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David Bowie: Blue, blue, Hansa blue

As Bowie passes, we revisit a piece on Hansa Tonstudio, where the innovator recorded Low and Heroes

(This article first appeared in Pro Sound News Europe in November 2011)

It’s not difficult to imagine chameleon popstar David Bowie pondering the exotic and alien duality of East/West Berlin in the days of Communist Russia. Pondering… and then in 1977, travelling to the city’s leading recording studio, what was known as ‘Hansa Studio by the Wall’, to mix Low and record Heroes, with Tony Visconti producing. Bowie’s sojourn – remembered in his unexpected single release, Where Are We Now? – put Hansa on the international map, and before long, a litany of acts (Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode, Marillion, Siouxsie and the Banshees, U2 and many others) came seeking the sound of Hansa Studio Two.

It was 1976 when Meisel-Musik-Verlage (Meisel Music Publishing) bought the Meistersaal (‘main hall’) ballroom/function hall on Köthener Strasse, just 100m from the Berlin Wall in an isolated part of the city. The hall became the live room attached to a recording studio, Studio 2, and over the next few years, the likes of Construction Time Again, Misplaced Childhood and Tinderbox were all created there.

In 1989, the Russian Bear relented and the Wall came down. But despite the incredible changes across the Western World, and despite U2’s Achtung Baby (1991) garnering so much publicity, the age-old conundrum of Studio Land materialised – there was still not enough recording work available to justify the existence of such a large facility. And so the Meistersaal (left) was converted back to its former purpose, and Studio 2 broken up.

Hansa Tonstudio, still owned by Meisel, now exists on the third floor of the building. It’s one main live room plus control room; a second set of rooms is where Michael Roberts, right hand man to Max Martin (Britney, Backstreet Boys) has his permanent base.

After a hiatus in the ’90s, Hansa has recently found favour with international acts again, including Snow Patrol (A Hundred Million Suns), Supergrass (Diamond Hoo Ha) and most recently, R.E.M.’s last studio album, Collapse into Now.

“Berlin is growing and growing into the capital of Europe,” says Alex Wende, studio manager and producer/mixer (pictured). “Fashion, music, everything – that’s why people are interested again in coming to Hansa. Bands from come to see what’s going on in Berlin, and then they say, let’s go to Hansa because the spirit is still there, the history: Bowie, U2, Depeche Mode.”

With top-flight accommodation available in apartments across the road from Hansa, it’s almost like a residential studio in the city. “The cool thing is, before the Potsdamerplatz was built, the studio was surrounded by nothing. It was a wasteland for several hundred metres. But today, you go downstairs, it doesn’t matter what hour of the morning, you have all the cocktails and people you need. We have restaurants that close from 5 till 6 for cleaning, then they open for breakfast. It’s inspiring. I love it.”

Studio One (top picture) has a certain 1960s styling to it, though it was built in 1980. Meisel had a studio in another location, Wende reports, but the company stripped that out and brought all the panelling and coverings to this location.

The live space is large enough for in excess of 45 musicians, says Wende. “We record strings in here because it sounds dry but unbelievably cool, warm and malleable – you can put do anything you want to the sound, you don’t have awkward reflections or whatever.”

This room receives plenty of daylight to, which bands love. “[R.E.M.’s] Michael Stipe came in and said, ‘Man, I can see!’ It’s important that you don’t lose the connection to the rest of the world.”

The unusual drum room, with its marble walls, is “great for ’80s drum sounds, trashy and open”. The machine room, containing servers and other essential engines, are shielded inside a room-size Faraday cage. In former times, particularly during days of partition, the cage blocked radar signals from nearby Templehof airport.

And then there’s the infamous fire escape staircase. Concrete, boomy and austere, this is where Depeche Mode discovered the big natural reverb which colour tracks such as Master and Servant.

Monitors of choice in Studio One are ADAM Audio S3As. There is a pair in the main room, two pairs in the live room.

“I was looking for a new pair, and I tested many things,” says Wende. “Fifty percent of my work is doing arrangements and composing and pre-production before it comes to the mix, so I look for a speaker that can work with for 20 hours at a stretch. That’s why I went with the ADAMs.”

Wende recounts the songs he uses for testing: Mark Knopfler’s Cleaning My Gun; a song from Incognito (“it’s punchy and has a fat bass drum where I can feel how it should be”); and another from Nickelback. Then there are a couple from Celine Dion (“not to my taste but the vocal recordings are unbelievably good – and with these you can really hear what the vocal is doing on the speakers”). A Supergrass track from Diamond Hoo Ha is also on the demo list.

Any Steely Dan? “No, that’s too clean!”

Wende’s relationship with ADAM goes back two or three years, from when he was first approached by domestic sales manager Thomas Frohn.

“I think these – the S3As – are the best they made.” He’s not so keen on the supposedly improved S3X monitors; but he admits, every set of ears is different and often it’s down to the room itself.

Before ADAM Audio boxes, Hansa deployed the usual suspects: Yamaha NS10s, Questeds, Auratones and Genelecs. But he looked at upgrading because “so many people were talking about ADAM, ‘You should try them!’ they said. So many people trust in British speakers or American speakers but not German!”

Seems the ‘Made in Germany’ stamp works for microphones and auotmobiles, but not for monitors then. “Maybe because people like the British sound or the American sound,” he suggests.

Nevertheless, Udo Jurgens, recently recorded his 54th(!) album with ADAM speakers.

Finally, of course, there’s the prized SSL 4000E desk, resplendent in ‘Hansa Blue’ styling. The console has been completely recapped over the last couple of years, in fact, says Wende, a lot of money has been invested in maintaining it. “I think it was the best sounding SSL they ever made, with the E EQ and the E compressor. The new stuff is OK but I love this.” And ‘Hansa Blue’? “The guys wanted it in this blue in the 80s, so they want to England to show them the colour. It went into the SSL catalogue! Only two or three ‘Hansa Blue SSL 4000s were ever made.”

To end the Hansa tour, Wende takes PSNEurope to the Meistersaal on the first floor. And yes, you can still sense the spirit of former glories in the decorated ceiling and lacquered wooden panels.

All pictures: Louis Austin