Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Remembering the Rockman

Today was my last day of teaching for the semester. I wrapped up my course on music technology on something of an odd note, but one that I thought raised some provocative questions. We'd been spending the last weeks of the semester talking about the effects of digitization on the music industry, with journalist Steve Knopper's polemic Appetite for Self-Destruction as our guide. We've talked about the development of MP3 technology, and about Apple's successful plan of using music to market new hardware with its simultaneous promotion of iTunes and its various mobile listening devices. And we've stressed the ways in which portability has superseded fidelity as the optimal feature for music consumers.

All of this raised important questions about the connection between music technology, listening and consumption. But it left questions about music production and creativity largely to the side. So, to bring things back around, I spent a good chunk of today's class discussing the brief history of the Rockman.

Anyone out there remember the Rockman? None of my students did, which is no great shock since this thing's heyday was nearly thirty years ago when most of my students weren't born. But, the Rockman marked a pretty fascinating early instance of trying to take portable music technology and make it something useful for musicians, not only for music listeners. The name, of course, was a play on the famous Sony Walkman, but the function was singular: a portable guitar preamp designed to be played through headphones, and with built-in distortion, chorus and echo effects that were considered state of the art as guitar effects were concerned.

That the device was designed by Boston guitarist (and MIT-schooled) Tom Scholz only added to the peculiar mystique of the thing.

Personally, I never liked the Rockman all that much. I never owned one but a good friend of mine did, and it didn't quite have the quality of distortion that I liked to have. But others disagreed, and the Rockman made an impact in its day, less for its portability than for giving guitarists a range of valued sounds in a compact, affordable package.

With all the current interest in music's portability, I'm surprised more people haven't been drawn to recall the Rockman. Any time spent with the iTunes app store will show an awful lot of apps made for the new generation of portable devices that seem to try to do something akin to the Rockman, to appeal to musicians' desire for a range of ways to manipulate sound in an accessible and compact package. Luckily for me, Tom Scholz himself seems to put a lot of stock in preserving the history of his own efforts, and he's designed a website devoted to the Rockman that has a remarkable amount of information about its history. Worthy checking out for those who want to explore this unusual bit of music technology:



  1. A blast from the past! I remember Joe Satriani advertising the Rockman modules around 1992, but I never connected the gear back to Boston or Scholz. I don't think Scholz himself is behind that rockman website, but whoever is has certainly logged the hours. Thanks for this story.

  2. A friend of mine had one and I inherited it to take to college. I think for us it was the techno-geekery of Tom Scholz that was an important draw, that a rock star could also be an engineer.