Interview: Tom Scholz Recalls the Making of 'Boston' and 'Don’t Look Back'
Originally printed in Guitar World, October 2006
Guitarist Tom Scholz proudly recalls the making of Boston and Don’t Look Back, two of rock’s all-time greatest albums.
When Boston’s self-titled first album was released in the fall of 1976, few industry insiders thought that a guitar-heavy rock record could make much of a dent in the charts, much less become the best-selling debut of all time. “Everybody thought that it was impossible, because disco ruled the airwaves at the time,” recalls Boston leader Tom Scholz. “But we stumbled onto a sound that worked, and soon everybody was imitating it.”
It may have been unlikely that an album dominated by brawny riffs, harmonized guitar leads and multilayered vocal workouts would capture the imagination of America’s bell-bottomed youth. What was positively bizarre was the source of this blockbuster. Scholz was hardly your typical rock-star-in-waiting; then 29, he was a gangly project manager for Polaroid, with a Master’s degree from M.I.T. in engineering, who spent his off hours writing and recording in his basement. “I was basically a dork that hit the books and liked to build things and did all of the things that you weren’t supposed to do to be popular,” he says. “But somehow I ended up onstage, playing guitar in front of everybody else.”
It’s likely this very dorkiness—along with the fact that Boston vocalist Brad Delp had a throat of gold and a staggering range—that engendered Boston’s success. For who but a died-in-the-wool braniac could compose, arrange, record and perform most of the guitar, keyboard and bass parts on an album—in his basement no less—and produce such powerful results? Even 30 years after its original release, Boston is still widely regarded as one of the best-sounding rock albums of all time, and when tracks like “More Than a Feeling” and “Rock & Roll Band” come on the radio, few can resist indulging in fits of fleet-fingered air guitar and a spirited falsetto sing-along. And now, according to Scholz, the album, along with it’s most-solid follow up, Don’t Look Back, sound even better, as they were painstakingly remastered by the guitarist himself for a new set of deluxe reissues.
Guitar World recently caught up with Scholz—in his home studio, of course—and quizzed him about the painstaking process of both making and improving upon Boston, as well as the sometimes-painful situations that the album’s massive success created for a band that, for all intents and purposes, never expected its work to see the light of day.
GUITAR WORLD Were there specific things about Boston and Don’t Look Back that you wanted to address when you remastered them?
TOM SCHOLZ There were always things that I wished could have been louder or quieter, but what bothered me the most was what happened when that nice analog audio was converted to 16-bit digital for CD. After that, I couldn’t listen to either one of those albums anymore, and I literally did not listen to either one in the past 10 years because you could only hear them on CD. I thought they sounded terrible—screechy, irritating and, well, you know what 16-bit can do to sibilance.
GW Did you do any remixing at all to readjust the levels that had been bothering you?
SCHOLZ I had to pass on the possibility of actually remixing for several reasons. First of all, the tapes were too old to play more than a couple of times, and I refused to transfer to digital and then remix. Also, those mixes are what people identify with the music that they love, whether they heard it for the first time five years ago or 30 years ago.
But what I did want to do was bring out all of the things that were buried in there, undo all the damage that was done from the digital conversions and correct a lot of minor problems. We got virgin 24-bit files run off from the master two-track tapes, and me and my digital editing engineer, Bill Ryan, got to work. I know everything that you can do with digital processing and digital editing inside and out, but I absolutely refuse to push the buttons and don’t even want to know how to load and unload the files.
GW Do you hate computers in general, or specifically as devices for working on music?
SCHOLZ I detest computers. If you had a device like that 30 years ago that froze up constantly, misbehaved constantly, lost your information and screwed up when you needed it the most, it would have been laughable. I, for one, just don’t want any part of it, so my solution to being able to utilize the abilities of the computer without having to be harassed by its abysmal performance is to get somebody else to run it. And you really need that, because any microprocessor-controlled device is so damned complicated that it requires a major part of your brain just to operate it. So you get one person who pushes the buttons and somebody else who’s got the overview of what you’re trying to do.
GW Did you spend quite a bit of time doing the remastering?
SCHOLZ Bill and I took this on as sort of a personal challenge. We said, “We’re only going to use the two-track, and we have to fix all of the mix inadequacies from having done it 30 years ago without automation and correct all the problems that resulted from the 16-bit A/D conversion.” And we just started at the beginning, and literally, fraction of a second by fraction of a second, went through the whole thing. We made very precise changes to a vocal line, a word, a crash cymbal, short guitar leads and power chords, the beginning of a snare hit, the tail end of a snare hit and so on. By now I know the frequency content of virtually any sound that’s in a Boston production, so when Brad sings, I know where it is, and if he’s singing a certain vowel sound and there’s a problem with the tone of it, I know where it is, and I know what to change and how long to change it. And because I also know what’s in the background or foreground while something’s going on, I know what I can and can’t do.