The legendary Tony Bongiovi was the engineer, owner, producer, and studio designer behind New York City's Power Station studio. Power Station opened in 1977 at 441 West 53rd Street, helmed by Tony and his partner, manager Bob Walters. In 1996 it was purchased and became known as Avatar Studios, but in 2017 it became Power Station at BerkleeNYC, where it now functions as a studio and a training ground for Berklee students. Tony regaled us for hours, with even such stories as his parents making macaroni for Mick Jagger, and we wandered all over the building. At the end of our talk, he told us, "You've probably gotten the most thorough interview I've given in a long time." Enjoy the tour!
Is it interesting being back at Power Station?
Yeah, to say the least! When I sold it I had nowhere to go. My friend, Jim Czak [Tape Op #49], owned NOLA Recording Studios; I used to go there. When the owners [of Avatar] came here, they didn't want me around. I still own the Power Station name, all the blueprints, and everything you see here is all documented. I just turned it over to Berklee, and I'll start working with them on the formulas. I was trying to find the formula to calculate the resonant frequency of those [control room] doors. When I [designed] this, I had a slide rule and a calculator that could barely multiply.
Did you have to teach yourself all of the acoustical math back then?
There are some mathematical expressions where my discipline didn't go that far. In New Jersey, where I lived, there were no books. Audio Cyclopedia [by Howard M. Tremaine], was all that was available. My mathematical disciplines were limited to high school. The best thing I did there that really helped me was geometry. I used it here, obviously, as you can see! This was all built with the Sabine Formula; the absorption coefficients and all of that. I had to be careful not to put in tile that could absorb too much sound, or it would unbalance the room. This is a 0.25 second reverberation time.
In the control room?
Yeah. See, the speakers move.
What? Oh, man. The speakers are on a motorized assembly.
Yeah. Here's why that is: Many years ago, people would build a studio, and the console was up against the glass, so they were used to working with the speakers really close. I had too many people say, "Oh, I don't want to work in that room. The speakers are too far away."
When you initially opened, were these the only speakers in the control room?
That's it. I also had Auratones. I blew them up lots of times, because I listen very, very loud. I want to feel like I'm really there. The Neve could pump it out; the musicians loved the way it sounded. I would tell people, "It isn't the studio. It's the musicians who make the sound." Back then, the rooms were all very dead so that you could get separation. I said, "This is not a good idea."
That was an interesting concept in the mid-'70s, because everyone was carpeting the heck out of the rooms.
Oh, yeah. Multitrack was coming into play. I said, "Why don't we just put separate rooms in there?" That idea came from Motown in Detroit, only they had smaller rooms. They had talkback into the headphones without interfering with anything. You couldn't do that in New York. If you hit that button, everything went out. They had 8-track in Motown when nobody had that. There were three 8-track machines; Motown, Atlantic, and a studio that was on the west coast. They all bought the tape from the same place. Motown was probably the first record label where the studio became an integral part of making the record. They would go in there, edit, and then put horns and strings on everything.
How did you end up visiting Motown's studios when you were young?
When I was in high school, in New Jersey, I wanted to get involved in the studio. In 1965, right up until about 1968, studios had reverberation chambers; they were rooms. At that time, I used to take off from school, play hooky, and go into the studio. I'd look at the album covers at the record store, and I'd see Bell Sound, Olmstead Sound, A&R Recording, Mirror Sound, and Associated Recordings. I'd look up the address, I'd go and knock on the door, and ask if I could come in and see the...