May 11, 2023

The Music You Love with Prince's Sound Engineer, Susan Rogers (Episode 12)

Nicole: Hello. Welcome back to “Multitudes,” here to add another layer to your life.  I'm your host, Nicole Carter, and today we are talking about all things music. I am so excited to share with you my conversation with the legendary record producer, Susan Rogers. Susan Rogers is known for working with Prince during his peak creative period, and also being his chief engineer for his album, “Purple Rain.” She also is known for bringing hit singles to life, like “One Week” with the Barenaked Ladies. Susan is considered one of the most successful female record producers of all time. And for over two decades prior to academia, Susan worked as a record engineer and record producer, and she was a multiplatinum-earning record producer, engineer, and mixer. She recently co-wrote a book, “This Is What It Sounds Like,” where she explains why we fall in love with music. And we talk about some of the key concepts and main takeaways that Susan outlined in her book.

Currently, Susan is teaching record production and psychoacoustics at the Berklee College of Music, and she has a PhD in music cognition and psychoacoustics. Psychoacoustics is the science of how humans perceive and understand sound. And we also talk about record production and sound in our episode as well. This conversation is for anyone who is interested in understanding different dimensions of listening to music, is curious about how the music industry has evolved over time, inside our thoughts and insights about record production, and a bit of insight into why we love the music that we love. We start off talking about her time working closely with Prince and also about a time she met Miles Davis that changed the way that Susan has thought about what it means to be a musician and working in music production.

And thank you so much for tuning in today. And if you'd like to support this show, please let me know what you liked about this episode. And you can do that by leaving a written review on Apple Podcasts, and you can also connect with me on Instagram at @multitudes.podcast. And today's listener shout out is a review from Apple Podcasts by Dimiha who says, “I really like the variety of guests on this show. Definitely features perspectives I would not have heard otherwise. I'm impressed by how in-depth the episodes get about the topics.” Thank you so much for the review, and more variety and in-depth conversations coming, and this one is no different. So, let's get started. Oh, and one more thing before we get started, for clarification, we talk a lot about records and songs in our conversation, and Susan refers to records as specific physical recordings of pieces of music. So, think like CDs, YouTube videos, MP3s, streamed audio files, vinyl discs, that sort of thing. And in contrast, Susan refers to songs as referring to the melodies and words of a particular piece of music regardless of who is performing it or recording it. Okay. Now to the episode. 

Hi, Susan. Thank you so much for being here today. So excited to have you here.

Susan: Thank you, Nicole, for inviting me. I'm really eager to talk with you, and I appreciate the invitation.

Nicole: Yes, absolutely. Well, I so loved reading your book, and we’ll get into your book and everything that you do. And I would love to start with a little bit about your story and how you started out in music.

Susan: I grew up in Southern California, right near Disneyland, actually, in Anaheim, long time ago, ‘50s and ‘60s. When I was a kid, I was just crazy about music, like a lot of kids are. Some kids are more into sports or more into social lives or fashion or things, but for me, it was always music. However, I didn't feel any calling to become a performer or a songwriter. Nothing about that felt right. What really felt right was listening to records. So, ultimately, that led to my wanting to be in the music industry as someone who's in the recording studio making records. That was not so easily done for young women in the late ‘70s when I finally got started. It was not so easily done, but I was able to pursue a route that was open to women because my gender didn't matter, and that was as an audio technician repairing the console and tape machines, the technical stuff. I studied electronics all on my own. Didn't go to college or anything, but I studied. I got hired as a trainee, and they trained me up. And that's where I was in 1983 when I got the call to work for my favorite artist in the whole world, which just happened to be Prince. I was such a huge Prince fan, and he was looking for a technician in 1983. As soon as I heard about that job, he hired me, and my career just took off from there.

Nicole: Yeah. I would love to talk a bit about that moment of meeting Prince and what that meant for you.

Susan: The actual meeting of him was…well, it's something I'll never forget. So, he had just come off the 1999 tour and he was planning for “Purple Rain,” the movie and the album. And it's hard to imagine it now, but he had just turned 25 years old. This guy was just a kid, and he was about to do his sixth studio album, and he was a star but on his way to superstardom. So, when I joined him, the first thing I was tasked with doing was getting his home studio ready to go. And that meant pulling out an old console, putting a new console in, doing some work on the tape machine, and just getting his studio ready to go. Now, his studio just happened to be in his house. It was down on the garage level, his house in Chanhassen, Minnesota. And right across, right outside the studio door was a little hallway, stairway landing, and there was this master bedroom. So I knew he was home. I could hear him upstairs with the band, with The Revolution, with Vanity Six, and I could hear him taking meetings and things. I could hear him playing piano a lot, but he never came downstairs, never came down and introduced himself to me. That's okay.

When I was finally finished with everything, I called his housekeeper, Sandy Sippione, and I said, “Sandy, I'm all done. What should I do?” And she said, “Let me call him. We'll get back to you.” A moment later, he came down the stairs, and he's standing on the stairs and he didn't even say hello or anything. He's just standing on the stairs. I'm at the foot of the stairs and he starts asking questions. “Is this done? Did you check that? What's happening with this?” Blah, blah, blah. So I’m answering his questions. And then he says, “Okay, come back tomorrow at 10:00 a.m.” or something like that. He turns around to go. And something about that just did not feel right. It just didn't feel right. I thought, “No, wait a minute. I've left all the people I've ever known in my life to come 2300 miles away and come to work for you, so I don't think this is the right way to start this relationship.” So it was just instinct that took over. He turned around to go and I stopped him. I said, “Prince.” He stopped and he turned around, like, “What?” And I said, “I'm Susan Rogers,” and I stuck my hand out to shake his hand. And it was pretty cute because he kind of appreciated gestures like that. He didn't like people who were too bold and in his face. He hated that. But if you were assertive enough for yourself, for the good of the entire operation, yeah, he appreciated it. And he got this look on his face. It's kind of like he wanted to laugh, but he didn't laugh. And he stuck his hand out very solemnly, and we kind of shook hands and did a little bow. He said, “I'm Prince.” And I said, “Okay. All right. Well, I’ll see you in the morning.”

In hindsight, it was the smart way to begin. Anytime we're hired for a job, they could fire us anytime they want. We can quit anytime we want. So it's good to know that we're all just people, and on the people level, we're all equal. When we agree to work together, we agree to have these pretend relationships, these temporary relationships. For right now, you're my boss, I'm your employee. I'm your teacher, you're my student. But those are temporary relationships. They're not permanent relationships. The only permanent relationships is that we're both people. And I'm glad we started on that level so that we could pretend from there.

My relationship with Prince was close in one sense and distant in another sense. It was close in that we were together nearly every day for over four years because he recorded pretty much every day of his life. If he was awake, he wanted to have an instrument in his hands, and if he had an instrument, he wanted to be recording. Whether it was on tour, on a movie set, at home, at rehearsal, in the studio, he was recording and I was there with him. But it was distant in the sense that he really had zero interest at that time in small talk. He didn't just shoot the breeze. He was working so fast and so hard that if anybody had tried to engage him in small talk or chitchat, he would have been very dismissive of that. I'm kind of a shy person by nature, so I learned pretty quickly, the way we're going to get along is if I'm just quiet and do my job, let him be quiet and do his job, and we'll actually get along quite easily. That's kind of how it went.

Of course, there were the occasional moments where he'd tell me something about what was going on in his personal life, and occasionally even, he'd ask me something about my personal life. More likely than not, though, he'd sometimes make a joke about my lack of personal life. I once was…we were talking. Some of the girls were in there, Wendy and Lisa, and we were talking about something. We were talking about friends, and I mentioned, “Oh, my friend Tim,” I think I said, “My friend Tim, he thinks that blah, blah, blah,” and Prince just right away cut me off and he said, “Susan, you don't have any friends. You work for me.” Which was very funny and also very true.

Nicole: Wow. In terms of thinking about… You've mentioned that he was tough to work for in a way. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Susan: Yeah. Tough in the ways that not every boss is going to be tough. So, sometimes when we say, “You've got a really tough boss,” people think that means that the boss is just a tyrant and mean and abusive and all that. No, no, no. That wasn't Prince. He wasn't tough in that way at all. He was tough in that he worked ungodly hours. The guy was so, so creative, and his ideas just kept coming and coming and coming. He's not going to grab some sheet paper and start notating music. If he's got a song in his head, he's going to want to fire up the tape machine, hit Record. He's going to want to record it. So it was tough in that we worked every single day. There simply were no days off. And I'm talking Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year's, birthdays. We worked so hard. Even his famous, wonderful birthday parties, his crew, myself and the crew and the musicians, we worked really hard to host those parties. So, in that sense, it was tough as hell. But in the sense of his humanity, he was great. He was great. I'm not saying that he was a saint, not at all. But when Prince would be upset, at least in the studio anyway, he didn't express it by screaming and yelling and throwing tantrums. He was so mature for his age and decent. I'm sure other people who worked for him, maybe in a managerial capacity or, I don't know, maybe with girlfriends, he probably yelled at his friends maybe, but he didn't yell at me when he was upset about something. He would just get quiet. He would just get really quiet. So, this is the reason why I loved him then, and I love him now, and I'm always happy to talk about him. He was a good man. Not a perfect man, but a very, very good man. And I respected him and admired him a lot.

Nicole: Yes. Thank you for sharing about who he was as a man and his humanity and also his work ethic. And I'm wondering about how that changed you and how you worked with musicians going forward after working with Prince.

Susan: Oh, golly. Prince had an engineer in the 2000s named Dylan Dresdow, and Dylan and I were on a panel once, and Dylan said, after you work with Prince, you had to unlearn Prince, because Prince worked at such a unique and high level that… What Dylan was describing is that you're going to be upset if you go back after Prince and work with people who are not Prince because they're going to disappoint you. People aren't going to be as fast, as decisive, as brilliant. They're just not going to work at his level. That's what he meant. You have to unlearn Prince and reset your expectations back down to the level of mere mortals. Now, in my case, it was a bit more difficult, and I know Wendy and Lisa had a similar problem, in that he was the first guy we worked for. So, I started at the top, engineering for him. I didn't know any other way. And Wendy and Lisa, the same thing. Wendy was joining his band when she was 18 years old. Lisa joined when she was right around 18. After leaving Prince, we had to learn how the rest of the world works. And that for me took a little bit of time. Everything else, everybody else just seemed so ungodly slow.

Nicole: Wow.

Susan: And experimental. And at first, my natural reaction was to think, “Wow. What's wrong with these people? How come they can't be like Prince?” And then maturity eventually set in and I realized, “No, no, they're doing it the right way, actually.” They're questioning their decisions. They're using trial and error. They're okay with going slowly to explore their art. The great writers revise their drafts. They'll do Draft 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The great film writers and storytellers, they revise their work. So, just because Prince gets away with just churning it out automatically, like it just popped into his head fully formed, that doesn't mean that everyone can do that. And it doesn't necessarily mean that it's the right way to do.

Nicole: Right. Yeah. That was like his unique way of doing it. And it's very interesting that you started out that way and then you had to adjust. There was a moment in working with Prince where you met Miles Davis, and I would love to talk about that. I actually played the trumpet in high school, so I was a huge Miles Davis fan growing up. And you had a conversation with him, right? And there was a phrase that he said to you that changed how you perceived musicians and life. Can you talk a bit about that?

Susan: Oh, I'll never forget that day. That was one of the best days of my life. So, it probably was a Sunday. We usually slowed down a little bit on Sunday, and Prince gave me a call at my home, and he said, “Can you come over to the house? Miles is coming for dinner, and I want you to pull these tapes for us to listen to.” So I did. I drove straight to the house and I got the tapes he asked for and went downstairs into his home studio. At this point in the story, this was a new home, the home where he lived for many, many years, just down the road from where Paisley Park Studios was, in this beautiful, beautiful home with this gorgeous professional grade studio down in the basement. It had these pale oak-colored walls, just this pale blonde wood, and this deep royal purple carpeting and stained glass windows in the back. It was really gorgeous.

So, anyway, I got the tapes and I was waiting downstairs by the tape machine, and I could hear the guys upstairs, and the guys were Prince and Miles and Prince's dad, the jazz pianist, John Nelson. And now, John Nelson and Miles were just about the same age. And they're coming downstairs. Prince comes down first, and then followed by Miles and John. And Miles and John are having this conversation. They're in the middle of a conversation. So they walk into the room and Miles parks himself right in front of me, with his back to me. Miles is facing John Nelson, and John Nelson is trying to compliment him on some pants that he owns, and he's saying, “I love those pants.” They both kind of talk like this. Miles is saying, “What pants?” “You know those pants. Those striped pants.” Miles is saying, “What striped pants? I don't have striped pants.” “Yeah, you do. You’ve got striped pants.” “Where'd you see me in striped pants?” “On TV.” “Where on TV?” “I saw you at the Grammy's.” And they’re going back and forth, and Miles is saying, “I don't have striped pants.” John Nelson is saying, “Yes, you do. The great striped pants.”

And then, all of a sudden, without any warning, Miles just spun around 180 degrees, put his face right in front of my face, and he said, “Yes, I do. They're made out of eel, like in Vietnam.” And I just held my face right in front of his, because those words were so funny and so strange. And I just said, “Eel like in Vietnam?” And he instantly just started firing off questions. “Who are you? What do you do? How long have you been here? Where are you from?” Blah, blah, blah. Questions like that. Now, Miles had this incredible face and really large eyes, and he had this mesmerizing, piercing stare. So, he could be really intimidating. But, oh, I worked for Prince, so you have to work really hard to intimidate me. I put up with a guy who is pretty darn intimidating. So, this was a walk in the park. So, Miles has his face right there, and he's asking me these questions. I'm answering as fast as I can. We're holding our ground. We're just face to face, toe to toe. And then he goes, “You a musician?” And I said, “No, I'm not.” And he says “That's okay. Some of the best musicians I know aren't musicians.” And he turned around, and that was the end of it. And I never stopped thinking about it. “Some of the best musicians I know aren't musicians.”

Now, I've heard from Marcus Miller and other players who worked with him that he would sometimes tell his musicians to play like non-musicians. He doesn't mean play sloppily. He means think about music the way someone who is untrained would. So, I think what he was trying to say is two things. The best musicians he plays with have a capacity to play like non-musicians, and some non-musician people, like myself, have a capacity of being really musical. It took me a long time, years, before I felt flattered by that remark, but eventually I did. As the years went by and I started recognizing my own musicality and what I brought to record making as a listener, I began to recognize that I do have a deep musicality. It's not expressed as a player. It's expressed as a listener. And that might sound kind of weird, but listening is something that takes learning and love, and can be practiced, and can be improved. That's the reason I wrote the book that I wrote, is to talk about that experience.  

Nicole: I loved reading your book. I thought it was very accessible, yet also informative and filled with lots of great stories like these. And I was really curious about the question that you asked in the beginning of the book about listening to music. And you mentioned that you at the time were working with some of the most talented musicians in the business, but you were asking yourself in private moments if listening to music actually mattered. Can you talk about why you had that question at the time?

Susan: Yeah. I was certainly a qualified engineer, and over the years, I honed my skills to become a very qualified mixer as well. Those are technical positions, and I could push sound around and achieve the sound that I wanted to get. I had developed my own sonic signature, and I was good at it, but once I got into the role of producer, which I did in the early ‘90s, that's a little bit different. And that's when you're there in pre-production and you're going through a song, and the producer has to be even more of an artist and has to make suggestions about how this record should go. “What instruments are we going to use? Is this the right key? Is this the right time signature? Is it the right tempo? Is this the right way to manifest this particular song?” Now, I would hear musicians ask and answer those questions, and they could speak in very technical terms, music theoretic terms about what they should do, and they could pick up their instruments or sit down at a piano and play a certain chord inversion, and they'd say, “Well, what if it did like this?” or “What if we made a change here?” And that's not something I can do with no training. I can't do that. But it got me wondering about “What good am I in the room? What am I actually bringing to the table that needs to be brought here?”

Again, keeping Miles' idea in mind, eventually I realized, “You know what I am in this room? I'm the non-musician. I'm the audience. I'm the listener.” I have been, my whole life, obsessed with record listening, like a lot of people are. We record listeners, often we become music business managers, or we become DJs, or we open a record shop or whatever. We do all kinds of things in the music business. You don't necessarily have to be a musician to be deeply musical. And I realized that I could actually help musicians by offering my opinion: my opinion of what that record sounded like to me, the gestures that they're making, the lyrics that they're singing. What does that say? What does that mean? What kind of a feeling am I getting from this? When are they capturing my attention? When are they turning me off and making me think, “No, no, no. This record is not for me”? That's valuable. It's like being a director on a film. The director isn't acting. The director is watching the action, just like an audience member would, and interpreting on behalf of the actors. “Here's what you're saying with your tone of voice and your body language. Is that what you meant to say? Is that what's going to serve this TV program or this movie?” You need the audience in the room, and that's what a good record producer can do.

Nicole: Yes. I'm curious about the types of feedback you would give as a record producer and how that would be received by the musicians, if there's an example that comes to mind.

Susan: Yeah. I did what I expected them to do at the beginning of a project. You talk about your strengths and weaknesses, you display self-knowledge, and they would tell me what they're good at and what's a struggle for them. One performer might say, “I'm great on rhythm, but don't ask me to solo because I can't solo.” Or someone else might say, “Every lyric I sing needs to be written down. I can't ad lib.” They tell you their strengths and weaknesses so you don't push them into a corner that is just not comfortable for them. And producers have to do the same thing. So, I would tell the folks that I was working with, before we ever sign the contract, usually, unless we sign the contract and hopped right in. I would tell them, “I'll never go to your instrument and pick it up and show you what to play. I can't do that. All I can do is tell you what I, the listener, want to experience, what I want to feel.”

I will always have ideas. Some of them will be good, most of them will probably be bad, but I will always have things for us to try. I will always have suggestions. I'll never just leave you hanging. I won't expect you to do all the work. I'm going to work really hard to keep us inspired and to give us a basketful of ideas that we can draw from to manifest this record. How you play the ideas that I suggest is up to you. If I think the part is right and the sound needs to be changed, well, I'd suggest it. It might be the other way around. You might have the perfect sound, but the part needs to change. I'll always tell you why. I'll always say, “I think we should change this part here because…” so that I'm not just pulling ideas out of the air. I'm imagining how this record is going to work. At the end of the day, this record needs to serve the artist, and it's the artist's call. What we end up ultimately going with has to make the artist feel comfortable. But I am here, think of me in the front seat riding shotgun, holding the map, helping us to navigate toward the direction we said we wanted to go. So, that's what I would do. And the good musicians, and I usually worked with real professionals in my career, they were so good with that. They were so easy with that. They, many, many times, appreciated not being told specifically what to play. They just might be told, “Here's how I want to feel in this section right here.” They were good at that.

Nicole: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for explaining that. And you've been also mentioning you listen and tell them, “This is what it sounds like to me,” which is very much connected to the idea of the listener profile. And I'm curious about the idea of the listener profile and the dimensions of the listener profile that you've explained in your book.

Susan: There are different regions of the brain that respond to lyrics, to melody and harmony, to rhythm, to sounds. That’s timbre. And I learned from some other research I did that there are regions of the brain, they're usually more spread out, but they respond to the things that we like, which could be novelty, or sometimes we like innovation, and sometimes we like something familiar. Or it could be the perception that someone is being very genuine in their performance, that they're performing from their heart, or that someone is performing from a place of technical mastery and brilliance. We have all these preferences. And the last one, the last aesthetic preference is the one on realism versus abstraction. My co-author and I did some research on what people picture in their mind's eye when they're listening to music for pleasure, their favorite music. I assumed, before I did this research, everybody saw the same thing that I see. It was foolish of me, but this is what I assumed. What I see is I picture the artists. I think I was born to be a record maker ever since I was a little kid. I pictured the artists performing, first on stage. But then after I got familiar with recording studios, I picture them in the studio. I always do. That's my go-to visual fantasy. Now, my co-author could not be more different from me in his taste in music. He doesn't want to see people in his mind's eye at all. He wants to picture abstract shapes and colors. He wants to picture other worlds, science fiction worlds and fantasy things. If he can picture people, it kind of ruins it for him.

So, we were both looking at each other, going, “God, that's weird.” So we decided, “Let's just ask people what they picture in their mind's eye.” And it turns out most people, when they listen to music for pleasure, prefer to have the fantasy of autobiographical memory. They prefer to see themselves and the people and the places that they know. That song will remind them of things that they love, and that gives them a pleasant feeling of nostalgia. A great number of people, about one in five, like to invent a story based on the lyrics. Other people might see mountains or cities or the beach, things like that. So, we're all slightly different. Some of us will visualize performing the music. I try to do that, but I can't hang onto that fantasy very long. And what served as a model for me was Eric Kandel's book on the beholder’s share. In his book, he writes about what the person's brain is doing when they're appreciating a work of art that they really, really love and how their brain lights up in a unique way.

Nicole: Yeah, that is fascinating. And this idea of thinking about the listener profile, you mentioned that you and Ogi have very different tastes in music, but you also have different tastes in a lot of different music, a lot of different types. Can you talk about that? Like when you go to a party and you ask, “What type of music do you listen to?” and people always say, “Oh, I listen to all different types of music.”

Susan: Right. Yeah. Coming up with this model, pulling it together for this book, helped me to answer a question I've always been curious about, because, just like you said, when you ask people, “What kind of music do you like?” they nearly always say, “Oh, I have really eclectic taste. I like a variety of music.” Well, now I realize, “Of course you do.” Some of the records in your collection are going to be chosen for their style, maybe their degree of innovation or their degree of familiarity. Some of the records in your profile will be chosen for things like their sound design. You may love a certain kind of drum sound or a certain distorted guitar. You might choose records in your music library for the lyrics or for their melodies (I know I do), for their rhythm, for their groove. When it comes to your listener profile, no record (I believe this) will ever match all seven sweet spots on the seven dimensions in your profile. I don't see how that's possible. But it doesn't have to because records are sometimes geared to focus on just one dimension and to get it perfect.

Bob Dylan records, for example, it's all about the lyrics. He won the Nobel Prize in literature for his lyric writing. You don't need a funky drummer. You don't need a complicated sound design. You don't need an innovative style. All you need is Bob singing those lyrics. And for the billions of Bob Dylan fans out there, they're not listening for melody. They're not listening to dance. They're listening for those lyrics. I'm a big fan of Bob Dylan. When I listen to Frank Sinatra, however, I am just going to revel in his melodic phrasing. Oh, what a maestro. When I listen to Ella Fitzgerald, as I did the other day, Ella is a master and I'm going to listen for technical perfection because no one could do it quite like Ella. If I put on an Eddie Palmieri record or a James Brown record, it's because I want that rhythm. I want that groove. So, we're going to have a variety of music in our music libraries because each one is going to scratch a slightly different kind of itch.

Nicole: Yeah. That is fascinating, and that makes a lot of sense why it's hard to pinpoint a particular style that you like. And I am curious about while you were writing the book with Ogi, you're writing a book about music with someone who has completely different taste in music that you have. How did you think about that while you were writing the book?

Susan: That ended up being so advantageous. One thing I made clear to Ogi and our editor from the very beginning is this cannot be a book about my taste in music. That would not be interesting to anybody. I'm going to have lots of musical examples in there, and in order to talk about them and write about them, I have to at least have some connection to that record on some level, so that I can get into it, get my head into it, listen to it deeply and describe it. But it is not at all a book about my taste in music. So, it was really useful that Ogi had completely different taste in music. Some of the things that he was interested in, like Daft Punk and some other artists that he mentioned in this record. Rammstein, I think, is someone. I think they're from Germany. Or some others he mentioned that I've never listened to, but that was when he would take the microphone and he would write about here's why he likes those records. For the most part, I tried to mix it up and present a lot of different styles of music with the hope that somebody would recognize themselves in this book at least once in one description.

Nicole: Yeah, I really loved the variety of songs and records that you and Ogi incorporated. And I really felt like it was an experience of exploring new music, but also finding the songs that, yes, I've listened to that song, and it was great to hear how it was described by you and Ogi. So, I really love the collection and variety.

Susan: Thank you.

Nicole: Yeah. And you make this point about the act of passively listening and actively listening to music. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that has shaped the arc of your career as well?

Susan: So, I grew up in that generation where the music that we listened to was either on the radio or it was on vinyl. So, you could put on the radio at home and you could go on about your business with music playing in the background. That's passive listening because you're not focused on music listening as an act in and of itself. It's just an accompaniment to other work you're doing. But when you listen to a record, it was customary to put that record on and, believe it or not, sit and listen to it. So, active listening is when you put a record on and you pay attention to it. The listening is what you're actually doing. That's the activity. So, kids would go to each other's houses to listen to records. You'd go to your friend's house to listen to records. And they'd put records on, and you'd sit in front of the speakers, and you'd look at the album cover art, and you'd talk about these records. That's active listening. You paid attention to the record that you were listening to. With the invention of the Sony Walkman, we now had the capacity to have music with us when we were outdoors, in a park, let's say, while we were, well, anywhere. You didn't have to go to your friend's house to listen to music because you could have music right there in your pocket. We now, of course, live in an age where we always have music with us because we always have our phones with us. That means that we're doing an awful lot more passive listening than we used to do in the past.

Nicole: Yes. And how do you think about, in terms of advising musicians or when you’re working with your students, thinking about the idea that there's a lot more passive listeners today?

Susan: That's a good question. So, the students that I teach at Berklee are, for the most part, people who are on the path to becoming record makers: producers or engineers in some cases, mixers in other cases, and artists in other cases. So, they need to be very concerned with the listener experience because they have to capture the listener's ear. They have to consider how their music functions out there in the world. Now, some of our music really is designed for active listening, songs with brilliant lyrics, shall we say, a lot of innovation, maybe complicated chord changes, things like that. Certain styles of music reward the active listeners actually paying attention. Increasingly, the majority of music rewards the listener who can put it on in the background. Now, if you're going to put music on in the background, it has to do the opposite of grabbing your attention. It has to not be so dynamic, so it has to be kind of uniform and level. You can't be hiding your light under a bushel basket. You can't have brilliant lyrics that need to be listened to in order to be appreciated. Often, you want to use a lot of repetition and have just a cute little pop hook going on so that people will want to play that again, so that they don't have to invest cognitive energy into processing it. This is why pop music today features a lot more repetition than it used to in the old days. It's astonishing to me how sometimes they'll take one phrase and they'll just say it over and over and over again, but that's to reward the person who's got ear buds in and is maybe at the gym or, I don't know, playing a video game or something, or even doing their homework. That passive listening requires different performance gestures to stick in your brain.

Nicole: And that also brings me to the idea of the Triple Crown, an idea that I thought was so interesting, about how a musician can think about garnering: first, fame from the critics; second, love from the public; or third, respect from musicians. I'm thinking about that cognitive energy and the idea of how dynamic a musician is deciding to make a song or a record producer is deciding how to change a song. And the idea of the Triple Crown, and some musicians can achieve all three, but that's very hard to do.

Susan: Right.

Nicole: Do musicians think about that? In your work with musicians, do they think about that? You mentioned that Prince was able to achieve the Triple Crown. And how do you see that ideal playing out in musicians’ lives?

Susan: Prince was smart enough to figure it out. The really smart musicians, I think, do figure it out. They're very savvy. So, it's really the producer's job. Sometimes it's the A&R, the record label's job. But these days, increasingly, it's the producer's job to talk with the artist about how you want your record to function out there in the world. Who is this record designed for? Who's your ideal listener? Male, female, young, old, college student maybe, teenager, middle-aged person, older person? Who is your target audience? You should always think about that. And we tend to think of… When we think of audiences, we think of the general public. But we forget there are two other audiences that are very, very important for musical works, one being the critics and scholars, and the other being other musicians.

So, the critics and scholars are listening to records with an ear for the arc of history and the arc of the progress of art, musical art. So, they'll be the first ones to say, “We so do not need to go there,” if they hear a record that just seems to be going in the wrong direction. And they'll be the first ones to say, “Everybody, we should be listening to this because this band is brilliant. This artist is brilliant. This artist has set the bar. That's what we should be imitating.” So, the critics and music scholars are an important audience. Other musicians are an important audience because very, very often, a great many musicians only want to please their peers. They've given up on the notion of making pop records. They're not interested in the general public. They want their peers to say, “Damn, that is the finest guitar player on the planet,” or “This is the smartest songwriter,” or the greatest drummer, whatever. So, there are musicians’ musicians who deliberately target other musicians, and they're beloved by a much smaller audience.

So, when we're making a record, we do have to talk about “What are we trying to achieve?” because the songs we choose, the way we perform them, the way we arrange them, it's going to be different depending on what sort of rewards we hope to get once that record is released out there in the public. As you mentioned, the public, if they like what we do, they give you the reward of love. They'll stream your record, they'll go to your concert, they'll wear your T-shirt, they'll follow you on Instagram or whatever. They give you love. Musicians will give you respect. They'll talk about you to other musicians. And you should see, when there's a musician's musician performing at the Berklee Performance Center, our students line up around the block. They are so deeply interested in artists like Snarky Puppy, who are musicians’ musicians.

And if you're appealing to critics and scholars, they're going to give you the reward of fame because they're going to write about you. That was something that Prince figured out pretty early on for his third album, for “Dirty Mind.” On “Dirty Mind,” he made the bold move to deliberately turn his back and alienate the R&B audience that was just starting to discover him. He made a record that they would find offensive. Why would you do something like that? Because he wanted to make a record that the critics would love. And that's what happened. The critics wrote about him. Critics in the big cities, New York and L.A. and London and Paris and Berlin, they said he's the Second Coming. Once he had picked up that audience, on his next album, “Controversy,” he picked up other musicians. On the next album, he had his first crossover single. He picked up the general public. And on his sixth album, he hit that bull’s eye, that small area of overlap in the center of that Venn diagram that we can call the Triple Crown. And “Purple Rain,” his sixth album, was a huge hit with all audiences. That was very strategic. I don't think most musicians think about it, but the people who are responsible for selling records and making careers, like record producers and A&R people, should be thinking about that.

Nicole: Yeah, that is really fascinating, the amount of strategy that a listener may not realize. And I'm curious about if you as a record producer think about a strategy behind producing a single versus producing an album.

Susan: Yeah, that's a very good question. And you definitely do. So, when it's time to do an album, you'll gather all your material and you'll just have a listen to all of it, and you select the songs that you think will make the best full length album experience. Other songs might be really, really good, but if they don't fit in very well, you'll leave them off the table and maybe you'll include them on the next record. So, first, you get the big picture going on and a general sense of what this album is going to be about. And then, after you've done that, you kind of have to discover whether or not there's a single on it. It's really hard. If you make pop music, of course, it should be mostly singles. But if you don't make pop music, you have to try to make at least one of these songs as pop-ish as you can to try to get some radio play. Now, if you should have an exceptional song, it's very, very beautiful. It doesn't have to be pop. It can be a successful single. The other day in a store, I heard John Legend singing “All of Me.” That was a hugely successful single. It was the first time that a ballad had appeared as a top 10 single in years and years and years. It just was an exceptional song, and so it did function as a single. Singles are really hard to do. That's where the competition is the greatest. When I did Barenaked Ladies’ “Stunt” album, we knew that “One Week” was going to be a strong single, just because it was catchy and it was fun to sing. We knew it would do well.

Nicole: And thinking about “One Week” and the idea of trying to make it a single, what elements were you trying to manipulate or change as a record producer to make it more possible that it would be a single, in terms of catchiness and that sort of thing?

Susan: Oh, it was so much fun. So, it's kind of known in the music business that if little kids like your song or your record, you're golden because little kids don't have an agenda. They don't know who's hip and who isn't. If they like it, it's because it's catchy and it's fun. And as soon as I heard “Chickity China, the Chinese chicken. You have a drumstick and your brain stop tickin’…” it just sounded like the kind of fun thing that kids would want to sing if they were on the schoolyard. So, we definitely wanted to showcase that rap. It was really important that we not pretend to be rappers. I mean, these are five white guys from Toronto. They're not hip-hop artists, so we certainly couldn't use a hip-hop drumbeat or anything like that. That would've been just… That would've not been cool. What we had to do is stay in our lane, do alternative indie, start this song on acoustic guitar, have a very straight rock beat, and keep those rock elements, including distorted electric guitar, while showcasing the playfulness of it, of that rap. “Watching X-Files with no lights on. We're dans la maison. I hope the Smoking man's in this one.” It is just so wonderful, and the guys were great performers, and we lucked out. It was number one for, I think, a number of weeks. It was a number one album and a number one single.

Nicole: Yeah, I remember listening to that song growing up, and just the lightheartedness of it, and how funny it was. That song really helped you change your career as well. You went back to school after that song was produced.

Susan: Yeah.

Nicole: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Susan: So, at this point, when that record came out, I guess I was 42 years old. And at this point in my life, I had really been thinking about the natural world. I started fantasizing about the life of a scientist. And the more I thought about it, over a period of years, the more I knew I really wanted to make that happen. So, when we had that hit record with Barenaked Ladies in the ‘90s, when people would go to the store and buy CDs, producers would get a big royalty check from that. And by big royalty check, I mean six figures. And then six months later, if that record was still doing well, you'd get another six-figure check. So, you did all right back in those days before file sharing. With the money that I made from that album, I was able to leave the music business behind. I entered college as a freshman, did eight straight years specializing in psychology and neuroscience. Eight straight years, four as an undergrad and then four in a PhD program at McGill University in Montreal. Came back to the States in 2008 with my PhD to teach at Berklee College of Music. And it was the right move for me. Right around 2000 is when the music industry started to collapse from file sharing. So, it turns out I was kind of prescient. I got out at a time when it was kind of smart to get out.

Nicole: Wow. Yeah. In the age of file sharing and in the age of certain technological advancements, I'm curious about how you would think about it now, or how you would advise your students.

Susan: It's hard for me to think of being a participant actively in the music business now. Lots of great record producers produce in their 60s and their 70s, but not for me. I really, truly love the sciences so much. And I love record production too, but there's nothing I'd rather do than pursue the sciences. What I love is instructing young record makers and helping them find their own way in the music business, just like I was guided and tutored and I found my way in the music business. So, it's really nice seeing them succeed. It's nice seeing them get a chance to work in this business. It is very different for them. Some of the stories they tell me just are mind-boggling to me. For example, one of my students who's down in Miami gets a lot of work from record labels who ask him to mix a song and make it one minute long. Just mix a one-minute excerpt of this song. I can't believe that somebody would pay for that, but it's for TikTok. They want these little pieces to put on TikTok. Okay. It sounds very uninspiring to me. I would have a hard time figuring out how I could put my own artistry into that. I simply don't get it. And that's as it should be. I'm too old to get it. I had my generation. You guys have yours. And the rules have changed, so, yeah, I don't need to try to figure it out. I got another thing going on.

Nicole: Yeah. I'm curious about going back to school later in life. What was that like for you, and your experience going to college and then doing a PhD?

Susan: Well, I was really apprehensive. I didn't know if the teachers would like having an older student. I didn't know if other students would want to sit next to me. I didn't know what it would be like. And mostly, I didn't know if I could learn in my 40s. I thought, “What if I can't do this? These are going to be 18-, 19-year-old freshmen. What if I can't keep up?” And all my fears were completely unfounded. The teachers really like having an older student. Other kids did like me. They invited me to sit in their study groups and things like that, and they would ask questions, life advice questions. And that was nice. I made some friends there, and I was able to learn. I did quite well. I had a high GPA. And I absolutely loved it, loved it, loved it. When I got to grad school, really hard work, but I still really loved it because I didn't have the distractions that young people have. I wasn't dating. I wasn't worried about having a social life. Why would I do that? I'm in my 40s, so I don't care about those things. So, I loved that I could just focus on my studies and didn't have to think about anything else. Being in your 20s, it's kind of rough. It's really rough. You're still trying to figure out your place in the world. But in your 40s, you got that figured out pretty well. So, yeah, it was great. A great, great experience.

Nicole: Yes. I feel like you have such a resourcefulness about yourself and a creativeness about how you approach your path. And I'm curious about the idea that you started out as self-taught, right? And did you ever think about, while you were in the music business, going back to school? Or how did you manage being self-taught as well?

Susan: Yeah. I never would have thought that college would be in the cards for me. My family didn't have a lot of money. No one in my family went to college. My boyfriend at the time, we were coming up together, he was the same thing. He came from a smart family, but people who are pretty…not poor, but lower middle class. College is just not an option. And his name was John. And he used to say to me, “Well, you know,” he'd say, “we can't afford to go to college like other kids can, but we can afford the textbooks.” He was so right. So, we could go to college bookstores and technical bookstores and buy the same books that kids in college were studying. We were self-motivated. We were learning these topics because we loved it. John became an electronic design engineer and inventor, a very advanced technology. And I became a basic audio electronics technician, but all being self-taught and studying for the absolute joy and love of it. When you discover that you're that kind of thinker, well, it's rather comforting because you recognize that you’re going to have a good time your whole life. So, let's say you're into sports or dance or something like that. If you love football, if you love motocross, at some point, pretty early, your body is going to give out, and riding dirt bikes, it's going to be a lot harder for you. But if you love studying, you're good to go. You got the whole rest of your life to study, as long as your eyes hold out. And even if they don't, you can get books on tape. So, yeah, it's a lifelong passion. 

Nicole: You have seen a lot of advancements in technology in the music industry, and you talk about the introduction of the DA, the digital audio workstation, like Ableton and that sort of thing. Can you talk about how you felt at the time of the introduction of these digital audio workstations and how you navigated these technological advancements?

Susan: Oh, yeah. The DAW came along just as I was leaving the business, and I'm so damn glad that that timing worked out. The work that I used to do in the ‘80s and ‘90s on analog tape meant that you were pretty much limited to 24 tracks. You could use 48 tracks if you tied two tape machines together, but you had a limited number of tracks, which constrained your musical arrangements. When you wanted to mix, whether it was a rough mix or a final mix, you put your fingers on the faders, you pushed things up and down, and you pushed sound around to get it to be what you wanted. You had to learn some really exceptional skills to learn how to mic different musical instruments and make them sound the way you wanted them to sound. But when the DAW came along, a lot of those talents became obsolete. You had sample libraries, so any instrument you wanted would be right there at your fingertips and would sound great. Software synth for piano or Minimoog or any number of things.

But the biggest change was the tactile portion of it. So, you're not putting your fingers on the faders on a console anymore. You've got your hand on a mouse and you're just clicking one step at a time. My friend Tommy, great musician, said of working with DAWs, he said it's like kneading dough with one finger, and it's somebody else's finger. We used to just grab things with our whole hands and push stuff around, and now it's just ding, ding, ding, ding, ding with the mouse. Also, there's the sound of analog tape. It's not at all flat. You have to really work to get tape to sound good. But we engineers of that earlier era, we had perfected that skill, and that skill became instantly obsolete when the DAW came along. So, the folks who stayed in the business had to learn a new engineering style to compensate for losing out on tape. I'm so glad I worked when I did. I loved analog tape. I love that era, and I don't have the same excitement for the DAW that I had for the analog era.

Nicole: Yeah. I am thinking a little bit about looking forward and looking to the future and how the DAW, you also talk about how it really ushered in the democratization of music and ushered in this idea of the musicians that can come through can be more visionary rather than having particular access to particular tools, for example. Can you talk a little bit about that and what you consider visionary in terms of music making today?

Susan: Yeah. So, in my day, very few people actually saw the inside of a recording studio. They were very private places. They usually existed in the big cities. You didn't see them out in small little towns. In order to get into a studio, to be able to afford one, you pretty much had to have a record deal or you had to save your personal money because they were expensive. They were $300, $400, $500 an hour. $2500 a day, $3000 a day was not out of the question. So, for those of us who worked in the recording studio, we were in this hermetically sealed bubble. We had to walk in really well-rehearsed, well-prepared. Studio time was so expensive. We couldn't screw around. I mean, people did, of course. If they had these huge record budgets, they would do all sorts of stuff, drugs and… The myths of sex, drugs, and rock and roll are not unfounded. So, there was a lot of that. I didn't see it, but I knew it was around. So, yeah, in the old days, studio sessions went a little differently, but people were signed to these big record deals and they had a big, big budget, a lot of money to make a record. When DAWs came along, people can record on their phones, they can record on their laptops, and they have a studio essentially in their laptops or their iPads. So, that means it's not a rare place anymore, and that means that anybody with good ideas can compete in this marketplace. So, the doors are all open. It's open to everyone's ideas. You don't have to be signed to a record deal. You don't have to have a lot of money. That's how you get people like Lil Nas X and others who make records at home in their basements, and those records are competitively viable if they're good enough.

Nicole: Yeah. That's fascinating.  It's also just interesting to see it being played out in other industries, like how we're having a conversation about in arts, like generated AI art and the idea of skills becoming obsolete. But then also, what it does is it opens up new access for different people to create different things.

Susan: Yeah, that's very true.

Nicole: I really appreciate you chatting with me today, and I found our conversation so fascinating. And I really am such a huge fan of your work. Where can we find you?

Susan: What I'd like is for people to go to There's a link up at the top to the record poll, and if they've got a record that they like, that they want to share, just a record that they love, love, love, put it in the record poll. People on the record poll have turned me on to some of my favorite new artists, just because they write about records I've never heard of, but I listen to them when they write about it, and then I get very excited about that. So, yeah, go to Let me hear from you.

Nicole: Absolutely. And we'll put that in the show notes. And thank you so much for your time today, Susan. It was so great to talk with you.

Susan: You're very welcome.

Nicole: Thank you so much for tuning in today. I so appreciate your time, and I really hope you enjoyed the show. And if you did enjoy this conversation, I would definitely recommend checking out Susan's book, “This Is What It Sounds Like.” I found the experience of reading Susan's book to be such a unique and interactive experience, because there are a lot of songs that are listed in the book and there's also a Spotify playlist. And if you have the playlist alongside you while you're reading the book, it makes for a really cool experience because you can read about the insights and nuances of the particular songs in real time. And also, the songs are listed on their website. And there's also the record poll that Susan talked about at the very end of the show. And as always, everything is in the show notes. And thank you for listening. You can check out the podcast on or on Instagram at @multitudes.podcast. And if you'd like to support the show, you can leave a review, star or written. You can connect with me on Instagram and continue to follow and share with your friends. Thank you so much, and I'll see you next time.