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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"...
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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.

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