Hello, It’s Todd Rundgren. Can We Still Be Hi-Res Friends?

Restless creativity, thy name is Todd Rundgren. The always adventurous singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer found time in 2015 to not only release two albums of new music — the electro-melodic Global (Esoteric Antenna) and the even-more EDM-driven Runddans (Smalltown Supersound) — as well as embark on a few legs of a solo tour, but he also managed to write some material for and play on Ringo Starr's Postcards From Paradise (UMe) and be a part of the current touring incarnation of Ringo's All-Starr Band to boot. "We’re in our fourth year now," notes Rundgren, "so if we make it a few more years, we’ll have outlasted The Beatles." (That's one long and winding road...)

During a tour break, I called Rundgren, 67, at his Hawaiian homestead to discuss the differences between audience and artist expectations, the merits and demerits of vinyl, and his Beatles listening preferences. He saw the light, alright.

Mike Mettler: So, Todd, it was about 11 years ago that we talked about the surround-sound mix you did for Liars (Silverline), which I still love listening to on DVD-Audio. Do you ever think about doing any more surround mixes? I think the way Global was mixed certainly lends itself to the surround option.

Todd Rundgren: I still have a surround system, so it’s physically possible for me to do it. But because it is such a niche, it’s difficult to justify the resources that go into producing a surround mix. It’s not simply taking a stereo mix and moving stuff behind you. If you really want to do it right, you have to start again from scratch on the mix.

At this point, the demand seems to be increasing for vinyl, although my take on that is that it’s not necessarily about the quality of the sound of vinyl versus the quality of getting the music some other way, such as by download.

I’ve always maintained that the general audiences, for the most part, don’t evaluate the music by sound quality. They just think it’s supposed to sound the way you mixed it. They think that’s the intent. And when you evaluate all of the ways producers hear sounds, there are “dry” records, there are “ambient” records, and there are records that seem to be nothing but bass. And there are records that are just treble! (both laugh) The audience accepts that. They just think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So I always chuckle when I see people get so upset with digitized music. They think that music has somehow lost something because it’s no longer on vinyl. You have to sort of remind people of what happens to vinyl in the long run. First of all, the quality of the sound, even on a brand-new fricking vinyl record, degrades as it moves towards the center, because you’re trying to put the same amount of sound on less and less real estate as the record goes on.

Mettler: Plus, you have a nice, hard diamond stylus cutting into a physical object.

Rundgren: Not only that, but it's different if you have a turntable that has linear playback. See, a tonearm is changing the angle of the stylus to the grooves counter to the way the record was made in the first place, because a cutter lathe moves perpendicular to the center of the record, and a tonearm moves in an arc across the record.

It’s the physics of it. You can argue about the merits of vinyl records, but they do degrade the sound. If you could always play it on the outermost edge of the record, maybe you’d have an argument. (laughs)

Mettler: So maybe that’s the way to release your records on vinyl, moving forward – one song per side, and 14 sides total for Global, with one song per on the outer edge.

Rundgren: (laughs heartily) Like I said, I’ve always maintained the audience doesn’t evaluate based on the sound. They evaluate first on whether they like the song. And if they like the song, the next thing they may evaluate is how well the song is performed. And then the last thing they do is evaluate the so-called sound quality.

The majority of the listening audiences of the world are now listening on these sh---y earbuds, or they’re listening to $500 equally sh---y headphones. It’s essentially branded distortion. (laughs)

Mettler: All the more reason we audiophiles want to hear the kind of music you produce in the best resolution possible.

Rundgren: I produce it for the medium it’s going to be played in, but I’m also OK with the new high-resolution formats. I get Neil Young, because he bitches about sound all the time. If my music was going to be released in that format, then I would go to the trouble of recording for that format. But by the time you get all of the bits and pieces you’re working with — all the master versions and multitrack versions — it starts to take up a lot of space, even with today’s storage.

Mettler: I’ve spoken with artists like The Crystal Method, who told me they've had to deal with the problem of how big they can actually make files before running out of space, or having their system crash when they’re working with higher-res elements.

Rundgren: Yeah, you suddenly wind up back in that old era where you have specialized hardware in order to make the music. That's one of the great benefits that everyone who’s making music is enjoying — the CPU cost has gone down while the power has drastically gone up. The cost of storage has come way down while the speed of the storage has gone up. The external devices and everything else you use have all come down while the quality has maintained or gone up. And then you suddenly find a way to turn the clock back again to make it necessary to have all special expensive interfaces and storage things.

As for me — I want to make the music, you know? I just want to make the music and I want it to sound good, but I don’t want to get totally mental about that because I know from experience as a producer that the majority of the audience are not audiophiles.

Mettler: Can you pick a Global track that you consider the best-sounding, to your ear? Maybe “Global Nation,” or “Flesh & Blood”? It’s hard to pick from my end, but I like those two as examples.

Rundgren: It’s a record where I wasn’t trying to have a uniformity of sound. It was more like a songwriting record. On State (2013), my last record, I was attempting to constantly push the sonic envelope.

Mettler: There also seems to be more EDM stylings on State.

Rundrgen: There is more EDM on State, yes, but it's also pushing the sonic palette, as opposed to thinking about what’s best for the material. I guess on this record, Global, there’s a bit more restraint. I was trying to do what advances the message of the material as much as possible.

It’s probably a record that would transfer very well if I decided to do a surround thing with it. (chuckles) But there would have to be a demand for it.

Mettler: Well, you’ve got at least one person here who’s gonna demand it, so...

Rundgren: OK, just for you, I’m gonna do the surround! (both laugh)

Mettler: After all, this is a record where you’re “searching for the tethers”...

Rundgren: (chuckles) Yeah, in a way. Of course, it’s never too late to do that. And there are a few records of mine that are probably good candidates to go to a surround format. Until the demand is there, I’m still going to focus on new music.

Mettler: Well, keep it coming. Though I do have to say, I’d love to literally be sitting in the middle of a “This Island Earth” surround mix and hear the other planets swirl all around me.

Rundgren: (laughs heartily) Hah! Well, you’ve certainly got me thinking about it.

Mettler: Good! So here’s the real question, then: Beatles mono, or Beatles stereo?

Rundgren: Well, of course, I discovered The Beatles in mono. The Beatles didn’t really survive long enough to take advantage of some of the technical advances.

Mettler: True. And stereo was really an afterthought for them for most of their recorded career.

Rundgren: Yeah, it was like, “Oh, we have to do stereo now?” (laughs) For the majority of their career, they were working with 4-track. The stereo records would have this really bizarre, super left-center-right split, so if you were listening in stereo but were too close to one of the speakers, you’d be hearing nothing but bass and drums. All of the vocals would be in the other speaker. (chuckles) There are pretty obvious differences between the mono and the stereo.

Mettler: Giles Martin did that great LOVE project of theirs in surround, and he just did these great 5.1 mixes of all of their videos on 1+ in 5.1. What do you think about that – The Beatles in surround?

Rundgren: Well, we have technologies now that make it sound less bizarre. The Beatles were trying to figure out which side to put the guitar on, you know. Now, you can put it in a lot of different places.

I haven’t heard those mixes yet myself. We have the advantage these days of, how do you approach it from the listener’s standpoint, and how do you approach it from a musician/record producer’s standpoint? And the interesting thing we have available to us now is the actual multitracks.

Somewhere, I have the actual multitracks of Sgt. Pepper – but, of course, that’s only 4 tracks. The interesting thing is you can actually break those things down from a musician’s standpoint. From a listener’s standpoint, that stereo mix doesn’t quite sound right. But if you’re trying to figure out exactly what they’re doing, then it’s perfect.

Mettler: Personally, I love hearing about all that recording minutiae. As an audiophile scientist, it’s all fascinating.

Rundgren: Nobody has been studied like The Beatles. The amount of books written on them could fill an entire studio. (both laugh)