We first met esteemed mix engineer Michael Brauer in Tape Op #37 in 2003, when Mike Caffrey interviewed him about his multi-bus mixing technique. Some 16 years later Michael and I sat down at his new space, BrauerSound Studios, to discuss his career path and unique mixing techniques. He's crossed genres frequently, working as a mixer on projects by artists as varied as Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Tony Bennett, Coldplay, John Mayer, Calle 13, Angelique Kidjo, Phoenix, Bon Jovi, M. Ward, Grandaddy [Tape Op #7], Caveman, James Bay, and Grizzly Bear.
All archive photos and captions courtesy of MB.
I realized that I've never known how you got your start in this business.
The start is always because of one particular record. Until then, you're just slaving away. Suddenly, one day a record comes out and you become successful, and people say, "Who is that?" For me it was kind of a slow ramp. I was at MediaSound; I got hired there in '76. I went from intern to head of the interns in the shipping department, and then assistant, within a year. Then I was staff engineer within two years. Back then, it really wasn't a stretch. You could become a staff engineer in a studio that had three rooms, with six or seven senior engineers. They had senior engineers and assistants, and eventually the assistants would move up into the engineering positions. That studio was well known for R&B.
Who was managing it back then?
It was managed by Susan Planer, a woman we all loved dearly who passed away. And it was owned by John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Bob Walters, and Harry Hirsch. John and Joel financed Woodstock. They needed a place to mix the show [movie and album], so they opened this studio called MediaSound.
When I interviewed Tony Bongiovi [Tape Op #127], he talked about mixing it.
Bob Clearmountain [#129, #84] went from intern to assistant engineer right away. He was one of the early ones there to be mixing. It was an incredible group of people. The success rate of the engineers that came out of that studio is really quite impressive. I was doing a lot of records. During the day, we'd be recording commercials. You couldn't make any records during the day, because all the musicians were getting paid double and triple scale [on commercials]. Between nine and five is when we'd be recording and mixing. Two days later, you'd hear it on the radio. From six o'clock to two o'clock, we'd be making records. We'd be doing double shifts, seven days a week. I don't remember what a weekend felt like. It didn't matter. I started late when I got hired there; I was 25. I'd been on the road with a band, and I didn't want that kind of life. I'd been out of college for a couple of years. You learn by starting to do overdubs. I started by recording Sesame Street. You had to start off being able to do Sesame Street, because it was all live; a room of ten musicians going right to 4-track and mono. Everything was done at the same time, and it was done live. That's how you really cut your teeth. Fred Christie was the senior engineer who mentored me and many others. Eventually there was a lot of R&B coming in. I was working with Luther Vandross during the day. He was the top jingle singer at the time. He was doing all the main ads; McDonalds, Coca-Cola, you name it. He was the lead on that.
He could just nail it?
He was beyond belief. There was the same group of background singers for all these dates. You saw them day and night. Same with these musicians. You'd see Will Lee in the day and again at night. You'd see Paul Shaffer, Allan Schwartzberg, and Bob Babbitt when he moved from Motown. Great musicians. The list goes on and on. I think I was one of the first to record Marcus Miller at Media when he was first breaking out. And great, great arrangers. It was just a wealth of beautiful, great music. We were doing record after record, day-in-day-out. It was mostly R&B. Van McCoy was there for a time. Fatback Band. Tony Bongiovi was doing all the big Motown and funk. Then one day this Italian producer, [Jacques] Fred Petrus, was producing this new act in the studio. It was just a band; they didn't have a name. If they became successful, then they'd put a band together. They were at Power Station, and they were having a tough time getting the right mix and couldn't find the right vocalist either. Yvonne Lewis, the vocal contractor there was a good friend of mine, because I would see her at work twice a day. She really liked how I worked. She recommended that they come to MediaSound, and that I record and mix the next batch of singers. It was Luther Vandross. He was holding onto the lyrics of "The Glow of Love" and "Searching," and we ran it down in the studio for a minute. He goes, "Okay." He walks out into the studio and he's literally holding it [the paper] and singing. That was the pass, on both "The Glow of Love" and "Searching." It was crazy good. Then I mixed it, and they loved the mix. From that point on, I was doing everything for the band, Change. I went to Italy to do The B.B.&Q. Band [Brooklyn, Bronx, & Queens Band] on [Fred's] Little Macho Music. It was just on and on with Fred. That is how Luther – hearing what I had done in recording and mixing the Change record – asked me to record and mix his own album. He was doing it on the weekends. We'd do two songs a weekend, and then three and four.
He was paying out of pocket?
Yeah. He was paying for the whole thing. I think he was shopping it around, but nobody was really interested at the time. Finally, he found Arista [Records]. Of course, his song, "Never Too Much," came out, and boom! That was really the beginning for me. I'd already heard a couple of things I'd done on the radio, but this was it. This was the first record that I completely mixed and recorded, from soup to nuts. Of all the records that have come out, it's still one of my favorites. It just feels timeless. Luther was a rising star. David Bowie had used him for Young Americans, but here he comes out on his own and he's singing like no one else. No one was doing that style. Right around that time, I was also working for Robert Wright, who was with RCA [Records]. I was doing a lot of remixing, like remixing the Hall & Oates singles, "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," "Your Imagination," and "One on One." Those were becoming very successful.
Were those mixes made for radio?
Yeah. That's what you'd hear on the radio. They were R&B, but they'd also move over to the pop charts. I did two or three of those. Word started getting out because of the success of those records. There was a point where I got a call to mix a couple of songs for the Rolling Stones on Steel Wheels. Then I ended up mixing almost the entire album at Olympic Studios, where they had all their big hits.
That was a really great room.
And a really great experience! So, it started with R&B and it went to rock with an R&B base with the Stones. That's all R&B, but then I started moving more towards rock. I wanted to spend five or six years on each different style. I was in no rush. I had my hand in production for a couple years, when I was spending a lot of time in England, but it didn't feel natural to me. I wasn't a songwriter, and I had felt that a great producer needs to be a songwriter. Otherwise you need to be dependent on a self-sufficient band who knows how to fix their own stuff and write their own bridge. The best I can be was always dependent on that. The great producers I work with are either helping write, or rewriting, the lyrics.
Someone like Arif Mardin who could do charts.
Exactly. If I really wanted to be at the top of my game, I'd never get there that way. I've never written a song in my life, and it's never going to happen. On the other hand, I really loved to mix. I did a couple of years of production, and finally said, "Okay, enough of that." I could see the writing on the wall. I used to love recording – the basics, the rhythm section, the horns and strings – but my love, almost from the get-go, was mixing. It was something that came naturally to me. But it didn't come around easily. I didn't hear compression for the first two years I was at MediaSound. Engineers would be like, "Give me the [Teletronix] LA-2A. Wait, give me the [Urei] 1176 instead." I'd be like, "Who cares? I can't hear any difference between the two of those." That's not a good sign, is it?
You've got to train yourself to hear compression.
When you're in there day-in-day-out, one day you hear the difference. "Good, I'll have a career in this!" There was something about mixing. I was in a band for two years on the road, and I really missed the feeling of being in the band. There's nothing better than being on stage with a crowd who's loving you and you're playing as one. The show's great. We were just a cover band, but it felt great. I missed that part, but I knew I had to leave that life. I actually imagined in my head – because I missed it so much – that when I was mixing, I was mixing live. I was performing. I always had this crowd in my head. When I go back and listen to those mixes, it always feels like I was performing. Like I was live on stage.
Was a lot of it manual mixing? Hands-on?
Oh, sure. All the Luther and the Aretha [Franklin] records. Luther was producing Aretha, so that's how I got to do the Aretha records. Two with him, and then one with Narada Michael Walden; "Freeway of Love." That approach turned out to work great. As a drummer, I knew all my cues for manual mixing. I didn't really need someone to help me. Maybe turning a snare on and off, or a reverb, or something. I really loved it. I'd stand up and mix. I'd be with Luther and all the boys in the room, and we'd be jamming and moving.
Mixes were a performance, in the analog days.
They were. They had to be. It was such a great feeling when I nailed it. I'd always print each pass I did. I never wanted to stop in the middle. I never edited it. It always had to be a performance, from beginning to end. It had to feel right. That way I knew how to build the dynamics.
At that point in time, how many people did you know that were full-time mixers?
There were very, very few. In our studio none of us were quite full-time yet. During my time, the senior guys were Michael DeLugg, Harvey Goldberg, Tony Bongiovi, Joe Jorgenson, Michael Barbiero, Alan Varner, Doug Epstein, Lincoln Clapp, Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #129], Ed Stasium [#98], Godfrey Diamond, and Ron Saint Germain. Everybody had such a different sound and approach; it was great to watch. The ones who had the most personality really grew. You could see that they didn't have to have great talent, although they did. Artists were just so endeared to them. Others who didn't become successful had attitude. Even though they were really good, no one wanted to be with them. They went on and did other things.
That's sometimes the untold story of studio life. If you're not a good hang, who's going to sit in the studio with you for 10 or 12 hours?
That's how it is. Godfrey Diamond was hanging out in a club at 21, and he ran into Lou Reed. Lou Reed decides, "I'm going to make a record." Godfrey goes, "I'm an engineer at Electric Lady." He'd just been hired. Lou said, "Oh, we'll start tomorrow." Godfrey runs back and he's like, "How do you patch?" I think his assistant may have known more than him, but he pulled it off and nobody was the wiser. He was a great hang, and the record [Coney Island Baby] sounded good. He delivered, right? Sometimes an artist would come in with a lot of attitude and say their music was "the shit!" Godfrey would say, "I think I can save this!" And he would. Everybody had a different approach to working with a client – that was the great learning experience. It wasn't just about how to make a great snare drum sound; [it was also about] interpersonal communication between yourself and the artist, or the producer, and a room full of people who are trying to control the room. Tony [Bongiovi] always controlled. Every one of these guys always controlled the session. You could see the guys who didn't, and the band would take over. Suddenly it's like, "Who's flying the plane?" That personality comes across in the way they make their records.
What does your personality bring?
I think I try to stay pretty transparent. I think I can really bring out the dynamics and the heart of the song, to really build it up so you can feel when that chorus hits. The emotion of a mix. If a song is sad, I can make it really, really sad. If it's happy, I can make it really happy. If it's angry, I can make it super angry. Those emotions are part of my personality, and it comes out that way, but I'm pretty transparent. I don't put a big stamp on it.
I listen to your mixes, and I don't know if I've ever thought, "Oh, that's a Brauer mix."
Well, there you are. You've seen where they all kind of have the same snare sound or the same this and that. It gets cranked out. I learned a long time ago how important it is to try and be timeless. I produced a record for Roachford [on their self-titled release with the hit, "Cuddly Toy," in 1988]. Two or three years later I was listening to it, and I was shocked because it was so timestamped. The way the drums sounded and everything. You could almost tell what month that snare was popular.
The '80s had such an issue with that. Technology was shifting, and techniques were getting passed around.
Yeah. This was around the mid-'80s with the AMS reverb on the snare. I was really embarrassed. I remember it being such a great song, but the sound timestamped it. I don't want to do that. I really have to work to be as timeless in the mix as possible. Still keeping everything current, but not to give it such a "this is what was hot then" and "this is now" kind of sound.
Speaking of current times, what I've found with mixers is that the overall frequency bandwidth is wider. When you think about mixing Luther Vandross' first record, you were mixing ostensibly for radio and vinyl, right?
Not really. I really didn't think that way. I was always thinking as hi-fi as possible. Of course, I'd give it to Greg Calbi [Tape Op #86], and he'd do what he had to do on vinyl, but he didn't have to do too much. I knew my limitations, because I was using a compressor. Maybe too much back then. Back then, R&B was tight. I always used a [Neve] 33609 into a couple of Pultec EQs.
On the whole mix?
On the whole mix. That worked great, until Narada Michael Walden came along and wanted way more bottom-end on the Freeway of Love record. As I added more bass, Aretha's voice disappeared. I was using a stereo compressor. "Bring Aretha back up!" Then the bass would come down. He's like, "Hey, what'd you do with the bass?" It was one of those nauseous feelings, where it's like, "I'm up against the wall, and I may not get out of this. Is it possible I'm going to fail?" But that's what led to multi-bus compression.
Good segue. I was going to ask you when you started working that way.
Well, I survived it; right? I still have a hard time listening to that song. I physically remember the fear that I had mixing it. After that, I was thinking, "Will this happen to me again? What am I going to do?" I was mixing basically in pre-compression, and then hitting the stereo compressor, and every track was getting nailed at the same time. Records now have way more bottom-end, and we all know the bottom-end triggers the compressor, not the top-end. And whoever's on top is going down too. So, do I keep bringing down all the other faders? Then you lose the glue [that the bus compressor adds]. It was one thing affecting the other. I knew I never wanted to experience that again. I was mixing at Right Track at the time; I had just left MediaSound. Frank Filipetti was the senior engineer there. He had just gotten a new console for some of the film work he was doing; it was an SSL 6000. I was mixing on the SSL 4000. I'd grown up on the Neve 8068, so the transition from Neve to SSL was a frightening experience. I would put up my multitrack on there, and it just didn't come back the same way. The bottom-end was tiny. The snare didn't hit. Understand, this is the first couple of years of SSL. If you touch even the top-end EQ, you'd be screaming. It was harsh, and one little tweak was like 6 dB. They went on to do great things, and it became the 9000 console, eventually – my favorite console in the world. But Frank Filipetti was showing me the new console, the 6000. I asked, "What is this?" He said, "You've got three stereo busses now." I was like, "There's no such thing. There's only one stereo." He said, "No. You've got three sub-stereos, and they all sum to one." I said, "Yeah, who cares? Why?" He goes, "Well, you've got the music on one, then the dialog, and then the effects. You can separate everything within the film." My head just went, "Wait a minute! Separate? If I could separate the drums and bass from the vocals, I'd be set! This is the answer to my problem." That began the transition, slowly. All that I knew was that this was my salvation, if I could truly separate the drums or the bottom-end from other elements. It took me months and months of figuring out what combinations worked. Back then it was strictly multi-bus compression. If I could send the bass to A and B – say the B was just the drums and the bass, and the A was going to be guitars and everything else, and C might be vocals – maybe if I sent the bass to A and B it would sound really cool. Now I was into parallel compression. I didn't know what any of these terms meant at all. Nothing.
It wasn't commonly talked about that way.
Yeah. You could say "parallel compression," but that was Greek to me. I had no idea what it meant, or how it sounded. "Why? Who cares?" Some of the English guys would take the stereo mix on the 4000, and they'd have the stereo mix uncompressed, and then they'd mult in a very compressed mix underneath it. That was parallel compression. Slowly you'd get that "excitement" going on. The English engineers did a lot of that. Eventually MediaSound and all the other studios opened up to outside engineers, because, for years, they were staffed. A producer or artist wouldn't ever bring in their own engineer if they were from somewhere else. I slowly, slowly got a really cool thing going. I put compressor processing on [mix busses] A, B, and C. If I didn't have it loud enough, nothing was going on with the compressors across each sub-stereo, like on my drums. If I put too much in, it got small. The compressor was grabbing. And then there's the choice of compressors. Months and months of trial and error. I discovered that I could hear these ideas in my head. At the time I was a bike racer and I was putting in hundreds of miles a week. I'd be on my bike and I'd just imagine, "What if I put the drums in this compressor?" I could hear those ideas in my head, because I'd gotten to know my drums, and compressors, and EQs so well. If you imagine well, you can eliminate 99 percent of the gear. You can look at all your toys, scan them, and suddenly just go, "Boom." I'd come back into the studio to see if it worked. If not, "Well, okay."
Oops, bad idea.
That was how the multi-bus title happened. Someone put a name on it: "Multi-bus compression." I kept that term until it no longer applied, because I started quickly using parallel and send returns. But I'd been doing this almost ten years before your article [Tape Op #37]. At that point, I'd had enough success that people were interested. "What are you doing that's different?"
People were using facets of it, but you had a system going.
Nothing was original. The combining became original.
Do you still work in this fashion now?
Absolutely. It extended to not only A, B, and C. It went to D and the stereo bus. B was my drums and bass, generally. C was my guitars. A would be anything with sustain. A was what I originally mixed in, with my Neve 33609 going into the Pultec. But, at that time, it would be all my vocals, all keyboards, organs, strings, or horns. [Basically] anything that was sustain.
Yeah. Then I eventually moved over to Sony studios and got the SSL 8000 that had four sub-stereo busses. "I think I'll use the fourth one as a spreader." That had a spreading compressor on it. Then, when I moved to the 9000, I had four sub-stereos plus the desk stereo, so that was five. Then I could choose between processed and non-processed. That's when I started letting more of the transients through. Let's say the kick was going through B, but then I'd hit the stereo bus too, and now I was getting combinations. To this day, I still have A, B, C, and D, and I've got more gear in the back of my racks with the Pultec. Then B is [Empirical Labs] Distressors going into the Avalon E55 equalizers. C is the Pendulum Audio ES-8 [tube limiter], and then D is this [TFPro P8] Edward the Compressor. It's a spreader.
When you say spreader, what do you mean by that?
It's got a width control on it, and I have it all the way at 150 percent.
Is that like a mid/side effect? I don't know that device.
Kind of. It just takes everything on the left and moves it a little on the right, and then everything on the right and moves it a little on the left. You feel this spread, which I use for backing vocals and certain things I want to go a little wider. Right about the time, right before I first worked with Coldplay, my friend David Kahne mixed lead vocals by compiling them through four or five different-sounding compressors. I found that intriguing. His vocal sound was always fat and big, but the meter didn't kill. At this point, I'd already gone as far as I could with what I had done, and I had a million different options. That's what's so great about the multi-bus compression approach. I can always get out of any trouble with width and depth by going with this.
Just by reassigning things?
Yeah. If I want a little more level, instead of trying to bring a fader up, I'll send it through one more thing, like C. It was so much fun. But then along came this other idea. So, I played with that for a while. Then, eventually, I didn't have the lead vocal going through A, B, C, or D anymore. It was separate from all that. I'd send it to four different-sounding compressors: Fairchild 666, one of my Gates [Sta-Levels], the 1176, and a Distressor.
It was going through all of these?
Yeah, through the send. On the return I would form the vocal sound. Each one sounded different – one was a head sound, one was throaty, one was urgent – and then I'd have the Distressor on crush and sneak in a little bit of that.
So, you'd blend those all back to one signal with bussing?
Right. Then I'd EQ a little bit. Usually I took some 300 Hz out. I'd end up with this really incredible vocal sound. When I'm pushing the vocal, I'm sending the vocal into these compressors. I'd find a sweet spot in these compressors and then I'd bring them all back, so they'd all be compressing about the same, unless one was crushing. Maybe I had the 1176 on the British setting [4 buttons in]. I would also use the Federal [AM864U], which has this mid-range crazy, crazy sound. That combination could just turn a vocal that was dull and uninteresting into a vibrant vocal that didn't sound compressed.
Were you still using the original, uncompressed signal parallel against that?
No. That was it. All you're hearing is the return of those four or five compressors. I'd be mixing into them. I'd find that sweet spot where they'd be reacting beautifully. I never looked back.
With the systems you do, are you compressing the final mix output? Is there a limiter?
Yeah, there would be a glue factor. That's my mastering rack, where I have a choice of four different compressors. The Manley Variable Mu, the Chandler Germanium compressor, the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, and the ADL 670. The ADL is based on the Fairchild 670, but it sounds a bit more modern. I have a switch, so I can listen to any of those; I can A/B between. On a lot of these, it's just a feel thing. Depending on the music, the Chandler just has this incredible bottom and warmth. But maybe there's a certain record where there's already too much of that. Maybe the Manley tube is just what it needs. Or it could be the 670, which is much more of a traditional squishy kind of sound. Or the Shadow Hills, which has VCA [voltage-controlled amplifier] and optical compression. There are times when I don't use any of them for a song.
You're not still using your ears, are you? [laughter]
I don't know that I need to! It's just feels like more than hearing. "Oh, this feels better." Interestingly, I usually stay away from talking technique. I teach this seminar at Mix with the Masters, where I started with Victor [Levy-Lasne] and Maxime [Le Guil] ten years ago. During that week I unfortunately have to spend some time explaining what's now called "Brauerize." It was actually Guy [Berryman] from Coldplay who came up with that term. I have to explain technically what goes on, but I say, "Look, this is just a tool. Why am I using it? Because I'm trying to get an emotion out, as well as different colors. This is the process. You're mixing into compression." It helps me find the four or five emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, or the club, where the vocal isn't really any more than one of the instruments. This approach is such a great tool, because you can use any combination. There are times when it sounds too big and expensive, and I'll go back to my traditional way with the Neve and the Pultecs. I've been in a situation like that with John Mayer, where I was mixing "Who Says." He said, "That sounds great. It sounds radio ready, but it just doesn't sound honest enough!" I removed everything and went right back to my traditional way where everything went to A, which is the Neve and the Pultec. Even the vocal was my original [Urei] LA-3A. It wasn't about the sound, but about how the sound was projecting. The great thing about my approach is that you have everything. It allows somebody to get as creative as they want.
I told you about my client who hired me to mix a song a couple years ago and said, "Can you do the Brauer bus technique?" I'd never applied that.
That is just the worst – it doesn't make any sense. A manager I had was telling me, "What you need to do now is sound more like Chris [Lord-Alge]," or whoever was hot at time. I was just like, "I've been spending all these years working up my own sound and you're telling me now that's no good?" So, I fired him. If my sound is really that unwanted, then maybe I'm out. I know that feeling! It's an awful, awful feeling. "Why don't you call that guy?" You're there to use that person's talent.
Have you worked on records where you're in a test run with other mixers that you don't know about?
Sure. We all do that. You have to be as much yourself as possible. You don't second-guess. You just do what your interpretation is of that. It doesn't mean that your mix is any worse or any better than somebody else's. I've won a bunch, and I've lost some. You just go, "Okay."
When you first started to do mixes that weren't just signed off on in the moment, how did you deal with those sort of revisions?
The artist used to attend the mix. They'd come in, I'd mix, and they'd make comments. That was the last of it – their comments were final. Maybe sometimes they'd say, "Let's come back in." On the Neve we drew pictures of each EQ and where the fader was. But, basically, I would go back and mix that song. I'd A/B it against my old mix, and it would be so close! I was hearing it the same way. Those were great days. Then Pro Tools came out and people suddenly realized that they had more options, as well as more ways to delay the final verdict. They would delay, and delay, and delay. It got to the point where I'd do the mix and they'd come back with a legal-size yellow pad and get really detailed. It also got to the point where I'd listen to the mix and go, "What is this mix? What am I listening to anymore? The focus is all gone!" They'd do all this stuff and then I'd say, "Let's listen back to the first mix." Everybody would be moving. Then we'd listen to four hours of changes, and nobody's moving in the room. They got detailed. They're starting to listen to their own instruments. You've lost your way.
Do you find yourself trying to counsel people about this?
You know, you do your best; but it's to the point now where nobody cares. "These are the comments; do them." People don't even attend anymore. I'm fine to do all that. What I find a little bit different is that people don't say, "Thank you." They send you notes. Like how about...
I know this feeling very well, Michael.
How about, "I love this mix. Great mix. Here are my comments." As opposed to, "Here are my comments." We are mixers. We are putting emotion into this song. We are putting our heart into it. We do care. Everybody likes a little bit of a pat on the back. I think artists and producers should just take a minute to say, "Thank you." Don't they get encouraged by the same things? "Wow, great song!" Or when they're performing it, people applaud after a song. Not, "Hey, your guitar was a little out of sync there in the second chorus." The fact that only ten percent show up to sessions now to listen to my mix makes the whole process more difficult now. I always sat down and discussed the rough mix before getting started.
What they like, what they don't like.
Exactly. If I've got three hours to mix this song, the learning curve is going to be pretty quick. The more they tell me, the more I'm going to nail it right off the bat. Now I have to imagine myself having that conversation.
A number of times I'm trying to figure out what they want via their rough mix and eventually someone says, "We totally don't like the rough mix."
That's rough then. If they're not going to attend, I will get on the phone with them. "That rough really sucks. Is this indicative?" If you're not going to attend, why don't you spend a minute to give me some kind of a reference? They're usually liars, because in my experience when they say, "Don't listen to the rough at all," I'll try it. And then they say, "You know how in the verse that guitar sounded..."
It keeps coming back to haunt you.
"But you said not to listen to it!" Well...
Do you ever get some part they added that they don't think works, but they still gave it to you?
Someone in the band wanted it, or the label wanted it.
Right. If you mute that and just happily mix on, that's going to be the
thing they mention when you're done, right?
Absolutely. If I really feel like it takes the song somewhere else, I'll do an alternate mix and then I'll wait and see what happens.
I do that exact same thing.
I used to demand that the artist show up, and then that stopped working. They don't have the budget to come into New York, or they're rehearsing, or they're on the road. Okay. Then I demanded that we do FaceTime. When Nicecast came out with their streaming app – which is no longer – I'd set it up while it was going. I was streaming Nicecast, and I was doing FaceTime. It was like being able to have the band in the room, and they could do their comments. There might be more comments later, but I'd really nail 90 percent of how they wanted to hear it. I don't even request FaceTime or Nicecast anymore, whatever the newest live process is. Either people will attend, or that's it. The next best thing was like, "Wherever you are in the world, I'm going to have the mix ready." I'm going to play you the mix so you have time to live with it, and then we're going to hook up and make changes in real time.
Did you do mix sessions with Coldplay, or other bands, initially like that?
Chris [Martin] and the band always showed up until Viva La Vida. Chris was back in England. We'd FaceTime at a certain time every day, usually right after bath time for Chris' kids. We'd get online and work for two or three hours. I did the same kind of thing with John Mayer. They tried to attend. If they couldn't, they couldn't.
Having someone here, you can read their body language. If you feel them twitching, or if the bass player drops in, then you start thinking, "How would the bass sound to me if I was the bass player?"
And what happens if he starts focusing on the bass and it becomes "the bass song"? The body language; I remember one artist I worked with didn't say a word. He'd never worked with anyone. He'd mixed his own records, but the label asked that I mix him. He was looking at me like I was a mercenary. I was like, "No, I'm not going to do that to you. This is for you. This is your record. This isn't like I'm hired help and if you like it or don't like it, I don't care." I played him the mix, and he just had no comment at all. He was like, "This is good." I'm like, "I don't believe that!" So, I said, "Let me just play it one more time." Then I watched him. I kind of looked to the side, and I noticed his eyebrow would move on the B-section and in the bridge. I notated that in my head. Then I said, "So, do you like verse two?" He goes, "Oh yeah, it's fine." I go, "Are you sure? Let's play verse two. Do you love everything about that?" I could see his eyebrow... Then he said, "You know, the synth on that could be a little bit brighter." Then I'd say, "How's the bridge here?" The eyebrow would bop. It was like pulling teeth. He just wasn't being open at all, and I made him speak his mind. By the end of the record I didn't have to pull teeth anymore. He didn't feel intimidated; he could be open. Maybe he'd been told, "Oh, this is a pro. Don't get in the way." Which is the worst possible thing you could tell an artist.
I've had clients come in who think that I'm only trying to satisfy myself. I'm baffled by that.
They've got to live with it. If it's successful, and it was mixed the way they hated, the band will break up. Suddenly you made them a "pop" band or something.
Last time I visited you, you were in Electric Lady, mixing in the back room past the big live room.
Studio B. I was there for nine years. I was at MediaSound from '76 to '81, and then I went to Right Track for some years, and Quad [Studios] for 20, with a six-year break at Sony Studios. At Quad, the writing was on the wall. Lou Gonzalez was selling the studio, and I watched this new guy take over. He was young and inexperienced. I could just see that it was not going to stay successful. This is when the bottom fell out of the industry and there were no budgets anymore. The economy had also taken a drive. One of my friends, Troy Germano, called me and said, "The new guy's co-owner is telling everybody he's going to jack your studio rate up."
That's a good friend to have.
I didn't say anything, but that's when I started looking for another studio. I really liked Lee [Foster, Electric Lady's managing partner]. I'd run into Lee a few times. He'd be like, "Why aren't you working at my studio?" Now it was like, "Lee. Why don't you come and visit me?" I showed him my room, because there's a certain comfort level there. I never used the live room, so it was the lounge at the time, and it became my recall room. He said, "I've got a room for you." I'd never been to Electric Lady before. There was this thing between MediaSound and Electric Lady, where you'd never, ever work at Electric Lady. They were bitter enemies for years because of the previous owner. I went in, and he took me all the way to the back; a whole back section of Electric Lady. There was a big credenza behind the console, but I had my six racks of gear. "Where am I going to put it?" He said, "We'll get rid of the credenza." "Could you do that, and then build a wall for gear so all the extra racks could go in?" He said, "Sure, what else do you want?" I said, "This looks like it's an original SSL 9000. That's really old. You're going to need to refurbish this and fix it up. If you can do all those things I'll move here, because this is great." For Electric Lady, it was a perfect time. They were going through a really hard transition and weren't sure if they were going to renew their lease. Lee found a new owner and became a part-owner. Things changed drastically. I was there for nine years. I'd been doing a lot of indie records. Coldplay wasn't indie, but it started that way! Unless you were doing strictly urban pop, the budgets were smaller, and I was still in a room that's a major daily expense. It was almost ten years, at this point. It was time to move. With the projects that are going on, I want the ability to take on anything I want. I can still do all the major label projects, but I can also do anything that I want to do, without the pressure that I've got to book the room to use it. That's what led me to thinking about eventually moving out and just having my own place, which is something that I never, ever thought I would do. I needed to build two rooms. I had basically turned the live room at Electric Lady into a prep and recall room. I had the same whole setup of the main room for simple recalls that my assistants could do for level changes and such. It was time to move, and I looked around; but it was pretty depressing. I saw one studio I didn't like, but I liked the owner, Louis Benedetti. The owner was saying, "I'm thinking of opening a new place in Chelsea." I said, "Here's my budget, and I want a monthly lease." I didn't have to do that while I was at Electric Lady. If I didn't work, I didn't pay. It came in handy when I was slow. But I was in there so much; year, after year, after year.
I noticed there's not an SSL in your new room here.
I've been lucky since I moved here. I thought, "If I'm going to move, I can't be bringing an SSL console here." An analog console that's going to come with all its age, all its heat, and all its tech needs. There's not going to be a tech on staff here like at Electric Lady. That's a luxury! At this point, I felt so confident with the control surface of the [Avid] Artist Mix. I demoed this Avid S6 control surface for about three months. If I'm going to have a control surface, it has to look like my console. I have to have a lot of faders, because I'm still going to be playing with them. I'm not going to do the mouse thing. This is strictly a control surface, quick recall, and it's fast. I've learned how this automation works, and it's everything the SSL automation had. During the last year and a half at Electric Lady I had set up the recall room. The recall room was a hybrid, but I had the basics of my analog gear duplicated. I had two racks with A, B, C, and D going on, as well as a little mastering rack. For everything else I was just using plug-ins. I had a little Artist Mix [control surface], two of them, for 16 faders. I knew I was going to have to learn this, because all of my friends were already mixing either hybrid or in-the-box. The reason for that really is mix recalls. Recalls are endless. You can't keep recalling a console. If it was one day of comments, and I was fast, I could get maybe three songs in a day. But there were no stems being made of that. Now there are notes after notes. Initially we had to start doing stems. We had to do 40 passes [of stem mixes], and then we would make all the recalls off of all the passes. We didn't recall the console anymore. I decided, "I'm going to still keep analog. I'm just going to replace the console." It was dreadful, I can tell you. I remember times just getting up and screaming. I'd be so mad. I'd start to mix something and I'd feel like shit. It felt nothing like me. I'd go back, and I already had something else I was mixing in the other room, but I was learning. Even trying to mix the same song in the hybrid room, "Where's the sweet spot?" I know the sweet spot on a Neve and an SSL. This is a mouse. Where's the sweet spot? But because I had the A, B, C, and D, I just needed to get back into how far up I needed to put the faders so I'm back in the sweet spot on my compressors. I realized I didn't need the console anymore for the sound. I'm dependent on my A, B, C, and D. I had to recalibrate all the gear a little bit, so it would kick in a little bit sooner. It was just the fear factor that I had. I had no confidence in this, but I knew that I had to get it. Then one day I mixed a song, and it just felt like me again. I didn't have to think. When I mix, I don't think; I just go by impulse. I'm just feeling and moving. Here, initially, I was constantly thinking. I didn't know how to do this and didn't know how to do that. I didn't know anything. It was a new instrument. It started to come over the course of a year, because I just kept at it. Then finally I mixed a song, just a small project. It was a paying project; so I had to care, and I had to deliver. It came out really, really good! I found that I had more width, more clear depth, and it went down further. I got there quicker. That bottom-end was there a lot faster. I tried to mimic the things that I do on the console with the way I'd double up a bass; I'd do a neck sound and kind of a bass sound. Same with the vocal, trying to learn how to do that with different compressors or plug-ins. It got to the point where I was like, "Shit, this feels good! The artist is happy."
For your A, B, C, and D paths, were you leaving the gear set?
I always left A, B, C, and D set anyway. It's all the other EQs that change.
I find myself using a lot of the same hardware settings lately. I used to read about engineers doing that and felt like it was a cop out.
I 100 percent agree with you. The only things that I touch here would be my reverbs and delays.
It's always different music, but we're always trying to solve a lot of the same mix problems.
Absolutely. If it's a great recording, you don't have to use anything. Then there are other ones... Wow, thank god for plug-ins. I'll put Helios ones across everything if it really needs something!
What do you feel about the quality of tracks you've been given to mix these days?
It was really, really bad about 10 or 15 years ago. You had engineers who had never recorded anything. Everything was loops and synths, and suddenly they're being asked to record something acoustic because they're really "hot." They'd be recording drums, and we all know that you've got to be good to get drums to sound like they're appropriate for the song, as opposed to something that sounds like cardboard on all ten songs. That was a nightmare. But I think it's gotten better and better. Also, there's the transition of getting stems instead of raw tracks.
Right, where they've committed to something.
It doesn't mean that I put up the stems and go home! I learned this over time. "I really like this rough mix. How come I don't have that reverb?" "Well, you didn't give it to me." "Why can't you just do the same thing?" I'd ask, "How long did you spend getting that reverb?" Then it's, "What about all the effect on the guitar? I love this one." In the early days with Pro Tools, it was all done with plug-ins, and they'd just give me the direct guitar signal. I'd say, "What is that?" They'd say, "You figure out." I'd reply, "You spent hours getting the guitar sound, and you want me to mimic it off your direct? What's wrong with you?" That's when I started saying, "Don't give me a direct signal. Give me your processing." It's not like I'm lazy. I'm going to start where you left off. "Are you happy with the sound you have? Then give it to me that way! Give me what you like. Trust me." There's always still a lot more to go. More and more I started requesting stems. That's the way the world is right now. What you get generally in the rough mix is a running master off Pro Tools. They haven't put those faders down since the day they put them up.
Right. There's a sort of mix process going along.
It's a mix in progress. I'll listen to the rough mix, and often it's pretty close. I came up with the term called MAI; Match And Improve. I'm going to match it, and then it's up to my creativity to know what I'm going to need to improve. If it's only ten percent, which ten percent? More and more, I'm getting really good, consistent rough mixes. As a mixer, it's up to me to figure out what I'm going to change.
Your taste is always going to be part of this process.
That's why they're calling me. But it's not a "my way or the highway" thing. For the most part now, if I'm doing a record and there's a bunch of comments, I don't have to work off stems. It takes a few minutes to pull the mix back up, my assistant matches it, I do my changes, and that's it. Stems can be printed later. All of my hardware is across the Antelope convertor's inserts, so I'm using strictly Antelope. The patchbay is all the Antelope, so I never have to touch the patchbay again. It shows up in Pro Tools as an analog plug-in. I always print anything that's hardware.
Your assistants help you with printing mixes?
They don't help me; they do it. I get up and go home. They print every hardware insert. If a piece of gear goes down, it's already been printed.
Do you get that gut feeling when you hear the rough mix, where you're like, "What am I going to do?" I get that a lot with good rough mixes.
Easily. That's a definite MAI. I am matching this sucker! Then I figure out why they came to me. Maybe it's only 5 percent. That 5 percent is all it needed, as opposed to 20 percent that you didn't need, and then they make you change it back to what it was. That's where the experience comes back in; recognizing what to keep and what to change. Not feeling like because I'm hired, I need to change it all. That's generally not the case. That's an ego thing that people have to get over sometimes. "I'm hired to do this, so I have to do all of this and that." This is where it helps if you can just talk to the artist. It's always two things. Drums and vocals! If you improve the drums a little bit, and you improve the vocals, while maintaining the balance of everything else between the vocals and drums, usually everybody's happy! On a rough mix where I think, "Wow, it's crushed and finished. Why are they coming to me?" It's probably because it's crushed.
Relax it a little.
Yeah, relax it. What would I do with this song if I had mixed it? What are they talking about? Why are they saying I should mix it? Then I start imagining that, and it's like, "Well, this is what I would do." It's a MAI and back it up a little bit.
I'll be A/B-ing, and I'll just turn the fader in Pro Tools of the rough mix down until it's close to the console mix I'm going at, and then I keep A/B-ing back and forth.
Always. I do that.Then you'll see where the changes are. There have been situations where I do that and go, "Man, my mix sounds good." Then I go, "Fuck, it's the rough!" My head hits the console and I feel nauseous. That's the way I always work. I know some people say to never listen to rough mixes. Well, good luck with that! In today's world, the more you can nail it, and the less comments you can get, it's a happy day.
That's true. I want the client to be happy and have what they want.
This is for them.