GREENWICH VILLAGE: Next time you’re downtown, take a right off 6th Avenue and head down 8th Street. Moving east, you’ll leave behind the confusing tangle of intersections that define the West Village, and gravitate towards a more civilized grid within NYC.
One of the first places you’ll pass on this classic block is Electric Lady Studios. Inside a spacious haven there, master mixer Michael Brauer makes sense of tracks in much the same way that the streets outside are resolving themselves, bringing a beautiful sense of order to each song he encounters.
Brauer’s GRAMMY-heavy track record as an artful technician is globally known: The artists whose work has flowed through his ears and fingertips include Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, John Mayer, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Ben Folds, and hundreds more. But the blue chip big boys aren’t all – just in the first half of this year, indie darlings from Twin Shadow to Grizzly Bear and Martha Wainwright all will have had a turn.
There’s no trick to getting certain types of geeky mix secrets from Brauer — he’ll gladly detail his trademark “Brauerize” technique of multibuss, parallel and send/return compression to anybody who asks. Instead, its Brauer’s inspirational approach to career and life management that’s worth digging deep for.
If you think that somebody who’s achieved Brauer’s level of success is staying the course, you better think again. This world-class mixer hustles hard and strives relentlessly for new discoveries. Wanna be like Mike? Read on – you don’t need an SSL or even a DAW to put his big picture plan into action. You just better be hungry.
Being a mixer is about having an identifiable sound, but it’s also about staying ahead and setting new trends. When is the right time to stick with your sound, and when is the right time to evolve?
I never think about that — music dictates that. Every four or five years I throw away – not completely, but a portion of – what I’ve developed over the last five years. I stop, and then I start again with a new style of music.
For example, for the last five or ten years, I was doing the big guitar bands. I went from small to a big stadium sound, and I had been working on that style – the ability to have a really small, intimate verse blow up to a big chorus and get that feel of “bigness”, but in a range of perhaps two-and-a-half dB dynamics. How do you make it explode? It took me a year and a half to make that develop.
Before that I was doing only R&B – Aretha Franklin, Hall & Oates – the first half of my discography is all R&B, that was the root of everything. Once I learned the feeling of soul, the physical and emotional feel of what R&B is about, it became the basis for every other style of music I would do from then on.
But I got tired of that, and wanted to move to rock. What applies to rock doesn’t apply to R&B, so I had to drop those ideas. I realized early on that as a mixer I wanted to do many styles of music. As a mixer you have to live in a style for a while, and don’t be afraid to drop what doesn’t work.
On top of that, music is always evolving. You can’t use ideas from three years ago. If your ideas are successful, everyone’s using them. Then they’re not new ideas – they’re old ideas. On top of that, music is always evolving.
What’s an example of that philosophy in action for you?
Specifically drum sounds. I realized early that drums had to have a timeless sound to them, and not be in the moment so you can put a stamp on them and say, “That’s April, 2008,” because they didn’t have a long shelf life.
That big gated reverb drum sound is one example. I remember one song I heard recently that I had mixed back in the ‘90’s, and I had to stop after 10 seconds because I was so horrified by the sonics – the drums were so dated, I couldn’t enjoy the song. I said, “I can’t do that again.”
When I decided to go more into the guitar bands, a big influence on how the sound needed to change came from David Kahne, who’s one of my best friends. This was just going to have to be this whole other mindset, and I had to get into that. By the time Coldplay and (the 2000 album) Parachutes came around, I had been working on a particular reverb and multi-delay sound for a year and a half, I just didn’t know when the right band would come along.
That’s how it goes. I’ll start working on an idea, put it on this part of one record, here on another, whatever’s appropriate, with the belief that it’ll be right for the right band, and I have to be patient and wait. That’s how it happened with Coldplay and the Parachutes record. Then, on their third record that I mixed with them, X&Y, I said I have to change it up, and that’s when I was asking, “How do I get a small verse and a big chorus?”
It’s amazing what you’ll see that these bands from all over the world are discovering independently – it’s interesting that simultaneously they all like these little verses and big choruses. It’s not so easy to do. If you have too much dynamics, when the chorus hits and you’ve got maybe 6 dB of difference, as soon as it gets to radio or your speakers it will limit it down, and the chorus sounds smaller than the verse. If a mixer doesn’t know how to handle it right, the result is that on radio you hear a big verse and the chorus gets really tiny.
I want to respect radio, but I want it to sound great on a hi-fi stereo system as well as on the radio. That’s the challenge: keeping both these mediums happy.
Can you describe how you accomplish that, on a technical level?
It’s a combination of so many things, that one factor alone doesn’t apply. Part of it is the multi-buss approach that I do, which tends to give the impression of having more dynamics than really exists. That’s one approach.
It’s all about the impression that things are getting bigger – maybe suddenly something gets wider. So maybe the verse would be tight in the stereo field without as much top and bottom end; then in the chorus new instruments come in, and I might add bottom end into the bass more and widen the stereo.
Now you’ve got width, you’ve got depth, and the other instruments might get brighter. So you’ve got this dome effect. Now your picture is just a bigger picture.
That’s terrific advice. Can you point to an example of that in a song you mixed ?
Certainly “Fix You” off of Coldplay’s (2005 album) X&Y, but I really nailed it on Athlete’s (2005) Tourist record. After doing Parachutes, I was expecting to do Coldplay’s second record (2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head) – why wouldn’t I? – but it didn’t work out that way. I had been developing the idea, and then Athlete came along.