‘Purple Rain’ Turns 30: Prince’s Engineer Shares Majestic (And Maddening) Studio Stories
There are those high pressured, perilous jobs that are not for the meek. The U.S. Secret Service; a window cleaner for the world’s tallest building—Dubia’s 2,716 feet wonder Burj Khalifa; Kanye West’s publicist. But during the ’80s, one would be hard pressed to find a gig more intimidating or unpredictable than working as a music engineer for Prince. Susan Rogers has lived to tell the tale.
An Associate Professor of Music Production and Engineering at the prestigious Berklee College from 1983 to 1988, Rogers had the ultimate insider’s view of the obsessive, glorious run of arguably pop music’s most prolific talent.
“You are talking about someone who would play a show from 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. and then perform at an afterparty,” she recalls of Prince’s torrid pace. “Then I would book a recording studio for 1 a.m. while on tour and Prince would work on his music or say Sheila E’s record. There is so much great, unreleased material from Prince. We would work all day and night long, and then he would be up the next morning ready to do it all over again.”
But the Purple Rain-era holds a special place in Rogers’ heart. For the then 27-year-old, it was baptism-by-fire after being hired as the songwriting machine’s personal studio technician in August of 1983. It was during this period that Rogers, who would go on to engineer for such acclaimed Prince works as Around The World In A Day, Parade, and Sign ‘O The Times, witnessed the making of the enigmatic artist’s highest selling album (the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning 1984 film has to date sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide). In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Purple Rain album, VIBE sat down with the studio veteran to discuss her wild and crazy ride with Prince Rogers Nelson from superhuman, marathon recording sessions to escaping the clutches of film icon Elizabeth Taylor on the Purple Rain tour. This is not music, this is a trip. —Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
VIBE: You set out to become an engineer in 1978, at a time when women were an anomaly on the technical side of recording. What compelled you to go into such a male dominated field?
Susan Rogers: It was the clear ether of youth [laughs]. I did not know it was male-dominated, and I didn’t know any musicians in the business. But what I did know is I loved records and that I had fantasized about being a studio engineer. I always knew I wasn’t cut out to be a musician or a songwriter. My calling was to be on the other side of the glass and to be sung and played to. I just aimed in that direction and found myself there. If people needed a tape machine repaired, the tape machine doesn’t care what gender you are [laughs].
What was it about Prince that made you want to work with him, and what was your role on the Purple Rain project?
I was riding a city bus in Hollywood and there was a kid who was sitting in the back of the bus with a boombox. I heard the song “Soft & Wet,” and I remember thinking, “I got to find out who this is…this is great!” I became a Prince fan immediately. By the time [1980's] Dirty Mind came out, my mind was completely blown. It was everything I wanted music to be: It was R&B, rock, soul, and funk. And it was art music. Prince was bold, creative and he was making a statement and he had original thought.
I knew I would do anything to work with Prince. So then in 1983 I heard through the grapevine that Prince was looking for a technician. And then I went right to Glen Phoenix, who is the President of Westlake Audio, the studio where Prince recorded, and told him I would be perfect for him. I’m female and Prince likes working with females. I am completely well-trained as a technician so I knew I could do the work and I was a huge fan. Glenn asked me a lot of questions and then he sent me over to Prince’s management.
That had to be very surreal for you, right?
It was. They made me an offer right then and there. At the time I was just joining Prince I didn’t know what he was like and what he was thinking going into Purple Rain. But I can say that it was clear that he had momentum. When I first met Prince he was just coming off the 1999 tour. He had already done some of the recording for Purple Rain and there was more to be done. At this time, I wasn’t hired as his engineer. I was his maintenance tech. But you got the sense from being around him that he felt empowered. Prince was aware that with this new power he could do even more than what he had achieved with 1999. It was a big deal for such a young artist to go to his record label and say, “I want to make a movie.” This is an artist who created his own competition with the Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E, and others. Prince was going to try to see how far he could go with all of his artistry.
Were you around when they initially recorded parts of Purple Rain at August ’83 First Avenue gig?
No. But I was hired in August of 1983, around the time the First Avenue songs were [premiered]. I was planning the transition from moving from Los Angeles to Minnesota. There was a mobile truck at First Avenue and David Rivkin, Bobby Z’s brother, did the recording during the live gig. But I did arrive in time to do a lot of the overdubs for the Purple Rain album. The first thing Prince had me do was work on his home studio. I had to tear out an old console and install a new one. He had just brought a new API console. I repaired his tape machine, which was an Ampex MM 1200. I got a lot of stuff done. One of the first songs we worked on was “Darling Nikki.” We did a lot of work for the Purple Rain album in his home studio.
“Darling Nikki” is a hell of a song to have as your first project. Did you press play and think to yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?”
[Laughs] You have to remember I was his new employee. So Prince had me put up the tape of “Darling Nikki.” I pushed up the faders and I remember thinking, “Holy shit!” “Darling Nikki” wasn’t even finished yet, but you could tell it was something special. I would hazard to guess he did it all by himself; he played everything. The song “Let’s Go Crazy” was recorded live at a rehearsal. That was one of the first things I did with Prince. He rehearsed the song and the arrangement of the song with his band The Revolution. At that time, St. Louis Park was the city where Prince rehearsed. Now typically, the recording studio is isolated from the musicians, but not in this case. We had the recording equipment right in the middle of the floor. We recorded the band live and then Prince and I stayed there late, late late to do the guitar solo and the additional instrumental parts. That was the first song I recorded with him from beginning to end. It was crazy.
You talk about recording with Prince so nonchalantly, but from all the stories about his recording exploits he was known for wearing out engineers. How were you able to keep up?
Let me tell you. At that time, four hours of sleep was a good night’s sleep for Prince. I would usually get a phone call at 9 a.m. and it’s from Prince. When he would call that meant come to the studio immediately. Prince would tell me what kind of set up he wanted. The most important thing was to never hand Prince an instrument that wasn’t in tune. His technicians taught me how to tune his piano, drums, bass, and guitar. And this included setting up a vocal mic as well. Prince would come downstairs and usually have a lyric sheet written in long hand. And he would tape it up on a stand in front of the drums. I’d hit record and he would play the entire drum track from beginning to end without a click with the song in his head. He was a musical genius, especially on the drum machine.
That’s how talented he is. Prince wanted to be able to walk from the drum booth into the control room, pick up the bass and play the bass parts. Next he might do the keyboard or pick up the guitar. He’d get half of the instrumentation done and then by himself he would record his vocals. Once it was time for vocals, I would leave the room. He always had to do his vocals alone because he needed that concentration. We could finish an entire song and have it printed and mixed in one day and have copies made. And then a few hours later, the phone would ring again and it’s Prince [laughs]. And I would come back and do the whole thing again. But that’s just so extremely rare. Most people don’t or can’t work like that.
Can you think of any other artist that has been that obsessed with recording at such a torrid pace?
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