Friday, February 1, 2008

Honky Château

The Idiot's first recording sessions were convened July 1976 at the Château d'Hérouville located in Pontoise, France just outside of Paris. The Château is where the "basics" for "The Idiot" were tracked. The studio was dubbed "Honky Château" by Elton John during his 1972 sessions for his record by the same name.

Bowie had recorded "Pin-Ups" in July 1973 at the Château and he said, "The studio itself was a joy, ramshackle and comfy feeling. I liked the room a lot." and "[Its] a lovely place to record an album. Warm, summer sunshine, a lovely château and a fantastic sixteen-track recording studio." Its widely mentioned that the studio and grounds were haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand.


Château d'Hérouville was conceived in 1969 by Michel Magne, a French film music composer. An article written by Adrian Hope in the May 1975 issue of Studio Sound magazine (one year before "The Idiot" sessions began) describes the Château as follows:

"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."

In February 1974, with personnel turnover and financial difficulties facing the studio, Michel Magne chose Laurent Thibault, Jean-Claude Delaplace and Pierre Aupetit to partner to get the studio running profitably again. After plenty of work addressing electrical problems, equipment absence and disrepair and even a 50 cm high lawn, the partners get a console and tape machine and a steady stream of clients.


I plan to conduct some interviews to sort through some of these equipment and setup details, but as a starting point, here is more information about the Château from Franck Ernould's page from around the time that "The Idiot" was recorded. Franck has collected the below information from an issue of Studio Sound from 1975.

"Wherever possible the Château engineers try and record as flat as possible, 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."


AKG C12A, the precursor to the C414. These days, the C12 is in a green cylindrical housing.

The venerable Neumann U87.

"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 a 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, timpani, 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."
The picture to the left is the Château's MCI-500 and MCI tape machine photographed in 1978, very likely the same gear used to record "The Idiot". Apparently the Château was very state of the art for its time and aside from the MCI 500, it had the first Westlake monitors to be installed in Europe.

The picture below shows Bowie during his "Pin-Ups" recording sessions which took place in 1973. Bowie seems to be singing into an AKG C12A, there's a Neumann U87 in the forground a rhodes suitcase piano in the background.

The Château today

No comments: