Interview With Renowned Mixing Engineer & Producer, Michael Wagener
Our man Chris Dunnett sits down with legendary producer/engineer Michael Wagener for an in-depth interview in his Nashville studio. Michael is best known for his work with hard hitting artists like Metallica, Megadeth, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Poison, Dokken, Accept, Great White, Plasmatics, X, Extreme and many others. With credits on over 160 albums, his versatility extends beyond the world of metal and hard rock to include artists like Janet Jackson and Muriel Anderson. We know you’re going to dig this one – so take it away Chris…
Is there anything really cool you’re working on that you want to tell people about?
Yes, I’m going to do the next Skid Row album, full album. Then there’s a band from New Zealand, Black Smoke Trigger, coming in and that’s a full album. Then there’s a band from New Mexico and that’s a full album. So I’ll be booked till October and I was going to retire this year (laughs). Get your bid in if you want to anything in 2019 cause I think next year I’m finally going to tap out.
Most metal albums are known for having a “wall of guitar” sound, do most bands you work with layer many rhythm tracks?
No, not really. When we did Master of Puppets they had one rhythm track on the left and one on the right but two different speakers. So there were 4 tracks but only 2 performances. Then there was what they call “the thickener” which was just the low E string on all the chords doubled up.
Have you worked with bands that have done many layers of guitars?
Yes but it tends to go “soupy” really quick so I’m normally doing 2, one left and one right. The rhythms are sometimes fast so the playing can get muddy too. Sometimes I will only do one track and a minimum amount of mics. We used to use like 16 mics and it would soup it up. I’m down to using one or two good amps and one mic.
Any mic of choice?
Yeah, Royer 121 that’s my main guitar mic.
What about when you have multiple guitars that are playing different parts such as harmonies etc…any tips or tricks to make sure they are all heard?
Use different guitars, different amps and try to stay out of the way of each other. Make one hi-endy and the other really thick. Use different cabinets and different mic combinations. I don’t EQ guitars at all I rather do it with mics and change the source sound. I record a DI track for every guitar track I record with a Creative Audio Labs MW 1. It can record totally pristine DI tracks and you can go back later and run it into an amp and it will sound exactly the same. (sidebar on the MW 1 – a re-amping DI designed by Michael in conjunction with Creative Audio Labs). Like the old days, you get a tone and build on it. The next track you get a slightly different tone and they gotta fit together. You build the song based on the first track you do and there’s a lot of experience that comes in there. Maybe the first track doesn’t sound all that good because you’re thinking, OK I got to add some more tracks so we keep it thinner but as soon as you add the tracks to it, it will be fine. The sound is going to be determined in pre-production before we even start recording. Then I have a clear vision of what that song should sound like. There’s always little stuff, you leave stuff open for development in the studio but I have a clear idea of what that song is gonna sound like and what pre-amps and amps we’re going to be using for a certain section. That always depends on the player of course but there is a picture there.
So you obviously spend a lot of time in pre-production.
Oh yeah, anywhere from a week to two weeks depending on how done the songs are and how much work they need AFTER I get the demos and work on them. Let’s say you have a 10 song album, we work on 2 songs a day, that’s an easy schedule then I normally leave the band to practice that stuff by themselves before they come here and record. By the time they come in the studio everybody knows exactly what they should be playing. Just go in there and get a good take.
When you’re in pre-production listening to the songs are you listening to see how the songs are working or do you become almost a writer as well?
I become a band member. I would not necessarily call it writing, rather arranging. Even though I do write a chorus once in awhile if there’s none there but that happens before we go into pre-production. I present it to them, they try it out. If they like it we keep it, if they don’t we come up with something else.
Are there any other situations where say, the band came in, and not that you were going to try to totally alter their sound but said you guys are doing this can we maybe take a little turn here…
Well when a band comes to you, you always have to find the best about them. You have to find out what they’re doing best, what sounds bad, what is their best thing and you bring that out. I don’t try and put “my stamp” on the band. I actually make an effort to avoid that. So if a band comes to me I’m LOOKING for their sound and then we will go and do that sound and enhance it.
What is the typical length for you to do a full album
A full album is roughly 60 days. If it’s 15 songs it might be a little longer excluding pre-production but including mixing.
Do you spend a good deal of time getting drum sounds too?
Normally it’s like a day. We go into pre-production and I see what his drums sound like and maybe we try different heads, maybe we try different drums. Once that is figured out, that the source sounds good, it’s a day maximum to get the sounds and even then I don’t use EQ.
You’ve worked with dozens of great players that all have their own sound. Zakk Wylde, George Lynch, the guys in Stryper…How do you deal with individual players and getting “their” sound yet making them all sound different?
Well now days it’s a whole wide palate of sounds that people come in with if they come in with any sounds at all. Obviously you look around and this is a studio where you can get any sound you want. I still think about 80 percent comes out of the hand of the player. If you give George Lynch five different amps it’s always going to sound like George Lynch. So capturing a sound is basically “hey what do YOU want to sound like” or “Is that what you want to sound like” or “Is that amp putting out what you wanna hear”? Then you just get it on tape so to speak. It’s a matter of picking the right mic, the right position, or the right combination of mics. The room is important. Obviously the speakers themselves are important. So it’s all a combination of things.
It’s a matter of realizing what’s the guy want? How’s his right arm? If it’s slow and sluggish, he doesn’t like the tone. You have to read the person. You gotta zoom in on the player themselves. The player is the most important ingredient in this whole thing. I mean George Lynch could be playing through and apple crate and it still would sound like him. The player is the most important thing. I love it when people like George and Zakk (Wylde) go and find their own tone or go through a bunch of different amps and try them out. I think that’s great. That’s what it takes. Too many times kids walk in and hand me the butt end of their cable and go “where do I plug this in?” I’m ready to serve them with 24 amps that I’ve got sitting around but they didn’t find their tone. I’m gonna have to. I’m thankful afterwards when they walk up to the amp and look what I did. Sometimes it’s just “oh, cool”. Music has changed in that direction a little bit. But people like George, Zakk and Vito (Brata) back then they would just work on their tone, for DAYS sometimes! Then come in with “OK, here’s the combination I like, let’s see how we can fit that into the album.”
Have you ever had a player come to you and say “this is my sound” and you’re like “there’s no way that sound will work on this” and you had to tactfully change it?
No, no, if people have their own sound then we try to make it happen. In most cases people look at what I’ve done and kind of trust me with it or we go through and discuss. I would not force someone who is adamant about “this is my sound” to do something else. So we try to work everything around it so it fits. What for me is the worst thing is when people walk in and say “I want that Van Halen tone, I want the Lynch tone.” Well, call them up because THAT’S the only way you will get that tone. It’s all arrangement and how it comes together.
What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve done to get guitar tone?
Well, the most bizarre thing was when we did “Under Lock and Key” (Dokken), we were talking about amps and George Lynch goes “you know I get a great guitar sound out of my Fostex 4-track at home.” so I said bring it in. We had 16 microphones coming out of 1 bus and all 16 mics went into the Fostex 4-track which was under the console under a blanket so no one could see it. And that’s the tone. The machine was cranked to the tilt distorting left and right but that’s the tone. So, there’s no rules.
Is there anything you request of guitar players such as new strings etc?
No, not at all. When we did the King’s X record, we were done recording and Ty goes “oh, those strings are nine years old” (laughs). I go “you’re telling me now?” Then he goes “On the other guitars, those are seven years old.” (laughs). It doesn’t matter to me. What I expect of a guitar player is they know their parts. The only thing we want to do here is get a good performance of that part.
What about players that want to improv their solos?
That’s cool. If they want to improv then they got to be good enough to do it. Improv doesn’t mean I punch in every second note. If you want me to put the solo together by punching in every second note…it’ll never sound good.
Any favorite pre-amps you run through?
For Acoustic most likely the Massenberg GML that’s the cleanest one or John Hardy and for Electric guitar ALWAYS the Chandler TG-2. Always. I have a few of them and the TG Channel and Germanium. As soon as I run out of Chandler I go to API. TG 2 has that harmonic content that comes out on a guitar…that ringing really comes out. That together with a Royer 121 is an awesome combination.
You ever do the old standard of just throwing a 57 on there?
No. I haven’t used a 57 in like 15 years. Maybe as a second mic. But if as a second mic I wanted to brighten things up a little bit I normally use the Groove Tubes Convertible and then sometimes a Sennheiser 409. The 57, it’s a great microphone but I think there’s other stuff that makes my life easier.
Anything in particular you do to make Acoustic and Electric guitars work together in a mix?
Well they’re in a different frequency. Acoustic guitars are in a way higher range than electric guitars. Electric guitars live somewhere in the 1000hz range and Acoustic guitars are in the 2,3, 4000hz range. Again it depends on the song, depends on the part you know. If they do the same thing then you make one sound out of them. So you use the Acoustic for the top end and the Electric for the bottom end. If the Acoustic plays a solo than the Electric has to make space for it. You have to fit it in there.
Thoughts on amp simulators?
To me, the Kemper is the only I would ever use on any of my records. The right hand reacts completely different to an amp than it does a simulator. For writing, for being in your bedroom sure. You don’t want to crank a 100 watt amp and piss of the neighbors so for that it’s ok. Even the amp plugins. It’s not to say that they don’t sound good, they sound good but if you want to get close to a particular amp some of them sound good and they’re usable in a track and everything is allowed there’s no rules. But with the Kemper I’ve had no problems and so far nobody’s been able to tell the difference even big guys like Mark Kendall, he’s a REAL stickler for sound. He said “you know I’m used to amps and…” blah blah blah and I go just play with this (the Kemper) five minutes and we never once switched an amp on. He was completely happy. Completely happy.
So you’re using the Kemper to replicate other guitar amps?
No, sometimes I just grab something and go…hey how you like that? And then refine it inside the Kemper. You can use it to replicate other amp sounds which mostly all the names for the profiles in the Kemper are based on something. They’re based on a Marshall or based on a Splawn or an Engle or something like that. Now how close they are is a matter of how good the people were who were profiling it. So there is a lot of stuff out there where you go…ehhhh…no a 57 just somewhere in front of the speaker’s just not going to do it. But those people would never get a good sound on a real amp either. So you grab one that somebody good has profiled but there’s plenty and plenty and plenty of those. Even for bass, I’ve got 3 Kempers now that I use all the time so I can do two guitars and the bass at the same time.
When you do use mics, any favorite placements? Do you close mic? More distant for the room?
Close mic definitely and if I record a guitar cabinet the first mic I go to is always a Royer R 121. We record a little piece DI into the computer and loop that back through the amp and then I go out there with headphones and figure out the best position of the microphone in front of the amp. Most of my cabinets don’t have a grill on it. That’s because I go into the speaker with the mic. Don’t try that with another ribbon mic besides the Royer (laughs). I want to record it directly in your face then if I want to add a room to it then I add the room to it later or, I put Fritz out there, the Neumann Head and have that record the environment around it. For Acoustic guitar for instance there’s only two microphones, then Fritz somewhere in the room.
You made great albums without Auto-tune, do you attribute that to having worked with better performers or do you think people are relying on that today?
Not here. Never had it, never will (regarding Auto-tune). Two things happen, the engineers or producers get lazy or not as experienced in order to get out of the artist what they need to get out of them or the artist walks in and plays one verse and go can you fly that in everywhere and that’s not happening here. It will not happen in this studio. The musician performs the music not some typist. That’s my big rule and I always stuck to it. If you can’t sing at least 98 percent of that song in tune then you shouldn’t be a singer. Very simple. If you can’t drive a race car then don’t drive a race car. It’s sad to see that people rely on those tools. If you have to fix one line you have to fix one line, that’s ok. If there’s a line here and there that’s a little accident or something, go and sing it again. Can you imagine Joe Cocker with Auto-tune? Or U2 or John Lennon? It’d be awful! And that’s exactly what it is now, it’s awful. Let’s learn how to play again. There’s this little word called “rehearsing” and that’s kind of an important thing to do. So I subscribe to that idea.
How much headroom do you leave on your Master bus?
I leave 3db headroom for my mastering engineer to be able to EQ it a little bit
You’ve worked on over 160 albums, which ones are you most proud of?
All of them (laughs). There’s a few I don’t want to mention but most of the records I’ve done I’m really proud of. If they’ve sold or not sold. I love it. This is what I like to do. I like ‘em all. Obviously some have sold a little bit more and you tend to like that a little bit more like the first Skid Row album and Extreme and Ozzy’s No More Tears. There’s tons of albums, Kane Roberts’ record which didn’t sell that much but I think it’s a brilliant album. The Kane Roberts record I think should’ve got a lot more attention because it was very well done and it was very good songs and because of political reasons inside the label it got shoveled under the carpet.
The one album where I definitely made a mistake was X, the album I did with X, Ain’t Love Grand. X was an underground Punk band and I was asked by the label to make them Pop. I was inexperienced enough back then to believe that the label knows everything and we tried to make them Pop and I think that was a mistake. I think the album for what it is turned out good but I think I produced away from what the band should’ve sounded like. That’s the one album that sticks out, everything else I’m pretty happy with.
Was it you that said “a band is only as good as their worst member”?
No, “I” am only as good. As a producer I can only be as good as the worst member in the band. It’s a chain. If the band sucks I will never be able to be a good producer with them. The ticket is to find that out before then not do it (laughs) but if the band is good I can be a good producer.
I know part of being a producer is keeping everyone at peace. Arguments happen, egos can flare, any producer at some point almost becomes a “baby sitter”. Any tips regarding that?
(Michael prefaces this question with the process of deciding to work with a band)…
First I get the demo, I have to like the music and feel that I can contribute. Then I meet the band and if I get along with the members and I think that we can create some emotions together (they proceed) and of course there’s the money side.
On my first day I tell them as a producer I have two votes compared to the one vote every band member has. Yes you have to be the “mom” and babysit everybody and keep everybody at bay and get the BEST out of everybody and that’s the hard thing. Cause sometimes, they don’t know what the best is for them. What they CAN do. So yeah, as a producer you have to sometimes make a decision that doesn’t work for one of the band members but works for all the other ones. It’s music so it always will be a matter of opinion. There’s no right or wrongs it’s just a matter of opinion.
Here’s your big chance…if there’s anybody you would like to work with that you haven’t worked with?
(without hesitation) AC/DC! And…the more I look at it, Keith Urban if he would do a Rock album. I think he’s an amazing musician and he could be THEE Rocker unfortunately he keeps going into the Country thing (laughs). I would love to get my hands on that and work it but AC/DC’s my big dream. I’d love to work with Halestorm, it’s one of my favorite bands