Questlove is a busy guy, regardless of whether he’s touring with the Roots, playing nightly on the Tonight Show or writing yet another bestseller. Somehow in the middle of all that, he’s also found time to become an incisive interviewer with his weekly hour-long show on Pandora, Questlove Supreme, now in its second season. Recorded weekly at New York City's GSI Studios (see our September issue's Studio Showcase for more on the facility), the show has hosted names like Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Chris Rock, Solange and Usher, but Questlove also often brings in industry vets as well, giving listeners a chance to find out what happens behind the scenes when it comes to creating the music they love.
Proving that point is the recent episode where he sits down with one of the most in-demand engineers of the last 30-plus years, Michael Brauer, who has worked with everybody from Paul McCartney and Coldplay to Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and James Brown. You can throw in Grace Jones, Meatloaf, Tony Bennett, David Byrne, Billy Joel, Hall & Oates and Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and that still only skims the surface of his discography.
There’s a lot of highlights from their chat, ranging from explaining what engineers do in terms that all listeners can understand, to preferred gear, to nitty-gritty stuff like how Brauer angled the AKG 414 vocal mics he used to record Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin. Along the way, there’s plenty of advice for both up-and-coming and seasoned engineers, returning many times to an unintentional theme of not getting intimidated, whether it’s by other engineers or difficult clients.
When it comes to the former, Brauer offers a great story:
“I'll give you the best example where I learned my lesson. And this changed me forever. It was at Mediasound and we had just started. It was right after outside engineers are now being allowed into studios, because at Mediasound, there were no outside engineers. You came to Mediasound to work with their engineers, but with the death of disco and studios opening up, there was this engineer…. We're just in the lounge. We're just hanging out, and he starts saying, "Yeah, I've got this acoustic guitar sound, and I've got this MS positioning where I've got it for two inches, one mic over the other. And then I bring it up, and I blah, blah, blah."
I'm like, "Oh, my God. I'm just--" And I started getting that feeling in my stomach…I was just like, "Man, I just wish this guy would shut up, because it makes me feel awful because I don't know what he's talking about, and I'll never do that." So I go, "Hey, can I hear what you're doing?" He goes, "Yeah, yeah. Come on in." It was in Studio A, this beautiful room. I know it, every inch of that room. And he plays it.
And it was crap.
I was just like, "Wow. That is not good at all." And I say, "Okay, cool. Thanks, man." You know, I'm just thinking to myself, "Man, what an idiot I am." All being intimidated and everything, and walking in there thinking this guy is god. And it sounds like crap. So I left there and I thought, "Never again will that happen." Because it's always about feel. And anybody who talks big, if I go in and I listen to it and it sounds good, then I'm going to be curious to see how he did, and I'll be interested in learning. But all the talk, talk, talk, and all the numbers you need to know--none of that means anything.”
Throughout the hour, the host and guest compare notes on studio life, and Brauer spins one great story after another, like using reverse psychology on Terence Trent D’Arby; the two tracks that gave him goosebumps as he mixed them; why he opted not to become a producer; and whether there really is a ghost haunting Electric Lady Studios in New York City.
To check it out for yourself, visit https://www.pandora.com/station/play/3203170503950074921