RUNDGREN COMES CLEAN About Producing Himself, Others, and How His Music Has Survived Changing Technology and Times...
If you are anything like us, your prework morning shower is invariably scored with a begrudgingly performed rendition of Todd Rundgren’s most immediately recognizable tune, “Bang The Drum All Day” (for the neophytes, the appropriate refrain is “I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drum all day,” and it succinctly sums up our work ethic).
And if you are anything like many young readers, the aforementioned ode to the leisurely-challenged is where your familiarity with Rundgren’s work begins and ends . . . or so you may think. Rundgren himself owns up to his waning popularity in modern music circles, telling us, “I haven’t had a charting album in years and years . . . but I still make a living out of music.”
The latter half of that quote was the main qualifier for the ensuing cover story you now hold in your hands. In 2008, Rundgren may not pack stadiums, but he’s as active as ever. He’s not merely subsiding on mailbox dollars, though he’s certainly enjoyed his fair share of success over the years, from his illustrious solo career to his time in the trenches with artists such as Meat Loaf, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Cheap Trick, the New Cars, XTC, Ringo Starr, Bad Religion, the Residents, the Psychedelic Furs, and literally hundreds more. Simply put, Todd Rundgren is one of the most prolific musicians in the history of recorded music. And he’s been producing albums since long before practically any other musician had the bright idea to wear both hats in the studio.
While his newest release, Arena [DeaconLight], isn’t likely to get hyped by Pitchfork, receive rotation on TRL, or secure him a spot opening for Justin Timberlake, Rundgren couldn’t care less. He still enjoys a fanatic following, and real music junkies all know him by name. He’s out there touring right this moment, and when he’s done promoting Arena, you can count on him jumping headfirst into the next project and writing, playing on, and producing something wildly different, with seemingly no worry as to what the masses think. That fact alone is more than enough to secure him a prominent slot in these pages. His work has been to the top and the bottom of the charts, but he’s held steady and displayed an unwavering dedication to his craft.
How did you go from being strictly a musician to getting into recording?
It happened fairly early on. My best friend growing up and I had a reel-toreel, which we would use to record bits from the radio on and then play with. I had a little bit of experience with tape machines before I ever recorded an album. I remember discovering how to create a flanging sound by accident: I just made a fake stereo recording and copied it over twice. Invariably, in those days of analog recording, there would be speed variations, but you could get them in sync. At one point while trying to sync, the phase crossed, and I thought, “Wow. I’ve discovered the secret!” With the very first song [early psychedelic garage rock band] the Nazz recorded, “Open My Eyes,” I knew that I wanted to use that technique to get that sound. We thought we had to get a “real” record producer [for the Nazz’s Nazz—SGC]. This guy named Bill Traut came in, and essentially just read all throughout the sessions and watched the clock. That’s what old-fashioned record producers did. They were there simply to manage the process and make sure the band didn’t go over budget. By the time we got to the second album I was thinking, “What do we need this guy for?” So I took over the production side of the band, decided how things should sound. When it got time to remix the record—we initially did a slapdash mix, because the band was already breaking up—at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, I figured that I had been watching this process long enough; I might as well sit down in the chair and start doing it myself. The process was simple enough. You only had three-band, fixed, notched EQs and pan pots. I remixed that record, and after that I had the skill. I left the Nazz and was brought into [ex-Bob Dylan manager] Albert Grossman’s organization by Michael Friedman, who was previously a partner in the management of the Nazz. I came in to record their stable of artists. This was before they started the record label. I mixed [the Band’s] Stage Fright [Capitol], worked with Jesse Winchester. All of these folk acts that came after the Beatles hit weren’t getting much attention because they weren’t contemporary, so I worked with any of Grossman’s artists that needed a refit. After I had a few projects under my belt, they let me cut a solo record [Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren—Ampex] as an indulgence.
You were an oddity back then because you were one of the few people in the world making records at home. What was your home studio like?
It was based around an 8-track machine that I had rented, so that I could keep recording after I was done at I.D. Sound for the day. I’d record, come home and eat dinner, and then start recording again through the night.
Not much sleep, I take it.
I had a friend who was a psychiatrist and he gave me a bottle of Ritalin to try out and it was great. Time went by without a problem.
How does being a musician and songwriter influence you as a producer? Do you sit with bands and say, “Hey, this doesn’t have a hook here?’”
You don’t have to be a musician to recognize when a song has weak points, but I’ve always had the advantage of having a musician’s perspective. I can make suggestions in that regard, but the downside to that is that if a band has those shortcomings, I tend to start writing their music for them. For instance, when I produced the Tubes album, Remote Control [A&M], they had few songs, but a lot of ideas. I had to make good use of studio time, so I stepped in and started writing lyrics and stuff for the songs, just so it would get done. No one seemed to mind, and I always sort of looked at it as a production duty, so I never took credit for writing any of the songs.
Over those years, did you ever come across a console that, looking back, you think “Wow, that sounded great!”
I never really took to the SSLs like others did. I never really liked the way the EQ was designed. Everything seemed to get softened by the SSL. I’d crank up the dB and I couldn’t seem to get much punch out of it. My favorite console was the second one I built, after the console I built before we recorded A Wizard, A True Star [Bearsville].
Was that the Secret Sound console?
Yeah. The faders went to a 12-band graphic EQ and they were “soundgraphed.” They made these stereo EQs for home stereos, but I wanted the graphic EQ on every single channel. There was nothing on the console but faders, panners, and a 12-band graphic EQ for every single channel. That setup informed my style of recording at Secret Sound. If somebody came in to record, we weren’t messing around all day trying to get drum sounds. We got the drum sounds done right off the bat, and everything else was relatively easy after that. As long as I was in my own environment, and was able to have microscopic control of the sound, everything was easy. Optimally I would want the perfect mic to match an instrument, but realistically I would be working with a collection of “utility” mics that work in many situations— [Shure] SM57s and [Neumann] U87s. Having the ability to hone in on one frequency and knock it out made so much of a difference in terms of the overall sound.
For your vocals, what is that “perfect mic?”
For years, I’ve used a U87. It became a question of having that graphic-y picture of how I wanted my voice to sound, which involved notching out the frequency somewhere between 200 and 500Hz—the upper midrange that makes the voice sound kind of woof-y. I like a nice clear bottom, not a clear top, so I’m careful not to boost anything up around 1 or 2kHz because that’s the honky part of my voice. The U87 has plenty of 1kHz. It’s got plenty of it. I just go for some crystalline clarity on the top, usually putting a small boost at around 60 and 100Hz and cutting everything after that.
What about compression?
I always use an [Urei] 1176. I can make it sound invisible or really present.
Is there a specific method you use to get your vocal sound?
Some people think that each subsequent layering of the vocal tracks gives a perceptible qualitative difference, but I usually double up and then stop there. I remember working with the Rubinoos on Party of Two, and they insisted that any backup vocal had to be layered at least five times. I’ve approached those situations in a number of ways. One is to have everyone sing the same part and then just layer them, but that makes for a homogenous sound. It gives the part more character, in my opinion, if you assign everyone a slightly different part and then double them up. For my personal records, I’ll sing every part twice. If that’s not enough, I’ll do one more track, but never more than three total. Frequencies seem to pile up, and that redundancy makes the song cloudy.
You were talking about playing with tape speed when you were a kid. I noticed on a lot of your records you seem to play with the VSO quite a bit.
You have to have the VSO for the flanging. You have to be able to control the capstan speed.
Or the old fashioned way, where you push on the reel to slow it down.
At I.D. Sound I had a Stephens machine, which essentially had no controls on it. It had a tape guide spindle and due to the way the motors were tensioned, you couldn’t touch the reels or else the sensors in [the machine] would make it pull harder. You really had to control the capstan speed with a VSO. I had that machine available and used it on occasion to get those Hendrix-styled tape flanging effects. For as long as I was using analog tape I was working with Stephens and 3M machines, with the same kind of transport, so pushing on the reel never really worked for me.
It’s hard to get people to use tape these days.
At a certain point, I was happy to get away from tape. I made the transition to ADAT, because it eliminated the noise factor. As a side note, I always preferred dbx noise reduction. Dolby B tended to screw everything up. We couldn’t afford Dolby SR at Secret Sound. In some cases, the combination of compression and high frequency enhancement in the Dolby system could make a track sound great if you just turned the Dolby off once you recorded it. That was a trick we used to use on John Lennon’s voice. The problem was whether or not you can switch the encoder and decoder on separately. It became a monitoring issue.
You were happy to switch to digital?
Well, I went to using ADATs because of something I gleaned from [Mark Lewisohn’s book] The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. The truth is that many of the songs we are familiar with are alternate versions that they had backed up. They would go off in one direction and then would decide that the previous week’s version was better. EMI was very anal. They had every pre-bounced version backed up. They would never record over previous takes. Everything was saved, logged, and filed away. I thought the ADAT was a perfect match to that way of working. Each one was an 8-track machine. You could bounce back and forth between the machines, but you also had the advantage of the media being much more affordable than $200 tape reels. You could just stack up those [S-VHS video] cassettes, with every phase of the recording process in them, for fairly cheap.
Weren’t you initially put off by the sound?
I had a couple of records that I did exclusively with ADATs and I had a pretty good experience on them. Then the “silver face” 20-bit versions came out and I used them on a project in the mid-’90s. We cut the basics on a regular old analog multitrack and then we started doing vocals on ADAT and it was just terrible. You had to clean the heads on every other pass of the tape. I don’t know what they changed. The black ones were temperamental, but the silver ones were a nightmare. Sometimes they wouldn’t sync up together. So when I got through that process I said, “I’m not going back to tape.” I adopted Pro Tools, and I’ve not used tape since.
You’re clearly not techno-phobic. On the Bad Religion album you produced [The New America—Atlantic], you used [Line 6’s] Amp Farm instead of real amps. On a punk album. In 1999.
Yeah, we took the guitars all direct into the console and got all the sounds they liked for tracking [with Amp Farm], and then we had all the latitude in the world afterwards to decide if we wanted to use a different amp with the program.
Do you find yourself using amp modelers on your own recordings?
Recently, I’ve tended to not use as much guitar in my songs. But I’m going to start a new project that is very guitarbased, and my last recording [Arena— HiFi] had a lot of guitar solos, and we used a lot of [modeling]. I use Line 6 amps live, so I’m using modeling at some point in time no matter what.
You’ve done a lot of synth stuff. On a song like “Breathless,” was that material sequenced?
It was pre-sequencing, as we now know it. You could get a sequencer back then, but sequencers in those days were way different. You’d have a wall of synths, and the way you would get these instruments sequenced would be by patching everything through a trigger device. You’d have rows of devices that would trigger one synth after the other. It was complex, but this was 1972. There was no MIDI. You could only sequence and record a little chunk of music at a time and then you would have to splice it into the piece. I would have been manually sequencing with an EMS “Putney” [VCS3] with a little keyboard.
There’s a strange guitar sound I hear in the beginning of some of your songs, such as “Determination.” What is that?
On occasion I’ve used a [Univox] Uni- Vibe for that type of sound, but I think the sound on “Determination” was accidental, maybe from some dirt on the capstan. You could get an effect like that [on a tape machine] by taking a piece of splicing tape and putting it on half the radius on the spindle during an overdub. It would make everything warble. We did that on the second Nazz album [Nazz Nazz—SGC] and I’ve done it on home recordings as well.
The readers will kill me if I don’t ask you about [XTC’s] Skylarking [Caroline].
Everybody knows the basic gist of it, which was that Andy Partridge started to bristle at the level of my involvement. It was pretty much because Andy, due to stress, could not play on stage anymore—the only place he would play music was in the studio. He would wear producers down and the records would inevitably get finished by Andy and the engineer. As a result, the albums were getting progressively more difficult for the audience to keep up with. When you spend that much time in a studio, you get bored, and you start tinkering with things that don’t need tinkering. By the time the records came out, they were wall-to-wall with detail. There’s no doubt that Andy’s clever, but the fact is that nobody kept a firm hand on the tiller. Andy was essentially running the record through a distillery. I knew to expect this going in, and I warned the band that I would finish the record. I would not quit. After the turmoil of the recording process, we went to Woodstock to mix. My mixing process is to go in alone, get a mix in the neighborhood of where it needs to be, and then invite everyone in to listen and make adjustments. By the time we got to the third song the band was so tired they just returned to London and I finished the record without them. It was the complete opposite of the process they had developed up until then. Andy was pissed that he had lost control of the project and started bad-mouthing the record before anyone had even heard it. Then, when the record came out, they did everything they could to sabotage it. They took “Dear God” off the record and threw it on the B-side of their first single.
You seem to have such a great love for R&B music. What do you think of the current state of popular R&B, both in terms of songwriting and sound?
Disappointing is kind of the least of it. Is it enough to put a drum machine on never changing, little “doot-doot” thing with somebody in hysterics on top of it? But there’s a world of difference between those artists, like Missy Elliot, and some of the other artists, like Mary J. Blige, who can really sing and put feeling behind it. Yet they are lumped together in the same category. The basis of R&B was always a greatsong. None of these Justin Timberlakes, or the people who write for them, seem to have any connection with that, or realize how far away they are from Marvin Gaye or the Four Tops. A lot of it is hip-hop claiming R&B because of a sample or a guest artist. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with hip-hop or the pure strains of rap. It’s the equivalent of punk music. It’s not supposed to be sophisticated, that’s not where it gets credibility. I think one of the greatest recordings of all time is [Public Enemy’s] Fear of a Black Planet. It’s an unbelievable record. But as we in the music industry know, 90 percent of the products are substandard. Most of these albums are manufactured as quickly and cheaply as possible. The remaining 10 percent are the industry standards, and about one percent of that are true, state-of-the-art products.
Any advice to musicians recording themselves? How do they put out a state-of-the-art product?
Music is a circular art form. Everything that was happens again. Things aren’t too great right now. We have a lot of room for improvement. But if I was to give one piece of advice it would be this: Don’t underestimate the value of woodshedding. It’s not a stampede to the top of the charts.