For much of this week, JazzWax readers have been sending emails urging me to ask engineer Rudy Van Gelder about specific sessions he recorded for Blue Note, Prestige and other labels. All suggestions were wonderful. The problem is Rudy doesn't think back on these sessions the way we do. We sit back and enjoy the music. Rudy was on the front lines making sure all was captured perfectly. Rudy remembers dial levels, sound levels and microphones. [Photo of Rudy Van Gelder by Hank O'Neal]
And then there's the blur factor. Rudy has recorded thousands of sessions. Remembering specifics about any of them becomes increasingly absurd the more you think about it. "I was focused on making sure I got what producers needed," he told me when I asked about a session while on assignment for the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. "The music wasn't top of mind. The technology and sound were."
In Part 4 of my five-part conversation with Rudy, he talks about the recording process during his Hackensack, N.J., years:
JazzWax: What do you remember about A Night at Birdland from February 1954 with Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver, Curly Russell and Art Blakey?
Rudy Van Gelder: I remember I used a portable version of the Ampex recorder and brought all the Neumann microphones from my studio.
JW: Was it tough to record Van Gelder style there?
RVG: Not really. Birdland was an ideal place for Art Blakey, from a recording and showbiz standpoint. Art had special battery-powered sticks that lit up. The audience would see only the sticks moving on a dark stage, flashing, with thunderous drumming. It was a wild scene, very dramatic. Setting up the microphones wasn't a problem.
JW: Did people sense this was a new sound?
RVG: You knew immediately that the group was way more than just another bebop band. One time there was a big band playing opposite Blakey when I was recording. I remember remarking to someone that Blakey’s quintet was just as loud and forceful as the big band.
JW: Did the music of the Horace Silver Quintet and Blakey's Jazz Messengers blow you away when you recorded them?
RVG: I like Horace Silver. I’ve always liked his music. We had fun doing those sessions. Horace's solos were always sprinkled with humorous quotes. They were a non-serious approach to jazz, but at the highest level. I really like that—if that's what you mean by "blown away."
JW: How did you keep track of all of your recording sessions?
RVG: After Gil Mellé New Faces, New Sounds and A Night at Birdland were released on Blue Note, other record companies heard them and started calling me for recording time. So I assigned different days of the week to different labels. For example, Blue Note was always on Fridays. This was to avoid confusion and organize my week so I could keep recording and working as an optometrist. I invested everything I made from my day job in new recording equipment.
JW: So you had to operate with enormous efficiency, so everything ran like clockwork, yes?
RVG: Absolutely. Recording was always on my mind. I would spend hours setting up for the next day's recording session, carefully placing the cables, microphones and chairs for the musicians. When the producer and musicians arrived, we would begin recording almost immediately. I still do that today.
JW: Was Alfred Lion tough to work with?
RVG: No, not at all. There was a certain sound quality that both Alfred and I liked. We never used the word "warmth" to describe it, though. That word only came up later, when comparisons were made between analog and digital recordings. We were warm from the beginning.
JW: Was Lion rigid in terms of letting you do what you wanted?
RVG: Alfred was rigid about how he wanted Blue Note records to sound, so I just had to give him what he had in mind. Bob Weinstock of Prestige was more easygoing, so I'd experiment on his dates and use what I learned on the Blue Note sessions.
JW: Were all of the ‘50s Prestige sessions recorded in Hackensack, N.J.?
RVG: Nearly every one of them—even though they typically put “New York” on the record jacket and later, in the discographies. Early on, I don’t think Bob Weinstock and other labels could accept that a town called Hackensack was a legitimate place to make high-end records.
JW: What would happen after the producer said he had everything he needed?
RVG: After a session was over, the producer would take home the 7-inch reels I made during the session for playback. He’d go home and make a decision about the takes to use for the album and which tracks would go on which sides and in which order.
JW: What if an edit was necessary after a session due to a bad note on a great take or external noise?
RVG: In the case of Blue Note, Alfred Lion would insist that the musicians stay put until I made a successful edit. That really put me on the spot. I had to make the edit in front of everyone. And no one could leave until I got it right. That added to the tension. You know, I was cutting the one and only original tape with a razor blade. There were no backups—it was too expensive.On the other hand, if I made a good edit and they couldn't hear it on the playback, I got big applause. So it was fun, mostly. Making a perfect edit is a lot easier now than it was then—I had no "undo" button in those days.
JW: How did you master the final tape?
RVG: Once the producer decided on the tracks, I'd splice those takes together in order on a separate reel. Then I’d transfer the final tape's audio to a lacquer master disc using a Scully lathe [pictured].
JW: How did that work?
RVG: I'd put a blank lacquer disc on the Scully’s platter and make adjustments for lines per inch and levels. Then I'd start the platter turning and lower the lathe’s stylus. The electrical impulses that were recorded on the tape would be amplified, moving through the coil within the cutter head. That produced the side-to-side motion of the sapphire stylus as it cut into the lacquer surface. Long story short, the cutter head made a wiggly groove on the surface of the lacquer. Once the disc was finished, I'd call the plating facility. They would send someone out with a hand-made box with a spindle in the center. I would then mount the laquer platter in to the box, so that the surface couldn't be touched by anything. Then I'd close the cover like a suitcase. The courier would take it to the plating facility in the Bronx. Someone told me the facility was an old abandoned swimming pool. This is where the nickel stampers were made. Those would be used to press the run of vinyl LPs. It was a big process.
JW: How did you get such dimensional results in the studio?
RVG: When people talk about my albums, they often say the music has “space.” I tried to reproduce a sense of space in the overall sound picture. I used specific microphones located in places that allowed the musicians to sound as though they were playing from different locations in the room, which in reality they were. This created a sensation of dimension and depth. No one else was producing those kinds of results on equipment that was available at the time.
JW: How did tape help?
RVG: The Ampex allowed me to record musicians live—during concerts and at clubs. I started doing that for Blue Note during the club date we just discussed. Alfred always liked the energy and excitement of a live performance at night, but it would take me three days to record it. I'd have to take apart the studio and pack all the equipment into my car, drive to the venue, set up the equipment, record the musicians, and then break down everything and bring it all back to my studio in Hackensack—before my next session.
JW: OK, let me ask you a big one: Did you really wear white gloves while running around the studio?
RVG: [Laughs] That isn’t true. They were plain brown cotton work gloves.
JW: Why did you wear them?
RVG: I was the guy doing everything—setting up the chairs, running the floor cables, setting the microphones, working the console. I didn't want to handle all of my fine, expensive equipment with dirty hands.
Tomorrow: Building the Englewood Cliffs, N.J., studio, and Frank Lloyd Wright's role.
JazzWax clip: Here's Split Kick from A Night at Birdland, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder with a portable Ampex tape machine and Neumann condenser microphones on February 21, 1954...