King of the Soundboard

Mack Emerman founded Criteria Recording Studios, made a fortune, lost it all, then lost his mind. Now he's back from the dead and ready to work.

North Miami's Audio Vision Studios is bristling with brass. Squeezed inside a tiny recording studio is Duffy Jackson's nine-piece swing ensemble. After a count-off from Jackson, a rotund drummer, the band rips into "Tiny's Blues," a 50-year-old tune that Jackson has updated with a funk beat. The trumpets, saxes, and trombones are swinging it Tommy Dorsey, Jackson is slamming it Weather Report.

It's an uplifting sound, but the music itself is not what makes this session significant in the annals of the Miami music scene. The dozen or so spectators in the control room are grinning broadly at the diminutive character perched behind the mixing board. White-haired and gnomish, the fellow wears a multicolor madras shirt and blue suspenders and peers through thick glasses at the board. He slides faders up and down, tweaks knobs, taps buttons -- tentatively at first, then with greater confidence. To the delight of those around him, Mack Emerman, founder of Miami's Criteria Recording Studios, is back in control.

It's been nearly seven years since Emerman left Criteria, the legendary Miami hit factory that he built into a recording empire. A jazz lover and equipment freak, Emerman spent the studio's Seventies heyday living the life of rock and roll royalty: Porsches, Maseratis, Dom Perignon, 50-foot sailboats, a beautiful young wife. But Criteria's lean years put an abrupt end to his high life. Mired in debt and beset by a bruising depression, he lost everything during the Eighties, including the studio he had launched in 1959. The man who had once stood astride Miami's music landscape like a colossus wound up destitute and institutionalized, suffering from despair and failing health. Many of his former colleagues weren't sure he was alive, and almost no one knew where he was.

But on this warm autumn evening Emerman has reached an important milestone in his long journey back: He's working in a studio, recording big band jazz, and doing so surrounded by old friends, including two of his former proteges from Criteria, Ron and Howard Albert, co-owners of Audio Vision. "Mack's very loved in this industry," Howard Albert says. "He's responsible for so much. It's mind-boggling that he could be gone for that long, just sort of dropped out like that."

As Duffy Jackson counts off "God Child," Emerman hunches over the controls, oblivious to his well-wishers. His hands move over the board with a joyful assurance undulled by seven years of hell.

Mack Emerman's voice is gentle, a little tremulous, as he recounts his early history. He was born in 1923, raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, and attended Duke University, where he formed his own big band. "I'm a really bad trumpet player, but I thought I was good at that time," he says.

There he met his first wife Ann, nicknamed "Chili." The couple moved to Hollywood in 1950 with their two young daughters. Emerman's father also relocated to South Florida that year and bought a candy manufacturing plant in Hialeah. Dutifully, Emerman went to work for the old man, delivering the sweets in his station wagon.

"To be very honest, I hated that," Mack says with typical bluntness. His fervor for music, stoked in college, led him to frequent South Florida's hottest jazz clubs. Emerman soon discovered a passion for which he had shown an immediate knack: recording live concerts. The same station wagon that carried his dad's saltwater taffy also hauled his reel-to-reel recording equipment, which he would lug from venue to venue.

This experience spurred what became a lifelong obsession with audio gear. "When stereo first came out, I made my own speakers," he says. "I didn't know anything about electronics, I just did it."

His club-crawling days gave Emerman a healthy respect for the Miami jazz scene of the Fifties, as well as a quiet outrage at the lack of local recording facilities. He began the Criteria record label, taping local artists in his house on Plunkett Street and at nightclubs.

Trumpeter Jerry Marshall still vividly remembers the sessions in the Emerman household. The fledgling engineer would set up his equipment in the garage, then snake the microphone cables inside, where the musicians would play. If need be, they'd croon radio jingles: "We'd be singing 'W-Q-A-M' in Mack's living room, and we had 30 more to do. We had to hurry up and finish before his kids got home from school."

Sometimes they didn't meet the deadline, and the girls would burst in in the middle of a take, usually to a chorus of guffaws from the musicians. "It was wonderful," Emerman says, sighing.

Despite the joys of home recording, Emerman was determined to build a proper studio in Miami. He persuaded his father to buy some property on NE 149th Street in North Miami, near the WPBT-TV (Channel 2) studios. In 1959 an empty lot at 1755 NE 149th St. became the future site for Criteria Recording Studios.

Criteria's single recording studio quickly developed a national reputation. And Emerman himself earned a reputation as a meticulous engineer. In the early Sixties the studio played host to Benny Goodman and his band. Goodman had a terrible cold, which seemed to put him in a mood. "We had quite a discussion about how to mike everything, but I finally convinced him of my way," Emerman recalls with relish.

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