I wake up super early. It’s like recording Christmas.
I’m recording at Hansa today.
For those of you reading that don’t know what Hansa is- here’s the footnote*
I’m making my breakfast tea and talking to Andre’. He and his wife own this flat and I’m AirBnBing it here. He asks me what’s going on and I tell him I’m recording, he asks where, I tell him Hansa and his whole facial expression changes. “Are you famous?” I tell him I am not. He starts looking me up on his phone. It’s nice. He knows what this place is. I tell him goodbye and that I won’t be back until late.
I booked this place because it’s close to Hansa. It’s a half mile away. I get there in about 20-ish minutes walking.
Rocco books the studio and we’ve been chatting back and forth, he asked me what my plan was and this is a tip for folks recording because I always have people asking me “how long will it take?” “How much will it cost?” And I didn’t want to waste a single moment in here so I came in prepared.
I told Rocco that I would be recording 3-5 songs. I have the BPM worked out and have drum loops on my phone that I can export into their system and play to. I’d like a big stereo sound for my acoustic. I will track acoustic first, then vocals and then I have some guitar overdubs to do. Would prefer things at 44.1 and I will have a thumb drive to transfer the tracks to.
This is super helpful. They are nearly set up when I arrive.
Arne is the engineer and Marion is his assistant. We hit it off immediately and start mapping things out. He asks me how I normally record my acoustic and I tell him “I know how I do it, do it the way YOU do it.” And he’s got it. I came here to get out of my head. He sets up some KM 86 microphones in stereo. A Neumann SM2 stereo mic and a Neumann U67 mic.**
Initially they have a ProTools problem with the sync clock not syncing and they have to reboot and stuff and it’s so refreshing to see a big studio having a stupid annoying thing like this happen to them too.
Arne is showing me stuff. This is the piano that Martin Gore recorded at naked for a Depeche Mode album. This is the stuff Nick Cave used… and so on. I ask about U2 and he points to my vocal mic and says Bono used that. And I’m psyched about that.
Arne and I set up the session. Song name, bpm, here’s the drum loop I will be playing to, Bam, next… And things are sailing along.
It takes us about 15 minutes to dial in the acoustic sound with the mics and positioning. I do a take and don’t like the timber of my guitar, change to a lighter guitar pick and it sounds much sweeter and softer.
On my first take Arne tells me that I’m pushing the beat a little bit and to relax. And this is normally the type of thing that I have to play back to hear and then start over but today I’m just in the artist chair. I don’t have to be engineer too. I can tell he’s looking for the words to soften what he’s telling me and I tell him not to. Just tell me straight. And that makes things easier all around. I do another take and it’s perfect.
In one hour I did 5 songs. I did two takes of each song.
I knew I wanted to have something brand new and fresh to record so I wrote two songs yesterday. One is an instrumental and that’s kind of a new thing for me but I was practicing another song in double drop D and started messing with some fingerpicking and it just sounded…pretty. The other new one I finished writing at about 9 pm last night and I did a quick voice memo whispery version of it to remind myself how it goes and that one takes 3 takes. This could be nearly the shortest amount of time between written and recorded that I’ve ever done.
I Record Heroes last and it is really pushing me vocally, Arne asks if I want to do another take. “Yes.” As the music starts I look around the room. Enjoy this moment. I tell myself. And I go for it. When the song ends I have nothing left in the tank. I couldn’t do another take, my voice is actually hoarse.
Heroes is a David Bowie song that was famously recorded here. I’m feeling pretty audacious to even attempt this. I’m no Bowie. I am well aware of this. After I finish it up Arne says to me “I’ve heard many people cover that song and they just copy it but they way you made it your own was the best way to do it.”.
We take a short break to prep for guitar overdubs and I set up my acoustic in the control room. They’re looking at me kind of confused. I ask Marion if they have any distortion pedals. He disappears for five minutes and comes back with a handful of pedals. “Let’s make it nasty.” And they are on board. There’s a Big Muff fuzz overdrive and I plug into that and then into a pair of delay pedals. Arne is surprised by the sound I’m getting. We rock through the first song and I tell him I need his help. Again he looks confused. “After the bridge I need you to start turning all the knobs on the pedals.” “I can do that!” And he looks a bit excited to be doing something so unorthodox and he gets down on his knees and starts turning all the knobs creating a nice bit of chaos.
For Heroes I am doing some e-bow effects with some whacked out modulation effect. It’s cool. It’s not what was done originally but is definitely inspired by. I swap out the Big Muff and use another overdrive that I’ve never seen before and play the solo that I sort of worked out last night for the new song. Marion says the part sounds more like a lap steel than acoustic guitar and I agree. They tell me that they’ve never seen anyone get sounds like this out of an acoustic. And so, I taught them something too.
Arne looks at the clock. It’s near 5 pm. “Five o’clock, I thought it was about three. Must be good, I’ve lost track of time.”
I’m done. I’m spent. I have nothing left. I came here to record 5 songs and I recorded all 5. I had my shit together and nailed it and that’s a fucking great feeling. After a few photographs and well wishing we say goodbye. Rocco invites me back whenever. I feel like I was something different than what they usually do.
I feel like I didn’t take enough pictures or something but at the same time I know that I was truly in the moment for all of today. I was trying to capture that. Be in this place with such incredible energy and borrow some of that and leave some of my own.
And I did.
As I exit the building there is some black tie event happening on the first floor. People see me exiting the studio and I’m immediately asked a sort of “who are you? Are you famous? Should we know you?” And it’s kind of funny and I trudge up the street, guitar in hand and cross over in front of Potsdamer Platz.
Back at the Airbnb I’m greeted by Rosina and Andre’. “I’ve been listening to your music all day.” Says Rosina excitedly. “Would you like a glass of wine?” And we sit down and have a great conversation. They are both native Russians living here in Germany for like many years. Rosina has been here since she was 11. They want to buy my record and I have them help me write things out in Russian. “You should tour in Russia, I mean, not right now but you know, someday. They would love you.” And I’m being treated like a celebrity in this house. Their two kids are running around semi naked and we talk life, jobs, music, spouses, America, how they like living in Berlin and so much more. I share my chocolate with them to go with the wine and it’s a great end of the day.
*Hansa Studios is in Berlin. David Bowie did his Berlin trilogy of albums here including the album Heroes. U2 did Actung Baby here. The song “One” was written in the room I was in today. So many great acts. I was here to soak up the atmosphere and get some great sounds. Where it’s located is right near where the Wall used to be in East Berlin. When the wall fell, this area became some of the hottest property around. Previous to that it was pretty run down. But the studio has fantastic old gear and big rooms and just oodles of vibe - which is really hard to quantify.
**During a break I go on Reverb.com and just look up these microphones. I mean, I knew these vintage mics were expensive but holy shit I wasn’t prepared for roughly $30k in microphones on me.