Talk with Michael Brauer, and its immediately clear why he’s mixing like no one else: He communicates in conversation just as he does with his mixes – authentic, original, expressive.
From his suite at Electric Lady Studios, Brauer’s epic discography has continued to expand with John Mayer, Tony Bennett, Kelis, Kaiser Chiefs, Elle King, James Bay, The Fray, Bon Jovi, and Phoenix. But faders aren’t the only thing keeping him busy. Waves has just launched his Brauer Motion spherical auto-panner, a next-level circular panner channeling Brauer’s expertise in emotional motion directly into everybody’s DAW.
On top of that, the Mix With the Masters seminar series that he launched eight years ago is still going strong. Presiding over a 2017 lineup that includes upcoming weeks with Al Schmitt, Tchad Blake, Alan Meyerson, and Joe Chiccarelli, educating on audio best practices is also on his agenda.
It’s a practice that illustrates the diverse path that audio pros take today, with Brauer operating at the highest-level convergence of engineering, software development and education. Not that it’s easy, as he found out in the process of developing his very first Michael Brauer plugin – a roller coaster ride that pushed him and his collaborators to audio’s edge before exceeding his wildest expectations.
Michael, the last time we sat down for an interview was in 2012 [see the full article here]. I imagine some things have changed for you, and some have stayed the same since the last time we spoke.
I’m still mixing good music. I’ve moved further away from the indie, more into the rock. Having said, that my last big records were James Bay and Elle King which are all kind of alternative. But lately it’s moving a little bit more aggressive.
What’s changed is working on designing a plugin. That really took time, a lot of time. But it was something that I wanted to do because I just wasn’t getting enough from whatever software panners and stuff that was out there already, and my hardware one wasn’t doing much for me anymore.
I think that’s where the best inventions always come from. It’s not like, “What can I create so I’ll get rich quick.” It’s, “I need this thing, and it’s just not out there.” What were the roadblocks you kept encountering that made you realize, “OK this doesn’t exist. I’m the one that’s going to have to make it?”
The first problem was that none of the ones that worked the best were software-based. The only one I liked was a hardware unit, the (Songbird FS-1) Cyclosonic (Advanced Stereo Panner). And my Cyclosonic was basically falling apart, although I think it still was quite radical in its circular type of panning with phasing issues.
I figured out certain things to do so that it wouldn’t disappear on the back end of the circle, but there were so many things I wanted to do time-wise, and I felt like it was now limited. When it first came out it was exactly what I was looking for.
You’re famed for so many of your techniques, especially parallel compression, but for any mixer obviously panning is a huge thing, even though it doesn’t always get talked about. Tell me the role that panning plays in a mix.
Well, you’ve got your basic left, center and right, and then anything in between. But the fourth panning position is one where it has no home, it just keeps moving. And there are times when a mix might no longer have any room for a static placement — that’s a time when it’s best to have a panning position that just keeps moving.
But also the whole point of that is to add movement and motion to a song. Certainly you wouldn’t want to put it on a vocal and have that whipping around a mix all day long. But things like a synthesizer, maybe a pad that just feels like that it could have more movement by going slowly left to right, panning could really just enhance a chorus or bridge.
And then there’s times when I want to be able to add rhythm to something that just didn’t have much rhythm to it. It could be a loop that’s just a little too static-feeling – it’s a mono loop and I want it to have more movement from left to right. Which I did to some success with the Cyclosonic, but in my mind I wanted to go much further and the kind of triggering that allowed that to happen.
I always had certain ideas in my head of a panning movement that none of the panners were offering yet. That was all part of the idea in a mix that can enhance a section, a chorus or bridge. That’s where panning movement can really help.
When is panning the right time to introduce these elements in the mix, and when is it the wrong time? When do you look elsewhere?
The compression and the placement is all natural, that always comes first. The time when there’s panning, it just occurs to me! (laughs) I’ll be listening to something and say, “Wow, this would feel better if it had some movement to it. Maybe the high hat could do a little bit more movement, because the song is feeling really boring right now and something needs to move, and I don’t see anything in the production that I can use.”
So it’s when there’s something lacking that those ideas come up. Because as a mixer I’m not adding additional production, I’m just mixing. I don’t hire anybody to fix stuff. I fix it by simply doing what I’ve got to do, which is limited to what I have in front of me. If it feels like it could have some more movement then a panner — especially the one that I’ve just designed — can help immediately. And if I put it, and I go, “Wow, the song just feels like it’s moving along better,” than it’s good. And if the idea sucks then you gotta remove it! (laughs)
So it sounds like panning occurs to you later in the process?
Not necessarily. If I’m starting with a loop and the loop’s just kind of sitting there, and within the loop there’s a high hat and some toms but it’s all mono I’ll say, “Wow, it would be great if the high hat could maybe move over to the left, and the toms could pan when they come in.”
With this plugin you can do a sort of triggering, so that the loop stays in the middle, except when it’s hearing high end stuff. For example, set that up so that whenever the high hat plays it will start panning. But the whole loop doesn’t pan, just certain elements and that adds great movement to the song.
When the idea comes to improve a mix, it can be at any point, the beginning or the end — I can be sitting there after the mix is done and I’m thinking, “Wow, what else could happen now? Is there any way to get this bridge to explode a little bit more?” At that point I’ll have a list of things in my head that I run through, a little checklist, and if one of them connects then I’ll do it.