Rockman Concept: Synthesis

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1. Foreword 2.About music 3. About rock 4. About sound 5. About mixing 6. About guitarists 7. About tubes 8. About pedals
9. About digital 10. Ab. compression 11. About saturation 12. About filters 13. About delays 14. About chorus 15. About switching 16. Synthesis

The huge work accomplished by Tom Scholz is an answer to all the issues that are exposed in this essay. There are hopefully several ways to reach a sonic objective, and the Rockman approach is not the universal key to all the musical approaches. But the concept has proved its numerous qualities, and has reached the objectives that Tom Scholz had defined when he got involved in this adventure:

  • Create gear that would provide the easiest and most reliable way to produce the records of Boston, and to get the same sound on stage,

  • Make this gear flexible enough to allow using it in other musical and instrumental styles,

  • And... satisfy his engineer needs to design and create innovative devices!

Had the corresponding gear already existed, SR&D wouldn't have been created. The initial spark was that Tom Scholz needed gear that wasn't available off-the-shelf, which is different from saying "I want this sound and I can't achieve it", or "I don't like the sound of the gear I have".

The sound did exist before the Rockman line was created. With this sound in mind, Tom Scholz needed tools that would male obsolete the cumbersome collection of Marshall stacks, custom electronic boxes and mechanical inventions that had been Boston's daily environment for the two first albums.

Designing tools is an engineer approach, while creating music is a musician's job and controlling the sound of a band belongs to the sound engineers and to the producer. Tom Scholz plays the four roles, and that is the key factor that made the Rockman possible.

As a sound engineer and a producer, Tom introduced two strong requirements that are not always taken into account when people create gear:

  • The sound generated by the Rockman line is directly usable by the sound engineers, thus bypassing several sound processing steps while making a record.
  • The sound of a Rockman rig will stay the same, day after day, week after week, year after year, unlike vintage gear based on older technologies.

You have certainly noticed that we didn't speak about amps nor cabs here: that's normal, since the Rockman concept is to get rid of them!

Yet, SR&D has sold some huge 2x250W amps with their matching 3-way cabs: they must be considered as a monitoring system, a sort of personal PA system for the guitarist, and have no role in the sound.

SR&D has also sold regular guitar amps, the most famous being the amazing programmable XP100 and the A12-50 combo: but these items were produced in limited quantities, and were not the core of SR&D's offer.

This revolutionary approach - playing guitar without an amp - was in fact logical if you remember that Tom Scholz was first a design engineer. Though he was now a musician and a producer, he has applied engineering methodologies that have proved for decades their efficiency:

  • Top-down approach: never select solutions before defining objectives and requirements and identifying contraints.
  • Functional analysis: the requirements that are used during the design are defined in terms of functions, never in terms of possibilities.
  • Value analysis: a piece of gear aims at providing strictly the required functions, at the lowest possible cost. Over-design costs money for nothing in return and is prohibited.

You follow a top down approach when you pack your bags for a week-end and say "I can live during two days without a second pair of jeans, so I take only one". You follow a bottom-up approach when you say "I have six dresses and eight pairs of shoes, and I bring them, just in case".

You are making a functional analysis when you say "I need to go to Paris in less than three hours", instead of saying "I will drive to Paris". In the first case, you can choose between train, aircraft and car. In the second case, you are already late.

You are using value analysis when you say "I need to go daily to my office" and buy a bicycle. You are wasting your money and damaging our planet when you say "I need a car, and I will use it to go daily to my office".

Well, if you apply these methodologies to guitar sound, you will rapidly admit that in most of the situations, there's no room in the requirements for a dedicated guitar amp: create the sound in small boxes, plug that in the mixer of the band or of the studio, and you're done!

The chart below is an attempt to position all the gear approaches that one can cross one day or another. One can easily see that they are complementary, which means that we usually call an idiot anyone who is in the opposite corner...

The vertical axis corresponds to the global method used to create sounds. It ranges from bottom-up (the natural approach of someone who experiments new sounds with his gear and selects what he likes) to top-down (the methodology used by technical designers, to create gear that will respond to specific requirements).

The horizontal axis corresponds to the focus of the musician: instrumentists aim first at having a good musical sound and let the sound engineers do the rest, while a person trained to the studio approach will aim at providing a sound that merges easily into a global band sound.

  • We have all, one day, been geeks who stack several stompboxes and amps without really giving a dime about the sound of the band.
  • We can become a Pure Player: we have a sound in mind, and spend fortunes in the best amp and the best effects to get the killer sound we are dreaming about.
  • We can also mature a little, and become a Creator, someone who keeps his arsenal of stompboxes and combos, but knows that the sound of the band is the result of a collective effort.
  • The fourth quarter is a place where you will find the Sound Wizards: people who have a sound in mind, know how to achieve it, and have eliminated the eternal quest for weird sounds that may, some day, be useful to play music.

Tom Scholz belongs now to the wizards quarter - after having certainly experimented the pleasure of being a geek in his teen age. He spent several years, before creating the Rockman line, in the Creators area, fighting to get his sound out of the gear that was available.

The result of his efforts is a consistent line of sound design tools for the guitarists who care about the collective sound of their band. The technical choices of SR&D are clearly high-end oriented, while the ergonomics and features of the Rockman items avoid the traps of generating weird and useless sounds. What you get when you start playing with Rockman gear is a guaranteed sound quality, and, most of all, you will control your sound instead of letting your gear do what it can.

You may, of course, prefer other approaches. I will just quote freely Bob Cedro, who worked during 11 years with Tom Scholz, and told me something like "Consider that Tom has created Rockman like a painter: you can look at his painting, you may like it or not, but you cannot change what the painter meant when he painted it."

And now, like many Rockman afficionados, I look at the painting, and I'm still wondering if I really understood what the painter meant...

Copyright 2007