Photo Copyright: Mathieu Spadaro

In the summer of 2022, the recording studios at Château Miraval in Provence, France, reopened their doors after nearly two decades. The studios had, in their previous avatar, hosted sessions for legendary acts like Pink Floyd, Sade, AC/DC, The Cure, and Wham! It was time to build upon that historic legacy and start writing the next chapter, and co-founders Brad Pitt and Damien Quintard left no stone unturned to build a space where artists across different disciplines could feel free to simply create.

We recently sat down with Damien for an in-depth talk about everything that went into the reopening of the studios. The 31-year-old Emmy award-winning producer/engineer tells us about the state-of-the-art console that lies at the heart of the control room, the historic vintage gear that the studio offers alongside cutting-edge modern technology like their custom Dolby Atmos capabilities, and recalls the challenges of refurbishing a studio to have both design and sound at the forefront of the project.

The word ‘sanctuary’ has been used to describe Miraval Studios—what, in your opinion, is essential to the artist's experience when they are in a recording studio?

I think first and foremost, our main focus is to make sure that when the artist is in the studio, they're 100% inspired, they can be creative, they can feel the vibe of the place and most importantly, feel where their sound can go. As a producer and as an engineer, my focus was really to create a space where creativity and inspiration could be the thing that the artists would find when they come to the studio.

Of course, there's the whole idea of also getting the best gear possible and getting some amazing equipment where people can also feel inspired by it, but in a way, you know, all the best recording studios in the world have the best equipment; so equipment is a small part of the equation when we think of recording a piece. What’s important is to combine the inspiration, the design of the space where people are working and then also the gear that comes into play to make it a unique experience.

Natural light played a big part in the redesign of the studio—could you tell us more about that?

I think in terms of architecture and in terms of design, light is something that is primordial. When you enter a space, if you see that it's dark, then perhaps you have another interpretation of what the space can be when you're going to compose in it. The first time I came into the studio, it was very ‘70s, had a very low ceiling and no windows or any real light whatsoever anywhere. That is what helped me make this hard decision—and it was one of the hardest decisions of my life—should we renovate the studio or should we rebuild? 

So that's why we chose obviously to preserve the iconic gear and the soul of the building, but mostly to rebuild, in a way from scratch, to be able to have the light coming in from all sides. We're inside this amazingly beautiful château and you have to honor the light that is in the Miraval Valley. So when you're sitting down in the control room, you're facing light from all sides and it engulfs you, hopefully, just like inspiration fills you when you're in this space.

It’s so nice because often when you're in the studio, you lose track of time, right? You don't know if it's day or night if you spend hours inside.

Yeah, it's a very good point because when you're within the studio and in the domain, you live and breathe with the domain; there’s a specific pressure, a specific atmosphere that you have over there. It's kind of a microcosm, it has its own weather! So it's kind of like the wine here—it's made by the domain, it breathes there. You can really feel this over here and that's what is fantastic about Miraval, too. 

Tell us about the hybrid analog-digital console in the control room. Is it really called The Spaceship—is that the official name?

[Laughs] Absolutely, yes, I'm a big fan of space exploration! When I was proposed to redesign the studio, I wanted to try something new because these days you have a lot of amazing recording studios throughout the world and I wanted to give my take on it. We worked a lot with Brad on that too, where we could define a new way of recording and a new way of producing. The one way to blend everything together for a hybrid setup with analog and digital capabilities was to build this six meter-long Spaceship where you integrate the best of the analog and the best of the digital technology.

When I began the design of The Spaceship, my first point of focus was, “How can I make sure that an original Fairchild from 1954 can fit perfectly in the center?” We had this amazing piece of gear and I just wanted to make sure that we could fully integrate it in the best possible way. The next question was, “What could go on either side of the Fairchild? Some EQs.” So we put some Pultecs, some EQP-1As and some EQMs, for mixing and also for mastering, on both sides. So now when you extend your left hand, you have your left channel that has a beautiful chain of EQ, and on the right hand it’s the same—you have your right channel for live EQ or mastering EQ. 

And then what comes right after is some LA-2As from Teletronix because why not have some beautiful limiting or compressing action going on there? I thought it was a nice way to do that. And then after the two Teletronix on both sides, you're starting to get very different and diverse sounds or ways of compressing or treating the effects. So, for example, within The Spaceship, you also have some original Urei 1176s and some LA-4s. I think we've got some amazingly beautiful sounding reverbs, delay and tape treatments from AMS.

We've done a special collaboration with Neve so that we could use most of the different preamps and EQs that they have. So we've got the 1073, the 1081s and also the 1084s. We also integrated the VT-2 preamps from Fearn as well. We have some George Massenburg Labs EQs and compressors—we have the GML 8200 and the 8900—so that’s another level of precision with those two pieces of hardware.

I also wanted to integrate the controls of the analog plate reverbs that we had, so we have the original Lexicon reverb, an EMT and we also have an AKG BX 20 reverb in there. It took us a while to create custom controls so that the plate reverbs that we have in another room are controlled directly from The Spaceship. It’s pretty cool, you can go treat your sound in an analog way directly from there with all of these old vintage reverbs. 

We also integrated a full Avid S6 console because it can adapt to any type of software and the Avid S6 is also directly connected to the SSL 4000 that is on the other side of the control room because it's a double-way control room. So yeah, there are a lot of things integrated within The Spaceship. We also have Apple XDR screens so that we have amazing resolution.

But sure, I'm happy that people automatically think, “Oh, it looks like a spaceship!” Well, it actually is. I'm just trying to find a way to retrofit some boosters and some rocket fuel but I think that would be for the next version of the studio. [Laughs]

Even ergonomically, the angle at which all of the outboard gear is arranged is interesting. It isn’t just stacked to one side. This feels more intuitive, like your hands can just move everywhere—almost like you're conducting the music.

You're absolutely right. When I created this design, I wanted to make sure that the producer or the engineer could have all the vital controls for a mix directly within the grasp of their hand. They don't have to turn their head from the speakers and go across the room to put their favorite compressor or their favorite EQ on—they can do it directly on the desk.

It’s really made in an ergonomic way, kind of like a conductor in classical music, you're at your desk and you have to go left and right, but you never lose the sweet spot of the speakers. You can always be sure that when you change a control, you have a beautiful-sounding experience.

Let’s also talk about the main live room, which blends stone and wood for a warm and rich sound.

The live room has a very strong historical significance. When you enter the space, you know that many great artists recorded their albums there like Pink Floyd, The Cure, and Wham!, to name a few. I wanted to make sure that we could find those emotions again but at the same time create a room where we could have a perfect 1-second reverb that would cater to any type of recordings, whether it was solo rap or pop vocals or a symphonic ensemble. It's something that makes you feel very warm and safe to record in. 

It’s a blend of the original wood that was there for the floor and at the same time, the first time I came into the studio I dug into the acoustic treatments that were on the walls and saw that they were hiding the original stones of the space; we had to pay homage to it because this building is very historical. So you feel the sound of the concrete, the wood and the stone—it's a blend of many different things and it was awesome to be able to create something unique with a sound that could adapt to any type of production.

Tell us about your involvement in developing the Dolby Atmos format and the speaker setup you have in the control room.

Dolby contacted me, around four years ago, to help them test the Dolby Atmos music system that they were developing. I was very happy because I've always been a fan of what Dolby was doing in the immersive world. My goal as an engineer was to help them calibrate their system and integrate it to our studio’s workflow when it comes to composing or mixing immersive music. I’m very honored to be constantly collaborating with Dolby. It helps me understand how to get a better sound and to ideally put my little contribution to making this immersive format better as more and more engineers and producers are working on it.

The speakers in the control room are all custom-made. They are ATC speakers for the Dolby Atmos setup and we were very happy when the team from Dolby came and said that it was second to none. 

I saw a quote by Dolby’s Adrien Franchi in Le Figaro — he said that no other studio has this level of technology. How do you feel about it?

I’m indeed grateful that Dolby considers Miraval Studios in such a positive way! It sure means a lot. It was a big challenge to do such a special control room and also to fit custom-made speakers by ATC. For example, the LCR, the three front speakers are ATC 300s and we had to make them float within the big glass panels that we have because I really wanted a full 180-degree view from the control room to the live room and we had to fit some huge speakers within these glass walls and not only did it have to sound great, but also it couldn't vibrate—so they're basically floating and nothing is touching the glass and there is still almost 100% sound absorption there. It was one of the hardest feats of engineering for us.

For the side speakers and the wide speakers, we use custom-made ATC 150s, but they also have custom subwoofers that are integrated within the walls and within the acoustic fabrics. Everything is floating—no speaker is touching the ground. It sounds really, really beautiful and the artists are very happy with how it sounds and how it feels.

What were the top three challenges you faced when it came to rebuilding the studio?

I think it was mostly in terms of design. The hardest part was to make sure that we could get an open design for the control room because we wanted to have a 180-degree view within the control room. The people that were working with me at first said it couldn’t be done! They said that no control room in the world has this and you can never have an acoustically good room with 180 degrees of full glass. [Laughs] Because, you know, where do we put the acoustic treatments?

So during the nine months of development, we calculated with the acousticians to have a perfectly balanced control room; that's why the control room is 100 square meters because we needed space to be able to create a very specific design based on light everywhere and we have very, very specific angles that we respect. We had to create, I think, one of the biggest box-in-a-boxes in the world where everything floats, where even when you're on the ground, the ground doesn’t touch the floor with over 1500 anti-vibration plots. It was a lot of work to make sure that this place sounded good without impacting the design. I didn't want to create a bunker, I wanted to create a place that just breathes and is open to inspiration and creation in a different way. So I think that was the biggest challenge—to make a reference in terms of acoustics, but also reference in terms of design.

 The second problem—you know, I had a hundred thousand but I’ll just pick three off the top of my head—was the cabling! We have thousands and thousands of custom cables here and we had to integrate them everywhere without them being visible. I wanted to create a studio where you don’t see cables; I wanted to create a studio where each and every amp, every speaker, every patch bay, every console, every piece of hardware, everything would be seamlessly integrated. At the same time we had to create a system where if one cable is not working, it's changeable; I wanted to also create redundancy. 

It sounds like a fairytale.

Exactly, it's impossible, you know! So cables were definitely a big part of our work over there. 

For the third challenge, it was just about creating this project during the pandemic—making sure that everything was done right during this difficult time.

Pushing every day so that all the gear came on time, that things were renovated on time and of course, when working with construction workers we were very concerned about their safety, the safety of our teams etc. A big part of the equation here was to understand how we could be ready for the first big session and that everything would be rolling while also bearing in mind that we're in the middle of a pandemic. It was definitely very intense.

You’ve said before that "it all comes down to emotions. When people come to us to produce their concerts, records, exhibitions, technologies, I always answer with "how can we make it simple?" Did this philosophy shape the redesign of Miraval Studios as well?

That’s a very good question because simplicity is at the core of what I believe in. If it's not simple, you're doing the wrong production or the wrong project or something is wrong in the workflow. So when it came to designing how the studio would work, I also really tried to incorporate a plug-and-play situation where if an artist came over with their laptop, say with Logic or Ableton, they could just plug in what they were doing into our mainframe and make sure that the whole system would respond properly to what the artist was doing.

It was the same for what we were talking about earlier, about the mixing console—you literally just have to move your hands forward to be in control of all the interesting analog options that we have in the studio; that's part of the simplicity that I wanted to create.

The same goes for the video side of the project— if a director comes to edit a movie, they would just need to move their hands a little bit and have access to the projector controls and a whole sound system that is dedicated to that specifically.

That seems simple, but so much thought has gone into everything that it now feels effortless, right?

Hopefully, yes! So far we have been very, very grateful and happy about the response that artists have had to the project. They have come here and taken the time to make emotional and beautiful music. It’s a great thing to see this big baby come alive. 

Let’s discuss the partnership between you and Brad Pitt that was instrumental in the new chapter of the studio. What did the collaboration between the two of you bring to the table that makes Miraval Studios a unique experience?

I think it's just two worlds colliding. It's Brad's world of being such an amazing guy, an amazing artist and also a great businessman. It’s just priceless to be able to rely on his advice because Brad has an amazing eye for design; he has designed many, many things. It’s a great chance that I have to be a partner with him on this project. Then of course, there's my world, which I see as more sound and music production-related. So it's exciting when both worlds collide; I think it creates sparks, and very interesting ones at that.

How does your background in recording classical music, live music and art installations influence your approach to studio design?

When you're a sound engineer and a producer, you learn that making sound is part of the job, as are many other things—you've got to learn what are the best microphones, you've got to learn what the best cables are, and how do you do a render, how do you do an export, and then who are great artists to collaborate with…things like that. I think being a sound engineer, an engineer in general, is also very science related, so you obviously have to be open to creating different things in many, many different ways.

For me, sound relates to anything—it relates to music obviously, to cinema and TV, but it also relates to the experience of somebody that enters a hall, a train station, an airport, or a hotel. Sound is all around you, all the time, and so I was always fascinated with trying to understand how sound can make a better experience out of any scenario. That is when I started collaborating with architects like Renzo Piano or artists like Philippe Parreno whom we worked together with on a piece at the MoMA in 2019 in New York.

There are just so many ways that sound can help improve the quality of life or the quality of the feelings that you have when you listen to something. So when I had to redo the design of the studio I had sound first and foremost at the top of my mind, but it didn’t mean we had to compromise on the other things, like natural light, emotions and inspiration. 

You’ve had a multicultural childhood, spent in several countries around the world­—were there any specific musical experiences during that time that shaped your audio sensibility?

Absolutely! I lived abroad for fifteen years when I was a kid—I lived in Hong Kong and Singapore; I also lived in Mumbai for five years. I loved India, it’s a good example of how diverse the sounds and the sound experiences are over there. You go out onto the street and there are people selling different things, calling out with all these different sounds. I remember the sound of the bells on the cows over there; I remember just so many different things.

I was lucky enough to have a childhood where sounds were very diverse and it was the same for music genres and the styles of music I was exposed to. I think it's a reminder of trying to be open all the time to the diversity and the beauty of sounds that the world can create every day.


James GoodIf you're interested in purchasing any of the gear mentioned in this blog, we're here to help! Please contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.