An American in Berlin
29 October, 2021
New projects, new challenges. I may have mentioned previously that I’ve sorta been pushing Bibi and Ralf to do some recording in my studio, to make a demo of sorts. We’ve finally started on that. The first step was just to choose three songs. The number was my idea. I figured three seemed reasonable. They seem to be pretty excited about it, which in turn has me excited.
I had Ralf over last Friday to get started. We laid down his guitar parts and most of his vocal tracks. And right off the bat, I’m confronted with how much harder it is to work with other people as opposed to working alone. I don’t mean from a personality standpoint either. I just mean in terms of how one goes about the work.
Like, when I’m working alone, if I’m not happy with a track, I can go back and redo it any time. But now, when you schedule somebody to come over and work, you kinda have to get it right during that session. If not, it means you’ve gotta have the person back.
Now, I’ve always felt that Ralf is an absolute pro when it comes to playing his instrument and singing. At practice, and live for that matter, he’s always locked in rhythm-wise. Before Robert joined us with the cajón, Ralf kept time, and he did so pretty flawlessly. And as a singer, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sing a bum note.
But working the studio, man, it’s just a different animal. Which isn’t to say that things went badly, or even slowly. Not at all. But the standard you’re after is different. Things need to be ‘perfect,’ in a way that’s different from a live performance. It takes some getting used to.
Now, that’s hard enough as a musician. I mean, I know that from my own experience, whether it was making demos with The Fury back in the day, or putting down my own stuff now. I think it was maybe a little new to Ralf though. He did a solid job, all things considered. Better than solid, even. I mean, I think I’ll wind up keeping 80-90% of his guitar work and a good deal of his vocal work too.
But what’s brand new for me is, I have to learn now how to be a producer. I’m still working this out in my own head, so forgive me if it comes out a little sloppy in writing. But I want to try and get across what I’m dealing with here, what I’m experiencing, what I’m learning. Because it’s so fascinating, so interesting…but also, so challenging.
The way I’m looking at things now, there’s two things that I need to address if I’m going to be successful as a producer. The first is, I need to learn how to listen better. I need to learn how to identify things that might be problems before they are actually problems. For example, a guitar part might sound fine in isolation. But I need to learn to anticipate how it will sound with the other instruments. Or a vocal take might hit all the right notes, but I need to learn to hear it in it’s totality. How’s the phrasing? Is the emotion right? Is the volume consistent. Those are just two examples, but these are the kinds of things I need to get better at hearing on first listen if I’m to avoid having to bring people back multiple times to redo things they’ve already done.
The second thing I need to learn how to do follows logically from the first. I need to learn how to take control, how to be the boss of my studio as it were. And that means being OK with telling people that what they’ve done isn’t good enough, even if they personally think it is. It means learning how to demand extra takes, even if they don’t really want to do them.
And there’s an element of phycology at work here too. You have to learn how to handle people. And to recognize that it’s not one-size-fits-all. One person might need a soft touch, encouragement. Another person might need a firmer hand. It’s like, you gotta be a coach too.
But at the end of the day, it’s my studio, I’m the producer. And that’s not an ego thing, to be clear. What I mean is, when it comes down to it, I’m the one who’s going to be doing the work. If a vocal take doesn’t have the right emotion, if there’s something off with a bit of guitar, these are my problems to fix. And some things can’t be fixed with studio magic. The source material needs to be on point. So it becomes part of my job to make sure that it is.
So Ralf was here on Friday, and on Sunday I got to work on my end. I started putting down my bass and guitar parts. And I started listening back, a dozen times, two dozen times. And only then did I start to hear things I think Ralf could have done better; things I need Ralf to do better. And that’s not a knock on the guy. It’s just a part of the recording process, for all of us.
But this is what I mean about needing to be better hearing these things in the moment. I can’t afford two dozen listens before I realize, “Hey, this vocal could be stronger.” That needs to happen during the session. And it means I have to be more demanding in what I accept. Which again, doesn’t mean I have to be an asshole about it. Like I said, you can do this in a kind an encouraging way. But I can’t settle for less than they’re capable of, and it’s my job to learn how to get that out of them when I have them.
Now, to Ralf’s credit, he was great when he was here. If there was an obvious problem, all I had to do was play it back. When he’d hear the problem for himself, he was only to happy to redo it. But sometimes there’s not an obvious problem. Sometimes I just felt like we should do another take. And when Id ask for a second or third take, he’d give it to me with a smile.
But if I’m honest with myself, I know I was holding back. I know there were times when I would have preferred another take, but didn’t want to push things for fear of upsetting my musician. Which was wrong. Because now I know I’m going to be asking him to come back and do things he’s already done. That’s not the best use of anybody’s time.
In addition to these things, there’s another element to being a producer that I’m still learning about. And that is, that you have to – at times – take an active hand in composition and arrangement. Now, given that I’m a part of this band, the line is a little blurry. I mean, I already have a hand in the arrangements.
But when we practice, I don’t usually offer suggestions on how to play a part or how to sing a part. I might suggest a particular chord or melody or harmony. But at the end of the day, Bibi’s vocals are Bib’s vocals; Ralf’s guitar parts are Ralf’s guitar parts.
The thing is, when it comes to recording, we’re working on a deeper level. It’s not just, what sounds good live, it’s what will make this recording work best. And so that means listening to the way things are played and sung. It means, for example, listening to a guitar part with fresh ears and trying to imagine how it will come across in a mix. It means making suggestions like, “Try using a pick here instead of your fingers,” or “Try voicing the chord this way instead of the way you normally voice it.” And a million other things.
It also means thinking about things the others won’t think about. What kind of reverb would serve us here? Are there harmonies we can’t do live that we ought to be doing in the studio? It means making judgments about the EQ of voices and instruments; in other words, changing the very sound of things. And doing so not from the perspective of “How does my voice sound” or “How does my guitar sound?” But from the perspective of “How do these things sound when they are combined?”
From my own music, I’ve learned, for example, that what sounds like a killer electric guitar in isolation can completely muddy a mix. So while Ralf comes with his own ‘sound,’ I need to manage that sound in the context of the whole. Same with all of our instruments and voices.
So I find myself thinking lately of the great record producers. From George Martin, you could learn so much about what a string arrangement might add, even if you’ll never play the song live with strings. From Brian Wilson, you can learn so much about vocal harmonies, even if you can’t recreate those harmonies on stage. From Phil Spector, you can learn…not to be a terrible (and possibly murderous?) human being. But also about walls of sound.
These are things that fall to the producer. So as we proceed with these three songs, I’ll be thinking about things like, “What would a bit of cello sound like here?” Or, “What can we do harmony-wise over here?”
And harmonies in particular will be interesting. Because I can write them, arrange them and even record them. But that’s not enough. I’m going to have to listen. I’m going to have to make judgments. Like, “OK, I’ve worked up this harmony, but whose voice would fit best where?” That might well entail asking people to sing things they haven’t sung before, to trust me.
Which isn’t to say they won’t have input. At the end of the day, it’s a group project, a band project. If they both don’t like something, then it’s 2-1, it doesn’t make it into the final mix. But it’s my job to present them with the options. It’s my job to get them to try things. In short, it’s my job to have a vision for these songs, and then to adapt that vision to the wishes of the band.
But this is important to me. Partly because I’m in this band, and so I have a personal interest in the final product not only as a producer, but as a band member. More than that, though, it’s important to me because being a competent producer is important to me. The art of creation.
You know, it’s funny. When I was a kid, I was really into movies and special effects. I got that from my dad. I was thinking about this recently. And I think I was into it because my dad was into it. Like, when you’re a kid and you look up to your dad, well, then anything your dad thinks is cool, you’re automatically gonna think is cool too.
That’s not to say I wasn’t into it at the time. Of course I was. That’s not something you can fake. But I kinda grew out of it. Not to say I still don’t have an interest in how movies are made, particularly with regard to special effects; of course I do. But I wouldn’t say I have a passion for it either.
And yet, there’s a direct line from that childhood interest to what I’m doing now. Only instead of film production and visual effects, it’s sound production and audio effects. It’s not about movies anymore, it’s about music. But it’s still the magic and art of creation.
And I want to do more of it. Not only that, I might be able to. When we did our Rosh HaShanah dinner, Deb had these two French friends over. Professional playwrights, lovely people. Anyway, I saw them recently, and it turns out that the man also plays guitar. What’s more, he also writes his own songs. Rock and roll too! He mentioned the Stones when I asked him what kind of stuff he did.
So I offered my studio to him. Why not come over and record some of your stuff? He seemed pretty receptive to it. Who knows if it will actually happen. Maybe it was just one of those things that sounds good after a few glasses of wine, but which in reality will never really come off for one reason or another. But I sure hope it does. The idea of producing somebody’s music that I’m not connected with is actually really exciting to me. Another chance to grow as a producer. Another chance to be involved with music in general and rock specifically. And also, I could do with more French people in my life. He and his wife are both lovely people, if nothing else. So fingers crossed on that one.
So much for producing. I was in bed all day Saturday with a combination of a cold, allergies, some stomach stuff and a hangover to boot. A proper mess. The point being, I found myself watching a lot of Youtube.
And there I found a series of videos by this woman. She’s a professional opera singer/vocal coach. And she does these videos where she reacts in real-time to a song and breaks it down on all kinds of levels: technical, composition-wise, emotional, whatever. Normally, I’m not really into these reaction videos. Like, whatever. But something about this dame. She’s got this great enthusiasm and effervescence. Reminded me a lot of Flare, actually.
But I found myself loving the way she would approach music she’d never heard before and which was out of her wheelhouse. Like, I wish I could come to new music with such an open mind and with such joyous appreciation. I can’t though. Not like that. But none of this is the point. It’s just background, albeit rather necessary, I think.
The point is, she broke down a Dio song. Five, actually; each video 20-30 minutes. Two solo Dio songs, two with Rainbow and one with Sabbath. And it was amazing. Like, she was a total convert. I watched her break down some other metal songs; Judas Priest, Type O-Negative. And she gets into it. But not like she got into Dio. By the end, she was literally loving Dio, a new fan for realz.
The reason I’m writing about this, though, is because watching these videos made me incredibly emotional. I’m talking tears in the eyes, you guys. And look, having a professional opera singer validate Dio’s technical brilliance is somehow incredibly gratifying. Hearing her say that this guy could have done literally anything he wanted made me proud of our metal hero, our metal everyman. Hearing her compare him – more than once – to Freddy Mercury, going so far as to say Dio is the Freddy of metal, I mean, it makes you – and this is not a phrase that I love – but, it makes you ‘feel seen.’ But even all of this is beside the point.
What was truly special was sharing that moment when somebody discovers Dio for the first time. It’s one thing to witness the appreciation for his technical ability. The Apollonian, if I can borrow from Nietzsche. But it’s the Dionysian that moves you. Watching somebody’s eyes light up, watching the uncontrollable – unconscious even – smile that blossoms on a person’s face the first time they hear that voice, it’s terribly powerful. The absolute joy and wonder of it all.
For yourself, you get to experience that one time. There’s only one first time you hear Dio. For myself, I have had two such experiences with music, experiences that I shall never forget. One was the first time I listened to Metallica’s Master of Puppets album. When the opening riff of the first track, Battery, opened up, my eyes nearly popped out of my skull. And the second time was with Dio, with Rainbow.
I remember my parents took me to the Stormville flea market, upstate. I had read about Rainbow, mind you, in metal magazines. I knew it was Ritchie Blackmore and Dio together. I could only imagine what that might sound like. So we’re at this flea market, and there’s this guy selling records, vinyl. This was during that in-between period, when CDs were the thing and vinyl was passé. You could get records dirt cheap back then.
So this guy was selling records a dollar a pop. I bought Van Halen I, also a big deal; never heard that before either. But he had this double LP – two bucks – Rainbow On Stage. I had to buy it. I get it home and put it on the turntable. The band is called Rainbow, right? So there ‘intro music,’ is Somewhere Over the Rainbow. That’s right. This metal band walks onstage to Judy fucking Garland, I shit thee not. What? And then the real music starts. And oh my gods. All of them, all of the gods, oh my. I didn’t know music could sound like that! And then Dio starts singing. That voice. I mean, it was magic. It’s still magic, all these years later.
The point is, you get that first-time experience once. Just once. And now, here I am, watching this dame on YouTube live that experience. Witness to all those emotions. Yeah, it moved me to tears. All these years on, Dio still has that emotional pull on me. I’ve said it before, but Dio is the one and only rock star where I’ve felt, not just that I knew him, but that he knew me. To share that with somebody – even through a computer screen, even with somebody you’ll never meet – it’s a powerful experience.
Remember message boards? I used to be on metal message board, back in the old AOL dial-up days. There I mentioned that I was going to buy Black Sabbath Volume IV. And this guy says – I’ll never forget – he says, “I’m so jealous. You’re about to hear that album for the first time.” That’s always stuck with me, even though I didn’t quite understand it at the time. All these years later, I understand.
As a side note, I mentioned two first-time musical experiences that changed my world: Metallica and Rainbow. Now, one might think I’m forgetting something here. After all, anybody who knows me, knows that my all-time favorite band is AC/DC. Yet I did not include them in that recounting. How can that be?
But you have to remember, the point was that the first time I heard Puppets, the first time I heard Rainbow, those albums remade my world because I didn’t know music could sound like that! My experience with AC/DC couldn’t be more different.
The first time I heard AC/DC, my reaction was: “Oh yes, of course.” I can’t explain it, but that music was already in my blood, in my fucking bones. The first time I heard it, it was not amazement that such a thing could exist, but rather confirmation of something that I somehow knew all along. I grew up listening to the oldies station in the car with my mom. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, et al. AC/DC was just the logical conclusion of all that, and the perfection of it. I wasn’t shocked by their existence. They had to exist.
Well. I think that’s more than enough. It’s good to finally get a proper post done. And now, time for the hockey game. Let’s Go Islanders!!!