Michael Wagener

Michael Wagener Engineer/Mixer/Producer Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Extreme, Janet Jackson, Skid Row

Interview with Will Kahn for Burl Audio, 2012

You’ve been making large label records for many years now. You were born in Germany, could you talk about how you started in music and recording and how you came to the US?

Well when I was about 12 I bought my first guitar. I grew up with Udo Dirkschneider, we went to school together, and we are still best friends. We formed a band together, which later became Accept. When I turned 18, I was drafted to the army, and it makes practicing pretty hard when you are stationed 350 miles from home. So I ended up putting the guitar down and decided to move to the other side of the Studio window. After the army I got a job with a company called STRAMP, which stands for Strueven Amplification. We built guitar amps and studio equipment, and later on mixing boards and all kind of stuff like that. We did, actually, build the first guitar synthesizer ever, together with Wolfgang Palm who became PPG later on, and also did the first digital echo, which was noisier than heck, but anyway, it was the first digital echo! And that’s where I got my wings. Later on we set up a little studio at Stramp where we were demonstrating recording equipment, we were by then importing BGW amps and Otari 8-track machines, and that’s how I got into the recording side, which had interested me for a long time already, from when I was a little kid, and my uncle allowed me to play with his tape machine. I was fascinated by that. I found out I liked working with the gear better than building it. In 1979 I opened up my first studio in Hamburg, Germany, which was called Tennessee Studios, believe it or not. (Laughter). It was together with a bunch of people that had a German country band called Tennessee. They had money and I had some knowledge about studios, so we built a studio and that’s basically where I started. And when you have a new studio, you have a lot of gear, and you have a lot of manuals, but you don’t have a lot of clients, but that means you have a lot of time to read those manuals and play around with the gear. So that’s how I got into it. In that studio, I did meet Don Dokken during his Germany tour, and he invited me to come to America, and the rest is history.

When you came to the states, what were some of the first projects you worked on over here?

Well, it was Dokken’s “Breaking The Chains”. We did that originally in Europe, then we remixed some of it here in Redondo Beach, at Total Access Studio. From there I went on to work on the first Great White EP, Malice, and then during a later visit to the US, mixed Mötley Crüe’s first record. When I was back in Germany in 1984 I was called by Tom Zutaut, who was working A&R with Electra records at the time, to do a single for the band X. If you remember X, they were an underground Punk band. We did the Troggs song Wild Thing, which ended up in the movie Major League. I was only planning to be here for the recording of that single but I just got one job after the next. So, I am still here. X ended up doing the album “Love Is Grand.” The record company wanted me to turn the punk band into a pop band on that album. I followed their request but it was a big mistake, and therefore it was also the last time I ever listened to a record company… (Laughter) But doing that got me a lot of press, and a lot of interest… not all of it was positive, but any press is good press, as they say. By 1985, I was working one album after another. We did Dokken “Under Lock And Key”, then White Lions “Pride”, then “Bonfire”, then Metallica, Stryper, Alice Cooper and on and on and on.

Metallica… was that 1986? How big were they at that point?

The album was recorded in 1985, and it actually came out in 1986. They were well known, but they were more of a cult band at that point, but Master Of Puppets really got them into the light, and, they just took it from there and became THE biggest Metal Band on the planet. You have such a long discography… a lot of really important music at that time… you have Ozzy Osbourne Ozzmosis, Megadeth , Overkill, Skid Row… You were talking about X, listening to the record label and going pop… Yes, the label wanted them to go pop, and they were an underground band. I was pretty green and fresh in producing, so I went with the plan, but I shouldn’t have done that. The record didn’t turn out like it should have. They were a punk band and they should have stayed a punk band. I followed that rule later in my career to a tee… never change a band from what it really stands for.

I also see Janet Jackson in here… which came out in 1990… That seems like a bit of a departure from the metal stuff… How did you get that gig?

Well, Janet wanted to cross over into rock. The album she had out at that time was Rhythm Nation. And the song Black Cat is a song she wrote all by herself on that album, and she wanted it to cross over into rock. I was working with Extreme at the time, they were on A&M, and Janet was on A&M. The people at A&M asked me if I would be open to remixing Janet’s Black Cat. So I go “sure, why not?” It was already on the album, but I did the video mix, and single mix. So we got into that and we rocked it out. Actually Nuno, from Extreme played the guitars on the mix I did, so it’s pretty heavy.

Pretty much everything you have done you mix also, correct?

Yes, I’m mixing my own stuff. For me a project includes the whole production, and that goes from the first demo all the way up until the record is in the sleeve. I do mix or remix for other people, but I like to mix my own productions myself. When tracking, you record things a certain way, always with your mind on the final mix. Somebody else might not know what to do with those tracks because they only work with the final mix in mind. To me it’s important to follow through all the way.

One thing at Burl that we are interested in, is exactly what you were just talking about… getting tones that you want right away… we like to commit to tones when we track. Not like “give me a DI so I can re-amp you later”… Do you tend to commit to compression and saturation when tracking, or do you like to leave your options open for later on?

You always have certain options open, but I have a certain sound in mind. From the first days of pre-production, I have a certain sound in mind that I will follow through with. When recording guitars, yes I do record a DI track, along with the amp track, but just incase, to have it there as an option not as a crutch, maybe to add some sound to a certain guitar track or add another, maybe cleaner amp, etc.. Sometimes you run into the problem when you start mixing where you go: “wow, this guitar is too distorted for this part. It is really hard to get rid of distortion on a guitar once it has been through an amp. So if you have the DI track, and it was played well by the guitar player to begin with, then you go back and re-amp it. But the goal is to get the right tone right during tracking, the DI track is just an option should something go wrong. The way I record normally, let’s say, I have 8 microphones on one guitar going through several amps, I commit all of those to one single track. I commit to that sound and print it, right then and there and then we build up on that sound.

Compression?

I try to not compress anything during tracking, except one room mic on the drums and some compression on a very dynamic singer. I don’t EQ anything while tracking either. I subscribe to the idea that it should all be gotten right with the choice of microphone, in the right position, and the right instrument the right amplifier… whatever you want to call it, get the source right, and just record it. I can record it straight, and later on in the mix, I put a little EQ on it to make it sit well, and I’m fine. But I don’t use EQ and most likely don’t use compression during tracking, unless it’s for an effect. Like a room mic, I squeeze the heck out of it. I use compression on the whole mix, maybe 2 – 3 dB, and that’s about it… unless I want to reach a certain effect using a compressor. But compressors were invented because tape didn’t have a lot of dynamic range between noise and distortion, but now you have digital and you have all the headroom and no noise, so you don’t have to compress much, if anything. And people do it exactly the other way around. They compress every single channel, it seems to me it’s a lack of experience about how to record it right in the first place, it’s a bandage. I tend to not compress on the way in. Vocals is a different story, cause you want to capture that take and every take could be the “one”, make sure that nothing is distorting and it’s not too low, far away in the noise or something like that. You want to get all that vocal recorded to be sure to have it, so that’s the one thing that I compress. Why would I compress a guitar that just got compressed through a guitar amp (laughter) by 1000 times??? It’s already all compressed. But I do record DI with a box that’s called the MW1 by Creation Audio Labs. The guys from Creation Audio Labs and myself stuck our heads together for about 9 month and the MW-1 is the result of the brainstorming. It is the best sounding DI that I’ve ever heard, besides being a fantastic studio tool for solving all kinds of problems, from ground hum to phase and impedance/level matching.

I know you use the B2 (Bomber ADC) on your mixes… How do you work with that?

Basically I mix in the box, but I come out of Nuendo with 24 channels into my SSL, and do the analog summing, and some of the mixing through the SSL console. At the stereo mix output of the SSL I have to convert from analog to digital, to get the mix back into Nuendo. I need a converter for that. And I have converters, and I have really good converters. Pepper Denny was so nice to let me borrow the B2, and I compared it to everything I had. I had to say, “well, this is better. This sounds better”. Now, better is relative, but to me it was really weird because, where as the dynamic was pinned into one, or two, or three dB in the end, just changing to the Burl opened up the dynamic, which blew my mind, so now I’ve got 5 or 6 dB dynamic going back in. It’s just one of those things where the improvement to the sound is such that you have got to get that box. You owe it to your clients to buy it. Yeah, it’s not necessarily cheap, but the improvement in sound is so much that you have to have it. You can’t go to your clients and say: “yeah, well it could be better if I had that box, but sorry…” So that’s how it all came about.. The Burl B2 just blew my mind, and eventually I will be replacing all my converters with the Mothership so everything will be Burl in my studio.

Can you talk about your progression from tape into digital?

Well, the first day digital came out, that was for me. I don’t like tape. To me tape is not a neutral storage medium. And people go “tape sounds so good blah blah blah…” Digital can sound just as good if you treat your stuff before it even gets recorded. But never, never once have I gotten a kick or snare back from tape the way I put it in. Not once, in all that time. I sat with Roger Nichols, and a whole bunch of other big ears at Amigo Studio in the 80s and we aligned tapes, used different heads, different machines, different tape brands, different tape stock, and never once did the kick drum come out sounding the way we put it in, it was always softer and lost punch. So the first day those 3M machines showed up, I think I was in Germany at Dierks Studios in Cologne on an Accept album, I go, “That’s me. Give me those. I want those”. And I haven’t looked back ever since. I went from there to DA88s and then later on to full digital “tapeless” with the Euphonix R1, using the Euphonix converters, which I think are pretty damn good. I still use those right now actually, with Nuendo. I love digital. I love the way it allows me to work. I love what I can do with it. And I’m not talking about auto-tuning or drum aligning. I’m talking about simple stuff. If you overuse digital, and it’s been overused to HELL nowadays, it spoils it. You still have to know the basic recording techniques to get the music across. And that’s the most important thing. I subscribe to the idea that the ARTIST is recording the music, and not some TYPIST. I think there was an essence of tape that Rich wanted to bring into digital… Which is why it’s a happy medium because there are no heads and there are no tapes, but there are a lot of electronics that are found in a tape machine Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against analog. I have a ton of analog gear. And when I look at the B2, that is a controlled environment, but tape is not controlled. That’s what I’m talking about. If you emulate it, that’s wonderful as long as you have control over it. And you add that that function to it as much as you want, but tape itself adds an uncontrolled change to your sound.

What have you been up to lately? What excites you now a days?

Well, still recording. Still mixing. I built a brand new studio 3 years ago which is a constant changing environment, but I’m very happy there, the studio sounds amazing and I’m getting great results. I have an assistant now, Shani Gandhi, who is brilliant and takes a lot of work off my shoulders, great engineer, amazing ears. I’m still doing the same old stuff. Still doing rock bands from all over the worlds. I was just looking at the calendar, we are booked well into 2013, and there’s not one American band in there. It’s funny. We got Australia, Germany, Finland, Brazil, but there’s not one American band in there… yet, things can always change. We are also shooting a DVD about the production workshops I teach all over the world. Putting that DVD together is a big, big, BIG job. Shani and myself have been working on it for about a year and I think we are going to be working for another year before we can let it out on the streets. It’s a lot of fun, and there will be a lot of information about Studios, and studio gear, and how to record… where to put the microphones and things that maybe got lost a little bit in bedroom studio situations. I’m telling everything I know on that DVD. So that’s why it is going to take a while, before we are done with it… ############## Special thanks to Michael Wagener for his time and supporting Burl Audio!

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