Susan Rogers on Working with Prince
The engineer, collaborator and confidante shares stories from her exhilarating and exhausting time with Prince Rogers Nelson
If you’ve heard Purple Rain, Sign ‘O’ The Times, Parade and other classics from Prince’s mid-’80s purple patch, you’ve likewise absorbed the work of Susan Rogers, who worked for five years as Prince’s engineer beginning in 1983. A high school drop-out and self-taught sound engineer and technician, Rogers was initially unprepared for the demands of her new boss. But as an avowed Prince fan, she fully committed herself to his relentless work ethic and singular creativity, helping to shepherd several seminal albums into existence and making her one of Prince’s closest collaborators throughout a period of unparalleled output and global acclaim.
Rogers went on to record, mix and/or produce artists such as the Jacksons, Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, but nowadays she focuses on the academic side of things, with a doctorate in psychology from McGill University and as director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory, where her research focuses on auditory memory, psychoacoustics and the perception of musical signals. In these excerpts from her lecture with Torsten Schmidt at the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy, Rogers shares rare insights on Prince’s musical value system, alter egos, typical tour schedule, relationship with women and much, much more.
Learning Prince’s Value System
There was a little bedroom across from the master bedroom in his home that had a tape machine and a console in it, and that’s where he did some of the Purple Rain album. Then there was a rehearsal space – just a warehouse, really – where he would set up with the band, and all the mics on the stage would feed a splitter snake, and then the output of the splitter snake fed a monitor-mix console, and then it also fed an API recording console. The outputs of that I wired up to a tape machine so we could record rehearsals.
[Between] the console and where the band played, there was no isolation. It was all right there, so to monitor I just had to listen to headphones or stick my head right in front of the loudspeaker to try and hear it... And you couldn’t hear it anyway, because the band was just so loud. We would record the basic track with the band onstage, he’d keep the girls around, like Wendy and Lisa, to do backing vocals, and then he and I stayed up the whole rest of the night and finished the song, and printed it to two-track.
With him, it was typically anywhere between 16 and 24 [hours]. 16 would be a fairly short session, but we frequently did 24 hours. That was fairly common. That was how long it took, because he never wanted to come back to a song. If he started it, he wanted to do all the overdubs and mixing as we went, and then print it and then it would be done. Then we’d sleep for a few hours and then start another song.
He lived on Doritos and cake.
It was kind of easy and invigorating, because I was a Prince fan! I was just so excited to be there, and with every song – with one exception – with every song, I was always thinking, “This may be the greatest thing he’s ever done! This is the greatest. Wait ’til people hear this! This is great!” Just one after the other after the other, they were all so amazing. You take that clear ether of youth, and you couple that with a little bit of training and preparation, and then you take that energy and you put it in an environment where people say, “Here’s a lot of money. Go ahead and make a movie. Make a record. Do whatever you want, and there doesn’t have to be a producer in the room. It can be just you, artist, and your engineer, because we trust you.” It’s just so invigorating.
Prince didn’t... Well, I say this knowing what we know about how he died: At the time, he did not do drugs, not at all, because he wouldn’t have been able to stay up if he had done drugs. He was just healthy and young and strong, and every once in a while he would have a cup of coffee. But we didn’t want to make him coffee, because then we’d be up for another 24 hours!
Also a lot of sugar, one hears.
Well, he kind of went through phases, but yeah, he had a sweet tooth. He lived on Doritos and cake.
Nothing wrong with that in my book.
Yeah, he ate like a little kid at the time when I was with him.
Watch Susan Rogers’ full lecture from RBMA Montréal here.
When you showed up there in Minneapolis, you had done how many recording sessions?
I had done very few, and only basically as an assistant engineer. He hired me as his technician. He asked his management, “Find me someone from New York or LA,” because the locals weren’t as fluent in pro audio techniques, the local Minneapolis folk, so he wanted someone from the industry, and I’d been in the industry five years now. At this point I was working for Crosby, Stills & Nash, their studio in Hollywood. I heard through the professional grapevine that Prince was looking for a technician and I just jumped on it, because I knew he liked working with women, he was my favorite artist in the world and I wanted that job so badly. I was qualified for it, so his management hired me. They interviewed me and hired me, so I had done practically no sessions.
The first thing I did was I pulled out an old console and then installed a new one. I repaired his tape machine. There was some stuff with his outboard gear that I fixed, and just basically got the studio up and running so he could continue recording on the Purple Rain record. He just put me in the engineers seat at that point, because he didn’t like to work with too many people. If you knew how the gear worked he assumed you knew how to run it, so be the engineer. That was really a dream come true.
Did you have a moment of, “Oh shit, this is what we’re doing”?
Hell yeah. I remember the very first... I finally had finished setting up everything and he gave me instructions to put up a vocal mic. The vocal mic... At that time it wasn’t that rare, but now it’s extremely rare, it was Tube U47, the Neumann. They’re very expensive now, so beautiful. I put up the tube mic to do a vocal and hung it on the boom stand over the console the way he said he wanted it. I kept thinking, “Oh, no. The engineer’s going to walk in any minute and catch me. I’m going to be in so much trouble and I’m going to have to tell this engineer, ‘Prince told me to do it. I had to.’” He told me to get a sound on the mic, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to be fired now, this engineer is going to tell on me.”
It was my boss who was telling me to do it, so I did. I got a sound and he came in and finally I asked him, “Who’s going to record it?” He said, “You.” I said, “OK, fair enough chief, off we go.” That’s how it began. I had the dawning realization after a while that, “He doesn’t know that I’m not an engineer.” Then a second dawning was, “He knows and he doesn’t care.” I felt very fortunate every single day I was with him.
He was not a perfectionist. He wouldn’t have had that output if he’s been a perfectionist.
How do you find that unorthodox way of setting things up and running recording sessions contributed to the way his art translated onto record?
It’s really important. I think that’s a really important question. People have asked me, or they’ve prefaced questions by saying, “Prince was known to be a perfectionist.” I always have to correct them. He was not a perfectionist. He wouldn’t have had that output if he’s been a perfectionist. What he was was a virtuoso player and a genius with melody, a genius with rhythm, a genius at writing songs. It just poured out of him – he couldn’t wait on perfection. The important thing was to have the sound serve the ideas, not the other way around. Working quickly was fine with him and only a beginning engineer would have no bad habits to break. Only a beginner would be willing to go that fast.
There were people who were instrumental in helping you to figure out which way he would have liked the rule book to be chucked. As in, people that would be working with him that showed you the ropes and gave you a little bit of a hand.
That was Jesse Johnson from The Time. Prince went out to Los Angeles to work on the Purple Rain movie logistics and he let Jesse and me use the studio. Jesse had some tracks he wanted to record and Jesse was instrumental to me keeping my job. He taught me, “Here’s how Prince likes the kick drum sound. Here’s how he likes the snare to sound. Hi-hat always has to be on the left. Rhythm guitar has to sound like this, electric guitar has to sound like that.” He showed me on the console, “This is Prince’s sound.” We had a lot of conversations, he helped teach me Prince’s value system.
What would that be?
What we need music to do. When you’re mixing a record, you need to understand something about where you want your listener’s attention to go. You need to – subconsciously, I suppose – understand how you want people to move to this music. How would they dance to it? The answer to those questions determines, is the bass louder than the kick drum, or is the kick drum louder than the bass? Is the focus on the two and four, or is the focus on the one and three in this song? Should the vocal be up, should the vocal be down in the track? Where do we want people’s attention to go, because what do we want them to feel when they hear this? That’s the value system that is always in place for every artist, and Jesse helped me to transition from the LA sound that I knew into this Minneapolis sound. That was really just the Prince sound that he was crafting for himself: “This is who we are – there’s an ‘us’ and we sound like this.”
Prince’s Alter Egos
The Time is Prince. Prince wrote all those songs and performed all the instruments on the record. (He’d have Jesse [Johnson] do a guitar solo.) Prince would sing a guide vocal and then Morris [Day] would come in and just copy Prince’s lead. The Time is just another one of Prince’s musical personalities. Music is an expression of life, but it’s not 100% of an artist’s output. Music is only a part of Prince’s life, and Prince music was only a part of the music of Prince’s life. There was the Time music, there was Sheila E. and there was Vanity 6. They were his musical alter egos. The Time was just another version of Prince. The public didn’t know at the time, because Prince didn’t want it know. He didn’t want it know that it was him.
He’s the first artist as far as I know to ever do that. Who does that, create your own competition so that you can get the record-buying public to think that coming out of this town – Minneapolis, Minnesota – is a scene, not just one genius guy? He created the Time to be his competition, and then he wrote this movie to play them as the competition, and the prize they were fighting for was Vanity 6, which is another one of Prince’s alter egos.
It’s not a balanced ego, I don’t suppose – everyone’s missing something – but it’s a multifaceted ego. He was very masculine and he was feminine in ways that a masculine man is. He had a feminine sensibility, he was very street and he was very sophisticated. He had an artistic streak that a lot of people didn’t give him credit for. One of the movies he loved was David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Stuff like that. He was a really extraordinary, extraordinary human being.
Prince’s Typical Tour Day
He was fiendishly attracted to making music. If he was awake and not eating or sleeping – which he did very little of – and not on the phone having a business meeting, he had an instrument in his hand.
Let me give you a typical day on tour. In a big, big tour – it’s probably still the same way today, a big arena tour – you have soundcheck. Usually soundcheck, after you’ve got it dialed in, takes 20, 30 minutes tops. That’s what bands do. They soundcheck for 20 or 30 minutes, then they have the dinner break, then there’s doors and then there’s the opening act and then the headliner takes the stage. The headliner plays – it can be 45 minutes if they’re really cheap – but it can be hour and a half, two hours. If they’re really giving you your money’s worth, they’ll play for two and a half hours. Then that’s the end of it. Then they go out and they party.
Prince would have a four hour soundcheck, just for the fun of it, to play new songs, just to have some fun. We would soundcheck from two in the afternoon until 6 PM. He’d leave the stage from six to 6:30. The opening act would do their 30 minute soundcheck. There would be the dinner break. There would be doors. When he would hit the stage, it would be about nine o’clock, because the opening act was 8:30 to 9:00. Prince would hit the stage at 9:00 and he’d play until 11:30 – two and a half hour set.
The last song would be “Purple Rain.” He’d leave the band doing the coda on stage. He come down off the stage. Get into a little van. The van would take him to his hotel. He would shower and change and do one of two things: We would either go into a recording studio and work all night, or we would play an afterparty. There was a little truck, a small truck, that had a second set of instruments, and I knew what we were doing ahead of time. I’d either meet him at the studio or I’d meet him at the small club. At one in the morning, he’d come in. I have to go, of course, because I have to set stuff up. I have to go directly from the gig to the studio, or to the club. Either mix front of house at the club, or record with him all night long until the next day, until the sun was well up and it was time to get on a plane, or the bus to go to the next city, and do it all over again.
This was on the road, because after playing all day he still didn’t have enough. He wants to be with people, but he was socially awkward. He didn’t want to just be with people and talk. His way of being with people was to play. He just wanted to be playing. Sometimes we had records to do, and he had songs in his head that were coming so fast he had to have access to a studio to record them. We would do that on tour.
That was on tour. If we were home, it was: Wake up in the morning – if it was morning – or wake up after a few hours of sleep. (Four hours was a full night for him.) Wake up after his customary four hours of sleep. Make a few phone calls. Have his hair done, or whatever it was he was going to do. After being up for a few hours, I would get the call telling me to meet him at the studio. Sometimes he would tell me what to set up for him. Sometimes I’d find a note. Other times, if there was no note I’d just have everything set up. It might be acoustic drums, it might be drum machines or whatever.
It would be set up and he’d come in and we’d start to work. 20, 24 hours later, we’d be done. He’d go to bed. I’d make his cassette copy. I’d sleep my customary three hours. The phone would ring, I’d pick up the phone and his voice would go, “Ready?” “Yeah.” Then it would go all over again.
He, like any artist, wanted to be loved. He wanted people to like him. He wanted people to like his music.
Other employees and I, we would call it our tour of duty. It was my tour of duty, and I was with him over four years. It was going on our fifth year together, and I was exhausted, still exhilarated, but I had done as much as I possibly could. That was a long run with him, because I was by his side for all those years. Whether we were doing a movie or we were on tour, I was his employee, so if he was awake, he was making music, I was right there. I was quite exhausted by the end of it. I needed to have a proper life, but it was good while it lasted.
Prince and Sex
He was bold. He was bold artistically. He, like any artist, wanted to be loved. He wanted people to like him. He wanted people to like his music. There was an ongoing rivalry with Michael Jackson. This was sad, because it was perceived by the general public that Michael was the good guy, he was the safe guy. He was the guy that you could send out on a date with your 15-year-old daughter, and she’d be safe. You’d let him babysit your children. Michael was the good guy.
Prince was perceived as being somehow threatening. I remember, somebody said to me once, he was an assistant engineer at Sunset Sound and he was talking about Bruce Springsteen and Prince. He said, “I like Bruce Springsteen better.” The guy said, “I get the feeling that if I met Bruce, he’d sit down and he’d have a beer with me. I have a feeling that if I met Prince he’d steal my girlfriend.”
There were these perceptions about Prince... That there was always a bacchanal and that he was this sexual predator. He was the opposite. The truth was, he was a working man who went to work every day, and that’s basically all he did. He dated, but it was usually women that he was around, like Vanity and Susannah Melvoin and Jill Jones and Sheila E. He was just a working man. He also was sober as a judge, so your kids would have been really safe with Prince.
In the United States there were certainly stereotypes about African American artists, and Prince was singing about sex. One of the things that was lost on some people – not on his fans, but on a lot of people – they didn’t really get that when Prince was singing songs about sex, he was giving power to women. “Do Me, Baby” is the archetype example of this. “Do Me, Baby” was just a B side of a single. “Do Me, Baby” was him saying to the woman, “You do me. You be the guy. You be the aggressor. You do me.” He’s saying how much he loves it when she has all the power.
All of those songs are about – it’s brilliant, by the way – all those songs are about us. He never, ever took a predatory stance in his seduction. It was never about, “I am going to conquer you, my prey.” He always approached women as equals. I think that’s one of the reasons that women loved him so much. We trusted him. We felt safe with him. We felt empowered. We felt equal. He gave us that, and he always did. He was always consistent with that. That’s who he was.
The Making Of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”
You can hear those BOSS pedals. You can hear that slow flanger on the drums, and you can hear the snare is, on this one, just completely dry. I had switched to a new compressor around that time. I started using the 1176 on the snare, and he was letting me play around a little bit more, but you hear the obvious distortion on the vocal as well, and that was an accident.
He used to say, “We don’t sound like those other people. We don’t sound like Michael Jackson. We don’t spend all that kind of money. We go fast. We make mistakes.”
Do you feel bad about that accident?
Well, yeah, it was bad. The presets at this console at Sunset Sound weren’t continuous. It was discrete knobs in 10 dB steps, and I accidentally had it set to 10 dB too hot. Prince liked to do his vocals completely alone in the control room. He didn’t want anyone else there, so I would set up the signal path for him and patch, put a piece of tape on the patch cord. Then he needed to move to get himself to the next track if he was going to do backing vocals, arm the track that he needed in to record, and then I would go wait in the next room while he did the vocal. So I didn’t hear it as it was going down, but you hear that API preamp is clipping at the top. I thought he was going to be furious when he heard it back, not in headphones, but in the speakers, and he liked it.
He used to say, “We don’t sound like those other people. We don’t sound like Michael Jackson. We don’t spend all that kind of money. We go fast. We make mistakes.” He was okay with it. I was kind of mortified, but you hear the high pitch on the voice that was done back in those days by varispeeding the tape machine.
Is that on purpose?
Oh, yeah, yeah. You varispeed the machine to get the timbre that you want. You can go the other direction, too, like you can get a bass to sound really, really fat if you would speed up the tape machine and then play it in a different key, and then set it back to the standard speed, and then you’d have that low tone and it would be great. You could do the same thing. You can slow the track way, way down, sing a vocal, and then when you bring the speed back up to where it’s supposed to be, you get that high, thin voice that he liked. He put on a character. He became kind of a character in timbre in order to say something that he really meant.
He was dating Susannah Melvoin at the time. They were in a really close relationship at this time, and she has a twin sister, Wendy Melvoin, and twins are really, really close. I think Prince may have... It’s always conjecture, but I’m supposing that he’s trying to say, “I wish I could have the relationship with you that you have with your sister. I wish we could be that tight.”
It was a bad choice to release it as a single. Prince... I had talked earlier about audiences, and he was trying at this point, on the Sign ‘O’ The Times album, to win back some black radio. He needed more black radio airplay, and he did the song “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” he did “Adore” on this record, and he was trying to win back his core audience. He did some things on this record that would have been appealing to that audience, but some things would have turned that audience off. Most African Americans in the city, in the United States, wouldn’t necessarily think it was cool for a guy to say, “For you, naked I will dance a ballet.” Not cool.
Maybe in certain communities of different populations, maybe in New York or whatever, but for most people, not cool. It was kind of a mixed bag I think for him, but he was an artist to his core, so he did what he thought was cool and hoped it would be cool for others.