– Or: Getting to tour the Purple One’s recording facility DOES NOT SUCK
You would be hard pressed to throw a rock and not hit someone whose life was impacted – either directly or indirectly – by the music of Prince. It’s unavoidable. Either his vast library of music has somehow made it to your ears or artists he has produced and influenced have done the same. You may not have heard of Paisley Park, but the impact it had is unmistakable. Prince may have named his first group The Power Generation but it was he that defined that generation. And beyond.
The fact that he was short of stature didn’t really account for much because when it came to performance, presence, and energy. The man literally effulged and radiated on stage. High heels may have been the order of business for his height but holy cow could that man move on the floor. He was also a savant-level musician. A multi-instrumentalist and prolific writer who, at age 18, inked his first contentious record label contract.
His recording facility – the immense, legendary, and aforementioned Paisley Park – is where some of the most iconic music in modern pop history was written and recorded. Once upon a time, the only way to even get a glimpse was by the invitation of “The Purple One” himself. That all changed six years ago.
What transpired to make this possible
On April 21st, 2016 the life of Prince Rogers Nelson – known worldwide as Prince or, for roughly 6 years, The Symbol – ended in tragedy due to a story that is far to common in our modern era: an artist/performer/individual suffers from debilitating pain. Individual acquires medication to address pain. Efficacy of medication wanes requiring amounts more than prescribed to maintain baseline effective levels of pain management. Eventually the level of substance exceeds the threshold of what the human body can support. I can shut down under the weight of stroke, cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, and other causes of death. In the case of Prince and pain management medication, a specialist was literally in the air from California to Minnesota to stage an intervention and unfortunately was too late.
In the aftermath of his passing, the recording facility he built and named Paisley Park was converted to a partial museum and tribute to his life and music. Tours are run regularly – advance ticket purchase and appointment highly recommended as most tours sell out – for individuals who would like to get a glimpse into the legendary place where doves were alleged to have cried.
I am one of those individuals, and because I was in Minneapolis for a spell, it was time to scratch off a bucket-list item and get a looksie.
Make him part of the tour
(if you get that reference, I will mail you a nickel)
There were purple traffic cones at Paisley Park. Because of course there were.
The outside of Paisley Park was not at all what I expected it to be. Given the name, I was under the impression that it would be abstractly designed, a myriad of colors, a symbolic devotional of some form. Nope! It looks like a warehouse/office building. With purple traffic cones and a purple “symbol” out front, but still a warehouse/office building. So that was a surprise. Extremely utilitarian, efficience defined.
In the event that you are able to secure a ticket to a Paisley Park tour, be prompt. This is a guided tour on a very strict timeline. Turns out traffic out of Minneapolis was extra thick on my way there and I was extremely lucky that I was still able to be in the tour time I was assigned. They hadn’t left the main lobby yet so they were able to get me into the group.
Upon my arrival, a security guard handed me a pouch that locks, told me to turn my cell phone off, and place it inside. Wait. What?
Prince was an extremely private individual and adamant that even celebrities were not permitted to take pictures while in the compound. His desire for privacy in Paisley Park continues on. I was informed that the pouch would be unlocked later on in the tour. So, I went dark and joined the tour!
The very first room we entered was a two story atrium. The entire room was lit naturally by a whole array of glass ceiling panes high above, with doves painted on many parts of the wall. It’s been told that Prince used to love sitting in the atrium to watch doves jump around the class ceiling panels and his fascination with the bird lasted though most of his life.
During his lifetime, he kept doves in a large cage on the second floor. That tradition continues to this day by the staff of the museum. They were not, in fact, crying though.
The atrium maintains its extremely comfortable vibe and I cannot even begin to imagine the number of musical luminaries who could have been there and lounged on the extremely comfortable-looking furniture.
Side note: do not sit on the furniture. Not even the super comfy-looking couches. One guy started to make that faux pas and was barely able to even get a single cheek to make contact with cushion before our guide informed him quite directly that he shall not do that. I wonder how many times she has to do that even though there are signs on the furniture saying please don’t sit on the furniture…
One final note: the walls were completely lined with framed gold, platinum, double platinum, quadruple platinum framed album awards. This was apparently not the case when Prince was still alive but placed there after his passing for folks who tour the facility to see just how prolific he was and how many people appreciated what he created.
The ante rooms
There are rooms off of the Atrium that served a variety of purposes. The most obvious one was the miniature diner. Yes, an actual fully functional mini-diner! With booth seats, a small kitchen, the whole kit ‘n kaboodle (note to self: another idiom to pursue). While it looked cute, it also served the purpose of treating guests to meals while there in a comfortable and unique setting. Very unexpected! This is likely the very room that pancakes were served to Eddie and Charlie Murphy after getting their collective hindquarters handed to them by Prince in a game of basketball. Yes, this is a true story. Yes, Prince is extremely short for a baller but dude was a baller.
On the sidelines
Smaller anterooms that were once utilized for music listening and video viewing have since been converted to rooms that pay tribute to various stages of his life and career. One room a video room for introducing his career for tour attendees to view before exploring other rooms. His early years as a freshly minted contract with Warner that led to a significant amount of musical output and his meteoric rise to stardom. One of the rooms delved into explorations into topics that did not seem to be even remotely compatible with his Jehovas Witness believes.
(side note: at no point was his faith mentioned in any part of the tour or on display in any area that I was able to see.
Yet another room is devoted to his most recent music project: his all-girl band “3rdeyegirl.” Yes! The drum kit used in that group was on display with a video screen playing their music. Incredible band!
The final anteroom was actually his office. I’m not sure what it would have looked like when in use by him but most of it was roped off with enough standing area for maybe 6 people. On the screen was a video being played talking about one of the major themes of his career: things he loathed about the music industry. How powerful individual without any talent defined what talent is for the masses. He was not a fan of that concept. The office had a desk, seating areas, some books, and a corner devoted to his Symbol.
The primary recording space in Paisley Park.
Oh my goodness. The thing I was most looking forward to throughout the entire tour. And there we were. I’ll separate the description into two categories
The room was stunning from just an aesthetic perspective. Stained and sealed wood paneling everywhere. Properly treated and shaped, as would be expected from a high caliber recording facility. The ceiling cloud – a sound absorbing giant panel with lights built in – hung at a perfect angle above. At one point, a video was shown of Prince jamming a bit with legendary bassist Larry Grahm. He was someone Prince looked up to and admired greatly. He is also one of the godfathers of what we know as Slap Bass.
There were side rooms as well for varying instrument isolations. Drums had their own space. Separate guitar area. Bass had its own station. All of the rooms were in the same picture perfect design. The space looked and sounded just so perfect.
(I’m not even putting recording there on my bucket list; it’ll never happen. I’ll just have to build my own space!)
Inaccessible Control Room
The control room with the recording console and such were not accessible to the public. We were able to see two of his synthesizer instruments on display through the glass! His Linn Drum machine and his Oberheim OB-X. Two instruments that defined so much of the 80s sound (remember that time when I wrote about that very same thing? Wacky fun). Between them and extending dead center into the console area was a giant microphone stand with a mic at the end of it. This is the mic that Prince would use when clearing the entire studio before recording vocals. While sitting down. Because of course he can.
Doves definitely cried in that room.
I would have truly enjoyed being able to spend more time in there, get into the control room, and just exist in that space but the tour had to go on.
And we’re walking, we’re walking
The next studio on the tour was an interesting location! The first thing noticed is that it was a complete tribute to Purple Rain. Everything from one of the three motorcycles used in the movie to outfits worn to handwritten notes to the actual vending machine in the movie.
There was a control room off to the left upon entry which meant that this was a functional studio. Patch panels in the walls confirmed this. What I could not figure out at first was the fact that the room had REALLY high ceilings, hardwood floors, parallel walls, and absolutely no absorption on the walls whatsoever.
Before I could ask if this had been used as a basketball court at some point, our tour guide let us know that this used to be a multipurpose room where – you guessed it – it served as indoor basketball court, dance rehearsal studio, and also (really) live recording room. Definitely the epitome of a multipurpose room. The only thing missing would be folding cafeteria tables for school kids to eat lunch at!
I ask the tough questions so you don’t have to
Once our guide had finished an explanation of the room and artifacts and left us to our own devices (without our devices) I quietly asked her how on earth this could have been used to record in with the way the walls were set up. The other studio rooms that I could see were all very carefully designed and treated for optimal sound recording. This one broke all the rules in the not-good ways. She said that she couldn’t remember the exact details.
So I wandered around a bit more and eventually looked all the way up to the ceiling and saw that there was a track that went all the way around the perimeter of the room at the ceiling level with chains hanging from them. Ah-hah moment! I asked if sound blankets were hung from those chains when used for recording and she said that was the detail she was forgetting. She said that the track could be raised and lowered as well to change the overall sound. COOL!
Side note: I asked a LOT of questions of her that were very specific to rooms and recording and she had answers for many of them! I did -not- ask those questions until she released us to explore each room. I’m a nerd, but I’m not -that- nerd.
The Effervescent Paisley Park Footwear Extravaganza
For anyone who has ever seen Prince perform either live and in person or on television or at awards shows, there is one thing to take into consideration; his fashion was incomparable. Matching his incomparable sense of fashion came with the contracting of all of his footwear needs to incredible shoemakers. Every pair of shoes that he wore was constructed to exactly match the shape of his feet. Every pair hand created. Oftentimes the designs were sketched out by him in advance, sent to the shoemakers for any design change needs, and then ultimately created.
Not your average foot locker
The previous paragraph leads us to the next display room. When we entered the room, it was completely dark. Music started to play, lights started to pulse in sequence, and one by one a giant display case would light up all around the room. Finally, the entire room was lit – including a display case that was the first ever 3D printed piano shell! – and we were able to gaze upon 300 pairs of custom made shoes.
A look under the hood
A video screen had some of the shoemakers discussing the entire process: how sketches were received, what they did with them, how they made the actual shoes, and even the times they were invited to Paisley Park for consultation. Prince was very hands on and they felt incredibly honored to be able to work with a high-profile client who was so directly involved in the process of seeing a vision come to life.
Cobblers worked on overtime. Apparently Prince busted heels constantly meaning the shoes needed backups and options for speedy repair. This is not any kind of dig on the build quality of the shoes, mind you. All were hand made and of the highest integrity. This was more to do with the fact that Prince was an incredible dancer. In addition to, you know, being good at every instrument he touched.
Brief visit to the end of the Symbol Era
Upon leaving the basketball court, we were taken to a small side room with a very comfy looking couch.
(as a reminder, do not sit on the furniture)
Inside the room was again a prominent version of The Symbol, a display case with some handwritten notes on notebook paper, and another of his stunning outfits. Those notes, it turns out, were the notes that he read in a public statement announcing that on December 31st, 1999, his contract with Warner had finally expired.
This was an immense deal for him in his fight for artist rights. He had a phrase that had significant meaning to him and most musicians. “If you don’t own your masters (referring to the master tapes of his albums), your master owns you.”
It wouldn’t be until 2014 that he was able to fully regain control of his own masters, the the end of that contract in 1999 – kinda ironic, that year – was a significant step in getting that far. After the inexorable effluxion of time, the clock ran out on the entirety of the record contract. Prince was finally free of his contractual obligations to Warner and gained full possession of his entire discography.
It makes me think sometimes about artists who are brought into the fold of a record label, chewed up, and then spit out. And then under contract for the rest of their lives unable to fulfill the terms of the original contract because they’re deemed not popular enough anymore. Jem Godfrey in frost* wrote an incredible (and very angry) song about this some years back and I listen to it often and wonder if that’s ever going to change…
Paisley Park Sound Stage
Our next stop on the tour was the second to last, and wow was it a doozie!
First of all, our cell phone were finally returned to us. The pouches were reopened and we were able to power our addiction machines back on again. We were also given permission to take pictures and video as much as we would like.
and I was able to send some messages explaining why I suddenly went dark without warning!
Close up view of the performance stage in the Sound Stage of Paisley Park
So the room that we were in was referred to as the sound stage. That’s putting it mildly. The size of the room was enormous. And holy cow, I thought multipurpose was in effect in the dance rehearsal hall. This place has seen some stuff!
Picture from the back to the front of the Paisley Park Sound Stage
Concerts of course. Prince held scheduled and impromptu concerts in that space frequently. The sound stage was also used for filming a variety of professional commercials. A few clients whose commercials were filmed there: Burger King, McDonald’s, Comet Cleanser, Volkswagen, Porsche, Cadillac and Lincoln Mercury.
Close up to the concert stage of the Paisley Park Sound Stage
And then movies! Drop Dead Fred and Grumpy Old Men were shot on that sound stage. A variety of other full productions were done there as well. Absolute stunning space for all types of things, but the concerts that were held there must have been absolutely legendary.
Both symbols in view while Prince plays piano
Club NPG; the Paisley Park on-site night club
From the back to the front of Club NPG
Named NPG for “New Power Generation.” Of course. Because having a full sound stage wasn’t enough, a smaller club-like area is right next to it where smaller, more intimate shows could be held. Looks exactly like what you would expect of any night club. Tables, seating, a small stage, great sound system, and a kaleidoscope of lights on a back screen behind where someone would perform.
Come one, come all
Close up view of the Club NPG stage
This was one of those places where Prince would announce locally that he was going to put on a show. Open invitation. The thing was, doors typically opened late. Like, 10pm late. On a weeknight. And then, oftentimes Prince would be doing other things and not be quite ready to hit the stage so music would play and people would hang out and linger and wait. Then wait. And then wait more. There were times when Prince didn’t take the stage until 6 in the morning! For those die hards who were able to tough it out, they were treated to an amazing up-close personal taste of what stadiums around the world could never possibly capture.
The Symbol with SM58 microphone and guitar pedal array
One year during a tour, Madonna had stopped in Minneapolis to put on a show. Being in Minneapolis, she was invited to visit Paisley Park. In that club, Prince jumped on stage and proceeded to serenade her. For Three. Hours. Straight. I’m trying to imagine being Madonna, an accomplished musician and singer in her own right, being right there while one of the greatest musicians of our era put on a show just for her. There are probably interviews about it somewhere but I think I’m going to enjoy just imagining it instead.
That was the end of the tour! We were told that we were welcome to stay in Club NPG for as long as we would like. That was nice! And of course stop in a gift shop on the way out. There wasn’t a LOT of merchandise there which was pleasant. The usual expected hoodies, shirts, other apparel, water bottles, coffee mugs (one of those went home with me), albums of course, and other objects of interest.
Looking at a symbol for musical freedom
So here’s my take on the entire thing. If you are a fan of Prince’s music this is a great tour to get in on. Even if it’s only in passing! If you’re an audio nerd like me, this is definitely a place you want to see. Unless you have no interest in music, this is probably a good tour to go on!
There are three tiers of tour; I was at the one that was available which is the least expensive of them. I would have loved to do another tier but availability is booked out MONTHS in advance. If you’re planning on going, order tickets early.
That’s pretty much it! Thanks for joining me on a massive recap of a pretty cool experience!
May your journeys be free of incident.
The Symbol on the outside of the Paisley Park Recording Studio Compound
-= george =-