Michael Brauer has been mixing records for over four decades—winning Grammys for his work with John Mayer, Coldplay, Calle 13, and Angélique Kidjo. He’s most known for his set of multi-bus compression techniques (a.k.a. Brauerizing) to drive more emotion and low-end into a song. We talked with him about how he developed this methodology, the changes he’s seen over his career, and why it is important to always keep evolving.
The HUB: Your approach to mixing and compression has earned the name “Brauerizing.” Can you explain the technique?
Michael Brauer: The Brauerize is a whole different approach to mixing—normally we were taught to mix pre-compression. With my approach, you don’t really compress pre. You’re pushing the instruments into compression, and because of that you get a lot more movement. There’s a whole multi-bus idea which incorporates parallel compression, send/return compression and more—because I want independence between instruments.
The way I break it up is the bottom end of the record (drums and bass, which has nothing to do with EQ because drums have full bandwidth) would be their own sub-stereo. And then guitars, to me would be the middle of the record, so I`keep anything like that in their own sub-stereo processing. The vocals would be again separate. I use a lot of send/returns—sending to different compressors for tone and attitude change. Those combinations together are Brauerize. The use of the multi-bus gets more emotion into a song, because if you're pushing into a compressor and it pushes back, you get natural movement without even having to force it. When I send anything (ex. the vocals) to two sources, that's called parallel compression. When I was first pushing this technique, I would say I do multi-bus compression. Well, that no longer applied—it’s not parallel, it’s not multi-bus, and the send/return where you're trying to get a sound is neither of those. It was Guy [Berryman] from Coldplay who goes, “You know, we need to Brauer-ize this record,” and then as the years have gone by when people go, “Yeah, we got to Brauerize this,” it was like it’s a certain act. You're wanting to get something from a song that’s probably going to involve some kind of an emotional response, and that's exactly what this whole thing was about.
The HUB: Did this come to you all at once or is it something that has evolved?
MB: Well, it came to me out of fear. I was mixing Aretha. This would have been the third record I had done for her but I hadn’t recorded it. It was difficult because the way that it was recorded was not exactly what I expected. The first two records I did with Luther Vandross and the third record I did with Michael Walden, and he just wanted a whole lot more bottom than I had ever done before. The traditional way—the way I had learned to mix—became a real limitation to my trying to get that across because as you all know it’s the bottom end that triggers a compressor, it’s not the top end. I would have Aretha nice and loud and then he’d go, “Yeah, now give me a lot more bottom and a lot more bass,” and I’d bring that bass up and the compressor would start hitting really hard and then Aretha would come down in level. And he’d go, “Oh, what happened to Aretha? Give me more Aretha,” and it was this back and forth. It’s the first time as far as I can remember where I was up against the wall and I got scared. I mean, I was nauseous because I wasn’t sure what I could get out of this. I kept bringing the submaster fader down so it wasn’t hitting the compressor so hard, and then it would unglue. It was a really, really frightening day. I still can’t listen to that song without remembering the terror of that day. And then I got to the point where he was happy, and the bottom end was there, and Aretha was still loud. And I had a choice. You know, I could say, “This day never happened. This was a fluke. It’ll never happen again,” or I could say, “Well, what if it does happen again? Maybe this is the future and we’re moving into a big bottom-end sound,” which of course we did.
The HUB: You mix a wide range of music—when you listen for what you need to bring to a mix, what are you listening for?
MB: First thing I do is I listen to the rough mix, and all I’m listening for is what I like. What I like in a mix I’m going to keep, and then I wonder what I could do. If it’s a really good mix I’m like, “Whoa, why did they bring it to me? It feels good already,” but usually I’m like, “I like a lot of this but I don’t think they quite nailed the drum sound, or I don’t think they quite nailed the vocal sound, or you know what, these choruses, it’s feeling static. I’m sure it could feel more dynamic.” These are all the things that pop into my mind. If the artist is present at the mix I’m going ask them, “What are you liking about this rough mix and what do you think would be better?” I don’t want them asking me that question. I want to ask them that question. It’s their record.
The HUB: Any advice for delivering a session to a mix engineer?
MB: As soon as we accept a job the engineer gets my prep sheet, and it’s a list of how we want the session prepared for us. I don’t want to walk in the day-of and have plug-ins I could never find, or I don’t have the blends I’m expected to. They don’t want me to reinvent this whole song. They don’t want me to change the inner balances of the backing vocals, or their string blends, or their synth blends. That they already like, it’s just how I put it all together. In today’s world it’s best just to have stems—an extended amount of stems—not like all drums, or all guitars. I want their internal blends that they’re happy with. That's where I want to start. I want to be able to pull the tracks up and match their rough mix and then I get started.
The HUB: You’ve talked about the using mixer as an instrument, can you elaborate?
MB: I wanted to always feel like I was on stage in a band. When I dropped the band and moved into engineering I really missed that feel. So in the early days (and I still do it now) there was no automation. I would stand up when I was mixing and I would just be riding the instruments, crescendoing with them, and you can hear that all over Luther’s first record,“New Too Much.” You hear a lot of crescendoing, a lot of building—all that's manual. All of that is just being done in one pass. Beginning to end, it was always a performance and it made me feel really good. Right from the get-go I considered the console just another instrument. I used to be a drummer, now I play the console, and to me it made perfect sense.
The HUB: How does your experience with analog influence your approach to digital?
MB: Whether it’s analog or digital you’re always evolving at the same rate as the music industry is—the artists and the bands—so for me nothing really changed. I was like, “Okay, well now I have access to plug-ins, and I have access to this.” About a year and a half ago, I moved completely over to a hybrid situation, certainly not in the box, but I replaced an analog console with a digital control surface and I’m very, very happy with it. It’s way more efficient in today’s world where you've got to do stems with everything. I’m usually the last one of my friends to move forward in this direction but I eventually do because I know the other option is that you're missing out on all the coolest and quickest ways to get a song done. I know what I like to feel and I learned that in an analog world, and I’ve just applied that to digital so it still sounds musical, it still sounds warm, and that's all I’m thinking about.
The HUB: Can you talk about a new piece of digital gear that led to a great result?
MB: I think the biggest change for me was understanding how important a clock is in the digital world. I didn’t know that that piece of gear could make what I’m already mixing so much better. I did a blind test where Antelope approached me with their clock. I honestly had no idea what a clock did but I certainly didn’t think that it was something that could affect the music, and in fact it did. I replaced my clock with their clock and I was like, “Whoa, I feel better. Whichever one this is, I feel better. Which one is it?” It turned out to be their clock. And then they introduced the converter, and I did the same thing. I was like, “Whichever one this is, this feels better. It’s a little wider. It’s a little deeper.” I’m taking what already sounds good and it sounds a little bit better. The way I would do the test is after I’m done with what I have I would insert another toy.
The HUB: How much is the artist usually involved in the mix?
MB: Now? Less than 10%. The attendance is almost zero. I remember the transition from analog 24 or 48-track to Pro Tools. The transition was unbelievable—it went from 100% to about 70%, 40%, to the point where if they attend, I don’t expect them to. Some of the major artists will show up. I’m mixing a Bon Jovi record and he’s going to be there, and the producer’s going to be there. It’s the way, to me, it should be and he’s going to make the time because it’s his record, and he has ideas, and he wants to be there as opposed to sending notes. There’s still people that believe in that process, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to make a record that has less of an impact without them. I’ve had to adapt to the fact that they’re not going to be there and they’re going to be sending me comments.
The HUB: Do you have any advice for people who want to be a mix engineer—what they need to be thinking about, studying, working on?
MB: I’ve been doing this for almost 43 years and I’m still mixing—that's not luck. That’s really, really hard work and you have to evolve at the same rate as the music. Whether it’s technical or musical you can’t sit comfortably for too long. You get an award, good for you, you work hard, you deserve it—but that doesn’t mean you can sit back now. Get back into progressing, and evolving, and learning new stuff. It’s not easy, but the alternative to that is not good. It’s retirement.
Keep up with Michael Brauer at www.mbrauer.com.