Château d'Hérouville: The Castle Studio Where Bowie, Elton, and Pink Floyd Recorded

Looking at this 18th century castle, it’s hard to imagine that it once housed one of the most well-known recording studios in all of France. From Pink Floyd to David Bowie, from the Bee Gees to even Iggy Pop, several internationally renowned artists chose the Château d’Hérouville for their recordings in the 1970s.

Today we decided to dig into the history of this unmissable landmark for both music and recording history. Pack your bags—we’re headed to the tiny village of Hérouville-en-Vexin, just 40 kilometers northwest of Paris.

An 18th century manor-turned-recording studio

Postcard from the 1920s

The year is 1740, and what was once the ruins of a 16th century abode has now been reimagined and rebuilt into a big, imposing mansion. Keep passing through the ages, and the Château d’Hérouville undergoes several identity changes. It was once a resort, a courier relay station, and it even housed the likes of writer George Sand and composer Frédéric Chopin during their love affair.

Now cut forward to the beginning of the 1960s, where the story of the studio begins. The castle’s new owner, film composer Michel Magne, decided to buy the place along with a friend with the dream of transforming it into their personal workspace.

To finance the castle’s restoration, Michel worked tirelessly on the production of loads of original film scores such as Fantômas, and Les Tontons Flingueurs among several other Georges Lautner-directed films as well. A few years later, in 1969, he finally had the funds to begin the restoration, and he arranged to also have a recording studio built in the right wing of the castle at the same time.

The idea was to use this space for collaborating with other musicians and composers while still having all the comforts you’d find at home. The equipment in the first studio was pretty basic: just a four-track Ampex tape recorder and an old console for radio broadcasting. Obviously, he needed a bit more than that for his work, so Michel Magne decided to finance the rest of his gear by transforming what was supposed to be a kind of "home studio" into a professional studio for musicians.

Michel Magne’s music room

A dream spot for the biggest names in music in the ‘70s

It’s no wonder that it used to be a resort, because even outside the studio, the Château d’Hérouville is something of a dream space, boasting 10 bedrooms available for work and lodging, a pool, a tennis court, and expansive grounds of parkland. At the time in France, a studio that boasted this level of luxury was completely revolutionary.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s in France, recording an album was a bit of a hassle. Studios at the time were extremely bureaucratic enterprises that insisted not only on countless forms and memos, but also on formality—to the point that neck ties were required.

Given that alternative, it’s almost immediately clear why the much more relaxed Château d’Hérouville became a hotspot for artists. Famous early visitors include the American group Canned Heat and Gong, who recorded their album Camembert Electrique there in 1971.

That same year, famed soundman Dominique Blanc-Francard came onboard to join the ranks among Michel Magne’s team. Business at the studio really took off then, partly thanks to this new recruit and his network of contacts. In the summer of 1971, just a short time after Blanc-Francard started, the Grateful Dead played a concert on the lawn of the castle, and Bill Wyman, the bassist for the Rolling Stones, came twice to the studio to work.

Live from the Grateful Dead at Hérouville

After that, all the biggest names in music would take their talents to Hérouville to record. Between 1972 and 1973, Elton John came to record Honky Château, Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In February 1972 and March 1973, Pink Floyd came to record Obscured by Clouds in the Georges Sand studio.

Other famous credits include Cat Stevens’ Catch Bull At Four, Marc Bolan with the band T. Rex, and even Magma. All in all, there were about 30 albums that came out of the studio at the Château d’Hérouville during that time.

Pink Floyd in the George Sand Studio in February 1972

A Short-Lived Lull

At the start of summer 1972, Michel Magne signed the studio over to Yves Chamberland, then-director of Paris’ Davout studios. The days of opulent star-studded visits quickly became few and far between, and the team needed to tighten its belt to accommodate for budget cuts.

David Bowie at Hérouville - photo credit: Marie Claude Magne

These budget cuts did not go unnoticed. David Bowie, for example, was shocked by the decline in quality both in the accommodations and in the studio’s technical skills when he came to record some tracks for his album Pinups in 1973. The studio continued to suffer financial troubles, and the castle, by the beginning of 1974, was soon abandoned.

By the summer of that same year, though, a new team had taken the reins at Hérouville, and with no small task ahead of them. Over just a few months, the castle had fallen into a state of decay, and all of the audio gear in the studio had been either stolen or destroyed. Within no time though, problem spots were restored and the studio was ready to start back up with borrowed equipment. The following year, the studio welcomed both an API console as well as a 24-track Studer A80 tape recorder. And then, in 1976, the studio started seeing a comeback. David Bowie returned, along with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno, to record Low and The Idiot.

Once again, the Château d’Hérouville had come to prominence in the studio world. In 1977, the Bee Gees spent three months at the castle to record a substantial chunk of their tracks for Saturday Night Fever.

Brochure for the Château d'Hérouville, 1977

The end of the studio, the start of something new

At the beginning of the ‘80s, the castle was sold and changed hands to a no-nonsense real estate developer. Tensions mounted between this new owner and Laurent Thibault’s team who worked in the studio. This eventually led to legal action, which saw the definitive closing of the recording studios in 1985.

For almost two decades, Hérouville remained virtually abandoned. Then, in 2013, the castle was back on the market, and in 2015, three passionate musicians—Jean Taxis, Thierry Guarracino, and Stéphane Marchi—bought it with the mission of reviving the legendary space.

Now, a grand re-opening of the recording studios is planned for later this year. The historic George Sand Studio is set to open in spring of 2018, and, later on, three more studios—A, B, and C—comprising three recording spaces and three control rooms, will be open in the castle as well.

Gear-wise, we can expect some exceptional tools in the new studios, such as an API 1608 console, a Neve 8108, Studer A800, A80, and A820 tape recorders, as well as some vintage outboard gear. The control rooms will be equipped with ATC sound systems, and famed American studio designer Wes Lachot will be taking the helm for the acoustics.

A big thanks to Franck Ernoult, who was kind enough to share all this info with us. You can find a detailed history about the Château d’Herouville right on his site. Special thanks as well to Jean Taxis, Marie Claude Magne, and Laurent Thibault for their help in the creation of this article.

Unless stated otherwise, all photos are courtesy of Franck Ernoult’s website.

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