I recently researched the recording of the first Boston album for a Guitar World issue. What an amazing story. Boston’s guitarist, Tom Scholz is a very smart guy! He has a Masters degree from MIT and back in the ’70s he had a pretty senior job at Polaroid. If you’re my age you’ll remember the coolness of the Polaroid camera. Put the film canister in, snap a photo and the camera would spit out your picture! Magic! Compare that to now. We take unlimited instant pictures, carry around a huge record collection, navigate with GPS, do video calls, check email, all with just our cell phones!
Back to Tom. In the meantime, while working at Polaroid, he was recording the first Boston demos and then finally the album, all in his basement. But this was the ‘70s, back then, unless your were Paul McCartney, nobody had a home studio in their basement, or any other part of their house! Multi-track recording gear was very expensive, needed regular maintenance, complex wiring, expensive recording tape, a complex mixing console, and all kinds of tricky stuff.
Tom’s job at Polaroid gave him the resources to purchase a used 12-track tape machine from a local studio that was upgrading to 24-track. Tom cobbled together a ton of gear in that infamous basement. He built a power-soak so he could use his Marshall amp at full volume without it being too loud. He built a chorus effect into a cigar box and a tape delay unit he called a space echo, he bought a bunch of equalizers and everything he needed.
Tom’s drummer friend, Jim Masdea, came over and they recorded the drums. Then, Tom went to work playing and overdubbing all the other instruments including bass and organ. Tom also recorded his very patient singer, Brad Delp, who multi-tracked all the Harmonies and double-tracked most of the lead vocals.
In the early ’70s, Tom submitted tapes to record companies and he was turned down by label after label. But one day, upon hearing the demo of “More than a Feeling,” Epic Records decided to offer Tom and Brad a deal, but, they had no band.
Tom quickly found some other musicians and then flew them out to LA to record the album. But, the guys in LA were just a diversion for the record label. Really, Tom was back in his Boston neighborhood basement, recording all the parts himself. Meanwhile, the guys in LA pretended to record in a big expensive Hollywood studio. Of course in the ’70s, Epic Records, or any other self respecting label, would never approve of a new artist recording in a basement. They would need the big expensive studio, so the ruse continued with Tom back in Boston recording everything. Only the record producer John Moylan knew what was going on.
Now days, most musicians have a home studio, the thing that Tom had was the brains and the ability to work long and hard and produce amazing results. I read Tom worked on the song “More than a Feeling” for five years. If you listen close to that first Boston album, it stands up against any record from those days or for that matter any record today.
Tom’s brains, talent, perfectionism and stick-to-itiveness all add up to his genius. When recording you’re constantly making decisions, asking yourself, does that vocal sound in tune? Does that guitar chord sound in tune? Was the time rushing or dragging? Are the drums in the pocket? Does it groove? How was that bend in the solo? Shall I do it over? I just did 15 takes already, shall I really do it over?
Furthermore, since Tom had to bounce tracks to open up more tracks, he couldn’t click “undo” like we can today, he had to commit to a performance. He had to focus like a laser. If you ever have a feeling that maybe that take isn’t good enough, that feeling is probably correct. Or, then again, it might not be. That’s why recording is so hard. Especially when you’re on your own like Tom. On my latest instrumental guitar album “Mindscanner” I played everything but the drums. I know how hard it is. Most of my mixing decisions were made listening on my Subaru’s stock stereo.
The rewarding part is when you really nail a solo, rhythm or a vocal, or get a mix just right. Not all of us are smart enough to graduate from MIT, but I think a recording lesson we can take from Tom is “do it over until it’s right” and trust your instincts. Also, you don’t need that big expensive studio.