Susan Rogers talks about Prince and music

Susan Rogers at Loop 2017Susan Rogers is a remarkable person. After a successful career as a music engineer and producer, she retired from the industry, using royalties from producing the Barenaked Ladies to become a scientist. She earned a doctorate in psychology from McGill University, studying music cognition and psychoacoustics, and currently teaches at Berklee College of Music. Prince fans know her through her work during the period that produced a series of amazing, famous albums. The opportunity came about by chance when Prince hired her as his audio technician during the making of Purple Rain. She rapidly transitioned to become his engineer, effectively taking part in the creation of music by one of the most significant musicians in our lifetime. In an engaging interview at Loop 2017, she addresses wide-ranging topics about music.

Dr. Rogers started out as an audio technician during the 70s, at a time when the number of women in the field numbered fewer than four. Nor were there more than a handful of women studio engineers. She taught herself by reading books and by working on the job. In her forties, she faced a decision whether to continue producing music or pursue her lifelong dream to study science. She recognized that she no longer felt “plugged in” to the kind of mindset useful for producing popular music. So science won out.

Music and Our Common Humanity

What makes the interview so fascinating is Dr. Rogers’ breadth of knowledge and her sense of humanity. She talks about music as a deeply expressive gesture that appeals to our most intimate characteristics. She reveals fascinating scientific facts, such as the ways different people and personalities process music. In another anecdote she discusses the theory about how language and music evolved from a proto-music/speech. Evidence comes from observations of vervet monkeys, which use different kinds of tones to indicate whether a predator comes from the sky, from the ground, or from the trees. She also discusses the production of music, and what it takes to be successful in the music industry.

Working with Prince

Two albums, widely considered to be Prince’s masterpieces, bookend her career with him: Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times. Dr. Rogers talks about what he was like as a person, citing his generosity and kindness. She shares anecdotes about working with him in the studio. In a particularly revealing story, she compares his working style to Michael Jackson. Prince worked at a frenetic pace, more focused on getting his musical ideas recorded than on perfecting the sound quality or arrangement. His aptitude and creativity carried the ideas without the need for perfection. In contrast, Michael Jackson and his producers obsessed over every element of the sound. Both artists arrived at the same artistic peak, producing a body of successful, memorable songs, but by very different means.

Interview with Susan Rogers

The video is long, but well worth the time. She is a remarkable woman, with plenty of interesting insights to share on a variety of topics.

At Loop 2017, veteran studio engineer Susan Rogers talks to Ableton’s Dennis DeSantis about working and touring with Prince in the 1980s, her academic work on audio perception, and career choices in the music industry. Sponsored by music technology company Ableton, Loop is three days of talks, performances, and hands-on workshops aimed at sharing ideas on music, technology and creative practice. Meet the artists, technologists, educators and other creative thinkers as they explore what it means to make music today and what it could be tomorrow.

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