The "almost" official blog for everything Todd Rundgren Related...........................................................................................................................................................................
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If anything’s predictable about Todd Rundgren, it’s to expect the unexpected. A brilliant songwriter/guitarist/synthesist with talents both onstage and in the studio, Rundgren’s career (solo or with his band Utopia) has spanned just about every musical genre, ranging from rock to pop to smooth soul to edgy electronica and most recently, EDM. And even at 65, he shows no signs of slowing down, hopping from continent to continent to promote State — his 24th studio album, as well as a series of “An Evening with Todd Rundgren” shows to stay in touch with the legions of fans of his catalog standards such as “Hello, It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light.”
Rundgren has also never shied away from technology, being one of the first supporters of the original Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) sampling keyboard, or presenting some of his early live shows in quadraphonic 4-channel surround, incorporating computer-based graphics into his productions (back as far as 1981) and being an early adopter of LED stage lighting, long before it was fashionable — or widely available. Perhaps of more interest to FRONT of HOUSE readers, Rundgren worked with Future Sonics founder Marty Garcia in 1985 co-developing prototypes of the first Ear Monitors® and even used Future Sonics products on his Utopia tour, the first “wedgeless stage” with all band members wearing Garcia’s Ear Monitors.
We recently chatted with Paul Froula, Rundgren’s long-time engineer who most recently has been mixing monitors and recording the artist’s live outings. Froula, who toured extensively back in the 1980s, put his tour jacket aside while he worked with companies such as Altec-Lansing and beyerdynamic, where he was involved with marketing, sales, and product development, using his practical road and studio experiences to work on the manufacturer side of things. More recently, Froula returned to the production side, to mix monitors for Joe Jackson and the Bigger Band world tour (also recording and archiving shows the entire time), again paired with Joe’s long-time FOH engineer, George Cowan. Just before press time, we caught up with Froula as he was wrapping up the domestic leg of Rundgren’s “An Evening with Todd Rundgren” shows.
Most of the Rundgren shows on this tour have been in smaller venues. “We’re only carrying our own desks, mics and backline — racks and stacks are provided, as per the rider,” says Froula. “It’s mostly been theaters, although we also did the Philly Folk Fest a few days ago and Canalside in Buffalo (about 10,000 people) and had nice rigs out front and on the stage for those.”
The Monitor Angle
“We’ve been using the Roland M-480 desk for three or four years now and on this last outing,” Froula explains. “Todd had a new record come out this year called State, which is essentially EDM — electronic dance music — and to perform it live, he has the usual complement of required electronic wizardry, but that tour is just him and two other players — Jesse Gress on guitar and Prairie Prince on electronic drums. The need arose to introduce personal monitoring to make it easier with that smaller crew. On this ‘An Evening with...’ — basically, a two-hour show with Todd and a full band doing kind of a greatest hits tour — we had the option of Roland’s M-48 personal mixing should the need arise, particularly during the special performance with the Akron Symphony over Labor Day.”
Despite his long history with IEMs, Rundgren’s monitor needs aren’t quite what you might expect. “Todd doesn’t use in-ears; he prefers sidefills, and Jesse Gress uses just a wedge, so we have a mix of IEMs and wedges on the stage,” notes Froula. “It’s kind of ironic, because the genesis of ear monitoring took place with Todd. That was way back [in 1985] when Utopia did the first tour with the ‘wedgeless stage’ — there were no monitors on the stage. Marty’s sound company was doing Todd’s shows at the time and they were experimenting with earbuds and dental gel and came up with the in-ear monitor concept. Todd has since moved on from this notion and doesn’t require much in the sidefills, either — it’s really mostly for his guitars, some keyboards and every now and then, a little drums. Most of what he needs, he gets from front of house — he hears it coming back. That also applies to his vocals — I generally don’t put any of his vocals in the sidefills. He’s very unique in that regard. It’s the same even in a large outdoor festival, like at the Philly Folk Fest.”
Mics, Mics, Mics
Given Froula’s 12-plus year career with beyerdynamic, it’s not too surprising to see a good selection of their gear on the tour. “I came along in 2000 with some beyerdynamic product and Todd gave me the liberty to find the appropriate mic for the appropriate application and he’s been implementing them since then. In fact, all the mics on the input list are beyer, except for a Sennheiser 602, which [FOH mixer] George Cowan wanted. He was right — the 602 was ideal for the big 26-inch kick drum in Prairie’s kit. George was also open to the use of all the beyer product, mainly because it gave him what he was looking for at FOH. He has the last word on what he needs in his world.”
The Mix Side
On this particular tour, FOH engineer George Cowan mixes on a Yamaha DM2000. “We also had a lot of success with the Roland M-series,” Froula explains. “Roland was at the forefront of providing the small format digital console that actually sounded good. We’ve had this relationship with Roland products for years, with the M-480 and now the R-1000 recording unit. Initially I used that same package for the Joe Jackson tour and it’s a great combination that allows us to record all the show, play multitracks for a virtual sound check, listen-backs for the band and then mix and post the shows.”
With a tight production pack, there’s little room for traditional outboard gear — whether for effects or a “money channel” processor. “For monitors, we’re using all on-board effects — dynamics processing, effects and EQ embedded in the M-480,” Froula adds. “With the Yamaha DM2000 at front of house, we’re using a combination of some external Universal Audio plug-ins and some onboard processing.”
One great element about the Rundgren band and crew is that they are all seasoned pros who have worked together for years and operate as a well-oiled machine. “Most of these guys have been doing this for a long time, so there’s not a lot of drama,” Froula notes, adding “sometimes when dealing with the house, we might schedule a sound check for 5:30. The question invariably comes up as to running right up until doors with the check. My response is usually: ‘Gosh, we hope not!’ I explain that sound checks are usually only one song, and sometimes we don’t even need to do a sound check. Or it might be the band tweaking for a while, and then Todd comes out and we do the appointed sound check song. If George [Cowan] is happy in the house, and I’m happy on monitors, then we’re done. If a sound check lasts more than four minutes and 36 seconds, then it’s only because we’re having a little more trouble out front or on stage than we usually do. We might have some issue because we’re using a different P.A. rig every day, but that’s all settled well before the band arrives. And we’re loving every minute out there when the tour meshes with the locals.”
So far, everything seems pretty simple, but isn’t Rundgren one of those “rah, rah, technology” guys, with a lot of complicated gear? “Todd does have a certain legacy and reputation for those kinds of things, but at the end of the day, it’s all about what works and what gets the job done. On one leg of the State [EDM] tour, he had some pretty complicated synchronization things going on and operated them all himself. I was only on a few of those dates, but it was quite the major technical undertaking that was probably lost on the audience — though certainly not lost on the crew! But on this tour, it’s pretty straightforward — two guitars, bass, drums and keys. There’s no wizardry here — it’s just taking care of the audience and delighting his fans night after night. Sometimes talent, vocals and songwriting are enough.”