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Tom Scholz is a musician, inventor, engineer, philanthropist, and founder of the band Boston.
RON LATANISION (RML): We are delighted to speak with someone who is both a mechanical engineering student from MIT and a rock icon. Music is certainly part of our social fabric that everyone appreciates, so Cameron and I are grateful to have this opportunity to talk with you.
TOM SCHOLZ: The pleasure is all mine.
RML: Let’s begin right at the beginning. Tell us about your choice of mechanical engineering and what led you to MIT.
SCHOLZ: Well, the short answer would be my father, but in reality it was sort of an obvious choice. I was a designer and builder and small-time inventor from my earliest childhood years, which took the forms you might expect—building model airplanes and boats and cars and anything else. I was really fascinated with anything that moved or flew. So I guess I had an aptitude for mechanical devices, if for no other reason than because I had dabbled in so many different ones as a child.
When I got old enough to get a driver’s license in high school, I dropped all of those hobbies and started rebuilding cars. I couldn’t afford a good car so it was an excellent outlet, because if I wanted a decent car that ran I was going to have to put it back together myself.
From the engineering standpoint, MIT had a reputation even back then when I was out of high school—which now seems like a really long time ago. I was a little shocked that I was accepted, to tell you the truth. I always did well in math and science in high school but I knew that the competition to get accepted at MIT was phenomenal.
I found out just how bad those odds were when I showed up for my freshman orientation. They sat us all in a large assembly area and put up a chart showing everyone’s SAT scores. For the English scores there was a bell curve like you’d expect—it was skewed very far up the scale, and I thought, ‘well, that’s all right, I got in the high 700s in English so I fit in here.’ Then they put up the math scores and it wasn’t a bell curve. It was just a smooth curve that rose up to the righthand side of a perfect score. I thought, ‘now I’m in trouble.’
The good thing is that they were very thorough and careful about how they vetted their new students. Some schools would report how many people they got rid of after the first year, but I don’t know if that’s something to make public, because if you’ve chosen them you should be able to teach them. MIT lost only a very, very small percentage of people who just couldn’t make the grade.
I was so shell shocked by the end of my first semester that I had already decided—and actually applied—to transfer out because I thought there’s just no way I was going to be able to make the grade at this school. Then I got my first report card and I had a 4.8 average. So I thought, ‘okay, maybe I can do it. I’ll stay.’
RML: And you went on to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering?
SCHOLZ: They refer to it as a master of science, although it was in the mechanical engineering curriculum. I was very lucky. They offered sort of a “special” for a few students—a scholarship for the tuition, some living expenses, and you could collect your master’s in one additional year. I was very lucky to get picked for that.
I did fine scholastically, but by the end of those five years that was pretty much it for me for scholastic endeavors. I never took another class of any type after that. I decided from that point on if I was going to learn something I was going to do it on my own.
I taught myself how to become a pilot so I could pass both the written and practical tests. I took physical flying lessons but I didn’t go to ground school or any of that. And I taught myself Spanish from books—nobody does that anymore, it was sort of a challenge. But that last year was so tough I haven’t gone back to school for anything else.
MIT was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, getting through those five years. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was one of the best things that ever could have happened to me.
CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Where does your music fit into this? Were you playing guitar and doing other kinds of musical pursuits while you were at MIT?
SCHOLZ: I was. I actually wrote my first piece of music my junior year and it ended up on my first album, which sold 20 million copies. That’s probably something of a record for a first composition.
RML: Which one was that?
SCHOLZ: It’s an instrumental called Foreplay.
RML: I know that one. You wrote that when you were a junior at MIT?
SCHOLZ: I did. I wrote it on an electric piano in my fourth floor apartment. I had had enough of dynamics and so forth to understand how sound can transfer through a wood floor. The three nurses that lived below us were extremely patient with me because I usually wrote between 12:00 and 2:00 in the morning and every time I pounded on those keys they felt it through the ceiling—and never complained. I think they felt sorry for me because I had to go to MIT.
CHF: Are you a self-taught musician?
SCHOLZ: I am. I did take some piano lessons when I was a little kid, I think between seven and nine years old. I learned how to read a little and I played a little classical music, but then I stopped and I didn’t start again until I got to MIT, where they had pianos here and there in the student areas. I started plunking around on those and that’s where I got the bug again.
At that point, I began playing by ear and that’s when I think my music education began because I began to understand how music was put together. Of course, it started with really simple pop songs but that’s when I really started to realize sort of how it went together. Up to that point, having played piano by sight reading, I was basically a glorified piano roll—you know, open the music and I would reproduce the notes on the keyboard.
But I didn’t really make the connection between what was on that sheet of paper and what I was doing and what the composer was thinking. Later, I went back to a few of those pieces and then I was really impressed with these classical composers and what they had done. So music was sort of a pastime in school and then I got more serious about it as the years went on.
I play keyboard instruments—piano, organ, and so forth—and fretted string instruments—guitar, bass. I played drums for a bit but then I got an injured back and that became more and more painful so I haven’t played drums for quite a while. I learned how to play the standard combo instruments to produce a typical rock-n-roll song of the ’60s or ’70s. That was not my goal, I did it purely for the enjoyment of playing the music.
I got into guitar because I had joined a really bad band when I was at MIT and the guitar player was just not doing justice to the music—I’m talking important pieces of music like Steppenwolf. I thought, ‘how hard can that be?’ So I bought a $25 guitar from another student, and the amp, and started trying to learn some songs—and that’s when I realized it actually was very hard to do.
It took me a long time to adapt to fretted stringed instruments. To this day I can sit down at a keyboard or an organ or a synth and if I haven’t played for six months, I can immediately play any number of complicated pieces that I know. With the guitar, every time I pick it up it’s as if I’ve never played it before and I have to start all over again to get my hand to work. So I find guitar very challenging and it’s not easy for me. With keyboards, it was always a piece of cake.
RML: Let me understand the transition here. After you got your degree in mechanical engineering you went to Polaroid for a few years.
SCHOLZ: Yes, I spent six years at Polaroid, primarily as a design engineer.
RML: And where was music during this period?
SCHOLZ: When I left school and started a real job, first I was absolutely amazed that I could put in so little time doing something and some company was willing to pay me the kind of money that they did. I thought, ‘how is this even possible?’ At MIT I didn’t even go to class most of the time because I didn’t have time to go to class—I was too busy doing the problem sets.
So I was amazed at the amount of free time I had working 40 hours a week. That’s when I got much more serious about music. I started trying to record some of it and slowly picked up some pointers on how that could be done. Later, thanks to my Polaroid experience, I learned about the technical aspects of tape recording, including building a recorder.
RML: So the recording was partly a consequence of your experience at Polaroid?
SCHOLZ: Before I knew very much about the technical aspects of recording, I began recording by doing what other people did: buying time at a local studio. Back then, it was a completely different situation. Today, anybody can make a recording on their laptop with 48 or 96,000 tracks if they want to. And it’s free, which of course has produced an incredible amount of really bad music.
Back then, if you wanted to record something with close to state-of-the-art audio quality, it cost you an arm and a leg. In today’s dollars, you’d be looking at $5,000, $10,000 to make a recording of one song that was of professional quality. If you were going to do it, you were going to pay for it.
So I started slowly. I was working days and saving money and using it for that purpose. Slowly I obtained the technical know-how to build a small demo quality studio in the basement of my apartment house. Polaroid, and of course MIT, where my electronic and mechanical education really started, gave me the tools to be able to do it.
RML: When you were at MIT did you come across Amar Bose?
SCHOLZ: No, I didn’t.
RML: He was the founder of Bose, the sound system. I heard him talk about how he founded Bose Corporation. He was studying for his doctoral exam and did not like the quality of the music playing on his hi-fi. He thought there had to be a better way for the listener to enjoy music. Of course, your focus was not so much on the listener as the performer. I’m thinking of the evolution not only of Boston but of Rockman, the device you invented.
SCHOLZ: For everything I got involved in technically that had to do with music, necessity was the mother of invention. It was something that I needed that usually didn’t exist, or not in a form that I thought was usable. For instance, back in the early ’70s various types of chips started being manufactured. There was one called a bucket brigade. It was an analog device that could provide an analog audio delay, and as soon as I caught wind of this device I got together with an electrical engineer at Polaroid, a friend from MIT, and gave him a block diagram and he drew up a schematic and we built what I called then a doubler.
I wanted something that would make a synthetic second performance of what I was doing without actually having to play it. I was trying to perform my music live in very small venues and I needed to have this doubling thing in the studio since I was very limited in the number of tracks that I had. By doing that, I could build something that reproduced the same performance, slightly off-pitch and slightly off-time.
It turns out you actually need to do a little more than that to make a bona fide fake second performance. And the immediate question is, Why would you want a second performance? The answer to that is that every time you add an instrument or voice doing the same thing, you completely change the character of the sound, which was discovered a long time ago and is the reason we have symphony orchestras.
I needed that device and there was nothing available at the time that could do it so we built it—put it in a cigar box and used it on the first Boston album and for my demo work. Within a couple of years after that, you could go into any music store and buy that same device, packaged and ready to go—’though not with the same good signal-to-noise ratio as the one we built.
RML: Listening to you speak makes understandable a quote I read about you: “Boston’s Tom Scholz has a musician’s soul and a scientist’s obsession with the phenomena of sound and music.”1
SCHOLZ: That’s pretty accurate.
RML: How many musicians have anything like the science or engineering background to do what you’ve done?
SCHOLZ: Having the basic Newtonian physics was such a blessing. I realized when I got out into the world that I understood things about how a guitar worked and why it sounded the way it did and why it responded to various things that you might do with it, and other people had no idea what was actually happening—they knew it would make a sound if they did this but they didn’t know why. So it gave me a leg up on being able to translate the sound I was looking for or hoping for or dreaming of and actually get it to happen.
RML: That’s a remarkable story, and all the more reason why it’s so important for us to have this conversation with you. When we launched this interview campaign we wanted to demonstrate that engineering could be integrated into the culture of the country in ways other than building engineering systems or managing nuclear waste, for example, and this is a wonderful demonstration.
SCHOLZ: Boston music is definitely more fun than nuclear waste.
RML: I have a granddaughter who is nine years old and is taking cello lessons. I volunteered to take her to music school on the very first day, and her teacher handed her a book of music and said, “This is something I’d like you to work on between lessons.” I looked at my granddaughter and said, “Scarlett, can you read music?” And she looked at me and said, “Of course.” I was pretty impressed with that.
SCHOLZ: It is an admirable skill and, having dabbled in it when I was a little kid, now I look back and think, ‘boy, I wish I’d kept that up,’ because if you put a piece of music in front of me now it’s a foreign language again. I can sit down and decipher it over a few hours but there’s no playing from sheet music.
CHF: What are you doing with music these days, Tom?
SCHOLZ: I’m preparing for the 40th anniversary tour of Boston this summer, and coming up with arrangements for half a dozen songs we’re going to add to our set and writing segues to go between the songs. I’m also having to invent some gear because a couple of these songs are pretty challenging to play and I was doing things in the studio, double tracking, and now I have places where I have to play or sing a part myself and I have to do both at the same time, so I’m coming up with ways to do that. And I’m working on some lighting effects. There’s an enormous amount that goes into a tour and I’m busy trying to get as many loose ends together as possible before our first rehearsal.
RML: When does the tour begin?
SCHOLZ: It starts the last day of April in Fort Lauderdale. Don’t ask me why, but we’ve started every tour at the Hard Rock in Fort Lauderdale for the last however many years and it’s become a tradition. So we head down there at the end of April and the tour goes through the 14th of August.
RML: On a slightly different topic, tell us about the DTS Foundation, your charitable foundation.
SCHOLZ: I set it up as a way to keep track of what I was doing with my charitable donations. Actually, after I had become successful for a few years in the music business, I was pretty demoralized with what I saw. It wasn’t the most admirable group of individuals I had been involved with. I made a lot of people fairly wealthy from the work I did, and I didn’t like seeing what they did with the money.
So after the second album and tour in the early 1980s, I did a little soul searching because I was at that point contemplating getting out of the music business entirely. Then I had an epiphany: instead of letting every snake in the grass run off with the money generated by these recordings I’m making, if I can channel that into the right hands, I could actually see some really good things happen. That became my reason for remaining in the music business—and of course I loved playing music, especially live, and I loved writing it and hearing it come to completion on an album.
So I made a conscious decision that from then on my goal, from a professional or financial standpoint, was to make money to help bankroll people who were trying to make a difference. The areas I was aiming at were animal protection, efforts to help children—I wanted to do what little I could to reduce suffering. And as I learned more about it I became a vegetarian.
So the charitable foundation I set up was a way for me to keep track of where the donations went and how much. My goal was to give away more than I spent on myself, and a lot of really good things ended up happening from that. There was an effort to try to stop tuna fishing vessels from catching dolphins, and I provided funding to run ads on the East Coast that turned the tide and got Starkist to finally agree to dolphin-safe tuna. And over a million dollars was given to the Humane Farming Association to educate people about veal crates and pig crates.
I also used the band’s name itself on tours to try to generate awareness and funding for various organizations; for example, in 1987 we did something for the National Hospice and in 2003, I think it was, we raised money for the Sierra Club. Most recently we did a combination promotion and benefit for the Shriners Children’s Hospital and Sea Shepherds.
When all else fails, if things are going badly or I’m down in the dumps or wonder why I’m doing what I’m still doing, I always remember that I am doing something that’s really helping a lot of other living things.
RML: Do you have someone who manages the day-to-day operations of the foundation?
SCHOLZ: My wife and I do it. We do as much vetting as we can. We’ve been donating to many of the organizations for a long time and we try to pay attention as much as we can, we get a feel for who is really doing something special with the money. It’s amazing what some of these people can do with very little in the way of resources. A lot of the individuals who staff these organizations, they live that job, some of them for 20-plus years. It’s just amazing to me.
My part is very small even though in some cases I provide a lot of the funding; all I do is write a check, but some of these people, their whole life is spent living these jobs that they do. I’m very pleased that I can do that much. Some people can speak publicly or become a spokesman for some effort or organization or their goals, but I’ve never had the knack for that. This is something I can do.
RML: That’s a wonderful thing—not only to be able to do it but to follow up and do it.
SCHOLZ: I’ve always been a subscriber to the thought that people should live simply so that others may simply live, and I think I have a wonderful life. I have a nice home in a nice place but I don’t need a lot of stuff. I drive a 20-year-old Camry that I love. I do have to admit I got a second one that’s newer—it’s a 19-year-old Camry that’s lower in mileage. I love old stuff. I should qualify that: I love well-engineered old stuff.
RML: What do you do when you’re not involved in music, in your downtime?
SCHOLZ: I’ve been putting in a large patio behind my house that has taken me about three years. It’s flagstones with pea stones in between, but the pea stones don’t move like they do with a regular flagstone patio because I put in a network of grout that’s reinforced with graphite fibers and then pea stones on top. It’s been a very cool process.
And I spend half of my summer trimming back huge trees and bushes on my property. I planted a lot of them over the years. I have massive amounts of flowering shrubs and so forth and I love going out and taking care of them and pruning and doing all the things you have to do.
I like working outside and I have a dog that I take for a couple-mile walk/run every day. And a wife I love. Whenever I have a little bit of time, I spend it doing one of those things that I really enjoy.
CHF: And those are all interests that you can pursue indefinitely—it’s not as though you have to anticipate and plan for retirement and what you’ll do after that.
SCHOLZ: Oh God, no. I have so many things that I haven’t gotten to do!
CHF: What are some of those things?
SCHOLZ: Well, I’m looking at this airplane that I built. It looks like one of the Bell rocket planes from the mid-50s. It’s a delta wing airplane with about a 4-foot wingspan and it’s about 4–4½ feet long. It’s got a radio control that I designed in 1972 and built and have flown for many, many years. I love this thing. It takes off vertically out of a chute so you fire it up—it makes all kinds of ungodly racket, it’s really scary—and hit the release with your foot and off it goes, straight up in the air. Very cool. But it hasn’t been started now in a few years and I have to replace the engine and the radio, too, because it’s no longer compliant with the frequency allocation for radio-controlled models. I’m dying to get that back up in the air.
RML: I get the launch, Tom, but how do you land it?
SCHOLZ: No landing gear. So I really want to fly this thing somewhere where there’s grass or weeds because asphalt is not good. Most places that are approved for flying radio-controlled models have grass. It just bellies in. It actually slides—it’s blisteringly fast but has a very, very slow stall speed. It’s got a huge wing.
CHF: And what are some of the other activities you’re looking forward to when you get a spare minute?
SCHOLZ: I’m trying to get my double toe loop back and double Salchow. I had a really old pair of skates and I took one of them and built a hinged support system. You’re probably not real familiar with figure skates but traditionally they’re super heavy and super hard—they’re like little mini ski boots because you need the ankle support. But at the same time you need to be able to use your calf muscle if you want to get maximum elevation for jumps. So I built a hinge into one of the boots to try it out—I didn’t get too esoteric with it, I just used aircraft aluminum—and did a little experimentation to find out where the best point was on my ankle to have the thing flex. It was successful and now I only wear those skates. I always say I get an extra 2–3" of elevation because I have the magic skate. The engineering came in very handy for figuring out where the stresses were going to be.
CHF: You have really maximized that MIT education in ways I’m sure they never anticipated.
SCHOLZ: I use it every day. Honestly, in everything I do. It’s so ingrained. I am always thinking about the easiest way to open a refrigerator or—well, everything is so automatic now—and it all was from that training. That’s why I say the years I spent at MIT, as hard as they were, were the best use of time of anything I think I’ve ever done.
CHF: It really makes you the ideal engineering student.
RML: It really does. Tom, I know you have an incredibly busy life, but have you ever had time in your agenda to talk with students, engineering students at universities?
SCHOLZ: I have had very little opportunity to do that. But recently I was invited to join a visiting committee at MIT and I got to see and hear from some of the current students. It was very interesting. I thought, things really haven’t changed that much. The place looks different but the students are still the same. They are driven. They are incredibly talented and they are putting up with the same things and are bugged by the same things, but living through it and improving their minds in ways that are hard to fathom.
RML: What strikes me in your story and our conversation is that you are a great demonstration of someone who has something that you enjoy very much—music—and you’ve found the right path to maximize all of your experiences in a wonderful career as a musician. There’s got to be an enormous amount of satisfaction in all of that.
SCHOLZ: I consider myself incredibly lucky. Not that I didn’t work very hard and take some enormous risks to do it, but I never expected success at it. My description of success, had you asked me back in the mid-70s, would have been ‘well, if I can get a song on a local radio station and play in some local places and have anybody recognize a song, that would be my ultimate dream.’ I never for a moment thought that my father would have a platinum record hanging over his fireplace.
And by the way, my father lobbied very hard against me having anything to do with a band or music. But he did hang the platinum record. My father and mother were both brilliant people. I learned later in life that he had his own band—he was a trumpet player—so I guess he had formed his own opinion about the likelihood of being successful with that or about what kind of a life it would lead you into.
On the other hand, he was very happy to see things work out for me in music even though he gave me quite a hard time about dabbling in it. I remember telling him that I was doing one last demo because I just couldn’t spend any more time or money on it, I was almost 30. And I remember him berating me for wasting my time on recording this music when I should be concentrating on my engineering career, I could have been a senior principal engineer by now. And then I had this really unexpected success.
About five years later I decided, almost as a hobby but as a sideline, to start a little engineering company to build novel gear for rock musicians. I told my dad about it and I remember him saying, “Why are you wasting your time on this engineering crap”—his actual words—“when you could be writing another hit album?”
RML: Well, I can’t imagine another American rock musician who can top what you’re describing. This is a great story. And coupled with all of that is the fact that your background is in engineering and you’ve put it into practice in ways that are pretty extraordinary. Is there anything you’d like to say or any comment directed to the engineering practice in the United States today?
SCHOLZ: While the amazing advances made possible by modern microprocessors are undeniable, the overuse, inappropriate use, and poor design implementation of digital technology in the 21st century have done more than just make life more aggravating, distracting, and complicated. They have created new unforeseen lethal dangers. Whether it is “safer” airliners with overly complex automation falling from the sky, cars speeding out of control due to malfunctioning “drive by wire” accelerator and drivetrain controls, or drivers running over pedestrians while either one of them is distracted by texting, it should be obvious that engineers need to resist the doing-it-because-it’s-possible bells and whistles design philosophy. The current love affair with designing a microprocessor into everything may be driven by marketing departments and gullible consumers; engineers need to speak up for simplicity of design, which translates naturally to understandability, reliability, and control response.
On a personal note, the de-evolution of recorded music audio quality brought about by digital recording and digital consumer delivery means that MP3 files have probably been a major factor in the demise of the music industry, and hence the quality of new music. The fact that true audio enthusiasts go to great lengths to preserve their vinyl collections and turntables is a testament to this.
Within the last three years, sound reinforcement (the really big speakers) has increasingly been processed through digital mixing consoles, meaning there are only two places you can go to hear a musical production in the analog domain that the instruments, and your ears, inhabit: small symphonic productions without sound reinforcement, and Boston in concert. We don’t use digital mixers.
RML: We’ve now taken an hour of your time and we promised to do no more than that.
SCHOLZ: It’s been great talking with you guys.
1 GuitarWorld, “Tom Scholz Releases Boston’s Last Recordings with Brad Delp, ‘Life, Love & Hope,’ an Album 11 Years in the Making,” April 2, 2014.