Five Questions: Tony Bongiovi

Fifty years of audio innovation—from Motown to Medicine

Producer, engineer, and inventor Tony Bongiovi is probably best known for building the legendary Power Station Studios (which became Avatar) in New York City; he’s shaped some of the mightiest sounds in rock, from Jimi Hendrix to The Ramones, Aerosmith, The Scorpions, Talking Heads, and Ozzy Osbourne.

He has spent five decades pushing the boundaries of recording technology, from his early career work at Motown as a teenager through his latest endeavor, Bongiovi Acoustics, which specializes in DSP products for a variety of industries.

We caught up with Bongiovi in New York, when he returned to record at Avatar nearly a quarter century after his last session in that storied room.

Before The Power Station, before Record Plant, you got your start at home, re-creating the Motown Sound. Contrast your experience then with the modern home studio environment.

The home studio today is probably one hundred times more sophisticated than professional studios when I began my career back in the ’60s. Technology has made it possible to create records without leaving your house.

In fact, I give a Motown seminar and in order for me to show how I duplicated that sound, I bought a 4-channel mixer, with echo send on it and equalization. It was $80! I think it was 6-channel, it had faders, and it had low, mid, and high-frequency EQs, and special effects for delays or reverberation. To get that kind of flexibility in the late ’60s, you’d have to spend $80K.

You’re renowned for designing live recording spaces. How can musicians capture a “big” sound when they are recording in less-than-optimal spaces?

With the recording equipment that is available now, you can add spatial effects; you can create room size. It’s never going to be the same, like at Power Station in New York, where you have a fairly large room and can take advantage of the design of that big room. We used to put the drums out there and got the 1980s rock drum sound that became famous. You can’t get that exact sound, but you have the tools available to try to replicate it. You record it as best you can in whatever room you’re in. It might not be the optimal situation, but then you have all these special effects that you can use, to change or color the sound, to make it do what you want it to do.

Tell me about Bongiovi Acoustics and your new DPS plug-in.

I wanted to do something in aviation, so I needed to find a way to take lightweight speakers and get them to sound like they were built mechanically so that they could deliver acoustically a wider range of frequency. That’s when Digital Power Station technology was born. DPS is a patented algorithm with 120 calibration points that optimizes audio in real time. DPS takes compromised or compressed material, like an MP3 or streaming audio, and makes it sound like full-quality audio by adding depth, clarity, definition, presence, and unbelievable stereo field imaging. Through my company, Bongiovi Acoustics, the technology has been utilized in different industries; automotive, consumer products, mobile communications, and medical. We have a joint venture with some of the biggest tech companies in China. In fact, they want to build an exact replica of the Power Station in China next year!

Our technology is active; the technology listens to the program material and then imprints into the amplifier a sound change, a voltage change, that is coincident with what is necessary to faithfully reproduce those frequencies. It’s being told to compensate for deficiencies in the mechanical design of the playback transducer, the speaker. When the plug-in comes out, for a limited time, we’re offering it free. We want to get it out there so everyone can try it.

How do we educate consumers on the importance of audio quality as part of the listening experience?

There is no right or wrong. Quality is what you believe your sound should be. No more, no less.

More and more, people are breaking with convention. For example, distortion is now used a lot by rappers as a standard recording technique. That started to become popular when I was recording Jimi Hendrix at Record Plant. When he played, it was so loud that it distorted like crazy, and he wanted that. We couldn’t find microphones that we could pad down enough that either wouldn’t distort or wouldn’t distort the input to the console, because back then the equipment wasn’t designed to handle that. So we had to figure out all kinds of inline pads and go to dynamic microphones and do all kinds of things to be able to record—that was controlled distortion. Jimi took distortion, which everyone thought to be bad, and turned it into a new aesthetic.

What was it like to work at Avatar—formerly The Power Station—25 years after your last session there?

It was quite an experience. As I was walking a film crew through the studio and explaining to them how I designed it, I wondered, “How did I come up with this?” I was 26 years old. Then when everyone started playing, and especially the horns in that big room, it was a real treat because I hadn’t been there in so long. The room was designed for musicians to play in. I’m not a musician, but I know what sound means to a musician.