As far as I can reckon, albums that Michael Wagener has produced, engineered, or mixed – including Mötley Crüe's Too Fast for Love, Skid Row's Skid Row, Metallica's Master of Puppets, Poison's Look What the Cat Dragged In, Extreme's Pornograffitti, and Dokken's Under Lock and Key – just to name a few – have sold approximately 50 million copies combined. I personally purchased dozens of these records in the years between 1983 and 1992, and spent countless lonely "nerd-with-a mullet" (and a Kramer Pacer guitar) hours dissecting the guitar tones and licks contained therein. Other producers from the era, like Andy Johns [Tape Op #39], Beau Hill, and Tom Werman [#102], were all making great, heavy records as well, but to my young ears albums with a Wagener credit were guaranteed to kick ass even more. It was something about the solid kick drum, the explosive bombast of the snare, as well as the sheen and girth of the guitars that sounded more substantial and authoritative. Needless to say, I was very nervous while driving through the Nashville suburbs in search of Wagener's WireWorld, a compact but seriously kitted-out studio, where the producer continues to develop new talent and collaborate with old friends, like Great White, whose new album Full Circle] had wrapped a few days before my visit. Michael Wagener is a cheerful, genial, and humble man who still loves dialing in wicked guitar tones, geeking out on gear, and, of course, making killer records.
Why did you decide to build WireWorld?
I had a studio on Wolf Hoffman's farm, the guitarist of Accept, which was close to Gallatin, Tennessee. He moved back to Germany and other people bought the farm. Then, all of a sudden, it was going to be auctioned off in three weeks, but I had six months of work booked and paid for. Luckily they let me stay and finish everything, but I realized that this should never happen again, so my wife, Tina, and I decided that we needed to have our own place. In 2008 we drove around and found this place. The listing said, "Possible studio in the back," which at the time meant a little guesthouse, where maybe you could do an acoustic guitar and vocals. About nine months later we started building the studio you see now. It took us about a year to do the build, and, as you can imagine, that's a year of no money coming in and enormous sums of money going out.
Has the investment paid off?
With the way the budgets are nowadays, and the way the whole thing is structured, if you say the words "producer's advance" bands just look at you with glassy eyes and don't understand what you're talking about. But "studio rate" they understand. It's just a number that you pay for recording. I work a lot with new bands, where there's almost no money, so if I had to rent a studio for $2,000 a day I would never be able to make it work. But I can accommodate musicians with my own studio. If we go a week over, we go a week over. Nobody cares, and we make a better product.
Let's go back to the beginning. You started your musical journey as a guitarist, right?
Yes, I got my first guitar when I was 12. Udo Dirkschneider – whom we all know now as the lead singer of Accept – he and I went to school together, starting around when we were seven years old. We practically spent every day together. We decided to have a band together, but we couldn't come up with a name so we called it Band X. That went on for a while, to the point where it was a real band where we were really playing and coming up with songs. Then, at the point where it started to get serious, I got drafted to Hamburg, which was 350 miles away from Wuppertal where we lived – so that was the end of band practice for me. I left the band, and my last action with Udo was coming up with the name Accept. I pursued guitar in the army for a little while, but it just didn't come together.
Did you make the transition to engineering and producing right after coming out of the army?
No, I started working for a company called Stramp Amplifiers. The boss' name was Peter Strüven… Strüven Amplifiers… Stramp. We built tube amps for Rory Gallagher, Leslie West, Jack Bruce, and John Entwistle. When I started at Stramp, I didn't know much about electronics, but I went to school and got my degree at night. Stramp was basically a family; it was the boss and his wife, and then there were two more technicians and two more assistants like me. We would sit there late at night and come up with the new gear that we should build, like, "Have you seen the new Trident board? We should check that out." Or the boss would go to America and find out about some parametric EQ and decide we had to do that. It was wonderful and I got to do everything, from packing boxes, to sweeping the floors, to designing electronic equipment. We also ended up importing Otari machines – the big old 8-tracks – and building our own studio consoles. We had a little 8-track studio for demonstration, and I found out that working with the gear was a lot nicer than having to build it! Peter's wife died at 29 years old, and that kind of broke up the whole family. He lost his mind, and it was just not the same. This was 1979.
Where did you go after that?
There was a band in Hamburg – who were clients of Stramp – called Tennessee. It was American country music, Germanized – if you can think of anything more awful than that… But they were all older guys, and they had a lot of money. They asked me, "Do you want to build a studio for us? Just for the band." And of course it was called Tennessee Studios. If you have a new studio, you have a lot of equipment manuals, but you don't have a lot of clients, so you have plenty of time to read them. That was really, really helpful for me. I had few clients play in there while I got to mess up, big. We actually went all the way up to a 50-piece orchestra. The recording room was fairly big!
How many tracks was the studio?
Tennessee was 8-track, for one week. Then we got a client in who said, "If you had 16-track, I'd do my record here." So we bought a good old Studer A80 and made it 16-track. The Studer had a monitor panel where, when you recorded, it didn't have the relays in it yet; if you wanted to punch in, you had to punch in and flip that particular channel to input at the same time. You had to have a lot of coffee! The console was either a 24- or 32-channel Sound Workshop, and we had a very decent mic locker. Germany was a good place to get ahold of some pretty good equipment in 1979. [laughs]
Tennessee is also where you first recorded Dokken, correct?
We were hooked up to a club next door with a snake; they had a little stage in there, so we could record directly from that club into the studio. The club owner would go to the U.S. and bring bands back to Germany for little tours. One of these bands was Dokken. One day, the door flies open and I hear, "Give me a guitar! I haven't played for three days!" And I said, "Hey, nice to meet you too!" That was Don Dokken. But we hit it off right away. They played the music that I loved, and they were really good. They played in the club, we recorded the show, and then, right after, we did six or seven demos at the studio. I was up for 76 hours finishing those demos, and I ended up delivering the mixes to him at the airport right before he went on the plane back to L.A. Then I fell asleep in my car, in the parking lot, for 12 hours. You couldn't just upload mixes in those days; it was an actual tape! Don gave that little demo to Gaby Hoffmann, who managed Accept; she took it to a few people and got him a deal.
You also did front of house mixing for Accept during this period. How did doing live sound impact your engineering?
When I moved to America for the first time, in 1980 after meeting Dokken, the economy was pretty bad. I was working at Larrabee Sound Studios as a technician. They figured that I knew my way around a Studer machine because I was German – but the pay wasn't good. Udo came over on vacation and said, "We're going on tour with Van Halen. You wanna come back with me and do live sound for us?" The Van Halen tour got cancelled, but we went on tour with Judas Priest instead, for a month and a half. The console is the console, the whole system is the system, and if you understand it, you understand it. But you're fighting the space… from soundcheck, where it's a space with no people, to a full house where the room sounds completely different. That's a good learning experience. You have to be fast, and you have one chance to get it right. In the studio you can roll back and punch in again. I had another job in the early ‘80s, where I really learned to be fast. Dieter Dierks, who produced all of the Scorpions records, had a mobile stereo truck. Meanwhile, television stations had trucks that were mono. We used to do the live recording and transmissions for Rockpalast, which was a big music TV show in Germany that went out live to 40 million viewers. You don't want to piss off 40 million people at the same time! The console was an MCI 600, and we recorded on a Telefunken 2-inch, 32-track [tape deck], so each track had the track width of a cassette. Tiny! And in that truck we would go from U2, to Bryan Adams, to Cheap Trick, with 15 minutes in between. We had to be lightning fast. We would put colored tape right next to the channels with all the settings on them, put those up on the wall during soundcheck; then during the last three or four songs of the previous band, we'd put the tape down there. As soon as the band was done, we had to reset the whole console. And, to this day, I use those same colors for the same instruments: drums are green, bass is grey, vocals are red, guitars are yellow, and keyboards are blue.
Your first major label break in the U.S. was Tom Zutaut at Elektra Records calling you to record the band X. How did he know to call you?
There was a little community in the south Bay Area that I was part of when I stayed with Don Dokken while visiting the U.S. early on. Don, Alan Niven – who managed Great White, and later Guns N' Roses – Tom Zutaut, who would sign Mötley Crüe and Dokken to Elektra [and later Guns N' Roses to Geffen], and a whole clan that were all friends. Tom knew my work, as I had mixed the original indie release of the first Mötley Crüe record, Too Fast for Love, and also from my work with Great White. I was back over in Europe in '84, and he called and said, "I want you to come over and do a single with the band X. They're an underground punk band, but I kind of want to get them more into pop. And the single was "Wild Thing" by The Troggs. I came over, and I basically never went back. I applied for a green card. Then next I did the X album, Ain't Love Grand, on which I think I succeeded in making them pop. We all agreed on the direction, but in the end they would have probably preferred a more streamlined recording, sound-wise. On the other hand, it gave them their first hit single, which I think is actually the thing that they cared about the least. The label cared about it though! The press absolutely hated that; but, as you know, any press is good press, so that put my name in everybody's mouth. From then on it went, bang, after bang, after bang. Under Lock and Key with Dokken, mixing Master of Puppets, Stryper, and Alice Cooper. It just went crazy.
Such an important part of the work you did in Eighties are the huge, explosive drum sounds. Did you have favorite rooms, or go-to gear?
At the time my favorite drum room was the warehouse at Amigo Recording Studios in North Hollywood. There was a giant umbrella under the ceiling that you could lower and raise, so the reflections would be covered. There was just a whole bunch of junk in that warehouse that had no particular size or shape to it, but it created the best sound. You would hit the snare and it was like, "Whoa." That was where I did X, White Lion, Dokken, Stryper, and others. When I first walked into the Studio A control room, the owner, Chet Himes – who had produced Christopher Cross, among many other things, and who was a man of amazing knowledge – said, "Alright, what do you want in here? I've got a Harrison [console] and I've a brand new MCI 500." I liked the MCI at the time, so they put that in there and put the Harrison in Studio B.
It usually sounds like you had the cymbals spot mic'd versus a looser, overhead feel.
In terms of mic'ing, with my drums, all of the sound of the snare is coming from the close mics. The cymbal mics are also fairly close and in the middle of the cymbal. If you mic it from the side, the cymbal moves back and forth in relationship to the microphone when it gets hit and starts phasing like hell. I normally had a stereo room mic somewhere; [I also had] one very far away, pointing into a corner, and one room mic 10-feet away from the drums, so that it was in the range of the 100 Hz wavelength coming from the kick. That last one was compressed to hell, and it was the only thing that was compressed to tape. There was no EQ on anything. To this day I don't have any EQ on any drum mics. It's better to get the right snare, the right mic, as well as to change the mic if necessary. And if that doesn't work, get another drummer. The source is the most important thing. If you find the right mic, in the right position, you probably don't have to use EQ. It might come in a tiny bit dull; but if you put something like a [Manley] Massive Passive on the stereo bus, you lift the high-end a little bit and you've got it. Analog EQ is a phase smear, no matter what. That's how it works, so I like having just one of them, instead of 24.
Roger Nichols and I spent weeks at Amigo with different heads, different tapes, and different biasing, and we never once got a kick drum to come back the way it went it. It always sounded softer. The first day in Germany, on an Accept album, Frank Farian [Boney M] had a 3M digital machine and I said, "Gimme that." Later on, we had the Sony and Studer 48-tracks. They were both basically the same machine, and they sounded great, even though the converters were only 16-bit.
It's easier to get a good high gain guitar sound these days, using modeling or any number of high gain purpose built amps. In the early ‘80s it was still pretty much a dark art. Did you have any favorite tricks or amps?
What we did most of the time was to rent amps from Andy Brauer. He had the heads and the cabinets – with 30-watt Celestions – that everybody wanted. I think I bought one cabinet 30 times over because I rented it so much. Of course there were other cabinets, like the ones that the bands would bring in, and sometimes the studio has some. I think that on the Warrant record, Dog Eat Dog, and also with Steve Stevens, we had something like 15 different cabinets. We'd pick the right cabinet, the right speaker, and the right microphone in the right position, which is very painful – physically – because it's a loud speaker, and also very work-intensive. Getting the microphones in phase, if you have two microphones on one cabinet, was something that I had to learn. At that time everybody wanted to sound like Van Halen, and they would say, "Nooooo, it's still not close enough to Van Halen." I would say, "Okay, play a Van Halen song," and then all of a sudden it sounded like Van Halen.
But George Lynch from Dokken had
a sound that was immediately distinguishable, and was not really that indebted to Van Halen's.
To begin with, at least 75 percent of a guitarist's sound comes from their fingers, and that's definitely true in George's case. He's one of the most recognizable guitar players. You hear one bar and you know it's him, regardless of whether it's rhythm or solo. It's the vibrato, and the style… it sticks out right away. When we did Breaking the Chains in Germany at Dierk's studio, we called it the "Tank Tone" because the studio had a big oil tank dug under the ground, and they had a speaker in there with a microphone. Later on, during the making of Under Lock and Key, we had two Laney amps and two Marshall amps. We had one Marshall and one Laney in the big room at Amigo, and they were mic'd with about 16 microphones. Then there was another Laney cabinet in a very dead room that they had used for drums in the ‘70s, and it ran through a little bit of a Boss chorus. Finally, there was a 50-watt Marshall, where the cabinet was in a tiled bathroom. All of these were coming up on the console, and they would all go out of one bus to one track. Then George, being the joker that he is, said, "Well, you know I always get a great sound at home with my Fostex 4-track." So I said, "Sure, bring it in." He brought it in the next day; we took that one bus from all of those microphones and ran it through the Fostex on stun. The meter would never move. Maybe it had an automatic limiter in it, or something like that, but every chunk came out really well. We put that under the console, under a blanket, and that's the sound that you near on Under Lock and Key.
Crazy! After that, you were an early adopter of ADA's MP-1 tube preamp for guitar.
I used it on White Lion, Skid Row, and Extreme. The MP-1 has a +4 output. I would run it into a solid McIntosh hi-fi power amp with a -10 dB input, so there was some distortion. That powered a Marshall cabinet with 30-watt Celestions. Everybody used the exact same preset on the ADA, and everybody sounded completely different. The preset was 45. We used other gear on the way back in, like the Urei 535 stereo graphic equalizer. It made the sound better, even if it was [set] flat. And then we would go through the BBE 802 Sonic Maximizer. For guitars I actually like tape, because it rounds off those nasty edges that some output transformers create. Today I use the Crane Song HEDD on my guitar chain to simulate tape.
You mixed both Metallica's Master of Puppets and Poison's Look What the Cat Dragged In in the span of a year.
Both of those were mixed through the 40-Channel SSL in Studio C at Amigo. Cliff Burnstein, who co-manages Metallica, called me for Master of Puppets because he also managed Dokken and was familiar with my work. Maybe he thought I could bring a little bit of accessibility to the project, because they were very heavy and raw before. But Metallica had a very clear idea of what they wanted to sound like, and I have to say that when I got the tapes – 3M digital – they sounded great. Flemming Rasmussen did an amazing job recording the album, and it was all there.
Was the band there for the mixing?
[laughs] Very much so. I had Lars Ulrich on the right of me and James Hetfield on the left, the whole time. Reverb was not allowed, officially. If there was a blinking green light somewhere, they would say, "What is that? Is that reverb? Turn it off!" Basically it was Lars on the right side saying, "All I hear is fucking guitars!" And James was on the left going, "The fucking drums are killing me!" And I would say, "Guys, what about the bass?" And they would say, "He's not here!" That's an actual quote!
The songs on that record are all really long. Were recalls a nightmare?
There were no recalls. There was, "You like it? Okay, done. Next song." It was all on tape and mixed to tape; so if you recalled, you had more, and more, and more tapes. You get the mix to where you like it, and then you print one mix. I'm totally against vocal up, backing vocal up… no. An A&R guy said to me once, "Well, let's call it ‘protecting my investment.'" I said, "It's called not having ears." I didn't get a lot of jobs from him after that!
Did you have any sense while you were doing …Puppets that it would have the impact that it did?
No. I liked the record. I thought it was a great album. But at the time – and this sounds kind of cocky – I got used to having good records out there. At some point, I had seven records in the Top 200, at the same time. And so I expected that it would do something. But that it would become that massive? I had no idea.
I love Look What the Cat Dragged In as well, but it's a much scrappier, light-hearted album.
That whole record was recorded in ten days, because there was no budget and it was not in good shape when I got it. It's a small miracle that it ended up where it did, sound-wise! They brought it to me and said, "Here's the deal – we can give you one point for the mix, or a $5000 flat fee." I listened to it and said, "I'll take the five grand." To this day, that's the standing joke when I walk into Poison's dressing room. I didn't see the fact that they were a fun band, and that that attitude sells records.
A lot of tracks that you've produced – Skid Row's "Youth Gone Wild" for example – feature gang vocals that sound like there's a football stadium singing them. How many voices would you typically stack to get the desired effect?
I think that "Youth Gone Wild" was a thousand voices, altogether. There were about 10 or 14 people in the studio singing; we would record a whole bunch of tracks and then bounce them down to one, then record a bunch more and keep going, until we had a lot of voices. The same applied with Accept's "Balls to the Wall." Usually you would end up with four tracks, and then pan them. Nowadays at WireWorld we use "Fritz," the Neumann Binaural head. Everyone stands around it, and then everyone moves one step to the left on each take. We just did that on the last Great White album. We had 28 people, and we did 20 tracks.
When grunge arrived in the early ‘90s, it pretty much wiped the kind of music that you were doing off the map. Did you see the change coming?
The first time I heard Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" I went, "Shit, that's a great song." It seemed like it was noisy, that it wasn't played that well, and that it was not in tune; but I knew that it was a great song, and that it was going to have a big influence. And it did. For a while there I got out of audio altogether. But now I get probably three calls a week for that ‘80s sound. They say, "We can't listen to that over-compressed stuff anymore. We want it to sound big!"