I hope you’re doing marvellously well and getting ready for the spoils of the holiday season.
Today, I want to share the story of blind producer and musician Mark Dowdy with you. Mark has almost completely lost his sight at an early age and had to learn to rely on his ears and the sounds around him. That’s how he discovered his passion for music.
He tells us about his career as a producer and musician, how he overcame countless obstacles and managed to make a living from what he loves.
Mark’s story is so interesting, because it gives us a completely new perspective on music and sound. I also love his story because it teaches us to be grateful for the things we have in life and never give up in perusing our dreams. If there are obstacles, we can find a workarounds and ways to overcome them. Just like Mark Dowdy.
I hope you enjoy this blog. Take it away Mark, thanks for sharing your story with us!
I was 38 years old, and I had never seen my wife and children in detail. Having spent most of my life visually with only light/dark and color perception, I was about to undergo a procedure that would have the potential to change my life dramatically. It was a bright, crisp September day in 2003 when we went to the Emory Eye Clinic in Atlanta, Georgia for the surgery to replace my clouded cornea in my left eye with a young healthy one. I was nervous, but at the same time at peace with the decision to try the surgery that could possibly take what little vision I had, or open up a whole new world for me.
I was born with corneal opacities in both eyes, and by age ten, had undergone 13 operations to try and give me sight. Most of these operations were cornea transplants, which my body rejected before I even left the hospital. At age eight, I had a groundbreaking procedure called a Kerotoprosthesis, at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, but even the vision I gained from that was soon lost to a detached retina from a hard hit in a playground accident.
Now that I’ve given you a little background, I’d like to open the door into a world that to some seemed impossible, to others fascinating, but to me just seemed normal. Ever since I was a small boy, I have always been captivated by the sounds around me. In many of those seemingly mundane sounds, I heard musicality. I started listening to music at an early age, paying attention to the different instruments I heard. When I was 6 years old, I began guitar lessons. My hand was too small at that point to fit around the neck, but I stuck with it, and learned quickly. Early on I began to experiment with drums and keyboard and became proficient on those instruments as well. I was discovering my singing voice also during these years, and began to get various opportunities to sing and play at events, county fairs, and even some TV shows.
I did have other interests besides music, and was very involved in our Boy Scout troop, which was run more like a small military operation. I became an Eagle Scout at age 15, the first blind Eagle Scout in the state of Georgia. I got to spend the day with the Governor and was also named one of the top 10 scouts in America that year.
Also at age 15, I started playing in my first rock band. One of my band mates had a relative, Bobby Wood, who was in the music business in Nashville. Bobby wrote “Talkin’ In Your Sleep,” among many other hits. He was also a well-known studio musician. He heard me singing and playing the piano over the phone one evening as he was talking with my friend’s mother. (This was when the phone hung on the wall in the kitchen!) He asked to talk to me, and after some conversation, suggested I go to a studio in Atlanta and make a demo of four or five songs, and bring them to him when I got finished. The arrangements were made for a recording session at Webb 4 Studios. The engineer for the day was Tommy Cooper, who would become a great friend and mentor over the years. Tommy had recorded some of the greats of the day, such as Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Melissa Manchester, Paul Davis, and many more. Tommy also acted as the producer as well as engineer for my session. The musicians were in place, and after going around and meeting each of them, we got down to business. I sang, and played piano on these particular songs. I remember thinking how cool it was hearing everything coming through the headphones, and was blown away with the reverb on my voice that was coming from an EMT 250 plate. After tracking, we went into the control room to hear the playback on the Sphere Eclipse, and Tommy instructed me to sit next to him at the console, in the “sweet spot.” He hit the playback button, and I was hooked. I knew from that moment, the recording studio would play a big part in my life.
After that experience, I had several opportunities that came my way to facilitate sessions at that same studio, with Tommy as the engineer. I lined up musicians and even helped with some preproduction before going into the studio. While we were in these recording sessions, I found myself being called on for various things including helping with song arrangements, and contributing some mix ideas. I had no idea at that point these were things that a producer did. As things progressed, I had the privilege of working on my own project as an artist, with renowned producer Billy Strange. Billy was an original member of the LA session players known as “The Wrecking Crew,” and had done so many things in the music business. He was responsible for the guitar sound of the Beach Boys, and played the famous guitar line on the James Bond theme music. Billy wrote, “A Little Less Conversation,” and “Limbo Rock.” He arranged and conducted for Elvis Presley, and many others.
It was during my time and experiences with Billy that I decided I wanted to be a producer. I started with an 8 track reel to reel and a small mixer in my parents’ basement. I began developing my skill as a recording engineer, recording anything I could just for the experience. If a friend needed a demo done, I was there to do it. If someone needed to do a college audition tape, no problem. It was also during this time I began writing songs, and making my own demos as well. One thing that I had to master with my visual impairment was levels. I could not see the meters very well at all, so learned to listen rather than rely on the meters. During this time I sent one of my demos to a publisher. He wanted to know who had recorded it. I told him I had. He asked how I did that, because the levels were perfect. I said I really didn’t know, other that just listening and doing what my ears told me. Tommy Cooper was an instructor at Atlanta Music Business Institute and I did some coursework with him, although I never attended classes in Atlanta. I would study the material, do the work, and send my mixes to Tommy for him to evaluate. It gave me valuable feedback and helped me to learn what I was doing.
Not long after I got my own set up, I started getting opportunities to produce bigger sessions. I felt like the time was right to build my own studio. With the help of my parents, this dream became a reality. We built a 16-track studio with a TAC Scorpion Console. We had a lot of great gear of the day including a Yamaha REV7 and a Lexicon PCM 70. Even with my limited vision, it became second nature to program digital reverbs, delays, etc. It involved a lot of memorization of menus, so I would know how many “clicks” of a particular knob it would take to get to what I wanted.
One tricky thing in the studio for me was splicing tape. I knew I had to learn to do it independently. Using a grease pencil just didn’t work for me, and I developed a technique of my own. I played the tape back multiple times to make sure of the place I wanted to cut. I then pulled the tape away from the repro head, made a crease, then put the tape in the splicing block to make the cut. This way I had the tactile input to know where to cut. And just in case you are wondering, no, I never cut my fingers with the razor blade while splicing tape.
As the projects got bigger, there were times I went to Nashville and other studios to work. Depending on the budget, I might have to be one of the players, or even be the engineer, as well as the producer, in a different setting than my own studio. This was sometimes intimidating and overwhelming, but here again, I found adaptations that helped me accomplish everything that needed to be done. There were some great assistant engineers who were very accommodating, and helped me become familiar with boards and equipment. One of the obstacles with using the analog recording desks, was knowing where “flat,” or 12 o’clock was located on AUX sends, pan knobs, etc. It was in one of these situations I recalled something that Tommy Cooper did for me while I was playing on an earlier session. He was running my keyboard sub mix through an 1176, and I needed to have a quick reference for the gain setting. I was making some volume changes while playing, and I needed to know how much headroom I had. Tommy placed a piece of the narrow blue tape we used to use when storing reel to reels at the 12 o’clock position, on the gain knob. That assured I always knew how to get back to that point. So, I did the same thing on the recording console. It worked like a charm.
Things got a bit more tricky when I was introduced to automation, and had to deal with a computer. In the early 90s, there were of course no talking computers, and automation did not yet work with screen magnification. I worked with the assistant engineers, and used labels on various shortcut keys on the computer. I also had to quickly memorize certain key commands. I came up with a system of memorizing how many times I might have to step through certain menus to get the desired function. This worked on everything from GML automation, flying faders, to SSL.
In the 1990s, in our studio we decided to get rid of our analog machines, and go digital with ADATs. Some of the operations were much like the tape-based platform I had used, especially dealing with the auto locater. Learning this new platform required the same technique of memorization of menus that I had used previously.
The 1990s and early 2000s were a prolific time in the studio for me. Some budgets were quite large, but then on the smaller projects I sometimes did everything, from playing all the instruments, to engineering, producing vocals, and mixing. During this time I worked with varied artists and genres, such as the great Fernando Aragon (formerly with Santana), and Cyndi Thomson, whom I helped discover, and who went on to sign a deal with Capitol records. I also had the chance to work with my good friend, gospel great, Babbie Mason, as well as the Jazz fusion group, Pruitt Davis quintet (David Ragsdale of Kansas was in this group). This was a great season in my career, but little did I know big changes were on the way. I had dreamed of making the jump to a hard disk recording system of some kind, but I always felt this might be the end of the line for my audio engineering career. I thought with these systems being screen based, it would be next to impossible for me to use them.
About this same time in 2003, I began to be curious about any advancements that might increase my vision. I was referred through a friend who was an ophthalmologist to the Emory Eye Clinic. At age 37, I received a diagnosis that I had waited all my life to receive. I was missing the layer of stem cells that cause the cornea to develop. I had to go through a battery of tests to see if my left eye was viable enough to go through a stem cell implant and then the cornea transplant. When it was determined that I was in fact a candidate for the surgeries, my wife and I took about a month to think and pray about what we should do. We both felt a sense of peace about proceeding with the operations. I first had to be on a large quantity of anti-rejection drugs, which made me feel terrible for quite a while. The first operation was done in April 2003 and was successful, with the healing taking place even more quickly than the doctors anticipated. If the first operation had not been successful, there would have been no need to have the second surgery, the cornea transplant. There was no rejection of the stem cells, so the transplant was scheduled for September. As we waited in the exam room the day after the surgery for the bandage to come off, I had no idea what to expect. I did have an inkling that the surgery would at least have some benefit, because even through the bandage, I was detecting a significant amount of light. After the bandage was removed, I thought something had gone wrong because I saw what I would describe as stars and dots. We determined later that I had so much new input coming into my eye, that my brain was overwhelmed. I was sure in that moment, though, that something had gone wrong. The technician who had removed the bandage calmly told me to focus on something I knew. I held two fingers up in front of my face, and as my fingers came into focus, things began to make sense. I looked at the black desk and saw the white prescription pad on it. I looked across the room and was able to see the light switch. I saw my wife across the room, although I could not see the details of her face. It had worked!
And so I began the process of what I would call “learning to see.” There were times, initially, when I just had to close my eyes because the input was so overwhelming. Even though the transplant gave me a great deal of functional vision, I still need the help of magnification and other aids. I was, however, able to transition to the “Pro Tools” system, and was soon navigating around it quite well; something I never could have done pre-surgery. I started off learning basic tasks, such as adding tracks, adding plug-ins, mixing, etc. I have always been a big believer in learning what you need to know at the time, and not trying to learn everything all at once. This philosophy is part of what has helped me overcome many obstacles and challenges in my life and career, just taking things one step at a time. In these years following the surgery, I have done everything from scoring a short film, to co-writing a companion song for the best selling book, “Fearless,” by Eric Blehm, to working on a string of artist development projects. In the last couple of years, I have begun to focus more on mixing, and turning my attention to mixing outside projects. I love to mix, and have said for a long time I will produce the project just to get to mix it!
The doctors have told me that it is highly unusual for a cornea transplant to last 10 years, and it has been 13 years and counting. I am thankful each day, and each year that passes, for this incredible gift. I’m thankful for the privilege I have had both before and after the surgery, to make a living doing something I love, making music.
Have a marvellous time recording and mixing and enjoy your time with your friends and family.