Paisley Park Studios, the factory-sized bunker where Prince recorded 30 of his own and many other albums is a 65,000 square-foot, $10 million complex that housed recording suites, sound stages, ballrooms and more. It has been alternately described as a museum and a jail, with few windows and a chainlink fence perimeter.
According to the those who knew him, Prince was intensely private and controlling. He was the master and commander of his business empire, and the number of people with a view into his creative and recording processes was very limited.
So, what was it like to work with Prince?
Reverb spoke with Paisley Park Studios recording engineers Chuck Zwicky and Scott LeGere, as well as Matthew "Doctor" Fink, who played keyboards on Dirty Mind, Controversy, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign "O" the Times, The Black Album, Lovesexy and others, to find out what it was like to create music with the man, the myth, the legend: Prince.
Chuck Zwicky, Paisley Park Engineer, 1987 through ‘89
What was not visible to most people is the seriousness with which Prince took his career since its very earliest days.
“If people could see the amount of effort and diligence it took to be Prince, they would get jobs in banks,” says Chuck Zwicky, who worked as a Paisley Park recording engineer from 1987 through ‘89. “There was no trick. He just worked 10 times harder than anybody I’ve ever known in my life.”
Prince also became quickly adept with using the studio. Zwicky has been a recording professional for decades and says that Prince’s approach to recording vocals was unique.
He always had a mic on a boom stand over the console for vocals. He’d grab that mic — with the console and the tape machine remote in front of him — and cut all the vocals from the engineer’s chair. Every vocal you’ve ever heard on every Prince record was cut sitting in a chair at the console. It was just part of his workflow. All that dynamic range and all that focus — How many vocalists run back and forth between the studio and control room to readjust something? It just drains the attention of the artist. He’d say: ‘I’m cutting vocals. You can leave.’ In a half hour, he’d call me back and he’d have cut the backing vocals and all the verses were done. He was just very efficient. When you have the vocal mic multied across many tracks, he could pop into any track at any point, at a vocal line here or there, he had it all mapped out in his head.”
Prince also was able to accomplish something few other artists have been able to achieve: creative control. “He never second guesses himself. He has an idea and he moves forward with it. He had the autonomy to push his way through. That’s a rarity. Most every other record I’ve ever worked on since then has had a committee of people who want to weigh in on what it should or shouldn’t be and he was spared that as an artist.”
It’s part of Prince’s mythology that he was prolific, and that his vaults are brimming with recordings, but in addition to burnishing his image, his tremendous output served other purposes.
“By the time he’d done an album and it was released to the public, he’d already recorded three or four more albums’ worth of material,” Zwicky says. “It buffered him from the critics because he was constantly moving three steps ahead of them. He was constantly coming up with ideas and realizing them but also discarding them.”
Scott LeGere, Traffic Manager, Paisley Park Studios, 2005 and 2006
“I was the lowest guy on the totem pole at Paisley Studios,” says Scott LeGere, now department head of Music Business at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, MN. “He made half of the records himself.”
What LeGere remembers is watching Prince’s unfettered talent in the studio. “He would pick up drum sticks and show the drummer the beat; pick up a bass and show the bass player what the lick and groove are going to be and piece together a song in under 30 minutes. Then he’d walk into Studio B and direct the horn section, and then make a phone call related to a tour matter. It was awe inspiring to watch him talk to world-class players on their level about the minutia of music theory and music in general.”
He was just a guy who had the chart written in his head the moment he conceived it and the sound he was going for was predetermined. This was a guy whose level of musicianship was totally under control.”
For the past 15 or 20 years, Paisley Park Studios essentially has had one client, LeGere says.
“That means he has everything routed into his SSL exactly as he wants. He was all of his favorite devices wired to the specific boxes that he wants; he had three pedalboards sitting underneath the SSL and he has his trusty Linn drum just to the side of the classic rolling Pro Tools keyboard. He can swivel his chair, start a simple groove on the Linn drum, plug his guitar in direct and then he’d have an SM57 on an arm, lean that over the console crank the mains and deliver an inspiring and emotive vocal and he’d track by himself.”
Prince was intimately familiar with all of the gear and proficient with recording techniques.
“He’d have world class engineers come in to track orchestral stuff but then, often after the initial setup, he’d do the record making by himself,” LeGere says. “ He was just a guy who had the chart written in his head the moment he conceived it and the sound he was going for was predetermined. This was a guy whose level of musicianship was totally under control.”
Matthew "Doctor" Fink, Keyboard Player for Prince and the Revolution
“At my audition, he played a little joke on me,” recalls Matthew "Doctor" Fink, who played keyboards onDirty Mind, Controversy, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign "O" the Times, The Black Album, Lovesexy and others.
“He asked if knew a song that was on his first album and I said no, that I didn’t know I was supposed to work on that one. He said that was OK, because there were no keyboards on that one anyway,” Fink says, laughing. “That lightened things up right away. Having fun and practical jokes were important parts of his personality.”
Because Prince was so incredibly proficient, there was no one way that he approached the creative process, but he did offer this story from his early days with the band.
“We were jamming one day at rehearsal and found a progression; the band started playing around on it, and Prince said, ‘Why don’t you come out to the house tonight and we’ll do something with that.’ I went to his home studio, and he played the drums and I played the part. He said, ‘that’s all I need from you tonight, see you tomorrow.’ The next day, he showed up with a recording of the song, finished; vocal, lyric, melody, bass, guitar, edit, everything. He did all the engineering himself. He played it for the band and said, ‘This is the title track of the next record.’ That was ‘Dirty Mind.’ That’s how he worked.”
Fink says that one thing Prince doesn’t get enough credit for is opening opportunities for black and women artists to cross over in the early ‘80s.
“He and Michael Jackson were instrumental in making it easier for things to change. There were a lot of people pushing back on that in those days,” Fink says. “There was only one low-powered R&B station in the Minneapolis area, KMOJ, and they were the only station Prince could get on. Once he crossed over, in the 1999 era, he entered the pop mainstream and things exploded after that.”