|Michael Wagener started out as a guitarist with German rock band Accept. He put the instrument down in 1970 and has since produced practically every band who ever wore spandex or turned their amp “up to 11.” He holds four- and nine-day workshops and also offers project consulting and personal workshops. Details and contact information are available online.
What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?
The Royer 121 ribbon mic is my absolute favorite, and for mic pres the Chandler Limited TG2, which is a remake of the old EMI mic pre used on Abbey Road, and the CraneSong HEDD, is my guitar chain. It adds to the tone, gives me the tone I’m looking for, adds to the harmonic distortion without messing it up, and takes away the super, super high-end distortion. I used to work just in other studios, but lately I work at my place because of budgetary concerns. I’m throwing my studio into the production deal. If I don’t have a piece of equipment that the musician wants, it gets rented or we try something else. I never really face that because when you’ve sold a few platinum albums people believe what you say, so I’ve never had that situation where someone says, “No, we have to use this!” One did, actually. They insisted on using V-Drums. It was the worst record I ever made; it never came out, and the band broke up.
For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?
What are you trying to do? Are you trying to get demos and later go to a bigger studio or production facility? At that point you can get decent gear, cheap gear, and get the songs on tape—I still say tape; isn’t that weird?—and not care, if it’s not the final version. If you are recording for keeps, the most important thing is speakers, because if you can’t hear it, you can’t fix it. First, spend your money on good speakers, because money keeps going into the studio. We know that. Get good speakers and get the room treated in a way that you’ll actually know what’s going on.
What has been the most valuable technological advancement for guitarists and producers?
The MW1 Studio Tool! I developed the guitar box with Creation Audio Labs and it has turned out wonderful. It’s a very important piece of gear for recording guitars. The other development is digital recording and affordable recording, which are both a curse and a blessing. You can sit for five days and punch in your solo, and the good thing is that it works the kinks out of the music, but you also might kill it in that time. To be able to do it by yourself over a long period of time is a good and bad thing. I think about what we played in the 1970s, and what these guys can play today is unbelievable. It’s the same with athletes: they’ve got to jump higher every time they go to the Olympics. With guitarists and musicians, the performance requirement is upped every time.
The effects are easier to achieve, but at what price to creativity?
Can you really do it with plug-ins? I don’t believe there is a plug-in yet that replaces the guitar amp. We’re not there yet. Plug-ins are fine for composing, but for recording I don’t use them to base tone on. That’s why I have 27 guitar amps. For tools, they are helpful, but a tone is a tone. Have you seen Angus Young use a plug-in? I don’t think so.
What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?
Not being themselves. If you tailor yourself after somebody else, you’re not dealing with your own tone. Kids come in and say, “Where do I plug in?” George Lynch was here for three days figuring out his tone before he even began recording. Would Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix ever have existed if they’d not had their own tone? Now, with Amp Farm, kids just “go in and do.” Because of that, there is no identity in their playing and sound.
Let’s talk about tracking a two-guitar band.
It’s all about what’s good for the song. If they write and play together, and hear each other during practice, they will have figured out how it works. I had a situation with two guitarists, each in a practice room with their amps, the bassist and drummer together, and one guitarist was playing stuff that didn’t fit, in different keys. They’d go into the bridge and I’d say, “What are you doing there?” You have two guitarists, two styles, two personalities. I like to bring that out and not have them playing the same thing. I like them to play complementary things and build each other up. It adds to the overall song.
If there’s only one guitar player, it’s a matter of sound. In Van Halen, you had one guitar, bass, drums and vocals and everybody had their own role. Even in the mixes, I like to put the guitar and bass on different sides so that it’s separated, and for sound reasons it’s better to double a rhythm track or a guitar and just have the guy play it twice. Live is a different story. If you layer 50,000 guitar parts, it’s going to get complicated! A big part of the producer’s role is to say, “Those 50,000 parts are going to be very expensive when you have to hire all these people to go on tour.” Certain things you can do to embellish might not be front-row kind of stuff. Harmony to a lead live—it’s okay if it’s not there onstage, as long as the lead line is the main thing. You can figure out a way to play the important parts. When I track, the one guitar line is played all the way through. There’s a solo, a rhythm track under the solo, and if there’s one guitar player it’s going to be hard, but is that rhythm track important when the guy is wailing away on a solo? The people in the audience aren’t going to notice.
Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?
No. With the invention of affordable home studio recording equipment, everybody is able to record something. I see it on the engineering side: they all buy a Pro Tools rig. No, you still don’t know about sound waves, room reflection, on and on. I have been doing this for 35 years, and I learn something new every day. Maybe it’s easier to play guitar. There are better guitars, amps and gear, but again, we’re back to our favorite word: practice. It takes a lot of work to be an outstanding player. It’s not like you buy a Les Paul and you sound like Zakk Wylde. Zakk worked hard and in detail to get to the point of being recognizable. People take it too easy. They double the guitar 15 times and all the individuality is gone. It’s better to stay individual and original. Work on that.
Is there one really good guitar session horror story you would like to share?
To be honest, there are none that I would classify as horror stories. There’s not really one where it was awful. There was one episode, though, and I probably don’t want to mention any names. We were done with the tracks and the guitar player pulled his cord out of the guitar. It made a buzzing noise and I said, “That’s cool; we should keep it for the end of the record.” He looked at me and said, “I can do it better.” I told the assistant, “Don’t erase this. I’ll see you tomorrow.” When I came back the next day, the assistant hated me because he’d been there until 4 a.m. with the guitarist pulling the cord out over and over! We ended up using the first one.