The Hallowed Halls of Hansa

Berlin’s famous recording studio is sacred ground to many music lovers.

David Bowie is belting out the climax of “Heroes,” a song I’ve heard hundreds of times before. But this time is different. It isn’t merely the acoustically perfect sound or the clarity of the singer’s yearning voice. I’m listening to the album in the very room where it was produced, mere feet away from where Bowie himself wrote the lyrics before recording them on the flashing soundboard before me. His actual voice – not a recording – has echoed off these very walls.

I’m in the world-famous Hansa Studios, a studio that has seen numerous musical legends pass through its doors. The number of classic albums that have been recorded or produced here is staggering: U2’s "Achtung Baby", Iggy Pop’s "The Idiot" and "Lust For Life" and, of course, the famous Bowie Berlin trilogy of "Low", “Heroes” and "Lodger." Director Anton Corbijn’s video of U2’s "One" was partially shot at Hansa. The performer list is a veritable who’s-who of music history. 

The sound board at Hansa Studios

Our tour guide, Thilo Schmied, switches tracks on his smartphone, which he’s hooked up to the soundboard, and a new sound pulsates throughout the room. I recognize the song from the first notes: Depeche Mode’s Stripped, from one of the band’s four Hansa albums, Black Celebration. Schmeid has already regaled tour attendees with how a famous Depeche photo was taken on the foyer staircase and has told tales of band songwriter Martin Gore recording Somebody in his birthday suit in the Meistersaal, a former chamber music hall that was formerly used as Hansa’s Studio 2.

Artists cite numerous reasons for choosing to record at Hansa. The near-perfect acoustics of the Meistersaal – the “Great Hall by the Wall,” as it’s known to music-industry folk – was once the main draw for musicians and their engineers, who were downright giddy at the tones the room produced. Schmeid has already demonstrated the acoustics on our group’s earlier visit to the Meistersaal, and as we strolled through Hansa’s other rooms, I could hear the occasional clapping of a visitor comparing the quality of the echo, and perhaps contemplating whether or not to cut an album in the space.

The Hansa window where David Bowie wrote the lyrics to "Heroes."

We’ve also had a glimpse of the Green Salon, once home to a mixing desk, despite its location of several meters away from the Meistersaal, where the artists performed. This is also the room where Bowie, spying his music producer having a tryst by the Wall, wrote the lyrics to

We’ve also had a glimpse of the Green Salon, once home to a mixing desk, despite its location of several meters away from the Meistersaal, where the artists performed. This is also the room where Bowie, spying his music producer having a tryst by the Wall, wrote the lyrics to “Heroes.” Every tour guest takes turns peering through the window from which he watched as his sound engineer kissed his backup singer, thus inspiring the lines: “I can remember / Standing by the Wall / And the guns shot above our heads / And we kissed / As though nothing could fall.”

"Stripped" begins to wind down and Schmeid prepares us to listen for a particular moment in the song. He’s explained that the band, famous for incorporating unconventional, non-musical sounds into their music, labored to get the perfect recording of a firework, and we all wait for the muffled whiz-zap. Hearing the two-second sound is like a revelation, even to those amongst us who aren’t devoted Depeche fans.

The ersatz concert over, our group prepares to go, all of us reluctant to leave the hallowed halls any sooner than necessary. We take turns getting pictures of ourselves at the soundboard, then linger in the reception area deciding which piece of Hansa swag to bring home as a souvenir.  We finally depart, feeling a bit like heroes ourselves. Just for one day.

Note that visits to Hansa Studios are available only through Berlin Music Tours.