Faber Social present: Matt Thorne on Prince and sonics

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Faber Social is the unerringly cool arm of London’s Faber & Faber publishing house. Over the coming months we will be featuring exclusive essays, extracts and articles from some of their finest authors. In the first of this new series, biographer Matt Thorne talks Prince, mistakes and spontaneity and all things sound.

Prince had a very open-minded attitude towards sound. When it came to his band playing onstage, they had to be flawless or face instant fines, James Brown style. But in the studio he was much more open, seeking mistakes as opportunities. Famously, his mid-80s engineer Susan Rogers recorded the vocals for ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ at the wrong speed. Terrified he was going to sack her, instead he created a whole new character, Camille, and recorded a whole album worth of songs with slowed-down vocals.

And he was open to different sorts of fidelity. From an early age, he was desperate to get into the studio, even if that meant playing in other people’s bands, or helping Minneapolis musicians finish albums. But his home recording set-up was equally important to him, and the songs he worked at home in the early days were just as important as the ones he recorded in L.A.’s Sunset Sound. Round the clock creativity was the aim, from his teenage years to the end of his life.

His onstage sound was as important as his studio work. His most successful album, Purple Rain, was built around a tape of a live show from a mobile recording unit, giving him the basic tracks for the record. Always open to spontaneity, he didn’t even care that his guitar was out of tune on ‘Baby, I’m a Star’.

As his career continued, Prince moved on from the sometimes lo-fi nature of his early records and demos to an increased professional sheen. Wendy Melvoin from the Revolution has commented that she saw a massive rise in the quality of his recording and mixing around the time of Around the World in a Day. This perfecting of his sound inspire him to the building of his legendary studio complex Paisley Park.

Prince’s approach to his live sound was constantly changing, and there would be occasional frustrations. Anyone who has listened to a few Prince live recordings will be familiar with his barked instructions to the sound and lighting men, part of the improvisational nature of his life performance. And during his Ultimate Live Experience tour he got fed up of having his soundman in the audience where he couldn’t communicate with him, so he put him in an egg onstage. Unfortunately this innovative approach to stage mixing didn’t work. I remember watching him play a show in L.A. where he was so incensed by sound problems that he stopped the performance to berate the venue’s owners. Fix the sound, he told them, and he’d play for free.

Some Prince records are immediately accessible — Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain. Others—Sign o’ the Times and Lovesexy—take years to reveal their secrets. But the Prince album that works best as a headphones album is his 1996 record Emancipation. Three hours long, the record has his busiest arrangements, with a complicated use of audio punctuation and samples burying secrets deep in the mix. Prince and his engineer H.M. Buff spend years working round the clock on every aspect of the record, and while it’s not his greatest album, it’s one of his most continually rewarding for adventurous listeners.

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Prince’s sound was always constantly evolving. His influences remained consistent throughout his career—Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren—but he was always open to the latest sounds from pop and dance music. Jazz became a more dominant influence for a few years around 2001’s The Rainbow Children, but from 2004 onwards he became more focused on the contemporary and put out a brace of underrated records ripe for rediscovery.

He knew how a little eclectic touch—whether it’s the altered vocals at the end of ‘Breakfast Can Wait’, the laser sound FX on ‘The Breakdown’ or the monkey noises on ‘The X’s Face—could lift a song, and part of the joy of being a Prince fan is tracking down these moments. If and when the contents of his private Vault are made public, no doubt there will be a thousand more such discoveries. Prince was more than just a great musician, he used his sound to create a world, and invited us all to live there.

Matt Thorne’s Prince is available from Faber & Faber

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