Friday, March 5, 2010

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music Summery and Reflection

Tom Dowd stepped into a New York studio for the first time in 1947 when recording techniques were quite different compared to todays standards. Records were made by tracking and mixing straight to a vinyl disk which could only have between 2 to 3 minutes of audio sketched into it. The longer the song (those days, 3 minute was pushing it) the lower the audio quality would be because smaller groves presented the potential for skips. Also, stereo recording weren't invented yet.
Tom created a personal and inventive microphone technique by using his ear to hear and place mics in positions where quieter instruments were featured (acoustic bass) and louder instruments (drums) were more in the background. This gave Tom the ability to use the natural bleed from the mics on quieter instruments and pick up the drums in an already mixed manner. This was particularly important when you only have a few mics at your disposal to begin with and everything was tracked in a live environment. In this period, it was usual to record 4 songs in 3 hours and have a whole album completed in 9 hours.
After building a reputation for producing hit songs, Tom was picked up by Atlantic Records to improve on the innovative sounds that the record label was striving for. Working alongside his partner at Atlantic, Al Schmidt, Tom was able to use his skill to produce a wide range of popular artists. These
famous artists of the period included Ray Charles, The Drifters, The Coasters, Ruth Brown
and Bobby Darin. He also produced jazz acts, such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker.
It was during this time at Atlantic that Tom started to discover tape recording. Tape was introduced sometime in 1948/49, but it wasn't for a few years later that Tom started to use tape and begin to use 2, 4, and 8 track tape machines. Tom started recording to stereo and invented stereo micing techniques before stereo records were even available. Another contribution to popular recording that we still use today is linear channel faders. At the time, these 'faders' were just actual knobs that you would turn and they wouldn't fit snug under your fingertips like faders do today.
During the early years, while Tom was venturing into recording, he was also a student and in the military, where he was part of the task force that created the atomic bomb. I am sure that this placed a vital part of Tom's approach to recording. Tom was always playing an inventive part in pushing the limits of engineering forward and taking this approach to his artists in the studio. Tom mentioned in the movie that if he hadn't fell in love with music, he was well on his way to becoming a nuclear physicist. He was also very musically gifted. Tom's main instrument were the piano, tuba, violin and bass. Because he was so musically involved in his personal life, it gave a relaxed sense of reassurance to his artists that he was a respectable musician and someone that they could trust.
One of Toms most personnel relationships was with Ray charles. Tom was called in to record Ray and Tom brought along his 8 track. Ray had never heard an 8 track before and when the audio was played back, Ray was shocked when he heard the ability to change the level of individual instruments. Ray said in the movie that 'you need to hear in order to hear what you want the song to sound like.' I think what he meant by this, is that it is important to only focus on what you are hearing and all the nuances and not concentrate on what you see. This is an obvious realization for Ray as he is blind, but I do not think most engineers record with this thought, especially with all the visually appealing software that we record with today. Tom went on to build Ray first multitrack tape machine.
Some of the artists that Tom worked with were interviewed in the movies and shared their thoughts on what made Tom so great to be around and record with. Tom would always put the musicians at ease and had a great sense of musical direction. This also gave Tom the ability to hear when something wasn't quite right. When working with Aretha Franklin, Tom payed attention to her strengths and was able to create a personal micing approach to fully capture the nuances of Aretha's vocals. One of the artists also talked about how you have to 'become a couch' when working with a group. This happens over time and only after great trust and respect between the artist and producer is made. Another unusual thing that Tom would do was to go around the room and listen to each member practicing though a song in order to understand how the instrument reacted in the environment and also to the rest of the instruments in the group. He would then go into the control room and aim to make it sound exactly like it did when he was listening in the live room. Tom stated that microphones are there to capture and not to interfere. An artist mentioned that Tom was able to bring a quality out of the performer that the performer didn't even know they had to begin with. When commenting on how to mix or approach an instrument Tom said that 'touch' is what mattered and not the volume or the knobs involved.
It was really inspiring to hear the story of such an inventive producer and how he got involved early on in his life and was able to establish himself enough in order to continue to do what he loved. I think the biggest reason for his successes was how open minded and optimistic about life he was in general. People enjoyed being around him, and more importantly, valued his opinion when it came to recording. I hope to follow in Dowd's footsteps and learn from his experiences so that I can help the artists that I work with to realize there full potential, and bring this concept to life though recordings.

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