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Todd Rundgren’s “Clearly Human” Virtual Tour

George Petersen • April 2021Production Profile • April 2, 2021

The shows included both a live audience and a streaming component. Photo by Jim Snyder

Since his early days, Todd Rundgren was always about innovation and forging new directions. This has been evident throughout his career, both as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and his studio work, engineering and producing for a wide range of artists including The Band, Meat Loaf, The Tubes, Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, the New York Dolls — to name just a few.

Along the way, Rundgren was never afraid to embrace novel concepts and technologies, along the way becoming immersed in disk-based audio production — a novel concept at the time, with the Fairlight CMI in 1984. A year later, he worked with Ear Monitors® pioneer Marty Garcia (later of Future Sonics) — creating the first wedgeless stage with all members of Rundgen’s Utopia band wearing Ear Monitors.

Rundgren had long been proponent of incorporating video into stage shows. He developed the Utopia Graphics System, a 1981 computer paint program, running on an Apple II. He was later involved with the revolutionary (and affordable!) NewTek Video Toaster SEG/switcher/CG system in the early 90’s and the innovations have continued over the years. So it was hardly surprising that in the face of Covid-19 shutdowns, Rundgren suggested a creative alternative to traditional touring.

Photo by Jim Snyder

 

Enter the Virtual Tour

Late last year, Rundgren announced his 2021 Clearly Human virtual tour — the first-ever, multi-city virtual concert tour, with 25 geo-targeted shows (February 14 to March 22, 2021), combining a live socially distanced audience in from a Chicago venue, that was also streamed and tailored to a different U.S. city each night.

Produced by live streaming company NoCap and Panacea Entertainment chairman (and Rundgren manager) Eric Gardner, each show featured the artist with an expanded 10-piece band performing standouts from his catalog and his entire 1989 Nearly Human album.

Production manager/monitor engineer Paul Froula

“Initially, we capped in-person attendance at 19,” says Rundgren’s longtime monitor engineer/production manager Paul Froula — himself a veteran engineer who’s also mixed tours with Blondie, Joe Jackson and Joe Bonamassa. “The city of Chicago later increased that limit to 50, although we capped it at 30, and placed VLA (Virtual Live Audience) video panels between the socially distanced seating,” Froula explains. “Supplied by Clair Global, the VLA panels are mostly for Todd and the band — so they aren’t staring out into a mostly empty house.”

“I wanted as much of a real concert as possible, making this a model for something not just to sell tickets, but be a performer’s experience as well as something for the audience,” Rundgren says. “It’s not enough to put a camera and stream it out and then listen to the dead silence when you’re done.”

Todd Rundgren photo by Jim Snyder

Other virtual audience perks included remote meet-and-greets with Rundgren at every show, and options to select viewing from multiple camera angles and be featured on the VLA screens for the evening. Subject to Chicago’s Covid policy, each live attendee was required to show proof of a negative test within 72 hours of the event.

There were plenty of logistic challenges. “Todd wanted the show to start at 8pm in every local market,” Froula says. “Chicago was the ideal site, because it’s in a central time zone, so the ‘East Coast’ shows would start at 7pm Chicago time and the ‘West Coast’ dates would begin at 10pm. While scouring for venues, I was driving up 18th Street and I saw Radius — a venue in an old building that for a couple years, had been transitioning into a venue and literally got two shows in before the Covid shutdown. Radius holds about 3,000 people and has a really nice d&b audiotechnik rig in there, along with a proper stage and enough space to get all our stuff in there.”

George Cowan photo by Kevin M. Mitchell

A Team Approach

Another key team member is streamcast and recording engineer George Cowan, who has been working on and off with Rundgren since 1982, when he was the chief engineer at the legendary Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY — a job Rundgren also held for several years. Recently, Cowan had been mixing FOH for Rundgren, who asked him to mix the livestream for the tour broadcasts. “Originally I was going to send that out for the front of house feed,” Cowan explains, “but it didn’t work out because I had built a control room backstage — I call it my padded cell — out of packing blankets and acoustic panels in a separate room. This would isolate me from the stage sounds, so I could mix properly, yet once in there, I couldn’t do justice to the house P.A. sound. Fortunately, one of the local team members [Perry Blanchard] could take over the room mix so I could concentrate on the broadcast mix.”

Besides that duty, Cowan is also the tour’s recording mixer and archivist, storing video and audio for all the shows. Asked about his DAW choice, “I used the PreSonus Studio One, which has worked great,” says Cowan, adding that “when we have off-time here, I’m kinda isolated in an apartment — like a bubble, so none of us get sick and I had a lot of time to explore Studio One. That’s my new DAW — I’m really impressed with it.”

Rundgren at the Mission Control desk. Photo by Paul Froula

Cowan is mixing on a Yamaha DM2000VCM console with 96 inputs and 22 mixing buses. “I’ve had for a long time — it was in mothballs and I had replace some of the faders but now it’s as good as new and the I/O is all Dante. A lot of people roll their eyes when I mention that console — but it’s a really good desk. We’re using Midas mic preamps and converting that to Dante on the stage, which is how we distribute audio to FOH, monitors and my broadcast input. And the Dante flow has been flawless — very reliable — throughout.”

Cowan uses a couple Universal Audio Apollo units as effects racks to get some of the plug-ins he likes, including an LA2A, a Maag EQ and a Empirical Labs Fatso Jr on bass, and UA’s Ampex 102 tape emulation and a bit of Shadow Hills compression on the master mix. His monitors are Boston Acoustics A60’s and Adam Audio P11a’s.

In-between acting as production manager, Froula mixes monitors on a Midas M32, again fed via the production’s extensive Dante network. On stage, Rundgren is going au naturale, relying on the side fills to provide his monitor feeds, with everyone else in the band mostly on in-ears. The FOH console is a Behringer X32 with a Dante card. “It’s hardly state of the art,” says Froula, “but keep in mind we’ve got 19 people in the audience and the X32 mostly functions as a control surface.” Rundgren likes using a Line 6 XD-V75 2.4GHz digital wireless vocal mic. “People we’ve run across are surprised by that, but it works, it’s consistent, it sounds good and it’s reliable,” Froula adds.

Photo by Jim Snyder

Back to the Future

After his experience on the Clearly Human tour, Froula is upbeat about the future of virtual touring. “This is a trend that could continue after the Covid thing is over,” he notes. “The typical touring costs are reduced — there’s one load-in and one load-out and a family at home can buy a single $35 ticket and have everyone there enjoy the show.”

Froula added, “Based on the press we’ve received — both locally and in the various cities served — people have been very receptive to the concept. And artists could still stream shows from packed arenas, which opens up additional revenue sources for traditional touring — everybody wins!”

Photo by Jim Snyder

 

FOH Engineer Perry Blanchard; Photo By Kevin M. Mitchell

 

Photo by Jim Snyder

Todd Rundgren Clearly Human Live Virtual Tour

CREW

Venue: Radius Chicago

Production Manager/Monitor Engineer: Paul Froula

Streamcast/Recording Engineer: George Cowan

FOH Engineer: Perry Blanchard

Backline Tech: Randy Brown

Lighting Designer: Hans Shoop

Video Director: John Deeney

Video Engineer: Chris Anderson

Todd Rundgren photo by Jim Snyder

GEAR

House P.A.: (22) d&b audiotechnik KSL

Subs: (10) d&b SL-GSUB

Amps: (17) d&b D80, (3) D20

FOH Console: Behringer X32

Monitor Console: Midas M32

Broadcast Console: Yamaha D2000VCM

Broadcast Monitors: Boston Acoustics A60s; Adam Audio P11a

Vocal Wireless: Line 6 XD-V75

Audio Network: Audinate Dante

Audience Enhancement: Clair Global VLA

 

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