In the world of heavy metal, Michael Wagener is one of the biggest producers/engineers. He has worked with Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Skid Row and it even turns out he was a founding member of Germany's metal gods Accept. Michael stopped by Softube's booth at Musikmesse Frankfurt to check out our new Console 1 and have a chat with us. Here's what we said.
Let's talk about your WireWorld Studio—please describe the workflow and stuff you use!
The studio is built up around three major units, the computer, the console and my monitors. The computer runs Nuendo 5.5 and the console is an SSL console AWS 900.
I have used an original analog Trident A-Range channel strip, so I've been able to compare the hardware to the plug-in and there's just no difference.
But you used to have a Sony RMX-100, didn't you?
I used to have two ... no, three! Haha. One for spare parts. The Sonys were really, really good consoles. I loved the sound and I loved the workflow, but they all started dying around me and I got out before it happened to mine. A few years ago I built a new studio from the ground up to my specifications, completely based on how I want to work and how I think it should all look. After a year of building it just turned out great. So the SSL is the analog heart and the DAW controller that allows me to not think when I'm recording. This is very important, and that's pretty much what you're doing with your Console 1 by the way. It's important being able to disconnect from the technological side of things and just focus on the music and work with the band. That's what I'm there for. And lastly, the monitors are ADAM S3X. I'm happy with those. And then I have tons of analog outboard gear—and of course plug-ins, not least Softube's! I'm really happy with them.
The one thing I don't like about bedroom recordings is that they're made in a bedroom! I like to have the whole band playing together where you get the vibe and togetherness.
Good to hear! I understand you like the Valley People Dyna-mite?
Yes! I have an original analog Dyna-mite. What we've always used it for is super compression, very short and aggressive compression on snare drums and such. It really gives you that stick attack and everything else is gone. When I got the Softube plug-in it was just like—"yeah, it does the same thing exactly". I also use the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor which is amazing. I don't have an original, so I haven't been able to compare. But it does something very good, let's put it that way!
Then there's Tonelux Tilt and Tilt Live. It's very smooth and just a very good idea for an equalizer. And last but not least, there's the Trident A-Range equalizer. I have used an original analog Trident A-Range channel strip as well, so I've been able to compare the hardware to the plug-in and there's just no difference. I've actually been part of testing out the reissue they released a while back, which is also really good.
Tonelux Tilt—it's very smooth and just a very good idea for an equalizer.
Do you only record and mix, or do you also produce?
I'd say my main gig is producing. That means I do pre-production, mostly in the band's rehearsal room, and then record, mix and master at my WireWorld Studio. I like working on a project from beginning to end. I do a lot pure mix jobs of other people's recordings, but I've never done it the other way around, me recording and someone else mixing. It would just feel very weird to me.
You've mostly done metal but also other artists, such as Janet Jackson.
Yeah. There's a few genres I couldn't work with, such as hiphop or country. It's just not my world, I couldn't contribute to those genres. But lately a lot of the eighties music is coming back, and I get a lot of requests to produce that style of music.
A lot of people would probably think that any producer in Nashville would do country.
But Nashville is a very big music city in general. A lot of the money comes from country music and I don't think you could get a rock band signed here. But there is a big rock scene as well, and I like it. There's always lots of rock concerts going on.
A few years ago I built a new studio from the ground up to my specifications, completely based on how I want to work and how I think it should all look.
How did you ending up getting the gig of mixing Metallica's Master of Puppets?
It must have been through Cliff Bernstein, their manager. He knew me after my work with Dokken and the band thought it seemed like a good idea. That album was recorded by Flemming Rasmussen in Denmark on a Trident A-Range ...
... the very one we modeled for our Trident A-Range plug-in!
Very cool indeed!
Can you pick out any specific records you've made that you're particularly proud of?
I'm proud of them all, otherwise I wouldn't have let them out of the studio! But I guess there are some milestones such as the Skid Row album, Extreme, Ozzy ... and then I did the last two Lordi records. The new one is really different, there's no reverb at all on the drums, all the roomyness and extension of sounds comes from compression and distortion. It's different, and I like it a lot.
When you listen to recordings by less experienced engineers, are there common mistakes you hear a lot?
Well, because the DAW:s entered the scene, everybody could afford to record and mix in their bedroom. The one thing I don't like about bedroom recordings is that they're made in a bedroom! Haha. I like to have the whole band playing together where you get the vibe and togetherness. Recording all parts separately doesn't really do it for me. Another thing is there's a lack of background and experience in recording, and the mistakes people make are made up for with compression and other plug-ins. So the whole dynamic is gone. I tell a lot of young people to go listen to orchestras and other acoustic music—learn what dynamics can be, and use that knowledge in your recordings. I can't stand listening to the over compressed records. They just don't grab you. And then there's the musicians themselves. Since everything can be fixed in the computer, they get lazy. But it's so much better if people just rehearse and make good takes in the first place.
I do a lot pure mix jobs of other people's recordings, but I've never done it the other way around, me recording and someone else mixing. It would just feel very weird to me.
You have been doing this for a long time, are there still things you find yourself struggling with?
I wouldn't call it struggle, but every project is different and every musician needs his or her own attention. That's probably the biggest part of producing, it's more important to be a psychologist than being able to read music. So technically, recording is getting easier and easier—you guys make it easier for us!—but it's still difficult to deal with musicians. In a good way, though! It's challenging and exciting, and I guess it's worked out pretty well so far.
And you were actually founding member of the German metal gods Accept?
Yes! I grew up with the singer Udo Dirkschneider and we started the band together. It was called Band X at the time, but it turned into Accept. Udo and I came up with that name. Guitarist Wolf Hoffmann replaced me a while later, which was a good thing. I was never much of a guitar player, but he's totally out there. So instead, I started engineering, and made a few of their recordings. That's actually how I ended up in Nashville, Wolf lived there and they hired me to do their album Predator there. I fell in love with the place and moved!