Boston Is Back: Tom Scholz Talks Tone
Friday, June 27, 2014

By Jude Gold
Guitar Player

If you've been exposed to any amount of rock radio over the years, you've probably heard Boston's "Hitch a Ride" dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But did you ever notice that the Hammond organ on that song does something impossible? The last note of its solo clearly bends up a whole-step--but there is no pitch-bend on a Hammond.

To see how Boston founder Tom Scholz pulled off this bit of sonic subterfuge, let's time travel back a few decades and step into the tiny recording studio he had beneath his Watertown, Massachusetts, apartment in the mid-'70s--the cramped basement where the guitarist, fresh out of MIT and working as an engineer for Polaroid, tracked every part (except for vocals and hand claps) on Boston's multi-platinum eponymous 1976 debut.

"I had the organ set up right next to my 12-track Scully recorder, which had a massive flywheel spinning inside it," says Scholz. "As I was tracking that solo--which, to this day, I still find to be pretty tricky to play--I reached into the tape machine with my free hand, and, with just the right touch, applied pressure to the flywheel, slowing the tape down during my last note. That resulted in the organ's pitch rising when the tape was played back at normal speed. That wheel had some nasty spokes on it, too. There was real danger involved."

No, you haven't stumbled into an issue of Keyboard. The Hammond stunt is detailed here because it so vividly demonstrates Scholz's unshakable resolve to capture the perfect take, ultimate tone, and coolest sound possible every time he tracks a part. "I don't make demos," says Scholz. "Whatever you hear me do, that's usually the first time I've played it." Scholz's timbral perfectionism is one reason Boston hits such as "More Than a Feeling" and "Foreplay/Long Time" (which features additional lead guitar work from Barry Goudreau) have had such mass appeal over the years, propelling Boston to sales of 17 million copies in America alone.

The irony is that today, major labels would all but kill to find an artist like Tom Scholz--a master of DIY who could produce a hit album for next to nothing. When Scholz was recording Boston, though, Epic Records was distrustful of his little home studio and insisted he spend big money on high-budget tracking sessions in Los Angeles. Scholz acquiesced, but confesses that he ran those sessions only as decoys so the label wouldn't figure out he was still delivering songs from his basement back in Boston.

"Nowadays, you can't get anybody to pay for studio time," says Scholz. "But even if I had attempted to create those first Boston tracks in a so-called professional studio, it would have cost a heck of a lot more than the budget they gave me. And they gave me a pretty decent budget."

Scholz is one of those rare guitarists who burst on the scene with a signature, universally recognizable tone from the very start of his recording career. In fact, despite formidable competition from Alex Lifeson, Earl Klugh, Al Di Meola, and Ted Nugent, Boston's guitar slinger won Best New Talent by a landslide in GP's 1976 Reader's Poll. And just last year, Gibson released a special Collector's Choice Tom Scholz Les Paul, which comes relic-ed and customized in every way to be identical to the paint-stripped '68 Goldtop Scholz has used throughout his career. ("I have one of the replicas, and when I am playing it with my eyes closed, I cannot tell it apart from the original.")

When the Sony Walkman became all the rage in the early '80s, Scholz's manufacturing company, SR&D, responded with the Rockman, the belt-clip headphone amp that let every guitarist have a piece of the Scholz sound. The box also worked well as a direct preamp, soon becoming a staple of many guitarists' live and studio rigs. "Todd Rundgren once sent me a picture of his stage setup, which was four Rockman units wired together so he could switch between the different sounds," says Scholz.

Boston's new album--the first since 2002--is Life, Love & Hope [Frontiers], and from the wall of distorted Les Pauls that opens the 11-song collection, the massive sound is undeniably Scholz-ian. And even though only three tracks feature Boston's original powerhouse vocalist, Brad Delp (who took his own life in 2007), the non- Delp vocal tunes (sung primarily by Tommy DeCarlo, David Victor, and Scholz) miraculously retain the vocal imprint of the band that took radio by storm in 1976.

"I try not to listen to music other than Boston music, because I don't want to be influenced by it," says Scholz, who hasn't bought an album since James Gang's Rides Again in 1973. (Tip: Spin "Tend My Garden," off that album, to see how James Gang may have directly inspired some of Scholz's orchestration approaches.) "I am purposely out of touch."

What is your studio like these days?

I used to say that my wife and I lived over the studio. Now I say we live in the studio. It has sort of crept upstairs and overtaken the house. Half of the living room is a piano recording area, and there's a bedroom full of business stuff related to the studio. In the laundry room cabinets, where there is supposed to be laundry soap, there are stacks of rack gear. But the way I did things originally is actually very similar to how I do them now.

Steve Lukather credits you with being the first person to figure out how to create a perfect wall of power chords. What's the recipe?

I grew up listening to classical music, so on a song like "More Than a Feeling," when it breaks into that chorus part, that's what I wanted to hear--that symphonic power, that impact. I discovered that what I needed to do was have stereo guitars for rhythm parts, split up on the sides. I'd usually track two separate guitars on each side, purposely detuning each pair at least ten cents apart in pitch, sometimes including a center track. It would have been easier if I had had vari-speed on my tape machine, but, instead, I had to detune the guitar each time I re-tracked, which was no small job. Also, while you want the parts to be tight, you don't want the takes exactly on top of each other, rhythmically--you might want one slightly ahead, the next slightly behind.

For stacked lead parts and harmonies, though, you need to be super tight with everything--every note, bend, and bit of vibrato should be in tune and in time with the other takes, just like with vocal harmonies. I often double the main lead part on each side and put the harmony melody, if there is one, in the middle. [Boston coguitarist] Gary Pihl and I spend hours making sure we're right with each other on parts to get the effect we're looking for on stage. Live, I often tune a little bit flat of the rest of the band, because when you add vibrato to a note that isn't bent, you're going to go sharp.

What were your go-to signal paths while tracking guitars on Life, Love & Hope?

I switch between three main recording rigs. I still have the '70s Marshall head I've used from the beginning--which, as always, I run with equalization, gain, and compression ahead of the amp, and an [SR&D] Power Soak after the amp and before the speaker cabinet. I run miked signal from the speaker into an EQ with narrow bands that let me select the frequencies I want to emphasize. That's the sort of sound I designed into the Rockman stuff, which makes up the second of my three studio rigs. The third setup is built around a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier head that I really like.

You are famously dedicated to analog tape and gear. Are there any digital audio practices you do approve of?

Personally, I can't listen to digitally reproduced music for more than a couple hours without wanting to shoot myself. One good thing I can say about audio software, though, is that it does offer some convenient ways to do advanced editing on finished mixes. That's handy. For instance, there is pitchchange software available today that can only be described as magical. It does a wonderful job of taking apart waveforms and putting them back together.

I still do just about everything analog, though. I was doing a mix of the song "Higher Power" for Boston's Greatest Hits, and I had this idea of lowering the ride-out section a half-step. I slowed the tape down to lower the pitch, but then, of course, the tempo was too slow. So, I literally went in there with a razor blade and spliced out the right amount of tape at every drum impact to maintain the tempo. Eight hours and 80 or 100 splices later, I was done. The section was in the new key and the tempo was unchanged.

A lot of gear builders and aspiring entrepreneurs read GP. Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get in the manufacturing game?

The first thing is to really have your heart in what you're doing. If it's something that excites you, by all means do it. Second, make sure you charge enough for your product [laughs]. And third, if you're successful, be prepared for an avalanche of knockoffs and all sorts of problems from big companies that want to shove you out. It got really nasty for me, so I decided my time was better spent in music. I sold the rights to my company to Dunlop a long time ago.

And what advice do you have for people who aspire to track a world-class album at home?

The cool thing is that today, everybody can record an album in their bedroom on a laptop. The big disconnect--and I see this even on a professional level with paid engineers--is that, to some degree, engineers have become little more than skilled video game operators. They're really good running the software that is available to them, but they often lack basic knowledge about sound you really need to have--knowledge that, had I lacked it, would have left me without a prayer of doing any of the things I've done with Boston. I'm not talking about advanced string theory, either, just basic principles of superposition, phasing, chorusing, etc. You can learn this stuff in any high school physics course. So do that. Learn about sound. Dig into the physics of music.

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