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Jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder passed away last week at age 91, and although many won’t recognize the name, he was a giant in the industry. He was responsible for recording some of the greatest jazz albums ever by artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and hundreds more.
While we look to Bruce Swedien as the Godfather of modern engineering, Rudy actually predates him in that he started his career in the mid-1940’s in the days even before tape. He was never a luddite though, as he was always involved with the latest that technology had to offer right up until his final session.
Van Gelder was unique in a many ways. He was the first independent engineer able to make a living from his passion, and like many today, he was self-taught in that he never had a mentor or worked directly for a record label or studio. For the first part of his career, he used a day gig as an optometrist to finance his recording habit (sound familiar). He also had the first home recording studio as well in that he recorded many of his biggest records in the living room of his parent’s house prior to building his own studio. And on the tech side, he owned one of the first three true recording consoles every built, the others going to Les Paul and a studio in New York City.
Speaking of tech, to the very end Rudy guarded his recording techniques like they were nuclear secrets, never telling or showing anyone any of his methods. Even when photos were taken of recording sessions in his studio, he would move the mics so no one could see their placement. Only in his last years did he finally get an assistant to help. I wanted to get him to do an interview for the Recording Engineer’s Handbook but he would never agree, one of the few engineers that I’ve encountered that ever felt that way.
Rudy was also a big proponent of Neumann mics, being the owner of the second U47 in the United States. Very early he decided that the microphones where a huge part of the sound and deserved special care, so he always handled them with gloves and would never let an artist touch them.
So let’s give it up for Rudy Van Gelder, truly one of the giants in our business. A pretty amazing guy who made some equally amazing recordings.
Ordinary items in our everyday lives can be used as instruments, and perhaps the best example of that statement is this video from The Bottle Boys. The German group has turned playing songs on beer bottles into a career as they’ve traveled all over the world to give concerts over the last 10 years. Here they show their considerable skill by playing the full arrangement to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” completely on bottles.
And just so we stay on the tech side for a moment, the whole thing was captured by a pair of Neumann KM184s into an Apogee Duet using the natural reverb of the church that they’re in.
Check it out. Very cool.
There are so many great boutique microphone manufacturers these days, that’s it’s pretty easy to buy a pretty good mic for a reasonable amount of money. The quality of the classic microphone clones continues to get better while the price seems to keep coming down. That said, if you’re willing to put in a little work yourself and you’re not afraid of a soldering iron, you can build your own classic clone with a DIY microphone kit from a company called Microphone Parts for even less.
Microphone Parts sells the parts to upgrade about 40 inexpensive condenser mics from companies like AKG (the Perception series), CAD, MXL, Carvin, Nady, Rode and Studio Projects, and the suggested mods generally include a new capsule and various circuit components ranging from capacitors to transformers. These are do-it-yourself mods that require an hour or two of work by the mic owner, but most conclude that it’s well worth the effort and the relatively modest cost.
Selling mod kits is just one step removed from providing a full microphone kit though, and Microphone Parts offers their take based on proven designs by Schoeps, Neumann, AKG and Telefunken to give you a kit for just about every style of classic large diaphragm condenser mic you can think of, including the C12/ElaM 251, 414, U87, U47 and M49.
The prices of the kits range anywhere from $329 to $569, and for around $200 more the company will even build it for you. Many of the kits also provide some interesting options that range from the color of the body to different harmonic variations depending on the components you select to use.
There are lots of great reviews online, but be aware that these kits require some intermediate-level electronic skills and tools, as it’s up to you to identify the parts correctly and solder them as required. A few hours of your time is a small price to pay for a good mic at a reasonable cost though, and the Microphone Parts DIY microphone kit seem like a winner. I’m so pleased that electronics kits are back in vogue!