Legendary Producer Engineer Michael Wagener in the Spotlight
Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Mötley Crüe, Metallica, Dokken, Poison, King’s X… Name just about any heavy metal band and most of them will have this man in common. Engineer and producer Michael Wagener.
His discography, which seems to be endless, has at least 45 Gold, Platinum and Multi-platinum albums to his credit and his total album sales are close to 100 million units. Is it really any surprise that he would know what works and what doesn’t? With albums like Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and Skid Row’s “Slave to the Grind” to his credit, it might be beneficial for us to follow his story and study his methods.
Like so many people, myself included, Rock and Roll leads us to pick-up the guitar, plug in an amplifier and so the quest for bigger, louder, better begins… Michael’s first guitar was bought with his own hard earned money in 1962. At the age of 13, he got together with Udo Dirkschneider in a band that eventually turned into ACCEPT known far and wide for their iconic hit “Balls to the Wall”.
Michael took classes to earn an electronic degree and worked as an electronic engineer for STRAMP in Hamburg, Germany in the early 70’s where he got a lot of practical hands-on experience designing and manufacturing studio and stage electronics. Then in 1979 Michael built, maintained and managed a 16-track studio in Hamburg where he began to put his talent for producing and engineering into practice.
Later that year, Michael met Don Dokken on tour in Germany and was invited to America. By March 1980, he found himself sharing a house with Don Dokken, Bobby Blotzer (RATT), Alan Niven (manager of GUNS ‘N ROSES and GREAT WHITE) and working for Larrabee Sound Studios in Hollywood, California.
Later, Michael toured Europe doing live sound with ACCEPT then went into the studio with them to engineer “Breaker” with Dirk Steffens producing. Back in Germany, Don Dokken came to record demos and land a record deal. With Michael producing for the first time, DOKKEN’s debut album “Breaking the Chains” was released by ELEKTRA RECORDS in America and went GOLD.
For a few years Michael was back and forth between Europe and America and worked with MÖTLEY CRÜE on “Too Fast for Love” and GREAT WHITE on “Out of the Night”. Then in 1984 he came to America to stay for good, and the parade of multi-platinum albums began. STRYPER, DOKKEN, POISON, METALLICA, MEGADEATH, ALICE COOPER… The list goes on with SKID ROW’s debut album that has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Then JANET JACKSON’s “Black Cat”, OZZY OSBOURNE’s “No More Tears”, and WARRANT’s “Dog Eat Dog” … I have to stop and catch my breath, but believe me, the list goes on and on like this to this very day!
These projects took Michael all over the world, and eventually he fell in love with Music City, TN. Then in August 1996 Michael moved to middle Tennessee and built “WireWorld Studio”. Away from the stress of the city, rockers could relax and create. And the hits continued with SKID ROW, KINGS X, ACCEPT, SEBASTIAN BACH, DOKKEN, HYDROGYN, LORDI, STRIKER, REARVIEW GHOST, WOLVESPIRIT, MARK SLAUGHTER and TESLA to name just a few…
Along the way, Michael started teaching intensive recording workshops and began his “Ears for Hire” and “Real-amping” services. That’s when a friend of mine, Bryan “Lionman” Blumer, recording guitar with GOLDYLOCKS got to work with Michael and eventually introduced us. Michael needed a box built, and Lionman thought we might be able to help.
Michael explained what he needed. The way he records guitars requires a clean “safety” track to be captured during the performance. Having the clean track made it easier to “punch-in” when overdubbing, edit together multiple takes into a composite track, as well as for re-amplifying through different effects and amps according to the needs of the final mix. The problem was that using a direct box to split a guitar signal for the clean track would interfere with the sound of the guitar amp, and doing a reverse DI to reamp later degraded the signal even more, so it was difficult to match-up with the original sound… Michael understood that the problem was to do with impedances, but for years he just had to make the best of what was available.
The secret to the sound of a particular guitar and amplifier was in how the impedance of the two interact with each other. The problem, as he explained, was that as soon as you try to split the signal, whether you used a “Y” cable, any brand of transformer or active electronics, the impedance which the guitar sees no longer looks like the amp, and what the amp sees no longer looks like the guitar, so the sound changes. And because every guitar, effect pedal and amp is different (even the cables are a part of the sound) you couldn’t make a “one size fits all” direct box, it would have to have a complex variable impedance.