Headbanger's Ball: Michael Wagener on the Hard Rock Revival

Michael Wagener got his first taste of hard rock early as a member of Accept, a seminal band in the gritty 1970s German metal scene. Later, he became their live sound mixer, as well.

In Hamburg in 1979, he met Don Dokken, a refugee from the LA rock scene seeking a European record deal for his eponymously named fledgling rock band. By then, Wagener had moved to the other side the glass as a studio engineer and up-and-coming record producer. Their collaboration resulted in Dokken’s breakthrough LP, Breaking The Chains, which helped propel metal into the mainstream and began Wagener’s ascent in the glittery hard rock/heavy metal era that would dominate radio and MTV for over a decade.

In that time, he would engineer, produce and/or mix hits for an encyclopedia of the genre, including Motely Crüe, Metallica, Poison, Skid Row, Great White, Stryper, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, White Lion and others.

Wagener branched out on occasion, working on records with pop stars like Janet Jackson and acoustic guitar icon Muriel Anderson, but his connection to hard rock remained strong. In 1996, it followed him to his new studio called WireWorld in a suburb of Nashville better known for Charlie Daniels than for Charlie Parra del Riego.

Wagener at his WireWorld studio in Nashville, TN

Wagener at his WireWorld studio in Nashville, TN

Nashville’s country music establishment eyed Wagener warily. A year prior, Def Leppard producer Mutt Lang’s Nashville incursion had produced Shania Twain’s monster The Woman In Me LP and set the Music Row regime on edge.

However, the move underscored both the city’s increasingly diverse musical scene and Wagener’s reputation for making hard-rock magic.

Many musicians followed Wagener to WireWorld. Genre veterans – like Stryken [formerly Stryker], Skid Row and Tesla – were some of the first to join him. Two other bands also made the trip: Madame X and Sergeant Steel, both of which were part of a vanguard that Billboard and other pundits suggest might be a new wave of hard rockers offering an edgier alternative to the pop that dominates radio today.

They’re out there now in beautiful, bucolic Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, where it’s nice and quiet. Maybe a little too quiet…

Hard rock lost its footing on the charts after an incredible run through the 1980s into the 1990s. Now, it might be making a comeback.

You were a huge part of that first wave of modern hard rock. From your point of view, why did hard rock fade, and what's bringing it back?

Everything happens in cycles. I think it's been long enough that young kids haven't heard the originals. The bands are new to them. I get a massive number of phone calls and requests for the “‘80s sound,” as they call it.

They want to hear musicians play again – not engineers and [producers] making the music for them."

People are tired of the super-commercialized and over-compressed kind of sound that they hear on the radio all day. Honestly, it gets on my nerves. I can't listen to it longer than five minutes, and I think that people feel the same way. They want to hear musicians play again – not engineers and [producers] making the music for them.

Listening to some of the bands you've been working with recently, like Madame X and Sergeant Steel, the songs, the guitars, the vocals — they sound like they could've been recorded three decades ago. It's almost as though they came out of a time capsule. Are new hard rock bands looking to reproduce the aesthetic of an earlier era?

Yeah, absolutely. To me, the most important factor is that the band members get into their music again. It's not like, “Hey, I'm entitled to be famous, and I want to be famous within two weeks.” That's where we are now.

Here [at WireWorld Studios], we don't [digitally] shift the guitar tracks around, we don't adjust tempos, we don't tune vocals. People are actually performing, and that means that they can perform their music live the same way it was recorded without outside help. It's all more real now as compared to the past few years.

So much of that music from hard rock’s golden era was closely associated with analog technology. I think people will be surprised to find out that you're not using analog tape now, and you weren't using it back in the day, either.

I haven't used analog tape since 1981. I don't like it. It modifies the sound in an uncontrolled way. Motley Crüe in 1980 – that was analog. But that was already all recorded, I just mixed it.

I used digital tape machines, the Mitsubishi and Sony machines, and then the 3M. Then I went to the [Euphonix hard-disk recorder] R1 in 1999, and then to the Nuendo [software] in 2003.

I use a lot of analog outboard gear to record and mix, and I do use plugins because some of them are really good. I'm also using tape emulators. But we tried using different tapes, different biases, different heads, different formulations – never once did we get a kick drum to sound back the way it did on [tape].

Everything from [Accept’s 1984 LP] Balls to the Wall on is all digital. All of the Skid Row stuff –everything is all digital.

Are you still using many of the classic recording techniques, though? Mic placement, microphone choices – things like that?

Absolutely. That is the part that people in the younger generations don't really get anymore. I'm not saying all of them, but a lot of them don't have the experience and don't bother trying different microphones and alternative placements as a way of changing the sound. For them it's like, “Oh, it doesn't sound right, let's put a compressor on.”

You've been bringing hard rock bands, like King's X and Skid Row, to WireWorld in Tennessee since 1996. Today, it's not so unusual to see Bon Jovi and Steven Tyler at Whole Foods in Nashville, but what was it like to bring rockers like that to Nashville 20 years ago? Was there a culture shock for them?

Not really. At the time, you had to go somewhere to record, so why not pay $90 a night for a hotel in Nashville instead of $250 in L.A. or New York? It doesn't really matter where you go.

People automatically associate Nashville with country music, which is completely wrong. There is so much more rock here now than in any other city in this country."

People automatically associate Nashville with country music, which is completely wrong. There is so much more rock here now than in any other city in this country. You have to realize that my clients were mostly international. I get bands from Germany, Canada, Austria, Australia, Finland. They have to travel, so for them, staying in Nashville was a lot cheaper than staying in L.A. or New York for two months. It had nothing to do with the culture here.

Now, it's like all the rock musicians are living here anyway, so you can have anybody you pretty much want guest on your album. We just had Mark Slaughter sing with a band called Denman — the lead singer is from Nashville, actually — and the kids in the band freaked out. That's what's going on in Nashville now.

In their photos, they look like they just stepped out of Back To The Future.

They're amazing guitar players. But when you see them, they’re wearing the spandex, the high-tops, the puffed-up hair. A total ‘80s band, so we made a total ‘80s record. Everybody's loving it.

Where else have you done hard rock records?

We did Skid Row in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at the old Playboy mansion. They had an amazing studio there, and we did the first Skid Row record there. They had their own airport right next to Lake Geneva.

It was one of the most fun records we ever made. They had this massive convention center next door and we recorded drums in the indoor parking lot. You can hear that big, big room [sound] on the record.

[Michael’s not kidding. Royal Recorders opened in 1978 in the Playboy mansion where clients included John Mellencamp, Survivor, Cheap Trick, Guns ‘N Roses, Robert Plant, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Crash Test Dummies. The studio closed in 1995.]

Hard rock and metal have some very distinctive sonic characteristics. The big drums, the dive bombing whammy bars on guitars, the huge layered choruses that follow a soaring lead vocal. I'm not suggesting that hard rock is formulaic, but is there a formula to it?

You just exactly described the Denman record. I mean piece for piece — dive bombs, squeals, big vocals, big drums. But I don't think there's a formula.

When you look through my discography, it's more about a certain attitude that they have in common. That attitude has to come from them, and my job is to either put them into the right mood, or guide them through it. The actual attitude has to come from the musician, though. It's the same with guitars and bass and drums – with everything. I can't put attitude into a drummer if he doesn't have it.

What are some of your favorite ways to capture guitars? What's a real Michael Wagener way to get a guitar sound?

Nowadays, it’s the Kemper profiling amplifier. That's all I use. I have two of them. I have about 30 or 40 guitar amps sitting in the studio – gigantic Marshall stacks that haven't been turned on for two years. They've all been captured in the Kemper.

With a Kemper, you have the actual amp, and you cannot tell the difference between the original amp and the profile version. People come in a little bit doubtful, but by the time they hear the first two tracks, they're completely sold. No microphones, you go direct. All the profiles have been done with speaker cabinets, microphones, mic preamps and amplifiers. That's already incorporated into that sound.


Years ago, what would you use?

My favorite microphone on guitar is the Royer 121, complemented with a Royer 101. It’s an amazing combination that has given me exactly the tone I like. But drums are still recorded in a room. I'm still putting 24 microphones on the drums and recording them that way.

You use a combination of close micing and room sound on drums?

Absolutely. I have a Neumann KU100 [binaural head-shaped microphone array] we call “Fritz.” Fritz is always there, picking up the room sounds. Great microphones are not cheap, but it's just amazing what you can do with them if you know what you're doing.

How about vocals?

Fritz is also there for backing vocals — “football vocals,” as I call them: the big, fat chorus vocals that make songs into anthems. On this Denman track, we went to a bar downtown to record the entire audience singing the responses to the choruses. The whole audience sang that, so we ended up having about 450 people sing on this. When we do it [at the studio], we invite friends down to the studio. At most, we have maybe 25-30 people, and then we do 20 tracks of it.

Are you recording ensemble? Is everybody playing together in the same space, or are you putting the pieces together later?

My studio is not super big, but it's big enough to have a whole drum set in the tracking room. Now, with the Kemper there is no leakage because it goes direct in for bass and guitar. The drummer is all by himself in the tracking room, but everybody can see each other and everybody is playing together. We keep as much of that as possible.

In some cases you, just have to either punch in, or you have to redo a guitar track or whatever. Vocals are mostly done after all that is done, and the vocalist goes into the tracking room and does his or her part.

I think the musicians have to sit together and swing together. People emailing in their parts – for me, that doesn't work."

I think the musicians have to sit together and swing together. People emailing in their parts [of Pro Tools sessions] – for me, that doesn't work. The basic tracking drums, rhythm guitars, bass — that should be played all together.

Tell me a little bit about the process with a couple of bands you’ve worked with. Pick a record, pick a song – tell me something about it. Tell me something that sticks out, how the record came together.

Oh my god. I'm up to like 98 million records sold, so that's going to be a really hard one. One of the bands that sticks out that I really liked to work with was Skid Row. That was a fun record to make because everybody was really young and crazy, and all that craziness flew into the record.

The first and second Skid Row records were some of my favorite projects. [Skid Row bassist] Rachel Bolan just moved here, and we're still very, very close friends. He was just at the studio yesterday.

I also love working with Edge of Paradise. In order for me to work with any band, I have to like them. It all flows into the record, and it's all part of it. To me, that has to be right. I will not work with a band that I don't like or that I can't deal with or where the characters are weird. That, to me, doesn't work.

Even Ozzy and Alice Cooper aren’t the characters they play — they’re musicians, and those were great records to work on, and they were a lot of fun. I don't think I've ever done one record that I really didn't like working on.

Do you have a favorite guitar player, or a couple of favorite guitar players?

There are a few that are very current. Dakota Denman, in the band that I just worked with, for example. The guy sits down and he plays complicated guitar solos in one take, and then he goes and doubles them in one take.

I’m working with a young, 18-year-old gentleman called Jacob Cade. He is amazing, too. An amazing guitar player — and keep in mind, my frame of reference is Steve Stevens, Zakk Wylde, [and] George Lynch. I've worked with some amazing people, but these young guys are absolutely killing it nowadays.

Do you think, toward the end, that the hard rock stuff just got a little bit full of itself? That the guitar parts just became too predictable, and it just became more about the hair than about the music?

Unfortunately, I do think there's a bit of truth of that. There were the original bands, like Skid Row, that were always about the music and the attitude in the music, not just about the guitar solos. There were bands in the end, in the early ‘90s, where it went a little bit too far.

When there's one successful band in a genre the label goes, “Okay, we need 20 more like that.” The 20 other ones are not as good as the original, so they copy. At some point the market is saturated and then people go, “Hey, we need something new.” That's what's happening in country right now. They all have the same exact same music.

Are we on the cusp of another golden era in hard rock?

I think that we are on the cusp of what I consider great music again. Bands like Halestorm and Beasto Blanco are already bringing the raw rock/metal back, as are Denman and the Jacob Cade Project, who I’m also working with. And Metallica, Alice — they're still out there. They never left.

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