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.

SIX BLOCKS SOUTH of Criteria is Quadradial Recording Studios. The owner, Robert Michael Ingria, sees his operation as Criteria's chief local competitor. James Brown has recorded here, too, as well as Nantucket, Al Stewart, and Chubby Checker, but Ingria's most loyal customers are Ted Nugent, Anthrax, and Pat Travers, who completed his new album, School of Hard Knocks, at Quadradial in April. Though it's not generally acknowledged to have the world-class status of Criteria, Quadradial is unique, designed as much to be a piece of art as a functional recording facility.

In 1975 Ingria began building Quadradial with assistance from a friend who helped design it, neighborhood kids who'd pitch in with labor, and a $160,000 loan from First State Bank, known as "the rock and roll bank" because of its willingness to fund studio construction. (First State was subsequently bought by Barnett.) As a director with one feature film under his belt - the award-winning Gangbusters - Ingria saw the warehouse at 14203 NE 18th Avenue as a place to record movie soundtracks and as an exhibition room to display the films to potential distributors.

One day a stranger walked up to the 24-year-old studio builder and told him about the mahogany that grew in the jungles of Honduras, a type of wood so resonant it was used to make violins. Ingria went to the guy at the bank, borrowed more money, and set off for the unknown to get his wood - not to make violins, but to build the interior of his studio. "I had no idea where I was going," he recalls. "And I did a lot of dancing to get it. It was either that or Home Depot - Lindsay Lumber at the time." Ingria got his Honduran mahogany, and built a facility that is as architecturally gorgeous as it is functional.

The rooms that adjoin the studio - the kitchen, offices, fine-arts workroom (Ingria is an accomplished painter) - are set off by ornate stone arches. Windows are stained, a floor-to-ceiling carved-wood post stands in the middle of the large studio, which has a spacious control room in the back. Small, closetlike rooms are arrayed opposite the control room. If you stand in one of these isolation booths and clap your hands, you will hear a dull echo, a thudlike reverberation. Move to another isolation room, do the same, and you hear nothing but the clap, sharp and precise, no echo whatsoever. Instruments and vocalists can be placed in these rooms to generate precisely the required acoustics.

As Ingria was completing the construction of Quadradial, back when it was soundproofed by egg cartons on the walls, local bands began asking to use the space for rehearsals, then began paying five dollars per hour to record on the primitive four-track equipment Ingria had obtained for his movie projects. Today his studio is booked solid by musicians and their producers, and the state-of-the-art equipment installed over the years is about to be upgraded - Ingria is negotiating for a 48-track digital setup that goes for a quarter of a million dollars, as well as about $30,000 worth of "toys" - high-tech gewgaws that, in the past, Ingria would rent when a client requested what Ingria calls "exotic pieces of equipment."

FORT LAUDERDALE'S New River Studios, which already features a bounty of recording gear manufactured by Neve, Studer and other respected names in the industry, recently sent out a press release trumpeting the purchase of "A Mitsubishi X850 32-track digital recorder, equipped with Apogee filters and a pair of Pultec EQP1 eq's. In addition, the control room of Studio A has undergone renovations." Like most things electronic, the machines used by studios need constant updating because manufacturers continue coming up with improvements, and if one studio has this, the other studio feels a need to have that.

Another feature that sets New River apart is the fact that it's one of only a handful of studios in the nation that are owned and operated by women. Virginia Cayia and her mother, Paulina, opened New River in December of 1982. "We saw it as an alternative from Miami," Virginia Cayia says. "At that time there weren't any major facilities in Fort Lauderdale, just little demo places."

Miami Sound Machine considered the alternatives and selected New River to record two Spanish-language albums, as well as their first English-language effort, Primitive Love. Jimmy Buffett, Peter Frampton, the Everly Brothers, Hall and Oates, Bruce Hornsby, and Jeff Beck are among the stars who've shined up their music at the Cayias' studio. And like Criteria, New River is superstar friendly. When Don Johnson came in to record, the shrimp-and-stone-crab platters were chilled and garnished to his liking. Just recently the rambunctious hard-rock outfit Skid Row cut their soon-to-be-released album at New River. You'd expect something wild from Sebastian Bach and his boys, but it was Jimmy Buffett's band that brought strippers into the studio for a birthday celebration. All Skid Row demanded was cases of Yoohoo chocolate-flavored drink. "We even had to stock it in the Coke machines," Virginia Cayia says.

Money is money whether it is spent by Yoohoo-chugging stars or hardscrabble local rock bands - studios do not recoup their investment money on the sales of the CDs, cassettes, and albums they record. Studio bread is buttered by the renting of time, generally by the hour, sometimes in long blocks known as "lockouts," in which an artist takes over a studio for days or weeks at a stretch. There are a variety of payment plans for studio time, with hourly rates ranging from about $30 at smaller studios to about $150 at fancier places. It can go much higher depending on an artist's demands.

THE NEWS FROM the nation's economists is not good. But while everyone's muttering about a recession, Miami's studio bosses are renovating and expanding, remodeling their rooms and adding new equipment. "The big part of that is the expansion of the music business itself and the diversification," explains Mix editor David Schwartz. "Studios don't just do demos and albums any more. There are other projects in the visual world - television is more audio-oriented with stereo TV, and there's more competition to put the soundtrack and audio effects into a prominent position. The film industry is drawing on audio more. Industrial presentations are demanding more music and sound. With all of that, studios have gone through an evolution to where it'shard to find a plain old single-room 24-track, unless it's private or artist-owned. The small studio is disappearing in favor of elaborate `project studios' with rooms for producers, artists, jingle people, soundtrack developers."

A project studio is not a guarantee of increased business - Joel Levy says Criteria was hurt when it overexpanded by building the cavernous Studio A, a room so large it was the site of a huge party to celebrate the release of Nuclear Valdez's first album two years ago. Studio A was designed with movie projects in mind. "We expected a lot of film activity in the area," Levy says, "but that didn't happen."

Overall, though, experts insist that the recording business is thriving, here and elsewhere. Shirley Kaye owned Coconuts Recording Studio in Miami before she sold it in 1987, a move that forced her to resign from the board of directors of the Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios (only owners are allowed on the board). But when the nonprofit umbrella group's executive director also resigned, Kaye joked that she'd take that job. No one laughed. One of Kaye's first acts as executive director was to move SPARS's offices from Beverly Hills to Lake Worth. "Everyone says we're in a recession," she observes, "but the top-of-the-line studios are doing well and the industry is spreading out across the nation - Kansas, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix. There's a new one on the West Coast that has nine rooms. There's no real trend, but with the availability of equipment now, it is viable to move across the U.S. - you don't need to go to New York or L.A."

An increase in SPARS membership and other indicators show that business is good, but no one, including SPARS, keeps track of exactly how many recording studios there are in any given city or how many open and close. But neither does anyone dispute that New York City and Los Angeles are America's recording capitals, due mostly to the fact that those cities are also home to the majority of the world's record labels. Nashville might be the third-biggest hub, and many insiders estimate that Miami is fourth. (Cities such as Chicago and Atlanta are known more for studios that specialize in advertising work, mainly jingles.)

The approximately 50 studios located in and around Miami offer all types of service, from jingles and soundtracks to standard albums. While this area's unique cultural situation helps business, there is no segregation as far as studio selection. For example, the large number of Latin-music stars living in Miami are just like any other musicians when it comes to choosing a studio, although many tend to prefer Puerto Rico (a favorite of salseros), South America, and Los Angeles. But it is not unlikely to find a top Latin act and a local rock band using the same studio on a given day.

Nuclear Valdez, Miami's top rock and roll band, didn't need to go to New York or L.A. for the sessions that will result in their second Epic Records album, Dream Another Dream, due to be released in July. Instead they joined a list that includes some of the biggest names and best-known projects in music history when they and their producer chose Criteria Recording Studios. "Basically everybody figures out where to get the best sound at the best price," explains Nuclear Valdez singer and veteran studio rat Fro Sosa. "Studios are more compatible these days than you might think. What differs most is price and hospitality - and location. In our case, we had a world-renowned studio in Miami - and everyone wants to be in Miami anyway, so it was very easy."

"Miami is becoming the real place for the future," adds Criteria's Joel Levy. "It's relaxing here compared to the pressure of L.A. and New York. This studio has the capacity and the technology, Miami has the culture, sports, and weather. You can use New York or L.A., or you can use Criteria and get Miami with it."

THE PROPRIETORS OF Sync Studios have taken geographical considerations a step further, pinpointing not just a city, but a neighborhood. The ten-year-old operation, which has moved several times over the years, just two weeks ago completed construction of its latest facility, which is on the first floor of the 940 Lincoln Road Building in south Miami Beach, tucked in a corner at the end of the entrance hallway. "Local musicians don't have cars, and they all live on South Beach," says Frank Falestra, one of Sync's five co-op owners, each of whom owns some of the studio equipment and shares in profits. "We had 100 people walk through to check it out during the first three days we were here."

Falestra and his colleagues at Sync have a knack for breaking the rules by which studios tend to abide. Most owners put great emphasis on the physical nature of the building - the height of the ceilings, the thickness of the walls, the square footage, anything that might affect acoustics. The new room that houses Sync's equipment was not designed by a specialist (yes, there are specialists who design rooms to house studios). The owners used acoustic padding to enhance the less-than-standard acoustics of the space, built a wall to separate the control room from the studio, and made other hands-on adjustments. But as engineer, producer, and co-owner Michael MacNamee readily admits, "We adapt and improvise to this room's psychoacoustics."

At Sync, a separate, small "MIDI room" is dedicated to digital work, a computer-synthesizer process that eliminates the need for musical instruments and is essential to the making of hip-hop records, as well as jingles, dance music, and avant-garde or experimental efforts. For the old-fashioned and the rock and rollers, Sync's main studio features isolation booths for drums, guitars, and the other human-played instruments.

Sync's new home is located next to a club that's due to open soon and which plans to stage live music. The studio will then run wires to the club, which will allow the live performances to be recorded at the studio, generating the oxymoron of studio-recorded live music. "We can snake the mikes into the club for live-to-board recording," is how Falestra describes the technique. Most live recordings are made with mobile equipment, which is efficient, but hardly as flexible or versatile as having full studio facilities practically inside the club.

Despite the plethora of digital technology at Sync, Falestra says the emphasis is not on sterility and perfection - the distillation of sounds to their purest form. "Airplanes can cause problems," he says with a laugh. "But with the gates and expanders [special enhancement equipment - for more about these and other examples of studioese, see "Sound Words" sidebar], you won't hear those sounds. Then again, I say keep the distractions in if it's a good take. Some perfectionists demand dead silence, but we go for the performance." Sync also encourages musicians to turn the knobs and slide the faders of the console, rather than hiring an engineer to do it. "A young band with a friend who wants to be the producer comes in," he says, "and we tell them, `Sit down and do it. I'll be back to check on you later.' At a place like Criteria, it's, `No way. Don't touch that.' We mostly compete with the home studios, not the big established ones."

Home studios are a sign of the recent revolution in the availability of high-tech recording equipment and the boom the industry is experiencing. Though few of them are likely to boast a $400 Digital Super Effector Sampler Pitch Transporter like the one that rests on the console at Quadradial, these home studios are Star Wars compared to the professional studios of rock and roll's early days, when Elvis Presley and his contemporaries recorded on two-track equipment - one track for instruments, one for vocals.

"It's a trend," says Shirley Kaye of SPARS. "You can do some projects in small home studios, then finish in a large one with a lot of toys. Then again, some of what we call home studios are million-dollar setups. People think of a garage with a little piece of equipment, but Michael Jackson and Prince have home studios. The term `home studio' is a misnomer."

Big stars living in Miami tend to save their garages for their Rolls-Royces. They build their "home" studios in warehouses and other buildings. Emilio and Gloria Estefan had one of these private studios built on Bird Road; the Bee Gees have their Middle Ear at 1801 Bay Road in Miami Beach. Local stars also build their own public studios. Luther Campbell's new Luke Records complex, under construction at 8400 NE Second Avenue, will include a state-of-the-art 24-track studio. Chris Blackwell, legendary founder of Island Records and a talent scout who "discovered" Bob Marley and many others, is opening South Beach Studios at 1200 Collins Avenue, perhaps as soon as September.

WITH THE AVAILABILITY of high-tech recording gear, the boom in the industry, and the diversification of sound studios into the areas of film and video, Deerfield Beach's L-7 Studio would be a nostalgic piece of Americana if it weren't for the fact that some of South Florida's top rock and roll is still recorded there. You can't find L-7, at 273 NW First Street in Deerfield Beach, just by looking for it - it is one warehouse in a row of them, painted white. No sign, no nothing. The staff consists solely of Mike "Bongo" Hawn, a member of Stumble Church who performs chores around the studio in exchange for recording time. The inside doesn't stack up to a Criteria or a Quadradial, although there are a few toys, a couple of synthesizer keyboards, and an Atari computer. The few high-tech gadgets are overshadowed by a 30-year-old Wurlitzer piano, a psychedelic-colored Ludwig drum kit dating back to 1967 with the original skin on the bass, a pile of vintage guitars in their cases. The entire place is illuminated by one bare light bulb.

One of L-7's clients is local rock band Ordinary Language, whose members have seen both ends of the South Florida studio spectrum. The foursome went into Criteria in September of 1989 to cut a five-song demo. In May of last year, the band taped five songs at L-7. Apart from huge cost differences, there was another, more subtle, distinction between the two recording experiences. "Criteria enabled us to get more texture and more `studio,'" says Ordinary Language vocalist Gerald Baumann. "But we weren't looking for that at L-7. We were looking for a straight-ahead rock and roll sound. They're different things, but we're happy with the results at both. At Criteria, we were in Studio C with the famous piano [used for the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs sessions]. Somehow it made me sing a little more intensely. I guess L-7 doesn't have that big roster [of superstars that recorded at Criteria]. It's a different feeling. But we did get exactly what we were looking for when we did L-7."

Bob Wlos opened L-7 back in 1984, and despite rumors to the contrary, he hasn't shut down and has no plans to do so. Though he doesn't have a wall full of gold and platinum sent by famous clients, the fact is that some of the greatest music of all time was cut at L-7 - tracks by the Silos, the Chant, Psycho Daisies, and Charlie Pickett. Stumble Church, Kiniption Fit, Minimum Wage, Exploding Clocks, and a band Wlos plays in, Rooster Head, also recorded at L-7. Not a superstar roster, but important music nonetheless.

The obvious advantage to a setup such as Bob Wlos's is cost, but if prices are lower, so are profits. "Let's put it this way," says Wlos. "There already is a Criteria. There has to be somewhere people can go where they can afford it. I'm not a Good Samaritan - I do like to get paid.

"This is a relaxed place where people can come and don't have to watch the clock or be uptight if they don't get it on the first take. They don't start freaking out because of the expense. I like to have some input to help people out without bleeding them. My philosophy is that I'd rather see people come and do twenty songs on the same budget that they could do three or four at a Criteria. If the song is good, and I have the equipment to make it sound pretty close to Criteria - airplay quality - they might as well be able to do more songs. If nobody hears the songs, what good is it? The goal is to get other people to hear your music.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >