Susan Rogers was working as a receptionist when she overheard someone say that being an audio technician was a solid career path. So she taught herself the technical skills she needed and went on to work with Prince, first in Minneapolis and then at his famous Paisley Park studio.
Later she left the music industry and became an expert in the way our brains respond to art. Cedar Pasori went to hear her extraordinary story.
Animations by RAPAPAWN.
In 1983, Susan Rogers — an audio technician from Los Angeles — found herself in Minneapolis, hired to repair Prince’s studio equipment. While setting up a tube microphone, Susan panicked, thinking she was overstepping her role. “I asked Prince, ‘Who's going to engineer this?’” remembers Susan. “He just looked at me and said, ‘You.’”
And so it began — four years of engineering and touring with Prince. “I sat down in the chair, and at that moment, I knew I had become his engineer,” Susan says. “The actual task of engineering was not daunting to me, because I had done studio installation. I just had to quickly learn how sessions were run and what you needed to do for clients.”
Formal training likely wouldn’t have helped anyway. Prince had his own way of doing things, an exhausting work ethic and unconventional preferences for how recorded instruments should sound. Susan learned all of that as she went along.
“When we were on the road, Prince would soundcheck for hours, play a show for hours, then go into a recording studio to work the rest of the night. When not on tour, our sessions were frequently 24 hours long. That was not at all uncommon. At the very least they were 16 hours.
“I worked whenever he made music – in the studio, at rehearsal, at soundcheck, during the show, during afterparties, or whatever the occasion called for. He wanted to be able to record everything.”
There’s an old saying that to a beginner, all things are possible. You don't know what you don't know.
Though she became an engineer unexpectedly, Susan had already committed her life to supporting the creation of music. “What I really wanted from a young age was to be where records are being made and to do whatever needed to be done,” explains Susan, who first saw images of recording studios on vinyl sleeves. “Like most people, music was healing for me as a teenager.”
Growing up in Anaheim, California, a city just south of LA famous for Disneyland and scorching weather, Susan listened to Sly and the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin and James Brown. She was enchanted by hearing new songs on the radio, and though she tried (and disliked) playing piano, she was determined to find alternate avenues to work in music.
Money had always been tight in her family, and Susan left high school at age 16 to help support her father and siblings. After moving to LA at 21, she knew she couldn’t afford to go to college and instead worked as a night receptionist at University of Sound Arts, the pre-eminent Hollywood recording university at the time.
Susan spent the money she did have on textbooks and even called the US Army to request free electronics manuals. Her specific interest in maintaining equipment came from overhearing a conversation at the school, where someone suggested that technicians enjoyed long-term job security.
Her drive to educate herself, paired with her enthusiasm, helped Susan get hired as an audio trainee at Audio Industries Corporation in 1978. The internship-like position paid $4.37 per hour. “At the time, techs weren’t in high demand, but it’s an important job,” Susan remembers. “My instincts told me that I could probably do it. I'm a hard worker, I have self-discipline and I can focus. “
This studiousness has dictated the arc of Susan’s career. She went from being a technician to becoming an engineer, then a producer, then a student and now a professor.
"The future is a big place and you can't see it all from here," she says. “I definitely could not see what I was building toward, but I knew that growing my knowledge and skills would help me climb the ladder, so I could then see what was available to me.”
After two and a half years at Audio Industries, Susan was asked to work at Rudy Records, a studio owned by Graham Nash and David Crosby in the heart of Hollywood. She became the full-time audio technician there before she got the Prince opportunity and uprooted to Minneapolis.
Susan’s time with Prince included the albums Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign O’ the Times and The Black Album. She also worked with him on albums for The Time, Apollonia Six, Jill Jones and Sheila E. Songs like When Doves Cry, Raspberry Beret and Kiss came out of this period, as well as three films.
Those years were dedicated entirely to Prince. Though Susan learned difficult professional lessons, she values her once-beginner’s mindset. “One time, we had just finished working for 24 hours, and Prince walked into the room and said, ‘Fresh take,’” she recalls. "I was too inexperienced to know how extreme these things were. There’s an old saying that to a beginner, all things are possible. You don't know what you don't know.
“However, I never considered leaving, I was aware of how fortunate I was. We wanted success for Prince, and we wanted this to work. You need to be crazy enough to want to do this work really badly, and believe that you can, and also sane enough to recognize how impossible the odds are.”
Though Prince was known to be a perfectionist who kept his team and his band on their toes, Susan remembers that, while recording, he had strong instincts and would sometimes prioritize speed, allowing him to finish songs in the same session.
She likens this pace to the way some artists work. “When you're painting, you have the option of doing a gesture sketch, which captures just an abstract idea of something,” she explains. “Or, you can take your time, and you can do a detailed sketch. If you get 90% there in your quick gesture sketch, or in your first takes, why not move on?”
Continuing the visual metaphor, Susan describes engineering as a way of art directing sound to achieve the most effective delivery possible. “The sound engineer’s mandate is to manipulate sound in such a way that individual items pop out, and others serve the background,” she says. “What’s the story we’re telling here, and what’s the listener’s experience going to be?”
There was a clear point in 1987 when it made sense to move on from working with Prince, particularly to gain a semblance of work-life balance. Susan moved back to Los Angeles and was asked to co-produce records for various bands. “After you've co-produced a few times, you recognize that co-productions are really hard,” she explains. “It's like asking two people to drive a car.”
She decided to only take jobs where she was the sole producer, which usually meant that she chose to engineer the records as well. Working with David Byrne, Tricky and Geggy Tah required her to “unlearn Prince” by figuring out recording techniques that would serve different ears. In the process, she found a deeper appreciation for her craft.
“Geggy Tah, in particular, inspired me to start thinking about engineering as an art,” she says. “They’d see me mic’ing a certain way and ask, ‘Why?’ I realized that I didn't know why. The answer to that question should be, ‘Because that's how I like it.’ That spirit, brought to engineering, production, songwriting, or performing, is the spirit of original thought. It’s hard to do, but at least you can try.”
Susan engineered and co-produced the multi-platinum 1998 Barenaked Ladies album, Stunt, a lucrative job that gave her the freedom to leave the music industry.
“At some point in my 30s, I began to feel a deep calling to a life in science,” she says. “To this day, I love production, mixing and engineering, but I'd had plenty of it.”
So aged 44 Susan went to the University of Minnesota before pursuing graduate work in music perception and cognition at McGill University in Montreal and a doctorate in psychology.
Her own music tastes have changed, and she says she’s learned to appreciate lyrics more as she’s gotten older. Her current playlist includes songs by Lana Del Rey, Kendrick Lamar and Father John Misty, among others. She also co-founded Boston’s first nonprofit recording studio, The Record Company, which offers low-cost recording facilities and free music technology instruction.
After McGill, Susan was asked to teach music production and engineering at Berklee School of Music, intertwining her research in music cognition and psychoacoustics.
As the director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory, Susan is interested in understanding the way music affects us psychologically. She’s then sharing that understanding with the record producers, engineers and film scorers of tomorrow.
“It's fun being on that tightrope between the art and science of music,” she says. “And if I knew psychoacoustics when I was an engineer or producer, I would have been better at doing both.”
Modern neuroimaging tools, and wider accessibility to them, allow Susan and her peers to monitor brains in real-time when listening to music or viewing art. Though the differences in how people perceive music are central to this research, the similarities are important.
“Let's say there's a piece of music that gives people chills,” she says. “If you remove the high frequency components, those similar to a scream, they don't get chills anymore.
“There are sweet spots for tempo and the number of intervals that people find appealing. If the music is cognitively too taxing or complex, most listeners won’t be into it. Neuroaesthetics is trying to break all of that down by looking at the experience of really loving a work of art and trying to understand the events that cause that.”
Equally, Susan values the non-scientific factors that inform the creation and understanding of music. “Music is too complex of a human endeavor to be reduced to a simple process,” she says. “There are cultural, individual and other factors at play. When I look back on those years with Prince and others through the lens of music cognition, the scale is still weighted far more heavily in mystery than in knowledge.”