An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 January, 2022

“The two great mysteries of the universe,” I said to my brother the other day, “are women…and drums.”  Look, are there people who understand both?  Probably.  Am I one of them?  Nöpe.  We’ll leave the females to one side for now.  Drums, though.  Boy howdy.  (Warning: This post may get a bit technical).

On basically all of the tracks I’ve done so far – I’m talking about my own songs here – I’ve created drum tracks by programming pre-made grooves from a library.  Drums are way above my pay grade, you know?  And if I had to add learning how to create a drum track from scratch while at the same time learning my software and the general art of producing, I’d still be stuck on song number one.  So using grooves from a library seemed like the way to go.  And I’m more or less satisfied with what I’ve got in that regard.  For now.

But I’ve just written a new ditty.  In its bones, it’s more folk than rock, although obviously my instinct is to push it in as far a rock direction as it will reasonably allow.  But keep that in mind.  Now add to this that the song is not in standard 4/4 time.  Originally, I thought the song was in in 3/4.  But after a lengthy discussion with Justin, I’ve come to the understanding that it’s really in 6/8.  Now everything I’ve ever learned in a math classroom tells me that 3/4 and 6/8 are fundamentally the same.  But in music, apparently, they are not.  I’ve never properly understood that.  Only now, a month shy of my 41st birthday (what the ice cold fuck?!), am I beginning to grasp the difference.

Fine, so the song is in 6/8, which is a first for me.  But the point is, none of these pre-programmed grooves in my drum library seem to fit.  I don’t know if it’s strictly a question of time signature or just that my normal rock grooves aren’t right for this more folky piece.  But whatever the reason, I’m now in a position where I’m going to need to actually craft a drum track from scratch.  Boy howdy.

Back to that long conversation with my brother.  I sent him my first attempt, when I was still considering the song as being in 3/4, and it was kick-snare-snare, kick-snare-snare.  And he’s like, “I don’t want to be a dick, but it sounds like circus music.”  He wasn’t wrong either.  So what to do about it?  Well the first thing was just to set me straight on the time signature.  Just by shifting to 6/8, we straightened out the groove to something much more, uh, groovy.  (I’m an English teacher!).  The conversation then shifted into how to use various cymbals (mostly the high hat) and how adding an extra kick or offsetting the snare can add a bit more life.  I learned so much form that conversation.  Not the least of which, how fucking ignorant I am about drums specifically and rhythm generally.  OK, yes, we all knew that already.  But still.

Anyway, I’ve made some real improvements to the drum track since then.  And I continue to tweak it.  It’s still not there yet.  There’s still some stuff that’s not working, still some spots that don’t quite feel right.  But it’s definitely progress.  And I’m learning, which is huge.  It’s all very interesting.  Exciting, even, in the sense that I’m adding the very basics of a skill that, until now, has been entirely lacking from my toolbox.  Long way to go yet, on this song, and on drums in general.  But this is a good start.

I “finished” the track I was doing for the French people.   I put finished in quotes because there are still things I’d like to go back and tweak.  But it’s finished enough that I could send it to them and say, “Hey, this is your song.”  They were really happy with it, which makes me very happy.  But also, I’m very happy with it.  Like I said last time, it’s very minimalist in a way.  It’s just his guitar, her voice, and a couple of guitar fills that I added. 

But given that, I think I was able to do some really nice work.  I think I got a really good sound on the guy’s guitar.  And I think I was able to make her voice really shine.  Of course, with anything like this, the most important factor is your source material.  And this girl can really sing, which is the key to everything here.  So hats off to her for just kicking ass.  But in terms of my job as a producer (no quotes this time), I think I did right by her.

And here, I gotta tip my own hat to Rob.  One of the things we talked about when we chatted about my band’s song was side-chaining the reverb on the vocal track.  I’ll try to keep this simple, but I think it’s worth explaining in general terms.  Think of reverb as kind of an echo sound.  Why does it sound good when you sing in the shower?  Because your voice is all kinds of echoing off the tiled walls.  That’s reverb in simple terms.  The problem is, if you have too much reverb, it can obscure the actual vocals.  You just wind up with this echo-y mess, the vocal doesn’t cut through clearly.

So one thing you can do, is to use a tool that will suppress the reverb when the vocal is present, but then, when the singer pauses, the reverb pops up to fill the empty space.  That’s essentially what side-chaining the reverb means.  And it’s a tool that I’ve read about and watched plenty of tutorials about, but which I’d never actually put into practice.  But then, when I asked Rob for his technical feedback, that was one thing that he pointed to.  So I figured it was time to get my shit together and learn how to do that. 

It took me a solid hour-plus to learn how to do it in my software, but now that I know how, it’s actually pretty easy.  And boy, does it ever make a difference.  And more so on a song like this.  On my heavier rock tracks, with drums and overdriven guitars and four-part backing vocals, I was able to skate by without it.  But here, on this tune, where it’s just the singer and the guitar, everything is magnified. 

And let me tell you what a difference it made!  I mean, I did a before and after comparison, and it’s just night and day.  With this new tool, the vocals are so much more alive, so much cleaner.  And then when the reverb kicks in, it’s such a lush after-effect.  Even if you don’t know anything about production, you can hear the difference; even if you can’t put your finger on what that difference is.  So Bobby, if you’re reading this, thanks for getting on me about that.  Tremendous.

I sent a copy of the song to Charlotte.  I think it’s fair to say she was quite impressed.  She’s like, “Can you make me sound that professional?!”  Well, I can’t make her sound like this girl, of course.  But I can make her sound like whatever ‘professional Charlotte’ would sound like.  I’m pretty confident of that at this point.  And that’s actually the plan.

Whenever she visits next (which won’t be during the winter, she made that abundantly clear), our plan is to record at least two songs.  Not songs that we or I have written, but songs that we always jam on whenever we get together.  And lemme tell you something.  I’m really looking forward to that.

Not just because it will be fun.  Which it bloody well will be.  But also because now I’m actually pretty excited to get my hands on her voice, if I can say that.  I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I’ve long felt she has a very nice singing voice.  Oh, for sure I’ve written about this.  How, at first, she would just listen to me sing.  And then, gradually, she started to sing along, mostly because she just wanted to participate.  Until it got to the point where, we have songs where she’s the singer, all on her own.  It was cool to watch that progression.  I’m proud of her for making that progression, and even a little proud of myself that she made that progression with me.  All this to say, I really enjoy her singing, enjoy listening back to the songs we recorded on our phones.  And now, I’m pretty psyched to get her in my studio and see what we can really do.

Well, I’ve got quite the workload now, music-wise.  I’ve finished the first of the three songs for the band, and I’ve finished this song for the Frenchies.  But now I’ve got this new folk-rock ditty, and the labor on the drums is…well, it’s a lot.  Once the drums are finished, though, it should move pretty quickly.  I’ve got two heavy rock songs that I’ve started, but which still need a lot of work.  One of them is quite demanding vocally; the other I’m struggling to find the right guitar solo.  But I think they’re both going to kick some serious ass when they’re finished.  I’ve got two more songs to do for the band.  And then I’ve got at least three or four more of my own songs to do.  Oh, and at some point, my French friends will presumably be coming back to me with more songs.  It’s a lot of work.  Like, a lot a lot.  But also?  I fucking love it.

I mentioned in the last post that I now have some level of involvement in the family business.  So another thing I needed to learn was how to read and understand basic financial documents.  In this case, we’re just talking about a Profit and Loss sheet (P&L) and a balance sheet.  These are words I’ve heard before in my life, but I’ve never known (nor cared) what they are, what their purpose is; nevermind how to actually read them.

So I asked Amanda, who does this professionally, if she’d walk me through the basics.  Of course she was only too happy to help.  But before we get to that, let me just say how great it was to catch up.  Just good laughs, you know?  And I got to see Sabine, her daughter. אוי, איז זי אַ שיינע פנים!  I mean, this kid is all of the cute.  Oh, and they’re coming to Paris in May.  So barring another Covid cluster-fuck, I’ll be meeting them there.  Can’t wait.

Anyway, she was a huge help.  Obviously, I didn’t share any of my actual documents with her.  I just had them in front of me.  But she knows this stuff inside and out.  So she was able to say, “OK, you’ll see a line called ‘x,’ that tells you this.”  That kind of stuff.  But she explained the purpose of the documents, how to read them, what I should look for, what the indicators of a healthy company are versus those of an unhealthy one.  (We are pretty healthy, apparently).  But I feel so much more informed now.  Something that, but two or three days ago, was just columns of unintelligible numbers has now become something that I’m entirely comfortable with; at least as far as my involvement requires.  So a huge shout-out to Amanda for that little crash course.

I sort of painted the picture in my last post, but I’ll be a touch more explicit here, at the risk of boring the 3.5 people who read this.  I love the fact that, at my age, I’m continuing to learn new things and develop new skills.  Learning about business, learning Torah, learning about drums and music production, learning about where my family comes from, and on and on.  What kind of life if is it if you stop learning?  I hope I never find out.

Finally got back to Greek with George this week.  Finally.  So that continues as it ever has, and it’s just a joy, you know?  But now, here’s a new interesting thing that’s come up.  For the past couple of years, George and Phil (my one-time prof and current pun-partner and Yankee fan) have been putting together a translation of a lesser known Greek epic poem, titled Frogs and Mice.  They’re going all out too.  Hardcore commentary, illustrations, the whole nine.

Given all my years with Daitz, I guess I have some cache with George and Phil when it comes to the poetic meter of Greek epic (Dactylic Hexameter, if you’re scoring at home).  So periodically, George would email me with a troublesome line and ask me how I would scan it.  I would say that in 99.9% of cases, I was able to solve it for them.  And look, I’m not going to lie, it’s a nice feeling when people you look up to and respect turn to you for your opinion and you’re able to solve a problem for them.  And if that’s all I could do for them, dayenu.  It would be enough.

But apparently there’s more I can do.  Here I need to backtrack for a moment, to the days when I was still reading with Daitz.  Every year, Columbia University would hold these reading competitions.  The idea was, people would recite a passage of Ancient Greek (or Latin; feh!) poetry.  And you would be judged not only on your artistic interpretation of the text, but also on your execution of the technical details: pitch, meter, pronunciation, etc.  I participated in those competitions twice.  The first year, I took first prize for Greek.  The second year, I split first prize. 

First of all, it was just plain fun, right?  That’s the most important thing.  But also, yeah, I was proud to have won, and twice at that.  But more than being proud of myself, I was proud to represent Daitz.  Forgive the analogy, but it was like the Karate Kid.  Of course Daniel was proud to win, but he was even more proud to represent and win for Mr. Miyagi.  It was kinda like that. 

Tangentially, I was also proud, in a way, to represent Mr. Connor, the teacher who led my high school drama club.  He gave me the confidence to go on stage and act.  And he also instilled in me a love for Shakespeare.  And for me, what I was doing with Greek was always connected to what I’d done with Shakespeare under Connor-man.  I mean, Shakespeare is to English what Homer is to Greek.  And I don’t think I could have participated in those Greek competitions if Connor hadn’t put me on stage to perform Shakespeare years before.  So I’ve always felt that, while everything about the Greek I owed to Daitz, everything about getting up in front of people and acting (and make no mistake, reciting the Greek was very much a kind of acting), I owed to Connor. 

What’s the point here?  Oh right.  I wanted to give that bit of background so that what I say next will have some context.  So when I got together with George, I asked him how their translation was coming along.  He said they were basically, finally, done.  And then he said, “David [he always calls me David], we want you to do a recording of the text.  And we’ll try to get you some money if we can, but that’s not definite.”  Who cares about the money?!  OK, I do; that would be great.  But wow, דאָס איז אַ גרויסער כבד, what an honor, you know?  I mean, these guys have spent years on this project, they’re both putting their names – and with that, their reputations – to it.  And they want me to do a recording of the text?  Yeah, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call that an honor. 

Oh, and also, that’s going to be fun.  I mean, it’s going to be hard work.  I’m going to have go over that text the same way an actor goes over a script.  Word by word, line by line, phrase by phrase.  I’m going to have bring it to life.  And not just a narration, but characters too.  This is real work we’re talking about here.  But fun work.  To have a chance to put all my Greek training to some practical use, that’s exciting.  And not for nothing, another opportunity to honor Daitz.  Which of course will never be far from my mind.  I wish I could tell him that I’ve even been asked to do this.  And once I start, I know I’m going to wish he was still around to give me feedback. 

I’ve always said that it saddens me that I’m not teaching this stuff to anybody, that I don’t have an opportunity to pass on what he’s taught me.  Well, this isn’t the same as teaching new students.  But at least it’s a chance to put it into some kind of limited circulation, to share it with a wider audience.  I just hope that whatever I produce would meet with his approval, that he’d be proud of my work in the end.  I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll say that either.

Update.  George emailed me the other day to let me know that he and Phil would like me to review their work.  They don’t need me to check their translation or critique their English, but they would like me to review the commentary and check the the text overall for obvious errors.  Once again, I’m honored that they’ve asked me and a bit proud that think highly enough of me entrust me with this.  Not that I’ll be the only one.  I guess the plan is, once I’ve gone over it, the publisher will sent it first to three “friendly scholars,” they will make changes and then the publisher will send it to “two or three unfriendly scholars,” followed by more changes.

But they want me to go over it before it goes out the door at all.  So that’s really nice.  And it’s a paying gig, assuming I can finish by the end of February, which is also nice.  It shouldn’t be a problem to get this done in a month.  It’s a fair bit of work, but nothing I can’t handle.  I’m actually kind of looking forward to it.  So tomorrow, I’ll have it printed and then get to work.

And I guess that’s about it.  It’s enough, no?  Busy, busy, busy, as always.  But busy with good stuff.  As always. 

One language thing to catch you guys up on.  I talk a lot about Greek and Yiddish and Hebrew and (to a lesser extent these days) French.  But I haven’t spoken much about German lately.  I’ve mentioned before that I Zoom once a week with a former student.  One week we’ll do two hours English, the next, two hours German.  It’s a nice thing we have going.  He’s a really cool guy, good sense of humor, fun to work with.

Anyway, last week I asked him to read Aschenputtel with me.  Aschenputtel is the German name for Cinderella, and the version we read is the original Brothers Grimm version.  That was a lot fun.  The language is a bit archaic, but I was able to handle it pretty well.  Some new vocab, of course, and he was very helpful with that.  But it was fun.  And dark.  You guys, so dark.  The stepsisters, to try and get their feet into the slipper, one has to cut off her big toe, the other has to cut off part of her heel.  And the evil stepmother makes them do it!  In the end, they get their eyes pecked out by birds.  Really fucking dark.  All that to say, we had a good time with it.  And it’s good not only for my German in general, but for my confidence with the language as well.  He does a nice job of building me up.  So that’s another good thing that’s going on these days.

Oh, and one last thing.  For like the first time ever, I’m making a concerted effort to drink less.  Primarily in the evenings, more specifically approaching bed time.  Reason being, I haven’t been sleeping well for quite some time.  Part of that is just that I eat too late, which I’ve also been trying to fix.  Part of it is my night-owl-ness, which there’s only so much I can do about.  But then, just the other day, there was an article in the Times about how drinking before going to sleep can really fuck up your sleep patterns.  You might fall asleep easier, but you’ll wake up more, and the sleep itself won’t be as restorative. 

Now, this isn’t exactly news.  I mean, I’ve known this forever.  But to have it spelled out in The Paper of Record?  Kind of a wake up call.  Or a go to sleep call, if you will.  And since actually falling asleep is not usually a problem for me, I’m not really in need of the one marginal benefit that comes with drinking before bed anyway.  So we’ll see what kind of difference this makes.  The article said you need to do it for at least two weeks before you start to notice a change.  But I’m tired of being…tired…all the time.  (Did I mention I’m an English teacher?).  I guess it’s time to do something about that…

זײַט זשע מיר אַלע געזונד

One thought on “An American in Berlin

  1. Hi it is wonderful reading about your journey through life.
    I will endeavor to find another word for proud.
    You make me smile
    Love Aunt Cookie

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