Studio Legends: Michael Wagener
Engineer/producer Michael Wagener recalls the heyday of recording hard-rock and metal titans acts like Metallica and Megadeth, as wells as how to find your speaker cab’s sweet spot and make your mix sound huge.
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!
Back in the ’80s, many guitar solos were very technically demanding. Could most of the guitarists come in and play them in a couple of takes, or did it take a lot of tries—or did you have to edit parts of various takes together?
In general, the players practiced until they could play the whole solo in one take. I remember Vito Bratta [White Lion] playing the solo to "Wait" while we were tracking the drums. We never replaced it, it was just great. There was some comping on some albums, but not to the extent it’s done today. You would maybe have a first half and a second half of a solo, which you comped together.
Since moving to Nashville, you've worked on projects in a wide variety of styles. Is your approach different for each style?
Each artist and each record deserves its own style, so yes, I approach different styles with different recording and mixing methods. The basics stay the same: I track with [Steinberg] Nuendo and mix through an SSL console using a ton of analog outboard gear, but the mics and setup are going to change with every artist.
You've got a huge collection of guitars and amps. How do you choose the one you want for a particular part?
Normally the musicians bring their own guitars and basses, but just in case those don't work for a particular part, I just might have an instrument that works. Over the years, I learned the sound of my own instruments very well and know which ones could work for certain parts. I have a Creation Audio Labs switching system—the Sentinel—and I can compare 20 amps and cabs in a few seconds. That makes the selection process very easy. I’m also using the Kemper Profiling Amp a lot. It has a lot of my amps stored in it and it sounds awesome.
“Normally the musicians bring their own guitars and basses,” recording guru Wagener says regarding the use of his expansive gear collection. “But just in case those don’t work for a particular part, I just might have an instrument that works.”
Do you record the Kemper direct or do you run it to a cabinet and mic it?
My profiles already include the amp, cab, mics, preamps, etc., so I normally use it direct. When I profile a sound, I have maybe one, two, or three amps going to a few cabs with different speakers and a bunch of microphones, which in turn are going through different mic preamps. All the mics are mixed together to one mono track, and then I profile that sound.
Other than having such easy access to all those tones, what’s your approach to recording guitar like today?
I use mainly Royer R-121 ribbon mics in combination with Royer R-101s or condenser mics like the Lauten Audio Horizon, the Miktek C7, or one of the cool Mojave Audio mics. The mics get placed very close, sometimes inside the speaker.
Do you have tricks for finding the best spot to place the mic on the speaker?
Yes—listen! [Laughs.] I re-amp a DI guitar track at low level back through the amp and use headphones to find the sweet spot. If you move the mic around in front of the speaker, you can clearly hear where the placement for the best sound is.
What Is Re-Amping?
Re-amping is a studio technique that allows the sound of an electric guitar to be changed after it has been recorded. Typically, you play your part through an amp, just like normal—but the amp’s sound is not recorded. Instead, the dry sound of the exact same electric-guitar part is simultaneously recorded through a direct box before it hits the amp. Later, the dry guitar track is played back through a re-amping box, which is sort of like a direct box in reverse: The output from the re-amping box is sent into an amp, which is mic’d up and recorded.
The advantage of re-amping is that you can try numerous different amps and effects and experiment with tones until you find exactly what is right for the track. Wagener’s tool of choice for re-amping is the Creation Audio Labs MW1, but other options are available from Radial Engineering, ART, Reamp, Millennia Media, and others.
“When I’m mixing, I go away into Wagener Land for a few hours … It requires high concentration and I don’t want to be disturbed by anybody or anything in the control room—even opening a peanut will throw me off the track!”
Do you only use close mics, or do you also use room or distant mics?
I mainly use close mics, about an inch or two or three away from the speaker's center. Sometimes I use "Fritz" [a Neumann KU-100 head-shaped dummy with binaural stereo mics in its ears] for a room sound, especially on cleaner tones.
Do you prefer recording in a small or large space?
I would say medium for guitars. Since most of the ribbon mics have a figure-8 pickup pattern [which picks up sound from the front and back of the mic capsule], the reflections of a small room might get in the way. In general, medium-sized, sound-treated rooms are easier to control.
You developed the Creation Audio Labs MW1 direct-injection rack unit as a tool for recording guitar. What is it and how did it come about?
I met Sarge [Gistinger] from Creation Audio Labs at a NAMM show and he asked me, “If you could have any piece of gear for your studio, what would it be?” I was always looking for something that could match impedances and levels between studio gear and instruments, so we collaborated for nine months and the MW1 was born. It’s the brainchild of Alex Welti at Creation Audio Labs. I gave him some suggestions for different features, but Alex came up with a piece of gear way past my wildest imagination. It’s a studio Swiss Army knife that can help you solve a lot of little problems in getting a great guitar tone—I wouldn’t record bass or guitar without the MW1 in the chain.
What tricks have you found for making a rock mix sound big?
It's a matter of mixing each instrument to its fullest potential. In modern mixes, sometimes compressors get put on each track and all the instruments are always loud and in front. But I think creating dynamics—putting the right instrument in the front at the right point in the song—creates that bigness.
But how do you get guitars to sound huge when you also have huge drums and bass and a powerful vocalist?
The secret lies in mixing the important instrument up when it’s needed. That is a constant process that cannot be done by an automated or plug-in process—it's hands-on, all the time. When I’m mixing, I go away into Wagener Land for a few hours, because one move on a fader requires another one down the line. It requires high concentration and I don't want to be disturbed by anybody or anything in the control room—even opening a peanut will throw me off the track!
Tell us about the workshops you teach at your studio, WireWorld.
I do production workshops that go for seven days. We have a live band and go from pre-production to mastered product during that time. It's a hands-on experience for all the workshop guests. We compare mics, preamps, compressors, EQs, etc., talk about room acoustics, little tricks of the trade, and I try to answer any question the students might have. I have people coming from all over the world, so besides learning from me, they learn from each other. It's a great experience.
You’ve also recently started your Ears-4-Hire workshops. How are those different?
Those are more personal—I come to your studio and we work on your equipment to mix or record a song. I will point out weak spots in your studio and show you workarounds if you don't have the expensive gear.
Do you have advice for guitarists making their own recordings at home?
The most important thing is to find your own sound. In this time of plug-ins and presets, it's very important to create an individual sound. If you don't have enough space or can't crank your amp, record a good DI track with a great direct box and rent a big studio for a day to re-amp guitar tones—or use a re-amp service to get your tones.
Wagener’s Top Five Guitar Mics
Michael Wagener’s WireWorld studio is packed to the rafters with an amazing collection of recording and guitar gear. Here are some of his favorite microphones for capturing guitar amps. Wagener places the mics very close to the speaker, one to three inches away from its center.
Royer R-121 (ribbon), $1,295 street, royerlabs.com
Royer R-101 (ribbon), $799 street, royerlabs.com
Miktek C7 (large-diaphragm condenser), $899 street, miktekaudio.com
Lauten Audio Horizon LT-321 (large-diaphragm tube condenser), $1,099 street, lautenaudio.com
Mojave Audio MA-200 (large-diaphragm tube condenser), $,1095 street, mojaveaudio.com