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Rudy Van Gelder: “The Original DIY Audio Engineer”

Sep 13, 2016

From Miles Davis to John Coltrane, Rudy Van Gelder revolutionized both jazz and the art of music recording. Dave Darlington (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter) pays tribute and picks three favorite RVG tracks.

Widely recognized as the leading recording and mixing engineer in jazz history, Van Gelder (1924-2016) did more than anyone to define the modern sound of recorded jazz in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. For decades, jazz giants—Davis, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and countless others—made the pilgrimage to his self-built studios in New Jersey, where he recorded classic albums for legendary labels Blue Note, Impulse, Prestige, CTI and others.

We’ve asked recording, mixing and mastering engineer Dave Darlington to share his appreciation for the late, great master who passed away on August 25, 2016 at the age of 91:

“Each day as I drive to work at my studio in NYC I pass a small New Jersey town on the Hudson River called Englewood Cliffs. I’m always reminded that here in the leafy suburbs, in a homemade building down a hidden driveway, some of the greatest jazz recordings in the history of music were created. For here lived and worked Rudy Van Gelder, an iconic, one-of-a-kind, take-no-prisoners kind of engineer, responsible for doing whatever it took to ‘make it sound right!’

John Coltrane, “Impressions” - "I picked this one for the pure raw power of the recording.”

“I first heard of Rudy when a drummer friend of mine began talking about Elvin Jones’ bass drum sound. ‘Every time Elvin hits that bass drum,’ he said, ‘it sounds like a bomb going off.’ I later realized he was talking about Rudy Van Gelder’s great Coltrane recordings, and even today I laugh with my jazz drummer friends about ‘Elvin kick-bombs.’ I always like to study the album credits, particularly on the back of vinyl LPs, and more often than not on my favorite records on Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse or CTI I would see ‘Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder.’

Herbie Hancock, “Maiden Voyage” - “The rhythm section sounds so knit and is so grooving that I feel like I'm on a voyage myself.”

“I had a chance to visit the studio once in the late 1990s when [jazz producer] Creed Taylor had the idea to re-release some of the older CTI catalog with some drum samples added to give [drummer] Steve Gadd a more modern sound. I was the sample guy at that time, so off we went with an AMS sampler and my DAT of ‘hip’ snare and kick sounds (hey, don’t judge, it was a gig!) As we drove down the long driveway, this mid-20th century modern construct came into view, very Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, and I realized I was looking at the outside of the famous studio. I could imagine Ron Carter or Herbie Hancock walking around the yard on a break.

Joe Henderson, “Inner Urge” - “I love it because of the way the bright cymbals and horns contrast with the warm piano and bass.”

“Inside was a beautiful, cleverly designed space with all natural materials, flagstone, wood, concrete block, and high pyramid ceilings with exposed beams. Everything was designed to make the instruments sound their best, and Rudy was proud to tell me he designed everything himself. He was the original do-it-yourself engineer. I had heard stories that he could be prickly, but he was very nice to me as long as I stayed outside the line on the control room floor (true). He really did wear cotton gloves when handling gear (true), and no pictures were allowed (also true). But Rudy was very much the gentleman to me and very inspiring, telling me that he liked to record, mix and master his own work so that he could be sure that it would “sound right.” Well, Rudy, your style and attitude, sound and legacy is an inspiration for me and many other self-taught, do-it-yourself studio owners/engineers who will always look up to you for ‘making it sound right.’”