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.
Why 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  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]