When Todd Rundgren makes a solo album, he makes a solo album. The multifaceted singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer/tech pioneer first got the urge to do it alone all the way back in 1972, on three of the four sides of his breakthrough Something/Anything? set. Since then, he’s recorded albums in every conceivable way — with bands, without bands, layering instruments one at a time, live in the studio with no overdubs, live onstage; you name it. He’s cut note-for-note replicas of famous pop songs; laid down convoluted guitar-dominated prog-rock tracks; made an album entirely out of treated vocals; hit the charts with catchy, radio-friendly ballads; recorded interactive albums; and even made one with bossa-nova versions of some of his best-known tunes. His 2004 album, Liars, was a solo affair mostly; just a couple of guest spots kept it from being all-Rundgren. But on his latest, Arena, not only did he make it completely alone — using no other players or assistants — but he didn’t even use a studio.
That’s quite a feat when one considers that the title refers to the “arena rock” genre, with all its bombast, booming drums, screaming guitars and everything else that term implies. “A lot of my fans like the idea of me being a guitar-playing front man,” Rundgren says with a smirk by phone from Bearsville, N.Y., on Christmas Eve morning. The previous night, he and his current band had played a sold-out concert in this small town that was Rundgren’s home base years ago. “I’ve been through a lot of styles since Utopia [the dazzling prog-rock band he formed in 1974], and there have been times when I’ve gotten away from the guitar a bit. But after the [summer 2006] New Cars tour was cancelled, I went out and was guitar player with the Tony Levin Band and with some other groups [including his own], and we were getting such great responses from the audience — that’s what pushed me to make a guitar-oriented record again. I’m going back to a retro phase — to the era when the guitar was the principal instrument.
“The idea of this record is, I wanted the guitar to essentially provide all the color. Instead of adding a layer of synthesizers or some abstract sounds, I’d just get another guitar sound and use that. There’s occasional organ in some places, and there’s one song that’s a little more modern-sounding in terms of the use of sequencers and stuff [“Today”], but mostly it’s lots of guitars.”
Arena was made entirely within a laptop environment, using Propellerhead Reason software, Line 6 TonePort, the Line 6 edition of Sonoma Sound Works’ RiffWorks and other virtual tools. “As it turned out, I was having issues with my Pro Tools equipment and didn’t want to get it fixed, so I devised this method that allowed me to do the entire project on my laptop with very little extra equipment,” Rundgren says.
“Doing it on the laptop eliminated a rack full of stuff at least, because all I needed was a couple of pieces of hardware — one was an audio I/O box and a Line 6 TonePort [UX-8], which also had two phantom-powered mic ports, so when it came time to do the vocals I didn’t have to add any more hardware to that.” The strikingly varied guitar textures on Arena — from crunchy fuzzed riffs to liquidy, practically translucent lines — are products of the Line 6 environment, specifically TonePort and another software window called GearBox.
The flexibility of his laptop system allowed Rundgren to bypass a traditional console, digital recorder and even drums. The last particularly surprised me because Rundgren is a fine drummer and the sound is so authentic on Arena I assumed they were mostly real drums. “Nope, all programmed [in Reason],” Rundgren says with a laugh. “That’s kind of revealing the man behind the curtain. If you had to ask, though, I guess I did an okay job of programming them. The drums probably took the longest time of anything — making them sound like real drum performances. Unlike other instruments, drums have a whole lot of vagary in it — little feel things that are just barely audible — and getting those properly framed is the biggest challenge.
“Knowing how to play drums definitely gives you greater insight into how to program them realistically. Plus, at this point, getting the ideal drum take might take just as long from a playing standpoint. I’m not in shape [as a drummer] and I’ve got tendinitis in my elbows, which makes it hard for me to do it for a long time.”
Rundgren modestly adds, “Almost everything I play besides the guitar, I play with limited technique so it’s always interesting working within those limitations. What that does is it leads you to create more textured arrangements. If you’re playing a whole lot of notes on one instrument, it’s difficult to fit other things into it. But if what you’re playing is relatively simple because that’s all you can do, you can add other textures to create contrapuntal lines and things like that.”
Speaking more generally about Reason, Rundgren notes, “It uses an extremely familiar metaphor, at least for people who have used synthesizers and sequencers and such. It looks like a rack full of that kind of equipment. It’s a literal metaphor, even down to the patch chords in the back, which, when you hit this button that flips the rack around so you can go work with the patch chords, the patch chords sway in the breeze! They come up with a new version of [Reason] with some regularity, and they’re always coming up with things that make it even better.”
The actual recording, mostly at his home in Hawaii, was done using RiffWorks, which locks to Reason using ReWire. “You might pick out a guitar loop you want to record over, and you start it up and you start doing takes. I keep the takes I like, I export them out of RiffWorks — I’ll clean them up using a simple audio program — and then bring them all into a sampler inside Reason, essentially making an instrument out of each one of them using all the samples I’ve recorded and then just lay them out as MIDI events.”
Rundgren says that working solo “allows me to focus all the energy into what works best musically. You’re not spending all this time going for what would be the so-called ideal take, where four or five guys in the band manage to lock in together and play the parts they intend to play. So the execution of it becomes relatively simple, and the tweaking you do later tends to be more about the sounds you’re after rather than the performances.” He says all of his reverbs and other processing also came from with Reason.
“There’s a huge amount of flexibility; it can go wherever I go,” he enthuses. “I could mix wherever I want as long as you get used to doing it with headphones and you have confidence that what you’re hearing in the ‘phones will translate well to speakers. In this case, I’m really happy with how it turned out. There were no major problems along the way.”
But his job with the music on Arena didn’t end with the completion of the album. “Then I had to teach it all to my band, and that’s been great! The songs have grown, having their input and ideas, which is what you hope will happen with an album. This stuff is really fun to play.”