Tuesday, February 12, 2008

ARENA ROCK IN A BOX: Boston, ZZ Top & Def Leppard -- exported


eBay swag: Rockman Sustainor, still ticking twenty years after wiring.

Go to Dick Destiny's front page and you'll read I made records a long time ago.

It was the mid-Eighties and if one didn't have access to a major label contract, a nice studio, and cooperative audio engineers, one had to make do. Tone disasters were common. Getting your wall-of-fury guitar sound to tape still raging was a major headache. If you listen to lots of independently made rock records, there's good audio evidence it still is frequently a big stumbling block.

Around the same time, Tom Scholz of Boston decided he'd try marketing and selling the electronic boxes he used in the studio. The idea was to furnish a polished and rich heavy rock tone in an affordable package of electronics, one that could help guitar players in the studio or in live settings.

They were wildly successful. So handy and good-sounding, they wound up being used on countless hit records. ZZ Top's Eighties vinyl, when the band went through the roof in sales, couldn't have happened the same way without Rockman tone.

Before Mutt Lange, Def Leppard was a struggling heavy metal band from Sheffield with a sound that didn't much distinguish it from competitors. Mutt Lange gave Def Leppard the gift of Rockman. His production, some good tunes and the tone of Rockman tech defined the band's multi-platinum album selling arena-busting run.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Rockman technology was reached with a half-rack-sized box called the Sustainor. DD bought one in 1986 for the recording of an album called Brutality. While the Boston/ZZ Top/Def Leppard sound was in the device in spades, you could also use it to get a more uncouth guitar tone to tape.

Rockman boxes faded in the Nineties after Tom Scholz sold his company to a generic maker of guitar accessories named Dunlop. Many of his best designs were discontinued or altered until they no longer really resembled his originals. And the idea of arena rock in a box went into hibernation for a few years.

Cheap computing power on the home desktop brought the idea back to life. The sound of classic guitar amplifiers was crammed into software and a couple of processing chips, packaged and sold for a two to three hundred dollars. Now almost everyone who plays guitar has a digital box that does something similar to what Tom Scholz's Rockmans set out to accomplish.

But the Rockman Sustainor was there first and it was not a piece of digital technology. It was all analog and ran on light-emitting diodes. I'd sold my old one but more recently decided to replace it with a unit found on eBay, pictured above.

Remarkably, it sounded virtually the same as I had remembered in 1987.

The Rockman Sustainor was controlled by a series of switches and sliders on its front plate. These reconfigured the internal circuit path and tone filtering of the unit in a myriad of ways, all suitable for the generation of a highly produced-sounding heavy high energy guitar tone. Imagine an old Marshall stack, run full out on an arena stage, and you have the root of it. Changing the circuit path and twiddling the various equalizations enabled a range of tonal extremes within the basic playground of rock guitar. While it looked complicated, its design is such that it is easy and intuitive in use.

The beauty of the Sustainor is that it sounds the same every time you turn it on. In the case of this particular unit, even after over two decades. It doesn't have bad days like vacuum tube-driven amplifiers. If it sounds poor, it's you who's having the bad day. To use it is, to a certain extent, take advantage of the ears of Tom Scholz. And they were great ones when it came to hearing the electric guitar and how to shape its sound.

An example of the old-timey arena rock tone of the Rockman Sustainor is here. The sample is de-Boston-ized somewhat, starting with a bit of a Texan riff with delay, segueing into some power chords and single notes on a coliseum stage or perhaps the Isle of Wight, maybe after dark.

A second sample here illustrates some of the breadth of the device. By changing guitar and the configuration of the front plate, the Sustainor produces rhythm guitar tones similar to those favored by AC/DC at the beginning of the selection and and The Who toward the middle.

If you listen closely and know a bit about guitar processing, you'll notice that a compressor was an important part of the Sustainor. The compressor stage of the device influences everything unless bypassed by using the Sustainor's effects return. At its maximum setting, it contributes to producing a very powerful distortion that's just a tad to dark and squashed for my taste. Backed off somewhat, it easily captures the sag and push of output tubes run to their maximum when a guitar amplifier is turned all the way up.


All right, you have your Rockmodule Sustainor and want to know how to de-Bostonize it. Yep, you need the Rockman Graphic Equalizer but it's an over twenty year old piece of kit. And collectors bid used units up to a good deal more than they're worth on eBay. For something that works just great, there's the MXR Ten Band EQ by Dunlop. It's cheap and works seamlessly in the effects send and return of the Sustainor. Its midrange bands are perfectly suited to carve out the distinctive Tom Scholz honk at 500k and add old school early-Seventies 4x12 cabinet bass thump, something a bit lacking in the stock sound, back in. You'll find it enables a considerable range in SR&D Edge and Distortion tones, again demonstrating what a high end and lasting piece of guitar equipment Tom Scholz brought to market in 1985.

Another example of the Rockman Sustainor at work, the un-Boston-like China Toilet Blooz, a number written by the exasperated modern electric country bluesman, Jubal Early. Harmonica by your host, of course. (3.3 megabyte .mp3)

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