Tom Dowd Is God
by Ricardo Gutierrez
Music got its hooks in me early. One of my earliest memories is of hearing the eerie melody of Trans Europe Express by way of "Planet Rock". You can read more on how that encounter has had lasting affects on me at my blog here. At my youngest, I wanted to be a rapper. But as I fell deeper into the world of music I became drawn to the sounds over the words. I saw the sonic realm as home to magical elixirs that controlled emotion. The next obvious job in hip-hop was that of a Producer and/or DJ. I still dream of being a Producer when I grow up, but as a shy only-child even being a Hip-Hop Producer was a little too far into the limelight.
Devouring liner notes to every album I bought introduced me to the audio engineers who silently crafted a song's sound. I tried imagining what these guys (sadly they are mostly always guys) looked like. I pictured large figures hunched over consoles with long arms that stretched to reach the furthest faders. While assisting on a mastering session for a once well-known rapper, I overheard him gleefully tell my mentor, Herb Powers Jr, that he saw Herb's name on so many albums when he was growing up that he didn't think Herb was even a person, he thought Herb was a building.
The name Tom Dowd absolutely holds that kind of hallowed weight. A 50-plus year career had him working with every major name in the industry from many different genres. He started his music career while in college where he was also pursuing a career in physics AND working on the Manhattan Project. If you get a chance, check out a documentary that was made about his life just before he passed away. Tom Dowd and the Language of Music. The dude not only recorded some of the most famous albums of the last century but he also helped push forward many of the recording technologies and techniques used today.
I love the scene where he's sitting in front of the console with the original tapes from Eric Clapton's "Layla" session. Like I said earlier today, I love seeing the process of a craft. How everything comes together. I feel like the process of one craft can easily be mirrored in other fields. There is something special about having him solo and mute sections for our benefit and hearing the levels change as he rides the faders on a song we all know as being one way. It's awesome to actually hearing what went into the recording.
The clip below is the "Layla" segment of the documentary. The actual studio part starts in around 3:30, but the whole clip is pretty cool. If this is interesting to you at all, definitely go check out the full film.
Note: Don't mean to offend any devout religious folk with the title of the post, it's a play on the "Clapton Is God" phrase that was spray painted in England way back when.