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 studio. They'd say, "No." At Bell Sound, you could walk down the hall and there was an elevator that went to the second floor. I got in the elevator, went up, and there was a receptionist there. She asked if she could help me, and I just said I was looking around. They figured I was with some of the musicians. They were on a break, and here came Jim Czak. I was just standing there, and didn't say anything to anybody. They all went back in, and Jim said, "Who are you?" I told him I wanted to see what a recording studio looked like. He said, "You stand over there and don't talk to anybody. On my next break, I'll come and show you around." From that day forward, we became the best of friends. I also befriended a guy named Bob Lifton, who had Regent Sound. I would go to Regent Sound, and there'd be a guy from Columbia Records, a guy from Capitol, and a couple of manufacturers. They would have coffee and he would let me sit in. I wasn't allowed to talk. I couldn't understand what they were talking about. All those guys were like advanced-degree engineers who worked for Columbia. They were talking about Motown, and the A&R department said, "We need songs like this, because these guys don't miss." They'd found songwriters, but they couldn't get the sound the way Motown sounded, out there [in NYC]. My father had a funeral home. Down under the garage was where he stored all the boxes, so if you pushed them all out, it would decay about four and a half seconds. I was listening to the Motown records, and something was different about them. I took [The Supremes'] "Where Did Our Love Go."
That's got some reverb on it.
Every half a second, there's a hand clap. I said, "I hear that [reverb], but it's decaying." On the records that were made in New York, The Four Seasons and all that, it stays a little while. Here's what I did: I had one VU meter. I cut off the incident sound, and I just left the reverb on there. I had to slow it down to a second, because the ballistics on the meter couldn't track a half a second. I slowed it down and I played it. I watched the VU meter. I calibrated it to zero, and I watched it. It was down 15 dB at a half a second. That means at one second, it's down 30 dB; and at two seconds, it's down 60 dB. That's the threshold of hearing. I wondered if that's what they were doing. I went underneath the garage, and I had a stopwatch. I was going to try to make it sound that way. Hit it first, and it's three and a half seconds. I started wheeling the boxes in and opening them up to absorb the sound until I got to two seconds. I said, "This must be what they're doing." I turned the bass and treble all the way up on the Fisher amplifier, because I was trying to match what they had done. I sent the sound from where it'll go out into the room with a short decay time. I had a one frequency [band] equalizer that Bob Lifton designed for me. He said, "What frequency do you want?" I said, "I'll take 5 kHz." I added that. What happened was I started to reintroduce that echo on The Supremes' record. I said, "This sounds exactly the same. I'm just making more of it." I put a Smokey Robinson record on next. Then I took The Toys record "A Lover's Concerto." That was a record made in New York, and it was an attempt to do the Motown sound. I put that EQ on there, because the Motown records were very bright, and I added that echo. Sure enough, it started to sound like Motown. I recorded that onto my little Wollensak tape recorder. I also did "1-2-3" by Len Barry. I said, "These records are starting to sound like they were done in Detroit."
You were mixing in your own reverb to simulate the Motown sound?
Yeah. I got on a bus with my tape recorder. I went into the meeting the guys were having, and I said, "I think I figured out what they're doing. I think it's a very short decay time in the echo chamber." The Columbia engineer said to me, "That's impossible." I said, "No. Do you want to hear it? I figured out what they're doing." He said, "No, I don't want to hear it. No engineer of any substance would ever design an echo chamber with anything less than three and a half or four seconds [of decay]. I wrote a white paper on the temperature effects of humidity on reverberation time and frequency response." I said, "Yeah, but I think this is what they're doing!" I was a high school kid. They wouldn't listen to me. I'd become friendly with Jim Czak, so I called him at Bell Sound. I said to Jim, "I think I figured out what they're doing in Detroit, and they won't listen to me." He said, "Call Motown and ask for the chief engineer." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah. What's the worst that could happen?" I called information, and got the phone number. I said, "I want to speak to the chief engineer." He said, "Mike McLean here." To this day, I'm still very good friends with Mike. I started to tell him the whole story about what I did. There was a long pause. He said, "Can you go to New York City?" Motown sent their acts to New York, The Supremes, The Temptations, and acts like that, to record here. They'd bring someone from Motown to make sure the engineering was the way that they wanted it. He said, "I want you to go to the hotel there and talk to this guy, Lawrence Horn [Motown producer]." I got on the bus and I walked over to Lincoln Center. Lawrence Horn says, "Mike McLean says you want to play me something." I played him what I had done on those records, and he asked how I figured it out. I told him the whole story. He said to me, "How'd you like to come to Motown in Detroit? We'd like to have you out there." I went back home, told my parents the whole story, and let them know the guys wanted to take me there. I'd never been out of New Jersey, except on a bus to New York. By now I'd played so much hooky from school. I was supposed to go to Rutgers and get my engineering degree. I went to my guidance counselor and he said, "Forget about Rutgers. You're never even going to graduate! Where do you go when you took off all the time?" I said, "I'm trying to figure out how to learn."
There were no schools for recording.
No, there wasn't anything. Lawrence Horn came out and talked to my parents. He said, "We're going to watch your son," because I was only 17 years old. I got out there and they put me up at the St. Regis Hotel on West Grand Boulevard; I'd never even been in a hotel room. He said, "You can't leave the hotel. If you get hungry, just order something off of room service." I said, "What's that?" He said, "Well, there's a book here with all these things you can order." I have my own bed and my own bathroom. There's a TV in front of the bed. I never had anything like that where I lived. I called my mother to tell them I was okay. I didn't know what to order; the chateaubriand, chicken kiev, or fettuccine alfredo. When you grow up in an Italian family, whatever your mother puts in front of you is what you eat! You either identify it as chicken or macaroni. There are no exotic things. My mother said, "Get the chicken kiev, and tell them to make it without the cheese in the middle." It was really good. They instructed me to go downstairs and wait. At ten o'clock, someone was going to pick me up and drive me down six blocks, because Motown Studios was right down West Grand Boulevard. There it was; Hitsville U.S.A. They took me around, and I went in the control room. They were recording with [George] Ivy Jo Hunter, the producer. He wrote a song called "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" that The Four Tops did, and he was also one of the writers on "Dancing in the Street." There were several drummers, like Benny Benjamin. Earl Van Dyke was the piano player, and they had the three guitarists: Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, and Robert White. They plugged everything in direct. James Jamerson [bass] sat there with the three guitarists. They balanced each other; but then it came up on the console as line level, so you could patch it into equalizers and do all kinds of routing. You couldn't do that in New York. McLean figured that was the best way to do that, because they had no room. There were two little side rooms. They had the vibe player in there, Johnny Griffith played organ, and Jack Ashford and Eddie "Bongo" [Brown] were the two percussion guys. They could separate all this sound. I had a handler, and she said, "This is Ivy Jo Hunter. Everyone, this is Tony Bongiovi. He's here from New Jersey." Everybody said hi, and they all got up and started walking out the door to the parking lot. I saw Ivy Jo Hunter and said, "I know you! You wrote 'Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever' by the Four Tops." He said, "Come on, let me take you outside and let's talk about some of this." My handler saw this, grabbed me, and pulled me away from him. She said, "Ivy Jo Hunter, you leave that boy alone." Then she said to me, "Tony, you stay away from these people. Musicians. They're a bad influence." I didn't know it at the time, but they were drinking, and if anything would have gone wrong... I was a minor. I went there, then I went back to New Jersey and back to school. They asked where I'd been for the last four days, and I told them. Then they flew me out again. I was still in high school!
Did they want you to observe and learn how they were making records?
They said, "That's the tape library." They filed the records by song, not by artist. I'd pick up "This Old Heart of Mine," and it might have The Four Tops on it, maybe the Temptations, or maybe The Supremes. They said, "Take it downstairs. There's the 45. See if you can make [the tape] sound like that." It was 8-track, so somebody was with me to help me get started, but I realized that the record sounds different than the tape. They didn't put the horns and strings on all the time. The way they set up the session at the time was like this: track eight was bass, seven was drums, six was keyboard or piano, five was guitar, four was horns, three was strings, two was background voices, and one was the lead voice. But initially they set it up with 8-track, so they had the guitars on three tracks. Then we had to go back in and mix those eight tracks down to another machine and selectively put those things on and off. They had all these Pultecs – the Motown equalizers – and everything was patchable. I was able to see it. "This is what they do." The records sounded different than the tape. We used to speed stuff up in New York. That was common, and they would do that out there too. It might be the same track with three or four different artists. They just made copies of it. I had a temporary ID card. It expired in 1968, but I had a clip-on with my picture on it, and I saved that.
You started learning the multitracks and seeing what the process was.
When I came back my guidance counselor said to me, "I told Rutgers about your trip to Detroit." A guy from the university came to my high school and he said, "I'll tell you what we'll do. Because of what you've done out there, if you take summer school we'll let you in at the Busch Campus at the engineering school." I didn't have the grades to graduate! They had to push me through. I was getting tutored in calculus and asking, "What am I going to do with this?" My focus was on going to the studios. That summer of 1966 I went into New York, and I had this Motown ID card. Every studio, including Associated, Mirror Sound, Olmstead, Bell Sound, when they saw that I had it, that was the one thing that was missing in New York; somebody who knew how they did that [at Motown]. There I was, at 17 years old. They said, "You want a job?" I said, "Wow, let me think about this." Was I going to go to Rutgers, or take advantage of what I already knew? I went to work for this company called Peer/Southern Music at 1619 Broadway. They had a little demo studio with an Ampex 350 mono machine and a Fairchild lathe. I worked there. I used to take records, put them back on the Ampex 350 – a mono machine, and try to cut them. I could get pretty close to what they sounded like, except I couldn't get the Motown records to sound that way. It wasn't until fairly recently, when I started hanging around with Mike McLean again and asked him how he did those records, that I figured it out. He said, "We cut them at half speed." The equalizers had a switch on them so that when you cut them at half speed, the frequencies would automatically go down.
All those Motown 45s were done that way. I had offers from every studio in New York, so I had to make a decision. The day that I was supposed to take my SATs, I was on a plane to Detroit. After I came back, the guidance counselor asked what I was doing. I wasn't even going to graduate. I wanted to keep going to Motown. They showed me how everything worked. Berry Gordy was always a fan of young people; Motown was "The Sound of Young America." They had plenty of writers, singers, and musicians, but I was on the engineering side. They needed people like me – there weren't that many. Of course, in New York City I called my own shots. I went from zero to full-time, never one day having to work in a tape library or get coffee for anybody. There was a studio going up called Apostolic Studios at 53 East 10th Street. They had the very first Automated Processes [API] console in there, as well as a 12-track, 1-inch machine.
Oh, the 12-track 1-inch. Almost forgotten in history.
My first job was for $250 a week. What I did was I used to take peoples' 8-tracks, and I would punch in like 2, 3, 5, and 7 in between [the tracks].
On the 12-track tape?
Yeah. I'd erase a little bit [of the adjacent tracks], but I could add extra tracks and ping-pong.
I always wondered if you could do that!
Yeah. You roll it off at 12 kHz so the bias doesn't bleed in. All that freedom of being able to create those techniques came as a direct result of me being at Motown. In New York, you're the engineer and the producer can't touch anything. But out there, if you were the producer and wanted to try something, you sat down and put the tape up. They had hit, after hit, after hit. That jumpstarted my career. From there, I started working with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. He played piano, and he could read and write music. There was one thing we did, where he played every other note. Then we went back and overdubbed the in-between notes. It took a long time to do that! I cut a record on a Sunday morning at Apostolic Records [by Everything Is Everything] called "Witchi Tai To." I worked with Shadow Morton, who did the Shangri-Las records. He was really tough to work with.
Really? Was he a taskmaster?
He just stayed up all night; 25 or 30 hours. By now I was 18. They didn't need me anymore at Apostolic because they had a full-time guy take my place, so I went to work for Record Plant. That's where I hooked up with Jimi Hendrix. I cut "All Along the Watchtower," and I cut "Izabella" – I worked on a lot of his records. They had the DayGlo paint, and he was coming in and getting stoned all the time.
You were like a house engineer in these situations?
Yeah. The daytime guy was Eddie Kramer [Tape Op #24], but they put me on at night because no one wanted to work that. They had a couch I could sleep on. It was Mitch Mitchell [drums], Noel Redding, the bass player, and Jimi Hendrix with four Marshall amplifiers. We had to use dynamic microphones because we couldn't put pads [on the mics]. Everything would overload. From there, I had Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland. They wanted to make a record in New York, so they said, "Tony, you're working. Can you find us any musicians?" From working in the studio doing jingles, I got to know some of the musicians. I booked Record Plant. Tony Camillo did the arrangements. In one session I cut "Band of Gold," "Give Me Just a Little More Time," and "Mind, Body, and Soul" right there at Record Plant with Brian Holland sitting next to me. That was the most incredible writing and producing team ever. Once word got out, I did a Vanilla Fudge record there [Near the Beginning]. They put Tony "Motown" Bongiovi for the engineering credit, but Motown made them take the "Motown" off. But everybody wanted to work with me after that.
Did you end up at Media Sound after Record Plant?
Chris Stone fired me from Record Plant.
He was the owner.
Yes. Gary Kellgren hired me, and then he went to California to open Record Plant in California. The majority of the clients wanted to work with me, because I had hits in the Top 10. I was doing all the sessions. They were just getting a 16-track machine. Chris Stone said, "Why don't you hand some of that work out to the other engineers?" I said, "Fine!" But it wouldn't work. The clients wouldn't work with anybody but me. He called me in one day and said, "We're going to have to let you go." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because you don't have a good feel for working with other people." Chris Stone figured that if I left, they'd have no choice [of who to work with]. All the clients were on 12-track, 1-inch. So I left, and someone said, "There's a studio that just put a 12-track, 1-inch in called Media Sound." I went there and met Bob Walters, who later became my partner in Power Station. I put the word out, and everybody came over to Media Sound. I mixed the Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More album. There are crowd sounds on there and helicopters flying; none of that happened. We had to put in crowd sounds. There was a place where you'd rent sounds. Baseball sounds are the best crowd sounds. You'd hear the crack of the bat and then everybody cheering. That was done on 16-track; all the microphones were on stage, so there was no crowd noise. A lot of times the microphones would fail.
It was like studio recording!
We were in such a hurry to get it done. The guy called in from the mastering house and said, "Cut 6 on the second side, you left a baseball bat in there." Then he said, "Don't worry. Nobody's going to know the difference anyway."
That was a huge seller; it was everywhere.
Big hit. Yeah. I wish I'd produced it! I would go back to Record Plant because some of the clients had 24-track, and Media Sound didn't have that. They had a 16-track Ampex MM 1100. I went back there one day, and Chris Stone grabbed me. He said, "What do you think you're doing? You can't take the clients away from us here." I said, "You fired me! What am I supposed to do, not talk to these clients?" He got really angry. I went back to Media and said, "You're going to have to get a 24-track." I took practically every client out of Record Plant in New York City. They all followed me over there. Media Sound was a jingle house, but I brought record projects in there. That's when I started to work on commercials too. I met a lot of people from there who I brought here to build Power Station. Then I found Gloria Gaynor. I had a little production company with partners. We found Gloria Gaynor; I produced "Never Can Say Goodbye" at Media Sound, Studio B, and I did a lot of the tricks I did at Motown. If you listen to it, it sounds like it was cut in Detroit. I had Allan Schwartzberg [drums]. Harold Wheeler did the charts. We also had Jeff Mironov [guitar], Pat Rebillot [keyboards], and Jerry Friedman [guitar]; great players. That really started my career.
That was something you got production credit for?
Production royalties; even better! From there I went back and produced Crash Landing for Jimi Hendrix. Alan Douglas had all these tapes from when [Hendrix] died. They were putting out posthumous albums, but half of the song was here and another part was on another reel. I had to put it all together and bring in musicians to play through it. Allan Schwartzberg played drums, Bob Babbitt played bass, and Jeff Mironov played guitar. I had to match it and get it to sound exactly like the original record, which I did. Now, I'm not a musician. There was a guitar solo, so I started editing the guitar solo. "That sounds like it works!" Later somebody told me about Downbeat Magazine, and they had an article on Jimi Hendrix and how brilliant he was to have a guitar solo with a bar of four, a bar of two, a bar of four, followed by another bar of two, and a bar of one. You couldn't play it. But I didn't know that. I just kept doing what I was doing, editing the tape until it sounded right to me. From there, I started producing The Ramones. Thomas Erdelyi, a.k.a. Tommy Ramone [Tape Op #46], came to me with that. I'd had a hit with Gloria Gaynor, so now not only was I engineering everybody's records, but they wanted me to produce records too. I'm not a musician, so I always have to work with somebody. If you see my credits, there's always somebody else on there who's the musician. Tommy Erdelyi worked for me at Record Plant. All the mixes I do have a lot of highs, because that's what I like – it's Motown. He says, "I've got a group I want you to produce for me." He's the drummer in The Ramones. I go to CBGBs, and these guys come out and started playing. I was like, "You've got to be kidding me." I said to Tommy, "How am I going to get that on a little speaker?" We worked on those records at Sundragon Studios. We had a 16-track [Studer] A80, and they had a Trident console. I recorded The Ramones' [Leave Home] there, and it was one or two takes for each song. I brought it back to Media Sound – I was building Power Station at the time. I mixed everything over at Media. I was ganging two or three equalizers in series to get Joey Ramone's voice to match. I had to go way over the top. I called Bob Ludwig [Tape Op #105] and said, "I've gotta send this record down to you to master it, but I had to really juice it up because it wouldn't work any other way. You've got to fix it when you master it, because it's way too bright." That was the Ramones' Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. The Talking Heads: 77, I recorded all of that at Sundragon. I brought the cello in on "Psycho Killer." That was my idea. Jesse Levy was one of the cello players for the orchestras. David Byrne [Tape Op #79] was there, and I said, "David, let me try this and see if you like it." David had written the song so that the "psycho killer" [chorus] came at the end. I had 1/4-inch tape and I spliced it in three or four times, but it didn't match. They had to learn it and replay it. My other good Talking Heads story is I was in there, and Lance Quinn was working on the record with me [co-producing]. I'm listening and saying, "Is the bass out of tune?" He said, "No." "Well, why does it sound like that?" "Because you can't play an A-minor against a G chord," or something like that. I go out, and here's Tina Weymouth [bass]. She's married to the drummer [Chris Frantz]; Jerry Harrison is on keyboards, and then David's out there. I asked Tina if she could try a couple more takes with some different bass parts. She said to me, "I have been playing these bass parts for over a year." I said, "Okay." I went back inside, and I said, "She doesn't want to change it. What will we do?" Obviously something was wrong. I went to Warner Bros to see Seymour Stein. I said, "I need $3,000. I have to replace the bass on four songs." He said, "Why?" I said, "She's playing the wrong notes." "Can't you show her the right notes?" "She won't play anything different, but I'll bring in a bass player." I used Bob Babbitt, and an arranger wrote out all the notes. Track 1 was the bass, and track 16 was always the voice. What Babbitt first played was [like Motown]. I said, "You can't do that. What you have to do is match her sound and play the right notes." We did all four songs in about two hours. The most difficult thing he had to do was not play the right note while listening to the wrong note but follow the rhythm, because he was listening to what she did so that he could match that. I put it on track 16 and we were done. I took track 16 and bounced it down to track 1 and I never told her, until the engineer who worked with me went public with it. Why would I say that about a band? That was my Talking Heads experience. On The Ramones' records I put timpani on, and keyboards, but really low so that I could get the frequencies I needed. I also doubled guitars.
How did you and Bob end up going from Media Sound to building Power Station here? Were there bad feelings with the Media Sound owners or anything?
I was producing records. I was making a lot of money; I had cash in the bank. I bought an airplane, and I bought an airplane hanger. I bought property down the shore. I was making pretty decent royalties; to this day I still get paid a lot of money for those records. Bob Walters had gotten fired. He left Media Sound, and I said, "I need somebody to help me run this." We looked at a couple of buildings, and this building was abandoned. This was an original Con Edison power station. It powered the L train on the East Side. Later a company came in and made it into television studios. There were two. One was upstairs, and one's down here. They did Let's Make a Deal here. They put the freight elevator in.
When I bought the building, we found some of the tapes. They went out of business in 1969. Mayor Ed Koch had a rehabilitation program to try to rescue the West Side. This was a war zone. There were all of these homeless people. When I came in there was water in the basement. I looked around and said, "I think I can make this work!" I paid $360,000 for the building, and I got a tax abatement from the city. I had to audition for the City of New York. There were four people on the panel, and I had Bob Walters there. They said, "How are you going to make this a success?" I said, "I'll bring some of the clients I had at Media Sound over to here." They said, "How are you going to do that?" I said, "They'll follow me." This was the farthest west studio in New York. Everybody leaned towards the east side. The agencies were all the way over on Madison Avenue. We brought in investors, and they said, "You can't do that out there." One guy put in $70,000 and I put in all the rest of the money. I started with a Neve console, and I had to buy 3M tape machines. I couldn't get any tape machines, so I found a guy in Philadelphia who leased the machines to me at an 18 percent interest. I started doing record dates here, as well as mixing records for Columbia. I produced Tuff Darts, The Rezillos, and Samantha Sang here. Will Lee played bass on that. I produced Big Al Downing's "Mr. Jones" that went to number two in the country charts. I had rock bands coming in, and the Bon Jovi band was me. I put that all together, got the image, and got the contract. It all happened in this room. Power Station became popular.
Are there bass traps built into these control rooms?
No, the whole room is a bass trap. See, with a slatted absorber, low-frequency is omnidirectional. When the low frequencies come out, every single one of those boards vibrates and converts that acoustic energy into heat.
Once you built this room, you were ready to make records!
Exactly. I'd had enough high school physics to be able to calculate those primitive equations that tell me what the reverberation time is, and what the resonant frequency is. The reverberation time [in the main live room] is three-quarters of a second. Above one second, molecular absorption takes over, and when that happens, the high-frequency component is diminished exponentially. It's not a linear function after that. When you go into a church, you can hear the reverb, but you only hear the highs. In this room you can hear all the high frequencies. When Max Weinberg came out and played drums, he said he had to record here. That's how we got Bruce Springsteen and people like that to record here. No other studio had this many side rooms. This was the first time that isolation rooms were built from inception. No one thought it would work – they thought it was a bad idea. I never wanted anybody to know how I built this place, but it doesn't matter now. This room became the number one studio in New York City. Japanese people were coming in and taking photos of the room, and I had to take the cameras away from them. JVC Studio in Japan looks a lot like this. Herb Alpert came here and wanted to give me $7,000 to design his room. He rented the studio for a week and he took measurements. I've had lots of studios come in and measure. It's the reverberation time – the Sabine Formula. It tells you how much absorption you're going to get. That determines how much space you need. I don't have to do the formulas anymore, because I've built so many of them.
I've heard stories about how there were no lockouts. People would tear down a session and put it all back up.
How in the world did you keep consistency?
Well, the assistants had to write down all the equalization settings, every mic and tape on the floor, and they had to write where everything was. When you have a rock band it's not that hard. But I had to do that because we had jingles in the morning. What was I going to do? Jingles paid the bills too.
I know with Bruce Springsteen on Born to Run, they'd tear everything down and set it back up every night.
Yeah. "Hungry Heart," "The River," and "Born to Run." That was all done here in this room. We had to break it down every day.
We've interviewed a handful of people who worked here back in the day and they said it was a real training ground.
Oh, they had to come under my scrutiny. I took no prisoners. If they couldn't do it, they were gone. I hired all of them, including Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #84].
And Scott Litt [#81].
Scott Litt; I hired him. Bob Clearmountain started with me at Media Sound. I used to record the Kool & the Gang records. One day I said to Clearmountain, "Sit down. Take over the session." I didn't come back. He soloed. When you fly airplanes, that's what instructors do. He came from here. There was also Neil Dorfsman and Larry Alexander [#95].
Was it an honor when the band called themselves The Power Station?
Oh, yeah. That was the guys from Duran Duran [John Taylor and Andy Taylor], and Robert Palmer [plus drummer Tony Thompson -ed.]. Robert was the lead singer. They came to me and said, "We've got this track, but we don't have a name for the band. Can we call it The Power Station?" I said, "Sure!" That catapulted us into the ionosphere.
Jason Corsaro, who recorded and mixed their debut LP [The Power Station], recently passed away, as you know.
Yep. He did all of those records. I kept in contact with him. Fortunately, I got to see him in the hospital before he died. He did way too much cocaine. Way too much.
It's too bad. He was brilliant, pushing the envelope as an engineer with those drum sounds.
Oh, yes. If there's any studio where you could push the envelope, this is the place to be. This place is designed to do all those cool things.
And you kept recording and producing here.
I produced Aerosmith here. Rock in a Hard Place. I had to give the record back to Columbia because he [Steven Tyler] did so much cocaine that I couldn't work on it. On that "Cry Me a River," they would rehearse, and that mix on that record came off of the 15 ips while I was getting everything set up. Impossible to work with. He's all cleaned up now, but I couldn't do that after a while. Ozzy Osbourne was a great guy to work with.
Right. Was that for Bark at the Moon?
Yes, Bark at the Moon. Columbia gave me that record, and I started the whole trend of remixing records. What I would do is legitimately remix that record; but with Bark at the Moon, I went back to Columbia Records, to Tony Martell, and said, "I've gotta redo some of these instruments. It's too busy. I have to fix it." I used to live upstairs here, and Ozzy stayed with me. I said, "You've gotta come in here and sing." He'd say, "But I sang once already!" "No, you've got to do this for me, Ozzy. We have to fix it." He did it and then it was, "Let's go eat!" Sharon Osbourne wouldn't let me produce the next record because she didn't want anybody to get that close to Ozzy. He was with me all the time! I was taking the record apart thinking, "I've got to replace this. We've got to take that out," and I just did it. I started doing that with a lot of peoples' records, and I started to have lots of hits. "Hey, this is better than having the band out there. All you have to do is remix it." I used to get a point and a half on every one of those records. I have 35 gold and platinum records to my name as a producer. If you want me to work on your record, you've got to give me a point, or I'm not going to do it. And pay me on top of that. It's my studio, with my equipment. You're paying the studio, you're paying me, and you're giving me a royalty on top of it. What a great idea that was!
Hey, that makes sense!
That went on for a while. My partner, Bob Walters, was not really a great businessman. While I was producing a lot of artists, he failed to register the copyrights and do all this other work. So instead of making $8 million on Bon Jovi, I could have made $80 million; but they just neglected it. I wasn't important. "The studio was everything" – that was his ego. I brought all the work in here, but Bob started to believe that he was the reason that it was successful. I said, "No, it's just a studio! I'm bringing the people in here." When I found out he did that, I said, "You're going to have to go. I can't keep doing this." We decided to get into the video business. We took a loan to build a room upstairs, but I didn't know any video guys. That almost drove us out of business. The loan was egregious. We'd had everything free and clear here. Instead of us taking the building and putting that in our name, with the studio as a separate company, we put everything in one and borrowed all this money. I couldn't pay it, so I had to put the studio into Chapter 11. I stayed here for two years and found a buyer from Japan [Chieko and Kirk Imamura]. They kept it as a studio. That was in 1994.
It became Avatar Studios.
I couldn't give them the name because of my record royalties. Some of those record royalties were coming directly to Power Station. Some were going to Bongiovi-Walters Productions. I couldn't separate that, or they would have gotten the royalties!
From there, I went down to Florida. I went over to Universal; they had just built their theme park and there was a studio there called Century III. I did a lot of consulting for sound design for them back in the '70s. Some of the rides were my sound design when you got on them. Then I came back to New York, and I worked in a little studio in town cutting punk groups and trying to get deals.
Now Berklee has bought the studio and renamed it Power Station at BerkleeNYC.
A while back I was told Berklee was going to buy the studio. They said, "We'd like to put the Power Station name back on it." They asked what I wanted, and I said just to have the ability to go into the studio if I wanted to do an interview or something. I used to give seminars at Berklee up in Boston. We had a lot of interns in here from Berklee. They're going to put in more lobbies, but they're not touching anything in the rooms.
This will be a great place for people to learn.
Are you kidding? There are lots of schools that have studios in them, but none of them have Power Station. Ever since I built this, I didn't have to change a single thing in here. I got it right the first time. It wasn't easy, but I got it right. That was a combination of all my experience of working in studios, plus having enough background in physics to be able to do this.