Boston's Scholz engineers a rock dynasty
Friday, April 17, 1998

By Larry Lange
EE Times

The rock band Boston is familiar to just about anyone with a radio. But few fans may realize that the creative force behind Boston's distinctive sound is an engineer.

Indeed, Tom Scholz' engineering acumen helped propel Boston to se emingly instant stardom back in 1976, and it's keeping the band's signature sound vital as Scholz prepares a new Boston recording for release later this year.

"Tom Scholz is a modern-day Renaissance man — an engineer's engineer," said D.C. Williams, a Carson City, Nev.-based electrical-engineering consultant and Scholz fan who runs a Web site devoted to Boston .

Songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist Scholz is both the creator of and techno-brains behind the Boston phenomenon. He's a producer, sound technician and inventor, with nearly 35 patents in his portfolio. Indeed, Scholz' innovations have earned him renown among audiophiles and recording professionals: His unique Rockman line of guitar amplifiers and effects boxes revolutionized the way professional music has been re corded over the past two decades.

"Most people live their life around what other people do," Scholz told EE Times in a recent, rare interview. "They watch their life go by in somebody's else's vision. To me, that doesn't seem like a good idea."

So Scholz mapped out a journey for himself that has taken him from music stardom to the annals of audio electronics.

Eclectic interests
Born Donald T. Scholz in 1947 in Toledo, Ohio, he was an inquisitive and athletic kid who towered over his peers (he's 6 feet, 5 inches tall) and whose diverse interests made him a study in contradictions. He was a serious student of classical music, attracted by its "power" ("rock didn't have that kind of power until the Kinks and the Who came along," he says). He played basketball well enough to think about turning pro. And he developed an early interest in engineering.

"I was a fixer, a builder — an inventor — ever since I can remember," Scholz said.

Drawn at first to mechanical engineering, Scholz was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on full scholarship, graduating with a master's degree. Polaroid Corp. quickly scooped him up as a senior product design engineer to work on innovative multimedia projects.

Even as he applied his ME skills, Scholz plunged deeper into the electronics involved with his favorite hobby — recording original music — while playing local keyboard gigs. Though Scholz' guitar style today is one of rock music's most recognizable, distinguishable by his melodic style and harmonic phrasings, he didn't pick up a guitar until he was 21. Once he did, he learned characteristically quickly, perfecting his craft by studying such masters as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.

While he toiled at the Polaroid job to avoid having to "dig petunias" for a living, he began taking a "calculated risk," spending every spare dime he earned over the next six years on recording equipment. Though he hoped to make a full-fledged career of his music, he says he sought to remind himself "the whole time that it would never be anything more than a hobby."

So much for low expectations. Scholz spent his final days at Polaroid drenched in the limelight, as Boston's "More Than a Feeling" shot up the charts. The debut album, simply titled "Boston," earned a Grammy nomination and has sold 16 million copies since its first printing. In its day, it held the sales record for a debut album.

Boston's success ushered in the next wave of "producer" rock. The debut album's "Rock and Roll Band," which tells a story of a band's life on the road, is "pure fantasy," Scholz said. Indeed, "the band Boston existed on my basement tape recorder long before I could get five people together to take a picture for a band photo on the first album."

It's only a slight exaggeration. Scholz didn't do the vocals, but he wrote or cowrote every song on the first album, play ed virtually all of the instruments and recorded and engineered all the tracks that secured Boston a record deal with Epic Records (New York) — a deal negotiated by a team he'd hired.

Even the trademark sci-fi theme of the five Boston record covers was Scholz' concept: "The idea was escape; I thought of a 'spaceship guitar.' "

As Scholz built and equipped Foxglove Studio in the basement of his Watertown, Mass., home, he gradually devised and assembled the components that would revolutionize the recording industry. His innovations were born of engineering necessity as he strove to capture the sound in his head and preserve it on tape.

He devised the Rockman line of products to capture and reproduce all the subtleties of his guitar work, replacing the vintage tube circuits that were widely used at the time. Scholz' unique amplifiers and effects boxes used solid-state electronics to emulate the classic "tube amp" sound.

Scholz even formed a company to develop and market his inventions: Scholz Research & Development (SR&D). Regrettably, at least for the 70 people he employed, SR&D was not to continue under his direction.

"I hated it," he said of his brief career as a businessman. Though his company racked up product sales in the tens of thousands, the experience left him cold, especially in light of the events that befell him in the late 1980s as the creative leader of Boston.

Scholz had followed up the debut album with 1978's "Don't Look Back," which had hit No. 1 on the charts. But his record company was dissatisfied with the rate of output it was getting from Boston. In 1982, CBS, the owner of the Epic label, sued Scholz for $20 million in a breach-of-contract complaint. Other suits, by former managers and former band members, plagued Scholz through the early 1990s.

"The [music] business would be a good thing, except that it's dominated by drug addicts and businessmen," Scholz said.

He ultimately won the CBS suit. But he sold SR&D in 1995 to Du nlop Corp., which still markets and develops the Rockman line.

Scholz remains well-known in the industry as a producer and recording engineer, albeit as an old-school analog man. Still, he's not looking back.

"My only objective is to record the music in some way that it sounds good when it comes out of the other end of a CD player," he said. "I don't think it's important enough to have a $2,000 microphone on your acoustic guitar; that's actually a pain in the ass."

He noted that his best-known song was recorded with low-budget equipment: "The acoustic guitar on 'More Than a Feeling' was recorded using a $100 imported Yamaha 12-string guitar, through a relatively low-end dynamic microphone [the Electro-Voice RE-17], and the drums were recorded by a few Shure SM57s in a little tiny closet. The whole first Boston album — all of the tracks except for the vocals — was recorded for a cost of a few thousand dollars. That's when I realized that you don't need all that fancy stuff ."

Indeed, Scholz is resistant to the newer technologies that dominate today's recording — the MIDI style of sampling instrumental parts and "flying them in" via PC.

MPU aversion
"He's still devoutly analog," said EE consultant Williams. "One of his favorite sayings is, 'Wherever there's a microprocessor, there's trouble.' "

"I still record the same way I always did," said Scholz. "The master goes to tape, and I mix in analog. My board is a 20-year old [Audiotronix] mixing console. They're not any better today — in fact, they're probably worse."

Even the tape Scholz used to record the debut album — Scotch 226, which was recently discontinued — remains his choice for recording. He stocked up on the brand because his recording techniques and equipment are geared for the 226's "head room" and bias adjustments.

Filling out the vintage recording gear are a "very old" Fadex fade r automation system and two 3M M79 24-track analog tape decks. The equipment fits well with the recent renaissance of the "primal" rock sound — a movement that amuses Scholz. "Now people are falling all over themselves to get ahold of these old tape decks," he said. "Fortunately, I'm very slow to change something that's working."

Scholz does accomplish some mixing with digital editing tools. "Computer programmers can fool with it until the end of the world, but there's still no way you can play guitar effectively on a keyboard; keys are extremely limiting. Fingertip control over strings is quite phenomenal.
"[The same goes for] the human voice," he said. "When it comes down to getting the music recorded that you want, you're stuck with playing it."

Reproducing the Boston sound live while adhering to the idiosyncratic Scholz equipment list has proved problematic for the technicians who work on the group's shows. A typical Boston tour can employ 12 or more engineers, who attend to as many as half a dozen semi tractor-trailers' worth of gear — and that's the least of their worries.

"A lot of the Boston gear is very vintage; it's just not replaceable," said Vivek Maddala, a hardware design engineer at Tektronix Inc. (Beaverton, Ore.) who worked preproduction for last summer's tour. "Typically, you have three or four backup pieces of equipment to count on. But everything that Tom owns is highly modified. So, for example, if something goes wrong with the Rockman sustainer in his primary rig, you can't simply swap it out with another [generic] sustainer. Probably 99 percent of the people [listening] wouldn't notice. But Tom's very meticulous about his sound."

That has proved a key factor in the long-term success of Boston, despite the notorious stretches between releases. In 1986, Third Stage debuted. Though it had been years since a Boston release, the album shipped platinum and hit No. 1.

Another three years of recording brought forth the band's fourth plat inum album: Walk On, released in 1994. Last year's Greatest Hits compilation offered two new songs and garnered more platinum.

Today, Scholz is busy writing, playing and recording the next Boston product — "the plan is to have it out for Christmas and to tour next spring" — and he's sticking to his analog-based formula.

He's also keeping an eye on the future of music distribution, particularly via the Internet, and there is an official Boston Web site . "Once you're set up over your phone line or cable, you certainly don't need to take a trip to a music store," he acknowledged. "I'm sure it's just a matter of time before the music store as we know it is a thing of the past."

Scholz has also formed a new design engineering company, Hybrid Design, though it's a sure bet he won't be running it.

Meanwhile, he continues to have an impact on young musicians and engineers. Tektronix' Maddala was 12 when Third Stage came out. "I wanted to emulate the 'Tom Scholz sound' in my own music," he said, "and I was absolutely influenced by him in my career as an engineer."

For Scholz, though, it's all about the music."Music is an escape for me," he said, "and if a few million people can escape along with me, that's all I could hope to accomplish."
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