There are studios in New York with even longer histories, but nonetheless Avatar has its roots in an era long gone. The industrial building on 53rd Street, in the Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of mid-town Manhattan was constructed as a power station by Consolidated Edison, at that time the city's largest electric utility. The electrical power produced in this facility was used to drive the trams on Ninth Avenue.
Photo: Hannes BiegerAfter the power plant was decommissioned, a TV production company took over the building in 1963, and it hosted the sound stage of popular game show Let's Make A Deal for a couple of years. Then, in 1977, well-known engineer Tony Bongiovi opened his recording studio in the complex, calling it The Power Station as a nod to the original purpose of the building. It was renamed Avatar in 1996.
Bongiovi, who began his career at the age of 17 at the legendary Motown studio in Detroit, gathered fame producing Gloria Gaynor in the '70s, and is a cousin and early mentor of rock star Jon Bon Jovi. The experience Bongiovi gathered in other studios fed into the unique design of his own Power Station rooms. And what a studio he built!
The 33,000-square-foot facility consists of four large rooms and a number of smaller suites, all of which share the same signature element: the unique wooden interior design, which is partly responsible for the spectacular acoustic properties of the studio rooms. Studio A, with a ground area of almost 2500 square feet and a ceiling height of 35 feet, can host large ensembles, up to 70-piece orchestras, and is widely considered one of the best spaces for drum recording in the world. To create such a huge tracking space in the building, the intermediate ceiling between two floors had to be removed. Conveniently, a pair of Neumann KM86 mics are permanently mounted at the centre of the wooden dome in the highest point of the ceiling, for capturing its unique ambience. Equally impressive is the control room of Studio A, home of the last 8088 console ever built by Neve.
With a live room measuring approximately 620 square feet, Studio B is by no means small, either. The control room hosts a 72-input SSL 9000 J-Series console, and a huge selection of outboard. There are almost a dozen silver-faced Pultec EQs here — and in fact there are at least eight of these beasts in each of the Avatar control rooms.
Studio C is an interesting space, too. The 980-square-foot live room can be divided into three isolated sections, one of which is modelled after the infamous 'Snake Pit', the tracking room of Motown Studios in Detroit, where Tony Bongiovi worked in his early days in the industry. Studio G, with its 56-input SSL 4000 G+ console, is mostly used for mixing, and there is also the Studio E Pro Tools suite, the Studio W writing room, Roy Hendrickson's penthouse mix suite, Studio R, and Fred Kevorkian's Mastering Suite. The studio has a roof-deck offering a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline.
Legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain helped to design The Power Station and was its first chief engineer, attracting some of the world's most famous artists to record and mix there. Early landmarks included Roxy Music's Avalon, Madonna's Like A Virgin and Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA, and the studio has continued to produce hits ever since, recent successes including Norah Jones' Feels like Home, Björk's Vespertine, John Mayer's Continuum and Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters (Grammy Album of the Year in 2008). As Power Station, the studio won five TEC Awards between 1985 and 1990, and as Avatar it has won five more.
Avatar remains a unique and legendary studio, one of the last remaining large recording spaces on the East Coast, where real-estate space has always been more scarce and precious than in the wide plains of Los Angeles. Until recently, the studio even had a full-time carpenter on staff, taking care of all the woodwork. Even the tape recorders had their own custom-made wooden lids...