Music Technology Magazine

October 1987

Interview by Rick Davies

What is there to do when you’re not producing bands like XTC and Bourgois Tagg, writing for a Broadway musical, scoring films, performing benefits for UNICEF, and preparing to record your next solo album? A US tour as a one-man band seems to fit the bill for Todd Rundgren.

From a Musician’s standpoint, Todd is a pioneer — not only for exploring the music industry with his many experimental solo recordings in the ‘70s, but also for his work with Utopia, the progressive rock outfit which made its debut in 1974. But one way or the other, the mark of Todd Rundgren is left on everything he touches, and even Utopia displayed a sense of humor very unlike other progressive bands (as became very obvious on "Deface the Music", a Beatles-esque spoof).

Now, nearly twenty years since the release of the first Nazz album, Rhino Records is re-releasing the entire Todd Rundgren catalog on CDE and direct-to-metal mastered vinyl. And to top it off, Todd’s current T.R. in ’88 US tour is being promoted with the slogan, "Am I President Yet?" And that’s hardly the whole story.

Back in the April issue of MT, we had a look at how Todd was performing solo, with the aid of an IBM-based sequencer (Texture, written by Utopia-fellow roger Powell, naturally), a rack-full of samplers, a couple of keyboards, and a Fairlight CVI (Computer Video Instrument). I had the chance to catch Todd in interview mode between two Los Angeles performances. He doesn’t express a fondness for interviews and seems to prefer to get on with project at hand, leaving fame for those who really want it. If his catalog and production credits don’t make it clear enough, the fact that he’s still going after two decades in the music business makes it clear that Todd Rundgren has plenty to talk about.

"In general I enjoy playing, I enjoy singing. The biggest drag about touring is just the traveling part. It hasn’t been so bad this tour because we have large breaks. The thing is that if I had a band, I would have to be working a lot harder because you have to be making more salaries, and you can’t take off a week and leave everybody sitting around — you have to pay them for the week. In that respect, it’s made the whole touring thing a lot easier by doing it all myself."

Doing it all himself is probably what Todd Rundgren is best known for. This approach has allowed Todd to produce music on his own terms (for the most part) and to take it in any direction he chooses — regardless of current trends. Still, his determination hasn’t alienated him from the public, but rather it has earned him a dedicated cult following worldwide.

One thing that Todd’s fans can rest assured of is that his next album is not going to be like the last. Still, there is a feeling of continuity from one project to the next, whether he’s producing an album for himself or someone else. Most recently, Todd produced XTC’s Skylarking album, and at the time of this interview, he had just finished mastering the forthcoming album by Bourgois Tagg, leaving a break in his schedule for the tour.

Gone is the IBM clone and the Texture sequences. An MC500 has taken their place, though Todd now waits for the upcoming software option that will make the MC500 more performance-oriented. Still, the technology is on hand to serve as Todd’s backup band, and not to dominate and Todd has no problem leaving it alone while he performs several of his classic tunes like "Love of the Common Man" and "Can We Still Be Friends" on acoustic guitar or his recently-acquired Roland digital piano.

While it might seem as though MIDI and sequencers and recording go hand-in-hand, Todd makes it clear that the role of technology changes when he’s back in the studio.

"MIDI is a useful thing for slaving other keyboards, but as far as using it for sequencing or something like that, I hardly depend on it at all.

"The one album that I was involved in that I really tried to make heavy use of sequencing and things like that, was of the more miserable studio experiences in my life, and I think that a lot of people will agree that it makes a studio experience extremely miserable. It removes all the human vitality out of the process when you get down to like nit-picking a note at a time, and I don’t think music was ever meant to be that — at least music that is performed for other people. If you’re a conductor, you can rehearse the hell out of the orchestra to get them to play exactly a certain way, but everyone realizes that when you perform it live, there are factors that you will never have control over that make this performance so worthwhile and different from others — that make it an event.

"I suppose it’s justifiable in the studio to say that you are going for an ultimate performance because it’s going to be played over and over again. But people make the mistake of thinking that it’s the machine that’s capable of delivering the ultimate performance as opposed to some inspired human performance — it’s the mistakes that characterize the performance."

It might seem a bit extreme to rule out sampling technology in the same breath as sequencers, but Todd really does find the whole concept of drum sound replacement "bogus."

" I never have, and probably never would replace the drums I record. I make them sound as good as I possibly can. I think they sound better than sampled drums. I think you can tell it was a person playing them, and I prefer that. In certain respects, you may have some technical thing that goes wrong during the course of a part that you didn’t detect. You may have to replace one snare in the intro, or a couple of snare beats in the bridge, or something like that, but I would rather do anything than program the drums at this point. There are too many good drummers around to go through the hassle of programming drums.

"I have done a lot of programming, but that is, to me, not representative of the best music I’ve done. I’m not the world’s best drummer by a long shot, but I think the records where I play drums sound better than the records where I program drums."

Strange to hear this from the man who brought the world "A Cappella", the all-vocal 1985 album created with a blend of vocal overdubs and samples.

"Since I was using sampled vocal sounds, the only way I could do it was to trigger them with machines. But I would say even that was kept to a minimum on the "A Cappella" album. I did one or two songs where the machines triggered some vocal drum sounds. And then most other instances, I actually played them by hand, playing the keys, you know. That was an Emulator I. It was a crappy sound, but the only thing available to me at the time."

Todd plans on finishing up his soundtrack work by October (’87), and then will start on his next solo album. The approach he’s going to take next comes as no surprise.

"I’m going to use lots of players. I’ve met a lot of good players recently, and I want to have a chance to interact with them and give them something that gets them excited, and watch what happens. You see, that’s the other good thing that’s missing when you play with machines; they don’t get excited. They don’t ever think that this is, you know, fun. I think that becomes apparent on a record. You can tell when players are getting excited — they speed up.

"When I was working with XTC, they had all these theories about how to make the synthetic drums sound like a real person because they have no drummer. We did one song using a drum machine, ‘Supergirl,’ and that again was the most horrible experience of the album in terms of putting together a rhythm track. It was just a total nightmare. We spent an entire day, and at the end of the day we had the bass drum and the snare drum. It had this effect of causing everybody just to listen to it too hard, almost every single beat. You know, we’d go through and lay it down, and say ‘Fine," and someone would say ‘No, let’s go back and change this one beat.’ The reason why was because you could go back and change the one drum beat — so then everybody insists on going back and changing the drum beat. If it had been a real player, none of that would ever come under consideration.

"In some ways it’s more work, more headache. You start to think that you could reproduce what would be the ultimate drum performance according to some drummer. They would do things like, in order to simulate a real drummer’s excitement, during the course of a song, slowly speed the machine up. (Laughs.) That’s just like some kind of a dodge to try and make it sound more real. You want it to sound real, get a drummer — it’s easier, much easier as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think anybody, or any combination of machines could have done a better job than Prairie Prince did — no matter how much time they spent trying."

Todd’s production focuses on other things than just the downbeat, and he has set up his own studio in upstate New York to fit the bill. "In terms of effects, I invest most of them in the vocals — various ways to get vocals to sound interesting. I haven’t found that an Exciter is necessary for me. I have extensive EQ and I also have special techniques that I use when I record the voice to make it sound present, the way I like to hear it.

"If you have a good mic, then you don’t need any of the other junk, really. A good mic and a good, clean compressor. I’ve always preferred a good condenser mic, usually a Neumann of some kind, and I usually use an 1176 (Urei) limiter with the fastest attack and release times.

"Vocals are probably the most dynamic instrument; the one that covers the broadest frequency range. In my studio I have graphic equalization on every channel, and that’s one thing that helps me get the vocal sound I like. I can notch out specific frequencies in a person’s voice that will sometimes overload. Everyone has a certain area of their voice that, in terms of timbre of the voice, will tend, when they get close to a microphone, to come on a little bit too heavy. So using graphic equalization, I have the ability to find exactly what that frequency is, and notch it out, or find the weak frequencies in a voice and give them a little bit of a boost. — to be able to put a little of a crystalline clarity without sibilance getting too severe. I have my own special set-up for getting rid of excess sibilance so that I can keep the voice present without becoming too hissy — and that’s the combination of side-chain equalization and gating using a gating limiter. I use, for instance, a Gain Brain gating limiter in the side chain with Maxi-Q EQ to pick out the sibilant frequencies and then side-chain into the Gain Brain and adjust it accordingly.

"It’s essentially a modular de-esser. I haven’t found a de-esser that works transparently enough, but this is extremely transparent. Most de-essers don’t give you control over the attack, release and all the other factors that a limiter gives you control over. I suppose somebody makes one.

"I have Drawmer gates and they have the ability to do the same thing, but they are just too brutal in the way they work. I’ve always found the sound to be too obvious. The gate response is too obvious when you’re using it as a de-esser. I think the Drawmers work real well as gates.

"I don’t have any problem with sound. Sound is a transparent thing. At least in my work, I very rarely get off on some sound tangent. We may get off on a tangent looking for sounds; for instance when you’re going keyboard overdubs, you want to get something that’s original. That can take a long time considering all the sounds that have been used already.

"I would do anything to avoid using machinery in the studio if possible. I consider the creation of music a particularly human exercise. It’s fine having a machine play it — in some instances it can certainly be technically correct in that respect — but machines don’t listen to music. So I think that the bottom line is that people want something a little more aesthetic, and it’s often just much more trouble to program something than to get somebody to play it. I think the only justification for programming is if you want that mechanized, Kraftwerk effect."

Sequencers have played their part in Todd's music over the years, as evidenced on the very electronic "Initiation", on which he and Roger Powell put together some heavyweight textures.

"Well, even that was kind of meatball. I was doing that on the fly, half of it. A lot of that stuff that's at the end of the second side is the result of several days of patching up this old-style synthesis. This was in the mid-'70s; this was a giant wall of Moog synthesizers, with the old kind of analog sequencer. The number of notes you could get into a sequence was a factor of how many sequencer modules you had, rather than memory or something like that. So you could load them all up with some kind of melody, but you could change it by switching them off. You could switch off one element of the sequencer and it would suddenly change the whole rhythmic and melodic structure of the song without having to get in there and do things like note editing. So over the course of about two or three days we did a lot of experimentation and recorded it all. And then afterwards cut it up and edited it into something semi-musical, and overdubbed guitar and other things on top to give it more texture."

"It was initially a 'performance' in that respect; we set up a machine according to some performance parameters, turned on the tape, turned it (the sequencer) on, and went through and started changing things. Changing melodic elements, changing a transposition, switching sequencers in and out, changing some of the filtering and stuff like that, and then afterwards going back and editing out the sort of bad transitions -- where we did something by accident, or something just didn't sound right."

With all the hoopla going around about digital recording and editing, Todd prefers to stick with tape formats which allow him to use the tried and true cut and splice methods he’s developed over the years.

Tape editing remains one of Todd’s most powerful production skills, and something which, in these days when sequencers and samplers are promoted as the cure for all that ails you, more musicians would do well to recognize.

"On the last album that I produced, with Bourgois Tagg, while we were mastering, we were cutting pieces out saying: ‘This is too long. Cut this out . . . .’

"I had mixed the Skylarking album to a Mitsubishi digital format only because you could cut the tape. You can splice that format, and the kind of production the XTC album was, there was splicing all through it. The way I do mixes, I don’t do automated mix-down. I tend to mix in pieces — a lot of pieces. I may be mixing a verse at a time. Because the way I have the board set up I may have three different types of ambiences and EQs set up for different parts of the song, and I have to go through and mix them — mix one part, and adjust, mix another part and adjust, then go back and splice them all together.

"The first album that I did direct to metal was the XTC album, that I thought came out great. There was a lot of program on it, but it sounded fine. And Rhino is putting out all the re-releases of my albums on direct-to-metal master . . . ."

Todd’s production is definitely Todd’s, no question. Yet he is also a virtuoso when it comes to recreating the sound of other eras. On Faithful and Deface the Music, this fact was made loud and clear. Put alongside the volumes of other Rundgren originals, these seem to indicate that something different is going on inside this fellow’s head.

"Well yeah, I’m kind of stuck in that phase. I depend heavily on the material, rather than impose production values. I think my influences pre-date even ‘60s pop music. It’s just that my personal feeling is that in the ‘70s, particularly because of certain records like Frampton Comes Alive, and stuff like that, record companies got into this mega-million, multi-million seller album concept. When that happened, everything crawled out from under the rug and got into the record business. Multinational corporations bought up all the major labels, conglomeratized and started running it from the accountant’s office. And only those things that sold, and only those things that pandered, were things that were encouraged and tolerated. And that’s why music sucks.

"I don’t think that in a major way this came from within the industry, and it can’t necessarily be blamed on an audience. As a matter of fact, Frampton Comes Alive was the result of a cult following. It was a cult following that pushed that album (laughs with irony) into a position where it could become a multi-million seller. And once that happened, everything went to shit.

"And I remember it clearly. It used to take the Rolling Stones a couple of months to sell a million records even if they were one of the most popular bands still in existence. If somebody sold two or three million albums, that was considered ‘Wow!’ Then Frampton Comes Alive sells eight million albums. Five to eight million albums suddenly is the yardstick for anything."

It’s safe to say that Todd also has built a cult status for himself in a similar way. But on his current solo tour/Presidential campaign, the stage gear is adorned with messages like "Fawn Hall Shredding Party" and "Reagan Lied," and his performance features Todd perfectly at home in his portable performance rig, with the classic set of songs that his fans have been waiting to hear on the re-mastered releases.

He has a live solo guitar performance coming up for a UNICEF telethon which will be internationally broadcast. Then there’s the music for Joe Papp’s ‘Up Against It’ to be completed, and the soundtracks to ‘Elvira, Mistress of the Dark’ and ‘Zippyvision,’ and a new solo album, of course.

Is he a true star yet? You bet.