Hans-Martin Buff | Meet The Producer
This July, we’re delighted to be back with our cutting-edge Song Production Masterclass. The masterclass takes you through the full recording process, during which you spend two days at Abbey Road Studios and two days at Angel Studios in our world-class facilities. This year’s masterclass is led by the highly respected music producer and sound engineer Hans-Martin Buff. Buff brings with him a wealth of experience working with some of the world’s most famous artists and across many genres. He is known for his work as Prince’s in-house engineer at Paisley Park, in recent times producing the new The Scorpions album Rock Believer, and his passion for 3D Audio.
We caught up with Buff to find out more about his background, and what it was like to work with Prince at Paisley Park. Buff also shares his top tips on how to make it as a music producer.
Hi Buff. Could I start by asking you how you got into music? And specifically Music production and engineering?
Well in the land before our time [laughs], I always loved music as a listener. In high school, I wrote songs, but I never considered myself a musician and I certainly wasn’t technical.
I always wanted to be a journalist and straight after school got a job in radio and discovered that it bored me to pieces [laughs]! I had a serious crisis on many levels. Around the time I was 20 I ended up moving to the States and went to a local recording school, not unlike Abbey Road Institute. And, I loved it. I was like a fish in water and I just loved it and went into it. I was very lucky and right away (after graduating) I got a job as an assistant at a big local studio.
I lived near Minneapolis in Minnesota USA at the time and I got a job at a place called Pachyderm Studios on the same day that Nirvana started recording their last studio album ‘In Utero’ there. I had nothing to do with that session. But due to that, a lot of other people came to record at Pachyderm that probably wouldn’t have come otherwise. And I got lots of insights as an assistant, working on a huge album called Throwing Copper by a band called Live, which sold 9 million copies in the States alone.
And then it just kind of got bigger and bigger and I ended up working for a place called Paisley Park, which was a Prince’s studio. It still exists to this day. I got closer to Prince and ended up being the only engineer there and becoming his personal engineer. And then I started doing the vast majority of his things.
I not only worked with him, but with people that he produced, you know, cool, cool things, features that he did, so I worked with No Doubt and Chaka Khan, Larry Graham and Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow and all that really wide variety of really awesome people. I learned more and more about production by looking at Prince and how he did stuff, both what I could do and what I could never do that he did. As I said, I’m not a musician and never saw myself in that way.
‘But I learnt how to support the creative process, which I think is what production is really about – you look at a project, you need to understand what makes it special and how you can make that special thing audible.’
So you are pretty much the first listener of a project. You’re the guy who says this is great or that is boring, and then you have to figure out, okay, why is this great and how can I make the rest as great. And why is that boring? And how can I change the boring parts?
And then I moved back to Europe, to Germany where I’m from, and worked on a variety of projects since then. The most prominent being The Scorpions. I’ve just produced their last album that just came out called Rock Believer.
What would you say were your biggest musical influences when you were starting out?
I think my mother’s milk is actually The Beatles. That’s how I really got into music. My parents weren’t rock and rollers at all. My father pretty much exclusively listened to classical music and my mother listened to everything on the radio. And I later was surprised how many songs I knew, through memory, hearing them in the kitchen. It wasn’t like a lot of people, who have older siblings or rock and roll parents where you get a grounding in music.
So, as a listener, I built it up for myself. It started with the Beatles and then continued with the solo Beatles, and then stuff like the Beatles and then something completely different.
And I just jumped around from there and got a really solid foundation in pop music history. Which I think is very important for a music producer. Because you need to be able to see the direction an artist is going in and help them navigate to get there.
I bought this book by Mark Lewisohn in the late 80s, which was called The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. It describes every day they spent at Abbey Road or elsewhere recording. And I thought, well if being in the studio is this much fun, then maybe I should give it a go!
Could you share some highlights from working with Prince?
There are various highlights really. I was fortunate to be in that position. I was called in to help with a mix and the other guy I was supposed to work with didn’t have time and hadn’t even known about it. And then Prince showed up and asked me if I could help him this week. And then I worked for him for four years. That first night we started like five or six songs. So that was a pretty special night.
And there were quite a few personal highlights. When my wife met him, that was pretty awesome. And he really played that well. We were backstage at an open-air festival and he asked to be introduced to her and he said, ‘you have a very talented husband’.
She was very pregnant at the time. And he stood across from her backstage, in his full regalia. There are lights and dry ice and you hear some spacey sounds and guitar licks that Prince would play live before he went on stage. And he was standing across from my wife, in full get-up, playing guitar pretty much for her. Wow.
That was pretty awesome. That really made up for a lot of BS [laughs]. And there were a couple of very magical nights. We worked a lot. I’ve never worked more before or since then, except for a few short bursts or projects.
What was the most important thing you learned working with Prince?
For my career, it was just a great boot camp. Because you know, ever since then nothing has scared me, because it was so intense both personally and professionally. It was go, go, go all the time, and I don’t think I’ve had any situation since then that has made me as anxious as any day could make me there. A combination of how he was, just an intense personality that wouldn’t take no for an answer in any way, and just the speed of how it needed to work.
What I also learned, which is very important, is that I’m doing this for other people. This is not my show. A lot of people who start out in the studio figure they are doing the artist a favour. That’s just not the case. You know, even a crappily recorded, great record is still a great record. A wonderfully recorded turd doesn’t interest anybody.
The way Prince worked, he wasn’t particularly interested in the minutiae of recording engineering. He had ideas and had to get them out. It was my job to facilitate and not be in the way of his work and his flow of ideas. That taught me to prepare technically, so you can catch the lightning in a bottle. Which is hard in any situation.
And to more recent projects. Tell us about your work with The Scorpions
It’s something that was my project during the lockdown COVID days. I’ve been The Scorpion’s kind of ‘go to’ engineer for a very long time. I was supposed to help a producer that they chose called Greg Fidelman with pre-production in Germany, and the band were then supposed to go to LA to make the album there. Then Covid started and it just didn’t work out. They tried a lot of things and then figured why don’t we just do it. I was noticing that I was producing the record and I said guys, you should write on the record that I am producing the record and they said, I guess you are!
All of a sudden I would get calls and be asked, what should we do? Rather than me saying why don’t you do that differently, they’d ask what am I supposed to do now. It’s interesting how this all works. And it’s a lovely record we made. They’ve been making albums since 1972, so it’s been pretty much 50 years to the day between their first album and this one.
What would be your top 3 tips for someone wanting to become a music producer?
It certainly helps if you like music. This sounds more obvious than it is. A lot of people go into production to push buttons. And you also need to like people. You need to be able to be in a very fragile situation when someone puts their creative baby in your hands and make that an enjoyable experience for them.
I would say that the reason that I keep the clients I have is that they like working with me. I know what I’m doing technically, but I’m sure some of the students at the masterclass will be as good as me. I think I have a pretty good eye on how to anticipate what people are looking for in the studio and to facilitate that.
Before I moved to the States, I had lived in Berlin for a while and gone to college (or Uni, as you guys say!). I had a job as a barman on the weekends to make some money. And I found that when I was an assistant, that experience helped me at least as much as my recording engineering training. I could read the room (these were the days when you could smoke anywhere) and see that the ashtray is full, or someone is out of cigarettes, or someone’s getting tired. You put out fruit, make coffee, offer a story, you know, whatever it is you need to do at that time to motivate people. You see what’s needed.
And then, of course, you just need to know your stuff too. If you need to think, in the moment, how does that work again? If I plug in that microphone there and there? You’re losing people so you need to be prepared.
Brilliant. Thank you, Buff, for making the time for this interview (and also for persevering through the poor wifi connection). We’re looking forward to hosting you at Abbey Road Studios and at Angel Studios at the end of July!
If you’re interested to know more about Hans-Martin Buff watch the interview below which was hosted at our sister school in Paris. And to find out more about the Song Production Masterclass led by Hans-Martin Buff head to our course page for more information and to book your place.