Having worked in the music industry since the 70’s, Michael Brauer has done records with legends such as Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, John Mayer, Coldplay, Rolling Stones and the list of huge artists goes on.
Besides the artists he has worked with, his unique style of mixing, especially how he uses compression has made him one of the top mixers in the industry. In this interview, Michael opens up about how he first got started, how he expresses himself through his mixing, favourite failures, going out of your comfort level to keep developing new ideas and stay fresh, what he learned from working under Clearmountain and so much more.
Michael shares some really great knowledge that you can definitely apply to your own work and career so I hope you enjoy it.
You started out in the shipping department and eventually became staff engineer at Media Sound Studio in New York. Could you tell us some of your experience from starting out to eventually becoming an engineer? What were some of your biggest struggles and how did you overcome them?
Our job was to stock the studios every morning, deliver tapes and packages to clients, either at the labels or at home. We also helped to set up and break down sessions. I became head of shipping in a few months and when the shift ended I would offer to assist any of the engineers. I was 25 when I got hired so I was actually older than some of the engineers. It didn’t bother me though since I was there to learn from the best and I was happy to be there. The hours were really long and it was a while before I felt that there was a light by the end of the tunnel. However, considering how it’s now to get ahead, I moved up the ranks very fast and became a staff engineer in two years.
The main struggles I had was to understand what Dolby did and hearing the differences between compressors or even hearing compression in general.
You said: “The tools and toys are simply an extension of the thought process. It's really about being creative and visualizing how the song should sound and feel.” What led you to that approach and how can you as an engineer develop that creative/visualization skill?
That came from me being a musician. It wasn’t the drums that made me good, it was how I played them. Watching and listening to the producers inspired me to be more sensitive to the song being recorded. I imagined I was singing the song and delivering the message. Therefore, it came naturally to me that the more emotion and heart I put into the recording and mixing, the clearer the artist’s vision became. I was very physical when I was mixing, I moved the faders a lot to create more dynamics and crescendos. Luther’s first album “Never Too Much” is the template for how I would approach mixing right up to the present.
How important is it to get out of your comfort level to further develop your skill as an engineer? What is your favourite way of stepping out of your own comfort level?
As an engineer, it’s crucial that you evolve at the same rate as music. A fresh new idea today, that is appropriate for the record you are making, has a shelf life. It may be groundbreaking and completely cutting edge, however, when the record comes out and if it becomes popular everyone will copy it, therefore, it stops being fresh. If you base your career on that, the day will come when you use it on an artist and they are not going to like it because it’s been done, it’s old.
It’s tempting to sit on your laurels but then you are no longer cutting edge because music has evolved and you haven’t. So the way I approached it is simple; take a few months to think about an idea you want to start using, spend 6 months developing it on whatever songs that are appropriate for the idea. Then search for the artist that the idea will sound great on and will bring the uniqueness out off. Work it until you feel you’ve completely nailed the idea and it’s sounding great at home and on the radio. Enjoy the success of it for another 6-8 months, then slowly stop making it your go-to idea because you are now being comfortable with it and that is the beginning of laziness. The idea is no longer fresh so it’s time to get out of the comfort zone and start on something else.
I look forward being out of the comfort zone because the alternative is being considered old in regard to sound and thought. Since I always want to have young, exciting, music coming my way I need to have fresh ideas and sounds to contribute to the mix. How can I do this if my sound is 20 years old? I must evolve as a mixer at the same pace that new artists are evolving and that requires knowing the newest technology, plugins and keeping my sound fresh and modern.
What are the main things you teach your assistants when you teach them critical listening and how to base their mixing decisions on what they want to hear rather than just following your “presets”?
First thing I do is tell them not to overthink what they are doing. Don’t think, just do. React to the moment. Second, I teach them to avoid focusing on the wrong element in the song. Third I teach them to mix with their heart, not their head.
Many people in this industry seem to experience moments where work doesn’t come in, sometimes over a few months or even years, have you experienced this and if so, how do you deal with it?
Yes, we all at some point during our career experience slow periods. It can be from a few days to a few months. If it’s a year or more it becomes a whole other problem. They way I deal with a few days or a couple weeks is to take care of things in my personal life that needs my attention as well as enjoying my time off. I’ve had a couple of summers where it got super slow but I do my best to keep upbeat and positive. It’s not easy but I get through it. It’s a good time to work on new ideas or take on spec projects. The worst thing you can do is sit around and do nothing. That just gets your mind in a bad place.
Assuming you have a good manager, they will let you know what’s going on so speak with them about projects you want them to go after. Or, maybe it’s time to reconsider looking for a new management if you feel there’s a pattern with them being lazy or not going after the records you want to do. Most important, though, is not to blame everyone around you. Take responsibility for everything. Who hired the manager? You did. Who didn’t keep on top of keeping your sound fresh? You did. Who isn’t out there networking? You aren’t. Now, when it gets into 4 months and upwards to a year, you’ve got yourself a serious problem. Aside from the financial stress, labels and producers are not thinking of you for their records. You need to figure out why. A year is very serious because labels, artists, et cetera want to see what you’ve done recently and a year is a long time because music and sound have changed, and frankly, if they don’t see a current discography they may not have the confidence that you are going to do a good job. I’ve seen great managers turn careers around for a new client that hasn’t worked in a long time. Doing it by yourself will be extremely difficult to pull off, but it means reconsidering the team you have around you. Do it sooner than later.
What were some of the most impactful lessons you learned from working for people such as Clearmountain, Delugg and Bongiovi?
All three were completely different in their approach to engineering and temperament. It was such a great experience to watch them achieve the same endpoint from different perspectives. Tony Bongiovi was just a badass engineer who came from Motown and his sounds were so funky. His personality was unique, he didn’t take shit from anyone and always had complete control of the session. As an assistant you had to be out of the way and alert at all times. He might very well say, "I gotta catch a bus in 20 minutes, take over the session Brauer." He always spoke his mind with the artist. If the song sucked, he told them. He wasn’t condescending but he did make sure the artist was going in the right direction and he was pretty blunt about it. It worked for him because that was his personality and he seemed to always be right. Bob Clearmountain was always chilled and he would come up with sounds and ideas that were simply mind-blowing but also very intimidating to me because of how great he was. I often wondered that, if I’d be even half as good as him I’d still be very successful.
Michael Delugg was my mentor and best friend as was Harvey Goldberg. Michael was high pressure, you had to be on your toes with him. He moved really fast and was a brilliant engineer who was a master of compression. He taught me about compression and is a major influence on me taking compression to the next level. He was also a master with keeping the clients happy and running the show smoothly, even when there were 10 people in the control room all raving lunatics. We would do big advertisement dates with 40 musicians in the studio and the guys producing were usually intense, nervous and hyped up on something but Michael would keep calm and keep them happy. It was incredible to watch him in action. He was a true master on interpersonal communication.
You have worked in the industry since the 70’s, are there any moments that stand out to you that was really special?
There are many moments but to name a few:
Meeting and working with Luther Vandross certainly stands out. He taught me how to feel R&B. My approach to recording his records kept his music very fresh and modern sounding. He showed me how to put emotion into everything I recorded and mixed.
When I did my first big recording session which was for a commercial with 40 musicians in a room, all playing at once. It was epic in that I was completely over my head and it needed to be recorded and mixed in 6 hours. I pulled it off without anyone noticing how nervous I was and not trying to distort anything, except the bass, but nobody noticed. I knew that if I survived that day everything else moving forward would be easy as pie.
I saw you mentioned that your fear of failure is a motivation to you, but how has that fear impact your life/work and how did you overcome it?
I’ve never overcome it. It’s what keeps me going and doing the best job possible. It comes in different degrees. I think it’s lessened by the amount of confidence I have in myself but when there isn’t some fear sitting there in the background, there’s a possibility of complacency that might set in. And that can lead to nothing but failure in my mind.
Do you have a favourite failure, as in a failure that set you up for later success?
My complete lack of understanding and hearing compression…if you can believe it! I mixed a song that was so compressed in my early year as an engineer that it didn’t matter how loud you brought up or down the monitors, it still sounded like the same volume. It scared the hell out of me so I didn’t touch a compressor for months after that. However, with time my ears began to tune into the difference in sound and feel between compressors and what compression actually did. Instead of making an instrument sound small, I learned how to make an instrument sound big with the right compressor.
What has been your best purchase for $200 or less that has most improved your work in the studio?
Plugins like iZotope RX or some of the sibilance plugins from Waves or FabFilter.