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articolo sugli studi di registrazione francesi del Castello d'Hérouville, dove Elton John ha registrato album come Honky Chateau e Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; purtroppo ora il castello non è più utilizzato ed è in stato di semi abbandono

da STUDIO SOUND del maggio 1975


articolo di Adrian Hope

Over recent years, the Château d'Hérouville has become something of a legend. Elton John has recorded there several times and Tony Palmer filmed him. One of Elton John's LP titles gave the studio its nickname - Honky Château. David Bowie was there to make the LP Pinups . But whereas Elton John stayed for a month, David Bowie stayed for three. Pinups was made in the summer; I can imagine anyone staying at Hérouville at that time of year for as long as their record company was prepared to foot the bill.

The Grateful Dead have also recorded there and the 200 or so local villagers still shake their heads over a coffee and cognac and reminisce over that incredible summer's night when the Grateful Dead played a free concert in the grounds of the Château. There are 16 track tapes and photos to prove that while the Dead played like never before or since, the local fireman swam fully clothed in the swimming pool and the schoolteacher danced a polka with a priest. Was the free food and drink spiked with unusual substances? No one is saying, but everyone has their guesses.

All this, and a list of the other artists who have recorded at the Château over the past few years (Julie Driscoll, SME, Bill Wyman, Canned Heat, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy, Magma, Slam Stewart, Milt Buckner and many more) would excuse anyone for imagining that the Château is the craziest studio in the western world. Add to this the original publicity material that was put out (never less than three beautiful girls in minis, hot pants or boots per photo) and the general feeling that France is the world's centre for wine, women and song, and the imagination starts boggling overtime. The Château even had its own wine, complete with risqué label. And then there are the stories about how the studio had become the centre of social life for the young (mostly female) local population.

If after all this your mouth is watering over the thought of an expenses-paid trip to Hérouville, let me set the record straight. Yes, it probably all was the way the legend has it. But things- including the original name Strawberry- have changed at the Château and business has taken over from the pursuit of pleasure. And as the record business really is a business, with a high casualty rate in bankrupticies, the future of the Château in its currently subdued style looks brighter now than ever before. The Château is now simply the Château, rather than Strawberry (doubtless to the relief of the long-established Manchester studio of the same name) and it is run very tightly. The hangers-on have been cast off, the vast residential areas (two wings, at least 30 bedrooms and numerous kitchens and dining rooms) are being redecorated and the studios are being re-equipped and rewired. All this is being tackled by a resident team or 'family' which has now been whittled down to less than ten. Everyone has their own job to do and they do it. There are no daily orders, and the driving enthusiasm which binds the family together ensures that what needs doing gets done. The working week is seven days, 24 hours a day; recording is usually six days a week and maintenance on Sunday. The family live, eat and sleep Hérouville and the only comparable situation I have ever seen is that at the New York radio station, WBAI. But then both WBAI and Hérouville have in common a permanent need to treat money with respect.
Have you ever thought what it is like to run a studio in a vast chateau an hour or so out of Paris, but effectively in the deep country? The french châteaux date back to the days of the french kings, and Hérouville very obviously has an aristocratic pedigree. There are two wings to the main body of the building and a large complex of outhouses that were probably stables. These outhouses now house two studios, one (as yet unnamed) under construction and one (Chopin) under repair. When I visited the Château last October only the third studio (Sand), at the very top of the right wing, was operational. Even the Sand studio was, in fact, not really open, but (like the Who's Ramport studio) was remarkably busy all the same. Hérouville has clearly been built at different times by different gentry, and there is a haunted bedroom in the left wing which is kept permanently locked. The right wing houses the Sand studio, the offices and the family living accomodation; the left sign houses the echo chambers (large rooms with their windows bricked up), dozens of single bedrooms for accomodating visiting musicians, a 'star name' residential suite where the likes of Elton John and David Bowie stay, several vast kitchens, a huge restaurant, and a fun-room for the musicians. Thus, on the whole, those booking the studio live in the left wing and those running the Château in the right.

Outside in the grounds there is a swimming pool, a fascinating complex of rock pools and fountains, a couple of brick-built caves which were probably wine stores 100 years ago, and a miniature castle surrounded by a moat seething with goldfish. And of course there are acres ans acres of greenery. Round the Château are even more acres of cornfield and the few sleepy houses that make up the village. I went for one day, stayes over to make it two, and then stayed over again to make it three. It's an escape route from the city and every day in the village has a feel of Sunday about it. Small wonder that the Château is at constant risk of filling up with hangers-on.

To rewind in time by a few years, the idea of a studio in the Château was conceived in 1969 by Michel Magne, a talented French film music composer who wanted his own studio and had over the years gradually bought up parts of the Château. Having equipped the Sand studio with a Dutch-built Difona desk, some Lockwood monitors, Ampex two and four track machines, a Studer four track and a Scully eight track, Magne went into business. By 1970 there was an MCI desk and a Scully 16 track machine, and in 1971 the first two Dolby A units went in. Later that year a full range of 20 Dolbys was installed, and in January 1972 the second studio (Chopin) was opened. Elton John came in to record Honky Château , which was the first real hit in the USA for Hérouville. Form then on the snowball kept rolling, and the image of the Château as a fun palace blossomed.

But towards the end of 1972 Michel Magne became exhausted by the whole business and rented Hérouville to a Paris studio syndicate for a year. To cut a long stort politely short, there were 'problems'. When I was both in Germany and France at around that time I was told that there was 'trouble' at Hérouville; and when I wrote to the Château soon after asking if I could do an article for STUDIO SOUND I heard nothing in reply. Squabbles over money and maintenance and so on resulted in a complicated web of court actions. There is good reason to believe that at or around that time both Virgin and Trident thought of taking over the Château, but then thought again. At the end of 1973, the two studios closed, the glamorous image of the Château began to decline, and a fair amount of equipment that was once there was suddenly no longer in evidence. Even the desk hand built for the outhouse studio Chopin by Maurice Cornelius van Hall (24 in, 16 out, with, rather surprisingly, 32 VU meters) on which Elton John made most of Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road was somehow, somewhere along the line, mysteriously demolished. Modules were ripped out, multicore cables cut and the desk, now beyond repair, awaits replacement.

Fortunately only the desk was seriously damaged, so the Chopin studio itself is still used for rehearsals. While I was there the french group Magma was using it to prepare for a forthcoming British tour. The studio is fascinating in its design. Firtsly it has (or more accurately, had ) the most sophisticated lightning control I have ever seen this side of Electric Ladyland in New York. The whole mood of the studio can be set by banks of coloured lights under thyristor control from the desk. What's more, the studio was superbly designed by Michel Magne. ('Did he take acoustic advice', I asked. 'Michel Magne never takes anyone's advice,' I was told.) At one end a vocal booth is raised at high level to leave a cave-like percussion recess underneath. At the other end two plinths, rather like American loft beds, are built to take a Hammond organ or piano. Under these raised plinths there are more cave-like recesses where drums, other percussion or amplifiers can be sited. This honeycomb multi-level setup provides extreme separation beteween individual instruments on separate tape tracks, even though the studio is both small and live. If anyone has in mind the design of a studio which must be both small and suitable for discrete tracking, he would be well advised to spare a thought for the Hérouville Chopin studio layout.

The Chopin studio is also a dream for musicians to use because it backs on to a vast courtyard from which there is direct loading through the massive studio doors and down a fewsteps on to the studio floor. All the doors at Hérouville, incidentally, are equipped with vast, locking handles which were originally designed, not for studio use, but for securing the doors of massive cold stores. Again a point well worth bearing in mind for anyone with a studio to design.

Above the Chopin studio, in the same outhouse, there is the half-built shell of what was to have been a night club; another relic of the old days of a few years ago.It will now most likely eventually become extra living accomodation.

Because Hérouville is a quiet village, which does not lie under an airport flypath, and because the grounds are so vast that neighbour complaints are virtually unheard of, it is often the case that some instruments are recorded inside the studio and others out in the open or elsewhere in the Château. For instance, to get the right sound on one girl singer's voice, she was given headphones and left singing in the well of the stairs of the residential wing, while her backing musicians played in Chopin. Another time Eddy Louiss and his organ were parked out in the courtyard outside Chopin with his drummer inside. Then again some whole groups are recorded outside, with studio-to-garden control via talkie-walkies.

The present team took over Hérouville in the autumn of 1974 after the studio had been closed for the best part of a year. During that time nothing had been operational except for a 16 track truck which British studio engineer Claude Harper put together and took ou on the road with the French Canadian group, Offenbach. Claude Harper had come over at the tail end of the Château problems and has stayed on to become part of the present family. Laurent Thibault, Jean-Claude Delaplace and Pierre Aupetit are the three partners now responsible. Thibault is the musical and artistic director, Delaplace is the business manager and Aupetit is in charge of the commercial running of the studio. Although Laurent Thibault is the man who actually signs the cheques, no one signs anything without Jean-Claude's say-so. Complete opposites in character, Jean-Claude hard and businesslike and Laurent in an artistic world of his own, they make a formidable combination. 'I'd like a studio looking out on the Mediterranean', says Laurent. 'You'd get sand in the mikes,' is the reply. When I was at Hérouville, Claude Harper was still the only other engineer (Laurent Thibault handles some sessions and Claude Harper the others) but a maintenance man was due in the next week to take thet burden off Harper's shoulders. Also expected was a general odd-job man to spread the load even further. 'It's a full time job just changing light bulbs in a place this size,' says Harper.

Two girls, Catherine-Marie Durand and Catherine de Moussac, do half-a-dozen jobs between them. But essentially Catherine-Marie helps cook the superb meals that appear on the farmhouse table alongside the log fire and is organising complete internal redecoration of the Château. Catherine de Moussac describes herself as 'the police' and is what every studio needs if it is to run as business. She types, runs the switchboard and is firm with would-be parasites. She also cuts off the dozens of telephones around the castle every night and during the days watches the switchboard lights like a hawk. Now STD has come to Hérouville, a châteauful of musicians from the USA could break the bank in just one day of telephoning home for a few hours' chat. Lights, heating and cooking gas are also a problem. It costs a fortune to centrally-heat abd light a building the size of the Château and Catherine de Moussac is continually chasing doors left open and lights left on. Even though cooking is by gas and central-heating is by oil-fired burners, the last quarter's electricity bill alone was still 1000.

The final member of the team is Jean-Pierre Huser, an artist-cum-musician-cum-ski instructor from Switzerland, who helps with anything that needs doing, in between producing a continual stream of extraordinary line drawings. The idea is eventually to make the studio independant in all respects, including record sleeve artwork. Already Jerry Garcia has taken some of Jean-Pierre's work back to the states for probable use on a Grateful Dead cover.
Sorry - I almost forgot Dingo, a pleasantly mad mongrel, Nuit, a friendly white dog, and Gaston, a very female cat.

In France, musicians are normally paid around 200 francs ( £ 20) per three-hour studio session, with extra for solos and doubling. But rates are flexible. On one of the days that I was at the Château, Michel Magne was recording an LP with a group that included bassist Jannick Top, who was originally with the group Magma; the musicians had all come out from Paris for the day and as top session men were reciving 1000 francs (£100) each for the day's work. The cost of hirnig the Château studio is 5500 francs (£ 550) per day, which includes nine or ten hours' recording before midnight, with food and accomodation thrown in free for up to ten musicians. For studio time after midnight the cost is 700 francs (£ 70) per hour. The cost of tape is extra, and this is a big item in France. A roll of 50mm 3M 206 costs 700 francs (£ 70) over here !

The Sand studio now has the first Audiotronics desk in Europe, with 18 channels in and 16 out. They are considering buying a Triad for Chopin. There is provision on the Audiotronics in Sand for another eight-channel module to make it 26 in, 16 out. This desk replaces the MCI console that was previously installed. The Sand 16-track machine is a Scully, with Ampex and Scully stereos. A massive auto transformer provides a choice of 110 or 240 V to cope with British or American equipment in the control room and studio. There is nox full Dolby A facility, and Lockwood monitors. But the Château still has record producers phoning up from Paris asking whether they have Dolby, equalisation and multitrack 'out there in the country'. In France there seems to be an even greater obsession with multitrack machinery than in the UK or USA. Everyone seems to regard 24 tracks as essential, and when Chopin is put back together again for use, it will have a 24 or 32 track desk and machine.

Currently there is much discussion over the dinner table and round the log fire on the relative merits of different desks. All in all the evenings have a very sociable atmosphere. There is no television as few people are endeared with French tv programmes, but there are plans to install a high aerial mast and British sets to receive BBC. Otherwise it's audio talk, Monopoly (british version) or finger football when the table is cleared of food. Finger football, for the uninitiated, is a very French exercise which involves all participants round a table kicking a football of screwed-up paper with their fingers. There don't seem to be many if any rules and the only object is to get the ball past someone else and off the table. It may be childish, but it is better than the French equivalent of Coronation Street .

Although there are a few portable radios around the building and there is a hi-fi setup in the artists' restaurant over in the other wing, music in the family wing tends to stay in the studio. We were up there half one night listening to original Magma master tapes on the control room gear. I almost wish I hadn't. When you've spent a few hours under the original wooden beams of a real live French château, listening to master tapes through Scully, Audiotronics, Quad power amps and Lockwoods, it's hard to come to terms with a London flat and domestic setup ever again. Actually, those lovely old wooden beams created awful acoustic problems to begin with. Although the acoustics of the Sand studio itself have been ideal all along, the Sand control room was very dead in the bass end. All attempts at equalisation and flattening out the room characteristics failed until finally the acoustic wall tiles were stripped off; there behind them was a large cavity, like a priest's hole, which had been gobbling up the bass frequencies. Once this was filled there were no further problems.

Wherever possible the Château engineers try and record as flat as possible, ie without equalisation on the desk, even on a drum kit. But with most artists having days rather than weeks or months to spend at the Château, pressure of time often prevents this. The studio microphone setups are really much as usual with D224C on drums, AKG C12A or AKG 224 on piano, and sometimes those little Sony condenser mikes or Neumann U87 s on snare or top kit. Cans used are Beyer, DT100 or 900 .

On the day that I watched Michel Magne record, Jannick Top was producing a very curious recorded sound for his bass by using a high-powered Ampex amplifier and a deliberately overdriven small cabinet of the wrong impedance. If it's not a contradiction in terms, the result was a clean fuzz of e very individual character. Available in the studio for musicians' use are a full-sized Fender 88 , one of the lovely old large Hammonds with two of the original Leslies, and an Ampex bass amp feeding a Sunn horn cabinet. There is a Farfisa, a Steinway grand, timps, marimba, spinet and clavinet. Separation in the studio is with screens and to aid this the Steinway piano has an interesting box-like cover which completely encases the open top.

As I mentioned previously, the echo system is by means of walled-up rooms of the Château, and although only one is currently in operation there are several more available for use when the need arises. A nice idea is to identify each room (residential and utility) by its colour. thus the black echo chamber has a reverb time of around five seconds, and the red chamber next door somewhat less. A single Altec speaker is used in the black room, with a Blumlein pair of AKG 224C s.

Claude Harper is currently the only British member of the Château family team, but he (born of a French mother) speaks fluent French. Thus most of the normal working conversation is in French. But everyone seems perfectly happy to work in English where necessary. Certainly, because my French was far worse than everyone else's English, most conversations involving me were in english. everytime I make a trip to a foreign studio it becomes clearer to me that English is all set to become the international studio language, just as English is the international airline language.

For obvious reasons it was Claude Harper who showed me round most of the time, and flew me to and from the airport in his extraordinary Ford Anglia van with its 70 bhp of modded engine under the bonnet. He started, like so many others in the studio world, at EMI, 'mending vacuum cleaners and toasters out at Hayes for four years'. From there on he went to Abbey Road, where he worked on some of the original Beatles albums, and then on to Apple, before moving to Scorpio.

'By then I'd had London up to here,' he said, 'and disappeared to France, finally ending up in Hérouville after pursuing a few dead ends elsewhere'. EMI, it seems, is in many ways like the BBC, a large establishment that trains people up to the hard way and perhaps unwittingly equips them for the best jobs in independent studios. Would-be engineers should take note of the respected studio names that have passed through EMI's hands over the years.

When I left the Château the immediate job in hand was to record Alain Kan, probably best described as a French David Bowie. He had arrived the day before on the offchance of taking up some spare studio time, but there had been none, and he was last seen wandering in the local cornfields community with nature. Probably he turned up again in due course.

By now the locals must have grown used to the oddest of characters wandering in and out of the great, cast-iron gates to the drive that leads up to the Château. Unless something goes awfully wrong, I should imagine that some of the most famous names in pop music will be passing through them for many years yet. The future is fairly clearly laid out, and with Jean-Claude's steadying hand nothing is likely to move too fast and bring the whole enterprise tumbling down like a pack of cards. The next step is to buy the studio from Michel Magne (it's currently only leased, and he still lives in one of the outhouses). The Chopin studio will soon be brought back into action and then the new studio above it finished. There are plans to equip one of the vast spare rooms in the family wing as a remix room and to convert some of the garden caves into echo chambers. Much of the original audio wiring will need to be replaced and Claude Harper has already remade numerous dry joints and converted dozens of wrongly-phased balance-line connections- all a legacy of the troubled period when there was no real maintenance going on. But to keep the studio operational new wiring must be laid before the old is axed. Available space is one thing that is no problem; nor is soundproofing. Most of the stone walls are several feet thick. The real problems are finding the time, the money, and the right equipment in France. Perhaps most awkward of all is getting hold of spare parts for foreign equipment.

'In England you tend to get blasé about servicing,' says Harper. 'If a tape machine develops a fault you phone up the maker's agent and an engineer comes right out and fixes it. Here in France there is always a train of excuses, followed by a botched repair, and then a long wait for fresh parts. even an ordinary GPO jack costs 2.'

On my last day at Hérouville we went a few miles out to the little village of Auvers and saw the tiny, miserable room where Van Gogh committed suicide. It was Sunday, and it was the first few non-working hours that anyone had had away from the studio that week. Apart from wine with meals and occasional beer there is very little drinking at Hérouville. There is certainly no partying and most nights everyone is far too tired to stay up late. The only booted beauty with hot pants that I saw was in a photo on one of the old studio brochures.

'I'll bet,' says Jean-Pierre Huser, 'that when you go back to England and tell them what a staid place the Château is now, no one will believe you'.

Honky Chateau Honky Chateau Honky Chateau
Honky Chateau Honky Chateau Honky Chateau
 © 2009 Christophe Letellier