R.I.P. Dave Davis, A Behind-the-Scenes Cincinnati Music Legend

Davis’ masterful work as the mastering engineer behind countless recordings in Cincinnati and beyond made him a crucial force behind what our city sounds like

Nov 7, 2018 at 11:23 am
click to enlarge Dave Davis - Photo: gofundme.com/help-for-dave-davis
Photo: gofundme.com/help-for-dave-davis
Dave Davis

When late 19th-/early 20th-century music from Greater Cincinnati is discovered by future generations, it will be through the recordings made by the artists of our time. And when listeners are experiencing the best of the era, there is almost no chance they won’t hear at least a little of the work of Dave Davis, who mastered hundreds of recordings by area musical acts and was a key part of the “sound of Cincinnati” over the past several decades.

The longtime recording and mastering engineer died on Nov. 3 from injuries sustained in a car accident on Oct. 26. He was 57.

Since his passing, there has been an outpouring a grief online, but also a huge show of appreciation for just having known Davis as a friend and colleague, pointing out just how much he touched and influenced people in the city. He was seen as a mentor by many. Local musicians have been talking about what his support meant to them when they worked with him on their “rekkits” (as he liked to call records), and fellow recording professionals have been expressing their admiration for Davis, who also taught at DAAP and CCM at the University of Cincinnati.

Davis worked with local recording institutions like QCA, Sound Images and Ultrasuede recording studio, which he co-founded in the mid-’80s with John Curley, bassist for The Afghan Whigs. As Curley and singer/songwriter Greg Dulli wrote on social media this past weekend, Davis was key to the origin story of the Whigs. He was Dulli’s first roommate when he started at the University of Cincinnati in the ’80s.

I knew nothing. He taught me how to play guitar and make Chinese food. He introduced me to punk rock and jazz. He showed me how to make movies and paint,” Dulli wrote.

Davis also introduced Dulli to another of his new friends, Curley, who also wrote a beautiful tribute to Dave on the Whigs’ Facebook page (read it in full here).

“As I think about our friendship and professional relationship, I’m struck by the fact that most of what Dave did was motivated by a desire to help others,” Curley wrote. “I’m not entirely sure he was aware of it, or would admit to it, if he did know. It’s part of what made him such a good engineer, partner and friend.”

Davis had some of the best ears in the business, his specialty being mastering. It’s a difficult specialty to explain — it’s basically the last step in the recording process, a kind of finalizing that makes the end product sound great after all of the recording and mixing is finished. Musicians and other recording pros know when someone is especially good at mastering and Dave Davis certainly had that reputation. He was a “go to” mastering master that was widely trusted, the kind of professional you’d turn your tapes or files over to and just let them do their work.

Davis mastered projects big and small, from local self-released efforts to national releases on various record labels. You can find a “partial list” of his mastering credits on Discogs and Allmusic.com. They include albums by Ass Ponys, BPA, Caterpillar Tracks, Twilight Singers, The Bears, Chris Arduser, Rob Fetters, Freekbass, Electric Citizen, The Greenhornes, The Mortals, Roundhead, Robert Pollard, Guided By Voices, Barrence Whitefield and the Savages, The Customs, Radiolaria, Viva La Foxx, The Seedy Seeds, Shesus, Ruckus Roboticus, The Sundresses, The Tigerlilies, Wussy, Culture Queer, The Fairmount Girls, Bombthreat, Midnight Star, Heartless Bastards and many, many others.

Local engineer Brian Niesz (another longtime friend and colleague of Davis’) compiled a great Spotify playlist of albums mastered by Davis.

Davis was also a forward thinker, way ahead of the curve when in came to the technological potential of recording and releasing music, from the multimedia possibilities of releases to live streaming and beyond. He worked to advance those ideals on a local level with his involvement with projects like The All Night Party and MuisicLi, which helped empower local musicians by getting them paid through licensing or other projects.

One thing I’ve noticed amongst the remembrances of Dave is how many talents he had that some who knew him seemed unaware of. Writing, I'm glad I discovered firsthand, was one of those many perhaps lesser-known skills he possessed. About a decade ago, Dave approached me about doing a column for CityBeat about technology and the advancements in music distribution. He’d previously participated in a CityBeat feature called “The Record That Changed My Life.” His description of Gang of Four’s Entertainment! album was eloquent and smart and I knew Dave was deeply knowledgeable about music, sound, technology and distribution, so we gave it a shot.

It was called “Distribution Revolution.” We had a hard time coming up with a title for the column, and that was something I’d thrown out; it’s pretty bad, but Dave politely allowed it because we needed something and ran out of time. I think between each other we called it DistroRevo, which sounded way less embarrassing. I’m sure he came up with that shorthand; it’s very “rekkit”-like.

Dave’s columns were ambitious, thoughtful and thoroughly informative, somehow both technical and philosophical. He knew which buttons to press, but also thought (and wrote) in terms of the "big picture." I’d always have to spend time getting them into a manageable length and trying to keep them focused, mostly because the topics were over my head, but also because Dave was very verbose and excited about what he was writing about. But it was always worth the effort. Looking back on the columns now, I understand them even better, because his 2007 musings on things like music subscriptions and multimedia content are now commonplace. He was well ahead of the rest of us on such matters and probably should have been on the board of Apple Music or Spotify. Here he writes about Amazon getting into the digital music-selling biz; here he talks about Radiohead’s “pay what you want” experiment with In Rainbows; and here he talks about capitalism, internet radio and podcasts. In hindsight, I wish I could’ve spent more time with Dave hashing these ideas out more; I wish I’d been a better editor. Still, they are brilliant and fascinating documents worthy of a time capsule and show Dave to be a thought leader on the topics of music and tech.

You can go through all of the DistroRevo columns here.

I think my last interaction with Dave was on Facebook a couple of years ago. In our election endorsements, CityBeat had recommended voting no on a marijuana issue on the ballot that year and Dave disagreed. Strongly. A staunch liberal, Dave pulled zero punches when it came to politics. After our endorsement came out, he'd written something nasty about it and us, and while it wasn't that I disagreed with his support of the particular issue, I felt he'd been a little over-the-top in the vitriol slung at the paper. I probably shouldn't have, but I impulsively typed a meek reply, like, "Hey, that's not fair, it's at least a thoughtful and well-explained stand on the position," and Dave seemed to feel bad. While others were piling on CityBeat in his mentions, he clarified his position and came to our defense; he still felt strongly that the marijuana initiative should be passed, but he made a point of noting that CityBeat was an "ally" and was otherwise spot-on with our endorsements and said some other nice things about us (while noting we were still wrong about the pot stuff). He didn't have to, but he knew some of us at the paper personally and could sense some hurt in my reply. It's a good memory for me because, in this day and age, who apologizes for being nasty about politics on the internet? It showed the kindness and empathy at the core of Dave's personality.

A GoFundMe page was started to assist Dave with medical bills when he first went into the hospital. You can still donate to help his wife and family out here.