In the studio with Prince: Susan Rogers on recording: “He was not a lordly type. He was a working man. He had a strong work ethic”

“I didn’t know any recording engineers,” says Susan Rogers, when asked what inspired her to get started in the audio technology business.

“And the ones that I saw were all male,” she continues. “I probably read the name of a woman or two like Leanne Jones and Peggy McCreary on the back of records eventually. You wouldn’t see them very often and it just didn’t seem very likely for someone like me who came from a lower middle class, working class background [could become an engineer]. I didn’t know any musicians and I didn’t know anyone in the industry.”

Against all odds, Rogers, a music fan and recording technology enthusiast “studied like a fiend” on her own by night and secured a job at Audio Industries Corporation in Los Angeles where she trained as a maintenance tech by day.

“They were right across the street from A&M Records and just south of Sunset Boulevard, so right in the middle of Hollywood,” she recalls. “They sold and serviced the top audio equipment. The most popular brand was the MCI console and tape machine.”

In 1980 she was hired to work at David Crosby and Graham Nash’s Rudy Records, where she stayed until 1983, the year Prince told his management that he wanted to recruit a new technician from either New York or LA.

After a successful interview, Rogers was on her way to Minnesota to be Prince’s staff engineer, a position she held until 1988, before going on to work with the likes of the Jackson family and Talking Heads’ David Byrne.

Rogers is now a Professor in Music Production and Engineering at the Berklee college of Music as well as the director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory. She holds a doctorate in psychology from McGill University, where she studied music cognition and psychoacoustics.

Here, Rogers recalls what it was like working with Prince on some of the most iconic tracks of the ‘80s…

You started out as a technician and not an engineer. Could you tell us about that?

I overheard someone say that becoming a maintenance tech is a sure way to always have a job and that was what I wanted. I wanted in and I wanted to stay in so I started investigating what it entails and then I saw an ad in the back of the LA Times that said, ‘Audio Trainee Wanted’. That just couldn’t have been more perfect. This company, Audio Industries Corporation, had no more than a dozen people, but there were three or four technicians in the big tech shop there who installed this equipment in recording studios and repaired it. They took me under their wing. I learned from them during the day and I studied electronics, studio installation and recording techniques.

After Audio Industries, you went to work with David Crosby and Graham Nash in Hollywood…

They had a studio and I was going there frequently because their equipment would break, like equipment does. They were right up the street, on Sunset Boulevard in a place called Crossroads of the World and the studio was called Rudy Records. It was actually called Rudy records because Rudy was a dog that had belonged to David back when they had all lived in the San Francisco Bay area. Graham and David bought this studio and I think Steven [Stills] maybe had a piece of it as well. It was this one room in the heart of Hollywood. Beautiful location. They invited me to leave my job and become their regular full-time technician, taking care of their equipment and keeping it running. That was the next step as a professional, because that allowed me to be on sessions occasionally as an assistant engineer.

Did they have an MCI console in there and what other equipment were you using?

They had the big JH- 500, which was MCI’s top of the line model. They had the JH 24 tape machine, which is like if you’re thinking of cars as an analogy, it’s kind of like a Ford or a Chevy. Not a bad machine, but not a BMW or a Lexus. The monitors were custom designed by George Augspurger who did a lot of work in Los Angeles. It was a one room studio, but it was a large one and we had a lot of folks from the West Coast crew come through and that would include Bonnie Raitt and members of the Eagles and folks like Art Garfunkel and Jackson Brown.

Prince susan rogers
Rogers in the studio in 1987

How long were you there for?

They hired me in around 1980 and I left in the summer of 1983, when I went to work for Prince.

How did you end up working with him?

It was my lucky day. John Sicetti , an old boyfriend who was chief tech at West Lake Audio heard from his boss, Glen Phoenix that Prince needed a technician. He was just coming off the 1999 tour. I believe the movie Purple Rain had received the green light so he had a lot of work to do. He was going to be making a film, he was going to be making this soundtrack album. He was going to make this big move onto the world stage. The technician that he had working for him at the time was a local Minnesota guy who had not had the experience of working at a professional level where the turnover is really fast and the pressure is really great. Prince told his management to get someone from New York or LA.

The management went to West Lake Audio and said, Who do you know Glen? Glen went to his technicians and said, Guys, anybody want this job? Nobody wanted to work for Prince at that time because he was considered kind of a freak and it was Minnesota. They didn’t want to leave their Hollywood jobs. Right away John said, That’s Sue’s job, that’s my girlfriend! He had this Boston accent. It’s Sue’s perfect job! So he called me, he and I had gone our separate ways but he called me and said, Sue the dream job is waiting for you. Prince is looking for a tech. That was the moment that changed my life.

I called Glen and said, Glen, that’s my dream, he’s my favourite artist in the world, how do I get this job? Glen and I had a conversation, he asked me questions about the technology. Glen and I knew each other. He knew that I knew this stuff. I could handle it. Even all by myself out there with no support industry in Minneapolis, if it broke down in the middle of the night, I could fix it. Prince’s management interviewed me and we agreed on a salary. They leased a car for me. I packed up my stuff and off I went.

Were you the only full time member of recording staff working with him at that time?

Yes I was. At that time this was before Paisley Park was built. He had folks who were on retainer to work with him on tour that included Rob Colby who’s now a famous front of house engineer and the great LeRoy Bennett who did his lighting. Those folks were on retainer because they worked for other artists. I was the only one who handled the studio equipment and Rich ‘Hawk Eye’ Hendrickson handled the stage equipment. He set up and tore down and maintained the stage equipment so that Prince could constantly be rehearsing. He handled things like guitar amps and stuff and I handled the recording studio duties. When Prince brought me in, his home studio was in a small bedroom in his house where he lived and he had some of the Purple Rain album already recorded. I came in and helped him finish the remaining tracks. It was a functioning studio. It was a decent studio but it was very small, you couldn’t do much there. It was a one room control room, so you couldn’t record drums or a whole band . When Prince was working on songs like Darling Nikki that were machine driven, he was playing all that himself. He can do that at home and he did. He recorded that from home but anything bigger, we needed to be out in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound. So when we worked at Sunset Sound in LA, Prince liked working with me, and Peggy McCreary. Peggy was a staff engineer at Sunset Sound. Later on, David Leonard also came to work at Sunset Sound and Prince liked having David around too. David and Peggy eventually got married so Peggy is credited as Peggy McCreary on some of those records and Peggy Leonard on some others. When we went out on tour, a British engineer named David Tickle was Prince’s FOH mixer for Purple Rain and he is credited with coming into the studio and doing some work with us on the Purple Rain record.

Do you remember the first session you worked on?

Yeah, the first tape he had me put up was Darling Nikki. I had just gone to work with him, I had been with him for about a week and I had been doing tech work because his studio was in disarray and he needed a lot of things repaired. I did this tech work for about a week while he was upstairs. I could hear him taking meetings and doing choreography, I could hear him playing the piano, which was right above my head. Playing Purple Rain and The Beautiful Ones and Computer Blue. He was aching to get back into the studio but I had to install the console, repair the tape machine. It was a lot of work to do. I was all by myself. I worked day and night and got that done.

The first tape he had me put up was Darling Nikki. He said, Get a rough mix and then he left the room. I’ll never forget that moment of pushing up those faders and going, Oh my god. I can’t believe this. He had these big West Lake monitors in the wall there, five, six foot away, and under my finger tips in my control is Darling Nikki. It was a blast out of the speakers and I couldn’t believe it. Being a professional listener, I had this experience of thinking, Oh my god, what’s it going to be like when fans hear this? This is amazing. You’re doing that thing where you’re looking around like, Is anybody else hearing this? Can you believe this? This is going to be great! The first recording he had me do was for Jill Jones and that was on this song called Mia Bocca. He had me put up a vocal mic because Jill was coming to do a vocal so again pushing the tape and getting a signal ready to do a vocal. That was the moment I realised he expects me to do the engineering as well as the tech work and it was frightening, this wonderful revelation.

Photo by Terry Gydesen.

Do you think that when they were bringing a tech in initially, that he had it in his mind to bring someone in who can do both, fix everything as well as be an engineer?

Certainly. He just didn’t realise there was a distinction between those two jobs and why should he? He assumed if you were technical and knew the equipment and you could repair it that you could do the job of rerouting the signal. I don’t think he necessarily regarded engineering as an art so much as a skill set. He knew the surface level of the console like people can easily do. It’s easy to twist the EQ knobs to shape the signal. It’s easy to push up the fader to change the gain. It’s easy to turn the pan pot left or right but he didn’t know signal routing on a deeper level. He didn’t fully understand the patch bay, he didn’t set things up from the get go, he needed an engineer to route everything for him to do that technical work. He needed someone to be his hands in that sense because his hands were busy with musical instruments and his thinking was focused on the musical aspect of it. He needed someone else to help him out with the sonic aspect.

Did his studio skills improve over the years or was that not something he was interested in?

It’s not something he was interested in. He reached the stopping point and beyond that, he didn’t want to go. He just wasn’t interested. I can see that today when I see my students working with Pro Tools. They have no interest in it because they don’t need to know the visual audio shortcuts, they don’t work with it any more. I recognise that you reach a point and it’s like, I don’t really care to know. I’ve got people who will do that for me. I remember one time in the studio he asked me how to make a razor blade edit. He was really cautious about that. As soon as I showed him, he picked up the blade and he said, No, you do it. Maybe he didn’t want to risk cutting his fingers, you don’t cut your fingers when editing. The point of the blade is nowhere near the tip of your fingers. He didn’t want to know.

He must have had a lot of respect for what you did then?

It’s hard to tell if he had respect because he wouldn’t compliment us directly, including his musicians. He was not very forthcoming with compliments but there were a few times, if he wanted you to know he approved of you, he would tell someone else that you were doing a good job. He’d usually tell them in earshot of you. He might say [to someone in the studio], Susan gets me, she knows what I’m all about, or he’d say, The only one with any energy around here is Susan. I’ve got a couple of birthday cards that he signed for me with half compliments. That’s who he was. If he approved of you, you kept your job. As long as you had your job that meant you were good in his eyes.

What was happening at that point in terms of the technology you were using and the studio?

There were advancements that were not helping me because he wouldn’t use them. Things like automation, console automation. We could’ve recorded mixes if we used automation but he wouldn’t use anything that was slow so that was just for him, we mixed by hand. Another advancement was the popularity of the SSL console. Solid State Logic had built-in compressors and limiters and noise gates on every channel strip, that would have helped us immensely. But he didn’t want to move off of the ATI console that he was fond of at the time when I was with him. Eventually an SSL went into Paisley Park, but when I was with him we were using old fashioned stuff. Another advance was this tendency to lock two tape machines together to synchronise them so you had 48 tracks, not 24. I asked Prince about that once but he just shook his head, he wouldn’t have anything to do with it because it was too slow. The great thing about that for him was that if you’re limited to 24 tracks, it means that your arrangement must be constrained by 24 tracks so while other people were piling up their mixes and arrangements and getting these big walls of sound. Prince knew if he couldn’t make a concise musical statement with 24 tracks, he’d have to go back in and rethink the track. It really makes your arrangements very efficient. Fewer instruments have to carry more and say more.

He was a bit of a control freak then?

Yeah, he really was. He said to us once, The only asshole around here is me. And he was. It was 100% true. He was 100% in charge of every aspect of his business, not control for the sake of control. He needed control for the sake of efficiency. He wasn’t one of those personalities that wanted to be a ruler or a tycoon. That was not Prince. He was not a lordly type. He was a working man. He had a strong work ethic. He could do more work in a month than people did in a year. He really, by order of magnitude, worked more than others so he needed a level of efficiency to allow him to keep up that pace. In that sense he controlled us so the machine would run efficiently, so it wouldn’t break down.

Have you seen anyone else like that in the studio?

No. You see fragments of that. You might think of a young Mick Jagger who was on fire, great songwriter, great vocalist but you’re not going to see him give you that performance on guitar or piano but another musician would. Imagine Keith Richards and Mick Jagger rolled into one, now we’re getting close. You might see people who have abilities on many instruments and can also sing and write but they don’t achieve mastery to the degree that Prince does. They don’t write as well, they don’t play as well, they don’t sing as well. The phenomenon of Prince was the number of things he was world class great at and where he set that bar. As a guitar player he could compete with any of them, as a piano player with any of them, as a vocalist with any of them, as a writer, with any of them. He was the best at many different disciplines and that’s extraordinary.

You must have had a lot of offers to work in other studios after those first few records but why did you decide to leave and why didn’t you continue working with him?

We had reached our breaking point. We reached critical mass, the times changed. Paisley Park had finally opened its door and there are several studios at Paisley so for the first time there needed to be a staff of engineers, not just me working for him in Minnesota so we had Sal Greco as our chief tech on the Purple Rain tour. Sal was a far better technician than I. Sal took over the tech duties while I took the engineering duties, but now at Paisley Park we could have more people, new people and the operation was growing. I had reached a breaking point where I couldn’t take it much longer.

I had no personal life, going on five years and we hit an impasse one night late in my tenure with Prince when he tried to reach me one night in Los Angeles and I was on a date. I had met a guy, another technician and this was one night in years where Prince couldn’t reach me and he was furious about that. So the next morning he called me into a private room, a vocal booth on the Hollywood sound stage where we were working at the time and he and went toe-to-toe in this tiny booth and he was livid. I realised, you know what, there need to be nights where you can’t find me. We realised we couldn’t carry on this way. I needed a life and he needed someone on call 24/7 and I couldn’t do it anymore. That was our mutual breaking point where we decided we better go our separate ways.

What were the next studios you worked in and projects you were working on?

I was really at a loss. I didn’t know what was going to happen and I didn’t know if anyone would hire me. The only engineering I had done for all intents and purposes had been with Prince, so I didn’t know if anybody would want his sound. Why would they? We were working in an old fashioned way and for another thing, he had a unique sound. He liked a certain brightness in the upper mids and it was a sound that wasn’t necessarily the best, so I didn’t know if anyone would hire me. Much to my surprise, the first artist that did was Jesse Johnson. I worked for Jesse Johnson at the time in Minneapolis but the first one outside of Minneapolis who hired me was the Jacksons, so I went to work for the Jacksons out in Los Angeles. I stayed at their house in the family compound on Havenhurst Boulevard. This was while Michael was building Neverland Ranch. Michael was on tour and I worked with the Jacksons on the album 2300 Jackson Street. I stayed at their house for a few months and it was a very strange comparison comparing Prince with the Jacksons and sharing stories and learning how the Jackson family, Michael in particular but the others as well reached the same pinnacle that Prince did at the top of the pop and R&B charts. Two very different paths.

Prince was so homegrown and they were the product of an industry, they were the product of Berry Gordy and Motown. An industry with session musicians and mentors like The Supremes and Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. Prince got to that point by himself, with a motley crew let’s say of these handpicked young individuals who had no experience whatsoever in that sort of thing. They were good people and I enjoyed my time with them. After that I got a manager and I stayed in Los Angeles. I worked on a lot of alternative records as an engineer and a mixer, alternative indie records and eventually started producing and had a hit with Barenaked Ladies in 1998.

At what point did you decide to do your PhD and teach?

I didn’t know what I wanted to teach. I wanted to become a cognitive ethologist and I hoped to investigate consciousness in non-human animals. I was and still am keenly interested in the nature of consciousness and the nature of intelligence and neural systems. How our neural activity gives rise to thinking, can give rise to original thought of decision making or attention or categorisation. I’m very interested in that but because my career as a scientist was going to be extremely short, I didn’t earn my PhD until I was 52. Because it was going to be short, it made much better sense I was told to enter the field of music cognition, music perception and contribute what I know of music making and human interaction; what I know on a practical level on the scientific conversation on music interaction. That’s what I did and that fortunately led to my working at Berklee.

Berklee is the only place in the world where I can be around 5,000 young musicians. I can teach record production which I do, analogue tape recording which I really love but I also teach psychoacoustics and teach music cognition so I get to teach in the sciences and also in the technology and the art of record making. That’s a fun conversation to have, both those perspectives.

Do you miss working in a studio full time?

I miss it greatly. I love record making. I really love record making. It’s hard as hell, when you’re doing it at the highest level, just like you can love basketball or baseball or football or something, you can really love the game, be a student to the game and love getting up on weekends and playing it. But there’s a big difference between doing that as an amateur and doing it professionally. Doing it professionally adds another layer to the task and to the concerns. How do you make money? How are you competitive? How do you win the game? I love it now at an amateur level. I’m glad I’m not doing it for a living. I like being a scientist. I like being a professor and I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I love preparing young people to enter the field, to pursue this competitively. If I had the bandwidth to make records for the fun of it, I would enjoy doing that because man it really is fun. It’s fun until the heat gets really hot in a professional competitive environment and that is much tougher.

How does it feel now to have work done on records like Purple Rain? It must be a really weird thing to look back on and have been involved in because of that legacy.

Yeah. I’ll never be able to evaluate them truly objectively. There are memories and emotions associated with that. All the work we did in there was just like so much work we did in that time. All of that, the sounds of those tracks are filtered through a body that was deprived of sleep. A body that was working on all cylinders just to ensure that the next song would get recorded.

We would stay up for 24 hours recording a song and this happened frequently, he would go, Fresh tape! You’d have to bring up a reel and start all over again. It might be 6 o’clock in the morning let’s say and you started at 10am the day before, you’ve worked for 20 hours on your feet. Intense work, creating a song, getting it mixed, getting it finished, getting the tape box labelled. You’re ready to get a few hours of sleep before you start again and he’d say, Fresh tape which meant you’d start a new reel and just go right in and start all over again and you might work for another 20 hours before you get a shower and some sleep.

So all of that music is filtered through this distorted filter of pride and joy and love and excitement and exhaustion and hope and that ringing bell of what the hell just happened? That’s an organism that’s under a degree of stress. When I listen to those things now it arouses some of those feelings, a trace of them. It’s really hard to hear Prince’s music from that period the way I would have heard it as a fan, which is why I feel it’s important for me and his musicians and everyone who knew him and worked with him, for us to talk about it.

I think it’s important for us because it makes a good contribution when we can help paint a picture for people for what it was like to be next to that guy when he was going from instrument to instrument, watching these songs take shape at light speed compared to other people. Most people would take a week or two weeks to craft a single, he’d take a day, 24 hours. It was amazing and he would do it over and over again. That’s the long-winded answer.

The short-winded answer is, I always feel pride, quite a bit of love and I feel an obligation to talk about him and make sure he’s not forgotten.