By Kat Bein
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Few cinematic moments feature such a perfect marriage of image and song as one in Goodfellas, with protagonist Henry Hill coked out of his skull and packing a bag of guns. As he tries, by car, to outrace a helicopter chasing him, a suspenseful swell of piano rises in the background before giving way to an epic riff that ratchets up the tension.
That song, of course, is "Layla," the major hit by Derek and the Dominoes whose popularity was seriously bolstered again in the Nineties by its appearance in the film. But what many of the song's fans don't know is that it was recorded in North Miami, at the famed Criteria Studios (now The Hit Factory). And the engineering and production team behind it was a pair of homegrown hit-makers, brothers Ron and Howard Albert.
Born and raised in South Florida, the two men have been, over the past 40 years or so, responsible for the production or engineering of some of rock's biggest, most classic tracks. And now, at the dawn of increasingly digital recording technology, it's about time these unsung analog heroes get their due.
"I think we have 40 gold records to our name and about 30 or so platinum," says Howard Albert, lounging in the studio he and his brother now own, Audio Vision in North Miami. Some of the records hang framed on the walls in the studio's reception area; they're everywhere, and there are so many that the brothers have lost an exact count. In the Seventies, Miami put out more Top 10 records than New York and California combined, says Ron Albert.
The famous "Fat Albert" drum sound they created in the late Sixties was a big part of it. A young and inexperienced Howie placed separate Neumann, AKG, and various condenser mikes on each tom, snare, kick, bass, and cymbal of a drum kit. It's a method that studios around the world now copy and that engineering textbooks now teach. But at the time, nobody had ever before multi-miked a drum set.
"One of the things we had was a studio without any clients, so we had a lot of time to experiment," Ron recalls. "And as we got a few clients, we started getting recognition for it. The Rolling Stones and Eric Claptons and the Stephen Stillses of the world were coming for our drum sound.... It became the 'Miami Sound' because we were in Miami making it."
"Ron and I work as a team together, and the two of us were much faster than one person could be, and we could get a lot more done on the board," Howard quickly adds. "There was no automation, there was no digital, there was no Pro Tools, there was no goin' back, and there was no total recall — there was no nothing. You recorded it and if you didn't get it right the first time, it was gone."
The Albert brothers are quick to point out, though, that their thirst for innovation was nurtured by their mentor: the late, great Tom Dowd, the first producer to ever splice audio tape. If you've seen the movie Ray, you will remember Dowd as the legendary Atlantic Records producer who pioneered the use of sliders instead of knobs on audio mixers. But later, as the Alberts worked with him, they would get in on the ground level of a number of other recording innovations.
"You know, Tom actually had the second multitrack tape machine — him and a legendary person by the name of Les Paul. Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford were making records and they were just the two of them and they needed to have a way to overdub, which wasn't invented yet, so Les Paul invented a term called overdubbing," Howard says. "He had Ampex build him a tape machine that allowed him to record a track and go back and record another track. It was an eight-track tape machine, and Les Paul and Tom Dowd developed that technology for multitrack recording."
"We were actually there on the ground floor of it," Ron says, "although not in the very early stages. But by the time it got good enough to actually be able to use on a regular basis, we started developing. We started [with a] three-track [machine], then four-track, and then eight-track and 16-track."
"Then the 24-track, 48-track, and then locking up two 48-track machines, and then we went to Pro Tools," Howard finishes.
So, despite their love of analog, the Albert brothers have fully brought themselves into the Pro Tools-based digital domain. But with hip-hop now the dominant form of music being recorded in Miami, they're still something of a throwback.
"Being studio owners, we've been dealing with all the major hip-hop acts, but as far as actually producing or making those records, we don't really get too much involved with that," Howard says. (Audio Vision counts Lil Wayne as a client.)
The Alberts still prize innovation and count open-mindedness as the number one quality for success in the industry today. "You've just got to listen to more music and different styles of music and keep plugging at it," Howard says, "and hopefully you'll come up with something that's unique and your own style and you'll be the next superstar."