Michael Wagener keeps busy making records and teaching workshops in his Nashville-area studio.
For those who like their rock with flash—both technical and visual—the ’80s were a watershed moment in guitar history. If there’s praise/blame to award any single player for starting the whole trend, it probably goes to Edward Van Halen and his game-changing 1978 debut of “Eruption.” It took a couple years for players to figure out his approach en masse, but it’s safe to say that without Edward there likely never would’ve been bona fide shred masters like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani—nor the legions of players who had the hair and the “super strat” but far less-memorable chops and songwriting savvy.
In the studio, the man who helped many of the decade’s more excellent shredding guitarists get their tones was engineer and producer Michael Wagener. A guitarist himself, Wagener was a founding member of German metal band Accept until an army draft notice interrupted his musical career. When he later returned to the field, he decided to sit on the other side of the recording console.
Wagener relocated to Los Angeles at the behest of his friend, Don Dokken, and began making history with an incredible list of ’80s hard rock and metal clients: Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Megadeth, Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, Extreme, his friends in Dokken and Accept, and many more benefitted from Wagener’s ears and talents. But Wagener wasn’t just a headbanger. He also worked with some of the decade’s most successful mainstream acts—including Janet Jackson and Queen—as well as a variety of more melodically dynamic artists, such as King’s X, Badi Assad, and Muriel Anderson.
With more than 94 million records sold, Wagener has certainly earned the right to kick back and relax. But instead you’ll find him at his studio, WireWorld, just outside of Nashville, making records and teaching the next generation how to record with his weeklong workshops.
First off, can you walk us through your journey from founding Accept to ending up behind the glass in the studio?
I grew up with Udo [Dirkschneider], Accept's singer. We went to school together from when we were 6 years old. When I was 12, Udo and I formed a band called Band X. We went through a lot of member changes. When I turned 19 I was drafted to the army, and I was stationed 350 miles away from home—which made practicing with the band very hard. Udo and I then came up with the name “Accept,” but shortly after I left because the distance made it impossible to keep things together.
After my time in the army, I got a job at STRAMP [Strueven Amplification] in Hamburg, Germany, where we built Marshall-like guitar amps. Our clients were Rory Gallagher, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Leslie West, and so on. During my time at STRAMP, I got my degree in electronics, and in the mid ’70s we started designing studio gear—mixers, one of the first digital delays, etc. We also started importing tape machines from Otari and other studio gear. After a while, we set up a small studio so we could demonstrate our gear. It was there that I realized that working creatively with the gear was much more fun than building it. In 1979, I built a studio in Hamburg called Tennessee Tonstudio—weird, huh? Since there were hardly any clients in the beginning, I had a lot of time to learn how to work with and use the gear in the studio. We originally had a 2", 16-track Studer tape machine, a Sound Workshop console, and a bunch of outboard gear—plenty of stuff to practice with. Around the end of 1979, I met Don Dokken at that studio. Don invited me to L.A., and since I always wanted to go to the USA, I accepted his invitation. I spent three weeks in L.A. around Christmas in 1979, and I decided that was the place for me to be. In 1980, I moved to L.A. with the intention to stay.
How did you get your career started there?
L.A. was the place back then—the music scene was awesome and I was really into the style of music being created at that time. I lived in a house with Dokken, [Ratt drummer] Bobby Blotzer, and Alan Niven, who later became the manager for Great White and Guns N’ Roses. That’s when I worked with Mick Mars' original band, Vendetta—which is how I got to mix Mötley Crüe's first album in 1981. Unfortunately, the economy was not the best in the mid ’80s, so I moved back to Germany. In the following years, I travelled back and forth between the U.S. and Germany, working with bands here and there—Accept, Malice, Great White, Dokken, 45 Grave. In 1984, Tom Zutaut, then executive at Elektra A&R, called me to come over and do a single [1985’s Ain’t Love Grand] with the band X. Things fell into place and I’m still here.
Michael Wagener’s recording career spans more than three decades and includes an incredible number of hit records. Here are a few that he produced, recorded, and mixed to check out:
Alice Cooper, Constrictor
Dokken, Breaking the Chains and Under Lock and Key
Great White, Great White
King’s X, Ogre Tones and XV
Ozzy Osbourne, Live and Loud
Skid Row, Skid Row and Slave to the Grind
White Lion, Pride and Big Game
X , Ain’t Love Grand
Wagener is also in demand for mixing other producers’ projects, including:
Accept, Balls to the Wall
Badi Assad, Rhythms of the World
Dokken, Tooth and Nail
Janet Jackson, Black Cat
Megadeth, So Far, So Good … So What!
Metallica, Master of Puppets
Mötley Crüe, Too Fast for Love
Ozzy Osbourne, No More Tears
Queen, Stone Cold Crazy
You worked on a lot of seminal metal and hard-rock albums in the ’80s. What was the process like for those recordings?
The ’80s were great for making rock albums, because there were substantial budgets. I would get a demo from a band, work on it at home, go into preproduction at the band's rehearsal room for a couple of weeks, then let the band rehearse the changes to the songs for a week or two, and then go into a cool studio to record and mix the album. A lot of gear was rented to get just the right tones for every track. The musicians practiced their music before they went in to track. A lot of time, effort, and money were spent to get everything right and create a sound for that band.
How involved were you in crafting each band’s sound—did they come up with it on their own or were you guiding them?
Back then, the musicians were not as involved in studio gear, etc., but it was also always a common decision between the band and me—everybody had to agree to the plan.
Did you have a standard procedure for recording guitars in those days?
Not really. I was still experimenting myself, trying to listen to what was important for the sound. I tried everything from using just one microphone on one speaker to using 16 microphones and running everything through a Fostex 4-track tape recorder. It was also the beginning of digital tape machines, which I loved from day one.
What was it that you loved about digital recorders?
Even with all the problems in the beginning, to me the digital tape came back with the same punch as the original. Analog tape always rounded off the edges a bit. We did tests with some great ears in the room—like [Steely Dan engineer/producer] Roger Nichols—using different tape stock and different machines and heads. We messed around with biasing for days, but never ever did a kick drum or snare come back with the same punch it went in with. Digital tape always had that punch.
How has your recording process changed since then?
The recording process is still the same. The digital age offers a lot of conveniences—like the undo button and immense editing capabilities, which sometimes get used to enable not-so-capable musicians to make records—but I still believe music should be performed by musicians, not typists. If it wasn’t a great take, do it again! Auto-Tune and Beat Detective basically don't exist for me. We are selling emotions—there are no emotions in a grid!