Van Gelder's Piano Sound

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by 2xUeL, Feb 4, 2014.

  1. 2xUeL

    2xUeL Forum Philosopher Thread Starter

    New York, NY
    I have really been enjoying all the stimulating discussion about Rudy Van Gelder lately, and upon looking through the forum archives I found a great post by our host from 2009 about getting a good piano sound (

    In Van Gelder's case, as Hoffman suggests, he did have his mics properly matched with the preamps in his console (he has discussed this in interviews), and unlike the drums, while the sound of the piano is heavily compressed on many records, he rarely got noticeable distortion on the piano (to my ears anyway). From what I hear, Van Gelder's "boxed-in" piano sound indeed sounds like it is the result of 1. having the mic too close to the piano, 2. a high-shelf EQ, and 3. squashing it. As for his reason for doing this, my guess is he put the mics (I've seen pictures where he's using two) close to the piano because, as Hoffman suggests above, he didn't want a lot of bleed from the other instruments in his little living room. I'm guessing he put the high-shelf EQ on it cuz he didn't want it interfering with the horns, and he compressed it so much because he wanted it to cut through his--you guessed it--mono mix (if he was monitoring in stereo, it would have had much more space to breathe and he may not have compressed it as much).

    One of the best things about the above comment I think is that it points out that a studio like Columbia had a much easier time getting a natural piano sound cuz they had so much room for the instruments and the mics without bleed. For Hackensack, the boxiness of his piano sound isn't as much of a problem on trio records and "quieter" records like Sonny Clark Trio (BLP 1579), and the reason for this I hypothesize is because the living room was a lot quieter than it was with quintets and the like so he didn't get as much bleed, and he didn't have to work as hard to get the piano to stand out in the mix so he didn't compress it as much. As for Englewood, I think in general he got a better piano sound, and this may have been due to him being in a larger space where the piano didn't have to fight so hard for its own place in the mix.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2014
  2. dhoffa85

    dhoffa85 Well-Known Member

    makes logical sense to me but i just really dig the music anyway. Jazz from the 50's and 60's is my favorite musically warts and all.
  3. Lonson

    Lonson An Old Disestablishmentarianismist

    The RVG piano sound in general is quite satisfactory to me. I can hear the differences between the many pianists playing the same instrument. And in many cases it sort of sounds to me as it does when you're on the piano stool, a player's perspective rather than the bloom a listener gets. . . which is cool.
  4. Tony L

    Tony L Forum Resident

    I love the whole Blue Note aesthetic. The sound is a little altered from reality in almost a similar way to the cover photography and typology - it sounds like A Blue Note, and that is for me as good as it gets. I honestly think this music would be a lot less if approached with a technically perfect clean modern recording. I love the wide-stereo too; the kit mic'd as an single ensemble instrument and stuck over to one side in it's own space behind the speaker, something else balancing it the other side of the stage, the lead instrument in the middle. It's just so easy to follow stuff and so much better than the awful modern technique of splitting the kit up so some cymbals are wide out of each speaker, toms pan across etc - that's unnatural unless you are actually sitting on the drum stool! Even worse is when pianos pan! Sure, Rudy's piano is very odd, but it's The Blue Note Piano, so obviously excellent. Even the occasional mic clipping / distortion. If I had a piano I'd want it to sound just like that! To be honest I can't even tell if it was a grand or an upright!
  5. lyniv

    lyniv Well-Known Member

    Grand Junction, CO
    I'm not so sure that it's obviously excellent. To me, it leaves a lot to be desired!
    Hubert jan, 2xUeL and Planbee like this.

    JMCIII Music lover first, audiophile second.

    Look, did Rudy get great piano sound on the majority of his recordings? Of course not (as noted by our host). But did he get his pianos to sound like pianos (not size wise of course, but tonally)? To my ears, yes. I can usually hear how the pianist is playing, even if it sounds like he's playing a toy sized instrument. Does it impede my enjoyment of his recordings? NOT IN THE LEAST!
    2xUeL and hvbias like this.
  7. ShockControl

    ShockControl Forum Resident

    For all of the praise that RVG gets, I think his piano sounds in general are not up to snuff. He tended to place it back in the mix, too. This is one of the reasons I prefer to hear these albums in mono. Summing the two sides to mono brings out a little more bass and piano, and the horns are not so overbearing.
  8. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host

    Poor Rudy, his piano sound has a lot to do with what I talked about (in the post above that someone quoted from an old thread) and the fact that he was using a really harsh horn monitor to "judge" things. To him, on that Altec squawker the piano must have sounded just right.

    JMCIII Music lover first, audiophile second.

    Steve, as usual, you hit the nail on the head. Rudy did the best he could with what he had to work with and his ideas on what he wanted. Perfect? No. But did he record some of the finest jazz (since 1939)? You bet your ass.
  10. 2xUeL

    2xUeL Forum Philosopher Thread Starter

    New York, NY
    :agree: :agree:

    I think it's pretty cool that when you hear a Van Gelder recording, you know right away that's it Rudy (mainly because of the quirky piano sound but regardless)! :p
    fredhammersmith, dhoffa85 and JMCIII like this.
  11. ShockControl

    ShockControl Forum Resident

    I should clarify my previous post. The balance of the piano in the overall mixes is to me a bigger issue than the sound of the piano itself.

    I have long suspected that the levels on those recordings were truly set with the mono folds in mind, and for all I know, he was monitoring the sessions in mono. The balance of the bass and piano against the louder instruments (horns, drums) is subtly yet noticeably better in mono.

    If I can't find the mono LPs, I always play back the stereo LPs and CDs in mono.
  12. Trevor_Bartram

    Trevor_Bartram Forum Resident

    Boylston, MA, USA
    I remembered reading this thread and agreeing that RVGs piano sound was often quirky and unnatural on his 50s recordings but yesterday (RSD) I bought the Randy Weston Get Happy OJC CD and I have to say this 1955 album has the most natural and dynamic piano sound I have ever heard on an early RVG recording. Proof that RVG could get a good piano sound if he wanted to. I believe 'quirky' was done on purpose for effect, to sell more LPs.
    Interestingly the follow up album With These Hands is good too, a personal favorite of mine, but has more reverb applied that is less appealing. And Cafe Bohemia was a live recording, not by RVG, that has a 'difficult' sound all of its own, still a beautiful album though.
    By the way, I procrastinated on Get Happy for a long time, from samples I was not convinced on its greatness. I was totally wrong, it is a wonderful album and a beautiful recording.
    It is incredible that Randy Weston is still playing today (with his roots in the vibrant 40s NYC jazz scene, showing his influences, Powell and Monk, in the early recordings), I heard a broadcast from Newport a couple of years ago and he was excellent. I hope someone is curating his legacy, a documentary about his life would be fascinating!!
    Lonson likes this.
  13. Six String

    Six String Senior Member

    Audiophiles love to pick on Rudy's piano sound and while I would admit it isn't the most "real" sounding recording of a piano, I have lived with that sound long enough that it is just what I expect from his work. I bought a new release of a Red Garland Trio date at Todd Barkan's Keystone Korner and inside the thick, well annotated material that came with it is an essay by pianist Benny Green who talks about Rudy's sound and since he has played in Rudy's studio he know's a little about this. Here is the quote.

    "Rudy wraps one of his piano mikes in a soft thin chamois cloth, and tucks this inside one of the middle holes in the piano soundboard. It's a Rudy thing, and what it does, as I hear it and from having recorded on his piano ---the same instrument that is on every classic Blue Note and Prestige studio recording --- is it gives a particular kind of middle register enhancement that sort of deepens the 'belly' register of the music; it makes that middle register extra dark and rich --- the Blue Note house pianists, beginning with Horace Silver and Sonny Clark, came up with a way of utilizing this quality of the middle register of the piano in such beautiful ways."

    I thought it was interesting comment coming from a pianist who loves those Blue Note artists and has played on the same piano. It's not a right or wrong thing but another opinion. Thoughts? :-popcorn:

    Edit: i have never read anywhere about this cloth wrapping on one of Rudy's mikes.
  14. vanhooserd

    vanhooserd Forum Resident

    Now Rudy will have Benny boiled in oil for revealing one of his secrets.
  15. Six String

    Six String Senior Member

    If Rudy cared about that at this stage I would feel a little sad for him.
  16. vanhooserd

    vanhooserd Forum Resident

    From all I have read, he always did care a lot. And nobody seems to have squealed over the years.
  17. Six String

    Six String Senior Member

    I'm sure he did but at this point in the game why take it to the grave with you?
    lukpac likes this.
  18. lightbulb

    lightbulb Not the Brightest of the Bunch

    Smogville CA USA
    Interesting detail; thanks for sharing.
    I wonder if employing this technique is upsetting or disappointing to some jazz purists because it's a blatant manipulation of the "normal" sound one should really hear, or because it's so stupefyingly simple.
    Yet, there are some that still find the RVG sound highly appealing.
  19. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Marysville, WA
  20. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host

    The piano is the hardest instrument to record. Listen to the best sounding: Any track from Nat Cole's AFTER MIDNIGHT from August of 1956. A Neumann microphone near (but not TOO close) to the open piano lid. There you have it..
    Joti Cover and NorthNY Mark like this.
  21. Jose Jones

    Jose Jones Outstanding Forum Member

    Detroit, Michigan
    Why would a recent, un-controversial thread like this be closed in the first place?
  22. yasujiro

    yasujiro Forum Resident

    Any stereo recommendation?
  23. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host

    Hmmm. Not sure.
  24. GregM

    GregM Forum Resident

    Daddyland, CA
    What made Blue Note great is not RVG so much as Alfred Lion.
    PonceDeLeroy likes this.
  25. chervokas

    chervokas Forum Resident

    I'm not @Steve Hoffman, nor a recording engineer, but I am a pianist so I've spent a lot of time at stereo piano recording recommendation worth checking out I think -- Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz's recording of Paul Jacobs playing Debussy's Preludes for Piano on the 1970 Nonesuch LP mastered by Robert Ludwig. Great music and performances too. I'm sure recording solo piano is not quite like trying to get it to sit right in a band mix though.
    elaterium likes this.

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