As a musician, engineer, producer and multimedia artist, Todd Rundgren has been a pioneering figure in rock music since the late 1960s. His first album of new material for 10 years was, like many of its predecessors, almost entirely played, produced and recorded by Rundgren alone.
|Photo: Danny O'Conner|
More than three decades ago a lanky youth with eccentric, gaunt features and large eyes sprang onto the international music stage with a remarkable double album called Something/Anything? The young man had written and produced all the songs, and on three of the four vinyl sides, had played all the instruments and sung all the vocals. The 1972 double album contained such a richness of top-drawer songs, nifty arrangements, and virtuoso playing and singing that it's still regarded as a timeless classic. The youth's next album, released in 1973, was called A Wizard, A True Star, and contained a brilliant sonic collage full of studio trickery, which was not only produced but also engineered by the man himself. His name was, of course, Todd Rundgren.
It took 10 more years for Rundgren to acquire a status close to that of living legend. In addition to his thriving solo career, he formed, in 1974, a band called Utopia, which recorded an array of albums during the 1970s and 1980s while moving stylistically from lengthy synth-driven instrumentals, via progressive metal rock, to power pop. In addition, Rundgren applied his knowledge of the recording process as a wildly successful producer for others. Often also functioning as engineer and player he oversaw the creation of classic albums like Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band (1973), the New York Dolls' self-titled 1973 debut, the Tubes' Remote Control (1976), Meatloaf's Bat Out Of Hell (1977), Patti Smith's Wave (1979), and XTC's Skylarking (1986).
However, the Philadelphia-born American refused to be a 'true star' in the traditional sense. Instead, he frequently took bizarre leftfield musical directions, dressed in weird camp clothing and make-up, and wrote lyrics that addressed much deeper issues than boy-meets-girl. He also became a pioneer of multimedia and computer technology. For instance, Rundgren organised the world's first interactive television concert in 1978, during which home audiences could chose what songs would be played; in 1980 he created the first colour graphics tablet, which was licensed to Apple as the Utopia Graphics Tablet; and in 1982 he made the first music videos to be commercially released, one of which was nominated for a Grammy. He founded Secret Sound Studios in 1972 and opened Utopia Video Studios in 1978, exemplifying a keen interest in audio-visual art.
His 1992 solo album No World Order was not only issued as a standard audio CD, but also on CD-I as the world's first interactive album, with the songs chopped up in four-bar segments, allowing the listener to construct his or her own song structures. In 1994, The Individualist was the world's first full-length enhanced CD, and by the late 1990s most of Rundgren's creative energies were focused on pioneering the use of the Internet as a vehicle for music delivery. Among other things, Rundgren founded two web sites, www.tr-i.com, and www.patronet.com, through which listeners can act as patrons of the arts by paying the artist upfront to have music delivered directly to them. Since 1998 Rundgren issued his music song by song via Patronet, and some of this material, including some reworkings of older songs, was compiled on One Long Year, released as a traditional CD in 2000.
In several recent interviews, Rundgren has argued that CDs and record companies are outmoded routes for getting music from artist to audience. In his view, younger music lovers especially prefer to search the Internet, download what they like, and make their own MP3, MD or CD compilations. Rundgren's solution is to treat music delivery as the equivalent of cable television, with users paying a monthly fee of, say, $20, to gain access to all the music they want. Presumably, the proceeds are then divided between all those who supply music, according to some unspecified formula that may prove to be the tricky part to work out.
During the 1970s and 1980s Todd Rundgren was a big-name producer. He's produced artists like Janis Joplin, the New York Dolls, Hall & Oates, Alice Cooper, Steve Hillage, Tom Robinson, the Tubes, Patti Smith and Grand Funk, not to mention Meatloaf's multi-million-selling blockbuster Bat Out Of Hell.
"The most difficult thing of all in the studio, as a producer," explains Rundgren, "is not technical. It's to get the performer in the proper frame of mind to perform as if he or she's in front of 1000 adoring fans. That's the hardest thing. For a lot of people the studio is a foreign place, because you're isolating everyone, and they don't think of themselves in the moment any more. They're all thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm making a record, I'm making a record.'
"I've been involved in great records that have been artistic successes and that have been incredible commercial successes. It's hard to imagine something more commercially successful than Meatloaf, and at the same time that's musically so signature that it's also a classic. It was fun making that album. Meatloaf and Steinberg [the songwriter] are both fairly colourful personalities. It was also a tortuous record to make, because during recording Meatloaf wanted to be released by his label, and they let him off, and nobody else signed him. So I was underwriting the whole record, and it was a big gamble and not something I'd ever done before. I wasn't sure it was going to happen... even Bearsville [Rundgren's label at the time] turned him down!
"The work I did with Grand Funk Railroad [on We're An American Band] was fun, because they were a completely underestimated band. They had a big audience, but their records sounded like crap, because they had been produced by their manager, who knew nothing about making records. They were actually remarkably good players and singers, which their producer had managed to disguise from everyone! The gift in doing that record was instantaneous. Success happened like the speed of light, as opposed to Meatloaf, which took two years to break.
"[XTC's] Skylarking album is legendary in many respects... because of what happened between me and Andy [Partridge]. It was a little bit of a surprise for him to save all his vitriol until he was well away from me, and do it in the press, which I thought was shooting himself in the foot. It was a great album, and my attempts at making it accessible infuriated Andy. He thought it was another Andy Partridge solo album, with the help of the two other guys in the band. The problems probably started when I insisted that Colin [Moulding]'s material was as important as his...
"I've done a few productions in recent years, but nothing that has jived with the commercial market. Popular music is going through an abysmal phase right now."
Much of what Rundgren has done since the late 1980s has pushed the boundaries of the artist-audience relationship, in the search for greater interactivity. It therefore comes as a bit of a surprise to find that this April a traditional CD by him was released, called Liars, without interactive components, and put in traditional record shops by a traditional record company (Sanctuary). What's more, the synth-dominated work is hyped as a major event, because it's Rundgren's first CD release of all-new material for 10 years.
|Photo courtesy ©1980 Danny O'Conner.|
"Many people think of a record as a certain collection of songs put onto a disc-shaped object," begins Rundgren. "But in the past few years we've begun to realise that it isn't the shape of the object that matters. Instead sound can be virtualised in any number of forms. It may at one point be a link on your computer screen, and then it's a thing that appears in the window of your MP3 player, and it never takes physical form. At that point the experience of the music is more and more defined by the listener."
No problem here, one would say, but according to Rundgren, this does make it harder for musicians to realise their intentions. "You used to make a record and would say, 'OK, this record is 12 songs in this specific order and in this package with this cover and with these lyrics, blah, blah, blah. But now, at a certain point it gets completely redefined. Someone takes one song off this record and one song off that record, and burns themselves a CD, and this may be like nothing you imagined. That makes it very hard to say whether you're satisfying the original goals you set yourself. You have to be aware that you may have a concept about your songs appearing in a specific order, and that you may have to do something tricky to enforce that. Like on Liars, I had the songs overlap. I'm thinking here in terms of 'OK, I made a distribution deal with the record label, how do they hold on to the value of that format as long as possible?' You do that by trying to make the format unique in some sense. That's why all the songs flow together. No-one is going to download an entire album as one giant MP3 file. If you want the real experience of Liars, you're more or less forced to buy the CD.
"In addition to this, I'm delivering unlocked MP3s, with fade-outs in them, to my on-line subscribers, for them to do with what they want. What I know, and what I believe the record company knows, is that those listeners are going to buy both the CD and the MP3 files. They're going to buy everything there is. That's the whole idea of patronage, to get the most dedicated listeners, the ones who make a point of supporting you, and they will get a certain amount of attention and levity and special things that other people find difficult to get. And in that sense they give you the kind of support you used to get from the record label, like underwriting making records and financing your tours."
Todd Rundgren has something of a reputation as a guitar hero, but he has always explored other instruments, and on Liars, synths and other keyboard sounds take the spotlight. Once again, Rundgren plays all the instruments (barring a couple of solo spots by others). "I was going for a certain sound, " he explains. "I gravitated toward a B3 and Fender Rhodes for the central element. To me it's old-fashioned, and I wanted it to resemble all my influences... some Mose Allison, Beatle-esque things. And there's always a bit of Marvin Gaye in there somewhere."
Much of Liars therefore has a retro feel to it, dominated by influences of 1970s soul, and, rather surprisingly, four-to-the-floor 1980s house. According to Rundgren, this musical approach was shaped by the subject matter of the album. "It's a challenge to do an album called Liars, and not put yourself in a compromised position," explained Rundgren, quite understandably, and apparently not referring to the cover image of himself as a crazed Easter Bunny. "The album isn't about finger-pointing. It's about the phenomenon of dishonesty and non-reality and the many flavours there are, from the most innocent to the most venal. Not one of us is truly honest, and therefore the album is left open to accusations of fakery, which is why I'm, like always, reluctant to do any kind of breakdown of exactly how the album was constructed."
This kind of reluctance usually spells trouble for interviews of a technical nature, but luckily it was possible to persuade Rundgren to elaborate on the nuts and bolts of Liars. "Part of the reason there are so many keyboards on this album is compositional," he reveals. "I can do a lot more on a keyboard than on a guitar. There are just some things you can convey with keyboards that can't be done with guitars. The other reason is that certain keyboard sounds take me to a certain time. Like the Wurlitzer piano, which nobody plays any more because they're too much of a maintenance problem. They were a giant pain in the ass, but they had a characteristic sound. When you hear the Wurlitzer on 'Get Back', it takes you immediately back to the late 1960s. The same goes for the sound of the Fender Rhodes, and the B3, and some of the old, mono, analogue synths."
Throughout his long career, Todd Rundgren has engineered and produced many of his solo albums, as well as often playing all the instruments. Among them are Something/Anything? (where he left the engineering to others), Hermit Of Mink Hollow (1978), A Capella (1985), No World Order (1993), and now Liars.
"There's certainly been a whole evolution in working," recalls Rundgren. "After Something/Anything? I got into engineering as well. I built a studio [Secret Sound] for the recording of A Wizard, A True Star, because my approach to music was so unrestricted that it was impractical to pay a studio by the hour. I engineered almost everything that happened there. In most cases this involved pushing a button and running out into the studio to participate in the performance. I also was punching in and out for myself when recording vocals. Initiation (1975) was also done that way.
"Recording Hermit Of Mink Hollow was a real hardship, because the control room was upstairs and the drums downstairs, so when trying to record drums, if I made a mistake, I had to run up and down the stairs just to rewind the machine. I didn't have a remote with a lead than ran long enough! For a long time I had a degree of aversion towards using synthetic or sequenced elements for basics like drums and bass, but eventually decided that the ends are always worth the means. My resistance came to an end on No World Order, because the music was delivered in such a radically different way, all chopped up in four-bar segments and later resequenced, that I couldn't consider another way of recording it. It's really difficult to get musicians to play with that degree of precision, so you can splice it every four bars. So it was a technical necessity to perform it substantially electronically.
|Photo: Bob Gruen / Star File|
"For me the challenge in the studio has never been the technology. I absorbed everything I possibly could from doing my own recordings, and so when I got to do recording for other people, I had a fair amount of knowledge. You learn things like that the most important thing is mic choice and placement. Boards have nearly nothing to do with the end sound. People get fixated about signal paths and other things, but it all starts from the point where the sound is picked up. If you don't have the right mics and right placement, there's no way you can recover what you actually want.
"I was never a big splicer. For a long time I did not want to have to stop and start a mix and then splice it. For me the process of mixing was the discipline of learning exactly where the faders were supposed to be at every point in the song, and riding the vocals 12-20 times until you knew exactly where the peaks and drops were. And then being able at one glorious moment to take a big breath, push the Record button and do the mix from beginning to end and have it perfect! But at a certain point I started to work more with splicing, because I said, 'Yes, the little mistakes become part of the character of the song. But if they're going to bother you at all, why put up with them if it's easy just to stop the machine, roll back a couple of feet and do the splice?
"When I began doing digital records, it got much more difficult. It was easy at first because the only digital equipment that I used was a two-track, and you could still splice the early two-tracks with a razor blade. The first album I did like that was XTC's Skylarking. The first album I recorded entirely on digital was Nearly Human , the live-in-the-studio one. Although everything was live, we would do many performances and take the best performances and splice them together to get the ultimate performance. That turned out to be such a time-consuming nightmare, it put me back to a place where I thought 'Why can't I do it all in one take?'
"Later on I was using ADATs for a while. I got into them not because they were digital, but because of the great convenience they offered. You had as many tracks as you needed, you just kept popping more tapes in. And I was happy with that, but then when Alesis tried to move up to higher bit density and I upgraded, I went through a nightmare project, with drop-outs and trying to get three machines to sync up and other stuff. The response I got from the company when I complained wasn't satisfactory. So I decided that this was the end of my relationship with tape. At the time I had all my multitracks baked and transferred to ADAT. Now, if I really intend to preserve the music, I have to transfer them all to hard drive.
"The other thing about the way that I mixed is that it was very visual. Most studios that I have owned have been equipped with a graphic equaliser on every single channel, usually a 22-band graphic equaliser. This became a characteristic of my sound. The reason I did that was so I could visualise the sound. I could see all the places where the sound was either too harsh or inadequate like a graph. I could see whether the 22 bands represented an ideal wave shape or the opposite. It gave me a picture of how well or how poorly the sound has been recorded. That has been my approach to recording and to a certain degree it still is today. I still use equalisation, but it becomes less and less necessary because of the sophistication of modern tools. Now I'll use something like the Channel Strip plug-in. Although it's not a graphic equaliser, it has a six-band equaliser set up like it's a graphic EQ, and I create the same look and curves like I do on a graphic equaliser."
Hearing Rundgren speak about the musical influences that went into Liars, one imagines he recorded it in a wood-panelled recording studio full of valve gear. But in fact, Liars is as modern as they come — almost the entire album was recorded using only virtual instruments. "I've also recorded albums completely live in the studio," Rundgren asserts, "which is the other extreme. I know the difference, and I know what the priority is, which is to express yourself and get your message across. The music would be a complete failure if it didn't convey this. And while on this album I wanted to get a retro keyboard bass sound and B3 and Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer tonalities, I've never been someone who is anal about getting the original equipment when something else will do. When I got my first Line 6 equipment, I was so happy that I couldn't imagine ever buying another guitar amp, and I haven't. Some people get hooked on a certain sound and they truly believe the only way to get it is to have the original Minimoog. There's a whole market for them, and that's cool. But I'm a means-to-an-end guy. For me the end is: does the music deliver, or doesn't it? And whatever the path of least resistance is, that's the path I'm taking.
"In this case it meant using a MIDI master keyboard and lots of virtual sound sources. I also used an old blue and white Mac G3 with OS 9.2, which is not fast, but it's fast enough to run Reason — my principal composition and performance tool on this record — and it's stable. I also used Pro Tools v5.1, and the Pro Tools hardware was doing most of the work anyway. I didn't have the Rewire version of Reason, so I had to go through a fairly convoluted process of printing all instruments one at a time after I had recorded everything I wanted. But Reason is great. You can output at 24-bit, which I did, and you can get a nice, rich sound. There's a huge user community out there producing sounds, which I took advantage of. Reason has so many different ways in which you can approach a composition, and the virtualisation of instruments and effects is something I can't go back from now. My virtual instruments were for the most part Reason 's take on the classics. Also, I got used to the idea of not having to own Urei 1176 compressors any more. Instead I can have 20 of them virtually, if I want."
The drum programming on Liars varies a lot, from subtle and convincingly real to baldly mechanical. "I was forced to go this way because of the subject matter," says Rundgren, "which involved ideas that were initially somewhat amorphous. This makes it difficult to involve other musicians, because you're not entirely sure yet what you're doing. Normally you'd bring one song to full completion, so you can teach it, but I was more or less working on all the material at once and moving it along a little bit at a time. By the time I had made a demonstration of it, I was essentially done.
"Even though I'm using all these automated instruments, I'm not satisfied with an automated performance. So it was a constant process of going back, almost like a painter adding layer upon layer and then details until the crude broad strokes that the automation represents are obscured. The drums were also done in Reason. I used a combination of sequencing and loops combined with other things, and sometimes there's a real attempt to make them sound like real drums, in which case you can get into an excruciating degree of detail. There's no plausible software at the moment that will automatically reproduce what a player does, because in the end it involves musical sensibility. You simply have to imagine what a real drummer would play here. But equally, using loops of real drummers means you have this embarrassment of riches — you can spend hours going through sounds and samples and beat, looking for the one that's right, and at some point you realise 'Hey, I'm making music here.'"
The only non-virtual instruments Rundgren used on Liars were his guitar, the overdubs done by the two soloists, and his voice. For the guitar he used "some pedal boxes and software guitar emulation", whereas he recorded his voice with a Beyer MCD100 digital dynamic microphone. "It gave me a really good basic sound, and in addition I used the Antares microphone modelling software to emulate a Neumann 87, which is my preferred mic for my voice. In some cases I also used a 1176 plug-in, but no EQ. Ironically I couldn't get my authorisation to work on my Line 6, so I didn't use it at all."
Rundgren adds that he didn't use Reason to record audio, because "it's not a practical environment for recording. Instead I used Pro Tools and a combination of plug-ins. I also used Pro Tools for mixing, with the help of a Pro Control unit. I couldn't do it without a control surface. I need the feedback that a control surface gives you. Faders on a board give you a picture of the mix, without even hearing it. But I don't use any outboard gear any longer. All the outboard gear was in the computer, so the material never left the computer. I bounced it all down to one file. It's great to work like this, because it allowed me to put all my equipment in the front seat of a truck, and it was a couple of loads for one guy to carry and I'm set up."
Given Rundgren's well-documented eagerness to be at the technological forefront, it appears obvious why he chose this way of recording, which is, after all, regarded as the future. But it turns out that there was also a very practical reason — for the first time since he founded Secret Sound, Rundgren has been without his own recording studio for a few years. After he moved from Woodstock, NY, to Hawaii in May 1996, he gave up his studio in Woodstock, but has so far been unable to find the ideal location for a new studio in Hawaii. "I haven't had my own studio for a while now, but we'll start building one this year. It'll be the first studio that I designed from the ground up, from an architectural point of view. Acoustics are a consideration, and also size and application. For instance, the studio will be able to do mixdown for film, and so it will have that slight wedge shape that a lot of movie theatres have, where it's larger at the back than at the front. I'll be able to set up orchestras on the steps as well. I've never had a studio that large before. It'll be completed in a year or two. It will be for my own projects, but it will also have some apartments attached to it so people will be able to come and do their projects there."
The lack of a private studio space, as well as the experience of delivering his music song by song via the Internet, had some unexpected consequences for the way Liars was recorded. "It taught me something about the way I record most effectively," Rundgren concedes. "The loss of isolation in Hawaii made it more difficult for me to create the state of mind to be prolific. I've discovered that I'm at my most effective when I'm able to filter out the noise of the world, so I can hear what I actually think. My own thoughts will come to the fore, rather than my forebrain constantly addressing distractions all the time. It's like I have to get in a larger sense into a meditative state so my subconscious can go to work. To create this album I ended up renting local vacation cottages and setting up my gear in those, so that I could have the peace and quite and isolation I needed. And when writing music for the Internet, I found that writing a song once a month isn't practical for me. Some months you're hot and some months you're not."
It appears that, despite concerted efforts to get away from the conventional artist-audience relationship and the traditional music delivery format, Rundgren chose to return to these traditions, because he found that songs arrive in groups during creative peaks and that these songs tend to belong together. However, he says that he never longed for a return to a traditional 'real' studio: "Looking at a computer screen that has a picture of rack of equipment isn't any different than looking at a real rack of equipment," he laughs. "I always said that I consider the studio to be an instrument, a thing that requires techniques that you must learn, and that involves creativity in applying those techniques. That's no different than playing the guitar, or using a computer. You have to spend time learning it. In other words, in the argument as to whether it's valid or not to use virtual gear to make a record that's supposed to sound like live musicians... the only argument is: if you can do it, go ahead and do it! I'm still the one who figured out how to do it, and that's the same thing a musician has always had to figure out.
"In any case, I've long been sick of tape-related disasters, waiting for tape machines to rewind, or the sticky shed. This is why I love the idea of hard disk recording so much. To be able to press a button and be immediately at your cue point... I just got tired of tape. After a while it made no sense to go back to the old way, unless you're some sort of religious fanatic. I think the argument has been around long enough to move on to the next argument, which is that it's no different for a guy programming something in Pro Tools than have an engineer record it 20 times. It's no different or less musical than, for instance, Mutt Lange making a rhythm guitar player sit in the studio for three days straight and play the same part over and over and over again until it sounds like a machine! Obviously, you can bless or curse all these new technologies, but in the end none of it matters, unless your music is affected in an incredibly negative way. In that case you have to find out why that is, so you don't do it again. Or you may find that it has affected your music in an incredibly positive way, and you want to find out how it's done, so you can repeat it."
Which is, it appears, what Todd Rundgren has been doing for the last three and a half decades...
Liars was released on Sanctuary Records on April 5, while BMG release The Todd Rundgren Collector's Deluxe Edition DVD on May 3.