Exclusive Interview: Michael Wagener
It’s good to talk to you again, man. I want to talk about the Titanium Black project you worked on. That was the first recording of it’s kind when it was recorded – 5.1 Surround Sound, right?
At that point I think it was one of the first rock or metal albums that was recorded in 5.1. There have been a few that were mixed or re-mixed in 5.1 but this was recorded from the ground up in 5.1. I’m sure by now there’s a few more. At that point it was the first one.
How does recording in 5.1 differ from what you normally do in the studio?
Well, you need a lot more tracks because you’re always recording the environment as well. Normally if you record an acoustic guitar you put one microphone in front of it and you done with it. You might use two microphones. In this case you record the rear of the room, the front of the room, and the actual instrument. You have probably five tracks instead of just one for that one guitar. Things get out of hand pretty quick if you do it that way! (laughs) With vocals it’s a slightly different story. You record with one microphone because you need the closeness but you’ll put 5.1 rooms on it later. You have, all of a sudden, instead of two holes where the music comes out you have five. It’s a whole different situation because you don’t need as much EQ or compression to make everything come across. Nothing is really sitting on top of each other.
Did you know where the best sounds would be in the room or did you spend a lot of time playing around with microphone positioning?
It was my first time recording in 5.1 so we did a lot of experimenting. We used different microphones. We used a Soundfuse microphone which was wonderful for that matter. We had situations where we had a microphone in every corner of the room. There was a lot of experimenting. It also changes the arrangement. You’ll realize there’s a hole in the rear-right and you have to put something there. We’d come up with a whole new part based on the fact that we had more space for the sound to come out of. During the whole project we only listened in Surround, we never listened in stereo. It got to a point where that would come back and bite me in the ass! I ended up with all this stuff and ended up having to do a stereo mix. I had to dump a couple of guitars here and there for the stereo mix.
I’ve gotta know about Fritz…
Fritz is a whole different animal! He’s a bi-naural head. He hears very similar to the way a human being hears. He’s got two microphones built into his head and he’s got ear canals. They made him so he listens like a human being. I think he hears more than a human being! I used him for years and years. The first time was on the Accept Breaker album in 1979 or ‘80. We used on older version for the drum overheads. Ever since I’ve wanted one. When I got the studio I knew that’s what I needed. Fritz gets used for percussion, overdubs for backing vocals, and whenever I want something to sound natural. With Titanium Black we used it a lot for sound effects. Some we recorded out in the woods. Fritz saw a lot of use. With 5.1 he became a very valuable asset for the back of the room or the middle of the room if you mix with him.
I had no idea Fritz would actually have ear canals!
Yeah, they emulate ear canals. As far as I know, they took the shape of 35 human ears and average them in a computer. The ears he has now are a rubbery substance. If you close you eyes they feel a little like flesh! It’s kinda eerie. The guy told me they kept averaging on the computer and ended up with a straight funnel! The effect is being able to hear like a human. It’s more evident on headphones. If you listen through headphones you hear what he hears. I’ve sat there many times and whipped my head around because I thought somebody was coming through a door and it was something we had recorded!
I’m glad he has a male name. God knows if it was a female name it wouldn’t be able to record anything…it would just go in one ear and out the other!
(laughs) I think the name is what the company came up with, but what you said is true! Either that or it wouldn’t listen at all!
Did you have any idea what you were getting into by recording in 5.1 Surround Sound? Did the band have any idea?
I had somewhat of an idea. I had a plan of what we were going to do. I don’t think it was stressful because the experimenting didn’t take that long. We could hear the results and we immediately thought it sounded cool. Overall we took a little bit more time than a normal record. We did some experimenting so it took a little longer to record. We also had to mix it twice. It was originally 14 songs so that’s a song a day. That’s an extra two or three weeks right there because I had to mix it in stereo and 5.1. We did it backwards. Normally when you buy a 5.1 record it’s been mixed in stereo first. Stereo is the more limited way of mixing. We had the luxury of mixing in 5.1 first and totally go crazy. We did our stereo mix from that and still made it sound good. It was done backwards. If you look from a 5.1 standpoint it was done the right way. If you have a stereo record you have to create what goes in the back and front and create the 5.1. We did all of that during recording so we didn’t have to do additional things with delays and reverbs. It was a lot of fun. The band was patient. Terry was very up for checking out new stuff. He’s very open for anything new.
You used to live with Don Dokken and Bobby Blotzer back in the day…
Oh yes, in the ‘very way back’ days! When I first came over it was Don Dokken, Blotz, and Alan Niven – who became the manager for Great White and Guns ‘N Roses, we lived in one house together. I haven’t seen Blotzer in a long time. I still have a relationship with Don. Don was instrumental in bringing me over to America. We became thick friends and did a lot of work together. We lived together for quite a while in the same building. I mixed Long Way Home for him. It’s off and on because he lives in LA. We still have a good relationship.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest bands on some of the biggest records in the history of rock ‘n roll. Who was the most fun to work with?
Skid Row. Well, there’s actually two. Skid Row was a lot of fun because we recorded two records. We had the best of times during the six or seven months that we worked together. The other band is Raven. Those guys are just plain crazy. It just never stops. Saigon Kick was another fun band to do. We always have fun because that’s what we do. We’re pretty much selling emotions. The emotions you have in the studio when you have the record will end up on the album. I’m a firm believer that you can hear that on the record later on. I try to keep it a lot of fun. I turn into Mr. Silly Man. Skid Row really sticks out. They’re coming back in before the end of the year to do their next record.
So Johnny Solinger is still with ‘em?
Yeah, but I don’t really know who the drummer is right now! (laughs) They told me they wanted to come in and do another record and that’s cool. They’re my brothers. I’m looking forward to it.
Early in your career, which album did you learn the most?
Pretty much every record I did. The first Dokken album I learned a lot on. It was my first production. I wasn’t even meant to be the producer. I was the engineer. After about three days, for various reasons, everything was in the ditch. Don turned to me and said, “Now you’re the producer.” That’s how I got into producing! I had the pull the record out of the ditch and my first producing effort went gold. That was pretty satisfying. I learned a lot with Accept. Those guys are such animals in the studio, especially Wolf. There’s a lot there. Another big occasion was the mix of Tooth And Nail. I mixed it with Roy Thomas Baker who did Queen, Journey, Foreigner, and Cheap Trick. There was a lot of time taken from me asking questions. Roy is an amazing engineer. He’s to this day one of my favorites.
Any person or band just drive you nuts in the studio?
There is not really one that drove me nuts. I approach it all from a fun, rock ‘n roll standpoint. There was one band that never got released. I think it was in ‘84. I don’t even remember the name of the band. It was a situation where you had to wake up every member of the band to get him to play his part. There was no interest. They wanted to be rock stars before the demo even started! I can’t remember their name!
That’s probably why, too! Bands like that don’t need to be remembered! Who is somebody you’d like to work with?
I can give you their name and won’t even have to tell you why I want to work with them. AC/DC! They are THE band. Back In Black is the best rock album ever made. Then Judas Priest, maybe.
Maybe you’ll work it out to work with AC/DC soon…
I’m thinking of trying to do a 5.1 mix of Back In Black. That would be the pinnacle of my career. Ozzy, by the way, is another one that was extremely funny. You can imagine. Once he starts telling stories the day is pretty much over! You will not eat any more because your stomach hurts so bad from laughing. He’s quite a character.
What’s he like once he gets focused in the studio?
He’s absolutely focused. That TV show makes him come off as a lunatic. In the studio he knows exactly what he wants. He might stand in front of a toaster and go “huh?” on TV, but in the studio he knows exactly where to go with the lyrics and the music. He knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He’s very focused. This TV thing is not portraying him the right way!
What do you think about the Ozzy reissues?
No More Tears is one of my favorite sounding records that I did. When I mix something now I put in No More Tears to compare it. I bought the new version and put it in. They remastered it and completely butchered it! It’s completely butchered to the point where I can not listen to that record anymore. I thought something was wrong with my equipment. I don’t know why people do that. They have to over-compress it and make it louder. The guitars take your head off on the remaster! It’s awful. I don’t agree with that. The original is one of my favorite sounding albums.
Hell, the majority of my favorite records have “Double Trouble Productions” on the back of ‘em somewhere!
Well, there’s about 145 of them out there! (laughs)
I guarantee I own every one of ‘em! That’s the stuff I like and it’s cool that you’ve been involved with so many artists. What do you do when you’re not in the studio…
(starts laughing pretty hard!) Right now there is just time to eat and sleep! It’s gone absolutely crazy and the studio is booked for a very long time. Well into next year. I used to fly airplanes. I work with video. That’s basically what it comes to if I ever have the time. I take Sundays off and just relax. I don’t listen to music! I listen to books on tape.
You mentioned that Skid Row was coming in and I know that King’s X is also coming in soon. Who else would we have heard of that’s booked some time?
Some I don’t wanna talk about yet! Warrant is coming in with their new singer. I like what they’re doing right now. They’re coming in probably in March. The other ones I don’t want to talk about. You’ll know ‘em all but they’re not settled yet. I don’t wanna jinx it! If it doesn’t happen then it won’t look like I was telling stories!
I’ve been a huge Stryper fan for years so I’ve gotta know what they were like in the studio.
It was really good. They got me to stop smoking! I was smoking 40 cigarettes a day and stopped dead on the first day of the project! I haven’t smoked again! They’re amazing musicians. We spent all day getting the drum sound at Amigo Studios, which is no more. They had a warehouse. I thought that warehouse sounded amazing for the drums. We got the drum sounds by 7 o’clock that evening. I thought we’d record one track and go home and listen to it. He said, “No. I wanna do my drums.” I thought, “Yeah, right. After all day hitting a snare you wanna do your drum tracks?” At 7 o’clock in the morning we were done with 10 drum tracks. It was amazing.
What’s the single best bit of advice you could give a new band who’s going into the studio for the first time?
Stay true to yourself. Go practice. Don’t rely on Pro Tools to fix stuff. That is the worst thing you can do. Create your own sound before you go into the studio. Practice! When you work with George Lynch he comes into the studio with his guitar sound. He knows what he wants it to sound like. Nowadays I get kids coming in and they don’t even have an amp anymore! They come in with a guitar, a pick, and a chord. They want me to create their special sound. You should create your sound. Be yourself. Don’t tailor yourself. Be special. Make your music. If you like 80s music, MAKE 80S MUSIC! Bands like the Darkness and Jet are doing nothing else and selling millions of records. You don’t have to be like the latest best-selling band out there. If you look at the top five acts on the charts, those records are really a year and a half old when you really think about it. Stay true to yourself! That’s the most important thing I can tell anybody, in music or life.