By Mike Mettler
Sound & Vision
Two of rock's Holy Grail albums, 1976's Boston and 1978's Don't Look Back are finally remastered by the band's meticulous mastermind, and he tells us why they're totally worth the wait. Plus, Tom sounds off about MP3s and surround sound.
Before I had a chance to listen to them, I read a wonderful, telling statement in regard to the reissues of Boston and Don't Look Back: "remastered under Tom Scholz's supervision."
It's true. I did them up here in New England with a couple of trusted engineer friends of mine, and we more than supervised, we took those things apart piece by piece. Every nut and bolt came out of those songs. We tweaked all of the things that couldn't be done with the mixes in the '70s. I hadn't been able to listen to either one of those albums since they were first released on CD in the '80s, or whenever.
You know what? It doesn't really matter. I mean, 16-bit audio absolutely destroys the waveform, especially in the high end. A lot of things that I thought were fine on vinyl or cassette tape parts that had a lot of brightness and sibilance in them sounded horrible on 16-bit CD. I literally could not listen to those albums on CD all these years. I saw this as a huge opportunity. I dropped everything, I shut down a 10-day vacation I had just started around my birthday [March 10] and went to work. We just literally went through those things second by second or, I should say, millisecond by millisecond and did all the things you can do now with automated EQ and other signal-processing techniques. Since it was going to be in the digital format anyway, there was nothing to lose.
Did you have the original masters yourself?
I didn't. They [Sony] had the original, quarter-inch-tape stereo masters, and did a very good job of doing the A/D conversion. I have to tell you, I would have been sweating bullets doing that myself. So we had good 24-bit transfers to start with. I'm really excited about how they came out, and I never thought I'd get excited about something I did 30 years ago. I can finally listen to these mixes on CD now. [laughs]
What kinds of problems were apparent to you on the original CDs?
First of all, expectations for the tone balance on recorded music has changed considerably over the last 30 years. For example, the amount of low end in a bass instrument is a helluva lot higher in mixes today. And there were a lot of problems in the treble ranges, which I attribute largely to the trouble with 16-bit audio in general and maybe somewhat to the fact that vinyl and tape did a good job of toning those things down for reproduction back in the old days. What I did was correct everything that I didn't like: things that couldn't be done in the original mix, which was all done by hand, and things that couldn't be done in the original mastering, which, of course, was done by hand as well, and, back in those days, was quite limited. Even in a nice mastering room like Capitol Records, you had very little opportunity to make adjustments or changes. Of course, going into a 24-bit, modern-day editing program, you can basically do whatever your knowledge, imagination, and time will allow. And we did have a very severe time crunch since we had gotten Sony to stop going forth with their own remaster.
That would have been a disaster.
Yeah. It did sound terrible. So we got into it, and did nothing in between working on these mixes except sleep. Remastering the whole thing took 8 days of 12-14 hours a day, straight through. I was really happy with what we got. You hear a lot of things you didn't hear before, and things that used to irritate me or sound screechy now sound full and natural. For example, [singer] Brad [Delp's] voice was warmed up the way it should be. And you can really feel that bass guitar instead of just hearing it.
Any other specific examples?
We made thousands of changes, thousands: every vocal line, every guitar part, the whole bottom end. The bass has been brought up in the mix relative to the bass in the kick drum, which gives a heckuva lot more punch from the bass instruments. The vocals in many of the songs appear louder. Even though there's a lot more bass, the vocals appear louder than they did before, which is usually something you fight with when you bring the bass up, the vocals disappear. And all of the shrill guitar parts have been fixed. The reason it's hard to pick out specific instances is because there literally isn't one second of any song on either of those albums that wasn't touched. [laughs] At the outset of Boston, when that first bass-guitar note hits in "More Than a Feeling," it's a lot fuller and a lot bigger. And when Brad starts singing, his voice is louder. It's hard to achieve that, especially when those rhythm power-chord guitars are playing at the beginnings of songs, or breaks between chorus and verses, the guitars are much more powerful. That power was something that slipped through the cracks when I was making the original master tracks. It was a mistake. I knew about it after the fact, but back then, in the '70s, it couldn't be fixed. Also, a lot of cymbals, lead-guitar parts, and some vocals got very, very screechy in the 16-bit product, and those have all been brought back into range. They all now sound pretty good to me on CD, and I don't usually like the way anything sounds on CD.
In general, you've never been a fan of digital.
I work only in an analog studio, so I hear music at its very best. I mean, there's nothing like the sound of an analog multitrack recording playing back. You'll never hear it sound so good again because it actually is the real thing. It's the real music by the real musicians, the phase hasn't been all screwed up by the A/D conversion, and the high end isn't all messed up trying to fit a 16-kHz tone into three pieces of a 44-Hz sampling rate. In an analog studio, you're hearing pristine, real-world sound, the way it would sound if it was coming through the mikes, and you were listening to them in headphones right there in your room. 24-bit digital sounds pretty good to me. But as soon as you make the conversion to 16-bit, it sounds like crap. [laughs] I have a hard time listening to CDs after working on an analog original because of what they do to the depth perception. The phase-angle errors caused by the A/D conversion really bother me. They bothered me the very first time I heard digital next to an analog original. I was always amazed that people didn't perceive that something that once sounded like it was located way beyond their speakers now sounded like it was on a flat plane...
All collapsed, basically...
Yeah. That's what digital does. It changes the audio waveform. People think digital is an accurate representation of music, and it's not. And because of the phase-angle error, all the things that your ear and your brain do normally to figure out where sounds are coming from to form a mental aural map, if you will, of your audio surroundings, it takes that and completely fools it. It turns something that had enormous depth and was recorded in a natural, beautiful hall and puts it into a little flat thing in front of you. So, as you can see, I've hated digital from the beginning. But it's cheap, and it's got a lot of features, and that's what sells.
If audiophiles had our way, we'd just go back to reel-to-reel tape.
I wish! There was nothing as good, and nothing ever will be, probably. But, in the meantime, I think we did a pretty good job of making the adjustments so that those early albums come across really well on CD. And in some ways, because of the improvements we made in the mastering, I prefer the new CD version over the original vinyl.
What compromises did you have to make when you originally mastered the album to vinyl?
The compromises in those days were huge. Every song was, basically, "Well, this is the best we can get with what we've got." Even though those mixes were done at what was considered a well-equipped mixing room [Westlake Audio in Los Angeles], there was only so much you could do. We were doing it manually. The outboard gear available for signal processing was really crude by today's standards, so we did the best we could. But I knew what I would have done if we hadn't had all those limitations, and I finally got a chance to do it. It was a little more difficult working with the 2-track as opposed to being able to take the multitrack and remix it, but I think we made enormous improvements. The tracks have a lot more power. That was the thing I was looking for.
These two albums are all about power. I remember in the days of vinyl, we just used to turn them up as loud as we could go...
Sure. A little speaker distortion always helped. [both laugh] Well, the differences in the new masters aren't subtle at all. When you put on album one [Boston], right away, you'll hear a difference in the listenability and the impact of the power chords and the bass instruments. It made a world of difference to me, listening to them. And I think we made even more improvements with Don't Look Back, the whole album.
Switching gears here, what's your take on digital files and iPods?
Don't get me started on MP3s...
No, please, do get started! This is what we live for!
[laughs] I'll just leave it at... [pauses] I hate them. People find it hard to believe, but other than the obvious noise-floor considerations, cassettes sounded much better than any of this digital crap. For everyday use, I still use constant quick-reference mixes in the studio, different arrangements, different guitar parts, different singing parts, different mix ideas, so I always have a loaded, ready-to-go mix deck hooked up to my stereo bus. At any moment, I can push the button, record, and sit back and A/B the different parts and ideas. If I didn't have a cassette deck doing that job, I'd be lost. I was so worried about it that I bought a second cassette deck and then I bought boxes and boxes of the Maxell tape that I use since I figure at some point they'll stop making it. I depend on it so heavily.
There's nothing else that will quickly reproduce an accurate representation of sound to exacting standards.
Like you said, reel-to-reel was the best, and I always have to put cassette right behind it, the only thing being the noise-floor issue.
I remember Columbia tapes back in the day wearing out after many repeated listenings.
Right. Not only that, but I used to get half a dozen tapes of an album and I'd put them on one after another, and the differences in the EQ and the high end between them would be all over the lot.
Are CDs in danger of becoming extinct? Do you think we're moving to a purely digital-delivery age?
There's no question in my mind that the companies are going to be able to sell low-quality audio product in massive numbers far more easily than they can sell a true high-quality reproduction. Unfortunately, people have shown by their dollar votes that they don't care about quality nearly as much as they do features, convenience, and cost. It's a little ironic, because I remember when I was in school [in the late '60s], the thing to do was buy the parts or kits and spend hours and hours building your own amplifiers and preamps and all this stuff so that you could get absolute, primo, best possible sound. I did it, and most of the college kids I knew did that. They were the first to embrace stereo broadcast with full-frequency reproduction. Today, college kids are buying this low-grade, cheap, kinda crappy audio sound. It's bizarre. I'm still trying to figure out what happened.
To the current generation, music is in the background rather than the foreground. Growing up, we put aside everything to listen to a new album. People don't really do that anymore.
That's probably true. I suppose convenience has a lot to do with it, too. Music production is pretty bad for the delivery that's available. Eventually, it could be only something really horrible, like MP3. But there will be a very small, and very expensive alternative, just like there is today. You can get audio on a DVD that's at least in 24-bit. And 24-bit digital audio is not bad. So I imagine there may be a direct electronic-delivery system that will be at least 24-bit with hopefully a higher bit rate that some people would be willing to pay for, like those who do for half-speed masters.
What do you think of surround sound?
Surround sound is nice, but what the hell do you need five speakers for? They did it with four early on in the '70s, quad, and it sounded awesome. It was four real channels that people would mix to using real reverberation and real instruments, not some conjured up, delayed, fake thing to give it false, spatial effects. It's fine, and it sounds neat, but what do you need five speakers for? I'll take that thought one step further: 10 years after quad came out, people were understanding sound interpretation in the human ear and mind well enough to be able to locate sound from a pair of speakers anywhere in a room, and some of it was quite strikingly good. For that, you had to have very, very good analog reproduction, none of this digital crap where you change phase angles with respect to frequency, because as soon as you do that, you destroy it. It was actually possible in the analog world to have surround sound with two speakers. So I look at it and I think, "What a scam for selling five speakers and five channels of crap to people for what could have been done with two speakers."
Actually, it's six, because you have a separate sub channel...
Of course... still, it's a scam, and it sounds neat, but it can be done with fewer components. I don't want to sound overly cynical, as it's one of those things you can have fun with, but it's not an eloquent solution for doing the job of surround.