I was flipping through my inbox in the morning and came across one of Paul McGowan’s Paul’s Posts daily e-mails. This one said that the new Octave Studios recording facility was up and running! This was a feat. I’ve had to deal with my fair share of construction projects, including rebuilding an entire kitchen and more with five different contractors, so my appreciation for building projects runs deep.
I replied to the e-mail and congratulated Paul and company on the inaugural. I was reminded of my own visit to a different studio.
We went to New Jersey for a wedding a few weeks ago. The wedding took place over the weekend. When I travel, I usually look for places of interest nearby, including record stores and museums. On this trip, I decided to drop a note to an e-mail address of someone who currently oversees the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, formerly owned by Blue Note Records’ famed jazz recording and mastering engineer Rudy Van Gelder.
I didn’t hear back that day, and we got busy with packing and such, so I forgot about the e-mail for a bit. While on our journey, I got a reply! It was from Maureen Sickler, Van Gelder’s long-time assistant, who now runs the studio. She said that they had a 30-minute window available between doing some setup work for an upcoming recording and when their piano tuning person would show up on that Saturday. Wedding or no wedding, I took the invitation.
Indian weddings have many ceremonies. This one was spread across three whole days. On that Saturday afternoon, I slipped away unnoticed and drove off from Parsippany to Englewood Cliffs. Only my wife knew where I was! (Note: when it comes to being passionate about audio, a higher WAF is always key.)
I got to the studio’s address but missed the entrance completely at first. I had to turn around and look for it. Ah, there it was. 445 Sylvan Ave. I parked outside, not knowing what to expect. I was still looking for the entrance, and just then, someone opened the door. It was Don Sickler, Maureen’s husband, who runs the studio with Maureen.
Nobody else was there. As I stepped into the doorway, Don stopped me and mentioned that this was the same entrance where Sonny Rollins walked in, and the photo was taken that’s on the Sonny Rollins on Impulse! album. This was that doorway, and I was at the right place! The legendary Van Gelder Studio. Next, I met Maureen Sickler. We spent a couple of minutes exchanging pleasantries and with expressing my gratitude for their accommodation on this Saturday afternoon. Both Don and Maureen were very gracious.
They gave me a tour of the place. I got to see the Scully lathe on which many a Blue Note lacquer was cut. Next to it were a couple of Ampex 440 tape recorders, and a Studer A80 recorder. I have a thing for tape recorders, so I pored over them with glee. I also saw the famed Steinway piano in a sound booth. This piano has been played by many greats. Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” is a personal favorite. In another part of the studio was the Hammond organ and its companion Leslie speaker. Jimmy Smith came to mind instantly.
Next, we walked to the other side of the glass windows to see the engineer’s control room with its consoles and monitors. They then showed me the back area of the workshop where Rudy would work on things. The workbench and shelves still hold a variety of components, including vacuum tubes, capacitors, soldering irons and such. On the back wall, a small backlit sign read: “Dr. Rudolph Van Gelder” – a sign from Rudy’s optometry days, when he had to balance his jazz recording calendar with his career as an optometrist!
The new owners are very nice and kind people. It was a joy to speak with them for those 30 minutes. Don is a trumpeter, arranger and producer and teaches at Columbia University. Maureen worked with Rudy since the mid-1980s and went from assistant to recording engineer under his tutelage. She and Don now run the studio for various recording sessions and live events showcased at the VanGelder.Live website.
I also got to see parts of the studio where pictures were taken that show up on various album covers from John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson and other jazz greats. These were all taken by Francis Wolff for Blue Note. I suppose in the 1950s, it must have been like a newfangled startup for all of them! The studio also features select photographs taken by Rudy Van Gelder himself. He was an avid photographer. I took some pictures for my own collection, but in my haste and excitement, I forgot to take selfies. This only means that I will have to visit the studio again.
My own interest in jazz is about a decade old. I didn’t know much about Rudy Van Gelder. Before leaving on the trip, I had looked up information about Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and recordings, and came across RVG Legacy, a site maintained by Richard Capeless, who has also presented this material at the Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention in New York in 2019. His site was a treasure trove for me! It had information on the original studio built in the living room of Rudy’s parents’ home in Hackensack, New Jersey. Quirky that I am, on my way to the studio, I had decided to make a quick stop at 25 Prospect Ave. in Hackensack, NJ, where Rudy used to record in his parents’ home, prior to the purpose-built studio. (There’s a Starbucks across the street, so it’s very convenient.) This location now houses an orthopedic clinic. I had been listening to Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus on the flight to New Jersey, so it was only appropriate that I paid homage to the location where it was recorded in 1956.
Back at the studio, the piano tuner showed up at the door. This was my cue. I took leave of Maureen and Don. I returned to the wedding, with a quick stop to get some wine. The family was happy to see me, wine and all.
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve been back from the trip, but I’m still euphoric and the kids are a bit tired of hearing about this every day. So be it. It’s their involuntary indoctrination. My one regret is that they were too busy at the wedding and weren’t there with me.
So, there it is: the story of “Same Space, Different Time.” It was surreal to feel that at one point, all those jazz greats were in that building. And so was Mr. Van Gelder.
Sameer Verma is a professor by day and an audio enthusiast by night. His love for music goes back to his childhood when he would sit and listen to his dad’s tape recorder for hours. That tape recorder turned him into an audio gearhead early on. It’s an old bug that haunts him to this day, and he loves every moment of it. True to his academic roots, he has curated his work at https://instagram.com/v3rmaji. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images courtesy of Sameer Verma.