Susan Rogers: From Prince to Ph.D.
by Larry Crane
Not only is Susan Rogers a record producer, engineer, mixer, and audio electronics technician, she has a doctorate in psychology (having studied music cognition and psychoacoustics) from McGill University. As an engineer Susan really got her start working with Prince from 1983 to 1988, including albums like Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign o' the Times, and The Black Album. Her other studio sessions have included artists like Barenaked Ladies, David Byrne, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Rusted Root, Tricky, Geggy Tah, and Michael Penn. She is currently the director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory, and is an associate professor at Berklee. Portions of this interview were conducted after a listen to a vinyl LP of Purple Rain during the "Saturday Night Listening Party" at the Welcome to 1979 Recording Summit (held every November in Nashville), and the rest of the interview took place between she and I the following day.
How did you end up as a tech?
I worked for a company called Audio Industries Corporation in L.A. for Hal Michael; HM was what he was known as. When I was a kid, I always wanted to make records. I took piano lessons and I had zero affinity for it, but I played the radio and listened to records like a fiend. Sometimes on vinyl albums there would be a picture of the studio, and I fantasized about being in that place where records were made. I didn't see myself in terms of what I would do there, because I didn't know, but it wasn't performing. Then when I learned that there are people who make records...
Were you picking up session flow, and things like that?
I was starting to see how it worked, learning to listen to music as it comes together, and learning to develop that decision criterion for what constitutes a "perfect take." I'd hear the musicians play it over, and over, and over again. It was clear that the producer was searching for something that he hadn't heard yet. I'd listen and try to match my ear against theirs to see, "Will I know? This sounds right to me. What's the producer going to say?" I was learning the practical aspects of record making, plus I was learning our business. "Who are these people? What do we value? What do we talk about? How do we be in the world?" I could repair the tools, but I was getting a chance to see how people apply them. The first five years in L.A. were a good training ground. The music industry was changing. In 1980, there was new wave, disco, and drum machines. Samplers were just starting to appear, and this notion that, "We don't really need a drummer, because we have a drum machine. And we don't need a horn or string player, because these synthesizers do horns and strings pretty well. All you rock players, you can stay home now." It wasn't a paradigm shift, but there was an attitude shift. New wave was here: The Cars, The Police, and Devo, and shortly thereafter, Prince. And then there was the junior version of the next onslaught coming out of New York, and that was rap. That was just starting to heat up.
Audience: Sitting behind the console, listening to Purple Rain, end to end, what's that feel like right now?
The thing that I noticed now, that I wouldn't have noticed then, is that was one 24-year-old guy. I mean, you hear Lisa Coleman's chords at the end of "Purple Rain," you hear some of the girls [Wendy Melvoin and Lisa] doing background vocals, there's one solo from [Matt] "Doctor" Fink. The rest is one guy, and he's 24-years old. We were all young then, and it's like, "Yeah, everybody's 24-years old. Of course." We didn't really get it. But listening to that, I can't think of a peer. Stevie Wonder maybe? But this is one man, playing all the instruments, writing all the songs, singing all the parts, with no producer and no engineer, for all intents and purposes, because I joined him as a tech. This is what you do when you take a brilliant genius, give him a lot of money, and put him in a room with all the toys. This is what he makes.
Audience: So it still amazes you to hear it all? That's awesome.
Yeah, because you can't find examples of many parallels. When you think about it, you hear that guitar, you hear his incredible keyboard skills, and you realize that, at any given moment on that record, he could do that. He could have filled up that record with virtuoso guitar playing, with virtuoso keyboard playing, and with virtuoso singing. But he'll do ten minutes of just drum machine on "Baby, I'm a Star." Then here's another thing to consider. His lyrics. It's not Leonard Cohen, but think about... he's talking about an "us." I would die for you. Let's go crazy. Take me with you. It's a generous record. He's happy to be alive. He's happy to be 24. He clearly loves people. He's not a sexual predator. He's not talking about "I will conquer you," with that braggadocio of young men. There's us, and we're having fun. That's pretty great. Especially when you consider that he's one guy from north Minneapolis, all alone. He was so alone that he created his own competition. He created The Time and Vanity 6, and it was still all him. He played all the instruments, wrote all their songs, did the whole thing, and then had them come in and do the vocals.
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