Fred Plaut? Who?

Everyone in the recording biz, all the jazz enthusiasts and probably some rock and roll folks know who Rudy Van Gelder is, and often cite him as their favorite jazz producer/engineer.  There’s a lot of mystique around Mr Van Gelder….he was secretive about his recording methods and he did a TON of jazz records.  The internet abounds with information about Mr Van Gelder, and there’s even an interview here

But there is another guy, who is nearly as important to the lexicon of jazz recordings we have from the Bepop/Cool Jazz era, and his name is Fred Plaut.

Mr Plaut was a Columbia Records recording engineer during the 1940s-60s.  Over the course of about 2 months in spring of 1959, Mr Plaut recorded what are probably THE two most famous jazz records of all time:  Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. 

HUGE records in terms of sales and influence.  I reckon that if someone wasn’t much of a jazz fan, yet loved music, you’d find one or both of these records in their collection.

There is precious little information about Mr Plaut available online, most of which can be found on wikipedia

The list of records he made is a long one, but for some reason (I will speculate later), little fanfare has been made about the man.

I would like to write a bit about Mr Plaut’s recordings and why I enjoy them so much.
Let’s start with the studio.  It’s clear that he had what was probably the most cutting edge, well maintained equipment at his disposal.  Neumann u47, M49/50 microphones, RCA compressors, Pultec EQ and what all else, I am unsure, but VERY good stuff.  At the studio, which btw was called Columbia 30th Street Studios, also had a very large live room (a converted church) and one of the most amazing reverb chambers I’ve ever heard on record.  I am also assuming that they had an excellent recording console and tape machine (or three).  As I’m writing, I’m doing a bit of googling, and came across this long post which I will be reading shortly.

One of the most important, if not the most important thing about Mr Plaut’s recordings is that he was recording only Columbia artists (as far as I know), so the artists would have been some of the best in the business, which makes the recording engineer’s job MUCH easier.

So what about the sound of his recordings that I like so much?  Well, let’s see here….as I’m typing, I’m listening to Dave Brubeck’s Time in Outer Space and what I’m hearing is an incredibly distortion free recording, with no obvious dynamics processing, little EQ, a smooth frequency response on all of the instruments (the drums are punchy and deep, cymbals are nice and bright without being overwhelming, bass is full yet present, piano sounds close but not boxy, sax sounds like he’s standing next to me playing), there’s a lovely ambience in the recording (either via the echo chamber or the room bleed from all of mics in the room or both).

As compared to Rudy van Gelder’s recordings, Mr Plaut’s are far more open and clean sounding.  There’s something that sounds funny to me in several van Gelder records, usually in the midrange.  It is a bit of distortion, although not an unpleasant one, but it’s there and has always, even as a younger “know it all, yet know nothing” engineer, it kind of bugged me.

So please, if you are reading this, go and listen to some records recorded by Fred Plaut.  It’s incredible to think that some of them were recorded 60 years ago, yet still sound like they could have been recorded yesterday.

And if you’re really interested in Fred Plaut, and do some digging around for information and find more than what’s available via google, please hit me up with some information.  I would love to know more about the man, his recording techniques and, oh, by the way….did I mention he was also a photographer?!





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