Peace of Mind
MUSICAL TRENDS MAY COME AND GO, BUT TOM SCHOLZ, BOSTON'S RECLUSIVE ROCK MAN, COULDN'T CARE LESS.
ALONG THE WOODED HIGHWAY THAT LEADS NORTH OUT OF BOSTON STANDS A DINGY RED BRICK BUILDING. HOUSED IN THIS UNASSUMING STRUCTURE IS THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE ROCKMAN SCHOLZ RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT. WHERE BOSTON IS CURRENTLY REHEARSING FOR THEIR FIRST WORLD TOUR SINCE 1988. THE BAND IS TAKING TO THE ROAD IN SUPPORT OF THEIR LATEST OPUS, WALK ON. ONLY THE FOURTH BOSTON ALBUM SINCE 1976. WHEN SCHOLZ AND CO. BURST ONTO THE SCENE WITH ONE OF THE TRULY MEMORABLE CLASSIC ROCKERS. -'MORE THAN A FEELING."
A TALL, LANTERN-JAWED MAN, TOM SCHOLZ SEEMS CRAMPED IN HIS COMPANY'S TINY RECEPTION AREA. SURPRISINGLY YOUTHFUL, HE LOOKS MUCH THE SAME AS HE DID IN '76. THOUGH THE NEW ENGLAND AUTUMN IS WELL UNDER WAY. SCHOLZ IS DRESSED IN THIGHLENGTH SWEATSHORTS, A T-SHIRT AND WINDBREAKER. BUT WHAT ELSE WOULD A CONFIRMED BASKETBALL ADDICT WEAR TO WORK. PARTICULARLY WHEN HE OWNS THE PLACE?
AFTER A VIGOROUS HANDSHAKE, Scholz's first act is to offer me coffee. Like the late Frank Zappa, he is a nocturnal creature. "It's still morning for me," he laughs, "Even though it's late afternoon for everyone else."
He's the quintessential crackpot Yankee inventor, an American original who does things his own way, and the rest of the world be danged. Sometime in the mid-Seventies, Scholz, who scored a Masters in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (M.I.T.) even as he slaved in countless bar bands, discovered his dual calling: analog audio, and what would come to be known as classic rock. He has resolutely stuck with both while the rest of world succumbed to disco, synths, punk, digital, new wave, hair bands, grunge and CD-ROM.
Like Mr. Edison's lightbulb, Mr. Scholz's brand of rock and roll has proved to be an enduring invention. How many bong hits in how many carpeted vans parked in how many middle-American driveways have been sweetened by some Boston track or other? Tom Scholz's name has become synonymous with exquisite, layered guitar confections and, of course, with his invention, the Rockman, that tiny blue headphone preamp which changed the way rock records were made and which spawned a whole guitar style of its own.
Scholz is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of designing and building a whole new studio to record an album-and that is exactly what he did to create Boston's latest opus, Walk On. As always, in addition to writing most of the material, Tom played 90 percent of the instruments on the disc.
Armed with a mug of half decaf and half hazelnut-flavored rocket fuel, Scholz leads the way into Boston's rehearsal room. The space is cluttered with vintage Hammond organ pieces, drums and Rockman amplification gear of every stripe. Planting himself on a spindly art director's chair, Tom Scholz prepares to give me a piece of his highly iconoclastic mind.
GUITAR WORLD: The Boston sound hasn't changed much over the years.
TOM SCHOLZ: No. It can't. [laughs)
GW: You've never been one to bow to trends.
SCHOLZ: Well, it's easy not to, because I don't know what they are. I never listen to current music, except when I'm out shooting pool or when I go to the basketball court in the summer. Somebody always has a blaster going, or their car door's open with the radio on. There was a period of time a few years ago where I went to this one pool club that I liked. And they played... not dance music, but maybe you'd call it Top 40; Madonna and so forth. And after getting exposed to that once or twice a week for six months, all of a sudden I found I was starting to write dance music. I said, "Wow, this is scary." I had to deprogram myself. So I went to Boston Billiards, where they play rock and roll.
Boston has always been non-current, right from the very first album [Boston). When that record came out in 1976, everybody said to me, "Wow, it's too bad that you didn't have this last year. Disco is the happening thing now. The radio stations are dropping rock and roll." And every time I've gotten a record done, there's always been some new thing that's the in style. But I feel that people just like good music. And without being egotistical, I think Boston makes good music. I wouldn't put it on tape if I didn't think it so. I know people who went to see the Elton John and Billy Joel tour who also buy Red Hot Chili Peppers albums. You can like Smashing Pumpkins and bands from the Seventies.
GW: When Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came out, everybody said, "The chorus sounds just like Boston's 'More Than a Feeling."' Do you hear a similarity between the two songs?
SCHOLZ: You know, I don't want to insult them, but I don't know that song. I've heard some of their tunes played in pool clubs and I like them. But if that song does sound like "More Than a Feeling," I take it as a major compliment, even if it was completely accidental. I don't mean to imply that they borrowed it from me, 'cause I simply don't know.
GW: What did you get interested in first-music or electronics?
SCHOLZ: Good question. I was always a Junior Engineer type. I made model airplanes and cars. I was into go-karts at a pretty young age. On the other hand, I've been into classical music since I was three or four. I'd sit in front of the huge speaker that my parents had-it was mono then-and blast out their classical collection. I think my mother let me do that because she was glad to have me out of her hair and know where I was at the same time. So I've been doing both things since I was very young.
GW: What was your first instrument?
SCHOLZ: Piano. I had lessons and learned how to play classical piano. Actually, I got through a few fairly well-known pieces; not that I can play them now. In fact, I can't read music anymore, either. But I used to, back when I was in fifth or sixth grade. Then I quit the piano and didn't start again until I heard the Kinks, the Who, the Yardbirds...the English rebellious type bands. That's when I got into rock and roll. I started learning how to play keyboards by ear. I'd try to play the rock songs I liked on piano. And that turned into playing organ in bands, which is what got me into guitar. I always thought that the way the guitar player was playing wasn't as good as what I heard on the records-this was strictly cover bands. So I decided to try guitar myself. I've been trying ever since! [laughs]
Keyboards were a snap. I can stay away from those things for years and then come back and play just fine. But guitar is a constant struggle. It's like basketball. If you don't do it every week you lose it.
GW: Do you practice regularly?
SCHOLZ: No. I practice very irregularly. I'm torn between so many other things that I choose to do or have to do. I end up spending an enormous amount of time working as a producer, recording engineer and songwriter. And I play all the other instruments on Boston records. So between bass, keyboards, drum parts and just simply playing guitar parts in the studio, I get very little time to practice the thing. I'm trying to make up for that now. We're getting ready to go out on the road in 10 days. I don't want to be the weak sister. Walk On has some very demanding parts, both on guitar and keyboards.
GW: How soon after Third Stage did you begin writing material for Walk On?
SCHOLZ: I started right after we stopped touring, in 1988. I also decided to build a new studio at that point. The old one was getting too outdated. I had a concept for putting a studio together that would make it possible for me to bypass most of the time that was required by production work. The idea was for me to be able to go into the studio and be a musician and an arranger and songwriter, as opposed to an engineer and producer.
In a typical studio situation, you might spend eight hours trying to get a guitar or drum sound. I wanted to find a way to get past all that screwing around. So I took my best shot at a production sound for all the instruments that I like to use drums, bass, Clavinet, Hammond organ, a bunch of electric guitar sounds, acoustics-and preset those sounds in all the equipment that was required. And I built some other gadgets where I could select one or the other at will. For example, if I'm working on an organ track for one tune, and I want to try a guitar idea for something else, I can push two buttons, put on the guitar and roll tape, play and get a real good, finished, master sound.
GW: Is this all accomplished via Rockman modules?
SCHOLZ: Yeah. My studio is wall-to-wall blue-all Rockman units, because the Rockman stuff is obviously designed to get a sound that I like. Everything ends up going through Rockman modules sooner or later. The guitars certainly do. I'll fool around a little with a tube amp here and there, but 99 percent of it is Rockman stuff, straight-in, direct. The keyboards are all processed through Rockman Sustainors, Rockman preamps and the Rockman choruses. The Rockman chorus is certainly part of my secret for getting that widely dispersed stereo sound where you can't find its center. I first became fascinated with that kind of really wide stereo spectrum when I heard the song "Hocus Pocus" by Focus. That had a lot to do with the kind of production I went for in Boston.
GW: Since your new studio is optimized for you to work alone, is it one big room? Or did you go with a conventional control room/recording room design?
SCHOLZ: No, there's no separate room this time. By the end of Third Stage, that separate room was nothing more than a place to store junk. Who needs it? I feel lost if I go in a commercial studio and I have to go off in a separate room and play something. In fact, I tried that with a piano track for Walk On, and it reminded me of why I make records by myself; trying to explain to another person where the punch point is going to be and what isn't right about the headphone mix is just too time-consuming for me. The way I record, I don't have to communicate with people, and it saves an incredible amount of time. If I tried to do one of those Boston records in a normal studio situation, forget it. I'd only finish one record in my life. That would be it. I'd have to retire after that. I wouldn't have time for a second one.
GW: You were one of the first to blur the the between musician and engineer/producer.
SCHOLZ: Yeah, I did the basics and even a few of the vocals for the first album in the basement of my apartment house. I knew I could not do that working in a studio with an engineer running stuff. And I also didn't think I could perform the things with somebody else there watching. I got used to doing it by myself.
GW: Are you a shy kind of performer?
SCHOLZ: Oh, yeah. In the studio. I'll be the first to admit that most of what I do is horrible. I think most of what I do sucks. But I'm very tenacious. So I'll keep trying. I like to do things in unconventional ways. All you have to do is tell me, "Oh, that's not how you record that." Or, "That's not the way you're supposed to play that chord." I'm just so naturally rebellious that that's like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Any way you tell me I shouldn't do something, that's the way I'm gonna do it. Just because you said I shouldn't.
GW: Are any tracks on a Boston album ever recorded simultaneously, for example bass and drums?
SCHOLZ: No. I do it all piece by piece. And on the tracks where somebody else plays, I usually do that by remote control. Like if Dave [Sikes] is going to play bass on a track, I'll just give him a copy of the basics without the bass, so he can try some bass lines in his own studio. If there's anything I like, I'll dub it onto the master. I find that's better than working one-on-one with a player in the studio. I find that people do better work if they don't have to worry about what some other person thinks of what they're playing while they're doing it. Eventually I started working with [guitarist] Gary Pihl that way, too. It's gotten to the point where he doesn't even come into my studio anymore. He got used to doing it by himself, too. I'd still be the producer, because I'd sort through all the takes and see where I thought it was going. Sometimes I'd say something like, "This one starts great. Keep going with that kind of energy." Or, "Back off and be smoother there." The only person I work one-on-one with is the singer. And he's always singing to a tape track. So there are never two things being done at once.
GW: Does Gary play any solos on the album?
SCHOLZ: Oh, sure. Some nice stuff, as a matter of fact. He played that blistering solo in the middle of "I Need Your Love." He also played some of the solos in the bolero section of the Walk On medley. He plays that guitar thing that goes over that whole bolero part. That's just one of my favorites.
GW: Do you have a lot to do with his tones?
SCHOLZ: No. Except that he uses Rockman equipment. He has his own guitars and sets his own sounds. As the producer on the record, I will add effects to it and so forth. Like in the bolero section of Walk On and in the "I Need Your Love" solo, I added some delayed doubling that's also swept with a real old Rockman chorus. I love Rockman choruses. We don't make them anymore, so this isn't a product plug. But you can't get that kind of chorus out of any digital piece of equipment; it's just physically impossible. Digital equipment causes phase angle changes across the spectrum.
GW: It's inherent in the encoding and decoding.
SCHOLZ: Yeah. You can't do it. So the Rockman chorus is very lush and full, probably because it's analog. Also because it has a huge pre-delay, which is what made it so expensive when it was on the market. So, anyway, we use that for certain things. Naturally I have tons of those sitting in the studio.
GW: What's the source of the transient shimmer that is so much a part of the Boston sound?
SCHOLZ: Dumb luck. Air.
GW: It's a hard thing to pin down. One moment you'll think, "Oh, it's the reverb."
SCHOLZ: No, the reverbs are all old. There's almost no digital processing at all. In fact, the reverb is almost 100 percent an old EMT Gold Plate. The echoes are all those analog Rockman echoes that we used to make a while ago. I just stocked up a bunch of those when they went out of production. 'Cause I love the way they sound. They're very close to tape echoes. In fact when I did Don't Look Back and some of Third Stage, I had a separate tape machine running all the time so I could use real tape echo. I built a little gadget that would rewind the tape when it got near the end of the reel so I could keep going with the echo. So, no, I don't think it's the reverb. I think it's the miking and the processing on the electric instruments as they go to tape in the first place. I do pay really close attention to the high end of the instruments. The dynamics of the high harmonics are the key thing. If they're too "peaky," you end up with a grating sort of sensation, as opposed to that airy sort of feeling. But thank you for noticing.
GW: You don't have much use for digital in general, do you?
SCHOLZ: Well, no. Although I do like it for problem solving. Like if there's a noise or something you have to remove from the recording, or if you need to move a guitar part to some other point in time and there's no other way of accomplishing it, then digital editing can come in handy. But first of all, I don't like the way digital audio sounds. Well, let me qualify that. I thought that the less-expensive digital equipment and the original high-end stuff was all pretty hideous. Nowadays you can get some extremely good-sounding digital things. I don't think even I could tell the difference from analog. But now we're talking about really expensive equipment. And for simple storage of the music itself, I still prefer analog tape because of what it does to the sound. I don't like digital because you get these nasty phase changes when you store sound on most digital equipment. I also don't like the fact that there is no limiting-no tape compression. There is no distortion, except for really horrible distortion. Of course, you can protect yourself from that, but we're talking about things that are a lot of work and take a huge amount of equipment just to do the same thing that a very inexpensive analog tape deck does when you push it hard. You can use that compression and tape saturation to your advantage. I do.
GW: So it's fair to say that analog tape compression is essential to your guitar sound?
SCHOLZ: Absolutely. In fact, I've had to design a special circuit to simulate it when we play live.
GW: So what's the thickest layer on the new album? The maximum number of guitar tracks?
SCHOLZ: Oh, I lose count. I just keep going until I like it. Sometimes it's one guitar playing a part, but not very often. I'm sure there are places where there are six or eight guitars playing the same rhythm part. And there's a million places where there's three guitars playing the same lead line even a pretty quick, intricate lead line. Those get a little tricky. If I have a part that has a really good feel to it and I decide I want to double it, I have to be very careful to have that same exact feel. You can't let the timing stray off by very much, or you lose the notes. Some of them are pretty short. But there are a lot of places where there are three guitars playing a single lead line. And of course, the guitar harmonies usually have two or three parts.
GW: So each part in the harmonized lines will be made up of more than one guitar track?
SCHOLZ: That's right. If I want a really big, full sound I'll put three on. If I want it to sound simple, but also make sure that you can't identify where the guitar is coming from-so you don't concentrate on it-I'll put on two lines and spread them out on different sides. If it's something I really want the listener to pay attention to, I'll just put it there by itself with maybe a little echo or chorusing or something. But obviously there are a lot more of the other. I like the big sound. It's more like Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky when it's really big.
GW: Were you into Brian May?
SCHOLZ: No I wasn't. I mean, I think he did some really neat things. But it's somewhat different. I like brute force. I'd add another guitar playing the same part because I wanted an absolute cement block wall of sound. I wanted it to be overwhelming.
GW: Have your techniques for achieving the Boston "wall of sound" changed much over the years? Or are you still doing a lot of the same things you did on that first album?
SCHOLZ: It's almost identical. There are things about the production of the first album that I didn't like. I always felt the deficiencies in the production of that first album were obvious. If you compare it with the Walk On CD, the sound of Walk On is so much bigger. I would love to go back and remix that first album the way that I'd like. But at the time, it was actually the best I knew how to do. I was still very much in a learning stage.
GW: You had demoed a lot of those songs earlier, right?
SCHOLZ: Oh, sure. I'd been writing those for years. I think "Fourplay" was written in 1969. They'd been around for a long time.
GW: When you double- or triple-track a guitar part, do you eq or process each track differently?
SCHOLZ: No. I use the same sound because I'm looking for the same effect. Technically, it's known as "random phase cancellation." It's so much more complicated than what you can achieve with just chorus. It's what's called an uncorrelated signal. If you do it again with a different sound, you can't duplicate the original signal. So you get some phase cancellation of fundamentals and harmonics that are in your chord or your note. But so much more of it is not the same; every single note is different. When I'm doubling a part that I like, I'll play it many many times, listening to get the best effect on each chord and each note. I experiment with everything from tuning to timing. Tone changes radically from note to note when you're playing guitar. You can make huge adjustments simply by the way you pick the note, without changing anything in the recording.
GW: It's very performance driven.
SCHOLZ: It is. After I've done something like that on tape, then I'll have to go back and listen to it closely, to discover what it is about the effect of the two that I want to bring across when I play it live. I don't do all the solos exactly like the recording. I used to do that, but now I'd rather not. There are key places, though, where I really love what's happening on the record. So I have to figure out exactly what was going on and duplicate that technique on stage.
GW: When it's time to record a solo, what's your usual plan of operation?
SCHOLZ: First I just play along with the basic tracks blasting in my phones. I don't think about what I should play or how long the part should be; I just turn it on and start playing. And I always leave myself plenty of open tracks. The first time I get something that has some magic to it-a feeling that I think does something for the song-that's it, it's done. My tapes have tracks all over the place. Channel 13 might have the lead in the end of the first verse, channel 18 might have the lead in the break.... Sometimes I have to spend hours and days trying to reorganize it so I can mix the total thing afterwards.
GW: Do you do any comping of solos? Taking a few bars from one take and a few bars from another?
SCHOLZ: Yeah, once in a while. Not very often. But I often end up changing the music underneath the solo. I'll sub-tract bars, add bars or change the chords or the bass line. That's true with the lead vocals too. If I hear something that sounds good but won't work with what comes next on the underlying instruments, I'll go back and change the arrangement on the rest of the song. Which is as time-consuming as it sounds. It involves rerecording as many as eight tracks of instruments.
GW: You're not doing MIDI sequencing.
SCHOLZ: No, it's all taped, so any editing I want to do is with a razor blade and splicing tape. If I want to increase the length of the arrangement, first of all I have to cut the master, which doesn't bother me at all. I have 100 splices in most masters these days. I run at 30 IPS and I use 3M M79's, [analog 24-track-recorder] the only machines where you cannot hear splicing. In fact it's very hard to find the splices on a scope.
I can splice with reckless abandon-and I do. I'll also do anything to the underlying chord progression that needs to be done, once I start into a solo or a vocal part. Take that long organ solo in the middle of "Walk On." That started out only being about 16 bars. That whole thing about two-and-a-half or three minutes worth of accompaniment-never existed. I just started playing on the organ and decided, "Oh well, I have a lot more to do here. So I had to make the backing track longer. Then I had to introduce some variety into it, to make it different. I just kind of kept going with it.
GW: Are you working with only one 24-track machine?
SCHOLZ: I use two, but in a very unusual way. Years ago, I did the usual thing. I got a synchronizer and locked the two tape machines together. But for a lot of reasons, I didn't like doing it that way. What I do now is put the basic tracks on one 24-track first. Then I'll put a mix of the basics down on two tracks of a second 24-track machine. On a separate track-or-tracks I'll have a snare drum, hi-hat or some timekeeper from the drum set. I then record all the vocals on the second 24-track machine, using up however many tracks I want. I do the same thing with the singer that I do with my guitar solos.. I have him try a lot of different things. I'll end up with a whole second tape full of vocal parts and maybe some different lead guitar parts. I then dump that stuff back to the original 24 track master. By this point, I will have already sorted through and selected the tracks I want to use, and mixed them all down. So what I dump back onto the master is very concise: lead vocals, harmonies and any additional lead parts I want to use. To do the transfer, I just sync up the two machines by hand. I don't use a synchronizer anymore. I'll put the snare drum from one tape in one ear and the snare drum from the other tape in the other ear.
GW: And you do it manually?
SCHOLZ: Yeah. I do it better than any robot synchronizer. Way better. If you ever make the mistake of putting correlated signals like, say, left and right cymbal overheads on two different tracks of those two different machines, you 11 hear just how horrible a job synchronizers do. The phasing is just all over the place, while the synchronizer is trying to hunt and stay locked on. Some are better than others, but they're all pretty wide of the mark.
GW: You don't use any kind of pilot tone?
SCHOLZ. Nothing. I just run the two machines and use the drums as my guide, keeping them in sync by hand. I make very small speed corrections as the tape runs. I'll use the variable speed control on one tape deck for gross changes. But for small changes, nothing works better than a thumb on the supply reel.
GW: So you're riding it in real time.
SCHOLZ: Yeah, using the drums as my guide. I like to keep the cymbals in the earphones. Those provide the best clue for phase changes. Also, when you have the two machines synched properly, the snare drum will be right in the middle of your head, in your headphones. If the timing goes off, you'll hear the snare move very slightly. The timing we're talking about is very tight, so I can usually get it where I want it. I can also use this technique if I want to make some timing adjustments. Like, if the singer was late on a note or some-thing, I can set it up with an offset, by ear.
SCHOLZ: That's part of the art of it. These days people will do similar things on digital systems, where they have a visual display and move events by milliseconds. It's still an artistic thing when you do it that way, but somehow it's a little more fun when it's tape-based. You never do it the same way twice, of course. And with all these analog processes you only get one shot. That's a consequence that doesn't usually exist when you're working with digital storage. You can back up and go back to what you had. But once you erase something on tape, it's gone forever.
GW: Do you feel like that kind of analog tape manipulation is becoming a lost art?
SCHOLZ: Oh, yeah. No one does that anymore. They don't even make the tape that I used for the last two projects anymore.
GW: Scotch 226.
SCHOLZ. Yeah, I had to go buy up a bunch of their remaining stuff The 996 [3M's newer tape stock, which replaced 226] is an amazing tape, but it's just not my cup of tea.
GW: Why did you first devise the Rockman?
SCHOLZ: It was a combination of wanting to get a practice amp and also wanting to take a shot at putting all the things I like about a guitar sound in one place. I found that all those things could be packaged in a tiny unit, even with the technology available back in 1981. So that gave rise to actually putting it on the market and making it available as a headphone amp. Because it was small enough to go in a guitar case. And back then, guitarists didn't have stereo sound systems on stage, so there was nothing to plug it into anyway. I figured I would produce it as a headphone amp. People could hear what the box could do in the headphones.
Then, a lot of people went from there and took that little headphone amp and made records with it. In fact, I knew of about 20 or 30 records that had been recorded using that original Rockman headphone amp before Third Stage was ever completed and released to the public. Third Stage has Rockman stuff all over it, some of which were more advanced reincarnations of that little headphone amp.
GW: So on the first two Boston albums, you were just using miked cabinets?
SCHOLZ: Yeah, it's all miked on the first two albums. And a little bit on the third one, too. But mostly Rockman~ The fourth album is virtually all direct.
GW: Do you prefer the sound of direct guitar, or is it a convenience thing?
SCHOLZ: Both. It is a huge convenience. I can go back six months later and change a guitar part and reproduce the exact same sound of the track. You could never do that with miked cabinets. Never. I've tried everything. I set up the mikes with three coordinates, so I could get them in the same place within an inch or so.I tabulated different settings on the equipment-all this stuff. Forget it. It's never the same twice. I thought I had the bases covered pretty well. I had old Ampegs and Marshalls and Fenders. I had regulated voltage power supplies: big boxes supplying regulated AC at a certain voltage level. And it was still totally unpredictable. You'd get a great sound one day and the next week it would sound horrible. As a producer, the Rockman stuff lets me forget about all those hassles. It frees me up to be a musician, rather than hassling with getting guitar sounds and wondering if they're all right.
But I also really like the sound of direct. I did a lot of tracks on Walk On where I recorded direct with my Rockman modules, and then tried the same part through a tube amp with processing and so forth. I almost always ended up keeping the Rockman track. Plus the Rockman allows me to do things I could never do with a tube amp. I can turn the guitar down and it will get very, very clean and still be bright and loud. I can swell smoothly back in to a distortion part and back out. That's impossible on a tube amp.
GW: The one type of gear you don't mention in the liner notes for Walk On is your electric guitars!
SCHOLZ: Didn't I put that in there? It should be in there. It's real easy, anyway, 'cause it's all Gibson Les Paul. That's the only electric guitar that I use. Oh, there's one or two parts where I fooled around with a Jackson a little bit, but that's it. if that's not mentioned, it was an error of omission. I'll have to look at it. I wrote it. Ooops.
GW: Do you have a lot of Les Pauls?
SCHOLZ: One of my Les Pauls is the first good electric guitar I bought. And I bought another one when I got the deal to make the first Boston album-to have a backup for the studio and playing out in clubs. I went to some second-hand guitar shop and saw another gold top, Les Paul. It sounded just like mine so I bought it. It was cheap, like $350 or something. I didn't get another guitar for years. But somewhere on a tour in 1977, I realized that I should get a third guitar. I needed two on stage, and I started worrying about what would happen if something should happen. to one of the guitars I had. So I went into a music store, saw some Les Pauls and said, "Oh, that one looks nice." I picked it up and the neck was totally different from my two Les Pauls. It was a big thing. It sounded good but I couldn't play it. I ended up trying like 12 guitars in the shop, and I freaked: "None of these are Les Pauls that I know. What's going on here?" Now, those two Les Pauls that I bought are the only two Les Pauls that I ever played in my life. And it turns out that both of them were only made for like six months in 1968. It was this one model that had the same kind of neck as a '57 Les Paul. The pickups were single-coil and it was a one of a kind thing and they probably only made a few hundred. And I had learned how to play on these guitars that had necks radically different from all the others. So no, I don't have a lot of Les Pauls, because I can't find any I like. Except, I now have one that Gibson made for me.
GW: Have you modified the pickups in any way?
SCHOLZ: I had to go to humbucking DiMarzios, simply because of the hum problems with the single coils.
GW: You can play all the instruments on Boston albums. Why do you sometimes choose to have other players come in?
SCHOLZ: For a fresh perspective on a part. That's the only reason. Gary plays a lot differently than I do. So, usually what I'll do is run him off a tape of something I've done without telling him what, or even where, I think additional guitar parts should be. And he'll come back with things that never would have occurred to me. I think it's better to have more than one performer's interpretation of the music on a 45-minute CD. It helps keep the listeners' interest. I hate the idea of somebody just skipping to a few favorite cuts on a Boston album and not listening to the rest of it. I always try to make the album so that someone will want to hear the whole thing.
GW: Do you conceive the album as one continuous piece of music as you're writing it?
SCHOLZ: While I'm working on them, the songs are all separate ideas. But in the back of my mind, I'm always thinking of the album as a whole. I'll end up throwing away a lot of song ideas because they don't fit in with the whole thing. And I do some sequencing of songs as I go along [arranging the songs in the order that they will appear on the album.] Traditionally, producers would record a bunch of songs and sequence them in the end. But I try to do that while I'm going. Because a lot of decisions-for instance ,what key to play a song in can make a huge difference in the final result. If you have some idea of the song order ahead of time, you can make a change starting from one song into the next. It will make the next song very effective. Or, if you don't do it right, it can destroy the effect of the next song. It's the same thing with instrumentation, arrangement, the level, tempo ... all sorts of things. I try to have an idea of all of that as I'm recording. But all things do not end up the way I plan them. An awful lot, fortunately, happens by accident.
GW: What takes longer, writing the material or recording it?
SCHOLZ: Recording it. The arrangements are very time-consuming. Songs themselves are hard to come by-they're valuable things. So I agonize over the arrangement and recording of them.
GW: Did "We Can Make It" really go through 87 versions, as you say in the liner notes?
SCHOLZ: Probably more. I picked that number out of the blue. Frankly, there were lots of songs that went through 87 or more different versions.
GW: What kind of console was Walk On mixed on?
SCHOLZ: It's a real old, small Audiotronix 501 that's been totally ravaged and modified inside and out. I like the eq's. It's only got 26 channels, so I had to add some outboard mixing. Things were getting tight with channels. But I'm recording alone most of the time, so I don't need a monitor mix. I have one mix and it's the board mix for the song. The monitor mix system has been turned into auxiliary sends. There's all sorts of rewiring that's been done to expand it to do the things I need to do. I have a real old Fadex automation system.
GW: I remember those. They're from the late-late Seventies.
SCHOLZ: Yeah. Old. And it's very troublesome. But it does something that no other fader system that I've been able to find will do. I can rearrange and cut tape with absolute impunity, because this particular fader system doesn't depend on any sync tones. I can't really use sync tones or anything like that on tape because I always change my mind and make the verse twice as long or something.
GW: And once you cut the master, that's it for the sync code.
SCHOLZ: Yeah. And unfortunately, so much of the equipment that's built today relies on SMTPE code. So I can't use it.
GW: Do you mix very consciously for FM radio compression?
SCHOLZ: I try to. But I finally realized you can't second guess them. Whatever you do, they'll find a way to screw it up.
GW: Each station miscalibrates its gear differently.
SCHOLZ: It's hopeless. I always cringe when I hear a song I produced coming over FM radio. It's never the same. Sometimes they're just demolished and sometimes they're okay. But it's never what it is on the CD or the tape.
GW: And yet Boston are heralded as one of the ultimate FM rock radio bands. That sound seems so suited to the medium.
SCHOLZ: Yeah. [laugh] By the time I'm done with a mix, it's exactly the way I want it. I mean I understand why FM has to limit the dynamics. Most people are listening in their car or as background music in their house. If you put on a tape of Walk On in your car, if you're in any kind of normal driving situation, you won't be able to hear the quiet parts. But unfortunately that's the way it has to be because the quiet parts are there to make the loud parts more dramatic.
GW: When will we be seeing the next Boston album?
SCHOLZ: I know that I can't do one faster than two or three years. On the other hand, I've got this new studio worked out really well. So it's possible that it could be as early as '97 or '98. I do have several starts on songs that I'm really excited about. Ordinarily, if you were to ask me that question I'd say Geez, I don't know." But I've already got some things on tape, so I'm getting excited early about the next one