BY KAREN STACKPOLE
Reflecting on His Royal Badness, The Purple One, The High Priest of Pop, the artist otherwise known as Prince (and for a time, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince), it’s plain to see that this artist was anything but plain. His flamboyant persona that dared to dare belied an often-taciturn nature, and his mind-blowing virtuosity on every instrument he played and his know-how in the studio put him fully in control of realizing his musical visions. The innovative and controversial eclectic creativity in his music and his unabashed performance style influenced pop like nothing before. This and more puts Prince in a category that defies ordinary. So, what was it like to work with such a prolific artistic powerhouse?
He pumped out album after album, running circles around other artists as he filled his vault and the playback devices of millions with his endless fount of passionate music. His pioneering use of the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer on his recordings and the blend of acoustic and electronic drum sounds in his live shows with drummer Bobby Z during the Purple Rain era opened the door to whole new realm. Prince was a true trailblazer who embraced technology with talent, boldness, and soul.
An opportunity to get a glimpse into his world materialized late last year when Women’s Audio Mission (a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of women in music production and the recording arts) and PRN Alumni Foundation (a nonprofit formed by former employees of Prince) joined forces to host a special panel discussion on engineering recordings for Prince at Pandora headquarters in Oakland, California, featuring four female audio engineers who worked closely with the legendary artist on some of his most iconic albums between 1981 and 2005.
The panel included Peggy McCreary who worked with Prince at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles starting with 1981’s Controversy through 1986; Susan Rogers, who was with him from 1983 to 1988 at his home studio in Minneapolis and the warehouse where the band rehearsed in the ‘80s during the Purple Rain era and beyond; Sylvia Massy, who worked with Prince at Larrabee Sound in West Hollywood in the early ‘90s during the Diamonds And Pearls days; and Lisa Chamblee, who was a staff engineer at Paisley Park during the recording of 3121 in 2005.
The evening was full of behind-the-scenes stories about the panel’s experiences of being in the studio with the enigmatic Prince and what it was like to be his engineer. A conversation with Susan Rogers after the event offered insights into recording drums with Prince and his use of electronics, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer in particular, on his recordings and for live shows. Released in 1980, the Linn LM-1 was the first drum machine to use digital samples of real acoustic drums rather than synthesized sounds. It was the dawn of viable drum machines and Prince’s creativity with this instrument had a huge influence on the use of drum machines and electronic drumming in modern pop music.
Burning the Midnight Oil with Prince
“Prince didn’t really need an engineer,” quipped Sylvia Massy at the event. “When I worked with him at Larrabee, he knew how to use all the equipment, the SSL, the API, all of it. He didn’t want anyone in the room with him when he was doing vocals, so I’d just set up a mike for him over the console and leave the room.” Prince could do everything himself. He played all the instruments, he could work the recording gear, he wrote the lyrics, and composed the music. But in order to achieve his visions at breakneck speed with maximum efficiency, he surrounded himself with a diverse tribe of accomplished musicians, engineers, and technicians.
To work with Prince, one had to have endurance. According to Susan Rogers, 48 hours without sleep was not unusual. “He came in with way more ideas than most, so you had to work really fast so that he could get everything out and onto tape. What was extraordinary about him was the speed at which he worked, his dexterity on so many instruments—it was just unbelievable that this guy could be this great on drums, and even better on bass, and even better on guitars and piano, and an insane vocalist… and that he could get a song done in a day… get the mix done, printed to tape, and then come back four hours later and do it all again with a different song, and then four hours after that do it again with another song. He only needed a few hours of sleep a night,” she recalls.
“You had to be ready for anything that inspired him at any time,” agrees Peggy McCreary. “You always had tape, you always had everything right there, because he could switch like that and you were onto something else.” Rogers adds that he rarely ever looked in the rearview mirror to redo decisions when it came to previous work. “He was very unlike typical artists,” she says.
Prince the Drummer
While McCreary, Massy, and Chamblee worked with Prince in the world-class facilities of Sunset Sound, Larrabee Sound, and Paisley Park, Rogers worked with Prince primarily in his early home studio in Minneapolis and at the big warehouse where the band rehearsed. She also traveled with him to Los Angeles on occasion to work with McCreary at Sunset Sound. “It was either the absolute best or the absolute worst of recording conditions,” she recalls, as the warehouse was cavernous with zero acoustical treatment or isolation.
In both these situations, Rogers opted for a relatively conservative “old-fashioned” miking technique for acoustic drums, having to work within the parameters of limited tracks on analog tape. Microphone selection was up to her, but Prince would say what kind of processing he wanted on the drum sound, such as a big long reverb or a short fat reverb to give the sound a certain vibe. She maintains that the tuning of the drums matters more than microphone choice because the tuning has a greater impact on the recorded sound. “We had a drum tech who taught me the basic rudiments of tuning drums so in case he wasn’t around, I could get the drums in decent shape for recording,” she remembers. “It’s so important.”
Prince often played acoustic drums himself on recordings. “He typically would have written the tune in advance, and he would come in with a lyric sheet, ready to go,” said Rogers. “I would tape his lyric sheet to a mike stand in front of the kit, and you could just hit record and he would record the whole drum performance from top to bottom, no headphones, not listening to anything else, not even a click. He’d just play it from top to bottom with the fills and everything, he was that brilliant.”
Welcome to the Machine
Was there a thread running through Prince’s work, a soul of sound that the engineers could identify? Without hesitation, Chamblee tags the Linn LM-1. “That sound,” she enthuses. It was the mid-2000s when Chamblee worked at Paisley Park, and though Akai was making new versions of sampler/sequencer synthesizers at that time, Prince always preferred the LM-1. “He had that old school and it was just bumping,” she says.
“Prince loved the sound of that machine,” remembers Rogers. “What he loved in particular is that each and every instrument had its own pitch tuning knob on the back, so he’d take the basic sounds that it came with and could get the highs in there or get a deep-dish snare just by tuning. Once he got the sounds he liked and we printed them to tape, it didn’t necessarily follow that we would keep the tape at the same speed. Sometimes he’d mess around with a song—what’s coming to mind is ‘U Got the Look’ off of The Sign ‘O’ The Times album. The reason that kick drum has such an annoying amount of point on it is that the final iteration was faster than what we originally recorded it at. It was originally a slow jam kind of thing and he wasn’t satisfied with that, so he ended up speeding it up and we got some really bright drums out of it. But that was just the price we paid—otherwise we’d have had to do it all over again.”
Rogers recalls that Sheila E had the Linn Drum, the successor to the LM-1, and that Prince did do some writing and recording on that Linn Drum for Sheila’s album Romance 1600. “But he really didn’t like it because it didn’t have all those individual tuning pots for every instrument on the back, only for a select few, and that wasn’t cool with him,” Rogers says. “The LM-1 had kind of a funkier sound too; it had more distortion, in a sense. The Linn Drum was cleaner, but the LM-1 was a little dirtier, and I think he just liked it better. Personally, I liked it better.”
Prince would program a one- or two-bar pattern on the LM-1 and let it loop, says Rogers. “As it looped and the tape was rolling, we could just reach over and mute the snare when we needed the snare to drop out. He would just nod his head and I would just cut the snare for the arrangement, or we could just go back later and individually erase those snare hits. Another thing that he would do was add tom fills or additional claps and things like that with his fingers as the tape was rolling and the loops were playing, so he would play live on top of this repeated loop.
“The thing that he did that was pretty unique to him, is to use the little mixer built in to the LM-1, and take the mix of the percussion instruments—might be clave and hand claps and things like that—and feed it through his Roland Boss pedal board. And on the pedal board he would often engage either the flanger or the chorus, or delay, or the octaver or heavy metal pedal—any number of things that he would just blend to get a sound that he liked. It was very characteristic of his sound in the ‘80s. It was imitated by many, but that was his thing,” she remembers.
The only thing that was acoustic there would be the cymbals and the hi-hat, and there’d be mikes on those, of course. He also used a real acoustic snare drum with piezo pickups inside it.
Trigger Happy Hybrid
Bringing his music to the live shows, Prince wanted to be able to use the LM-1 on stage in addition to acoustic drums. “Bobby Z had electronic pads,” recalls Rogers of the Purple Rain era. “We had those pads either trigger the LM-1 drum sounds or other sounds from a module that (drum tech) Brad Marsh had purchased for Prince. The only thing that was acoustic there would be the cymbals and the hi-hat, and there’d be mikes on those, of course. He also used a real acoustic snare drum with piezo pickups inside it. When you heard Purple Rain live on the tour, it would be electronic pads for the kick drum and the toms and everything, but an actual acoustic snare drum that would be a combination of the mike on the snare as well as the piezo pickup that was triggering the LM-1 sounds.”
While this hybrid setup wasn’t typical of the studio recording sessions, whatever was set up for a rehearsal at the warehouse could end up on an album if they got a track they liked while recording there. “Strange Relationship” off of Sign ‘O’ The Times is such an instance.
“We recorded that song a lot of different times, which was unusual for Prince,” says Rogers. “I remember one massive recording session at the warehouse that we used on that song. In order to cut down on leakage, I could just use the electronic sound that was coming out of the machine. It helped make the sound a little cleaner and that was what Prince preferred. The electric guitar, the bass, the keyboards, and many of the drums (with the exception of the cymbals) were going direct to reduce leakage for a cleaner sound. That’s the sound you hear pretty much on Around The World In A Day, because so much of it was done at the warehouse.”
Ever the pioneer, Prince pushed to incorporate electronic elements into the drums. For the Purple Rain tour, this led to the drum tech creating a custom interface so that the LM-1 could be played on stage at a time when the technology was not yet available to support playing the drum machine via pads. The interface allowed Bobby Z to trigger the Linn sounds via the LM-1’s outputs via piezo pickups placed inside the snare and replicate the sounds on the recordings. Before long, playable trigger pads became a big hit among drummers and a new era was ushered in.