Twenty minutes east of Nashville is WireWorld, the domain of hard rock producer/engineer/mix master Michael Wagener. During the '80s and beginning of the '90s, Wagener was a key architect for the heaviest of the big rock bands of that era. In fact, more than 45 million albums sold bear his name on the credits — albums by artists including Ozzy Osbourne, Skid Row, Extreme, Metallica, Dokken, White Lion, Alice Cooper, Megadeth, Mötley Crüe, Queen, X, Testament, Saigon Kick, The Plasmatics and even Janet Jackson.
These days, Wagener is as active as ever. Recently, I bopped over to his place to say hello and check out his latest project, a hard rock band from upstate New York called LeRoi. Wagener and singer/songwriter Terry Michael LeRoi were eager to play me the tracks they had assembled and talk about their process. The tracks I heard ranged from very hard-hitting, guitar-based rock to dramatic, acoustic balladry.
“My intention is to have a well-balanced record — musically, sonically and emotionally,” says LeRoi. “Michael said that when I sent him the demo, he liked the diversity. Texture-wise, we've experimented with acoustic guitars and strings, giving some songs a classy, more organic feel. It's unique in that this album covers the full spectrum of human emotions, as well: sadness, anger, hope, love, etc.”
Among the project's surround production touches are ambient environmental recordings that Wagener and the band made. Wagener used the Neumann KU100 binaural head (named “Fritz”) for field recordings. “We went out in the woods and not only captured the sound of the environment, but also the sound of people running and breathing there, as well,” explains Wagener. “For the field recording, we are using Fritz plugged into an Apogee Mini-Me mic pre/A/D converter, plugged into a 500MHz Apple G4 Titanium laptop running Digital Performer. Fritz just listens like a human being.
“One of the discoveries I made with recording in surround, I haven't used a stitch of EQ on anything — not the drums, not the vocals, not the guitars or bass, nothing. I think it's because you have more speakers to work with. You can spread stuff around, instead of having to make up for placing it on top of each other in the front speakers, and then having to make things smaller with EQ so they fit in there. Here, you can just record things as they are and put them in a different place.”
Concerning the surround environment, Wagener says, “I like the listener to be in a room with the band. The drums and bass are in front of me, the guitars off to the sides and the keyboards behind me, so it's a defined room rather than a stage.”
For the drum mic setup, Wagener did a lot of the typical close-miking, but the “main” mic turned out to be the SoundField MKV system with a SoundField SPS451-5.1 decoder. “TransAmerica Audio was nice enough to provide us with the SoundField system,” he says. “Before we got the SoundField mic, I used Fritz behind the drums, looking over the drummer's shoulder. In the back of the room, behind the listener, were four microphones: two Fostex M11RP ribbon mics, pointing up and out into the corner below the ceiling, and two Oktava MC012s, which are Russian condensers, about an inch above the floor, pointing at the drums. I also used an AKG C451/CK9 shotgun mic about seven feet above, pointing at the snare, and a pair of Groove Tubes AM40 tube mics in the middle of the room, one foot below the ceiling. A Soundelux E47 was used as the center mic and placed in the center speaker.”
Wagener also created a mic out of an Infinity 8-inch speaker and mounted it into an aluminum stand to be used with a Shure SM91 for the bass drum: “The speaker has a lot of mass, so it moves really slow. Fast airwaves, like those created by cymbals, are not going to be picked up as much by the speaker as the low end of the kick drum. I place it right in front of the kick, and it picks up that fat low end without picking up all the high-end sounds around it; then, I mix it in with the Shure SM91 microphone, which is placed inside the drum. That microphone has a cable that is so small that you can run it through the air hole on top of the drum, which allows me to keep a full head on the front of the kick with no hole. That way, you get a great resonance inside the kick. The SM91 goes to a Little Labs IBP-1, where I can dial-in the phase relationship of those two microphones.”
On electric guitar, Wagener has been very happy with the results he has been getting with the Royer R-121 ribbon mics. “It's an amazing mic,” he says. “I've got it placed two inches from a cranked speaker, something you can't normally do with a ribbon, but the Royers can take it and they really sound great.”
Wagener created extra space for the acoustic guitar by using a Schoeps CMC-5 with a MK4 capsule together with the Royer R-121 and Fritz (Neumann K100) in the back of the room, facing toward the guitar. “On some of the songs, the guys were playing two guitars together in the same room, and I recorded them with the SoundField MKV system, which instantly creates the surround sound via the SPS451 surround decoder. Surround sure takes up a lot of tracks. I had to extend my 48-track Euphonix R-1 with a Nuendo system to accommodate all the instruments recorded with six tracks each.” For surround effect processors, Wagener's favorites include the TC Electronic System M6000 and his Kurzweil KSP-8.
At the time of my visit, the final release format had not yet been determined: Wagener and LeRoi were leaning toward DVD-A, but SACD was also a strong contender. “The stereo mix is going to be a separate mix, not a folddown mix,” says Wagener, who has two Sony DMX-R100 consoles at WireWorld. “Since we recorded with surround in mind from the outset, there is a lot of information in the rear speakers that shouldn't just end up somewhere in the front; it would not sound right. For the stereo mix, we'll have to slim that down a little. When existing stereo records get remixed in surround, the remix engineers always have to chase the stereo mix somewhat. In our case, we have the luxury of doing the surround mix first.
For monitoring, Wagener uses the ADAM S3A ribbon tweeter-based monitors with an M&K 5410 subwoofer and an LFE-4 bass-management system, crossed over at 80 cycles. “The ADAMs completely changed the way I listen, and they make mixing really easy. These speakers are absolutely surgical. I never want to have to have another speaker again if I can help it.”
Wagener is unflinchingly optimistic about the future of surround: “I think the deciding factor in getting surround to a wider audience will be the car. As soon as cars come out with surround systems installed, it will really start to happen.”
Thanks to Erin Addotta from MTSU, who helped put together this month's Skyline.