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Studio File: Hansa Tonstudio, Berlin

Studio File
By Hannes Bieger

Of all the recording studios in Germany, Hansa has by far the most significance in the history of pop music. The Berlin studio complex was founded by brothers Peter and Thomas Meisel in the 1960s. Running a production company, a record label and a publishing house, they needed a studio to record and produce the artists they had signed. In 1972, the studios relocated to their current location on Köthener Strasse, closely tucked away behind Potsdamer Platz in what was West Berlin, and is now in the heart of the reunited city. Their goal was to create a hub for every aspect of music production, with several music production rooms that could be used simultaneously.

The 'great hall by the wall': today the Meistersaal is once again a venue for public performance, but can still be used for recording.The 'great hall by the wall': today the Meistersaal is once again a venue for public performance, but can still be used for recording.

In fact, the building on Köthener Strasse 38 already had a long musical history even before the Meisel brothers moved in: it is home to the famous Meistersaal, which had been opened up as a concert hall for chamber music in 1913. During the Weimar Republic years, the building also housed an art gallery connected to the prominent Expressionist George Grosz, and in 1921 writer Kurt Tucholsky organised a reading at the Meistersaal. During the Nazi years, the infamous Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) arranged concerts at the Meistersaal. The building was partially destroyed by a bomb in 1943.

Silenced By The Wall

The main live area at Hansa Studio 1.The main live area at Hansa Studio 1.

In the post-war period, the Meistersaal was restored in a rough-and-ready way as a cabaret hall, but this came to an end when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. The building was now back-to-back with the wall and separated from the political and cultural life of the city. In the same year, the record company Ariola began to use the Meistersaal to record stars of Schlager music such as Mireille Mathieu, Marianne Rosenberg, Udo Jürgens and Roland Kaiser — some of whom are still recording there! Its location next to the wall was very quiet, ideal for a recording studio.

When the Meisel brothers acquired the building and moved Hansa Studios to Köthener Strasse, they operated no fewer than five studio rooms in the building, and the Meistersaal became Hansa Studio 2. Besides Hansa's own Schlager productions, the rooms were also used to record operas and film soundtracks, and soon the studios gained international prominence. Overseas artists began to record here for a number of reasons: the impressive acoustic properties of the Meistersaal, the great equipment, and the fact that recording at Hansa was comparatively affordable, especially for international clients.

Others were intrigued by the historical ambiguity of the Meistersaal, a venue where SS officers held dances during the Nazi years. Artists could also witness Berlin's unique and tragic history in the making: from the windows of Hansa 2's control room, there was a direct view of the Berlin Wall. The studio became known to international artists as the 'great hall by the wall'. Among the first international stars to record at Hansa was David Bowie, whose 'Berlin Trilogy' — the classic albums Low, Heroes and Lodger — was recorded here between 1977 and 1979. Other artists followed, including Depeche Mode, Marillion, Falco, Nick Cave and Iggy Pop.

The Modern World

The former Hansa mix room is now home to producer Michael Ilbert and his outrageous collection of vintage outboard. Among the more unusual items visible in the rightmost rack are pairs of Spectrasonics 610 and Decca limiters, and custom-built copies of the classic EMI limiter.The former Hansa mix room is now home to producer Michael Ilbert and his outrageous collection of vintage outboard. Among the more unusual items visible in the rightmost rack are pairs of Spectrasonics 610 and Decca limiters, and custom-built copies of the classic EMI limiter.

When the wall came down in 1989, the area surrounding Hansa was not quiet any more, and the studio found itself back in the heart of the city. Around the same time, there seemed to be less need for a live room of this size. The mutual history of Meistersaal and Hansa Studios came to an end with U2's Achtung Baby, which was partially recorded here in 1990. Their classic single 'One', written and recorded here, marked a very important stage in the production of the album and the band's history.

From top: Studio 1's SSL desk, in its custom 'Hansa Blue' colour; a pair of rare EMT units, the 156 compressor and 250 digital reverb; and tape machines in Hansa Studio 1. From top: Studio 1's SSL desk, in its custom 'Hansa Blue' colour; a pair of rare EMT units, the 156 compressor and 250 digital reverb; and tape machines in Hansa Studio 1. Studio File: Hansa Tonstudio, BerlinStudio File: Hansa Tonstudio, BerlinStudio File: Hansa Tonstudio, BerlinShortly after, owner Thomas Meisel decided to scale down the studio and to convert the big hall back to a venue open to the public. Today, the Meistersaal is used for all kinds of cultural events, but it is still connected to the current Hansa Studio 1 with 32 tie-lines, and it can still be booked for recording sessions. REM and KT Tunstall, amongst others, have made use of this in recent years.

Today, a number of smaller suites are grouped around Hansa Studio 1, and the former Hansa mixing room is run as a separate business: headquarters to Swedish producer and engineer Michael Ilbert, who became famous working with the Swedish pop group Roxette. These days, he is not only a regular collaborator with hit producer Max Martin but has also worked with a vast number of international artists, such as Pink, Avril Lavigne and Mando Diao, as well as German acts like Herbert Grönemeyer, Tocotronic and 2raumwohnung.

For the last seven years, Hansa Studios have been run by a team led by producer and manager René Rennefeld, producer and engineer Alex Wende, and Sven Meisel, whose family still owns the building. This team has been involved in a vast number of successful productions, for example Lou Bega's world hit 'Mambo No. 5'. At the heart of Hansa Studio 1 remains the SSL 4000 E-Series console with its custom blue colour that later was made officially available by SSL as 'Hansa Blue'. The desk is surrounded by exquisite outboard gear: digital reverb units from manufacturers such as EMT, Lexcion, Quantec and AMS, and also analogue tools made by Manley, Helios, Siemens, UREI and many more.

Hansa might be smaller today than in the '70s and '80s, but it remains one of the biggest and most important studios in Germany, and still attracts a host of domestic and international artists — for its history, its technical excellence, and, not least, for the sound that comes out of these halls.    

Published June 2012