The Once and Future Analog King: Boston’s Tom Scholz and the Tales of His Sacred Tapes
BY MIKE METTLER
“Pretty much everything that goes into the music is as analog as I can make it,” says Tom Scholz, chief sonic architect of the longtime rock powerhouse known as Boston. It’s taken him 10 years to deliver the band’s sixth studio album, Life, Love & Hope (Frontiers) — “But who’s counting?” he chuckles — and discerning audiophiles know it’s well worth the wait. Signature stacked harmonies, lovingly layered guitars, emotionally uplifting vocals, sheaves of killer riffs — what’s not to like? (And, yes, Virginia, there will be vinyl, sometime in early 2014.) “All I can say is the tone, the sound, and the way it’s all put together is the way I like it,” Scholz admits. “And I’m just lucky there are other people who like the same things I do.”
Scholz, 66, and I have spoken a few times about our mutual audio-centric passions over the years, and this time, he and I discuss how he felt the need to recast certain songs for Life, recording onto tape, how emotion ties into that unique Boston sound, and why he thinks analog will always trump digital. “The whole purpose of making music to me is the emotion,” Scholz emphasizes. “That’s why I do it. It gives me a feeling of awe or something else that can only come from music. That’s my whole point for doing it for me, for our fans, and for any listener: Creating an emotion to respond to.” One might even say it’s more than a feeling.
Mike Mettler: You’ve reclaimed three songs on Life, Love & Hope from the last Boston album, Corporate America  — and made them sound better in the process. How did you do it?
Tom Scholz: I put those songs on there because I didn’t feel I captured what I was looking for with that release. It’s probably most obvious if you listen to “You Gave Up on Love (2.0)” on this record as opposed to the version on Corporate America. It’s almost like two different bands, even though a lot of the tracks are the same. Whatever was going on back then wasn’t working. So it was completely re-recorded, and I finally got what I was looking for.
The only song from Corporate America that I put on Life that was largely unchanged was the second cut, “Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love.” The production is a little bit better, but the reason I put it on was it was co-written with Curly Smith and a friend of his [Janet Minto], and I just didn’t think it got a fair shot at the light of day on Corporate America, and I wanted to give it another chance at life. [laughs]
We were in sort of a rush to have the album available in the standard digital format first. [chuckles] I put it off to the last possible moment, of course. I do everything in analog, and the very last thing that happens is it gets converted to digital, and then I am forced to listen to it in the digital format. I can’t take too much of that, I have to tell you. Even at decent 24-bit resolution, after a day of listening to my music that way, I just don’t want to hear it anymore. As opposed to analog, where at the end of the day I usually treat myself by sitting back with the headphones and letting it run. I really enjoy that. Something about digital sound doesn’t agree with me.
Mettler: We have talked before about how much disdain you have for the digital realm. What gets lost there? What’s missing?
Scholz: First, let me say this: With analog sounds, I can’t tell the difference between the actual performance and the analog playback. When I’m running the 2-inch tape or the mixdown tape and I switch between input and monitor in my studio [Hideaway Studios II], I can’t tell you which is the real one. The realism is the main thing.
Technically speaking, there are three things wrong with digital. First, the resolution — the measurement they have to make on the waveform — is not nearly accurate enough for the low volume information on the record. Second, the sample rate is ridiculously low. You can’t hope to sample a 15-kHz high-frequency sound at 44k at less than three times the waveform and expect to duplicate it. Even a 10-kHz tone, such as when a singer sings an “s” sound, or when a cymbal is playing, or you have a guitar with a lot of distortion — the high frequency is just destroyed. And it’s not destroyed in a nice way, with distortion overloading or tape saturation or some nice harmonic thing; it’s a completely alien sort of unnatural form of distortion. The sample rate is way too low.
And the third thing is for whatever reason they haven’t been able to make a waveform that doesn’t have phase-angle distortion. I remember back in the origins of the digital age with 3M making their horribly expensive and horrible sounding multitrack digital recorder that was going to replace their 2-inch M79 tape deck. And one of the criticisms from technical people was, “What about the phase-angle distortion?” And they said, “Well, the human ear doesn’t hear phasing.” How arrogant can you possibly be? The way we locate sounds is the relative phase of the high and low frequencies!
This is what destroys the depth of music and good production. To me, digital always sounds like it’s played through a flat plane in front of you. Now, a good analog recording played through a good pair of speakers sounds like you’re listening to things happening in a big hall. You can hear things happening far away, and things happening close up. Digital music is all on a flat plane, and I think that’s because of the phase-angle distortion.
Those are the technical issues. Now I’ll add this, from the nontechnical point of view — digital just sounds crappy. [both laugh] I just can’t listen to it for very long.
Mettler: What do you have in your home studio? You must have some reel-to-reel players in there somewhere. I’ve got two myself.
Scholz: [laughs] There are plenty. I have two 24-tracks, and a couple of 2-tracks. Even the echo is analog. I stopped using tape slap echo, but we built what I call “bucket brigade chips” — solid-state analog echo units. I saved enough of them when I got out of the equipment business — these Rockman stereo echo units. Pretty much everything that goes into the music is as analog as I can make it.
Mettler: Are you still buying tape?
Scholz: Yes. It is really hard to find. It’s frustrating and fraught with difficulties. It changes from year to year what you’re able to buy. That’s one of the most difficult things. I guard the tape supply, and I only use what I absolutely have to use. The best stuff is called Quantegy 456, and before they stopped making it, I tried to get as much of it as I could. Excellent, excellent tape, and I try to use it as much as possible.
Mettler: So you have a vault under the house, locked up like Fort Knox…
Scholz: Ha ha, I wish! I wish. I have a box here with a couple of reels left. I keep looking. Of course, the tape that’s out there keeps getting older, and it does have an age limit. Tape is the singlemost scary part of recording analog these days. The other thing is, it’s very hard to find the people who can work on the equipment.
Mettler: Let me further bend your professorial ear. Why is vinyl the better way to hear music?
Scholz: Vinyl is better simply because it is a better analog reproduction of the original. The waveform is virtually exact. But there are limitations with vinyl. The absolute best way to listen to music is on a high-quality reel-to-reel audio tape. Unfortunately, that option went by the wayside when the CD, that new wonderful thing, came out, which is a good example of major corporations selling people a bill of goods. I remember hearing, “But CDs won’t wear out. And they won’t skip.” [laughs heartily]
The scary thing is if you look at a digital waveform for a CD and you look at one of the quiet segments of a piece of music, and if you blow it up to see what’s being reproduced — it doesn’t even look like music. It’s just these horrific, rectangular representations that used to be a nice waveform. There’s just nothing left.
Mettler: Do you remember the very first record you bought with your own money?
Scholz: Let’s see. That would probably be Jeff Beck’s Truth . But it actually might have been the first Iron Butterfly album, Heavy , which had the “Iron Butterfly Theme” — not to be confused with “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which was really not that wonderful. The “Iron Butterfly Theme” is the one that did it for me. That’s what made me decide to learn how to play guitar.
Once I started living in the recording studio, I kind of stopped listening to everything roughly around 1972. [laughs] But I did get to hear the first two Led Zeppelin albums, and some of Joe Walsh’s music. That was sort of it for my “popular” music background. The rest of it came from symphonic records, which go a lot further back. But they sounded beautiful. I was listening to stereo vinyl back in the early ‘60s, and good vinyl symphonic recordings from the ’50s were awesome.
Mettler: Boston has a signature unique sound that no one has ever quite been able to replicate. No one sounds like you do, Tom. Why do you think that is?
Scholz: You know, I don’t know. I’ve often wondered the same thing. As you know, I pretty much work alone. The sound that ends up on the tracks is the sound that I like. There isn’t anything else going into how I want the guitars to sound, how I want the production to sound, or in the mix except for what I like.
And I’m just lucky there are other people who like the same things I do, because I have to tell you, there were people back in 1976 telling me I was wasting my time because nobody was going to pay for something that sounded like this since disco was the happening thing. So to find out that there were actually people who did want the same things I did — that was a revelation, and a very pleasant surprise.
I don’t listen to any other outside influences. I don’t listen to any other music, and I certainly don’t put any on in the studio. And I don’t really try to duplicate old records or anything else. I just do what I think. It turns out a certain way. I will say that if I walk into a certain place where a Boston song is being played, or I hear it on a radio or in a noisy place, I know right away that’s a Boston song playing, and I know that it’s Boston before I can tell you which song it is. There is something about the sound, but I never analyzed it.
Mettler: I think Boston music has a timeless quality in its own cocoon. String the body of work together, and you find a consistent sound all the way through. But it also has something else we’ve discussed before, and that’s the emotional weight of the material.
Scholz: And that’s the important part. That’s the art. The whole purpose of music to me is the emotion. That’s why I do it. It makes me feel good, or makes me feel excited. It gives me a feeling of awe or something else that can only come from music. That’s the emotional aspect. That’s what has to go into the track when you’re playing it, and the whole purpose of bothering to record it. When it comes to recording something other people are going to listen to, then I get really picky about, “How does the music make you feel?” That’s my whole point for doing it — creating an emotion.
Mettler: Besides marveling at the sound quality, I connected with the emotional aspects of Life, Love & Hope the first time I heard it. And when I put it on again later on, I was instantly connected with where I was when I heard it the first time. If music doesn’t affect me, there’s something missing. And I would say that everything in your entire catalog has that stamp on it, or you wouldn’t have put it out in the first place.
Scholz: It’s the only reason for doing it. If I just want to do something to have fun, I can sit down with a musical instrument and go at it for hours. I’m perfectly happy just sitting down at the piano or organ or grabbing a guitar and just banging away for hours on end, at anything. I’m perfectly entertained and amused. But if I’m going to put an effort into making a recording, I’m going to go for the kind of emotion that other people can get into. I’m basically creating a good feeling for the listener. That’s my whole reason for doing it.
Mettler: Is there one song from Life Love & Hope we can use as an example of something that wasn’t quite there at first, but then you turned the crank and got it there?
Scholz: Oh, practically all of them. [laughs] Pretty much they all go through that trial by fire, and there’s rarely a time when, start to finish, I think all along, “Oh, this is good, this is going to work. I’ve got something here.” No, that never happens. [laughs heartily] I think that, then 2 weeks later, “Oh, this is junk.” [laughs again]
If you count the variations of everything I tried, there are literally thousands of versions of each one of the recordings that ended up on on the Life CD. It’s a matter of trying to hold onto the good ideas, recognize them, live with them, and figure out what things are needed to make it all beautiful. Sometimes that takes putting it away and coming back to it months or even a year later. Sometimes that can be very illuminating. “Oh, this is the wrong place to make that change; I never should have put that break in there.” And then I start back into the technical part and change the recording into what I should have done in the first place. The process involves artistic judgments that can sometimes be very contrary to what is practical. And my job as producer and engineer is to overcome the practical limitations. That just means spending a lot more time on the recording.
Mettler: I liken listening to Life, Love & Hope to unpeeling an artichoke and finding all of the layers within. And that’s also part of the joy of listening to a record more than once all the way through, by the way.
Scholz: I always felt that listening to a Boston record is like watching a movie you really like again and again. You find all these weird little things that you may not have gotten the first time. That’s how I always felt with these productions, because I put an awful lot into them. A traditional pop song has three choruses that are all identical, and they could have been done once and then flown into the mix. That never happens on a Boston recording. They’re always different because I just have so many ideas, and I like the chance to use as many of them as possible. For example, a bass line will be one thing on the first chorus and then it will be something different on the second because I have a lot of ideas about the way it should be played.
Mettler: That might hearken back to you tapping into all of the classical music you listened to growing up and absorbing nuances like orchestral sweeps and different movements.
Scholz: Yes, it’s repetition of a theme, with variation. That’s what makes what I do worth listening to more than once, doesn’t it?