Making Tracks

THREE WEEKS AGO, when James Brown began recording his first album since being released from a South Carolina prison, the studio was abuzz with the sort of excitement that surrounded his legendary sessions for "I Got You." Three decades later, in the same studio, the Godfather of Soul looked around, spread his arms, and pronounced, "The magic is still here!" He wasn't talking about himself or his band. He was referring to the place, Criteria Recording Studios in North Miami.

Criteria is the best known of South Florida's dozens of recording studios, mysterious places where sound is generated, disassembled, and reshaped by men and machines. While very few people have any idea what goes on inside such places, the work accomplished in studios here and elsewhere affects everyone in the world who listens to recorded music. For every song you hear on the radio, every CD you buy at Spec's, every piece of recorded music that enters your ears, somebody somewhere had to know the difference between a noise gate/expander and a single-channel compressor, or the proper way to apply a mike processor to a Digital Audio Transfer machine, or the most audibly effective way to integrate a sound console to the monitors and the master recorder. Many types of people operate studios and work in them, but all are the sort who know that the threshold control of a Drawmer DL241 Auto-Comp has a +20dB to -40dB range and soft-knee action on signals exceeding the threshold by up to 10dB. And before casually explaining that, they're bound to note, "The compression section is pretty straightforward."

A recording studio is this: A soundproof room with microphones, musical instruments, a console that serves as the brains of the operation, playback monitors (essentially state-of-the-art speakers), and various electronic gear that, when integrated, makes your $2000 modular home-stereo unit look like an old transistor radio. A top-of-the-line sound console, for example, runs about $250,000, and a decent tape recorder costs roughly the same amount. But no matter how acoustically excellent a room might be, no matter how many dollars worth of high-tech equipment is installed therein, what really matters when it comes to studios is the sort of "magic" James Brown was talking about.

And the magic takes many different forms. When Latin pop superstar Roberto Carlos came to Criteria a few months ago to record, the studio interior had to be done up in white - everything white, including dozens of white roses, from which the singer drew a "positive aura" before each recording session. When Aretha Franklin came through in the late Sixties, Criteria's hallways smelled of her homemade collard greens. And for Stevie Nicks's visit two years ago, it was candles, lighted candles everywhere. "That was very eerie," recalls Criteria president Joel Levy. "But she needed candles to get in the mood."

Whether it be candles, collards, or caviar, studio owners have got to keep the customer satisfied. Recording means hard work and long hours, make no mistake, but superstars toil in comfort, or they cut their next album somewhere else. David Schwartz, who in 1977 co-founded Mix magazine - an industry bible - and still serves as its editor, puts it this way: "It's not just a matter of buying equipment. You can buy a great facility, but it goes beyond, to the facility's design, the uniqueness of the sound of the room. And the human factor is very important. You have to create an energy that is conducive to the creative process. You can't just open the door with a lot of money and have a studio."

In 1957 Mack Emerman opened Criteria at 1755 NE 149th Street, with little money and a lot of creative energy. Customers entered a small reception area, went through a door, and there it was: one room with a three-track Ampex recorder and some microphones. Today that original room is known as Studio B, one of five studios within Criteria's sprawling complex. It is currently being used as a storage room, randomly packed with old amps, crates, sundry bits and pieces of musical history.

For ten years Criteria was little more than a bare-bones place where local jazz acts and James Brown - not to mention Brook Benton or Sam and Dave - were equally comfortable. But the studio began to expand in size and scope, and made its historical mark by recording the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Miami Sound Machine, Julio Iglesias, Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, John Cougar, and of course the hardest working man in show business, Soul Brother Number One. In all, Criteria has been the birthplace of more than 150 records that went gold or platinum.

But when James Brown took a seventeen-piece band into Studio E last month to record what is sure to become one of the most talked-about albums of this year, Mack Emerman was nowhere in sight. Joel Levy is now president of the revered studio. "Mack retired," he says. "He's working on personal things, taking care of some matters." Emerman recently moved into a new house, and, according to a close associate, he finally has time for the boating he loves. Others assert a less idyllic reason for his departure, but Emerman refuses to grant interviews about his illustrious career, his unpublicized retirement, or his current activities.

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