The early Boston tone was driven by Marshall amps cranked wide open. Of course, Tom also used a number of other devices, many of which were homemade (including the "Doubler" which later became the "Stereo Chorus") or modified, to get his tone and effects. Once he got the tone, he had to record it and then be able to reproduce it live.
Onstage, Scholz controls his effects from a pedal board, which, along with individual on/off switches for each effect, also features the "kitchen sink" - a switch that turns everything on ("for those times when they start picking up bottles"). The guitar is first fed into a homemade preamp which has an active high-end boost, to allow Tom to get away with using all his other inline effects without overpowering noise. "Most of those devices are designed to take much larger input signals than even the most powerful guitars put out," Scholz explains. "If you kick up the signal in front by 3 or 4dB, and start boosting the high-end at around 2kHz around 6dB per octave, you can get the signal-to-noise ratio down to a usable level."
"After the preamp," he continues, "I have a 6-band MXR Graphic Equalizer that runs on batteries- which in itself is noisier than hell, but sounds all right after it's preamped. I have a wah-wah pedal, but I often use the MXR to simulate the wah-wah sound."
[Editor's note: For those of you seeking the original Boston tone out of a Marshall amp, the "secret weapon" is in the upper left hand corner of the pedal board photo: the MXR 6 band EQ. The image to the left is a closeup of the above photo, and the settings have been recreated on the right using a modern version of the same EQ (band frequencies are L-R: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1.6k and 3.2k). You will notice the huge peak centered at 800 hz. This pre-distortion EQ'ing is the key to the Boston tone.]
Tom credits the biggest part of his sound to a Marshall 100-watt Super Lead "Plexi" tube amp cranked full up, though he notes that tone settings on the amp (which he changes often) are critical. "A little adjustment on the head will give you different distortions," he remarks. "Even the same tone settings on two different Marshalls will give you slightly different sounds." Barry Goudreau similarly used a 1968 Marshall Super Tremelo to get his side of the BoSToN stage cranked up.
Scholz feels that both live and in the studio, the manner in which the group's Marshall cabinets are miked greatly alters their sound. "Marshall cabinets in particular are very directional", he notes. "You get a completely different sound quality as you move the mike around. Personally, I put the mike a few feet away from the cabinet so it picks up the reflected signal from the floor, as well as the direct sound from the speakers."
In describing their experience when he brought his new Marshall Super Tremelo over to Tom's to try out, Barry was quoted as saying...
"The day I bought this Marshall amp I took it over Tom's we plugged it in. We had it on 2 and we were not impressed to say the least. So we turn it up to 4. Sounds better but it's getting loud. Then up to 11. Sounded unreal but it was killing us it was so loud. So that's what led Tom to build these power attenuators".....
This is one of 3 Prototype Power Soaks built and used by Tom Scholz of Boston from around 1975-1980. This is the first one made and was used extensively by Tom both touring and in the studio. It is marked "Main Soak" and was the last, most extensive version that Tom had built. It has 4 knobs instead of 2 controlling both Level and Preamp. These Attenuators feature massive rheostats and are made to work with 2 heads at the same time. They are built into old Marshall head cabinets. They also have a switching system to switch between the 2 sides. All the connections and instructions are hand written on the units by Tom.
Probably the most obvious departure in the Boston sound from your run-of-the-mill heavy metal sludge is Scholz' thick, yet clear lead guitar lines, partially accomplished with the aid of a device called a doubler, designed by Scholz and a friend. "That's what we call it," explains Tom, "though doubler is kind of a misnomer. It does more than, say, an Echoplex or tape delay that just gives you a repeat. We designed it to approximate the same sound as when you dub over a guitar part twice: it adds a pitch change to the time delay. You can build the same type of unit with commercially available devices, but I think that unless you were filthy rich, it wouldn't justify the cost. You would need a regular delay unit, a harmonizer, and an oscillator-- nothing very complicated. Since we were broke at the time, and since the technology wasn't very complicated, we built our own." Because the doubler gives Scholz such a rich, heavy sound, Tom is the only one of Boston's three guitarists [the other two are Barry Goudreau on lead and rhythm and singer Bradley Delp on rhythm] to use the device onstage. "Anything more than that would get too messy," Tom explains.
To simulate the sound onstage that he gets on record, Scholz runs the guitar signal and the signal from the doubler in stereo, which duplicates, he says, "the old recording trick of using two rhythm guitars panned to the outside." The device, however, can be used in mono, and Tom describes that result as "sounding sort of flanged."
Tom uses a piece of outboard gear to shape his now-famous guitar sound, a somewhat bulky and unglamorous wooden box on the floor next to the board. He mikes a Marshall ("I got 'em around and basically couldn't find anything better, so I use 'em") that's been Power Soaked and then runs the signal through the box-- a patchwork of separate compression, eq entering and leaving (and some of his contours on the 10-band MXR are very unusual) and other assorted delay and ammendment devices- and then into the board. For every change of sound, Scholz has to redo every setting and the sheer clumsiness and inefficiency of the system finally led him to consider taking action. "We still have these big, clunky amplifiers that you have to put all kinds of garbage in front of and then have to run through boards and more crazy stuff just to get what you've got on a record. It was a mess, getting a good sound from a Marshall, and I just got fed up with it."