Michael Brauer is a Grammy-winning mix engineer, best known recently for his work with Coldplay and John Mayer. Throughout the years Michael has worked with heavy hitters across many genres (from Aretha Franklin and Kenny G to Bob Dylan and Aerosmith) and in the course of that work he has established himself as one of the preeminent mixing engineers of his generation. Several years ago, Westlake Pro’s Danny Fasold caught up with Michael for an interview, in which they discuss Michael’s favorite plugins, analog vs. digital signal processing, and how he gets focused on new projects.
What advice do you have for the audio engineer who doesn’t have the budget or the luxury to use nice outboard gear, who works only in the box?
Advice coming from a person who has six racks of gear and a huge console, I’m probably the last one to give the advice. [laughs]. But, I mean, there’s so many people who have no need for hardware. They started in the digital world and they’re doing just fine. I think Serban [Ghenea] is the biggest example of that. I think he may have one compressor for the stereo and that’s it.
So the advantage of digital is great, and of course you don’t need the budget. So I think it’s important to first…well, you have to be a musician, I think. The more you know about music, the more this is just an instrument. I think once you know what you want to hear, you want to have access to some great plug-ins. I think you can start off with the main three companies that I use, which are Waves, UAD and Softube, and I use those every day. Even if I don’t want to use them, the sessions that I get already have all those plug-ins, so it’s important for me to have already purchased them.
What specific plug-ins are particular favorites for you?
With Softube, it’s actually the one that’s free. It’s called “Saturation Knob.” I was looking for something to add a little more aggressiveness, but with a natural brightness to it that doesn’t distort. And I just happened to run across it, so I turned it up, and it did exactly what I wanted. And so then the next time that occurred I tried it again, and it worked, and then I tried it on vocals, and I tried it on kick, and it I’m just like, “What is this things?!” It’s incredible. It just works on everything. And I didn’t even know it was free until I met the designers at AES and they told me, and I said, “That’s free?! Shit, you should be charging for that, man!”
And then, certainly for UAD, that was the first company where I started using their plugins because I wanted to. I just found their plug-ins to be so musical. In the beginning, in all fairness to any of those companies when they were first coming out, the GUIs looked good, but the sound wasn’t. It would look just like an old Pultec, but it certainly didn’t sound just like an old Pultec. And I thought, well, what’s the point. I have no reason to be using these because I have them.
But the point became more apparent when UAD came out with the 670. It sounded good! It didn’t sound like the 670, but it had a character about it. And I could put it across 10 tracks if I wanted to. I couldn’t do that with the real 670 even if I had it…although I do have the ADL 670, which is a copy, but it’s only one stereo unit.
So the advantage of these plug-ins is you have a pretty much limitless amount of times you can use that one plug-in.
What occurs to me is that sonically, there’s virtually no difference between the digital and analog world today. Now generally, I like mixing on a desk. But the problem is that once you’re done with the mix, it’s not necessarily the master. It’s a master in progress. There might be several changes down the road. And for instance, if you’re in the box, that’s easy. If you have to record everything on the desk, that’s time consuming. But I’ve always worked around that by doing stems whenever a song is done. So if I have to review it and do changes, I have the stems, so there’s no need to do a full console recall. So I’ve worked around those challenges.
But to answer your question, what’s the best way to get started? Well, certainly you want some good plug-ins, and you want a good rig that’s going to handle all the voices and the amount of speed that you need. But is analog necessary? It might be. Maybe on the final output. Which is why I like the hybrid as well, because I’m still incorporating all the basics of what I do: the multi-bus, the parallel, the send return, and it goes out to four different summing amps (A, B, C, D) and I have some compressors that are out there, and it’s the best of both worlds because we don’t have to touch any of the hardware except maybe the final buss EQ or compressor. And it’s really quick.
I was struck by comments you made in a Sonicscoop article about how mixes have to be constantly moving. I wanted to talk about your automation process. When you do it, are you making strategic moves, or is it more of a visceral or whimsical sort of process?
It’s totally visceral. Once I get the sound balanced and static, I have a good mix going. It feels good. But that’s only where I begin. Everything is now in its right place, everything has the power sonically from top to bottom. Except it hasn’t come alive yet. So for me, it’s as simple as going to back to when I was a performer, when I was a drummer in a band. I want to feel like I’m back on stage. I want to feel the reason why they wrote a chorus, but doing that, there has to be some movement going on. So it’s just a natural tendency for me to start riding the faders to bring the emotion back in, because by the time it gets to me, the compressors may have flattened out the dynamics of the performer.
Do you ever find yourself using analog modeling plug-ins when you can see sitting across the room the very piece of analog gear that the plug-in is based on?
Yeah, if it does the job, it’s easy for me to go to the plug-in. If I want to put a plug-in like that across four of the guitars, or all of the vocals, I can do that. If I only have two in my rack, that’s it. I’m done. I’m limited. And I’ve gotten to the point where I know the sound of those plug-ins so well, that it’s easy for me to go to a particular plug-in and then push it in a certain way that’s going to give me the character I want.
They way I’ll discover new plug-ins is I’ll just stick to one plug-in for a month or two. I won’t use anything else because I reeaaaally want to learn it. I’ll play with it and play with it, and once it’s locked in my head, the next time I’m looking for something, I’ll know exactly what to go for. I’ll know if it’s the 1176 from Waves or the 1176 from UAD. Which one am I going for? Because they say they’re supposed to be the same thing, but they obviously sound different.
I never finished answering your question, actually, about what are my favorite plug-ins. Can I just throw that in?
The new LA2A Grey by UAD is incredible! I mean I don’t even have to have it compressing. And that’s the way I usually work. Most of my compressors, I’m using them to add tone or attitude more than compression. I love that one. The new 670s are nice for that too.
Those are the ones that come to mind first.
I’m in love with the Waves plug-ins too. For me, the ones that stand out are the designer series packages from Tony Maserati, Chris Lord-Alge and Manny Marroquin. I mean, those are really amazing. And I use them often, if they aren’t already in the session when I get them.
I remember one time, I knew the sound I had to get would generally take about 10 minutes, but I also knew there was a preset in CLA that would get it to me immediately. So I just went to it and selected it and was like, “Oh God, I feel a little guilty about this.” It’s just so easy!
Well, if you know what you’re going for…
Yeah, exactly, it still comes down to your imagination.
And then the last one I didn’t mention is Izotope. Every time we have a problem, I pull out Izotope RX. I’m always amazing. The days of trying that tick in the middle of a sustaining note when no one is playing, and you have to try to crossfade and copy and still at the end of the day sounds more like a smear…well, now you can just take it out and the sound is perfect. It just blows my mind. That is one of the greatest tools ever invented.
What used to take hours to do, we can now do in seconds. We’re way more efficient now.
I read an article where you were talking about making of Vida la Vida, and how you had mentioned that when you go into a mix, there’s a certain amount of focus and zen required. What gets you in the zone going into a mix? Even with all of the experience you have, mixing every single day, that you sometimes struggle to achieve this level of focus?
Look, we’re all human. There are times when I walk in to a mix, and anything could be happening in my life, and you have to clear your mind of that, or you have to use that energy towards a great mix. It certainly doesn’t hurt to pour that outlet into an angry, nasty, over-the-top mix. [laughs]
Putting distortion on every single track?
Yeah! There! Take that, bitch! [laughs] But for me, I just clear the air. I take a deep breath, I let it out, and I become as clear as possible. Once I’m doing that, I’m ready. I’ll hear a lot of stuff. Everything comes to me because I’ve taken the time to just relax and think about what’s in front of me. And then I’ll listen to the rough mix and I start getting ideas. I think in that process I’m really curious as to what’s going on in this song and what makes this song so cool. I quickly, quickly find those elements. As soon as I put the tracks up, I head towards that. I wanna know right now what makes this song. So I’ll find those elements immediately. And within 20 minutes I’ve got a great thing going. It feels good to me.
And so I focus on the essence of the song. That doesn’t necessarily mean drums and bass. It’s whatever makes that song for me. It could be just a Rhodes and a vocal, and then I build around that. I dunno. It just depends on the song.
As I listen, I think about the two or three elements that are making the song. What’s making the hook? Sometimes I can usually tell whether the song was written on guitar or on the keyboard, and that’s what I go for.
The only time there’s a challenge is when I just can’t find the soul of the song. I search and search and search and I just can’t find it. And it’s very frustrating. Quite often in those cases there isn’t any. It’s missing. And no matter how hard I work, this song is going to pretend to be something, but it isn’t going to actually be that. Because they sterilized the performances so much by cleaning it up that they got rid of whatever it first was that made the song so cool. And as a professional, you turn it into something that appears to be that excitement.
Your answer for that kind of scenario is to go for stock production tricks to match whatever they’re going for?
Yeah, in a sense, but this happens rarely so rarely that it’s hardly worth mentioning. But when it does, it’s hard to recognize. I’m in denial. Because I’m thinking it must be my fault.
I don’t get hung up on how many tracks there are or what’s conflicting. If something’s conflicting with what I like I’ll either turn it down or turn it off. If you’ve got to turn something so far down…I mean, somebody will say to me, “hey, I like that.” But look how busy it is. It’s really unnecessary. And so then they say, “Okay, well just turn it down…hmm…turn it down even more.” But if you turn it down that low, why not just turn the fucking thing off? It’s beyond the subconscious at this point! [laughs]
It’s learning to let go…it’s hard!
Exactly. The guy’s bringing in a lot of baggage. “What? Do you know how many hours and fights I had to take on that one?” But I have a fresh perspective on this, and this is totally unnecessary.
Especially when you’re the one mixing it AND the one who wrote it.
I remember as a producer I usually downplayed anything that I added to the production. Which is stupid, but I’m much happier just being a mixer.
I’d imagine it’s hard, mixing as often as you do, to always be excited to work on every single project. What’s the most recent project you took on that brought you back to that young, excited feeling?
I can’t say that that’s something that’s recent. I choose the records I want to mix. And so when I’m taking on a project, I’m really excited. I’m not jaded. I’m just as hungry now as I was when I was young. I went through my rollercoaster of ego where I got kind of tired of it. Things like that happen to people when you’re early on. But I love the records I do. I’m really excited by them. Some of them surprise me even more. Right now I’m doing Calle 13. It’s a Spanish/Puerto-Rica band. They’re super political. And this stuff is great. It pisses me off I don’t know Spanish, because I want to know these stories. And he’s really putting it out there. He translates it all to me, tells me what’s going on and who’s going after, and I’m like, “wow, that scares me man! Are you gonna be okay?” “Yeah, but not only am I going after them, but I’m going after myself, so it balances out.” I’m like, “Oooooh, man….are you sure?!” [laughs]
But it’s really, really cool.
And it’s funny, because I’m about to mix Phox. They just remind me a lot of how Shields was, and how I prepared for that. And how wild the ideas were, how counterintuitive to what other records were going for.
There’s another guy named James Bay, that’s really cool stuff.
For one thing, I’m not looking to do the same style of music. I’m always moving around. So I’m always getting excited because I’m not doing the same thing. I mean, I did R&B my first 10 years. It’s all I did. And by the 10th year, because it wasn’t reinventing itself, I started getting tired of that. I couldn’t continue to try fresh ideas. The music itself was getting to be repetitious, so I got out of that and moved onto something else. And that’s the reason why I end up doing bands like Grizzly Bear, to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to undo that. It’s scary, but I just love the possibilities of what’s going to come out of that. Grizzly Bear was a perfect example of that. Most people wouldn’t have known I mixed that record.
The year I did Grizzly Bear, I wanted to do three bands that year. And the year before, I started changing a lot of my approaches so that I could be ready for it. And the three bands I wanted to do were Twin Shadows, Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear. I got to do two out of the three, so that’s not too bad.
It was all predetermined. It wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m Michael Brauer.” It wasn’t anything like that. Because why would they want to use me? I didn’t have the kind of discography that would appeal to them. And it started by working with George from Twin Shadow. His concern was I was going to clean up the havoc that he creates. And I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to refocus it a bit. And that’s what we did, and he was psyched.
And Chris [Taylor, of Grizzly Bear] had already worked with George on his last record, and heard my results, and said, “wow.” That was the first time Chris had handed over the controls to somebody else to mix. He could see that I was going to respect his vision.
So those are the things that really make me happy. I’m psyched I was able to make those kinds of records and have those opportunities. I’m always on the hunt for that. What’s another cool band? You know? But it’s difficult, because my discography doesn’t always say that I’m right for a record. I have to push hard. But it’s always like that. I don’t ever remember being on easy street in that respect. I kind of laid that out for myself, but I’m okay with it. I love mixing many different styles. A band that makes me feel good, I want to mix that.