Coldplay's recent album Viva La Vida was one of the most high-profile releases of the year, and an impressive showcase for Michael Brauer's unique approach to mixing.
The New York–based star mixer Michael H Brauer has a reputation for eclecticism, both in the wide variety of artists and genres that he has worked with, and in his approach to mixing. His credit list is certainly very impressive and exceptionally wide–ranging, featuring stellar names such as the Rolling Stones, Prefab Sprout, James Brown, Aerosmith, Jeff Buckley, David Byrne, Tony Bennett, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Ben Folds, Pet Shop Boys, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, KT Tunstall, Martha Wainwright, and many, many others.
As for his approach, Brauer has become legendary for his liberal and innovative use of compression. His room at Quad Studios in New York sports an amazing amount of outboard gear, including well over 40 compressors. Brauer applies some of these in an idiosyncratic multi–bus compression approach that he's developed over the last 20 years; having originally christened this approach 'MBC', Brauer now prefers the term 'Brauerize', which he has trademarked. See the 'Brauerize The Mix' box for a detailed explanation of how the technique works.
Brauer has come to his position at the top of the mix world by studying with the best. He climbed the ladder from the proverbial tea–boy beginnings to staff engineer at Media Sound Studios in New York City between 1976 and 1984, picking up tricks of the trade from the likes of Bob Clearmountain, Mike Barbiero, Tony Bongiovi, Harvey Goldberg and others. He subsequently went freelance and for the last 15 years or so has preferred to work almost exclusively as a mixer.
Despite the massive amount of outboard in his studio, Brauer likes to de–emphasise the importance of technology, and prefers talking about feel and colours. "It always amazes me that people think that it's the tools that make a mix great. Instead, people should understand that mixing is very much like a performance. I used to play drums, now I play an SSL. I don't label the tracks on the desk, I memorise it all and then I just mix. The audience is no longer in front of me, it's now just in my head. I constantly ride the faders, and I will occasionally even vibrato a fader. It's a feel thing. To me, the desk is an instrument, and I have eight million different strings and tunings behind me in my outboard racks.
"When I'm going for a sound, I only think about the end result and pay very little attention to how I get there. It's not about the toy, it's about how you use it. Also, I've mixed some 200 songs so far this year and I kinda wipe the slate clean after every mix to keep my head from exploding. For me it is more important to discuss bringing out the spirit of the song. The tools and toys are simply an extension of that thought process. It's really about being creative and visualising how the song should sound and feel."
The mixer's relationship with Coldplay goes back to their debut album, Parachutes, which earned him and the band a Grammy for 'Best Alternative Album' in 2001. The New Yorker also mixed the band's third album, X&Y (2005), and was involved in the mix of nine out of the 11 songs on the band's fourth and most recent effort, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, released in June of this year.
Singer Chris Martin has declared that Viva La Vida spelled a new direction for the band, and the first single, 'Violet Hill', features Eno–esque soundscapes and heavily distorted guitars, elements that had hitherto not been at the heart of Coldplay's trademark sound. Several people were involved in the mixing, and, unusually, two of the album tracks, '42' and 'Viva La Vida' ended up as hybrids of mixes by Rik Simpson and Brauer.
"The engineer they had worked with, Rik Simpson, did an amazing job on some of the mixes, which were really rough mixes," relates Brauer. "On '42', Rik combined his mix with mine and the combination felt amazing. For 'Viva La Vida', Rik added his mix to mine way low and out of phase, so there's this weird thing going on in the background. But it made sense for them to call me because I had been there from the beginning. I know the kind of things that Coldplay are after. It's not always evident, though. You put up the mix, and it feels great, and yet you can take it a lot further to the point where it just sounds incredible. I don't experience that with many other bands. Chris is usually the only person I deal with when I mix, and he's always the one with the vision. He goes totally by feel and he keeps pushing me."
The mixes for Viva La Vida took place in February and March of this year. "In this case I mixed the record alone," recalls Brauer. "I'd send them a song a day. They lived with it and then I recalled each song and made the changes. Some songs only needed one recall. Others had the arrangement changed or parts added and then I'd recall it again, or I'd remix it again from scratch. I'm not afraid to do that. I might even, after two hours of mixing, simply pull back all the faders and start again. There are times when I have gained a better understanding of where I want to go and I realise that the approach I'm taking is not going to get me there. So I change. The process of getting there during mixing is a whole search thing. If I don't like what I'm getting, I drop it; if I like it and I feel good, I carry on. I don't remember how I got there or the gear I used. I only remember that I felt good. That's all I care about. It's not like: 'wow, I can apply this to every song.' That'd be foolish. What works on one song will, 99.9 percent of the time, not work on another song, even from the same artist.
"I want to feel something great in the first 15 minutes. The first thing I do is try to get a groove going, so I'll search for that. It may be just a vocal and a piano and guitar with a loop. If someone walks in 15 minutes after I've begun mixing they're not going to hear just a kick. They'll be saying, 'Wow, that feels cool!' I still have a long way to go, but it already feels good. I don't have the energy or patience to wait two or three hours until I start to feel good. I want to start feeling good right away; that is why I'm mixing!"
Brauer's focus on feeling good and de–cluttering his mind also extends to limiting the amount of tracks that he mixes. "Some songs come in with a hundred tracks, but I am not going to mix a hundred tracks!" he explains. "My assistant knows my priorities and he knows that whatever the session is, it will be a maximum of 44 tracks. So when he prepares the session for me he comps things down to that. Of course, if there is a part that sounds like it may need special treatment he'll leave it on a separate track, and when I listen to what he has done, I may break things out again. But I tell people that are going to work with me: look, I am not going to mix 200 tracks on the desk for you, so the best thing for you to do is to give me the stereo blends that you like.
"I want it to be as simple as possible. I'm happy to mix 16 tracks. The simpler the better. I don't want to have to fight my way through a mix. Most people are already listening to certain parts mixed down. They may not be printed that way, but the blend will be clear. If you have 18 different synthesizer sounds, and have been living with one particular blend, give me that blend and print it! It is not that I am lazy, I am just not going to spend eight hours trying to match something that somebody else already loves. I am mixing, I have my share of work to do already without trying to retrace what you have been living with."
Michael Brauer: "The hardest challenge for me with this song was finding the right vocal sound. I also really wanted to highlight the edgier side of the band that they obviously wanted to show in this album. So I worked hard to make sure that the guitars reflect the anger in the song, without them being too harsh. It was important to keep the integrity of the band, and they're not a metal or hard rock band. You still have to keep that certain Coldplay sound. I wanted to enhance as much as possible the arrangement, which goes from a power chorus down to an intimate moment where everything just dries up and it's just Chris and a piano. I wanted the listener to easily follow the story. My objective was to simply follow the feel and the lyrics of the song, and not to get in the way. Just enhance and show that Coldplay are a band that have a lot of depth in their songs.
"The Pro Tools file of 'Violet Hill' was actually a pretty small session. I have just 35 tracks on my track sheet. There's kick, snare, stereo hi–hat, stereo toms, three or four mono room [mics] and stereo cymbals rooms. That's 12 tracks for the drums. There are two bass tracks, DI and amp bass. There are stereo chorus guitars, a mono verse guitar, an acoustic guitar, and a guitar solo, so that's five tracks of guitars. Then there's a stereo piano, a stereo keyboard track, and the stereo ambient wash that starts off the track. Finally, there's Chris's lead vocal and some 'church group' backing vocals.
"Like with all my mixes, I mixed 'Violet Hill' almost entirely in analogue, using Pro Tools just as a tape machine. They had printed their plug–ins, so I don't know what they used. I lay the tracks out on the desk, with the most important instruments right in front of me and the things that come in and out of the song elsewhere on the console. Needless to say, I'm a fan of the analogue world, because I grew up in it. It's very immediate, you know what you're getting, the ceilings are soft and musical, the sonics remain intact, and you don't get that digital crap–out sound when you hit the ceiling. I don't have anything against plug–ins, but I have to say that mixing in the box doesn't interest me. I get a great sound the way I'm working now, so why change? But if I hear something that sounds better in a plug–in than on analogue, I go for it. So there are certain plug–in bass compressors that I use, and I'm increasingly using Altiverb as well as plug–in de–essers. The new Sonnox Oxford and the Eiosis are great de–essers."
"I put some samples behind the kick and snare. I have built up a collection of a few hundred kicks and snares, so I can try many different types. This is where I spend a lot of time searching for the right sound. I may spend two hours trying to get the drum sound right. This is not to say that the original drum sounds in this track were bad, in fact they were great. So I'm building on top of them, I'm not replacing them. I can't remember the last time I actually replaced a drum sound. I just added a little bit to the kick and snare to enhance them. The snare sound is very important for a song and sometimes I vary it throughout the song, maybe downplaying one of the chorus snares in the verse, but in this particular case the snare sound doesn't change.
"The main drum sound is coming from their snare, which I had up really loud. They had a nice overhead snare sound that already had reverb and stuff on it that was also very important to the sound. The kick and snare both went through my Neve 1083 EQs. I put the room sounds through my great, very vicious, old British Compex compressors. I also put the cymbal room sound through the Compex. The Compex compression makes the sound grainier and more aggressive. The toms, which were really well recorded, went through my stereo Pye compressors to make them more explosive, and were also sent to my stereo 1176 compressors and my Chandler EMI compressors. The 1176 and the Chandler are also explosive, so basically the tom sound was fucking explosive. I maybe added a bit of compression on the hi–hats, and did very little with the mono overheads."
"The bass was interesting. I had the same bass track coming back on two channels, and on one of them I had the EAR 660 compressor, going into an Altec 436B compressor, going into my Moog MKPE three–band parametric EQ, all going via the inserts. That channel was for the low end, giving the sound its fullness. On the other channel I had a Dbx 160, crushing heavily, with the bottom end taken out. That gave the bass its punch and mid-range. I also sent the basses to an Akai S612 sampler. A friend of mine turned me on to doing this. I don't use it as a sampler, but as a distortion device. If you put the Akai in microphone mode and you overload it, you get really nice warm distortion that you don't really notice, but it sounds good. If I want something more vicious than the Akai, I'll use the [Thermionic Culture] Culture Vulture instead, which I feel is one of the best pieces of equipment for adding some attitude. It's great for when tracks are recorded too cleanly. Finally the basses, like the drums, went through Bus B in my multi–bus compression setup, which consists of Distressors going into my Avalon E55 EQ."
"Normally I send each side of a stereo guitar to my EMI Chandler TG1 panned left and right and coming back on the console, but I didn't in this case, so I must have felt that it sounded bad. It might have taken away from the tightness of the guitars. They had already recorded it very tightly. So instead I didn't add anything to their stereo chorus verse guitar. I also had a mono verse guitar, which I sent to a PCM42 delay set at 224ms and panned to the opposite side, and every time the guitar strums it goes over to the right. On the acoustic guitar I did what I normally do, which is to send it through my acoustic patch, an API 525 going into an API 5502. That's a great combo and I have been using that for years. It makes the acoustic guitar very natural and full and gives it great presence without it sounding processed. In this song it's not very evident, because the acoustic guitar isn't very important, but, for example, on Parachutes the acoustic is very important, and I used the patch back then. There was no insert on the solo guitar. I did have a Dimension D SDD320 chorus on it, which spreads the sound naturally, and which went to a Watkins Copicat Echo unit with a fairly short delay. Otherwise it's totally dry, no reverb, hardly any EQ. Again, it was so well recorded that it didn't need a lot of work."
"The piano had my regular piano insert, which is two Urei LA3As going into my prototype Focusrite stereo 115 HD EQ. For some additional width I sent it to a Neve Portico 5014 Sound Field Editor. No reverb. I left the intro ambience as it was given to me. The keys had nothing on them either, not even EQ, jut flat, panned left and right. A lot of the tracks had hardly any EQ on them. Again, they did their homework and got the sounds that they wanted and didn't leave me to reinvent the song. What they wanted from me was to get their vision out there. That's my job."
"I used two Renaissance de–essers on Chris's voice that were doing different things, and then a stock Digidesign de-esser. That was it for the plug–ins I added on this session. The Sonnox Oxford and the Eoisis were not out yet at the time.
"The analogue things I did on the lead vocal are really interesting. As I said, I initially mixed the songs on my own, because the band was in England re–recording some songs, so I knew I might have to recall each song. But on this song I pretty much nailed it, apart from that Chris wanted the vocals to be more exciting and different. In the end the vocal had some AMS non–linear reverb on it, while the main sound came from an old Zoom 1202 reverb and a Watkins Copicat delay, plus a special patch that I created in the PCM81, which is a much bigger reverb. So it's a combination of things, but you don't really notice them, all you notice is that Chris is in a very present, big room. When I had found that combination 'Violet Hill' really became a song, it really came alive, because his voice was able to fight through all the stuff that was going on and make it personable. There's no reverb on the rest of the track, which is another reason why the lead vocal sounds so huge: it's not fighting another bunch of reverbs. If you send everything to reverb, you don't hear it, but if you send only one thing to reverb, it'll be huge.
"For the main part of the song I had a Distressor on the insert of the lead vocal, and I sent this to another five compressors: the Federal, the Gates, the Fairchild 666, the Neve 1176 and another Distressor in Nuke mode. They're all coming back individually on the board, and it was a matter of blending those compressors. As usual in my way of working, the compressors are there to give attitude and tone, and don't necessarily compress. For the end bit of the song, where it's just Chris and the piano, I used the Awa G7201 limiter/compressor. It's an Australian compressor and it has an incredible air and presence. It's a unique sound that you can clearly hear at the end, as it's the only effect on the vocal on that point. Finally, the church group background vocals are sent to the same combination of reverbs as the main vocals. No other effects, no EQ. It means that all the vocals in the main section blend together."
"In addition to all the above effects, all tracks went through my ABCD multi–bus compression system [see 'Brauerize TheMix' box]. 'A' consists of a Neve 33609 going into a Pultec P1A3S EQ; 'B' is is almost always a Distressor going into my Avalon E55 EQ; 'C' is the Pendulum ES8 tube limiter; 'D' at the time was my Inward Connection stereo tube limiter (but currently it's the [TF Pro] Edward The Compressor P8). So the bass and drums went through B, the guitars went through C — sometimes I'll send guitars through A and C, or I'll send them to C and then send them to a mono compressor return, whichever excites them the best — the keyboards went through A, and the backing vocals through A and D. I did not put the lead vocals through my multi–bus system. I stopped doing that three years ago. Instead they went through these five compressors, the Federal, Gates, Fairchild, 1176 and Distressor.
"I mixed down to analogue half–inch, 30ips, no Dolby, +4, on a Studer A820. I love the sound of Studer, and the +4 level allowed me to hit the tape a little harder if I wanted to. Backups are made on Pro Tools or the Alesis Masterlink L2. Before I go to tape I also put the stereo mix through somewhat of a mastering process. On most of the mixes I used a Shadow Hills Stereo Mastering Compressor going into a Chandler Stereo Curve Bender EQ, but on 'Violet Hill' I used an ADL 670 stereo mastering compressor instead of the Shadow Hills. The 670 is a bit darker and it also has a very interesting rhythm. It has a more downbeat feel. The song really came alive when I put it through the 670. It was one more piece of the puzzle that I was looking for.
"When I listened to the song again in preparation for this interview it struck me how important the edgy sound of the guitars is, and I really like how everything dries up at the end for Chris and his piano. That's such a Coldplay signature moment. Most of all, throughout the song you can't help but follow Chris, and that was my objective. I don't care about creating a great backing track and throwing a vocal in there. For me it's always about listening to the story, listening to the singer and holding the listener's hand while going through the song. This particular mix is a perfect example. At the end you've followed the story from the beginning to the end and you're happy to hear the track again."
Michael Brauer: "My main monitors are ProAc 100s, which I use with the incredible Transparent Audio cables and my Chord SPM1200C, which is a great amplifier. I also have some bigger ProAcs for if I really want to mould the bottom end and to get a good physical feel for the mix. But most of my mixing is done listening to my little Sony boombox. It sits behind me, on my rack number two, about four-and-a-half feet up from my ears and six feet back, and I listen at a medium low level, which is really important to be able to hear accurately what's going on. We once measured it, and it played at 84dB. Because the speakers of the boombox are relatively close to each other, I essentially listen in mono. The Sony is like a magnifying glass, it tells me whether my mix sucks or not. I use it for a similar reason to why most people use the NS10, and I will also sometimes play my mix briefly through a pair of NS10s, just to make sure everything is sitting nicely and is where it is expected to be, and because I want to get several different perspectives. But the Sony gives me a much more accurate picture."
On Michael Brauer's web site (www.mbrauer.com) there's a huge Q&A page where the mixer answers all manner of questions about his techniques. A significant portion of this page is dedicated to Brauer's multi–bus compression technique, for which he has trademarked the term 'Brauerize'. In essence, Brauer creates four stems in order to send the drums, bass, guitar, keys, vocals and other parts of the arrangement to different compressors. These A, B, C and D buses come up in the centre section of his SSL J9000, and go straight into the summing amplifier for mixdown to stereo, with the final stereo compressor barely acting, and relatively little compression employed on individual channels.
"You have to understand that this style of mixing is 180 degrees different to the regular approach," elaborates Brauer. "In the normal approach everything is already compressed when you bring your faders up, so you're mixing with pre–fader compression, but in my approach you are mixing into compression, meaning post compression. Once you get your head and ears around that, and you know how to ride your mix into the sweet spot, it's great. It's critical, of course, that you calibrate your ABCD compressors first — I describe how to do this on my site. At the moment the four sub–stereos are: A, Neve 33609 going into a Pultec P1A3S EQ; B [Empirical Labs], Distressor going into an Avalon E55 EQ; C, Pendulum ES8 tube limiter; D [TF Pro], Edward The Compressor P8."
Brauer began developing his multi–bus compression method in 1985, when mixing the Aretha Franklin mega hit 'Freeway To Love' from her Who's Zoomin' Who? album, which was produced by Narada Michael Walden. "Michael wanted more bottom end, and I was already mixing right at the edge of what the console could do, hitting the sweet spot. I couldn't go any further. When I added more bass, the stereo compressor went wacky and the vocal went down. But if I turned the compression down, the level was too high. It was one of these situations in which I felt like I had no more options, because it was all based on this final stereo compressor. I was up against the wall and it was a feeling I never wanted to repeat. I needed to figure out how to make sure that if I had a great sound on the bass, adding another instrument to it wouldn't destroy the compression. That was the objective. I was working at Right Track in NYC at the time, and they had a new console, the SSL 6000, which had an A, B and a C bus. I soon realised that these three stereo buses allowed me to separate the compression for different instruments out.
"A lot of what I was doing was about feel. I fell in love with the sound of compressors. They weren't necessarily compressing, it was just the sound of them. Very often I would use compressors as an equaliser. Eighty percent of my compressors are used strictly for tone. I also quickly found that I could get extra dynamics and could get the record to pump in a really natural way. It sounded big because there was no stereo compressor holding everything down at the end. I could get internal dynamics going between drums and guitars, or vocals and bass. It was almost like having counter–compression going on. Each compressor has a certain feel associated with it, and as my collection of compressors grew, I had more different kinds of feels available to me."
Brauer kept developing his multi–bus method, trying out various different compressors and EQs on each bus along the way, and moving into an ABCD system when he went over to work on an SSL 8000 at Sony Music studios. It was here that he hit on a way of assigning the instruments that continues to this day, though he may vary it according to the needs of each individual mix. "I assigned B for the rhythm section, bass and drums, C for the centre of the record, usually guitars, A for the more top end, vocals and keyboards, and D was an extra. When I was a drummer, it was all about the relationship between the drums and the bass, and similarly the idea was to compress groups that worked together."
In addition, Brauer has also incorporated a multi–channel send/return method that he learned from producer David Kahne. He applied it, for instance, in Coldplay's 'Violet Hill' with the five compressors on the lead vocals, each of them returning on a different channel. Brauer: "I have 48 bus outputs on each channel. At least 30 of those are always assigned to certain effects, delays and compressors and they all return to the desk. Just about everything in my second rack is assigned to those buses, so if at any point I want to try an idea, it's already patched. The five mono compressors that I use on vocals are also sent from the buses. I control all those with the small fader post the large fader. In addition, I have six auxes. Aux 1 is a stereo left/right on which I have two Neve 1176s, going into two faders and then to the stereo bus; Aux 2 goes to a Lexicon 200, to a submixer, to channels 45 and 46, to the stereo bus; Aux 3 goes to a PCM81 reverb, then to a submixer, and also faders 45 and 46 and the stereo bus; Aux 4 changes a lot between different reverbs or effects, and comes up on two faders before going to the stereo bus; Aux 5 connects to either a Bricasti M7 or a Sony DRE777, coming up on two faders going to the stereo bus; and Aux 6 goes to the Sony DRE777, a submixer, faders 45 and 46 and the stereo bus.
"I have a million options, and that's exactly the point. If one doesn't work, I try another one. I keep hitting buttons until I go 'Wow!' When mixing, I'm searching, searching, searching, until I know I'm on the right track. We have today maybe 2dB of dynamics to play with, and even that gets squashed to 0.5dB. This style gives the impression that you have way more dynamics than you actually do. At the same time, you can't really call it multi–bus compression any more, because I've incorporated so many other styles, and so now I've trademarked it as Brauerize multi–bus compression services."
Audio files to accompany the article.
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