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.

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."

"I do remember running aground with him a couple of times in Biscayne Bay," Howard Albert chimes in. "He'll probably deny that, but I remember that distinctly."

And always the parties: excursions with clients on the sailboat. Holiday parties at the studio. The New Year's Eve blowouts at the Emermans'.

"The one really great party there was New Year's Eve 1979," Ron recalls. "We were all sort of kidding around and laughing because the record business had been so good to all of us. And we were passing around this story in the Wall Street Journal saying that the record business was doomed." The cast of characters included the Emermans, Tom Dowd, Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk, and Bee Gees producer Albhy Galuten. At some point, Albert recalls, someone offered a sardonic toast to the Journal. "We were all drinking Dom Perignon, and we said kiddingly that this might be the last Dom we drink for a while, so we'd better enjoy it now."

That next year the Journal proved to have been prescient.
The company Emerman keeps these days is a bit more humble. He lives in a studio apartment at the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged at Douglas Gardens, an assisted-living center on NE Second Avenue. His lunch today, as on most days, consists of a simple salad eaten in a drab cafeteria.

On the way back to his room, he greets a number of his fellow residents and uniformed staffers. Everyone seems to know him. ("I'm kind of a star," the 74-year-old says impishly. "I'm probably the youngest guy here.")

He enters his apartment and opens the refrigerator, stowing an apple and a plastic-wrapped grapefruit half on the top shelf for later. He shuffles through the kitchen and into the carpeted living area. His home entertainment system (TV, VCR, stereo, and CD collection) is set up on metal shelves. Although hardly staggering in size or value, it is arranged with an audiophile's fastidiousness.

Emerman selects a CD. Three months after his first recording session in years, he holds in his hands a pressing of Duffy Jackson's funked-up big band tunes. He pops the disc into a tiny player, lowers himself into one of two tan vinyl captain's chairs that face his sound system, and summons the brassy swing with a poke at the remote control. His mouth curls into a smile. "I think it sounds great."

His apartment is immaculate, decorated in a spartan fashion that manages to tastefully incorporate the color orange. The dominant features, though, are the photographs. Emerman with Chili and their two daughters. His daughters with their families. A small framed portrait of his second ex-wife Dannie. ("The love of my life," he notes ruefully.) Emerman leaning against his red Maserati in front of Criteria. And, of course, half a dozen photos of the sailboats he has owned: "I was a sail nut. I've had five sailboats. Dannie and I lived on a 52-footer down at Dinner Key for a couple of years. Dannie's Dilemma was the name of the boat."

The downturn in the music industry came at a disastrous time for Criteria. Emerman had expanded again, to a total of five studios, just as recording business was drying up. The advent of synthesizers and the home-studio boom were factors in this slump -- as was the frugality of labels that didn't want give their acts a million dollars to play basketball in Miami while making an album.

Emerman doesn't like to talk about the bad times, "but I want to be completely candid," he says. And so he lays it all down, his faded blue eyes staring straight ahead. Atlantic stopped sending the steady stream of acts in the early Eighties. Regular clients the Bee Gees built their own studio in Miami Beach. Ron and Howard Albert, along with many others from Criteria's in-house family of engineers, left the studio (though they continued to record there as outside producers). His vast facility couldn't book nearly enough time to pay for itself, and Criteria began to fall into arrears on its loans.

This information comes slowly; Emerman keeps veering into conversational cul-de-sacs about boats or recording equipment. Finally he turns down the volume on Duffy Jackson. He sags into his chair, his forearm supporting his weight on the left armrest (a pose long-time Criteria staffers called "the Mack Lean"). He begins speaking about how he lost his studio. How he nearly lost himself.

"In 1991 all this came to an end," he says wearily, gesturing at the photographs. "I was so busy with the acoustics, with the equipment end of it. The business part, I guess I didn't handle so good. I'm a little ashamed, but it's the truth. It's nobody's fault but my own."

In 1988 Hap Levy, a Fort Lauderdale real estate developer, bought Emerman's mortgage on Criteria, as well as the studio's recording equipment. He also paid off the considerable debt on the property. Levy's son Joel joined Criteria as president. Emerman stayed on with a CEO title, but Joel Levy was calling the shots. "Joel and I had a good couple of years together," Emerman says. "We went to lunch every day, and then all of a sudden it was over."

Emerman doesn't remember the circumstances of his departure. By that point he was already in the throes of depression; he was mortified that he was losing his hearing, an infirmity he regarded as the deathblow to his livelihood. (He also suffered a series of mild strokes, which have affected his memory.)

Tom Dowd, at 72 two years Emerman's junior, remembers seeing Emerman from time to time at Scotty's, a gourmet grocery in Coconut Grove, after the Levys took over but before Emerman departed. "I'd see Mack walking down an aisle, and I'd say, 'Hey, Mack, how you doing?' And it'd be like, no recognition. None, just ... a veil."

"He was in a position in his life where he should never have had to worry again," Ron Albert says. "He had reached that point in his life where he was secure and should have been very proud of his accomplishments. He created an industry that didn't exist here -- singlehandedly, really."

While economic decline of the studio and Emerman's parallel descent were gradual, the break with Criteria came abruptly. Arranger Mike Lewis remembers coming to Criteria for a session one day in 1991 and finding Emerman sitting in the parking lot, doing a near catatonic rendition of the Mack Lean. Whether he quit or was fired remains unclear, but after that day he never returned to the studio as a member of the staff. "Criteria was his life, it was his baby. When he finally lost it, it just destroyed him," Lewis says.

At this point Emerman's misery was so profound that his family put him in a psychiatric ward, where he was under suicide watch for some days. After that, he stayed with his sister and his daughter for a few weeks. Early in his collapse he and Dannie divorced. He withdrew to the studio apartment at Douglas Gardens.

It was in this room, surrounded by images of the people and things he had lost, that Emerman spent his exile. "I didn't talk to my kids, my friends," Emerman says. "If somebody called me on the phone, I'd say, 'I can't talk to you.' If somebody came to my door, I'd say, 'I can't see you.' I just holed up here. It was awful. I'm so ashamed of it."

His old friend Jerry Marshall kept the closest tabs on him. Anyone who knew anything about Emerman during his exile likely received their intelligence from Marshall. But even he didn't have real conversations with Emerman. "When nobody was looking, I got on the elevator there [at Douglas Gardens], went upstairs, and knocked on his door, and this little guy peered out with the chain on the door," Marshall says. "He said, 'Jerry, please go away, I can't see anybody.'"

"We were convinced that the next time we'd see Mack would be at his funeral," says Ron Albert.

"And not just us," brother Howard adds. "A lot of people who knew him well thought he had died."

The source of Emerman's greatest torment was his near deafness. His entire career, his entire being, was rooted in an impeccable ear for tone, pitch, and timbre. When that left him, he says, everything else deteriorated. He was inconsolable. A compact stereo system, a gift from his kids, sat unopened in his apartment for months. Why bother? he thought.

Emerman believes he would still be locked in his depression were it not for a thorough ear examination in August 1996. A physician at Douglas Gardens cleared out some nasty detritus in both ears, and he could instantly hear the difference. He returned to his apartment, hooked up the stereo, and looked for just the right CD.

"I sat right in the middle of the room, put on Pandemanium, some of the stuff I'd done with the University of Miami Jazz Band, and I started to bawl like a baby. I could hear it. I had to crank it up a bit, but I could hear it." Emerman was subsequently diagnosed with a moderate hearing loss, which he has corrected with digital hearing aids.

A few months later, simple laser surgery corrected a nagging prostate problem. "I began to feel like a human being again," Emerman says. And, last year, he began to reach out.

"Out of the clear blue sky, Mack called me up and said, 'I want to talk to you, we've got to have lunch,'" Tom Dowd recalls. "He was coherent, and it was amazing. He was about 75 to 80 percent lucid."

He was also checking in at Criteria, which for most of 1997 had been undergoing serious renovations. "I'd heard that Mack was calling up and saying, 'What are you doing to my building? What the hell are you doing over there?'" recalls Mike Lewis. "So still, as of six months ago, he hadn't let go."

Emerman himself won't discuss his return trips to Criteria, but he does allow that he wasn't made to feel welcome. What frustrates him, he says, is that most of his memories of his last years at the studio are blotted out. The loss of Criteria clearly gnaws at his pride; he is humiliated that he should have to seek permission to show his grandchildren around the facility where he once held court with Benny Goodman and James Brown.

Interviewed in his office at Criteria, Joel Levy is eager to note that 1998 marks the studio's 40th anniversary. He is much less eager to offer comments for a profile of Emerman. "We want to keep it in a nice light," he says. "Because, you know, things happened. Businesses go up, they go down, and that's just part of life."

Like many old Criteria hands, the Alberts are not fans of the new regime. They refer to the facility as "Bacteria." Tom Dowd, though, credits Levy for bringing the studio out of its debt-ridden Eighties slump and into a new decade of big-name acts. Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Bush, and Dr. Dre have all recorded at Criteria in the past few years.

Though Emerman's old wounds are still tender, he has found a home at Audio Vision among his former proteges. The Alberts have given him the run of the studio. They helped him organize the Duffy Jackson session, and now Emerman is trying to line up some time to record another bigtime Miami jazz player, saxophonist Ira Sullivan. He's also developing an outside partnership that would return him to his roots in the music business: recording live jazz at venues around South Florida.

Standing in the doorway of the Audio Vision control room, Emerman gazes at the equipment on which he now plies his trade. It's not his; he didn't build this place and watch it flourish. Still, he gets to test levels, punch in overdubs, set noise gates, adjust microphones so they sit just so. "It gives me something to do," he says simply. "I come here every day.

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