Power Up: AC/DC sound engineer Mike Fraser on mixing the band’s No. 1 album


Josh Cheuse

AC/DC have released their first single, “Shot in the Dark,” from upcoming album, ‘POWER UP.’ | Courtesy of Rolling Stone

Tom Krosnowski, Men's Ice Hockey Beat Reporter

2020 has been a year full of unexpected twists and turns, but rock fans received their greatest surprise of the year in September, when AC/DC announced their return with the single “Shot in the Dark” and a new album, titled Power Up.

Two months later, the album was released to overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim, and climbed the Billboard charts all the way to No. 1, the third time in the band’s nearly 50-year history that they had a record hit the top spot on the charts.

For sound engineer Mike Fraser, who has worked with the band since 1990’s The Razors Edge, seeing a rock album atop the charts in the year 2020 has been an extremely rewarding feeling.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Fraser said. “Especially to have a rock record – it’s been a long time since a rock record has gone up that far on all the charts around the world.”

The album had been recorded in secret two years ago, but the band and all the production crew, including Fraser, had to remain tight-lipped.

“We had recorded this record back in 2018, so it’s kind of just been sitting on the back burner since then,” Fraser said. “I was starting to even wonder if it was going to come out, but what a time to come out, right at the end of 2020. It’s just been a really frustrating year for a lot of people. [The album has] been a nice light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s really seemed to lift a lot of spirits, so it’s a great feeling.”

The state of AC/DC was on shaky ground after the 2015-16 Rock or Bust Tour. Already without founding member Malcolm Young due to a battle with dementia and minus drummer Phil Rudd, who was dealing with legal issues, the band also lost longtime singer Brian Johnson with serious hearing damage, and bassist Cliff Williams retired. By tour’s end, founding member and guitarist Angus Young was the last man standing.

The following year, Malcolm Young passed away, leaving an irreplaceable void in the AC/DC lineup. But, his brother Angus wanted to come up with a fitting tribute for his rocker brother in the form of a tribute album.

When Fraser got a surprise call in summer 2018 that the band was heading into the Warehouse Studios in Vancouver to record an album, he had no idea what to expect.

“The first day, I walk into the studio, and I see the whole team, all the boys – Phil, Cliff, Brian, Angus and Stevie – man, what a great feeling!” Fraser said. “That was like Christmas morning. It was such an awesome feeling to see all the original guys there again, of course, minus Malcolm, but everybody there, everybody healthy, everybody just wanting to kick ass.”

Despite all the uncertainty, it was just like old times for Fraser and the band when it came to laying down tracks on the record.

“They’re one big family,” Fraser said. “They’ve been together for so many years, it’s almost like a family reunion. It’s pretty loose. Brian’s the consummate comedian, he’s always got 20 million jokes and you’re always rolling on the floor whenever he’s around. Everybody’s always in great spirits, though there’s not a whole lot of goofing around when we’re in the studio – we’re all there to do a task, and we all get down to business really quickly, but it’s a very loose, easygoing atmosphere.”

By now, the band and their production team know what it takes to get AC/DC sounding their best. The creative process involves producer Brendan O’Brien, a guitar player in his own right, who works with Angus on turning riffs into structured songs. Once the arrangement is established, the band records live together in the studio.

“AC/DC are a live band – that’s how they like to record in the studio,” Fraser said. “We’ve got everything set up so that they’re playing in the same room. They all just kind of hang around, good sight lines to each other, and they can just be rocking away. A lot of cues are given by nods, and they just like hammering it out live. They’re pretty quick once we get things rolling. They’ve played together so long, that it’s just a force to watch, they just can’t be reckoned with.”

One key to getting the most out of the band? Keeping things moving. Whereas some producers take their time, painstakingly re-recording small elements of songs over a span of months, O’Brien prefers keeping sessions brief and not to harp too long on one specific part.

“To make all the playing and the singing sound exciting, you have to have excitement doing it,” Fraser said.

Power Up sounds best when it’s played loud. The guitars crunch, the drums crash, the bass thumps and the vocals soar. Quite frankly, it sounds like AC/DC, which is a testament to Fraser’s work as sound engineer.

“It’s just sheer power,” Fraser said. “Angus hits those chords, or Stevie bangs it out – Stevie’s got the same gear that Malcolm used, so we’ve tried to retain Mal’s guitar sound as much as possible. It’s just a powerhouse. Phil’s a real monster on those drums, he hits those things so hard, sometimes we’re changing the skin on the snare head every song, every take we do, because he’s just pounding. It’s just this thunderous power that comes off these guys.”

To make it sound its best, Fraser keeps things simple – “Less is more,” he says. The band doesn’t double its guitars, or use any pedals. The guitars are wired with short cords so that very little sound is lost from the instrument to the recording booth.

It’s a very well-established process by now, which makes things easy when the band doesn’t have to worry about how they sound.

“With those guys, you don’t feel like you’re working hard,” Fraser said. “It’s just a fun day at work. They’re such great guys, they play great, you’re not there waiting for guitars to get tuned or anything, they’ve got a good technical team with them, so it’s a well-oiled machine.”

Vocally, Johnson sounds rejuvenated, even at age 73. O’Brien works extensively with Johnson on his vocals, but Fraser says Johnson’s hearing problems haven’t changed a thing when it comes to recording.

“When you’re with him on a normal day, having a meal with him, it’s not like he’s hard of hearing,” Fraser said. “He hears fine. I think it was more of a live thing that was killing his ears.”

In addition to missing Malcolm’s guitar playing, his backing vocals were a distinctive part of AC/DC’s sound. On the last two albums, Angus has recorded backing tracks along with bassist Cliff Williams, stepping into his brother’s shoes.

“On some of the background tracks on this record, I swear Mal’s in there, I swear you can hear Malcolm,” Fraser said. “It’s not, but that was our aim, to get a lot of Angus in there to make it sound like Mal’s in there, because that’s kind of been their sound.”

Even without their co-founder, Malcolm’s presence can be felt on the record. He received a writing credit on every song after creating the riffs with Angus over the years.

“Mal was in the studio with us the whole time,” Fraser said. “You can definitely feel him sitting on your shoulder, having a peek at what’s going on. He’s always there.”

The whole record is a tribute to Young, but “Through the Mists of Time” in particular stands out to Fraser as his favorite song.

“It just sounds so melancholy, and it just kind of reminds me, maybe it’s the tip of the hat to Mal,” Fraser said. “It’s a little more emotional. It’s not really sounding like an AC/DC song – it does, but it’s a bit different from what they’ve done – so I think I enjoy that one the best off this record.”

Usually when a band releases an album, it’s followed by a lengthy tour. However, COVID-19 prevents AC/DC from hitting the road. Still, the band hopes to tour as soon as it’s safe to do so, and Fraser doesn’t think that AC/DC is done recording new material, either.

“They’ve got a lot of songs still to get out there,” Fraser said. “Angus has still got a great spark, Brian is sounding really good on his vocals, and everybody is still feeling great.”

Just two years ago, AC/DC seemed to be in shambles. Now, they’re back atop the rock music world with their finest album in decades. It’s a comeback few saw coming, but it just serves as more proof to never count out Angus Young and AC/DC’s ability to overcome a challenge.