“Music is supposed to move you very deeply,” Mack Emerman once said. “It’s best when the sound overwhelms you.”
It was 1989, and he was talking to a reporter about the epidemic of hearing loss among rock musicians, something that also vexed Emerman, 65 at the time.
Sometimes, said Emerman, a self-taught sound engineer who founded North Miami’s legendary Criteria Recording Studio in 1958, it got so loud “that your pants flap. Sure, you put yourself at risk. But when the client wants to hear it loud, you crank it up.”
He was an icon by then, having assembled a technological wonderland where superstars like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Bob Marley, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Rod Stewart came to lay down hits.
Among them: The Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach, The BeeGees’ Tragedy and The Eagles’ Hotel California.
For nearly 30 years, Emerman ecstatically and extravagantly put himself at risk, body, soul and fortune, so that bands could make rock history: Derek and the Dominos with Eric Clapton’s Layla and Other Love Songs; Crosby Stills & Nash with Just A Song Before I Go; Fleetwood Mac with Rumours.
No microphone or mixing console was too pricey or exotic, and if he couldn’t find it, Emerman challenged the engineers flocking to Criteria to invent it.
“His biggest contribution to the industry had to do with his relationship with technical tinkerers,” said Trevor Fletcher, who hung out at Criteria as a kid when his mom worked there. “Criteria was a hotbed for innovation.”
Fletcher now co-owns Hit Factory Criteria, created when New York’s Hit Factory bought Criteria in 1999. By then, Emerman was long gone.
“It had the best acoustics anywhere,” said Ron Albert, a teenage “gofer” in the 1960s who learned engineering from Emerman and recorded some of Criteria’s mythical albums. He now runs his own Miami studio with his brother, Howard, and other Criteria alums.
“We’ve been all over the world, and the sound and ambiance there was second to none,” Albert said. “Mack built most of it himself: this giant playground with all these toys.”
When Emerman died on May 17 at 89, his legacy included some 280 gold and platinum records, a South Florida industry that might never have developed without him, pioneering studio equipment and imaginative ways of capturing notes that produced Criteria’s unique sound.
Emerman, whose heart belonged to jazz, also helped bring the University of Miami’s Concert Jazz Band international acclaim by recording its albums at no charge.
Whitney Sidener, a onetime studio musician who chairs the UM Frost School of Music’s jazz and studio music programs, said Emerman “liked to have the band come so he could experiment” with equipment.
“It really upped our profile and helped us recruit and got us on the Today show,” Sidener said. “We were having a blast.”
Emerman “didn’t hesitate to spend money, [and] Criteria generated millions for local musicians,” he added.
Emerman “loved to talk about music,” said Sidener. “He’d be excited about big bands and what kind of recording techniques these guys were doing.”