RE/P Files: An Interview With Producer/Engineer Tom Dowd
A wide-ranging discussion with a true recording legend, and a production analysis of Eric Clapton's "Layla"...

April 30, 2014, by Paul Laurence

re/p files

From the archives of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, this feature offers a great look back at a seminal recording, circa the early 1970s.

Tom Dowd has participated in as much recording history as maybe anyone around today. During his 28 years in the business, he has recorded and/or produced, among others, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Herbie Mann, Ray Charles, The Coasters, The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, The Young Rascals, The Allman Brothers, Stephen Stills, and Joe Walsh.

He is probably most noted, though, for his longstanding association with guitarist Eric Clapton. Originally Cream’s engineer, and in recent years, Clapton’s engineer/producer, Dowd is the closest professional associate of the man who, by either musical or sociological standards, must be considered the most influential musician of our time.

Clearly, Eric Clapton, more than anyone else, has defined the style and set the standard for the era’s most prominent instrument—electric guitar. “Layla,” the only studio effort from Clapton’s short-lived Derek and the Dominos, has met with unqualified success both critically very rare for a double album and commercially. Stylistically, it was among the first of the “Southern Boogie/Funk” records.

Additionally, it contains a few slow blues, some country & western, and fleeting elements of jazz, folk, and Polynesian. For this project, Dominos Bobby Whitlock (keyboards), Carl Radle (bass), and Jim Gordon (drums) were joined on guitar by the late Duane Allman, then all but unknown to most of the American audience. Almost certainly, “Layla” is the definitive recording of those precious few occasions where two legendary rock soloists have collaborated in the studio.

Technically, it is a pretty basic album. There was a definite emphasis on performance, with many live vocals, often no overdubbing, and little in the mix to render the tracks otherwise. With regard to effects, there is almost no dynamic panning, little echo, and only a moderate amount of equalization and limiting. All the tracks are placed relative to the five- point stereophonic spectrum.

The album’s vocals (usually only two per song) are pretty natural-sounding, maybe even a bit thin at times. Clapton’s is usually the louder, drier, and hence more up-front, Whitlock’s being just the opposite. Interestingly, they were occasionally sent to placement points 2 (Whitlock) and 4 (Clapton), roughly approximating their positions on stage.

The sometimes-stereo acoustic guitars and keyboards are likewise pretty unmodified, occasionally sounding a bit thin as well. The electric guitars often have an attenuated low end, with occasional limiting. As Clapton played his then-favorite Stratocaster at some comparatively low volumes, they often have a somewhat tinny, “attack”-y sound. The laterally-placed bass guitar is rich in the lower registers, and occasionally limited.

The drums are pretty “airy” due to liberal distant miking, and are given a full stereo spread. Level-wise, they are moderate, with but a moderate amount of kick drum.

Tom Dowd

Paul Laurence: Tom, were there any people who influenced you as an engineer and producer, or were you too early in the game to be “influenced”?

Tom Dowd: Well, in those days, there were no recording engineers per se. “Recording equipment” was usually hand-me-down radio equipment and recording engineers were, for the most part, radio engineers who were working extra time or relegated to doing recording instead of radio broadcasts. There were no “recording engineers” because there was no recording equipment!

PL: Did you get into recording by being “relegated” in this way?

TD: Actually, no. I’ll tell you how I got into recording. It was 1947, and I’d returned from three years in the service and had gone back to school for a year, and decided I deserved a holiday.

Looking through the New York Times, being a native New Yorker and reading it faithfully every Sunday, I saw an ad for a recording studio that needed somebody for a summer job. Though I was a physics major, I had always enjoyed music having been in various orchestras and bands through school as a musician and felt that this would be a great deal of fun.

I went to work for that studio, and within a short period of time realized that the recording technology as a whole that existed in those days was easily within the grasp of any training I ever had with my engineering and my physics. I knew that I could make a career out of this business and have a thoroughly pleasant time the rest of my life with it.

During the first two or three months I worked there, I had the good fortune to run into two young gentlemen by the names of Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun who were starting a record company. That was the beginning of Atlantic Records.

PL: Were they specifically aiming to form an R&B label?

TD: No. The first records on Atlantic were jazz and gospel. Boyd Raeburn, Tiny Grimes, the Harlemaires, and the Gospel Harmoneers out ol’South Carolina those native traditional groups were the kinds of things that Atlantic was interested in. What we now call rhythm & blues was then called “race music.”

Ahmet and Herb were primarily interested in jazz and gospel music, or at least that was what their initial endeavor was. Like me, they were professionally trained but fancied music as a career.

Herb Abrahmson was a dentist—I believe he had just graduated from Georgetown in Washington and Ahmet was a Thomas Aquinas scholar and graduated from St. John’s University in Maryland. I might add that they were both very knowledgeable about music. It was more than just being “learned” they had the facility for determining good from bad, and pure as opposed to derivative.

PL: I had always put you in the category of “engineer/producer.” Do you consider yourself that?

TD: No, not any longer. It’s not really fair for me to accept the title “engineer” any more. The time that I devote to producing has taken away those hours that you must spend to be an engineer today in order to update yourself on all the new techniques and equipment. “... you try to ascertain how real the project is - how much you can satisfy the artist and still satisfy the public’s image of the artist…”

PL: Do you feel out of touch as far as your engineering goes?

TD: Ah, I’d say that I’m “in touch” but not in the mainstream. Let’s first define the term “engineer.” To me, “engineer” implies that a person is learned in the current state of the art. He should know how to best utilize the equipment from the studio floor, through the console, to the recorder, back to the mixdown, and onto disc, so that from beginning to end, he knows the abilities and limitations of every piece of equipment he has. He’s got to be able to picture that record, and determine how best to get there with all that is available to him That’s an engineer.

There are too many managers, hangers-on, and people who might even be musicians or singers in the group who have an ability for hearing and arranging sound the way they want to hear it, but have no knowledge of the equipment.

They are often the ones who are the most sorely disappointed with the product, because they don’t realize that there are things that you can entertain yourself with doing and still not be able to get onto the record exactly the way you want.

PL: What is the extent of your engineering today?

TD: I re-mix most of the albums I get involved with. On some I’ll institute the initial recording because I might think that there are some ways of using the studio that differ from the way the house staff does it, and so I might get involved there too.

PL: In your experiences as a producer, do you have any “guiding principles” or basic jumping-off points as to what a producer should be or do?

TD: Well, it depends on the project and the artist as to exactly what hat you’ll be wearing. If I’m working with a group, I should be familiar with their styles, what their limitations are, and what they’re extra good at. After we’ve determined the material and the goal for the project, I work with the individual members to get the ultimate contribution out of each one of them, and give confidence or advice where it’s needed. I try to have a one-to- one relationship with all the members of a group.

When I’m dealing with a single artist, I try to find out what image he has of himself or would like to have, what records he likes, and generally try to gain his trust. Then, in a bit of soul-searching, you try to ascertain how real the project is how much you can satisfy the artist and still satisfy the public’s image of the artist.

Sometimes an artist will get carried away, and might spend loo much time doing a song, half an album, or a whole album that is really only rewarding to him, which will hurt because the public won’t accept it. With respect to this, I often influence material, choice of keys, musicians, etc.

PL: I’d really like you to elaborate on something you said earlier. Let’s talk about the “limitations” and the “what they’re extra good at” of some of your artists. How about Aretha Franklin?

TD: Aretha is one of those most unusual artists. Aretha does not need a producer she needs a confidante, that’s all. She just needs somebody there when she’s singing with whom she can share what she’s trying to do.

Sometimes, when she hears back a performance that has completely captivated you, you’ll say “This is the best singing I’ve ever heard you do!” she’ll listen to it a few more times and say “I can do one better.” She means that it’s not an ego trip and it’s not theatrics. She actually knows that there’s something in there that she can do better. Aretha has an incredible facility for judging her own performance and knowing how much room there is for improvement.

PL: Would you say she has any “limitations”?

TD: No. She can do absolutely anything she wants to do.

PL: By contrast, how about the Allman Brothers? What are they good at, and where might they need guidance?

TD: I have not really done anything with the Allmans since Duane’s passing. The last project I did with them was, I think, “Eat a Peach” or the Fillmore resumes. The Allman Brothers needed what I guess you’d call a disciplinarian more than any thing else. First off, it’s unusual for a band to have two drummers. It’s also unusual for a band to have two lead guitar players as good as Duane and Dicky Betts.

Much of what I did was simply ironing out the polyrhythmic confusion that often existed as a result of those two guitars and two drums. Now you can’t just go in there and say to them “You play this and you play that” you have to put it diplomatically. It would be more like “Why don’t each of you take turns on that lick, and then that will make room… “, etc.

PL: Were they generally amenable to your suggestions?

TD: All the time. To this day they are. I’ve been doing some recording in Macon, and I see Dicky once in a while, I see Gregg, I see Butch, and we’ll talk and they’ll say “Will you listen to some sides we’ve done?” They always realized that when I would say something, it was never taken as “criticism” as much as “I like what you’re doing but it’s not happening as well as it could be.”

PL: What do you consider their strong points where they need you the least?

TD: Oh, I could never tell them about their solos—they knew.

PL: This might be kind of an unfair question, but can you name the Jive projects that you most enjoyed being a part of?

TD: Hmmmm. Well, the first one is definitely off-the wall. It was a recording I did in September of 1952 with Wilbur De Paris, who had a Dixieland band in New York. His brother was Sidney De Paris, the clarinet player was Omer Simeon, and I can’t remember the drummer or the bass player.

Anyway, there was a chap in the metropolitan area at that time who was advocating stereo recording in those days binaural recording. His name was Emery Cook and he was a wild-haired genius engineer and a recording enthusiast who fancied doing raucous things. He proposed to us recording this band in binaural, and as it was jazz, Atlantic was quite interested.

I had spent some time with Emery and was quite captivated with the sound and clarity he could get, and I told them “You’re gonna like the music, I’m gonna like the recording, let’s do it!” In September 1952, we made our first stereo recording. To me, it was a real milestone, especially because stereo didn’t really happen to the American public till eight or nine years later.

PL: What was the tune?

TD: It was a Dixieland LP, actually. It was like a live concert—we hired a hall, put the band on stage, and put two microphones up. If they took four minutes for each number and they did six numbers, it took half an hour to do and boom we were done. They were very professional good performances, good solos, and for those days sensational sound.

PL: Was it actually released as a stereo record?

TD: It was released as a binaural record initially. It involved two cuts on the same side of the record that you played with two pickups simultaneously—one was the left channel and one was the right channel. Musically, it was acknowledged as a fine album, but there were not too many people who wanted to spend the money to buy the equipment to play it the way it was best reproduced, so it was put out monaurally too.

It’s still in the catalog, if I’m not mistaken, and reissued periodically in those “Best Of” series. I guess the next little project would be my becoming familiar with Les Paul and real “multitrack” recording. After I went up to his place in New Jersey and saw his equipment, I went into Atlantic and said “Hey, people are arguing about 2-track recording. Forget it. There’s a recorder available now where you record on wide tape—eight tracks which is a much better way of storing the information.”

And they went with me they said “If you believe that it’s going to help us make better records, get it.” So I went, in 1957, and ordered an 8-track recorder. I was the laughing stock of the industry, New York thought I was crazy, everybody was bananas.

From the lime that machine arrived until about 1962, I saw every other record company and every other studio in the country go through the painful process of going from 2-track to 3-track to 4-track. Every year, they’d amortize the equipment or write it off, and go up another track. Ultimately, they all went to 8-track anyway. We just took a shortcut.

There is a pile of records that we made the first year on that machine—the Coasters, Lavern Baker, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Darin—any one of which could have paid for it with one week’s sales! I’d say that step getting that 8-track recorder was a milestone for me. I look back on myself and I say “Boo” to the world. I was five years ahead of them.

Another one of my all-time favorite projects would have to be the Otis album that we did in Memphis — Otis Redding’s first album. That’s the one that has “Satisfaction” on it, “Respect,” “Down in the Valley.” Instead of doing nothing but slow songs like “Pain in my Heart,” they did more rhythmic, up-tempo stuff.

You know, there are some times when you sit in the studio where an hour seems like a day, ‘cause nothing is going right, and there are other times when you sit there and say “My God, I’ve done an hour and a half’s worth of music and it’s only 4:00!” This was one of those albums we did it all in one day, I think.

There are still more. The “Layla” album, of course. Can I overlook a John Coltrane experience? I can’t ignore the first Ray Charles album that’s certainly a milestone. The Herbie Mann “Memphis Underground” album? I can’t say no to two or three Aretha albums either.

And this is not to forget one I’m doing now with Rod Stewart and some of those same Memphis musicians. After about 25 minutes of recording, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson came over to me and said “It’s like the feeling we had with Otis. Listen to that boy sing! Where you been hiding him?” Il was all quite reciprocal, because later Rod came walking out of the studio and said “Mai gawd, wha’ a band!”

PL: Do you have any favorite hardware, like mikes or limiters?

TD: No. I’m a firm believer in using what ever equipment will do the job. There are some microphones that are designed for a very specific applications that I wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t use in an unusual fashion. Just because it’s designed for PA, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use il in the studio, or if it’s designed to be nine inches from the vocalist, you shouldn’t have him “hug” it.

I’m appalled by some of the things that are put on the market some by little fly-by-night firms, and others by large reputable companies that violate the obvious chronology of progress. You know, things that revert back to an old method, and they say “But this is the better way.” I’m not talking about home equipment I’m talking about consoles that can cost up to $50,000! I’m against a manufacturer mass-producing an item, saying “This will solve all your problems” where it’s not an improvement, it’s just a bad permutation of something that’s already failed once and they’re trying to foist it on you another way.

PL: Let’s set up a completely hypothetical situation. Suppose that you’re the only engineer in a totally unfamiliar studio where they have every single type of hardware ever made. What would you start out with—are you partial to Neumann or Kepex, for example?

TD: Well, first off, the musicians should position themselves where they’re comfortable. If I cannot take advantage of what the studio recommends as the best placement in the room for those people, then the house choice of microphones might have to be altered too. Where I might have had physical separation, now I might have to use a high front lo-back rejection mike because the bass and guitar amps are six inches apart.

If the studio is accustomed to having the drums in one corner, the piano over here, and the guitar and bass in traps, and they’re using omni-directional microphones, that’s all very well and good if the musicians are comfortable. However, if they’re not comfortable that way and end up standing on 14 square feet of a 20 x 40 room, I can’t use omnidirectionals.

Once the musicians are physically comfortable, then I can try lo give them the sound they want. Certainly, I’ll use directional microphones where directional microphones are necessary, but I’m not too concerned with whether they’re Electro-Voice or AKG.

An instrument like a guitar, I would, for the most part, record as a mono track. In a case like this, you normally go for a very tight focal field on that source of sound, as opposed to something like drums, where the man is flailing about over a large surface area. With drums, I want lo capture the motion and the depth, so I’d want a big spread, meaning distant miking. You don’t want them very tight, where you have to manufacture the sound he’s creating you want to be able to capture his technique and dynamics just as he did it.

PL: So you normally don’t limit, as a rule.

TD: I try not to. Often it depends on the complexity of what you’re trying to record, but I believe that you can usually gel away without limiting anything on an initial recording.

PL: What were the circumstances surrounding the making of “Layla.”

TD: Well, Eric had this new group, and they felt that they’d better find out what they’re all about and do an album. I’d always had pleasant dealings with Eric and Ginger and Jack, and with the Stigwood Organization, and when Eric wanted to record, I was asked. At that time, the best place to do it was in Miami because that was where I was working. If 1 was in New York, it would have been done in New York.

PL: How long did it take to record?

TD: About two-and-a-half weeks.

PL: Had they rehearsed beforehand?

TD: They had a concept for each of the songs, but as I say, they had played them and listened to themselves in rehearsal halls, but they had not ever heard themselves back in a mirror image. So they came into the studio and started horsing around. While they were doing that, we were setting up and working on the sound.

Then we did a couple of passes so everyone could hear what they sounded like on tape, so we could make adjustments. Jim would say something like “Gee, I wish I had more bass drum,” or Carl would say “I don’t like this amp” and that would be changed.

PL: So each musician exerted a strong influence over how his instrument should sound.

TD: Oh yeah. You have to look at a group with that talent level and remember that each one is a soloist. You can’t say to one “Well, I’m making a vocal record, to hell with you.” Clapton is very very strong but extremely quiet. He will sometimes say something like “I don’t like the way the bass sounds,” but that doesn’t mean that the bass player can’t say “Well I do like the way it sounds.”

Or Eric might say “That’s lovely,” and if the bass player wants it changed, Eric will say “Let’s hear it that way then.” He’s the leader, but there’s wisdom and judgment he would never say “This is what I want. I don’t care about you.”

So they were playing around, jamming, and what-not while we were still getting things straightened out. This is what’s been coming out in the last few years—alternate takes from “Layla,” which were really just rehearsals.

Once we got everyone sounding the way they wanted, then we could sit down with them and find out various things about the song, so we could start trafficking tracks. How many voices will it ultimately have? How many guitar parts? Is it going to be piano and organ? You’ve got to plan ahead.

PL: I noticed you got a fairly “windy” drum sound. How did you mike the drums?

TD: Jim Cordon is a very tasteful, very strong drummer. Because he has such incredible facility, you have to be careful that you don’t over-mike him you could miss some of his dynamics because you have too many mikes fishing around. If he had five tom-toms up, and you miked every doggone one, if he hit a cymbal that was anywhere near those torn mikes, it would be leaking in too many directions.

Speaking of cymbals, he had a little dinky cymbal that once in a while we would put up. It was just a toy, really he could have never gotten that sound with any of the other cymbals. Every once in a while, he’d just reach over and smack it. No matter where we put it, he’d manage to hit it hard enough so that it always came through!

That sound you’re referring to was a result of distant miking. We used the overhead mikes 67s or 87s — like “spotlights.” You have to adjust them initially for height and angle so that their fields don’t overlap and create a “hot spot.”

Once you’ve got the right focal plane in the down line, then you work on the vertical axis, so that you can catch a better proportion between a tom-tom sitting down on the floor and a cymbal way up on top of a stand.

PL: How about the organ?

TD: For the organ, we used an omni — on the top and an RCA 77 ribbon mike on the bottom. We usually took two tracks — the high end on one and the low end on the other. The high mike is in back, and the one for the low is down by the lower baffle and around the side of the cabinet where you’re protected from the rumble of the motor.

If you look at a Hammond cabinet from the back, you have a shelf, then your rotating horn device, and then you have this big dumb dodo of a woofer that rotates and makes all that horrible rumble.

For the top vent, you can place a microphone at about a 20 or 30 degree angle to avoid the wind and draft deflection that the rotor causes. Down here, to get rid of the “woof-woof” of that thing rotating, you would go to the side of the cabinet so that the baffle affords you some screening.

PL: How did Dunne Allman come to be involved in “Layla”?

TD: Well, Duane and I were into a recording project—maybe it was “ldlewild South” around when I got the call from the New York office saying that Eric was wanting to record Derek and the Dominos. The next time I saw Duane, I said “You’ve got to meet Eric Clapton,” and he said “Oh, I’d be embarrassed to he’s such a line guitar player.”

Soon after that we had lo part company as he was going on tour or something. Now when Eric came down with Bobby and Carl and Jim, I said “I was just working with a line guitar player named Duane Allman last week, and I’d love for the two of you to meet.” Eric looked at me and said “God, I love the way that guy plays, but I’d be too nervous to be in the same studio with him.”

They both stood in awe of each other, both two very soft spoken gentle human beings. As fate might have it, after we’d started doing Derek and the Dominos, the Allman Brothers were doing a concert in the Miami area. One night in the studio, I said to Eric “Would you like to go down and see Duane Allman and the band play- tonight?” and he said “I’d love to, but don’t let him know I’m there. I’d be embarrassed if he asked me on stage.”

So I called up Duane and said that I might be able to bring Eric by, and he said “Don’t tell me if he’s there ‘cause I’ll freeze. I can’t play in front of him. ” To make a long story short, they finally visited with each other at the concert that night, and later on, the Allman Brothers came up to the studio. Eric and Duane went off in the corner and spent like seven hours talking to each other and trading licks. The first time that Duane had available, he came back and played on the “Layla” album. The two of them just fell in love with each other.

PL: Did you feel early on that this was going to be a landmark album?

TD: When we were making it, I felt that it was a mighty good album. I knew that the music was good, the songs were good, and the performances were outstanding on the part of every musician. When I finished mixing it down, I walked out of that room and said—and several people have teased me about this—“That’s the best damn album I’ve made in 10 years!”

Editor’s note: At this point, a “blindfold test” was initiated and “Layla” was put on, with Tom doing a song-by-song analysis and commentary.

Song: I Looked Away

TD: Hah, there’s that Delaney Bramlett influence! The sequence of the songs on this album in the order in which we recorded them. Actually, I should qualify that a bit some of the tunes were done before Duane arrived, and he was later added to them.

PL: It’s strange to me that Clapton’s made so little effort to preserve the Cream licks.

TD: Yeah. He’s not ashamed of that stuff he’s proud of it. It’s just that he doesn’t believe he has to wear that coat the rest of his life. Eric doesn’t walk into the studio and say “I’ve got to make a record as good as…” Instead he says “This is what I want to do now.”

PL: Were any of these tunes actually written in the studio?

TD: Bobby Whitlock indicates that a few of them did come out of things that transpired in the studio. We’ve talked about this a couple of times, and he said that there are one or two songs that they only had the faintest clue to when they walked in. I don’t know which songs he’s referring to, but I would guess some of the later ones.

Song: Bell Bottom Blues

PL: Was this a case of ultimately using both lead guitar tracks, or was it originally conceived of that way?

TD: Well, when you’re playing one part, you’ll often hear another in your head. Then you’ll decide to re-do it that way, still keeping the first one. When you play them back together, you realize that they’re complementary and should be together. The vocal harmonies here are excellent.

PL: Were all the vocal parts worked out beforehand, or were some generated in this same way by hearing what they already had on tape?

TD: Both things happened. They’d usually do two live, and there was always the possibility that Eric would go one over Bobby or Bobby would go one over himself. Then they suspend the ending, which is just as bizarre as everything else they did on this song.

Song: Keep On Growing

TD: This is the tune where Jim re-did the drum track.

PL: Do you have any of the original drum track in there?

TD: Yeah, I’m sure there are some elements of the original track. I remember that when we put the tabla on, he said “I want to re-do the drums.”

PL: Isn’t that considered very difficult?

TD: Well, I wouldn’t trust it to but one or two drummers that I’ve ever worked with, and he’s one of them. I might go with Al Jackson the same way. The problem is overdubbing drums isn’t really meter, but feel. A drummer might have the best time in the world, but he still has to be responsive to the music as a whole and the other musicians.

If one of the guys staggers or lays back a bit, he has to make an instantaneous decision: does he lay back with them, or does ee do something to complement their laying back? That’s the spontaneity of playing drums — how perceptive are you and how quickly can you respond? The reason Jim wanted to re-do the drum track was because the lyrics didn’t turn out to be where he thought they’d be.

When he finally heard the lyrics, he realized that there were some places that called for him to break out and “punctuate.” Oh, that ending. They still do that and it aggravates me. They sometimes get cute and put these little post mortems on.

Song: Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out

TD: This is one of those songs where the performance and the sincerity of the endeavor really come through. It happened one night when we were talking about old jazz blues, and somebody said “You know, nobody ever plays ‘Nobody Knows’ . . .” one of those things.

PL: I really like Clapton’s dynamics here—the way he brings out that arpeggio as a fill, almost.

TD: Exactly! If I had a limiter on it, those dynamics would all have been erased. This kind of thing is always a challenge, when you’re not sticking a limiter on to make sure that it doesn’t overload or whatever. You’re sitting there having a great deal of anxiety, hoping that you can anticipate what they’re going to do.

Instead of “painting” the picture with equalizers, add more echo, do this, do that, you’re taking a “snapshot”—trying to capture it just the way they did it. I can promise you, when they do things like that, the earphones are off. I’m not against earphones—don’t misunderstand that—but often when you’re using phones, you don’t relate to the other musicians as well.

PL: Was Eric playing as softly as it sometimes sounds, or did he have an amp that just wouldn’t break up?

TD: I must say that there was a dramatic change from my last contact with Eric in Cream to Eric in Derek and the Dominos. With Cream, it was always three or four Marshalls, wide open, feedback, earth-shattering levels, and so forth.

Of that group. Ginger was the softest member. Between Jack and Eric with their Marshalls, I couldn’t hear Ginger when I walked into the studio, and Ginger Baker is a loud drummer! He always used to protest and say “They’re making too much noise!” ‘cause he couldn’t even hear himself!

When we go in for “Layla,” Eric shows up with a Champ and an old Gibson one of those straw-colored things midway in size between a Champ and a Princeton. Duane came in with something out of that old school too God knows what it was, those oldie goldie amplifiers.

They played so softly that if you weren’t close miked on the amplifiers, the fret noises would have been too loud, which is to say nothing of the other instruments leaking in. Really, if you opened up one of the studio doors, the rush of air would pin your meter!

Song: I Am Yours

TD: I forgot all about this one! I didn’t see it at the time, but it’s a very strong cousin to “I Looked Away.”

PL: This has a definite Caribbean or Polynesian flavor to me.

TD: To me, it sounds like Mediterranean. If it sounds like Trinidad or Jamaica and it sounds like Mediterranean, then it musm not mistaken, and reissued perio/idically in those t be African, because that’s where they both feed from.

Song: Anyday

PL: Why haven’t there been more albums featuring two “super guitarists”?

TD: Well, it’s nice to do for people who are guitar buffs, and it’s good for the guitar players, but then all of a sudden you’re in a very delicate position. You get into that “jazz” category, where you’re making records that you know are musically this and that and you’re doing something to preserve a tradition that you believe in.

You’re trying to educate the public. Unfortunately, when you’re talking about mass education, you may not be talking about mass tastes.

Song: Key To The Highway

TD: This was influenced by a record that was being done that they heard in the hallway. I had worked with Sam the Sham—Sam Samudio—and Ronnie Hawkins, and we’d done songs like “Key to the Highway” and other traditional, spiritual-type things.

That night, someone was making a tape copy or something in another room, and when we broke, Duane heard it and said “Hey, that’s a great old hymn, it goes like ...” and Eric said “I remember… !” Eric is very deep in American blues lie knows it extremely well, better than a lot of American musicians.

PL: He often treads a very fine line be tween a lead and a rhythm part.

TD: Well, he enjoys playing rhythm more than anything in the world. Most people don’t know what a really excellent rhythm player he is. He’d have a delightful time if nobody ever asked him to play a solo or go “Boo.” Really, he’d be tickled silly.

PL: I’ve always said that you can tell this is a live vocal because of that interplay between the voice and guitar. Also, sometimes a word or two will be off-mike, like he’s moving around.

TD: I think this is live most or all of the blues numbers were. Eric, at that time, was quite insecure about his singing. He didn’t feel he was an adequate vocalist, and he really didn’t want to sing.

Song: Tell The Truth

TD: Tell the Truth! It’s interesting that this version came out as slow as it did, because if you were to hear it now like how he did it on the “Rainbow” album, or how it’s been done by a few other groups they all play it much faster. Duane was really an incredibly sensitive musician. You know, he’d be playing a part and all of a sudden think “What I’m doing is not that significant, so I can just as well take it the hell out and not bother anybody with it,” and he would make room for the people that are playing to play more.

Too often, someone will be playing and they’ll figure “The song is this long, so in here I’ll just play rhythm.” When they think they’re contributing, whatever they’re doing might be tipping some intricate rhythm pattern that exists between two of the other musicians. Sometimes, when you stop doing your part, the best thing you can do is not do anything stay away.

Song: Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?

TD: I met a disc jockey at Rod Stewart’s house last night, and we were just talking about this song. He swears that a recut of this song could be a hit. I never saw the man before in my life! He came up to me and said “You’re Tom Dowd you made the “Layla” album. There’s a song in there…” and he started talking songs. He actually proposed that Rod record it.

We were talking about doing it samba-like or reggae. Rhythmically, you can give this type of song a pattern like “Grapevine” or “Shame Shame Shame” — it’s very easily done. You could put it into a push-one playing double time in the rhythm configuration, even though the chord changes are only playing two bars of cadence inside of one measure of change.

One thing interesting about this song is the flow of words. They deliver them in a unique fashion, so that the words are the percussion “Why-Does-Love-Got-To-Be-So-Sad?”—like a cowbell part or a tambourine part. They’re actually using words to give the illusion of percussion.

Song: Have You Ever Loved A Woman?

PL: When Clapton’s playing the solo live, would he junk an otherwise good lake if the solo didn’t meet his standards, or does he go for the best overall “feel”?

TD: At the outset, if there was a solo that was shaky on Eric’s part, but the track felt good, he’d say “Let’s try some more but save that one.” Two or three days later, the jury would come in and we’d sit down and try to determine whether or not the track could be saved. “Is the solo really that bad, or should we try to do it again?”

This kind of exchange existed among all the people in the band if Whitlock would say “I can do a better organ part,” Eric might say “I liked my solo but I’ll try with you,” and they’d go in and do it again.

PL: Did you ordinarily try to baffle them in such a way that you could re-do the solo?

TD: No. As a result, there were some situations where we did have leakage to the point where we had to scrap takes that we might have saved otherwise. We didn’t go for that “studio-sterile” miking where you could isolate everything be-cause that wasn’t the sound we wanted.

PL: Is he really meticulous about his solo as an overdub? Will he play it ten limes, for example?

TD: Oh yeah, like in that Aretha Franklin tradition. When he hears that solo back and thinks he can do it better, he’ll do it.
He knows.

PL: Does he look for a particular kind of development, or will he try a solo a number of different ways?

TD: When Eric is playing traditional music blues or any kind of “historical” composition it is the spontaneity of the performance that completely determines if it’s used or not. If he believes that his rendition of that song, at that given moment, is what he felt and what he way trying to do, that’s the way it stands.

He would not then go back and alter the solo to make it something he wants it to be now. When Eric writes a song, he knows what kind of solo he wants, he knows what he wants every corner of that song to sound like.

When he’s playing an old blues, he might play something right now that he’s in love with, but a month from now he’d say “I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I did that.” Still, he wouldn’t go back and re-do it because that would be incongruous with what was happening at that time.

PL: On this album, did he do any punching-in - re-doing part of a solo?

TD: No, Eric is not inclined to be fragmentized with his solos. He might on section parts, but not on solos. There might be an awkward gliss that he’d want punched out, but to punch in two bars of something isn’t his nature.

Song: Little Wing

PL: How did this one come to be recorded?

TD: Well, Eric always had a great deal of respect for Jimi Hendrix, and they wanted to try and make a record of that song. Obviously, the recordings he’d made were unique and classics, but they figured that they were up to being able to make one as good. They spent hours preparing this.

Jimi was a dynamic human being who made some great contributions. I just don’t think we ever got to the meat of Jimi Hendrix, we just got all the sparks. We never really got into what he was all about.

PL: You never recorded Jimi Hendrix, did you?

TD: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did, before he became the Jimi Hendrix of reputation. That Jimi Hendrix played guitar in a band for King Curtis along with Cornell Dupree. Jimi was the second guitar player. He also played with the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. I knew him then as a guitar player who had some most unusual ideas and fantastic ability. It was just a matter of when it was going to happen. He was going to do something, that was for sure.

PL: This is the only place on the album that really says “studio effect” – that delay off the lead guitar.

TD: Yes, that should be a 7 1/2 tape delay. It was done in the mix.

PL: How much did Clapton participate in the mixing? Would he move the faders?

TD: No, he’d just sit there and listen, and nod approval or protest.

PL: Does he ever ask for a definite sound? Would he say “I want a delay off my guitar” or “Compress the middle eight”?

TD: No, he wouldn’t use terms like that, but he’d say “I want it to sound more “hall like” or “I want it to repeat.” Then we’d put on some slap-back and adjust the speed on it to where it fits with the feeling that he has.

Song: It’s Too Late

TD: This was done by Chuck Willis originally. Back about 1956, Chuck Willis was a very popular singer. At that time, the music was called Stroll, and he was “The King of the Stroll.”

Last year when we did “461 Ocean Boulevard,” Eric and Carl asked me if I could get them any Chuck Willis records, and I went back into the Atlantic archives and had tape copies made of everything we ever recorded on Chuck Willis and gave them a set. I think that’s Eric on a Telecaster. You know, he doesn’t really play hard, I mean physically. He doesn’t attack an instrument he’s delicate. He’s got a very light touch and he uses very light gauge strings.

One day, we were kidding with someone and the guy picked up Eric’s guitar and played a few chords, and all of a sudden, two strings came undone. He looked at him and said “My God, why do you use such light strings?” and Eric said “They’re not light to me.”

Song: Layla

PL: You rolled off a lot of bottom on these guitars, didn’t you?

TD: Yeah, you had to. Because of the number of guitars, the complexity of what they’re playing, and with the exception of one, that they’re all voiced the same. You get a confusion, especially with echo chambers, down in the low strings, so it might be that you’ll want to roll off the lows in that portion that is going to the echo chamber, so that the chamber doesn’t over-confuse.

PL: Was this tune originally intended to be the album’s central track?

TD: Yes. It was based on a personal experience Eric was having around that lime. This and “Bell Bottom Blues” had some significant meaning for him.

PL: Was the ending written separately?

TD: Yes, it was. From the time we started recording “Layla” until the time we got that whole first part done, Jim Gordon and Bobby Whitlock had been talking about a part that could possibly be added onto the end of it. It was to be a concerto-type theme. Jim wrote the part, but we could never put it in with the guitars and the organ. It just never fit the track, and we abandoned it.

Finally, when the first part was all done and we were listening to it, Jim said “Let me go in and play the piano part on it right now,” so we played the tape and set the mood up for him, and when the track came to an end, we punched in on an adjacent machine and Jim continued right in the tradition that he’d been saying it should be done all along.

Then we backed up the tape and added the other parts. We could never do it on the fly - it just never materialized, no matter how many times we tried it, until the song was done.

PL: I’d always thought that last little sound was a whistle with a tape delay, but a friend told me it’s Duane Allman doing something strange on his guitar.

TD: He’s right. Eric showed Duane how to get the harmonics way up at the top of the neck. Duane did it. but not with a steel bottleneck. He was using one of those little coffee creamer jars. Remember you used to get cream in a jar in restaurants, and it would be in a small bottle? We used to go into coffee shops and truck stops and snitch a couple.

Song: Thorn Tree In The Garden

TD: This is interesting. It was done directly to quarter-inch tape. Bobby, Eric, and Duane are playing guitars and Carl is playing bass all seated around two microphones. It was a real stereo recording. The microphones were omnidirectional, and if I recall, were about nine inches apart. I just had them sit around them, did a little adjustment, and it was made in like two or three passes. Live vocal, everything.

That was the ideal opportunity to make, in the true sense of the word, a stereo recording. If you were to listen to this on earphones, it would be grossly different from things where you’d have five or six mikes going, crossfading,and mixing and all.

PL: What was your first contact with Cream?

TD: Very simple. At the time I was doing a lot of work for Stax, Ahmet was going to Europe and got interested in a lot of English acts. One of the acts that he was deeply interested in and you could understand why, he being into jazz and so forth was Cream. To him they were representative of a new breed, a new form of jazz. It was akin to blues but not blues, akin to jazz but not jazz, and he was tremendously impressed by them.

Of course, he was also aware of the groups that each one of them had come from, and here was an opportunity to get all of them into one group. He made a deal with RSO Robert Satinwood — for the rights to the group in the United States.

Anyway, they were over here on tour as part of a package, and Ahmet called me up one day and said “There’s this fine English group that’s currently on tour, and they’re going to finish the tour in the next few days and we should make an album with them before they go back.” It was like that you had to grab them before their work permits expired and they had to leave the country!

For the first album, the equipment arrived on a Thursday, they walked in on a Friday, played the numbers they had been playing on tour, and on Sunday the limousines came right to the studio and took them to the airport. That was it. That was how I met them.

PL: Let’s talk about “Disraeli Gears.” I’ve always called it “the album that introduced ‘lead guitar’ to the American audience.”

TD: Yeah, I know what you mean. It was threatening to happen for a long time it was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time. You’re always close, but some times you get luckier than other times, that’s all. It was not an “endeavor” it was just that was what we had to go with, we believed in it, and we did it.

PL: I would imagine that you are significantly responsible for Jack Bruce’s recorded bass sound. What did you do to get it?

TD: Well, there was a big problem that I had recording them, especially on the first album. All of their equipment was 50 cycles/220 volts, which is the European standard. When they had done their concert tours, they had transformers stepping up and stepping down, so that they never had to alter their Marshalls.

They had original English Marshalls and that’s the way they traveled. When they got to my studio, we had none of this step-up and step-down equipment. This was at Atlantic Records in New York ,11 West 60th Street. Being that it was a weekend, we had limited access to transformers and things that could correct some of the problems and so we had some very unusual power factors working.

They were playing under hardship and I was recording under hardship because none of the equipment was really running the way it was designed to run. That’s the truth! Their amplifiers were tube, and running in this unorthodox fashion, they were heating up continually.

They were physically heating up and we’d have to stop every once in a while to let them cool down. It was not just a matter of air circulation, either we were absolutely abusing some of the electronics, and as a result, it altered the sounds. It altered the sounds considerably.

PL: So was the bass taken only as an amplified channel?

TD: No. I had mike and direct running simultaneously on Eric and Jack in the studio.

PL: Were the miked and direct channels combined at the time of recording, or did you take each one down on a separate track?

TD: I took them down on two tracks. Sometimes, though, when we had to back up for a lot of overdubs, the luxury of two bass tracks was gone and we had to start combining them.

PL: When you were recording “Sunshine of Your Love,” did you suspect that it would be such a classic—the first real “hard rock” single?

TD: Yeah, I believed in the song intensely. If I remember, Ginger was playing almost Indian-type drums, emphasizing the back-beat. Everything else had a complete downbeat influence. I know that it took about an hour for the dust to settle after I suggested we get downbeat-happy instead of backbeat-happy. They played it for the tape once or twice, and when I played it back to them, they realized that it accented just what they wanted and then away we went.

PL: I read somewhere where Clapton said that on “Sunshine” and “Strange Brew” there were no effects on his guitar - just his Les Paul through a Marshall with everything at 10. Is this true?

TD: Yep. You couldn’t stay in the room when he was playing. It was a gold and brown Les Paul. I remember the guitar.

PL: Were you in on the editing to the single version of “Sunshine of Your Love”?

TD: Oh yeah.

PL: You slowed it down a percent, or so, didn’t you? It’s noticeably slower.

TD: I could imagine that it might be slower, but it was not intentional. I did edit it, yes. You know, I enjoy making records the way the artist likes lo do it, but when I put on that “record company” hat and when you want to get it on the air . . .

PL: So you took out that riff one out of every two times.

TD: Exactly. I become a monster, I become a policeman! I’ll sit down and notate the arrangement and say “This goes, that goes, you said that lyric once already, forget it, zap, zap, zap.”

PL: How about the “crowd noises” on “Take It Back “? Was that an overdub, or were you actually miking the control room while the basic track was being recorded?

TD: Well, initially when we recorded Cream, it was just the three of them and their roadies and myself. Then came Felix, and by the time we got into the “Wheels of Fire” album, when Cream showed up it would be with Janis Joplin and everyone else!

Every once in a while, you’d be aware that those people had an influence they were really contributing to what was going on. For example, when you’d play something back, they’d jump up and say “Hey, that’s great!” or “Why don’t you try this?!” you know, you get that enthusiasm. For “Take It Back,” we thought “Maybe we could use that.”

PL: How did you actually record them?

TD: We sent them into the studio and put the track on loudspeakers. I said “Hey, you like it so much, let me play it back to you and you can make some noise.” I guess there were about 15 or 20 people out there.

PL: How about “Mother’s Lament”? How did you come to record that?

TD: With Cream, there were times when the tension used to be very high, when they were very serious about what they were doing. Ginger might be saying “You’re playing so well and the part I’m playing is terrible, and I’d like to do it again except that I wouldn’t want to do it again if you didn’t think that you could play as well ...” that sort of thing.

Now the day this happened was just the opposite we were all very jovial. We were sitting around listening to some quarter-inch roughs we had done, when somehow or other we got talking about English music halls. We were talking about some of the things you used to see on the English stage the comedians and the pub scenes and so forth and Ginger just sat back and recited this little ditty.

I completely busted up! I said “We have to put that in the album.” I thought it would be great with all those other heavy things going by. They said “Great idea,” ran out into the studio, and made a pass at it, and boom. That was “Mother’s Lament.”

PL: I wanted to ask you about the live Cream dates you recorded.

TD: Well, the first live dates I did with them were for the “Wheels of Fire” album. They wanted to make it a two- pocket album, with part of it live and part of it studio. We wanted to be able to get enough things in the live recordings that weren’t on any albums and still have one or two live versions of songs that had appeared before. If I recall, we did three-nights of recording for “Wheels of Fire” two nights at the Fillmore and one at Winterland, or maybe it was the other way around.

PL: Were those gigs supposed to be the “high points ” of the tour?

TD: They might have been, I don’t know. I think that really it was another case where they had to leave the country soon.

PL: What track tape did you use?

TD: 8-track.

PL: How were the tracks allocated?

TD: Well, for the live stuff we could really cheat. We had two tracks for the audience, a vocal for Jack and a vocal for Eric, and then a bass track and a guitar track. What we would sometimes do is drop the guitars onto the audience mikes, so we got them from the amps and distant. We get into cutie little stunts like that.

The drums were recorded on two tracks. It might have been three we might have folded the two vocals together one night and not on the next, I don’t know. For the most part, though, I think Ginger was recorded on two tracks.

PL: What procedure would you go through in recording a live performance? Suppose I call you up and say “Tom I want you to come down to the Fillmore and record a Cream gig.” What do you do from then on?

TD: First I go about finding out what the best remote truck is. Then you find out about the crew. Your crew is really important — they’re a living, breathing part of the whole operation. They shouldn’t be out there running microphones all over the place, but should be operating with a definite plan.

For Cream, I used Wally Heider Recording and Bill Halverson, both of whom I used to use quite a lot when I was recording in California. Knowing what Cream was like in the studio, I could imagine how much more bizarre they might gel on stage, and so I figured I’d better give Bill some preparation.

I gave him diagrams and sent him notes, telling him how I got the way it sounds on disc. I’d note to him the microphones I used and the distances really, “...this kind of mike that far away…” and so on. By that time, I had evolved a classic sound pattern whatever that means for Cream. It was just the way I saw them, having Ginger spread with multi-miking, and then Jack and Eric going mad on the sides.

We got a very heavy, ominous-sounding record going. I wasn’t saying to Bill that he should use these same mikes, I was just telling him what I’d done to get that sound. The intent was to get the group like they sound on disc and live at the same time.

Bill did a great deal of homework for these dates he probably spent a week or two taking the things apart. He’s a very conscientious chap. I sent him some 8 track out-takes so that he could listen to the individual tracks, then I sent him some rough mixes so he could sec it at that stage, then the records, and so on.

We spoke on the phone about everything! By the time I finally walked into the Fillmore for the first recording, it was all set up. You know, there might have been some miking that was different from the way I’d done it, but when the group was playing and I went back into the truck. Bill had it covered. It was clean, it was virile.

The next major thing I do for a live recording is check out the hall. One of the biggest problems is always the acoustics of the place where you’ll be recording. You get into what are now theaters motion picture houses that are carpeted and with velour upholstery on the chairs and so forth, and these rooms are heavy and dead to play in even when they’re empty.

When you take a sound check in a room like that, all you can do is make sure that the microphones are working. You can’t really evaluate the sound until you get all the people in there.

PL: So you have a limited amount of time in which to get the miking straightened out.

TD: Right, sometimes you have to make a very quick guess. If it’s an upholstered room, it’s going to call for a more spatial type recording. This is as opposed to a live, reverberant room where you’ll want very tight, close-up recording, because the ambience in the room is going to be coming down all the up-front mikes anyway.

With a dead room, you can back off and let everything breathe more, because there’s so little ambience. If you didn’t, it would sound like it was done in a studio instead of a concert hall.

The stage set-up for live recordings at the Fillmore West and Winterland of Cream during their Summer 1968 U.S. tour (excerpts from which appear on disc in “Wheels of Fire” and “Live Cream Volume II”).

Said Bill Halverson: “This was the second remote recording I had ever done. It was very unsophisticated back then—‘The Stone Age of Live Recording’—and no one had really done any remotes, at least not of rock n’ roll. At that time, I didn’t like rock & roll, but when I heard these guys stretch out like some new sort of jazz group, I was very impressed.

Live recording setup. Click to enlarge.

“The original Fillmore was a nice hall to record in. Even though it wasn’t that big, it had a very live quality. That and the short delay time made it like recording in a huge living room. At Winterland, we used pretty much the same set-up.

“For the Cream performances, we used a little 12-position rotary console that had a left, a middle, and a right. It had a 3 and 6 at 100 and 7500—that was all the EQ that was on there. I only had room for the vocals and drums through the board. Everything else I ran through Ampex mixers, padded way, way down.

“For the miking, I used what were then Shure 546s on almost everything, which is absurd. We used them because that’s what Heider’s happened to have at the time — that and three Electro-Voices, which I couldn’t stand. I also used two Sony C-28s—an old tube model—for the audience. They were positioned right at the edges of the stage, usually pointing at the center of the back of the hall. We used three more C-28s as overheads for Ginger.

“This was the first time that I had ever recorded Marshalls. The key to recording them is that you put the microphone right in the middle of the four speakers — anywhere else and it’ll blow the poor microphone’s brains out.  You keep it in really tight — about three inches away. This way, it doesn’t have any sound coming directly at it and it’s surrounded by a “wall” of sound which blocks out all the leakage from the drums. That was really important because there was often only a foot between the amps and the drums.”

Take the PSW Photo Gallery Tour of audio equipment ads appearing in RE/P magazine, circa 1970.

Our sincere thanks to Mark Gander of JBL Professional for his considerable support on this archive project.

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RE/P Files: An Interview With Producer/Engineer Tom Dowd