In 1987 Prince released the double album Sign O’ The Times. It covered a wide range of musical and lyrical styles, and some music critics, historians and fans consider the album as one of Prince’s greatest releases. Sign O’ The Times is included on several “Best Album” lists, including the 2003 Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums. The album made it to number four on the U.S. Billboard R&B Album chart and number six on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, with the support of songs such as “U Got The Look,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and the title track, “Sign O’ The Times,” which topped the Billboard R&B chart and made it to number three on the pop chart. The album also contained hidden gems such as the jazzy tune “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and the classic ballad “Adore. At the helm was Prince’s audio engineer Susan Rogers, currently an associate professor in the Department Of Music Production & Engineering at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music. She recently took some time to talk with Daddy Rock Star about the recording of the Prince classic.
Daddy Rock Star: Before we get into Sign O’ The Times, tell me a little bit about your background, how you got into audio engineering and how you came to work for Prince.
Susan Rogers: I started in 1978 when there weren’t a lot of women engineers, and there still aren’t, but I wanted to be in the music business, I wanted to make records. I started as a maintenance technician to get my foot in the door. I was the person who repaired consoles and tape machines and I didn’t go to school but I was self taught in electronics. I bought the books and read them. So I began as a maintenance tech and my first job was as a trainee for a company called Audio Industries in Hollywood. After three years there I was a service tech for a company called MCI Console and Tape Machines. From there I went to work for Crosby, Stills and Nash at their studio in Hollywood as their studio maintenance tech. Prince hired me in 1983 because he needed a technician and it turns out that he didn’t really understand–and he didn’t need to understand–the distinction between a maintenance tech and a recording engineer. He figured if you knew the equipment you could use the equipment, which is a really safe assumption, so I became his engineer really out of convenience for him. It worked out great for me of course because that was my first big break. I was his engineer from 1983 until late 1987/early 1988 when I left; that was through Sign O’ The Times and The Black Album, so I started with Purple Rain and the last unofficial record would have been The Black Album. From 1988 until 2000 I was an independent engineer and producer, and after 2000 I left the music industry to earn my PhD in Cognitive Psychology. I specialize in Music Perception and Cognition. Now I’m at Berklee, where I’ve been since 2008, teaching engineering and production and the audio sciences.
DRS: A lot of music critics and Prince fans often call Sign O The Times “Princes greatest post-Purple Rain album.” How would you respond to that statement?
SR: Frankly I think all three–Around The World In A Day, Under The Cherry Moon, and Sign O’ The Times–are equivalent artistically…they’re all different. Sign O’ The Times represented the third record after Purple Rain. As an artist, the first record you ever make is just a point and anything after that is a direction, so follow up records build on what came before. But the interesting thing is when you have a massive hit record you get to start over. This is what artists do. So when you have a record that totally says you’ve arrived, after you arrive, you get to start a new journey. You can think of Purple Rain as being a singular point, the apex of where Prince was. So now that he’s shown the depth of what he can do, that he’s hugely talented and very creative, now he has to show the breadth of it and how far he can go stylistically. So he did Around The World In A Day, which was heavily influenced by rock music, and Under The Cherry Moon, which was very heavily influenced by pop music–a new kind of pop music. It was probably his least R&B/funk-oriented record. Other than Controversy, I think “Sign O’ The Times” was one of his most socially conscious records. Sign O’ The Times represented a departure for him lyrically; he was growing and trying new things lyrically. He had some new textures and new sounds there as well, but definitely the single “Sign O’ The Times” was social commentary, and it was a serious social commentary more so than, for example, “Ronnie Talk To Russia.” It was a serious attempt at social commentary and it was timely, so he was expressing “here’s where I’m going, everybody.”
DRS: When the album came out, I bought it and a group of friends came over and we all listened to it. One of the songs that sparked the most conversation was “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” I’ve heard that you were instrumental in the release of that song as a single, is that true?
SR: Prince asked me what I thought–and that’s not something that he normally did–but he was on the fence as to whether or not it should be a single. I think the record label was saying, “No, don’t do it,” but he wanted to so he asked me what I thought and I offered the opinion which tipped the scales. I told him, “I think you should do it. I’ve never heard a man sing from this perspective before and as a woman I enjoy hearing that. It’s a unique message, it makes you interesting, it’s intriguing. I would do it.” And I think it was a bad call. (laughing) I think ultimately looking back on it, it wasn’t a good choice as a single. It’s a brilliant song but I think with Sign O’ The Times Prince was aware–and he said this often, so I’m not reading into things–that his black audience was drifting away from him. After Around The World In A Day and Under The Cherry Moon, the music was less rooted in R&B and less rooted in funk and even pop styles that Sly Stone had familiarized us with, it had less of that, so Prince was making a conscious effort with Sign O’ The Times to win back some of his original audience. “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” musically and lyrically, may not have been the right choice for winning back that audience. It wouldn’t have been the right choice for winning back a rock and roll audience or pop audience, either. Where it would have been a good choice would have been for winning back the art fans, the music critics and scholars and the art lovers that could recognize that this is a new message. The risk takers musically would be the ones who would respond to that and I didn’t recognize that at the time.
DRS: I remember when that song first came out, that lyrically, the women I knew really dug it and understood where Prince was coming from, but initially, a lot of guys I knew didn’t get it.
SR: I could see where it might turn men off. I could see where they would say, “No guy talks like that,” but it’s what women want to hear. And a woman would look at a man saying that and say, “Yes, thank you for recognizing that I think differently from you and wouldn’t it be nice if just for brief periods of time we could be on the same page and you could be my friend and not my adversary and we could think the same way.” That’s what he’s trying to say. Kate Bush said it–Prince was a big fan of Kate Bush–and she said it in her song with that famous line “come on angel, come on darling, let’s exchange the experience.” It has multiple meanings but what she’s saying is “come on let me be you for a minute and you be me, let’s exchange this.”
DRS: That’s the song “Running Up That Hill” right?
SR: Right, he played that record to death! He loved that record.
DRS: I’ve also read that Prince’s vocal on that song was accidentally distorted during the recording, how did that happen?
SR: That was a blunder. He would record his vocals by himself in the control room. I would set him up and then I would leave him alone and he would work entirely by himself. It was the only way he could get the performance he needed; he needed that privacy. But I made a mistake and I’d inadvertently set the preamp 10db hotter than normal so it was distorted. When he was done he would call me back into the room and have me do a rough mix or set up for something else. So he left the room and I came back in and I’m doing a rough mix and I realize the entire vocal performance is distorted and I thought, ‘oh no, I bet he hasn’t listened back to this in the speakers. He’s probably just listening in the headphones…he’s gonna come back into this room and have me killed!’ (laughing) But he didn’t mind at all and of course he heard it–he’s as sharp as they come. There’s nothing that slips past him, but he heard it but he didn’t mind.
People have assumed that because these records were successful that we took the same degree and care with the technique as we did with the art and that’s completely false. I mean, technically, sonically these records aren’t great. Many, many, many others in which care was actually put into the technique and the craft sound better. Our records sounded alright, their form served the function, but what was great about it and what people were buying was not the sonic qualities. People were buying the art, the musical attributes. In that sense, Prince didn’t care; and any of those old records, if you listen to Sly Stone or James Brown, you’ll hear distortion all over the place but it doesn’t affect the music at all.
DRS: Speaking of recording techniques, when I listen to a lot of music these days, it seems really loud. It’s not just a matter of ‘things have progressed in technology,’ but it just seems like the music is just louder for the sake of being loud. Maybe it’s just another sign I’m getting older (laughing). Am I off base with that? As an engineer who’s been around for years, what do you think?
SR: I know what you’re saying. The technique these days involves hyper-compression where in mastering, and sometimes even before, you squash out all the dynamics. You level the dynamics such that there’s no change in loudness going from the verse to the chorus and the climaxes of the song don’t get any louder than the quiet parts of the song. The trend began in the ‘90s…it originated from radio broadcasters who wanted program levels to be uniformly loud. They didn’t want any quiet moments that might allow a listener to switch to a new station, so record makers started competing in the same way by flattening out the dynamics so that your record would be louder than the next guy’s…and it sounds great when you put your record on and it just comes in hotter than the next person’s. We know, at least here in the Western world, consumers prefer whichever audio source is louder. It can be a fraction of a DB hotter and the consumer will say “yeah, that one sounds better.” But what has happened, by reducing these dynamics we’re actually changing the emotional impact, (I’m arguing this anyway) of musical material because dynamics are what gives a song tension and release…it gives it a payoff. To take away the dynamics, you can listen longer because there’s nothing changing so you can listen for a longer period of time but you’ll probably be less emotionally engaged than you would have been otherwise. Dynamics contribute to emotion, but, that said, we are now writing and producing music such that you don’t need a lot of dynamics. It’s changing the way composers and producers are working. How we think of music nowadays we think of it as being kind of uni-dynamic.
DRS: Was there any particular recording experience that really stands out on the album?
SR: The song “Sign O’ The Times” and the song “The Cross.” “The Cross” was one of what I used to call “Sunday songs.” Some of his deepest, most introspective and most important songs I noticed were recorded on Sundays.
DRS: I like every song on the album. I think “Play In The Sunshine” was a cool song even though it wasn’t released as a single.
SR: That was one of those songs that we knocked off very quickly. Prince did what most people do. When he would conceive of an album there were core songs that were the heart and the skeleton of the album. “Purple Rain” was a core song on the album Purple Rain, and of course “Sign O’ The Times” was one of the fundamental songs for that album. So when we would sequence a record sometimes we’d take our core songs and a few other tracks and we would sequence them together just to hear how the album was going to sound. If there was something missing, if there needed to be a song that would transition between two of the core or the more important songs, Prince would actually write something specifically to serve in the sequence. So in that sense there were the most important songs and then there were the album cuts–the things that were almost interludes on the record. So the songs were never intended to be singles or even have any important message. That’s what “Play In The Sunshine” was; it was just a bridge to get us out of “Sign O’ The Times” and into the rest of the record. “Slow Love” was another one of those…that was an old one from the vault.
DRS: Was that the case with “It’s Gonna’ Be A Beautiful Night?”
SR: I think we considered “Beautiful Night” more important. That was recorded live in France. We were in the south of France and Prince was playing an outdoor event and we had a mobile truck there from Germany and that’s when we recorded the bed track, we overdubbed it later, I think right there in the mobile truck.