Van Halen Members Were ’Disappointed’ With the Sound of Debut Album, Engineer Recalls

According to engineer Donn Landee, Van Halen weren’t exactly happy with the sound of their debut record when it was done. Donn, one of the engineers working on this album, recalled how the band only voiced their opinion when their 1978 self-titled debut came out.

Speaking to Tape Op in a recent interview, Donn said that he and the other engineer, Kent Nebergall, were pretty stoked at the beginning of the process. As Donn recalled, Kent even decorated the Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood:

“He [Kent] had a ‘Star Wars’ X-wing toy. He brought it in, hung it up, and said, ‘This belongs here, believe me, because these are two greatest things I’ve ever experienced: Van Halen and ‘Star Wars’!’ It was hanging from the ceiling, right between the two monitors in Studio 2, for all the time we recorded Van Halen. I loved working with Kent.”

Van Halen - Van Halen - Runnin' With The Devil

The hype was there, at least from the perspective of engineers, and they, obviously, expressed their love for both “Star Wars” and Van Halen — two new major things that were happening in 1977. Although Donn was known for his work in Warner Bros.’s Amigo Studios, he adds that Sunset was the perfect place for this record:

“We were comfortable at Sunset. We’d been working there off and on for three or four years. It seemed like we worked at Sunset every day.”

The record was helmed by producer Ted Templeman, who worked closely with Donn to ensure everything was right. However, as Donn added, both Van Halen brothers, Alex and Eddie, were pretty quiet during the process. So quiet that, as it turns out, they didn’t want to voice their negative opinion on the matter:

“They were extremely quiet. We didn’t hear anything about [the sound of the album] until well after ‘Van Halen’ was out.”

Van Halen Eruption/You Really Got Me

“They were disappointed; it’s not what they had in their mind when they came in to do the record. But Al told me we got it [right] later on. What we got on tape for ‘1984’ [the band’s 5th album] was much more to his liking.”

Despite the band not really being into the overall sound of the finished product, Van Halen’s debut went Gold only a few months after its release. Over the years, it kept getting more sales, and in 1996, not even two decades after its release, it was certified Diamond for surpassing 10 million copies sold in the United States alone. The initial success was also instrumental in getting them to open for Black Sabbath for the legendary metal band’s “Never Say Die!” tour.

Van Halen 09 22 1978 Fresno

At its release, Ronnie Montrose’s band Montrose was also one of the great names on the scene. As the interviewer reminded Donn, Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony felt they should sound like Montrose. Funnily enough, not even a decade later, Van Halen would tap former Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar. Donn, however, explained that Van Halen’s and Montrose’s debut records — both of which he worked on — weren’t all that similar:

“The Montrose and Van Halen debuts sound really very different. With Montrose, we did overdubs. We would do two or three [tracks] of Ronnie’s guitars.”

“With Van Halen, they played it, and we were done. That’s the way most of that first album [was recorded]. There are some songs that have some [guitar] overdubs, but not many.”

Van Halen - Van Halen - Jamie's Cryin'

“We did the Van Halen albums on 24-track, but we could have done them on 16-track. I don’t think we ever filled up the tracks. That’s the reason why when we built 5150 [studio] for [recording] ‘1984,’ I did not buy a 24-track. We went with a 16-track machine.”

The interviewer also asked Donn about the Sunset Sound studios and its famous echo chambers (no, not the kind of echo chambers we have today) and whether they used them for the album. He replied:

“At one time or another, I’m sure we used every reverb system that Sunset had for Van Halen. But, generally, it was the Studio 1 live chamber or the spring reverb in Studio 2.”

Van Halen - Atomic Punk (1978) (Remastered) HQ

“If possible, I used the chamber in Sunset 1. I liked that one the best. It’s unique. The second best, which was more of a standard chamber, was the one for Studio 2.”

But apart from integrated solutions within the studio, they also used an actual effects device for reverberation:

“There was also an AKG BX20 spring reverb system at Sunset. Spring echoes are usually cheap-sounding. For instance, a Fender Reverb amplifier has a little spring reverb in it. You know, you kick the amplifier, and it goes *boing*!”

Van Halen - Ice Cream Man

“The BX20 didn’t sound anything like that. AKG had perfected it. We used it on most of The Doobie Brothers’ records that we did at Sunset, including songs like ‘Echoes of Love’ and the other things we did on ‘Livin’ on the Fault Line.’ Also, Little Feat’s ‘Time Loves a Hero was done with this same spring system. At Amigo, we had one good live chamber. I used it a lot. Most of The Doobie Brothers records were done at Amigo, and we used that live chamber there.”

Photo: Unknown author (Vanhalen 1981)


  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.