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.

In 1965 Emerman expanded the facility, building a second studio large enough to accommodate a full symphony orchestra or the biggest of big bands. Emerman's first gold record was James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)." It was to be the first of the some 250 gold and platinum slabs to hang on the paneled walls.

Throughout the early years, Emerman was owner, president, and chief engineer, running the board for the major and minor acts that came through. But by the mid-Sixties pop and rock had begun to supplant jazz and blues as Criteria's staple. As Count Basie and Taj Mahal gave way to Neil Young and Abba, Emerman left the actual engineering to his young apprentices, including Ron Albert and his brother Howard.

When Ron first came to Criteria, he was an enthusiastic, music-loving fourteen-year-old who wanted to learn the recording business. Emerman decided to give him a shot. "He was willing to work very cheaply," Emerman says with a chuckle. "But he quickly became a fantastic engineer."

Albert remembers being drawn into Emerman's feverish affinity for the latest and best gear and his constant quest for sonic perfection. "We were always epoxy-painting the walls and sanding them down, trying to change the acoustics and the size of the rooms," Albert says. "It was like going to work in a laboratory that had a lot of hands-on knowledge, but no real technical expertise. As long as you had the initiative to experiment, you could come up with whatever you wanted to do."

Emerman's designated electronics whiz was Jeep Harned, the thirtysomething owner of a hi-fi shop in Fort Lauderdale. After taking on a few fix-it jobs for Emerman, Harned wound up building much of Criteria's early equipment by hand to Emerman's specifications. Thus, in addition to being Miami's only world-class studio, Criteria was also the testing ground for some of the world's most advanced recording equipment. Emerman and Harned would travel to Germany to buy the best microphones, and to Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center to buy government-surplus Ampex reel-to-reels, which they adapted for use in the studio.

Criteria's laboratory atmosphere sometimes made for headaches. "I'd be doing sessions where one day there's one set of speakers, and you go back the next day and there's another set of speakers that sound completely different," recalls Mike Lewis, a renowned arranger and producer. "Mack was a gear freak, and this studio was his play-toy. And if you didn't like it, he sort of had the attitude of, 'If you don't want to play my way, I'll take my ball and bat and go home.' He didn't do it in a malicious way. This was how deeply he felt about the place. It was his heart and soul."

His love of jazz has remained undiminished over the years, but Emerman was quick to recognize the changing musical marketplace in the Sixties. As rock and roll blossomed into a commercial force, Criteria became the official home to Atlantic Records' leading rock producer, Miamian Tom Dowd. In 1971 Emerman built his state-of-the-art Studio C. Artists such as the Eagles, Bob Seger, the Bee Gees, and Eric Clapton queued up to record there.

"Between 1967 and 1975 you couldn't get into Criteria with a shoehorn," Dowd says. He remembers once wanting to use one of the boards for some remixing. He needed only 30 minutes, but Criteria staffers told him all three rooms were booked for recording. Curious, Dowd decided to suss out the situation.

"When I drove up, there was Crosby, Stills and Nash and their crew, the Bee Gees, Bob Seger and his band, and they're all playing half-court basketball in the fucking parking lot," Dowd says with a cackle. "Everybody was gravitating to Miami in those days. Artists were looking to get out of the grind of New York or L.A. They wanted to take some R and R and record an album at the same time."

Although Emerman refers to the era as "the Atlantic Years," dozens of other labels and artists were vying for time at Criteria during the Seventies, including John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Buffett, Wilson Pickett, and KC and the Sunshine Band. The boom allowed Emerman to approach the rest of his life with the same sort of obsessive playfulness he brought to the studio. After a 1976 divorce from Chili, Emerman married Dannie Holtz, a thirtyish friend of Dowd. Emerman and his new bride moved into a comfortable Coconut Grove townhouse, behind which were anchored his sailboats, in front of which were parked his sports cars. He piloted both with an abandon that sometimes got him into trouble. Testing the limits of his Porsche led to a slew of speeding tickets, costing him his license at one point. He got it back in time to tool around in his new red Maserati.

But as much as he loved his cars, he had a special fondness for his boats. "Sailing's his passion," Ron Albert says. "It was required for us, as his 'sons,' that if you weren't working in the studio you were sailing on Saturdays. That was it. And you had to listen to those goddamn jazz records all day long."

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