audio technician + recording engineer + mixing engineer + producer + scientist + professor, Berklee College of Music
You need to be courageous enough to be competitive but wise enough to recognize when you fell short. You have to be a dreamer but you can’t be delusional. You have to be confident as you’re building your competence.
March 8, 2018
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Maggie Negrete
You started as an audio tech and established your foundational knowledge through electronics manuals sent to you by the U.S. Army?
Could you speak a little bit about those early days? About starting out and teaching yourself electronics?
The story started before I decided to get into the music business. It was just as I was turning 22 and I had a really sweet boyfriend at the time. His name is John Cichetti. John was an electronics...I wanna say...genius...and I don’t use that word lightly. John was really smart and really gifted and genuinely loved electronics and John’s electronics textbook was from the U.S. Army. It said right on it U.S. Army Electronics Training Manual. He said, “Write to them! Tell them you want their electronics manuals. Tell them you’re gonna join the army when you get out of school and ask them if they’ll send you the books in advance.” I said, “John, I’m 22! I’ve been out of school for quite a few years.” He goes, “Just lie! Tell them you’re 16 and in high school.” So I picked up the phone and called the local army recruiting office and I ended up sending an envelope with $1.75 postage asking for the manuals and they sent them to me. Sure enough a big cardboard box arrived. I got all of their volumes from basic DC principles all the way up to microwave technology. This was in 1978. I still have those. They have big pictures in them. It looked like baby’s first primer for electronics. It was perfect for me because it was geared for the entry level person who needed to learn a trade, learn a skill. So it was different from your classic textbook. It was less dry, frankly. It was accessible and I learned electronics from studying those books.
In those early days as an audio tech, what exactly were you doing? And where were you?
I was in Hollywood. I had moved from where I grew up, which was Anaheim, California, just about 40 miles into Hollywood. I had a roommate and I was looking for a job. I saw an ad in the back of the L.A. Times that said “Help wanted! Audio trainee needed.” That was a perfect description of what I was. The company was called Audio Industries Corporation. They were right in Hollywood across from A&M Studios. They sold and serviced MCI consoles and tape machines. I took the interview and they saw I was just green as could be. I was brand new but they liked my enthusiasm and they liked my ambition. I clearly was into it and I really wanted to learn so they took me on. It was a small group of folks, maybe 15 employees total, if that. They first taught me soldering techniques. I was one of about three of four technicians. They got me wiring and soldering and helping out on the studio installations and then they taught me repair techniques. So they were doing some of the work of teaching me by day but I was working my tail off at night, studying electronics and taking home the MCI console and tape machine manuals and just pouring over them and working so hard to be a technician. I learned quickly and before too long I was going out on service calls all on my own diagnosing and repairing tape machines and consoles. Looking back on it—gosh, I just got so lucky. It was such a great education.
How long were you a full-time tech?
I think I was with them about two years. Maybe two-and-a-half. One of the places where I did service calls frequently because their stuff was always breaking down was a studio up the street called Rudy Records. It was owned by Graham Nash and David Crosby and I think Stephen Stills was part of the partnership, as well. It was a one room studio where Crosby Stills and Nash worked and some of the other folks who were part of that kind of West Coast crew that included people like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. Members of the Eagles. Their equipment was breaking down frequently and they asked me to come work for them full-time and eventually I said yes. So that was how I started to move up the ladder. Now I’m working at Rudy Records and I get to see sessions and occasionally be the assistant engineer on sessions. In a one-room schoolhouse like that, there’s just one assistant engineer but if he’s busy working with CSN elsewhere, I’m the only one who’s available who can assist. I was the only technician. I kept the studio running. That gave me additional insight and preparation for my dream job, which was the next place I went, to work for Prince.
How did that relationship begin?
Prince was unhappy with his then-technician, who was a local Minnesota guy. He knew audio basically but didn’t know the pro audio industry, which is much more involved. Prince was just coming off the 1999 tour. He had started recording for Purple Rain. He was planning a movie. All these things were in the works to increase his operation by an order of magnitude. So he told his management, “Find me a technician. I’ve gotta get rid of this guy that I’ve got going on for me right now. Make it somebody from New York or L.A. I need somebody who’s really good.” Prince’s management was in Los Angeles. They contacted Westlake Audio and asked them, “Do you have anybody? Can you help us find a tech? We need to send somebody out to Prince right away.” It so happened that the boyfriend, John, by now an ex-boyfriend but still a very close friend, was the head tech at Westlake Audio. He called me up and with his thick Boston accent said “Sue! Your dream job is waitin’ for ya! Prince is lookin’ for a technician! Call Glenn [Phoenix] at Westlake and tell him you want that job!” I’ll never forget that phone call. I was so excited. John knew I was such a huge Prince fan. I contacted Westlake right away. I knew Glenn, the president of Westlake. He interviewed me. Basically, he’s asking me “You know, you’re gonna be all alone out there? You go out to Minnesota, it’s not like you’re gonna have Pacific Coast Electronics right across the street. You’re not gonna have other technicians to consult at three o’clock in the morning. It’s just you. This guy is soon to be a major artist. Can you handle it?” I said, “Oh hell yeah! Of course I can handle it! Gimme that job!”
As a young person you have to walk that nice edge between sanity and insanity. You have to be sane enough to know the limits of your abilities but you have to be insane enough to push them. I was just right there on that precipice. I knew that this was a big deal and I would have scared myself out of it if I had thought about just how big of a deal it was. I stumbled right ahead and took the gig. When they sent me out to Minnesota, one of the first things I did was a week or so worth of tech work. Prince needed an old console taken out of his home studio and a new console put in. He needed equipment repaired. And then after it was all up and running, he just kind of expected me to sit in the chair and do the recording. It dawned on me pretty quickly, “This guy doesn’t know that I’m not an engineer.” I thought, “Let’s just keep that secret then, shall we?” because that was exactly what I wanted to be doing. He realized it eventually but there was a little dip in the curve there for a minute where he realized, “She doesn’t have as much experience recording.” I didn’t! But I knew the equipment like the back of my hand and I could be with Prince, I could be up for 24 hours a day and if anything went wrong at two or three or four in the morning, I got it. I don’t have to call a tech. I don’t have to call anybody else. I had tireless energy and devotion to him. He liked working with women. All the music he listened to growing up—that was my music. I had that going for me. That was the music I listened to also. So we had a lot in common.
I didn’t realize until recently that everyone in this project was so young. He was 24 years old when Purple Rain was in the works?
It’s astonishing. When you listen to the Purple Rain record—that came out in ‘84 when he was 25 and he was recording it when he was 24 and 25 years old. It’s a work of incredible genius and it’s stunning to recognize that that was his sixth album. He was signed when he was 18 or 19 years old, and he put out a record every year. He was so prolific. Not only did he put out his own records, he put out records by other artists like The Time and Vanity 6 and Sheila E. He was just on fire.
And another word that I associate with him is “virtuosic.”
If he had just been a vocalist, he’d be considered one of the great rock and soul singers of his time. The fact that he sang the way he did, wrote the way he did, played the way he did on more than one instrument was really unprecedented. And he ran a good business. He was successful. He was never involved in scandal. It’s not like he was prone to wild, drunken debaucheries. He didn’t end up in jail or with a rap sheet. He didn’t do any of those things. He was a good, clean-living person. It’s a deeply painful irony that his cause of death is listed as a drug overdose, because he didn’t take recreational drugs. As I understand it, at the end of his life he was in so much terrible physical pain with his hips that he was taking pain medication and, being a small person, his body was just so fragile and he built up a tolerance for it to where he was just taking these huge amounts just so he could get through the day. He never did want anyone to know that he suffered. When we were on the Purple Rain tour, he would never cancel a show. Never, never, never. He felt this strong obligation to give people what they paid for. He’d go on stage with a cold or the flu. He worked so hard because he didn’t want to show any weakness. He was incredible.
What was the studio situation like when you were working with him? Was he operating under the name Paisley Park?
He had dreams of Paisley Park when I first joined him but those dreams didn’t come into a reality—they didn’t open the doors of the facility—until 1987. So for the vast majority, 98%, of the time when I worked for him, when we were working at home in Minnesota, we didn’t have a facility. What we had was either a home studio—he always had a spare bedroom where he set up a recording console and that’s where we worked—and the other alternative was to work at rehearsal. Rehearsal was in a warehouse—several different warehouses during the time I was with him. I think one was a former tire factory. So there would be a large, open space with really high ceilings. No finished walls or things like that. The band would be set up, the risers would be set up at one part of the room and then the mics from their rehearsal, just cheap dynamic mics, would feed a splitter snake, which would feed a monitor mix console and feed a recording console so that we could record at rehearsal. So the signal path was really suboptimal. He didn’t care. I had a tape machine just sitting right there next to the recording console and big Westlake monitors in enclosures—these things were designed to be built into the wall of a studio facility but they put them in enclosures for us. We had the big Crown amplifiers and the four-way crossovers and everything right out there in the middle of the floor in this warehouse. So he’d write a song at rehearsal, we’d record it on tape and then he and I would either stay and finish it up, do the overdubs, or we’d just grab the tape and take it back to his house which was just up the road.
Did it take time to get used to working with him? I mean, it seems that you two had so much in common and were a really magical pair but to work with an artist that seemed to have very specific ways of working and worked very long hours—did that take getting used to?
It did. It took me a while to understand what he wanted and what he needed and what he liked. It took me a minute to understand who I was to him. I remember an awkward, embarrassing early attempt at trying to dress a little better. I was not interested in fashion in the slightest but at some point early on, a month or two into my employ, I thought, “I work for Prince! Maybe I should look kinda cool or something?” So I go down to Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and tell the sales girl, “I work for Prince now! Can you hook me up?” She sold me the stupidest clothes. Shit that I would never wear. Ugly crap from the ‘80s. I wore it for a week or two and realized I felt ridiculous. I ended up going back to jeans and sweatshirts and that kinda stuff. But I joined him in August of ‘83. By November we were starting to see, “Oh okay! You like when I do this and I like when you do that.” We were starting to get the sense of it and by spring we were totally there. We had a working relationship that was doable. The staying up at all hours—that was not a problem because I was so excited to be working for him that honestly, it was a privilege and a joy. That I could do. I was really afraid of letting him down and messing it up so I worked really, really hard to do it right.
So you spent ‘83 to ‘88 with him?
I left Minnesota in ‘88 and I left him in late ‘87.
And where did you go from there?
Well, out of the frying pan into the fire. The first job I had after that, to my delight, was a record with the Jackson family, 2300 Jackson Street. They brought me in the spring of ‘88 out to Los Angeles to do some recording with them. It was so delightful and interesting to hear their stories about what it was like for them being young kids at Motown and to hear how they—Michael especially—achieved the same pinnacle that Prince did at the very top of the pop charts in the ‘80s. But those two guys achieved that through two completely different routes. Michael was a product of the system, a product of Motown, a product of a lot of grooming, like a racehorse almost. Prince was the opposite. Prince was like Seabiscuit. He was the product of simple, good ol’ fashioned, grassroots, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, homegrown talent and homegrown luck, too. They were the opposite but they arrived at the same place so we swapped a lot of stories. I was immersed in their world for about three months, staying at the family compound on Hayvenhurst in Encino. Michael was on tour at that time. I think it was the Bad tour. Neverland Ranch was just being built so he technically still lived at home and his animals were still outside, llamas and the deer and the exotic birds and all that. That was pretty great. They were really good people. They treated me well. So that’s the first thing I did. Then I relocated back to L.A. and for the next 12 years was an independent engineer and mixer and record producer.
I read that in 2000, you left engineering entirely and went to school?
What prompted that?
I began to get that nagging and persistent awareness that I was starting to lose interest in the style of records I was making. In my 40s I realized that my taste was changing and I wasn’t as interested in alternative indie as I had been. I wasn’t as interested in music that gets played on college radio, which is mostly what I was working on and why should I be? I was getting a greater appetite for jazz and bebop and was really enjoying that. I began to see the handwriting on the wall and I knew that this feeling was going to get stronger and it wasn’t going to go away. I was listening to my belly button and feeling “What would be good right now? What would be good?” It had been evident to me since I was in my 30s that I thought I would really enjoy the work of a scientist, that I would like exploring questions of nature, that I would enjoy being in a laboratory and doing research. All I really needed was enough money to make that a reality and then that happened. I had a hit record with Barenaked Ladies in the late ‘90s. That meant that financially, I could leave the music business, enter college as a freshman, do eight straight years, earn a PhD and start a new life. I did it in one sweep and really enjoyed it a lot. I had so much fun being on input; I had been on output for all these years. When you’re a producer, an engineer, a record-maker, in the technical end of it, it’s a service-oriented profession. Your job is to make people’s visions come to life, to build the record that they describe. That’s what engineers do. Producers help guide that. I enjoyed doing that. But in a way, I was ready for my own record. I was ready for my own vision, my own original thinking, my own creativity—real de nouveau—from the new creativity. I discovered the opportunity to do that in becoming a scientist. I love it so much. Fortunately for me, I got hired at Berklee [College of Music] after I earned my degree. Now I teach in two departments. I teach music production and engineering, but in the department of liberal arts I teach music cognition and psychoacoustics. I’ve got a foot in both camps right now.
How do you feel these two distinct focuses inform each other?
I think of it this way: It’s the exact same sort of phenomenon but pursued in two opposite directions. For example, in the humanities, in the arts, we start with what it means to be a human being and we take that black hole of energy and we explode that into countless numbers of individual expressions of what it means to be human—a record, a book, a movie, a TV program, a poem, whatever. In the arts, we go from humanity to individual expression. In the sciences, we go from our individual thinking back toward what is true about nature. So I realize that I’m traversing the same road, I’m just walking in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to make a record that’s never been heard before, I’m trying to explore the truth of—I don’t know—whatever the question is. The truth of what a human brain is doing when it processes music or the truth about how exposure to noise causes degradation in the auditory path. That kind of thing. The truth about how playing a musical instrument changes the auditory processing ability so, we as know now, musicians have a higher acuity of processing sounds than non-musicians. All those questions are interesting. So you start with your creativity and work your way backwards towards what is objectively true. This is so cool at Berklee because I can be talking with the students about brain science and music perception, music and emotion, music and personality, music and development. All sorts of things. And I can say, “Here—I’ve just taught you how this works. Here’s how you can use this information in your artistic lives,” whether they’re engineers, sound designers, film scorers, music educators, music therapists. Likewise, in the production classes I can say, “Okay producers—here’s what we know from the world of psychology.” There’s a really nice discourse that goes back and forth between those two communities. If each camp knew what the other knew, it would flesh them out a little bit better. It’s not gonna teach the students how to make a hit record. It’s not gonna teach scientists to ignore certain things. Each one will always be separate and distinct but they can definitely inform each other.
That’s fascinating. Speaking of students, I want to know what advice you have for someone who is looking to take that first step and get started in the studio or in any area of sound, like when you were reading those electronics manuals and moving through a self-guided study?
There are so many things to say to young women. The first and most important arrow in your quiver needs to be the love of it. You have to do this because you love it. The obstacles will be great for everyone but there’s one particular obstacle that is especially looming for young women that isn’t for young men and that’s the biological one, that women take longer to reproduce than men do. That’s a tough one. Young women are going to have to be prepared for that because that day’s coming, when they may want to have children and they may have difficulty reconciling careers with childbearing. Bear that kind of stuff in mind. Love this enough that you can keep going and find your way over or around or under or through these obstacles. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is to recognize that it’s competitive. The other arrow to have in your quiver is that you have to really kinda like competition. You have to say, “Bring it!” You have to be willing to go head-to-head with just about anybody. That means you need hubris, great hubris. You need bravery. You need to be courageous enough to be competitive but wise enough to recognize when you fell short. You have to be a dreamer but you can’t be delusional. You have to be confident as you’re building your competence. All of those things are important. Another thing that is vitally important is to recognize that while music-making happens pretty much everywhere on planet Earth, the music industry is not everywhere on planet Earth. If you want to be a competitor in the music industry, the smart move is to be where the industry is. The industry is in Los Angeles and New York and Atlanta. It’s in Nashville. It’s in London and Paris and Amsterdam. But it isn’t in that many places. It’s not in Omaha. It’s not in Boise. It’s not in Tuscaloosa. It’s not. So that’s another thing that’s a reckoning that young people need to acknowledge. If you want to be in this business, you need to go where the business is. That really does help. Now you can be in this business in your own backyard, that’s fine, but it’s very hard to do at the highest level.
Find for yourself a personal philosophy and some ready-made responses to difficult scenarios. You can get that from reading these kinds of interviews with the people who’ve come before you. Read how they solved certain problems. Any problem that you might encounter has been solved by somebody, somewhere. Find out who solved it and how they did it. Learn from them so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. As one colleague of mine says, “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Reinvent the car.” So it takes all those parts of the car that are already out there. Just put them together in your own way. That, I think, is important and I demonstrate that for our young women in studios here on campus: “In this scenario, here’s what works.” That includes things that involve harassment and being singled out for your gender. Those things are important.