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.
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 ebony porn 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.
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