By Walter Carter
For Boston's most recent CD, Corporate America, Tom Scholz and his bandmates created a collection of thoroughly contemporary music, but the recording technology was decidedly un-contemporary. Scholz did not update, modernize or in any way mess with the classic sound from "More Than a Feeling" (1976) or "Don't Look Back" (1978), and that meant recording the new Boston just like the old Boston – on tape. Magnetic recording tape.
That's right, the electronics whiz with the Masters degree in engineering from MIT, the inventor of the Rockman over two dozen patented designs, refuses to enter the digital age. It's not because Scholz wants to be old-fashioned, though. It's because he can't work as efficiently (keeping in mind that he typically spends four years making an album) and, most important, he simply can't get the signature Boston sound using new technology.
Scholz has a number of axes to grind with digital, ranging from time between failures to hand-and-mouse movements to lack of phase cancellation when double-tracking parts. Scholz's full-blown discussion is at the end of this interview. To jump there, click here.
Another element of the Boston sound that has remained unchanged from the early days is the presence of Gibson guitars. Current guitarist Anthony Cosmo plays a Les Paul Standard and a J-45 acoustic. And Scholz, not surprisingly, plays the same Les Paul Deluxe goldtops that he has played since the beginning of Boston. "I use two 1968 Deluxes that are very unusual. It's one of the craziest stories of all time when it comes to buying guitars. I had a chance to pick up a Les Paul that I had heard played and liked about 30 years ago. I grabbed it. When I got this thing, the neck was much larger than other Les Pauls that I had played. I thought it was just me. It took me a while to get used to it, and then I did. You get to be a decent guitar player using this '68 Les Paul. Then the Boston record comes out and we're on tour. I stumbled on another goldtop in a music store in a used rack for 350 bucks. The first one I bought for 300 bucks. I brought it home, and it sounded a lot like my other goldtop and felt the same.
"Several years later I had to pick up a guitar on the road, I needed a second guitar on tour, and they brought me a beautiful sunburst Les Paul, and the neck was completely different. I said, 'There's something wrong with this neck. It's not a real Les Paul.' I went to the store and they're all like that. What is going on here? I bought two guitars, both used. How could they be the only two? Apparently they only put that neck on the goldtop in '68 for about six months. Somehow I got two of them. And it's the only two I'd purchased in ten years.
"I have played a couple of real nice expensive '57 Reissues and the neck is exactly the same. That's all I own and that's all I can play. I got used to the big neck. I wonder if that has something to do with the sound."
Along the way, Scholz replaced three of the four original "soapbar" single-coil pickups with humbuckers. "I used these onstage and the lighting systems were so nasty," he explained. "It was a shame to do it, because those big old single-coils sound so fat and nice. It still sounds great. I'm still using the humbucking pickups I put in it. They're about 25 years old. I take them both out (on the road). I wouldn't want to have to find a couple more."
One more key to the classic Boston sound is Rockman processing and amplification equipment. Developed by Scholz as a mini guitar amp to be played through headphones, the Rockman grew into an entire company. "I sold the business," he said, "but I kept enough of the gear to equip the entire band, hopefully forever. We're always looking to buy back various pieces. Almost every piece up there is a Rockman device. And a lot in the studio is also. The only way we're able to perform those Boston songs onstage is with that Rockman stage equipment.
"I've got to say they sound awesome with Gibson guitars," he added "All of that Rockman stuff was designed specifically for Gibson guitars. That was all we had to design the processing for. Then we went in as an afterthought and checked them out with some of the Fender lines."
Ironically, as a kid growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Scholz was a piano player who with no interest in guitars or rock and roll. "To be honest I didn't' care much for rock and roll until I heard that English rock, kind of on the rougher side," he said. "I didn't care for the Beatles. I liked the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Who, the kind of nastier stuff. After I heard (Jimmy) Page on the first Led Zeppelin album, I thought, 'That's it. I have to learn some of this.' It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought."
He was still a keyboard player in 1971 when he joined the group that would become Boston and started building the home studio where there albums would be recorded. "Guitar was a struggle for me," he recalled. "I was still desperately trying to learn to play that thing when I made those first two albums. Now when I go onstage I don't usually play the exact same solo twice. Now I kind of change things at will. But back in the late '70s I would stick exactly to what was on the record."
Corporate America represents a departure from Boston tradition in one sense – the added involvement of band members in the recording of the album, particularly singer Brad Delp (from the original Boston lineup), guitarist Anthony Cosmo and bassist Kimberley Dahme. "It's such a bizarre arrangement," Scholz said. "I do a lot of it myself in the studio, but I also can't do it all by myself. Obviously there are some key people that make the Boston songs possible. Brad's singing is at the top of the list, of course. There are always important contributions from other people.
"In our most recent release we have another guitar player who does a lot of writing and wrote three of the songs. That was really nice change for me because I haven't been used to having real solid contributions from other musicians. Anthony Cosmo had three songs and performed on the track a lot, and Kim wrote a song and also performed on all the tracks."
At the end of the day, though, the overriding image of Boston still holds true – Tom Scholz in his home studio. On the day of this interview, for example: "I'm in the studio working on this ballad today that Kim sings, trying to get through some arrangement things," he said. "I get into that frame of mind and everything else goes away. My whole world becomes just this song. I become a very boring person. There's no other experience in my life except what's on track 17 and track 18."
Tom Scholz talks about…
The recording process today
It's a lot different. So-called modern technology has made the recording process so difficult and so time consuming. In some senses it's opened up recording to more people because digital equipment is so cheap, like computers. The problem is, they have such incredible limitations and are fraught with such added complication, anybody that's opened up their notebook knows how maddening it can be.
There is no such thing as analog recording anymore. You can make an analog record but there is no analog delivery means. Sooner or later in the process you have to match up with the rest of the world. In my case, I stay analog until the mixdown. What I do basically is do a setup in analog mix, and then I break that down to separate sort of premix bunches, separate out the guitars, separate the vocals and the drums and mix each of those separately. Then I'll run it off in enormous painstaking complication on digital equipment that can track analog.
The problem with tape machines is A), it's getting hard to maintain them, and B), nobody makes tape that really fills the bill. I'm doing the best I can at the moment with the last available source that I know of. So there will be a time that it will be simply impossible, that will come maybe within the next year or two.
Time between failures
Tape is far faster with far less difficulties, in real time. I'm not one of these people who makes a silk's purse out of a sow's ear in the studio. Obviously as we all know there are a lot of performers who wouldn't be in business if not for all the corrective digital devices out there, and Boston is still a totally live band, and all the studio performances are real. All the parts are still punched in and out – by me. The old stuff that was designed 20 or 30 years ago, those things are workhorses. They are amazing. The time between failures as compared to my Digidesign Pro Tools – that dies every couple of hours. I won't even run that system myself. I won't do anything involving a Pro Tools session without having a dedicated engineer there who deals with the stupid software and all the trouble that comes with it. The tricks that it allows you to do as far as fooling with the actual sonic result are great fun. The problem is, the reliability is so poor and the actual basic things that it needs to do are so bad.
Hand and mouse movements
The other problem is that with digital recording, aside from the harassment and the complication, there's the problem of not having dedicated buttons, you have to pushing a button and recording a track and pushing another button and recording another track. Looking at the screen, moving your hand, looking at the mouse and watching it. When I'm using the 24 track machine, I never look at it. I actually punch in and out with my foot. I've been doing it for 24 years.
It isn't just that the sample rate is too low, it's the phase angler that drives me crazy. You record a vocal track on a good 24-track machine and what it spits out afterward, the wave forms match exactly. There's a little bit of distortion which usually is considered a benefit, but the actual wave form is true. You can take a before or after… you make an analog onto your computer and then play it back, the wave form is completely different. The reason is the high frequency and the low frequency are no longer in correct timing with each other. It actually causes a shift. It's very significant. For my purposes, where I double-track a lot of things, I double-track vocals, lead guitar and all the rhythm instruments. As I'm playing I lay down the original track, and as I lay down the double, I am listening to the way to the two tracks play against each other in the phase cancellation. That's what really creates the magic with double-tracking. When it's going the way I like it, I keep going. When it's not I stop and go back and do it again. You can't do that in digital because the basic digital signal plays you back a signal that has been phase-shifted. The live guitar or vocal combined with the recorded one sounds a lot different – the live track and the played-back track are not the same. Very few people know that. Anybody can do that experiment by recording on both a good old analog machine and on their computer at the same time and then playing the computer track back to the tape. You can't get it to match up. With a tape machine, it'll either reinforce and be twice as loud or you can put it out of phase and it'll disappear.
Classic sound of Boston is still Tom Scholz, still recording on tape
By Walter Carter