Movie: Tom Dowd and the Language of Music

I just saw a great movie via Netflix (DVD, not streaming!)  It’s called Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.  It’s a really interesting biography of legendary producer Tom Dowd.  Tom worked with a who’s who of classic artists from every genre – Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, The Allman Brothers Band, Derek and the Dominos…the list goes on and on.  He produced and engineered some of the most seminal records of the 20th century.  I really enjoyed the movie because it showed the many sides of Tom and gave some great insight into how he became such a legend.

In Tom’s early life, he was an intelligent student studying science in New York City and working at one of the universities there.  When he turned 18 during World War II, he was drafted and immediately sent back to New York to continue his work on what would ultimately become the Manhattan Project.  Tom’s physics and math training would later prove to be essential in his career as a music producer and recording engineer.  This is one of the reasons I love making music – it’s a great fusion of science and art.  You need some of each to make a record; Tom Dowd had tons of both!

In one of the many interviews, Tom mentions how important it was for him to work with blind performers, including Ray Charles.  These musicians taught Tom that it truly was “all about the sound” – if it doesn’t sound good, it’s not good!  We need to remember that no matter how many fancy graphs and curves are in our digital audio workstation (DAW), the sound of the song is the most (and only) important thing.  Granted, those graphs are great tools to help us get the song sounding good, but the sound is the ultimate goal.

I was fascinated to learn that Tom Dowd built many of his own recording consoles, and actually invented the concept of linear sliding volume faders.  On an eight track console, Tom realized that linear faders would allow him to control all eight tracks simultaneously, unlike the rotary knobs that were used at the time.  This concept is so ingrained in the world of music production that today’s DAWs all still use linear faders.  This is just one example of the many contributions Tom Dowd made to the recording industry.

Many musicians were interviewed for the movie, and they all talked about Tom’s uncanny ability to act as a coach and mentor to them.  He was a politician and counsellor as well as a musician and a scientist.  He knew how to bring out the best in the musicians that he produced.  For those of us making music at home by ourselves, this relationship is one that we aren’t able to take advantage of (for better or worse).  In the self-produced bedroom studio environment, we need to remember to step away from our songs and listen to them objectively, with a critical ear from the listener’s perspective.

Another great part of the DVD was the inclusion of several “extra” interviews.  One of the best was with Les Paul – he shows us “the log”, the first electric guitar that he built, as well as his first recording console.  Les also tells the story of how Leo Fender asked Les to work for Fender; Les stuck with Gibson but explained that Gibson electric guitars would have never taken off if not for Fender’s success with solid body electrics.  Pretty cool!

If you get a chance to check out this movie, I highly recommend it.  It was a really enjoyable look at the life of a man who has likely inspired (in some way) anybody who may be reading this blog through his professionalism and genius.  Enjoy!

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