Online since August 2002

Revealing new sides to a legend

From the Winter 2004 issue.

Tom Dowd & The Language of Music
Tom Dowd & The Language of Music
Palm Pictures: 2004

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The most amazing thing you'll learn about legendary music engineer Tom Dowd isn't that he handled sessions for everyone from free jazz genius Thelonious Monk to Ray Charles to Eric Clapton to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Nor is it his role in helping modernize recording techniques with overdubbing, multitrack and other innovations. It isn't even his role as mentor and inspiration to record producers like Phil Ramone.

What is most interesting about "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music" is that this man was a trained physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War II while still a teenager.

That experience shows that Dowd was born with an intellect and drive that could have allowed him to do anything he wanted in life. As it turns out, what he wanted most in life was to help bring great music to life in the studio.

Which, when you look at the roster of artists whose magic he helped capture on acetate and tape, is fortunate for both them and those of us who have been touched by their music.

For as all the musicians who were interviewed for this documentary (including Clapton, Charles, and members of the the Allman Brothers Band and Skynyrd) make clear, Dowd made the studio experience a more artistically rewarding one.

At least part of his ability to bring out the best of a musician during a recording session was his mastery of the technology. Dowd was a pioneer in bringing modern recording techniques into the mainstream. Building on what Les Paul had done with overdubbing, Dowd helped bring about multitrack systems into the studio so that a recording could be remixed later. Thus, if a guitarist had a great solo but the mic wasn't mixed high enough on the original take, you could re-mix the final cut off the master by bringing the guitar's volume up later.

But by all accounts, Dowd was already a master of the recording console before the introduction of the modern technology. Back before tape decks were introduced, when records were cut directly to acetate, a recording engineer had to get the acoustics and the microphones set up properly before the musicians started playing. Bringing up one mic or another had to be done by hand on the fly. And everyone interviewed here says Dowd was one of the best.

And that came from another aspect of his ability in the studio – his ability to connect with musicians on their own terms. Dowd clearly respected musical talent, and that respect was returned in spades.

While Dowd was no performer, nor primarily a producer, he did help shape the sound of modern American popular music – and this documentary is a joyous celebration of his love for music and the people who make it.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif., and was a contributor to the "Grove Press Guide to Blues on CD" (1993) and "The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Blues" (2005).

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