Todd Rundgren and the Liars: A Triumph of Cobbled-Together High Tech

By Bill Evans
Okay, just for a minute, forget that you are a pro sound guy (yes, the women are included here. When it comes to the gig, we're all guys regardless of gender). If you are like 95% of us, you started out in a band. If you weren't in the band, it was still the same deal-you became the sound guy because you were the one who could figure out how to take a bunch of mismatched components and turn them into a working sound system. As you progress, some of that cobbled-together vibe becomes less intense, but a lot of this gig is about just getting stuff to work against sometimes stiff odds.
Part of that used to mean using gear in ways that the designers and manufacturers never envisioned, much less intended. As we have said before, most of the really cool advances in audio came about because some whacked-out guy mused, "I wonder what would happen if..."   That whole cobbled-together vibe permeates the entire stage on the current Todd Rundgren tour. Unlike the old days when you were in the band, it is not cobbled together crap. In fact, it is all cutting-edge technology. But Rundgren and lead sound guy Robert Frazza have put together a system where-outside of things like guitars and drums and mics-there is nothing on the stage being used in the way it was intended by the folks who made it.
"I spoke to Todd about three months before we went out and this was all just a concept in his head," says Frazza. "Basically he wanted nothing on the stage-no wedges, no guitar amps, nothing."
Starting with backline. Both Rundgren and guitarist Jesse Gress use amp modeling devices that run direct. Jesse uses a Line 6 Guitar Port-a desktop, USB unit that was made with the "jamming in his bedroom" player in mind. He controls it with a laptop computer. Rundgren was using the same setup until recently. "His laptop fried," says Frazza, so they put him on a Line 6 POD instead. Bass and keys all run direct. Both bassist Kasim Sultan and Gress play some keys during the show and both are using inexpensive USB keyboards from M-Audio that were really made with the home recordist in mind. Drummer Prairie Prince plays a traditional acoustic kit with a couple of trigger pads for things like tympani sounds. The whole kit is miked with beyer condensers except the kick, which takes a beyer Opus 99.
Rundgren sings into a beyerdynamic SEM-881 wireless while Gress, Sultan and keyboardist John Ferenzik use beyerdynamic SDM-860Ms and Prairie Prince uses an Opus 54 wireless headworn mic. In fact, with the exception of the Whirlwind DIs, this is an all-beyer stage. "Beyer has been wonderful," says Frazza. "They get me whatever I need and actually call me every day of the tour just to make sure that everything is going well and that their stuff is working. Really great service."
The entire band is on PMs with the exception of Rundgren, and here is where the system really starts to get wacky. "I needed something that could do five stereo mixes," notes Frazza by way of introduction. So there are plenty of choices out there, but Frazza chose none of the usual suspects because of Rundgren's next edict. "It needed to be small with a tiny footprint. This tour is out with one bus and a trailer, and we carry everything except front of house speakers." The need for compactness mixed with Todd's dislike of PMs meant that Robert chose a Roland V-Mixing system to drive the monitors. This small digital board-again designed with the home studio in mind-gives Frazza all of the mixes he needs and takes up very little space, and does it for a lot less money than a traditional monitor console. But it is his choice of monitor speakers that is truly inspired-a pair of Bose L1 towers matched with a couple of B1 subs. Bose's marketing for this system is that everyone in the band has one and together they "become" the sound system-and Frazza says the folks at Bose were pretty horrified at his idea and tried to talk him out of it "right up until the day before the tour."
They shouldn't have worried, as the system provides some of the most even stage coverage I have every heard. I walked the stage during soundcheck and was amazed at how consistent and even the coverage was. As the L1 is a wide-dispersion device, they serve a dual purpose. "Shows where everything is direct and everyone is on PMs can be a problem," says Frazza. "The quiet stage is nice, but there can be a big hole in the middle of the room near the stage." Frazza uses the edges of the L1 pattern to fill that hole instead off-setting-up (and carrying) front fills, and the L1 system is ultra compact, taking far less space than the usual contingent of floor wedges. Plus, as they are self-powered, there is no monitor amp rack, either.
Front of House is similarly small. "We are using a Yamaha DM2000 (designed as a production board, but there are lots of them being used live, just not often on tours -Ed.) and there is one small rack of effects and an old dbx 160 for Todd's vocal." Frazza admits the rack is mostly just for convenience and the ability to quickly tweak any effect without getting into the DM2000's internal effects.
The tour is totally self-contained, with the band and crew of four in one bus and hiring a few local hands at each stop. "But that is just ’move this box/run this cable‘ kind of stuff," says Frazza. Sound and lights go up in about five hours and down in two. When the tour's monitor engineer left for another gig, Frazza moved from FOH to monitors and tour manager George Cowan took over FOH duties.
Much like the interview with the Prince crew also in this issue, the question on all of our minds is "What is it like to work for an artist who knows as much about sound as you do?"
"Todd is great," says Frazza. "On one hand, yes he knows what he wants and if he thinks something needs to be EQ'd he won't hesitate to come to the board and tweak it. But he not only allows, he expects us to contribute and bring something to the party on a creative level. He wants us to not only help present his vision but to expand on it."
Keep an eye on this show. It is out doing full production every night in massively differing venues in terms of both size and vibe. They carry everything except stacks and racks (including a bleeding-edge LED based lighting system that was covered in the June issue of PLSN) and they do it with four crew guys, one bus and a trailer. It has cut costs to the point that they can do shows-full production show-that would not make sense for most tours. This may just be the future of mid-sized tours.


Console: Yamaha DM-2000 (Ver: 2)
Processing: TC Electronic M-one processor, TC Electronic M300, Yamaha SPX-90, Line 6 Echo Pro, MOTU 828, Macintosh laptop running "Emagic Logic", SmaartLive
Console: Roland VM-7200 and two processors
Wireless: Beyerdynamic Opus 800 series modular wireless system
Monitors: Bose L1 Cylindrical Radiators
Personal Monitors: Shure PSM 700, E5 earpiece
Processing: Macintosh laptop running "Propellerhead Reason"
Vocal Mics: Todd Rundgren: Beyerdynamic SEM-881; Kasim Sulton, Jesse Gress, John Ferenzik:
  Beyerdynamic SDM-860M; Prairie Prince: Beyerdynamic Opus 54 headset
Drum Mics: Kick: Beyerdynamic Opus 99; Snare: Beyerdynamic Opus 87; High-Hat: Beyerdynamic Opus 83;
  Rack, Floor 1, Floor 2: Beyerdynamic Opus 88; Overhead L and R: Beyerdynamic MCE 90