Jeff Van Steen, founder/creative director of Secret Frequency, the respected pioneer of sound design, audio engineer and composer of commercial tracks, died Aug. 22 in his home in Santa Fe, where he had been living while recuperating from multiple abdominal surgeries he had undergone in 2011. He was 53.
Mr. Van Steen was widely recognized for his talent, vision, his amazing speed and accuracy, his wit, brilliance and generosity, said his many friends and colleagues.
Mr. Van Steen started his lifelong audio career in 1982 at Studio One, a recording studio centered on the voiceover business of his father, Ray Van Steen, who reigned for as one of the city’s top voiceover actors for many years.
“Jeff was born with ears,” said Larry Pecorella, co-owner/creative director of Comma and Particle studios, who first worked with Mr. Van Steen at Studio One.
“He was the first sound engineer I ever met. When I watched him work, I was blown away. We were both 22 years old and I’d never seen a post audio guy with such precision and skill. He had great energy and was very engaged with the project.”
In 1992, Mr. Van Steen joined Chicago Recording Company as an audio engineer, where he began a lifelong friendship with CRC studio manager Chris Shepard. “I had so much respect for Jeff and his talent,” Shepard said.
In 1994, in partnership with CRC, Mr. Van Steen started Secret Frequency as the city’s first, exclusive sound design studio. Several years later, he decided to work out of his North Side home, but returned to CRC’s Streeterville studios in 2005 by popular client request. CRC renewed its partnership with the company and built an exclusive Secret Frequency studio at 55 W. Wacker Dr. where it also maintains
“Jeff was a visionary at heart and the studio was built to his specifications. He always planned carefully, pushing the project to a level of perfection that, in the end, was always amazing,” Shepard said.
Recalling Mr. Van Steen’s skills and generosity
Secret Frequency partner Harry Burgan, whom Shepard called “a genius as well,” was fresh out of college when Mr. Van Steen hired him in 1996. “Jeff was collaborating on music with some other composer/producers after work and they needed a drummer, which I was. He took me on and we started writing music together soon after I joined.”
At that time, Mr. Van Steen ran an AMS Audiofile, workstation, “He moved so fast on that thing it was like watching someone who was really good at an old school standalone video game. During sessions, he was always able to get a ton of work done in a short amount of time while maintaining a dialog that covered a vast array of topics. He kept the control room interested and laughing with his made-up characters,” Burgan recalled.
“Although the creative roles in our collaboration overlapped, as time progressed, Jeff remained the lead sound designer and I became the lead composer,” Burgan said.
“Jeff had his own artistic style of sound design which had a versatility that ranged from powerful to abstract to subtle; his work was sublime,” says Burgan, who spent 17 years with the company until the spring of 2011, when Mr. Van Steen became ill. “I’m so thankful and honored I had the opportunity to have worked with such a brilliant individual.”
Burgan also recalls Mr. Van Steen’s generosity and kindness. “I’ll never forget when, on a cold winter day, he noticed that the intern who delivered lunch wasn’t wearing a coat. He asked her, ‘Where’s your coat?’ When she said she didn’t have one, he paid for her to buy a new one. He was and will remain forever one of my best friends.”
Over the years, Secret Frequency sound designed for all the major agencies’ top brands, including McDonald’s, Gatorade, Coors, S.C. Johnson, Quaker State, Sears, Kraft and Nintento, among many others.
CRC has since dissolved the company. “Secret Frequency was Jeff,” simply stated CRC executive producer Rose Razel,
Mr. Van Steen is survived by his wife, Bonnie Van Steen, a senior producer at Leo Burnett, his parents, Edith and Ray Van Steen, brother Stewart and sister Linda.
Memorial services will be held Oct. 14 at the Peggy Notebaert Museum, 2400 N. Cannon Dr., at 1:30 p.m.