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Susan Rogers on working with Prince in the studio: ‘The man I knew was so human’

On the night that Prince and the Revolution were recording their historic August 3, 1983 concert at First Avenue — where the band would debut “Purple Rain” — the studio technician Susan Rogers was celebrating her 27th birthday and packing up her life in Los Angeles to move to Minneapolis, where she would spend the next several years working as Prince’s engineer. Susan hit the ground running, and arrived just in time to participate in the sessions for his best-selling album, Purple Rain, and working alongside him for the next several years.

In addition to capturing countless recordings of Prince’s own material — including his original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which he recorded alone with only Susan at the console — she was also at the helm for his wildly prolific period of recording for associated projects like the Time, Apollonia 6, the Family, Sheila E., Mazarati, and Madhouse.

In an effort to learn more about Prince’s approach to the studio, I called up Susan Rogers at her office at the Berklee College of Music, where she is a professor of Music Production and Engineering. We ended up having a wide-ranging chat about everything from stacked vocals to the lightning speed of his recording process and her own personal relationship with and thoughts on Prince.

Andrea Swensson: I’m really interested in deconstructing all these different aspects of Prince’s sound, and one of those aspects is how he used the studio. Something that’s always struck me is the stacked vocal harmonies — going back to his debut record, the very first track starts with all these beautiful vocal harmonies on top of each other. Could you describe how he was creating those vocals? And was that different than the approach other people were taking at that time?

Susan Rogers: Well Prince was well versed in gospel music. He used to talk about sevenths and ninths and thirteenth and elevenths and these chords. And there’s a great tradition in R&B of stacking vocal harmonies — and that’s where the lead singer will lay down the lead vocals and then either the lead singer him or herself or background singers will layer different voices in the background to create these rich, rich, rich chords. He’d lay down the lead vocals first and then, one track at a time, he would record the parts that would be the individual voices to form these complex chords.

It takes someone who has a deep knowledge of music theory, either formally or informally, to understand how chords work. Sometimes he would layer all the backing vocals himself. Sometimes he would want female background vocals so he would have Susannah and Wendy and Lisa, Jill Jones. And sometimes it was a blend of both. He would provide some of the background vocal parts, and then the female voices would provide others. He was so quick at that. But from a production standpoint it’s interesting to think about, because there’s a different subtext when the backing vocals are provided by men versus when they’re provided by women.

Right.

When the lead singer’s male and the backing vocals are female, that’s the female chorus saying, “We agree with you. We agree with you and we are responding to these overtures that you’re putting out there, lead singer. We’re responding positively.” But when it’s all male backing vocals and male lead vocalist, it’s more like supplementing the lead voice. In technical terms that might be called tamboral heterogeneity versus tamboral augmentation or emergence.

Susan Rogers captures audio on the Sign o’ the Times Tour, 1987

Something else I was thinking about is that when you look at a lot of the records that he made during the period when you two worked together, he was recording most of the instruments himself and then bringing in people to maybe add a vocal here or there, or add a guitar part. But it seemed like he preferred to lay down the bare bones stuff alone. Why you think he preferred to be alone in that space?

I think the main compulsion that Prince had was to work quickly; whatever would go the fastest. So sometimes we would record with the whole band, but those times were generally at rehearsal. If he’d written a new song and we were rehearsing for a tour, they’d work out all the parts, the full arrangement, right there at rehearsal. We would record that basic track with each band member contributing his or her original part, and then Prince and I would take the tape and we’d finish it up at home.

But when we were in L.A. or if we were on tour, he liked to work by himself because it was quicker than getting everyone together and setting up everyone and giving everyone instructions and having to wait for people. It was faster for him to program the drum machine, play the bass part, play the keys, play the guitar parts and not have to give directives to a roomful of people. He was working at a furious pace in those days, and the one thing he absolutely could not stand was anything that would slow down his progress.

I was flipping through Duane Tudahl’s book, which is amazing and intricately detailed, and there are just so many songs being recorded every single day. It’s kind of mind blowing to think that he could have that many ideas and develop them all fully in that short of a period of time.

He would get more work done in a week than the average band would get done in a month, or in some cases a year. When you look at all of his hit songs, and when you look at all of his exceptionally good songs, and you add them up, pound for pound you have to see that he may have been the single most prolific modern artist. When we think of prolific modern artists we often think of teams like Lennon and McCartney, or Jagger and Richards, or even the Beach Boys, where they had other people to bounce ideas off of. Not that Prince didn’t have other people. He had the great Wendy and Lisa. He had Bobby Z. He had his wonderful band. He had great people. But he worked so quickly that he didn’t depend upon them before recording. He just moved along. It’s hard to think of many singular solo artists who had his output. Stevie Wonder comes to mind. Neil Young comes to mind. But there haven’t been that many.

Are there examples of innovations that he made in the studio because he wanted to work so fast?

Yeah. It was kind of innovation by default. Most people make records rather slowly. If they’re going pretty efficiently, most people will do a song in one week. But when you’re doing a song a day, in order to really turn out hit songs in a day, you have to be able to think like Prince. It often seemed like Prince knew what the song was in his mind’s ear before he ever played a note. That’s his true innovation. That’s his true genius and that’s what was exceptional about him. Not many people can do that. So he would work really quickly.

As far as technological innovation, he didn’t slow down enough to be innovative. He wasn’t thinking about being innovative. He was thinking about being efficient and getting ideas out of his head through his fingers and onto tape. We had a set of tools that we used over and over again, and I don’t think he approached a new album with the thought that he was going to be innovative in his sound pallet. He was much more concerned with being innovative in his lyric content. He wanted to have a new look. He wanted to have new clothes. He wanted to have a new world view. He wanted to have a new message, but he didn’t necessarily want to have new audio technology. He liked the old stuff.

Admittedly the sound of Around The World In A Day is not as high fidelity as the sound of the Purple Rain album, because the majority of the Purple Rain album was done at Sunset Sound, which is some of the finest audio technology in the world. In contrast, most of Around The World In A Day was done at the warehouse using lower quality, to say the least, because we were working at a rehearsal space. We didn’t even have acoustical isolation. His ideas were bubbling up so fast — you can imagine a volcano just overflowing, and we were setting pots and pans underneath the lava flow just trying to catch it. That’s how quickly he was working. So high fidelity, no. That record would not win any prizes for the best engineered recordings, but what he taught me is that when people buy a record, they’re not buying the sonic quality. That’s not what they go into a record store for. You go into a record store for music. You turn that radio dial for music, not for sound. If the musical ideas are good, that takes precedence over the sonic quality.

Was Prince following the trends of the time in terms of recording techniques, and was he listening to contemporary music, or was he kind of closed off in his own world?

That’s such a good question, because it’s important that people realize he was a smart musician – a smart, commercially successful musician. And all of the people in that category listened to a lot of music. He was a musical being. When he wasn’t making music he was listening to music. When I first joined him he listened to records a lot. He was well aware of what was on the charts. He checked out everything, like any good successful musician will do. He was not in his own musical world.

But he was not deliberately following any technical trends, and he wasn’t particularly following any musical trends either. In the mid ‘80s it became clear that rap and hip-hop were not going to be just flash-in-the-pan styles. Prince then had to make the decision as to whether or not he was going to try to follow that train, which had clearly left the station. He decided not to; that he was going to stay true to himself. If he had been an imitator he probably would’ve brought in different producers and had other musical minds shape and mold his musical mind so that he could grow in different directions. But he stayed true to himself. I think that’s one of the reasons why we love Prince so much — despite changing public tastes he always stayed true to himself. Always.

The role of an engineer in these sessions, especially when he was alone, is such an intimate one. He kept you around for quite a long time. What was it about your working relationship that you think worked so well?

I think there are a number of factors. I think what got me on the good foot right away is that he recognized that I was a fan of his. I didn’t go in broadcasting that, but over time he realized that I knew his catalog. I was also – I grew up on the same musical street that he did. That was his metaphor for the kind of music you like. He grew up on soul/funk street, and so did I. All the music he had listened to in his childhood, I had too. I knew those same musical references. And that’s really important.

I lasted a long time because Prince liked working with women. I lasted a long time because I had the same stamina he did. I could stay up all night. I was genuinely happy to be there. But I think there’s another factor too, and we Prince alumni have this in common: We’re service-oriented and we’re kind. We are not quick tempered. We are tolerant. We, as a group, tend to be kind and patient, and we needed to have that with him. I was not the most qualified person in the world for my job, not by a long shot. But I had the qualifications that mattered to him.

I definitely pick up on that, interviewing people that have worked with Prince and meeting people at Celebration. There is a very similar kind of personality — a lack of ego and an openness and kindness, as you said.

He said something funny one time and I’ve never forgotten it. We were at rehearsal and some of the crew were talking about someone who was an asshole, and Prince popped in he caught them and said, “Who are you talking about? Who’s an asshole?” Everybody got quiet because you’re not going to rat someone out. And then he looked at all of us and said, “Let’s get one thing straight. There’s only one asshole around here, and it’s me.” And that was so true. He needed to be the leader, and he couldn’t tolerate anyone who was going to make things difficult or who was going to be competitive or who was a social climber or a career climber. That wouldn’t have worked for him. He needed to be 100% the asshole in the room.

I have one last question. I feel like the way Prince was written about by the press and the way he was understood in pop culture over the years was almost like he was an alien or out of this world — not a human, basically. I’m wondering if there’s a story or memory you might share that tells us something about Prince’s humanity.

The man I knew was so human. I tend to think that all of my stories are about the following human being. Take a young man who has a high native IQ. He was incredibly bright. Let’s say this person is sensitive as well as intelligent, and let’s say this person is raised in an environment that is at times chaotic and at times punitive, at times even abusive. At times let’s say this environment is unpredictable and painful. So you take this intelligent, sensitive young man, and this young man, in order to survive in his environment, decides to either float downstream like a leaf and see where he ends up, or he can actually try to be stronger than a leaf, actually try to have some muscle and swim upstream and get in a better place.

So he used self discipline and he used his social isolation to work. As Andre Cymone tells tales about, and as Bobby Z. will tell you tales about, Prince would, every waking moment, rather be alone writing and playing music than hanging out and having a social life. So here’s this teenage boy who’s working his ass off to emerge from this environment and to be somebody. And now this young man is really successful and luck finds him and he gets a record deal at age 18 or 19, and he’s suddenly finding himself by the time he’s 24 or 25 a very wealthy man with employees.

So what does this kid do? He figures it out. He realizes this is really scary and he could lose all this if he got into drugs or extravagant spending or an unusual lifestyle or move to New York or L.A. So he’s going to use all his self-control and self-discipline to navigate this wisely. He’s going to stay in Minnesota, do his work, have good people around him, keep his nose to the grindstone, adapt a working man’s ethic and recognize that these people who are now his employees work for him and depend on him for a paycheck, so he’s just going to crank out music and be a responsible employer and a responsible artist. And be really careful about interviews and public image – as careful as possible because he doesn’t want this to all go away. He wants this to last.

That’s as human as it gets. That’s a really smart person who’s recognizing that he was lucky, and that he worked in order to get that luck; who recognizes that the window of opportunity will slam shut just as capriciously as it opened. He recognizes that he has jumped through this window of opportunity, and now that he’s on this other side he is not going to let that go to waste. I think that is the finest of human qualities. I don’t know how a being can do any better than that. So when people say he was an extraordinary human being – like he was an alien who came from outer space, stop for just a minute. Consider for just a moment that these are all human qualities and we could all have those things. But we’d have to work really hard and give up a lot in order to have it. Prince left this world without children. He was unmarried at the time. He left this world with few really close friends. He made a lot of sacrifices in order to have the life that he ultimately had. I would never want to hear anyone say that he wasn’t optimally human.

Already published:

The Revolution’s Matt ‘Dr.’ Fink deconstructs Prince’s pioneering use of synthesizers in a conversation with Michaelangelo Matos.

BrownMark explains how he and Prince reinvented bass in the ’80s, in an interview with the Current’s Jay Gabler.

Talking Prince and drums with the NPG’s Michael Bland.

Roger Linn, inventor of the LM-1 drum machine, talks Prince and “When Doves Cry” with writer Cecilia Johnson.

Theft of the Dial: Donna Grantis. Prince’s 3RDEYEGIRL guitarist Donna Grantis hand-picks some of Prince’s best guitar jams and chats with program director Jim McGuinn.

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