Thursday, November 5, 2009

Secrets of Avatar

What makes Studio A sound good?

Another AES Conference in New York has come and gone last month. The last time AES was held in New York in 2007, it was the 30th anniversary of our studio (Power Station + Avatar). To commemorate the occasion, there was a Grammy Recording Soundtable with the founders and staff from The Power Station as panelists.

During the panel discussion, Tony Bongiovi, the designer of the studio, explained how Studio A was conceptualized and designed. During the '70s, most studio live rooms were designed to be dead mainly because of the need to do multitrack recording. In these rooms, musicians had a hard time hearing themselves or each other when they performed. Tony's design goal was to create a reverb time based room for multitrack recording. If you look at Studio A's live room, the dome shaped surfaces are curved in to create a space where reflective distances are no greater than 30 msec from the sound source. The space was designed specifically for musicians to hear each other play and not have them play hard, all for the sake of capturing a better performance. That is why the room is great for horns and strings and the players like it.

To preserve the need for isolation, booths were added to the side, which was being done at Motown Studios in Detroit at the time.

The great drum sound that the room became known for was an accidental by-product of the design. The drums were originally meant to be placed and recorded in the rear "rhythm room" isolation booth. One day, as an experiment, the drums were brought out into the main room (“string room”) and that is when the massive room sound was discovered.

As for the control room, the common control room design at the time was to build a concrete bunker with lots of bass traps, which effectively made the space smaller. The Power Station control rooms used a diaphragmatic absorption technique where the rooms adjoining the control room, e.g. lounges, machine shop in the rear, were used as bass traps. Instead of being sound barriers, the sound passed through some of the walls by design. Yet the control room still maintained a 35dB separation from the live room.

All control rooms - A, B, C and G – share the same design philosophy and dimensions. The idea was to be able to hear the tracks the same way from room to room.

Want to get the "Motown Sound"? Do it with Avatar's Chamber #2.

In the '60s, everyone was fascinated by the "Motown Sound" including Tony Bongiovi. In fact, it was what got him interested in audio engineering. He wanted to unravel the mystery of that distinct sound. He knew part of it was the live echo chamber they used, which had an extremely short decay time. He suspected that it was "designed wrong" or they made a mistake when it was built. To prove his theory, he built a 4-channel mixer in the garage and tried to replicate the sound by adding the echo to an already existing Motown record modifying the signal going into the garage. When Tony discovered that one of the bathrooms in the basement of the then Power Station had a short decay time, he took what he learned from experimenting in his garage and was able to recreate the Motown live chamber sound pretty closely. The bathroom is still an active live chamber today and is used a lot by clients who know about it. If you want the "Motown Sound", just ask for Chamber #2.

The audio recording of the Grammy Recording Soundtable panel discussion from AES 2007 was available from the AES site (cannot seem to find the item since the site redesign) or you can watch the video at the Grammy Web site under the P&E Wing section.

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