Mack Emerman, the founder of Criteria Recording Studios and one of the original founders of SPARS has died at 89. Some 250 gold or platinum singles and albums were recorded at Criteria, which became known as Atlantic Records South when Emerman formed an alliance with producer Tom Dowd. Acts including Eric Clapton, James Brown and the Bee Gees made some of their most famous records at Criteria.
The records include “Layla” by Clapton’s group Derek and the Dominoes, James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” ”Eat A Peach” by The Allman Brothers Band and parts of huge 1970s hits such as “Saturday Night Fever” by the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and “Hotel California” by the Eagles.
His daughter Bebe Emerman said Tuesday that her father died of complications from pneumonia at the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged, where he had lived since his health began failing in 2004. The Criteria studio, which he opened in 1959 in North Miami, has been operated by the Hit Factory since 1999.
Things went downhill for Emerman in the 1980s. His daughter said he continued buying equipment and expanding studios at Criteria even as the music industry hit a slump. Emerman eventually sold Criteria to a local investor in 1988 and three years later he was forced out.
Maxwell Louis Emerman was born in 1923 in Erie, Pa., and later began playing the jazz trumpet while attending Duke University. With his wife and two daughters, he came to South Florida in 1953 to work in his father’s candy business in Hialeah, but his daughter said he began recording live jazz and then set up a studio in his garage, running cables into the family living room where the musicians performed.
He built Criteria with a loan from his father and opened it in 1959 as Miami’s first world-class recording studio. Other musicians who recorded there over the years included Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, Gloria Estefan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Lenny Kravitz, Lynyrd Skynyrd and R.E.M.
Emerman is survived by daughters Bebe Emerman, of Pasadena, Calif., and Julie Goldman of Miami, as well as two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Mack Emerman was also one of the original founders of SPARS, the 34 year old association for recording professionals, as well as one of its early Presidents. The following details about the founding of SPARS is excerpted from the SPARS History, written some years later by Pete Caldwell, founder of Doppler Studios in Atlanta and also a past President of the SPARS Board of Directors:
“Although no one knew it at the time, SPARS began in The Pacific Dining Car in downtown L.A. during the AES Convention in the fall of 1979. Only months later would the spirit of that evening beget an organization and be given the name, The Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios. Certainly at the time none of the revelers at Kent Duncan’s (Kendun Recorders / L.A.) and Billboard Magazine’s dinner bash were thinking in the lofty terms of industry wide communication, leadership and direction. Nonetheless, the guest list was impressive: Harry Hirsch (SoundMixers, NYC), Howard Schwartz (Howard Schwartz Recording, NYC), Dave Teig and Tom Cahill (Atlantic Records, NYC), Ham Brosious (Audio Techniques, NYC), Mack and Danny Emerman (Criteria, Miami), Jeep and Joyce Harned (MCI, Ft. Lauderdale, FL), Chris Stone (Record Plant, L.A.), Jim Stern (Fantasy Records, L.A.), Ike Bedouin (Audio Industries, L.A.) and Carl J. Yanchar (Kendun Recorders / Sierra Audio).
‘Everybody was having a whopping good time,’ Mack Emerman (Criteria Recording / Miami) would later remember in an interview for R/EP Magazine, ‘the discussion got into, ‘Mr. Manufacturer or Mr. Studio Equipment Supplier, none of you are giving us what we want. You don’t listen to us.’ And it sort of got heavy. Jeep Harned of MCI was there. He was the only manufacturer I remember. It was mostly studio owners from the L.A. area. But Jeep got riled up. I can’t say that he got angry, but he got up and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! We always listen to you. Why don’t you guys come down to Fort Lauderdale, we’ll have a big confab about this thing and we’ll see what it is that you really want.”
SPARS was born among those cocktails, out of the good natured and often witty ranting of a hand full of men and women who were enjoying an unfamiliar feeling: that they were among friends; that they were more alike than they wanted to admit; that they shared a rare bond – they owned and operated recording studios. That night it seemed that their problems, their fears, and even their dreams were the same.
Jeep Harned made good on his invitation, and on June 15th, the spirit of the Pacific Dining Car moved to Ft. Lauderdale where it would flourish as Kent Duncan’s dinner party was expanded by MCI invitation to a representative guest list which included the owners of 15 of the top U.S. recording studios of the time:
A&R Studios/NYC, Atlantic Studios/NYC, Criteria Recording Company/Miami, Flyways-Header Recording/Hollywood, Group IV Recording/Hollywood, House of Music/New Jersey, Howard M. Schwartz Recording/NYC, Canteen Recording/Burbank, Larrabee Sound/Hollywood, Media Sound/NYC, Record Plant/Los Angeles, Regent Sound Studios/NYC, Sigma Sound Studios/Philadelphia, Sound Mixers/NYC, Studio 55/Chicago.
As in L.A., these guests were unaware that they were about to become part of recording industry history. In truth most of them were thinking about the cost, configuration, and availability of future recording console technology. The first evening in Ft. Lauderdale, Jeep had arranged a little outing, a boat trip on the New River. MCI played host to the studio owners on the 98 foot pleasure craft, Pilgrim II. Chris Stone (Record Plant/L.A.) recalls, ‘It soon became clear that we had an opportunity to do a great deal more for the industry than design a console.’ In fact, it soon occurred to almost everyone aboard Pilgrim II that the productive and satisfying atmosphere of cooperation and mutual endeavor that everyone was experiencing might be continued. The possibility of future meetings was much discussed. By most accounts, it was Kent Duncan who favored a formal organization from the very beginning. According to Stone, Kent was the original ‘mover and shaker’ for organized action. It is ironic that so much impetus for an industry-wide organization of studio owners came from a man who was very soon to disappear from the scene.”
The following is from an October 1, 1999 Mix Magazine article titled, “Biograph: MACK EMERMAN:”
“In 1958, when Mack Emerman founded Criteria Recording Studios, it was the city’s first real recording studio. Emerman, who turns 75 this year, was born in Erie, Penn., and convinced his steel-selling father that he was attending Duke University for its business classes. “The real reason I went there was because Les Brown formed a big band, the Duke Ambassadors, there,” recalls Emerman, who played trumpet with Brown in that band. While Les Brown went into the musical pantheon with his Band of Renown, Emerman’s family migrated to the sunnier climes of south Florida in 1950, a landscape not changed all that much since the Marx Brothers’ 1929 Broadway comedy and film Coconuts lampooned land sales scams and snowbirding hoi polloi.
Emerman’s love of jazz prompted him to expand his record collection by making tapes of touring acts like Woody Herman. Emerman’s first recording rig included a Berlant Concertone tape recorder, which featured five heads and could record in mono or stereo, a favorite pair of Neumann U47 microphones and some homemade speakers, which he loaded in the back of his station wagon and took around to the various jazz clubs of Dade County. Emerman then turned the resulting tapes into discs, using the first cutting lathe ever seen in the county.
In 1955 Emerman formed a label, which he christened Criteria Records, and though that venture foundered, it did lead him into a professional modus operandi that would stand him well in the years to come. “I called it ‘studio-sneaking,’” he says. “I would go into other studios and see how they did it.” One such trip led him to the doorstep of famed jazz producer/engineer Rudy van Gelder, in suburban New Jersey. “He was my hero,” says Emerman, with the genuine sincerity that made friends of most of the studio owners he met this way. “Rudy came to the door in his bathrobe and told me to come on in. He had the first recording console I had ever seen. I saw a red light flashing on the board, and I asked him about it, and he said, ‘I’ll cut your masters for you, but I’m not giving you any engineering lessons!’”
In 1958, Emerman opened Criteria Recording Studios in a building on 149th Street in North Miami. The first studio was equipped with Ampex decks-3-track, stereo and mono-and a console built by Wimpy Hutchinson, then the chief engineer at the local NBC affiliate. A few people noticed some distortion in the sound of the garage-built console, and Emerman sought advice from the owner of a local hi-fi shop. That was Jeep Harned, who rebuilt the console and went on to found MCI, the first U.S. manufacturer of dedicated recording consoles and multitrack decks. All of Criteria’s studios would eventually be equipped with MCI technology, and the business relationship formed the basis of a lasting friendship, as well.
Criteria’s second studio was built in 1965, and the facility, which had been a favorite of regional musicians-including Jackie Gleason, who made a series of best-selling Music For Lovers records in the 1960s-quickly became a recording center for the burgeoning rock music industry. When Tom Dowd, a staff producer for Atlantic Records in New York, moved to Miami, the multiroom complex became a beehive of major record activity. Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla brought the studio acclaim, and The Bee Gees and The Eagles booked months at a time to write and record at Criteria. Emerman even bought a beach house, dubbed “Home At Last,” to house his rock clients. In the meantime, the studio became a launching pad for the careers of numerous producers and engineers, including brothers Ron and Howie Albert, and studio designer Ross Alexander, the facility’s first chief engineer.
Emerman was in it for the love of the music, but when things slowed down for Criteria-and the entire music industry-in the 1980s, love wasn’t enough when the bills were due. After struggling for the better part of the decade, Emerman sold the indebted studio in 1991. An arrangement to stay on after the sale went sour, and Emerman, at the age of 67, found himself without the occupation and interest that had driven him for the past 33 years. What followed was three years of illness, including the onset of diabetes, and a clinical depression so deep that he couldn’t even bring himself to answer the phone.
But things did turn around. The first glimmer of hope came in a strange and wonderful manner. His daughter had finally coaxed him to get a physical checkup. When the doctor examined Emerman’s ears, he found a wax buildup that was so deep the core of wax he drilled out was nearly two inches long. When the doctor spoke to him after the cleaning, Emerman was astounded at what he could now hear. “I’d been basically deaf for three years and didn’t realize it,” he says. “I went home, put on a pair of stereo headphones, listened to music for the first time in years. And I cried. I just bawled.”
He wasn’t out of the woods yet. A series of minor strokes that had gone undetected during the period had robbed him of some of his memory, and years of neglect had ravaged his health. It was his old friend Harned who stepped in. Now living in Durango, Colo., after selling MCI to Sony and continuing a winning business streak, Harned sent his private plane for Emerman, and under a regimen supervised by Harned’s wife, who had studied alternative medicines, Emerman was restored, physically and mentally. He now works out three times a week, and while some of his memories are lost forever, he is embarking on a new venture, with Ron and Howie Albert and 1960s-era singer and record producer Steve Alaimo: the expansion of their Miami studio Audio Vision from a private facility to a for-hire one, to meet the growing demand of Miami’s expanding music business.
‘I made mistakes by not taking care of business better than I should have,” concedes Emerman, but without a trace of rancor. “And you can tell your readers that they had better watch theirs, too. You got to take care of the money so it can take care of you. But music is still something you do because you love it. Tell them to remember that, too.’”
Some on-line comments from various SPARS Social media:
From SPARS LinkedIn Group:
Jerry Masters • I worked for Mac at Criteria for three years. He was the dearest, most caring studio owner I had ever worked for in my life. Even though he was quite outspoken, and under a lot of pressure at the time, he was kind and thoughtful regardless of the situation. Had it not been for Mac and Jeep Harned, there would be no Criteria or MCI in existence.
I will also miss those countless times he and I alone sailed his 52 foot Irwin sailboat almost every week-end for three years. We would sail out of Biscayne Bay and put on some jazz and just groove for hours every week-end. He would even have our lunch catered before setting sail.
I went from an assistant to an assistant engineer to eventually become the most money making engineer during the period from 1978-1981, and he never refused me any perks as a reward for my work. He was fair, extremely gifted, and I will miss him very much. We will miss you Mac, you were the dearest friend I had in Miami for that season. And I’ll never forget him.
God rest his soul,
Tom Gascoigne • Truly great professional. God bless him.
Joseph Tarsia • Mack Emerman, a founding member and past President of SPARS was not only a very successful studio owner; he was a music lover who was always looking to push the envelope. His relationship with tech engineer Jeep Harned led to the development of one of the first stock music recording consoles. It can be said that, to a great degree, Mack Emerman was responsible for the turn-key studios that MCI’s off the shelf console made possible. We lost a good one, RIP.
James Kalamasz • In 1974 Mac let my brother & I set up our drums and guitars at Criteria in the hope of getting some session work. Met a ton of great musicians / engineers / producers & saw my future in the recording business. My 30 years running Spectrum Recording Studios is in large part to Mac’s generous offer way back then. We still have a MCI JH16 in use. He’ll be missed.
Frank Hames • Recorded for Mercury at Criteria for several weeks in ’78. It was a great place to work.
Paul ‘pappy’ Middleton • I never got to meet Mack, but heard and read so many great things about him. His way of working and mentoring young artists set the standard for the way my studio operates. Inspired young players and engineers are the backbone of our industry… thanks, Mack.
Dwight Cook • Mac was a true gentleman and an inspiration to so many. He made one feel at home, like you had known hum for years. Mac could now be recording a heavenly choir, but more likely consulting. God bless you Mac.
Patrick Ross • I got to work at Criteria Studios in 1980 with Sly and Robbie as they produced a yet unknown singer Gwen Guthrie who was soon to be star, It was for her debut album by the same title. I never met Mac Emerman personally but he was in the building at the time of the recording. Criteria was one the first big studios I got to enter and work in when I began my music career. The place was the stuff of legend and I got to meet one of my musical heroes Tom Dowd while there for the session.
From SPARS Mentoring Forum, Philadelphia Recording Connection and EARS Chicago Groups on Facebook:
EARS (Engineering And Recording Society of Chicago) How sad… Reid
Mike Tarsia mack was a cool dude … didn’t he have that scooner boat or something…? Yeah Joe [Tarsia] called me about it… Murry Alllen, Bob Lifton, now Mack
Mike Tarsia Dude the whole MCI thing is sooo true ..and Joe [Tarsia] always spoke so highly of both Mack & Jeep Harned [founder of MCI]. Our MCI was so early that Jeep gave us new channel strips for FREE as they modded stuff and made it better that quickly..I think I worked in Sunset or Sunrise at Criteria..forget the room …when i did part of the soundtrack to “Coming to America” the Eddie Murphy movie…he had a great staff of female assistants, one was spot on as it was an SSL and I had worked every board but that one…
Mike Cortson Mack was a true pioneer.
From the APRS Facebook Group:
Elliott Randall a one-of-a-kind …and yes, Mack was a true “music” man. He had the passion …and treated me and my compadres very well indeed. He will be missed. Not many of this school left, I’m afraid…
Associated Press Story on Emerman Death:
Miami New Times Story on Emerman Death:
Miami Herald Story:
Pro Sound News Story on Emerman Death:
Mixonline Story on Mack:
VintageConsoles.com post on the start of MCI and Criteria:
Miami New Times Story – “King of the Soundboard” – Story on Emerman recording again:
Mix Interview with Tom Dowd, paragraph on Criteria, Emerman & MCI included:
Tom Dowd & the Language of Music Documentary History: (info re: Criteria)
Tom Dowd & the Language of Music Documentary:
Tom Dowd & Criteria Recording Tour & Interview, Part 1: (Tom Dowd – Eminent producer of Atlantic Records in Studio A; Criteria Studios, Miami (currently Hit Factory))
Tom Dowd & Criteria Recording Tour & Interview, Part 2: (Tom Dowd – Eminent producer of Atlantic Records in Studio A; Criteria Studios, Miami (currently Hit Factory))
Tom Dowd & Criteria Recording Tour & Interview, Part 3: (Tom Dowd – Eminent producer of Atlantic Records in Studio A; Criteria Studios, Miami (currently Hit Factory))
Mix Article, Hit Factory/Criteria at 50:
Mix Hit Factory Criteria Story 2008:
Mix Emerman Bio:
Mix Jeep Harned Bio:
Mix TEC Award Article: Jeep Harned and MCI 400 Console:
Mix Article on Merger of Hit Factory/Criteria, 2000:
Mix Article on Opening of Hit Factory/Criteria, 2001:
Mix Article, 2003 visit by former engineer to check technical updates, various stories:
Mix Article on recording Margaritaville at Criteria:
Mix Article on recording Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” at Criteria:
Criteria Recording Links: