By Barry M Rivman
After having spent at least $80,000 over the years trying to build a home studio, and not getting the results I wanted, I can tell you what to get first: Knowledge—no question. Recording is a complicated process involving numerous small moving targets within large moving targets, and unless you know how to make those targets sit still, you’re never going to achieve the results you’re after regardless of the gear you own.
So where do you get this knowledge? Back in the late ’80s, a studio owner suggested that if I wanted to learn recording properly, I should find a credited producer and offer him $10,000 for a week of his time to walk me through the process. At the time, the hard part was finding a storied producer who was willing to share his secrets for any amount of money. And of course, $10k was a tough nut for a music student living on a diet of Ramen noodles and old shoes. Fast-forward to today: Now there’s a producer with 90 million records out there who is willing to walk you through the process for around 1/3 of the cost of what was suggested to me back in the ’80s. The producer is multi-platinum engineer-mixer-producer Michael Wagener, whose credits include Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, King’s X, Dokken, Skid Row, Janet Jackson, Queen, and many more. And the studio is his new WireWorld II, a high-end facility Michael recently finished building in his own backyard, just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.
The workshop consists of recording and mixing a live band that Michael brings to the studio. The advantage is that you’ll be dealing with professional musicians, which allows you to focus on learning studio techniques, not accommodating the standard mistakes of amateurs. If you’ve ever experienced trying to learn recording during an actual session, you know that priority is given to the musicians in order not to ruin the muse—so learning is catch as catch can. In the workshop, the nerds rule; the musicians know they have to take a backseat. Another possible surprise is who shows up to these workshops. At a past workshop, the band Michael brought in turned out to be King’s X. An upcoming special workshop will be tracking a new band about to release their first international record, so you can be a part of music history.
Despite the high-profile reputation of Michael Wagener, the workshop is friendly and low-key—Michael starts the workshop with breakfast at a local restaurant so that everyone can get acquainted. He also takes the opportunity to pass out some materials to get you oriented. In one particular envelope, Michael gives you orientation materials, and a surprise—something he considers to be the most important studio tool you’ll ever receive (sorry, you’ll have to attend the workshop to find out what it is). From there, you head to the studio and then the fun really begins.
One thing you’ll discover early on is that Michael doesn’t withhold information. He’s incredibly forthcoming about everything he does and the inner workings as well. For example when it comes time to learn how to mic a guitar cabinet, Michael will not only teach you the pink-noise trick for getting the mics in phase, but how he sets up his speaker cabinets, right down to the model and wattage of the speakers and how they’re physically loaded into the cabinet for the best sound.
Michael Wagener (left) prepping a mic head
In the first hour of the workshop I attended, Michael taught us an equation using the principles of comb filtering to increase perceived bass without raising amplitude (or “free bass” as he puts it), and how to use delays and pre-delay to create a “back wall” for the singer and move them forward or back in a virtual room. He also taught us a trick for setting up monitors to get a wider image and controlled bass using materials you can find at a Home Depot for a few dollars; the secret to getting a huge guitar sound; studio tools to maintain proper gain staging and phase; proper digital recording level; and more importantly, where a mix truly begins.
During the tracking portion of the workshop, we learned the different combinations of mics and preamps he uses on various instruments, and why. We also learned some unorthodox tricks that Michael has discovered over the years for adding character to instruments and vocals, as well as approaches to recording instruments that will make life easier at mix time. There were also gear shootouts so we could hear the differences between various mics and preamps, etc. Having these audial references are great tools for making your own gear choices as you practice recording.
Once the song is recorded, the next part of the workshop is mixing. Michael begins by explaining the concept of available space in a mix; the tools you have to create room within that space; the sequence in which he builds a mix; and delivery formats for final mixes. During the remaining days of the workshop, you’ll see and hear the various processing and editing choices Michael makes, and his reasons for doing so. You’ll also learn how to set up your effects for more efficient processing; what types of effects to use for different applications; and how to set them for the task at hand. For example, Michael will explain how to set up parallel drum compression in a DAW, what plug-in he uses, how it’s set, the drums you should route to the compressor, whether it should be pre- or post-fader, and how much of the effect to use (what to listen for). You’ll also learn some secret processing tricks to bring vocals and instruments forward in a mix without taking up extra sonic space. (All this and much more, kids!) And at the end of it, Michael will put the finished multitrack mix on DVD (along with a lot of other interesting things) so you can analyze it on your own. Keep in mind that as a professional mixer, these are proprietary secrets he’s giving away.
A word of advice: Don’t waste time writing down settings. Michael strongly discourages this and so do I. You’ll miss out on a lot of important information as you’re writing; settings at WireWorld stay in WireWorld—your home-studio mileage will vary.
Out of the $80,000 I’ve spent on recording equipment over the years, Michael Wagener’s workshop is the best investment I’ve ever made—no question. I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done, and I could have saved at least $60,000 dollars in equipment that was recommended by so-called professionals (salesmen, really). So there you have it, what to buy first: a seat at Michael Wagener’s next Production Workshop.
Let’s face it, gear is an essential component of the game, and I promise that you’re going to leave the workshop wondering what you should buy first. You will go home with a track sheet that lists all of the signal chains used for the session, but don’t think that all you’ll need is a Royer R-121 and Chandler Ltd. TG Channel and you can have Michael’s guitar sound. That gear doesn’t exist in isolation. There are also converters, outboard effects processors, an acoustically treated live room and control room, and most importantly, the ears of Michael Wagener—ears developed over decades of recording and mixing hit records. Actually, there is one essential piece of gear to buy first, and this comes directly from Michael himself: monitors. Get the best monitoring system you can. Without proper monitors, you can’t make informed, musical decisions—you can’t mix.
The one thing you can’t buy is Michael’s ear—you need to develop your own, and after the production workshop, you’ll be well on your way. Come to think of it, now you can buy Michael’s ear . . . well temporarily, anyway. Michael offers two unique services that put not only his knowledge and expertise to work for you, but his gear as well. The first is Real-amping. All you have to do is record a dry DI track along with your amped track, send the DI track and a rough mix to Michael, and he’ll run your DI track through his extensive collection of amps, cabinets, recording, and processing gear. Voilà—Michael’s platinum-selling guitar sound on your songs—for a small fraction of what his guitar signal chain would cost you. The other service Michael offers is Ears-4-Hire, where you can have Michael come to your studio to help you record and mix. The greatest advantage of Ears-4-Hire is that everything you learn during the sessions, applies to your specific gear and environment, which you can apply to future projects.
For me, the most valuable take away, apart from the practical knowledge and many of Michael’s secrets, was perspective. I finally knew what I knew, if you know what I mean—and having the gaps in my knowledge filled made me confident I could proceed towards my goal of make a professional-sounding record in my home studio.
Check out this video interview with Michael at the new WireWorld and see where the workshops are held.
For more information:
Production Worksops (click on “news” for scheduling and special workshop info): http://www.michaelwagener.com/html/wshops.html
Or just go to www.michaelwagener.com and look around.