Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music

Legendary recording engineer and producer Tom Dowd (1925-2002) spent more than five decades in the studio, his career mirroring the development of studio engineering as an art form in its own right, a complement to making music rather than an afterthought. Born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Dowd came from an arts-oriented family —...read more

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Legendary recording engineer and producer Tom Dowd (1925-2002) spent more than five decades in the studio, his career mirroring the development of studio engineering as an art form in its own right, a complement to making music rather than an afterthought. Born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Dowd came from an arts-oriented family — his mother was a singer and his father a stage manager; as a youngster he studied violin and piano, took up the tuba in high school and finally settled on the string bass as his preferred instrument. His future seemed preordained, except that after finishing high school he decided he was more interested in science than music and, while studying at NYU, took a night job in Columbia University's physics lab. The job turned out to be the Manhattan Project, and after WWII ended, every scrap of information pertaining to Dowd's work was classified. Unable to breathe a word of what he'd been doing for the last six years, he couldn't get work as a research scientist and returned to music just as audiotape was revolutionizing the studio process. As capturing performances became more complicated than clustering musicians around a microphone and recording directly to a master disk, engineers assumed a new importance. Dowd, with his felicitous combination of musical sensitivity and mechanical know-how, threw himself into mastering the art of making recordings sound as vibrant as live performances. By the mid-1950s, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun had hired Dowd as the label's house engineer; he perfected the art of miking separate musicians and adjusting sound levels on the fly while they performed, and convinced Atlantic to buy the second eight-track console ever made (the first went to legendary guitar innovator Les Paul, who designed it). It was Dowd who replaced the console's cumbersome dials with smaller sliding switches that allowed the engineer greater flexibility in the booth. Dowd pioneered the now standard technique of combining pieces of different takes, worked with jazz musicians and pop singers, and started making stereo tape masters alongside mono masters before there was stereo equipment on which to play them. Dowd worked with jazz giants and novelty pop acts, funk, blues and soul musicians, psychedelic and Southern rockers. Mark Moormann's documentary tends to the worshipful, but Dowd, a charmer onscreen, was by all accounts just as appealing in real life, a gentleman and a scholar who loved music, loved musicians and loved making them sound their best.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Legendary recording engineer and producer Tom Dowd (1925-2002) spent more than five decades in the studio, his career mirroring the development of studio engineering as an art form in its own right, a complement to making music rather than an afterthought.… (more)

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