Studio File: Avatar, New York

Inside The World's Pro Studios

Published in SOS April 2012
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Hannes Bieger

The magnificent wood-panelled live area in Avatar Studio A.The magnificent wood-panelled live area in Avatar Studio A.Photo: Hannes Bieger

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.

Studio A's Neve desk: the 31102 channel strips are very close relatives of the legendary 1084 input modules.Studio A's Neve desk: the 31102 channel strips are very close relatives of the legendary 1084 input modules.After 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!

Raw Power

Main photo: the 'Motown Corner' in Studio C is modelled after the legendary Snake Pit at Motown Studios, Detroit. Insets, from top: one of the studio's 24-track tape recorders with custom wooden lids; Neve 31102 channel strips on the 8088 desk in Studio A; heavily modified Universal Audio LA3A compressors in Studio A; and the Studio A control room.Main photo: the 'Motown Corner' in Studio C is modelled after the legendary Snake Pit at Motown Studios, Detroit. Insets, from top: one of the studio's 24-track tape recorders with custom wooden lids; Neve 31102 channel strips on the 8088 desk in Studio A; heavily modified Universal Audio LA3A compressors in Studio A; and the Studio A control room.

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.

Outboard in Studio A includes these heavily modified Universal Audio LA3A compressors.Outboard in Studio A includes these heavily modified Universal Audio LA3A compressors.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.

Hit Catalogue

Wood is good: even the tape recorders have their own custom-made furniture!Wood is good: even the tape recorders have their own custom-made furniture!

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.

Pultec EQs in Avatar Studio G.Pultec EQs in Avatar Studio G.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...    .

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