Susan Rogers was Prince’s engineer from 1983-1987 recording classics such as ‘Purple Rain’ , ‘Sign O’ The Times’ , and ‘Around The World In A Day’. She has her PhD in music cognition and psychoacoustics and teaches at Berklee School of Music. I spoke with her about becoming an engineer, recording Prince and the idea of ‘musical genius’.
What were some of the records that got you into the idea of production?
Early on I realized I had an aptitude for music listening. I was willing to focus and concentrate on it and enjoyed it. I became an avid ‘student of the game’ buying singles and 45’s from babysitting money. I received a Sonny & Cher album that had a picture of the recording engineer on the back and I remember feeling a little tingle of precognition that made me think ‘I think this is me’.
Slowly it became possible as the fog of youth cleared and you realize a practical path to recognizing your dreams.
Do you think seeing the lack of women engineers makes it more difficult for young women to enter the audio world?
There are two distinctions. First is to ‘see’ something as a career option and the other is to ‘feel’ something is an option.
To see it as option means there must be examples out there in the world
When there are only one or two examples it proves the rule. If you see none you think I’ll be the first, but if you see just a few you think ‘hm…its possible but there’s something going on here and that can be intimidating and daunting.’
Once we have more female role models I think it will be like water falling off a cliff.
The other mechanism is to ‘feel’ that it is possible. Imagining oneself in a leadership role whether its CEO or Producer or Director. You are calling the shots for men and women. You need the authority that people will listen to you. Our society is rapidly giving female more examples of women in leadership roles and men who aren’t worried about taking orders from a women. It will become more popular.
There are quite a lot of Women DJ’s , music suprvisors, and A&R. Not as many behind the board and it’s a long time coming but I think there will be a flashpoint and paradigm shift.
Could you tell us about how you handle the emotional connection with the artists you record?
It is very necessary to be connected with your artist. Artists are so vulnerable, They’re exposing themselves emotionally. Every time they go in the vocal booth or record their instrument they are allowing themselves to be judged. There needs to be trust there between engineer and artist. There needs to be an understanding that I am being harsh on you for your own good…to sell records. An engineer might make hundreds of albums but an artist may only make one. It is an extraordinary privilege for you as engineer to be chosen to be the first recipient of their artistic output.
How do you feel about the term ‘genius’ and would you apply it to Prince?
Prince certainly was. He was extraordinary; he’s the kind of person the adjective extraordinary was invented to describe. He was EXTRA ordinary. He had an exceptionally high aptitude for performance, composition, and improvisation. Those things are a product of nature and nurture. You have to be born with a certain neural architecture and high capacity for auditory imagery. You need to have a lot of functional connectivity between the auditory processing regions and the frontal motor area and to get technical the mesostriatal area. He had a super high IQ, I’m sure of it on top of lots of self -motivation and discipline. He also had the right environment of a father who was a jazz musician and a piano in the house. Pressure and heat from his difficult childhood aided that cocktail of natural talent.
Prince was furious when you put some time into your personal life instead of recording and you soon parted ways. Was this an irrational reaction from Prince, did he understood human emotion in the way you and I would?
I think to a certain extent that is true. He understood emotional well enough but expected his staff and musicians to suppress personal needs just like he suppressed his own for the greater good of the work. I was a willing spirit for a time but it wasn’t sustainable indefinitely. Only Prince could be Prince. I had a good run, we completed four years but it had reached a natural transition period. Paisley Park had just opened so he could now have a core staff of engineers. I needed to be myself and express other aspects of life other than working for Prince.
What was the studio set up throughout the time you worked with Prince?
Prince had a split level suburban home with a strong home studio. He did many pieces of Purple Rain and 1999 in there. In addition to that he was always leasing a commercial warehouse for band rehearsals. At rehearsal in the warehouse we commonly took the mics on stage and fed them to a recording console and tape machine so we could record rehearsal. Endless recordings were done at recording from ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ & ‘Computer Blue’. Additionally Prince’s favorite commercial studio was Studio 3 in Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. On tour we would pop into whatever studio we could book.
What are some of you go to pieces of gear? What kind of stuff did Prince enjoy working with?
He liked what he liked and was very reluctant to try new things. His home studio had pieces that he liked from Sunset Sound. The LA-2A, LA-3A, the Lexicon 240L which became the 480L. He loved the Lexicon Prime-Time digital delay. The Eventide Harmonizer. He always needed those around. He loved API EQ, the Pultecs…never Neve because it wasn’t tight enough in the bass for dance music. I added a few pieces that I discovered like the Publison Infernal Machine and Quantec Room Simulator.
After Prince passed away in 2017 I went to Paisley Park and went into the control room and it was 95% unchanged from what I saw in 1992.
I’m not dependent on many pieces other than the API 560 graphic EQ. I need that to shape tones the way I imagine them. If I have an Eventide Harmonizer I feel like I can work. Without that I find it very hard to get the vocal sound I like. Other than that I’m flexible.
Could a global superstar like Prince happen in todays streaming landscape?
In the sciences we never say never. It may be possible. The funny thing about that era is that there were few established superstars. In the US it was Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. Rock stars had so much money they could do just about anything they imagined. They could put on extraordinary shows. Today with the money stream being so constricted I don’t know if we’re going to get the same kind of spectacle. If the money stream changes perhaps that will change.
Human nature doesn’t change. There will always be young people wanting to dress like the cool artists and have their world-view shaped by those artists.
Did these massive budgets aid Prince’s creative process?
Absolutely. People ask what was the process for this or that album. In the 80’s albums were kind of a continuum. He recorded constantly. When he had a batch of songs that reflected what he wanted to say right now he would release those batch of songs. We’d sometimes even master songs and put them right back in a box to release some other time. He constantly worked.
Today it seems you need to get a lot of approval from labels. Whether it be accountants or decision makers determining release dates and recording time. It doesn’t seem as supportive to the process.
Is there a lot of unreleased Prince material waiting to be released?
There has been a lot of material leaked and stolen from people employed by Prince. The super collectors have heard just about everything from the vault in the 80’s but they’ve heard copies that are pretty bad audio quality. 90% of it has seen some light of day but the typical public has only seen a much smaller fraction of Prince’s recorded material. In the upcoming years there will be quite a lot of releases of things that are mixed and mastered that have been missing all these years.
Interview and words by David Dargahi