BackTalk: Tom Scholz of Boston
The ace guitarist/producer/wizard of all trades on remastering his band's Greatest Hits, the misnomer of "perfect" sound, and why analog rules.

By Mike Mettler
Sound & Vision
July/August 2008

ImageWhy did you decide to remaster the Boston Greatest Hits CD (Epic/Legacy)?
For one thing, the other Greatest Hits CD [from 1997] was horrible-sounding — not as bad as Third Stage [chuckles], but it was an older CD, back from the days when Pro Tools was still a fledgling thing, and a lot of that mastering was done in 16 bits. I knew it was substandard, and I really wanted to redo it and get it right. This gave me the opportunity to put the same kind of care into it that I put into the [2006] remastering of the first two albums, Boston and Don't Look Back. We dug out the analog tapes, baked them, transferred them, and started from scratch. And I'm really ecstatic about the way it sounds now.

What did you have to do to make Hits a better release?
We fixed things like drums that weren't right, or vocals that were too screechy. In terms of sequencing, depending on what comes before and after, we had to make minor EQ changes song to song so that the perception was consistent with the rest of the recordings. It's a very difficult line to walk. The hardest judgment to make is figuring out where something is wrong because it's rough, and where something is right because it's rough. And I had to be careful not to eliminate what made something human and gave it feeling versus going for "perfection." Mathematically perfect music really sucks. [both laugh] You have to know when to leave it alone.

Did you initiate the project, or did you have to step in on something that was going to happen anyway?
No, I wanted to do it. I started working on this back in March 2006, or a little before that. I think I had sent Sony some proposals to do it, and they liked the idea. I was almost done with it right before [singer] Brad [Delp's] suicide [in March 2007], which, you know, stopped the project. And, basically, I wasn't able to pick it back up again until almost a year later.

Did your song choices change at all during that time?
I had "I Had a Good Time" for the opening song, which was the last, lead-off single released from [2002's] Corporate America . . .

I have to interject here — that song came up on my iPod yesterday in a purely random situation, out of 33,000 songs. So I took that as a good sign.

[laughs] That is a good thing! Well, I wanted to have everything sound right and make sense for Greatest Hits, so they agreed that it should have the lead singles from each of the albums, which it now does. "I Need Your Love" [from 1994's Walk On] — that was a difficult one. That took a lot of work. I think there were some problems in the original mix. But I think we did it, and I'm really happy with it.

Real music is really strange. There are a lot of places where a singing part is out of tone, or a note is flat or sharp, or whatever, but that's what sounds good. This project has been an educational experience.

Let's say you and I are listening to something completely "perfect" — the vocals are autotuned, the drums are timed exact, everything's precise. Are we subconsciously thinking, "There's something wrong here? It's too good." What's missing?

It's not that — there's no heart or feel in it. People aren't mathematically perfect, and they don't necessarily want to hear or see things that are mathematically perfect. There's lots of it out there. That was all the rage for a while — people sequencing everything in the world and putting it right on the money. It wasn't that great.

Any music that's mathematically perfect lacks a certain level of emotion and soul.

I don't think you can get emotion by cutting and pasting. That's my theory, anyway. And the only thing I can about in the music is the emotion. That's what I'm after. In the work that I did, I just had to make sure that emotion came through.

Emotion sure comes through in the work that you guys — or, in your case, you guy — do.
[laughs] There are certainly other people who help, but . . .

Yes there are, but your basement studio is the kingdom.
Well, that's where it all started, and I couldn't see any reason to change that once we got a record deal, even though the record company wanted us to and thought that we were changing it. I knew that the only reason Brad and I got that shot with Epic was that I had gone into the basement and gotten away from bands and everybody — except Jim Masdea, my good friend who helped with the drumming and arrangements. I knew that I had to sit there and figure out how to do it myself. I could experiment and get the sound I was looking for and the feeling I was looking for, and I knew that if Brad did the same thing with the vocals all himself. And he did. He experimented, and we would work until all hours. I would push the button, and he would try part after part, and what we came out with was basically what a couple people can do if they're willing to spend lots and lots of time experimenting with their own perceptions of the music.

Five of the songs we worked on were on the first album. And that's what made it work, and I wasn't going to be so stupid as to ignore that and go off into some fancy studio some place and try to do it the way everybody else in the world did it. That's not what made it work.

You would have lost the honesty on Don't Look Back.
It would not have worked, and I could not do it. It came down to [producer] John Boylan standing on my front porch on a freezing cold February day saying, "Look, if you insist on recording this in your basement, then I'm going to have to walk," and me saying, "Well, I hate to see you walk, but I can only make this kind of music in my own space." And as he was turning around, he said, "Ok, record it here, bring it to LA, and we'll mix it and put in vocal overdubs, and we'll split the producer's royalty." And I said, "You're on!" [laughs]

Good negotiation there.
It was really cold, so it made it go really fast. [more laughter]

A Don't Look Back question here. The title song brought that whole album together. At that point, did you have another title for the album, or . . .?
No. That was the thing. I was thinking, before I stumbled onto that idea, "I've got nothing. I've got some good songs here, some things I really like, but without the leadoff single . . ." In the '70s, you had to have a leadoff single every album. And without a leadoff single, you're dead. The ride will stop you.

I stumbled onto "Don't Look Back." Unfortunately, I didn't think the album was done at that point. I thought, "Ok, good, at least I've got the single. I still need at least another 5 or 6 minutes." But that's when the powers that be snatched the thing and suddenly there was a new "album." I don't know how long that record was — 29 minutes or something, it was ridiculous. I thought it was embarrassing to put out a record that short. I never would have done that. That was another turning point, another important one. I said to myself, "I will never let this happen again. Nobody is taking my art to make money for themselves and a bunch of other people." I never really felt bad about it, but I did an awful lot of work on those albums, a lot of production work, and didn't necessarily get paid for that. And that's okay, but when they interfere with what I consider is my art, that's it. I was all done with that. Of course, you know what happened on the next album, Third Stage. [both laugh]

That decision cost me dearly. And to back that up, it took some serious intestinal fortitude, and maybe some stupidity on my part, but CBS had a lot of money to do what they wanted. It was a very extensive legal defense, but fortunately, we prevailed in the end and I was able to release Third Stage along the way [in 1986, on MCA]. And it was very successful.

Everybody was waiting for it with baited breath . . .
No one more than I!

Time literally stopped the first time I heard "Amanda" on a buddy's car radio when I was in college in Iowa. It was like an old friend had returned.
That's very nice to hear. I was very happy with the album and the way it was finished. It was done under extremely difficult circumstances. And I got to say what I wanted to say with it. In the process, I hooked up with [guitarist] Gary [Pihl], who was the key to there being a Boston to go see today. I can almost guarantee I never would have gone back on the road again if it weren't for Gary. He was the impetus that got the tour in 1987 together. He and Brad found and rehearsed the rhythm section.

The tours in ‘78 and ‘79 — I had a horrible time. They were very draining. I love playing music, I love playing Boston music, and I love being onstage. But those tours were horrible. And I was just done with it. So with some trepidation, in 1987, I agreed to try it again, and through Gary's efforts, it was the best tour of my life. It was an awesome tour. It sold. And not only was it a technical success, we were able to play some things we never had been able to before. We did everything. I thought we turned a technical corner with that tour — being able to play the kind of music that was created and overdubbed in the studio, and pulling it off. And I thought we did a good job.

And you'll be doing it again this summer.
And better than ever. I have to tell you, the rehearsals have gone so quickly and so smoothly. These two new guys, Michael [Sweet] and Tommy [DeCarlo], are the greatest. They're really quick studies, and just awesome singers. And Michael's a great guitar player. If rehearsals were any indication, this will be the best Boston has ever sounded.

Are you breaking out things you've never played before?
We are breaking out songs we've never done before. We had a hard time doing them before, but everything is sounding good, and the singing is just phenomenal. I'm really, really excited about it. And the Styx-Boston combo, from the fan standpoint, is going to be awesome. [For tour dates, go to bandboston.com and styxworld.com.]

So, on another note, since you're an analog man at heart more than digital . . .
Actually, you could say I'm analog to the total exclusion of digital. Going from analog to digital — that's a nasty thing.

Okay. So why is analog the better listening experience?
Well, I'm spoiled rotten because I only hear two kinds of music: live and all-analog. When I have to deal with digital because of CD mastering, I don't like it that much. Even in 24-bit, I'm sorry; it's not as good as analog.

How come? Digital sounds a lot different than the original source. Things are further compromised when you decrease the resolution to 16 bits from 24 bits or higher. The combinations of only 16-bit resolution and only a 44.1-kHz sampling rate absolutely demolishes any part of the signal above 10k. If you put a 12k tone, which most people can hear, through a 16-bit, 44.1k sampling at digital conversion, you will be shocked at what that waveform looks like coming out the other end. You can put a pure tone in, and it comes out looking like some garbled, monstrous thing. If that came off a cassette, you'd say, "See why cassettes sound terrible?" Take it a step further to MP3s, where that 16-bit signal is further demolished. It's already terrible, and compressed in unnatural ways.

And if you changed the frequency of that 12-kHz signal just a percentage point, the signal that spits out will look entirely different. So every time somebody hits an "s" or a cymbal, or plays a delicate violin or even a raunchy distorted guitar with lots of high frequencies, the high-frequency end of that spectrum is completely mangled into something different. That's why people speak about strange sibilance, or things sticking out or not sounding "right," when they listen to CDs. It isn't right. It's completely different than the original recording.

That's the technical root of the problem. If I can get a little more "earthy" here for a minute, music is an analog phenomenon. It results from analog devices. Wood and metal vibrations force the air to send out compression waves at the speed of sound to your eardrum — which is also very analog, and which sends signals to your brain. The whole process is a completely analog phenomenon. There are no numbers or bits involved with it anywhere. The idea of trying to encode that into some kind of mathematical thing and then reassemble it is a great idea, but it would have to be done with a lot more care.

The big thing to me still is that A/D conversion. I have never have had anybody explain to me why they can't develop a technology to get rid of the phasing and the distortion. It annoys me, and it's bizarre to me that technical people put up with the alteration. If you look at the waveform, it doesn't even look like the same thing. Maybe more so for me, because I used to use the old analog oscilloscopes and I used to measure things like headroom. You get an exact picture, and you could a copy from one track to the next. You may get a tiny bit of rounding from slew-rate limitations, but that waveform looks virtually identical to the first one. Your copy bounces from track to track.

So, to sum up, digital is a risky place to go. When they eventually come up with the world's first transporter that breaks you down into a set of numbers and reassembles your matter someplace else — well, I'd be really careful about that. [chuckles]

Another good reason why the analog champion is duty-bound to do vinyl.
I'm a music fan in the purest sense, and I just love the way analog sounds. And I don't like the way digital sounds.

The care that you've taken with your recordings make them sound much better than most everything else out there.
Thanks, Mike. It was always my hope that the little things I did in those recordings would show up and be noticed. I usually have way more ideas than I have places to put them on a recording, and I have a very hard time deciding between various things I've come up with for playing a chord or even a note in a song as it repeats. So I figure I'll just do it differently each time. I think most people don't get it — it blows by them, and that's fine. But it's a nuance that, for people who listen to it a lot, they'll find that there are no two choruses or verses that are the same.

It makes it a more enjoyable listening experience. There isn't any "false perfection," as we were saying earlier. That takes the emotion right out of it. That soul you're trying to go after would be gone.
That's it. You can't get emotion by cutting and pasting. That's my theory.

What's next on the horizon for you, musicwise?
I'm working on a new album, which has some rearranged and remixed songs from the Corporate America album, which didn't sell very well. I still don't quite have it done, and in the back of my mind I've been thinking about doing an analog version of it for vinyl.

You should absolutely do that. There's a growing market for vinyl out there. College kids are getting into it too.
That's nice to see, because when I was in college, college kids were on the cutting edge of sound quality. They were the ones who built their own tube power amps and kit preamps in their dorm rooms, and had really good stereo sound. Now, college kids download MP3 files and think it's cool — it's cheap, it's quick, and it's convenient, but the sound sucks. [laughs] I'm spoiled. I can't listen to MP3s.

I'm not saying MP3s don't have a place. It's great to have them in your pocket when you're going out for a run. But the point is, it could be so much better. But it isn't, because people are happy to buy it at that quality. The cutting edge of that is marketing to kids. College kids downloading stuff — that was the opposite when I was in college. College kids were spending hours soldering and building their own systems in order to play the new stereophonic records, and through high fidelity. But anyway, hopefully, the pendulum will swing the other way.

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