An American in Berlin
29 December, 2022
Ho, ho, ho. I mean…hi, hi, hi? Actually, just, hi. How’s it going? So I started this post on the 24th, which is one the bulk of it was written. But towards the end, there are a couple of updates vis-à-vis a new song I’m working on. Those will be dated accordingly. Just so we’re on the same page here…
Original Post (24 December):
Well, it finally happened. After nearly three years of dodging the bullet, I finally got covid. And all I can say is, thank gods I got it now. What I mean is, it was basically just a flu. Whatever variant I caught, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent respiratory ramifications. Which, as an asthmatic, was always my biggest fear, right? So all things considered, this was kinda best case if I had to get it.
The funny thing is, I think I’m generally more careful than most people these days. I’m pretty religious about masking up on mass transit and whenever I go into the supermarket or shops with more than one or two people in them. I’d say the majority of people are going maskless in shops these days, and even on the train (where it’s still mandated), you find a number of maskless folks in every car. At the same time, I’m living my life, ya know?
So last Friday, I met my tandem partner per the usz…usj…yuzh? (How are we abbreviating ‘usual’ anyway?). Then, later in the evening, another former student joined us. And it was a lot of fun. I mean, me and the tandem girl always have a good time of things. But this other former student – the two of them met in my class – this was my first time meeting her irl. This lady, she’s like 53, I wanna say. Born in NW Germany, she’s spent upwards of the last 30 years in East Berlin, where her dad is from. Very cool lady.
Anyway, she shows up with two little paper gift bags for me and Miss Tandem. And she’s like – as we’re opening the bags – “I baked you guys cookies.” How nice, right? And sure enough, there are cookies in the bag. But also in the bag are other cookies, star-shaped, wrapped in plastic. What’s with the plastic? “Oh, those are weed cookies,” she says nonchalantly. Now, I’m like, I know what I heard, but that can’t be right. So I’m all, “Did you say wheat cookies?” Thinking, you know, that’s a choice. And she’s all, “No, weed cookies.” I see.
But like, who does that? I mean, on the one hand, it’s not like we’re strangers. She was in my class for a solid three months. (Although three months, but just twice a week). But it’s not like drugs is a topic we discuss in class, you know? So it’s not like, “Oh, I know how much you guys like pot.” Which, for the record, is not exactly my jam. So this was just her being friendly. And to be clear, when I say “who does that?”, I’m not offended. I don’t think it was inappropriate or anything like that. Just surprised. Because, who does that? Anyway, like I said, she’s a very cool lady.
Now here’s a thing. My tandem partner is from Hannover. And as any German will tell you, the Hannover dialect/accent is the “purest” form of German. All that means is, when they were unifying the country and the language along with it, the Hannover dialect was chosen as the standard. Much in the way that the Florentine dialect was chosen as the standard in Italy amongst the multitude of regional dialects. Had I learned German in school, it’s a safe bet that the Hanoverian version is what I’d have gotten.
The thing is, I didn’t learn German in school, so it’s a bit alien to me. Now, this doesn’t mean I have trouble understanding my tandem partner. It just means I have to concentrate more, it takes up more mental bandwidth. It’s more work, to put it shortly. The more I hear her, the easier it gets. But it’s work. And then Miss Weed-Cookie rolls up, rocking her heavy East Berlin accent. And right away, my brain just relaxes. Like, this is home base, you know? Like with Bibi or Alex, it’s just easy. So that was fun.
Although when the two of them were talking to each other, my brain had to track the two accents simultaneously, and it’s like, gaah! I mean, I can do it. I did it. But it was a bit of a lift. Fun though. We had a good time.
Funny thing, though. We had our tandem again Friday, and she told me this little story. The day before we all met up, the two of them had their end of course test in the school. So they went out after. And at one point, Miss Tandem calls me up to make plans. And she just calls me up and talks in her normal German. No problem, right? And after she hangs up, Miss Weed-Cookie was like, “Who was that?” And Miss Tandem was like, “Dave.” And Miss Weed-Cookie was like, “But you were just talking regular real German.” And she’s like, “Yeah…Dave’s German is pretty good.” Which apparently shocked Miss Weed-Cookie. Three months in my class, and she had no idea I can actually German.
But I didn’t know any of this when I’d met her. She just rolled up and started talking her normal East Berlin shit. She didn’t seem surprised. If anything, I felt like she found my version of Berlinisch more than credible, all things considered. So that was pretty cool. Sometimes you have bad days with this language shit and sometimes you have good ones. I guess that was a good one.
Anyway, that was Friday a week ago. Sunday, Miss Tandem texts me and is all, “Hey, just a heads up, I have covid. Miss Weed-Cookie has it too.” Crikey. So Monday, I did a home test. Well, actually, first I went to two separate doctors to get some scrips refilled. Of course I wore a mask. But when I got home, I did the test. And sure enough, it was positive. The funny thing was, I felt totally fine. Until about 8 that night. That’s when I started to feel like something was up.
That was a rough night. Fever, some minor aches and pains. Not fun. And yet, hardly the worst I’ve ever been. If I didn’t know better, I’d have just guessed it was the flu. And like I said, not even the worst flu I’ve ever had. Fever broke by the next morning. After that, it was mostly just fatigue, some minor aches. By Friday, I was feeling pretty much back to normal. Now I’m just waiting to test negative again.
Technically, you’re supposed to quarantine. But I did have to go to the drug store to pick up my scrips. Other than that, stuck at home. And I learned something about what’s possible delivery-wise in this city. There are a number of options, but I went with one called Flaschenpost, which would translate as ‘bottle-mail.’ Primarily, they deliver things in bottles. Water, juice, beer, liquor, whatever. But they also do groceries.
And this was a revelation. First off, just for the bottles. Normally, when I go to the supermarket, if I want to buy seltzer or beer, I’m limited by what I can carry. But these guys, they deliver crates of beer (1 crate = 20 bottles) and crates of seltzer (1 crate = 12 bottles). Why would I ever schlep bottles from the supermarket again? But I also decided I wanted to make myself chicken soup. So I hit up their grocery department as well, and was able to get everything I needed. And they deliver same day, too. They give you a two-hour window, and sure enough, the guy shows up right smack in the middle of it.
Now, I don’t know how often I’ll use this for groceries. The selection is limited, to some degree. And also, sometimes you just get inspired when you’re at the supermarket. You walk in not sure what you’re gonna cook, and then suddenly, the leeks look good and you get an idea. And then of course there’s the special stuff that only the Turkish or Asian markets carry, so those are never going away. But, I do hate going to the supermarket more than pretty much anything. So knowing that I have the option of cutting out at least some of those trips? Huge win. The chicken soup came out pretty well. Never as good as my mom’s though. But that’s the nature of these things.
Was noch? Oh, I wrote a new song. You guys, this is gonna be a banger. I mean, it slaps. I’d had elements of it laying around for a while, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with them. Then, Thursday before last, I had to do a bit of running around. So I used my phone to record some of the chord changes with a bit of a melody “la-di-da’d” over top. And I just kept playing it back over and over while I was walking around. And it just sorta came together.
I started recording it over last weekend. Originally, I was going to do it in that 50’s rock/do-wop style that I love. I mean, this song has a lot of Buddy Holly in it. So I laid down a rough version with three-part harmonies. And it was sounding pretty good.
Before I go on, let me interrupt myself here for a second. For the first time, I did this song right. As always, I started with a scratch track. A scratch track is the simplest version of the song: Just me and my acoustic guitar played against a click track. The sole purpose of the scratch track is to lay out the structure, in time. It’s basically a reference against which you can start building the actual song. So I found the right tempo and got the scratch down.
But this is what I mean when I say, for the first time, I did this right. The first thing I did was to build the drum track. No loops, no pre-programmed grooves. I built a proper drum track from the ground up. I’ve written before that this the way to go, but that I’d never yet actually done so. Well, now I have. And it’s paying off. Also, while I’m not a master at this drum stuff by any stretch, I think I did solid work here.
On top of that, I did some research on how to “humanize” the drums. Because see, when you program drums, by default, every hit goes in precisely on time and each at the exact same velocity, or volume. The result is that it sounds too ‘perfect.’ Because no human, no matter how good, is machine precise 100% of the time. Nor would you want that. There’s no feel.
But my software has all these great capabilities. It can randomize the velocity of the hits within whatever parameters you set. Likewise, it can randomize in timing ‘errors,’ some hits coming in milliseconds late or milliseconds early, again within whatever parameters you specify. If you set the parameters too wide, it will sound sloppy or just flat-out wrong. Too narrow, and you won’t hear the difference. But if you do it right, you get something sounding a bit more human. Which, without buying an electric kit and then actually learning to play drums, is the best that can be done. All to say, I think I’ve got a pretty credible drum track for this song. And instead of filling it in after the fact when it’s too late, I did it first and now it’s the foundation for the whole tune. This is real progress, is what I’m saying.
Anyway, by the end of the weekend, I’ve got a solid rough draft of this song. The backing harmonies were pretty on point. I’d just need get good takes on the lead vocal and the guitar solo. But as I was listening to it, I heard something. This song has crazy potential to be a real pop-punk rocker. Think Green Day or Blink 182.
So I got to work redoing it in that style. Heavy guitars, bigger drums, more aggressive bass. Gone are the do-wop harmonies. In as a more aggressive lead vocal. I said before that the writing just sorta came together. Well so did the arrangement. Like, my guitar arrangements just worked. Tight on the verses and then suddenly huge on the chorus.
All those years of playing in metal bands, all those guitar mags containing interviews with the lads from AC/DC and Metallica. Combined with the little I’ve learned about building a drum track. And holy shit. The chorus just explodes. What did I learn from those AC/DC interviews? Use power chords on the verse and open chords on the chorus. Even if you do nothing else, the chorus is already gonna sound big. And boy, does it ever. What have I learned about drums? Go steady on the closed hi-hat during the verse and switch to a ride on the chorus. It brightens the whole feel. Such a tiny thing, but the difference is night and day.
On top of that, there are no harmonies on the verse, apart from the odd accented word. But then, on the build to the chorus, there’s this ascending three-part harmony, the voices coming in one at a time, the last on a high A. Tension, drama. It all just fucking works. And it works big.
And yet, I thought it could be bigger. So I listened to All The Small Things by Blink 182. They’re a 3 piece, one guitar. And yet, the chorus on that song sounds huge. Why? How? I discovered that there’s an extra guitar added on the chorus that’s playing some power chords way up the neck. It’s not in your face. You don’t know it’s there if you’re not looking for it. The harmonic overtones blend so well with the vocals, you could be forgiven for not noticing it. But it’s there. So I’m like, lemme try that.
Which I did. And wow. Subtle, right? Just in the right speaker, low in the mix. But definitely there. And it just fills out the sound. Then I had another idea. I set up a guitar track with a heavy 1/4 note delay. Now on the left side, still low in the mix. So low it’s hard to properly identify even what it is. But it just adds this vibrancy, this pulsing energy to it.
Seriously, I feel like it’s all coming together on this song. Arrangement, production, vocal ability, and not for nothing, a pretty solid hook. Now to be sure, there’s still a lot of work to do. I’ve got to get this thing to the finish line sounding like a professional product. And that’s gonna be the hardest part, no doubt. But all the elements are in place. Very soon, it’s going to be time to see what I’ve really learned as a producer. I hope I’ll be able to have something that will allow you all to hear what I’m hearing. Because I’m pretty proud of this one, I’m not gonna lie.
Other than that, there’s not a whole lot going on. Stephan, from Bavaria, was up a couple of weeks ago. So that was a weekend filled with beer, whiskey, good times and good people. Par for the course, in other words. And the rest of the Bavarians will be up for Joschka’s NYE party. So that should be great.
I’m supposed to go Flensburg next week to see Jan and Zibs for a couple of days between Xmas and NYE. But that’s on hold because covid. But we’re supposed to talk Sunday and we’ll make a call on it then. Hopefully it works out.
And I guess that’s all for now.
Update 1 (28th December):
A couple of updates since I started this post. Flensburg is off. I’m still testing positive, so there’s just no way. We’re going to reschedule, but I don’t know yet for when.
As for the song, lots of progress, and then…brick fucking wall. Recorded the last of the vocals today. Put together the final comps for the rhythm guitars as well as all the vocals, lead and backing. Bass and drums have been done for a while. As is the first half of the guitar solo (I’m pretty sure). So recording-wise, I either need to re-record the second half the solo or else figure out how to get it sounding better. But other than that, all the recording is done, comped and ready for use. Which is big.
(“Comped,” btw, is short for “compilation” or “compiled.” Basically what you do is, you record two or three takes of a guitar track, for example. And you do this knowing that you’re bound to have at least a couple of tiny mistakes in there somewhere in each take. Then what you do is, just knit together the best parts of each take to create a unified whole free of mistakes).
So what’s the problem? Well, I had the feeling that the whole thing was sounding a bit thin. Just how thin though, I wasn’t prepared for. I loaded up a reference track today. A reference track is what the name implies. It’s a professionally produced track that you think you kinda want your song to sound like. Not ‘sound like’ as in having the same melody or anything like that. But ‘sound like’ in terms of production values. And you use that as a reference to see what you want your mix to be doing. Ideally, when you’re done, you should be able to play them back to back and not notice a drop-off in quality or general ‘sound.’
Anyway, the song I chose for a reference is Blink 182’s All The Small Things. And omg they’re not even in the same ballpark. Everything in that mix sounds absolutely huge. And nothing in mine does.
Well, it’s good to have that reference obviously. It’s shown me where my problems are and what I’m aiming for. And yet, I’m completely stuck on how to get there. The balance seems right. In other words, the levels of all the instruments and voices relative to each other is broadly where I want it.
But as things stand, I’m already pushing the meter. Any more and I’m absolutely in the red and it’s gonna sound like shit. So how do I make the guitars sound big without blowing out the mix? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in finding the right balance between the gain of the input signal, the output on the amp emulators and the slider on the mixing board. But every combination I try seems to be worse than the last and I have no idea what to try next. I suppose I’m gonna have to dive into some YouTube tutorials and hopefully find my answer there. I’m having a similar issues with the vocals, though to a lesser degree. Still, I’m pretty stuck right now and that’s very frustrating.
I feel like I’m real close with this song. It’s a good song. The arrangement is on point. The performances are solid. And yet, it’s this last mile, as it were. Right now it sounds like a garage recording and I need to get it sounding like a studio recording. It’s absolutely possible. Just, how? It’s gonna take a lot of work, research and experimentation. But I need to be able to do this. Because if I can’t, then what the fuck am I even doing here? I’ve got my work cut out for me, is all I can say.
Update 2 (29th December):
Got a lot of good work done on the song today. I’m calling it Can You See; at least for now. But it’s getting close now, and I feel a lot better about it than I did yesterday. Got some good feedback from Justin, some of which I’ve already put into effect. Sent my last mix of the night off to Rob for his input (at around 430am, my time).
On the whole, I think there’s a lot of good stuff happening. Overall, the mix might still sound a little thin. I may want to beef it up in the midrange on the mix bus. I’m not totally in love with the guitar sound. I don’t know if that’s purely a function of using emulators rather than proper amps, or if I’m just not using the emulators well enough. Nevertheless, they sound a far sight better than yesterday, and that’s owing to a trick I learned on YouTube.
And it’s a simple trick too. Here’s how it works. You’ve got two rhythm guitars, one panned left and one panned right. Then what you do is, you send each guitar to a reverb channel, but you pan the reverbs opposite to the guitars. In other words, you’ve got the reverb for the left guitar coming through the right speaker and vice versa. And holy shit does it fill out the sound. I was so happy with the effect that I wound up doing the same thing with the vocal harmonies on the chorus. It’s makes everything so much bigger and warmer. Such a simple fucking thing. Love it.
I also started messing around with some mastering software. For the moment, I’m just letting it create a ‘smart’ master on its own. You feed it your reference track as well as your own mix and then the algorithms work up a master processing chain. It’s pretty slick. For now, this is an experiment, to get a feel for what the algorithms do. Ultimately, once I feel I’ve got a handle on that, I’ll either modify it or build up my own mastering chain from scratch. But I need to learn a bit more about it all before I can do that.
As for the reference track, I’m now using two, and I’ve created unique ‘smart’ masters based on each. One, as mentioned, is All The Small Things. The other is Black Sabbath’s Neon Knights. Reason being, it’s tight and clean and has the virtue of having been produced by (imo) the greatest metal producer of all time, Martin Birch. He did all the Deep Purple albums, the Rainbow albums with Dio, the Sabbath albums with Dio and all but one of the Maiden albums from the 80’s. His work is exemplary. It’s also quite a bit different from Blink. In the end, I suppose I’m hoping to land somewhere in between in the two.
As for the overall sound, Justin made some observations that I’m really happy about it, because they all point to me being on the right track here. For starters, he didn’t know the direction the song was taking. The last time he’d heard it, it was just me and my acoustic. And when you hear it that way, it sounds like a Buddy Holly song. That was my intention at the time, and his observation as well. But he didn’t know I was taking it heavy.
Anyway, upon hearing this new mix, he had two observations. Just from the opening chords, he said, “It kinda sounds like the Ramones.” Which is great, because what are the Ramones, after all, but a stripped down and sped up version of Buddy Holly, right? So far, so good. Then, as the song goes on, he says, “You know, it’s got this early 2000’s pop-punk kinda vibe.” And I’m like, Yes! I’ve been listening to the first Blink 182 album basically non-stop since the summer. And that’s absolutely the vibe I was going for with this song. So the fact that he heard both of those things with no prompting means I’m doing at least something right here. Very happy about that.
So there’s a couple of things yet that I want to tweak, plus whatever Rob’s feedback puts me on to. But this song is nearly there. And I’m pretty excited about it. Hopefully I’ll be able to share it in the next couple of days, a week at the outside. Stay tuned.
Oh, I guess there’s one last minor update worth mentioning. Maybe I’ve already mentioned it in passing. But Akiva mentioned to me that the local Hillel group (which meets a seven minute walk from here) was starting a Torah reading group on Saturday afternoons. So of course I signed up. We’ve only met two or three times so far, but it’s been great. It’s a small group, max five or six people. But the girl who runs it is great. She’s gotta be in her early 20’s, but she’s ‘wicked smaht’ and well learned. She does a great job of bringing down classic commentary as well as modern perspectives. And everybody is encouraged to offer their input, opinions, observations. It’s a good vibe.
Interpolation: Speaking of Akiva, he was in town two weeks ago. He organized a dinner outing which I of course attended. It was fine. Nice. You know, another social situation with limited alcohol. I managed. Anyway, dude’s like, “So um, would it be possible for me to crash with you for a night?” Gimme a break, tatele. Of course! So he did, and it was great. We drank a bunch of wine. Discussed Torah and also Love, since apparently he was attending some conference on the latter and had to give a short speech thereon. Point is, we had a great time and I was all too happy to put him for a night. I love that kid so much. A proper גוטע נשמה, a gute neshuma. We agreed, again, that it’s just a beautiful thing, how we randomly met at the Yiddish course in Weimar and have managed to remain friends since. ברוך השם. :End Interpolation.
What we do (in the Torah group, he added resumptively) is, we read the weekly parsha in German and discuss (in German) as we go. This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage – for me – is that it’s great German practice. A guaranteed extra couple hours a week of just German. The disadvantages are twofold. First, I’m obviously less comfortable discussing the finer points of Torah in a foreign language. Second, it wouldn’t matter if it was German or English, we’re not dealing directly with the Hebrew. That would obviously be ideal. But you have to respect that not everybody has the Hebrew to do that. Even with my Hebrew, it would be a lift. So I get it. Nevertheless, when it comes to key words or passages, we will dig out the Hebrew and break it down. So it’s there. Just not front and center.
Still, it’s a pretty great thing and I’m really happy to be doing it. In a way – a very small way – it fills a void that’s been there since Daitz died. What do I mean, “in a small way”? Well, it ain’t Greek and it ain’t Homer. Also, there’s no Daitz. And as I said, even though it’s Torah, it’s minimal Hebrew. Still, the idea of meeting with a regular group to do scholarly shit on a Saturday, that’s been missing from my life. I’m glad to have that back. Plus, where with Daitz we’d meet at 10am, this group meets at 3pm; which makes my life a bit easier.
Speaking of Daitz. I got a surprise email from ol’ Nat this week. Oh, Nat. Me and him were the two constants in all my years reading with Daitz. Five years I read with that man, every Saturday morning, rain or shine or hangover. People would come and go. But Nat, he was there on my very first day, my very last, and every day in between. An older gentleman even then, he taught (still teaches) at a private school. But he had deep interests in gemology and architecture and gods know what else. And by Zeus did that man know his Greek. He’d just show up and sight read that shit cold and it was masterful. As my friend Miranda once put it, he would absolutely ‘beast through’ the Greek.
My relationship with the man was a curious one. We weren’t close. And even to say we were ‘friends’ would be a stretch, insofar as we didn’t really talk outside of the reading group. And yet we were bonded through Daitz. There was a mutual respect and, I dare say, admiration there. Me for his sheer ability with the language, and him for my reading/performance skills. (In his email, he said: “You and Alexander [another from the group] are the best rhapsodes around, though I’m no slouch either”). I can think of the man with nothing but fondness.
Anyway, out of the blue – and after many years of living here – I get an email from ol’ Nat this week. He starts just by saying that Mimi (Daitz’ wife) wanted to get in touch with me but had lost my email address. But then he tells me that the Homeridai (the name of our group) are still going strong, mentioning the name of some current members. Those that I remembered, I remember as high school students from back in the day. They must be college grads by now. And קודם כל, it just warmed my heart to know that Nat is well and that the Homeridai are still a going concern. Beyond that, just to know that Daitz’ teachings are still being carried on is a wonderful thing.
You know, all this time, I’ve felt like a wandering exile who’s lost his master, carrying around these traditions and this knowledge, not knowing what to do with it beyond the simple business of making sure I don’t forget it. It’s a burden I’m proud to bear, but a burden all the same. Like, I’m supposed to be doing something with this gift, you know? Which, I’ll be able to do, when it comes time to record the text of Frogs and Mice for George and Phil; assuming that happens. But apart from that, it’s mostly just been making sure the flame doesn’t go out, as it were.
And now I learn that Nat has been – and is still – shepherding the Homeridai. And the burden is a little lighter. It’s all a touch less lonely. And if that’s all it was, that would be huge. But wait, there’s more.
So in his email, Nat tells me that they now meet by Zoom. I don’t know if that started as a covid thing or what. I don’t know if the members have scattered, geographically. The point is, they meet by Zoom now. And so, Nat asked me if I’d be interested in (re-)joining. וואָס פאַר אַ פראַגע! Of course I’d be interested!
I told him as much, asking him to have one of his ‘minions’ get in touch with me about the Zoom deets (he’s not super tech-savvy himself). And now I’m waiting. No email from Mimi as yet. Nor any response from Nat, though I suppose they’re taking a holiday break. But I sincerely hope this is gonna work out. It might not be easy with the time diff. And I sure as shit hope it’s not gonna wind up conflicting with the Torah group. Maybe I won’t be able to do it every single week. But it would kinda make my world if I can somehow get back to that.
Reading with Daitz and Nat, that was a central part of my life for five years. More than that, it was – and remains – a part of my soul. When I think about the things I’ve had to give up in coming here, there are the things that would be obvious to anybody, obvious for anybody in my position: family and friends, being a part of the lives of my friends’ children as they grow up. But for me specifically, I’ve had to sacrifice two other things in coming here that are terribly dear to me. One, of course, is ice hockey. The other, reading Homer with Nat and the Homeridai, which continued even after Daitz died. If I can get that back? I can’t even.
So we’ll see. Like I said, I haven’t heard back from the man yet. But if there’s a way to make this happen, I’ll fucking bend over backwards and you can take that to the bank. In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, safe and healthy new year. See you bitches in ’23…