Some Reasons Why Engineer Tom Dowd Is A Legend

There are a few “godfathers” of the modern recording industry – Bruce Swedien, Al Schmitt and Bill Putnam all immediately come to mind as they transcended different eras of music. Engineer/producer Tom Dowd certainly falls into this category as well, with the added gravitas of being one of the physicists that actually worked on the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb during World War II. American Songwriter recently posted a great article called “5 Fascinating Facts About Tom Dowd” that shows how much he influenced music today, but I’ll add a couple of extra things that I know about him too.

Legendary engineer-producer Tom Dowd

Tom came from a musical family and was a musician himself, but during his studies in physics at Columbia University he was pulled into the Manhattan Project program because of the agreement that Columbia had with the government. After the war ended, he wanted to return to Columbia to complete his degree, but the university wouldn’t recognize his work with the government, and since it was more advanced than what the school was offering at the time, he decided it was useless for him to continue.

In The Studio

After a stint at a classical recording studio, Tom was hired as a staff engineer at the fledgling Atlantic Records, where the first hit he recorded was Eileen Barton’s “If I Knew You Were Coming I’dve Baked A Cake” in 1950. He went on to record the many jazz greats of the day including John Coltrane, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. What’s more, he recorded Bobby Darin’s most famous song “Mack The Knife” as well as Ray Charles “What I Say,” songs that have gone on to become classics.

When Atlantic began getting into R&B and then rock, Tom was there to produce acts like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, then move on to Cream, Eric Clapton, Lynrd Skynrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Rod Stewart, and many more.


Tom was an early proponent of stereo recording, led the change to 8 and then 16 track recording, and is said to have invented the fader level control, something that we all take for granted today.

You can read some other very cool things about him in the American Songwriter article, but a couple of stories that were told to me by engineers that worked for him when he produced stick in my brain.

For one, he could get a mix going without actually listening to the music just by looking at the meter level of each mix element. The other is that he had no fear of pulling all the faders down and starting again from scratch if he didn’t like where the mix was headed. I try to impart variations of each of these themes to my mixing students today.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants when it comes to working in the modern studio today. The giants stood on Tom Dowd’s shoulders.

There’s an excellent award-winning documentary on his life called “Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music” that’s well-worth the watch.

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