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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"...

By Paul Laurence February 27, 2019

An illustration that accompanied this article in RE/P.

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.

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