and everything is complex.
JW: Who else was instrumental is helping you record at a higher level in Hackensack?
RVG: In the early ‘50s, I was helped by Rein Narma, a component-level engineer who worked at Gotham Audio. He built three consoles—one for my studio, one for Gotham and one for Les Paul. Later, he took a job with Ampex, the tape and electronics company in California, and then Fairchild.
JW: Speaking of Ampex, magnetic tape was a huge studio revolution, wasn’t it?
RVG: Oh yes. You can’t overstate its importance. Tape was more cost efficient and revolutionary for most engineers in the late '40s and early '50s. It required a whole new series of techniques and disciplines as an engineer. I had always known what I wanted to hear, but the gear was too limited. With tape, I was able to move closer to my vision.
JW: How did you discover tape so early?
RVG: My first tape machine was made by Presto, but it didn't operate well. The second one I bought was an Ampex Model 300 in 1949, because it was the best professional recording machine available. I bought it so early that the width of the tape gap was still experimental. When they narrowed the gap and standardized it, they sent me a new head assembly for free.
JW: But why tape?
RVG: I felt it had a good chance of producing better results. And I fell in love with the design of the Ampex recorders. They were the most beautiful machines I had ever seen. Not a bolt or screw or anything visible. Just aluminum castings wrapped by stainless steel. I paid $2,000 at the time for mine—which was a lot of money back then [about $19,000 in today’s dollars].
JW: How did you know how to use it?
RVG: There was a very thin manual. I learned how to use the recorder mostly by instinct. I'd try to work it, then talk to the company, try again, call them again. Little by little, I developed techniques and reflexes. Rein Narma also was very helpful.
JW: How did you set it up and repair it?
RVG: When I made my purchase, Ampex was so young that the company didn't have a service department. They hired the staff of Westrex in New York—Western Electric's motion-picture sound division—to service the machines. Ampex’s main business was servicing movie projectors in theaters, so the techs often referred to magnetic recording tape as “film,” out of habit. The Westrex tech who set up my recorder knew very little about recording and even less about magnetic tape recording.
JW: But it wasn't easy recording right off the bat, right?
RVG: That's right. It was impossible to record a full-length reel correctly. The levels would change from moment to moment. The preamplifiers were unstable with regard to the power supply.
JW: What did you do?
RVG: There were two ways to approach the problem: To use homemade accessories or deal with it. So I made sure I was constantly aware of the recording levels to make adjustments. Early on, I often had to stop the tape, make adjustments, then start again. Of course, with later models, these and other flaws were corrected.
JW: Tape was relatively inexpensive?
RVG: Yes. The 3M Co. made the finest tape under the Scotch brand. Agfa in Europe also made magnetic tape that was in some ways superior to Scotch but in other ways inferior. I was among the first jazz recording engineers to use tape. I stuck with the Scotch brand until the very end of analog recording in the 1990s.
JW: Tape also removed concern about going over budget if there were many false starts, yes?
RVG: Sure. The beauty of tape is that it allowed for longer recording and mastering times. Three minutes had been the average duration of a 78-rpm recording. But a single reel of 15ips magnetic tape lasted 30 minutes. Tape also allowed for cost-efficient stop-and-start recording. Plus, we could splice out bad notes or performances and exchange them for better ones, doing rather extensive editing.
JW: Tape gave you a big advantage.
RVG: Fortunately for me, my interest in tape was ahead of the curve and well timed. Within a year or two in the '50s, more record companies began phasing out the 78-rpm and switching over to 33 1/3 records, making tape essential for recording albums.
JW: Which recording was your first for Blue Note?
RVG: In early 1952, a local producer named Gus Statiras came by the studio in Hackensack and said he wanted to record a baritone saxophonist named Gil Mellé [pictured] for Gus's Triumph label. We recorded four tracks in March 1952 on tape.
JW: What happened to the Triumph album?
RVG: It never came out, and I have no idea why not. But Gil was ambitious and brought the demo discs to Alfred Lion of Blue Note in New York. Alfred liked them. But when Alfred went to his engineer at WOR Studios to see if he could duplicate the natural sound on the first four tracks, the guy told him he didn't know how. He urged Alfred to see the person who had recorded the originals. So he did.
JW: Mellé returned to Hackensack with Lion?
RVG: That’s right. There's the story Gil used to tell of going to Alfred and saying that I used tape to record, and Alfred responding in his German accent, "Vos ist tape?" But I wasn't there, so I have no idea. We recorded the second Gil Mellé session in January 1953. [Photo of Rudy Van Gelder, left, with Alfred Lion by Francis Wolff]
JW: Everything took off after that date, yes?
RVG: After that album [Gil Mellé: New Faces, New Sounds] came out on Blue Note, my jazz recording dates picked up quickly. I was intensively organized, so I was able to engineer sessions comparatively faster than most other studios in New York. I had to be organized—I continued to work as an optometrist throughout my recordings in the 1950s. The results of my sessions always sounded more distinct and dimensional than many other sessions being done then in New York, even in mono.
JW: You even did your own mastering—meaning taking the finished result on tape and producing the finished master disc for record-plant pressing.
RVG: I always wanted to be in control of the entire recording chain—from the initial recording through mastering. Why not? It had my name on it.
JazzWax tracks: Gil Mellé was an extraordinary saxophonist, artist, art director and inventor. The first four tracks Rudy Van Gelder recorded with Mellé that wound up on his first Blue Note recording were Four Moons, The Gears, Mars and Sunset Concerto. On the date were Eddie Bert (tb) Gil Melle (ts) Joe Manning (vib) George Wallington (p) Red Mitchell (b) Max Roach (d) and Monica Dell (vcl). It's very far out stuff for 1952 and '53.
You'll find these on Gil Mellé: The Complete Blue Note '50s Sessions at Amazon here. There's also a downloadable compilation called Gil Melle: Jazz Legend that appears to have Blue Note material on it. You'll find at Amazon here.
A JazzWax thanks to Maureen and Don Sickler.
JazzWax clip: Here's Gil Mellé's The Gears, one of four tracks that Rudy recorded in March 1952. The tracks would wind up as part of Mellé's first Blue Note album along with four more recorded by Rudy in March 1953. The album would be Rudy's first for the Blue Note label...