Ask Avatar Recording Studios owner Kirk Imamura to explain the studio's recent resurgence after five years of uncertainty and he modestly defers to his staff and clients. “When I took over [in early 2001], there were clients who had been recording here since the start of the studio as Power Station in 1977. They just like the place. The sound is irreplaceable. Even with all our trials and tribulations, a lot of our clients stuck with us.”
Similarly, Imamura is quick to throw the spotlight on his management team, crediting them with ensuring the continuity and proper functioning of the studio. “We have good staff here,” he says. “They're very enthusiastic and they go out of their way to help our clients.” Led by studio manager Tino Passante — an Avatar veteran — the staff also includes chief technical engineer Ken Bailey, accounting manager Bill Denny and staff engineer Scott Young.
But, in reality, most of the credit for Avatar's turnaround belongs to Imamura himself. An energetic, imaginative leader, he is somehow reinventing the studio without tampering with its unique and time-proven character. In Studio D, for instance, Imamura undertook what he calls a “tightening up” of that control room's low end by slightly moving in the back wall and installing acoustic treatments to improve the studio's bass-trapping characteristics. Furthermore, Imamura fitted the room with soffit-mounted Westlake BBSM-15 monitors, which were installed by in-house carpenter Vinny Sofia. He also replaced a Solid State Logic Axiom-MT digital console with SSL's tried-and-true, “ultra-analog” SL-9000 J, Avatar's second.
Although, by any definition, a new console, new speakers and a change in a control room's dimensions constitute a major overhaul, perhaps the boldest move Imamura made was in the visual realm. Departing from Avatar's trademark knotty-pine, natural-stained wood paneling, Imamura painted the walls in Studio D a glossy black, giving them a high-tech but still warm look. “It's a whole new world,” beams Bailey.
In its previous incarnation, Studio D had hosted such recording luminaries as Diana Ross, Joe Jackson, Tony Visconti, Nile Rodgers and Foxy Brown. In fact, Brown was the first client to book the room after its redesign, proving to Imamura that his approach toward the room was, above all, client-friendly.
A hallmark of Studio D's spacious control room is its readiness for 5.1-channel mixing. However, Imamura is the first to admit that the studio has yet to receive a substantial demand for surround work. On the other hand, Avatar's investment in connectivity has already paid dividends. With four ISDN lines in each of its four major studios, the facility's fiber network is used constantly for remote collaborations, approvals and video teleconferencing.
If Avatar's ISDN capability enables remote collaborations, then the studio's heavy Pro Tools orientation allows clients to share projects by bringing their own hard drives with them. With two full-fledged editing suites in the facility (Studios E and K) and systems that are shared by the four primary control rooms, Avatar is a Pro Tools powerhouse. “Because Pro Tools is a de facto standard, we wanted to have a place where people could do pre- or post-production on their projects, or work on lower-budget projects,” says Imamura. “That's why we built Studio K.”
Studio E, Avatar's other Pro Tools suite, is leased by Jan Folkson in a partnership designed to foster a “creative community” of artists and engineers at the studio. Two other veteran Avatar clients, Jeff Bova and Jim Janik, also recently joined the studio in a similar capacity.
Now that Imamura has completed the redesign of Studio D, the construction of Studio K and a cosmetic facelift on Avatar's 53rd Street facade, he is setting his sights on such projects as turning the building's fourth floor — formerly a penthouse apartment — into a mix room and converting space in the basement into a project studio. Those projects are years, not months, away, but Imamura is already plotting them, suggesting that he has a methodical and long-range vision for the studio.
Elsewhere at Avatar, the rooms remain quite the same as they've been. Studio A houses a vintage Neve 8068 and a huge tracking room for which Avatar is most renowned — a space that both Sony and Yamaha sampled for their high-end reverb processors. Studio B is home to a 72-input SSL 9000 J with a 5.1 monitoring matrix, Total Recall and Ultimation. Its tracking area is also quite large: 20×30 feet, with a ceiling height of 15 feet at its highest point. Studio C, based around a 72-input Neve VRP, has a tracking room measuring 24x40 feet, with a 24-foot ceiling and an architecture that allows the space to be divided into three large isolation booths.
Prior to Imamura's arrival, Avatar had been run by Voikunthanath Kanamori, a Japanese businessman who purchased the former Power Station when it was auctioned off in 1996 after its original owner, Tony Bongiovi, lost control of the studio. Kanamori renamed the facility Avatar and appointed Power Station veteran Zoe Thrall manager and, later, president. Thrall oversaw a period of continuity and prosperity for Avatar, allaying clients' misgivings about Avatar's ability to live up to the Power Station legend. However, tensions between Kanamori and Thrall led to Thrall's resignation and the eventual sale of the studio.
Imamura, a mechanical engineer who worked at Sony Corp. and Sony Electronics, purchased Avatar amid new skepticism about the studio's viability in a changing, competitive market. However, many of Avatar's and Power Station's longtime clients have returned to the facility, proving that Imamura is carrying on the studio's tradition of excellence while adapting it to the age of the Internet.
“When the Power Station was auctioned off in 1996, it didn't fold because of a lack of customers,” says Imamura. “It folded because of management issues. There's nothing wrong with the studio or its rooms. These are some of the best-designed rooms ever built. Plus, no matter how much work you do in a project studio, you still need to track somewhere, and the rooms we have are the place to track. No one wants to see this place turned into a condominium.”
Certainly not the artists who have made Avatar and Power Station their home over the years. To name just a few: Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Ramones, Aerosmith and Sheryl Crow.
SEPTEMBER 11 ADDENDUM
Last month, New York Metro Report brought you news of pro audio companies and individuals who contributed to the September 11 relief cause by donating time, equipment or services. After deadline, I received news of more worthy benefactors whom I'd like to mention here.
Marcussen Mastering and Metropolis DVD donated audio mastering and DVD authoring services, respectively, for the America: A Tribute to Heroes CD and DVD. Also, the following vendors and venues were involved in the Heroes recording and/or the September 21 telethon on which it was based: Westwood One, ATK Audiotek Corporation, Soundtronics, Center Staging, Audio Affects, Audio Specialties, Hollywood Sound, Top of the Pops and DMT Rentals.
This, of course, is by no means a comprehensive listing. However, in the spirit of solidarity with the cause, I wanted to acknowledge all the entities whose contributions were made known to me.
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