“It was all because of fishing,” says engineer/producer Howard Albert about the genesis of the legendary alliance between Atlantic Records and Criteria Studios. It seems that two of the production powerhouses behind Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic label—Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd—loved fishing off the coast of South Florida so much that they sought a creative home in Miami.
“We all used to fish together,” Albert says. “As a matter of fact, Ron and I are sitting talking to you on our boat right now.”
“We’re tied to the dock, though, so it’s okay,” says Howard’s brother and studio partner, Ron Albert.
The Albert brothers have been finishing each other’s sentences, and projects, since the 1960s when they both began working for Mack Emerman at Criteria.
“I started in 1969,” Howard recalls. “I was in Vietnam, and Ron, who’s four years younger than me, was already working at Criteria. I got him a job when I left to go into the service. I was a studio musician, and there was an opening, so I sent Ron over there to be the tape librarian. They asked him if he could type, and he said, ‘Yes,’ but he couldn’t so he went home and asked our mother, ‘Can you teach me to type?’ He got the job, and progressed from there.”
When Howard returned home, he joined Ron and fellow staffer Chuck Kirkpatrick at the studio. It wasn’t long until Emerman’s engineers found themselves in the ultimate right place at the right time.
“Before Atlantic came down, all we had in the way of business was local stuff: jingles, radio spots, local talent,” recalls Kirkpatrick. “We had people like Arthur Godfrey and [Jackie] Gleason coming to work on their albums or finish projects occasionally, but the big day was the day Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler came down. They both wanted to be able to work in Miami, so of course they needed a studio, and we were the first place they came to.”
Atlantic’s association with Criteria resulted in scores of stellar recordings, including Brook Benton’s smash “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Derek and the Dominoes’ classic “Layla,” and this month’s Classic Track, Aretha Franklin’s 1970 hit “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied).”
When Franklin, her band and producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd arrived in Florida in the spring of 1969 to start work on the album Spirit in the Dark, the young artist had already been crowned Queen of Soul. Her Number Ones before that point included “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and, of course, her signature song, “Respect.”
Engineer Chuck Kirkpatrick at Criteria Studios in 1970.
It can only be because Franklin had so many even bigger hits that a superb track like “Don’t Play That Song” could have dropped out of heavy oldies rotation the way it has. The song, which had been a Number 2 R&B hit for Ben E. King in 1962, spent five weeks at the top of the R&B charts in 1970 after Franklin covered it. The arrangement is vintage Aretha—made-to-order for a soul singer who’s always worn her church-singing background very proudly. It starts with a gospel-blues piano intro, and then session aces the Dixie Flyers come in and the track starts to rock. Listen to this tune again if you haven’t heard it in a while, and see if the word “perfect” doesn’t come to mind.
Spirit in the Dark sessions took place on four different dates between May 1969 and March 1970, when “Don’t Play That Song” was cut. That signature piano intro was performed live by Franklin on the Baldwin grand in Criteria’s Studio B, where she and the Dixie Flyers crowded into the main tracking room. Franklin cut all of her vocals live, as well, seated at that piano.
“It was a bit of a challenge because Aretha was playing the grand piano live with the band as well as singing the song live with the band,” Ron says. “So it was our job to get as much separation and sound quality as possible, because all of her vocals were keepers. She may have overdubbed a line here and there, but Aretha Franklin never sang a bad note in her life.”
Both of the Albert brothers, plus Kirkpatrick and engineer Lewis Hahn, worked on the Spirit in the Dark sessions, but not necessarily all at once. “Criteria was a team,” Howard explains. “It wasn’t always the same people on a session, and we didn’t switch every day; it just depended on what everyone was doing. We all filled in for everybody.”
Because the engineers were somewhat interchangeable on projects, the team knew their go-to miking schemes. “We miked Aretha similarly to what we did on the Layla sessions,” Ron says. “We’d close the lid on the piano and cover it with moving quilts, and close-mike the piano with two [AKG C] 414s.”
“And we always got pizza from Marcella’s,” Howard says. “That was also part of the piano sound—the pizza box on top of the piano.” The Alberts believe they used a Neumann U 87 on Franklin’s vocals, but agree it might have been a U 67. Also in the piano and vocal chains would have been compression/limiting via—they’re pretty sure—Teletronix LA-2As.
“And probably Pultec [EQ],” Howard says. “We had a lot of them.”
They also had a lot of musicians in an approximately 30x40-foot studio. Different musicians played on various tracks on Spirit in the Dark; the Dixie Flyers played on five songs, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section appear on four, and there were several guests as well. But Howard says that for the entire album, the grand piano was in the left-back corner of the room, so that Franklin’s left hand was closest to the wall.
On “Don’t Play That Song,” bassist Tommy McClure was in front of the piano, in between the piano and Sammy Creason’s drum booth. Across the room from the kit, in another booth were background singers Almeda Lattimore, Brenda Bryant and Margaret Branch—all singing into another U 87.
Also on the session were keyboard players Jim Dickinson and Mike Utley (the B3 in the center of the tracking room belonged to Howard) and guitarist Charlie Freeman, whose amp sat near McClure’s at the back of the studio, near the drum booth.
A little later in his career, Howard became one of the first recording engineers in the U.S. to close-mike every piece of the kit, but that wasn’t the norm yet; they simply used a pair of U 47 overheads, an Altec 633 saltshaker mic on kick and a KM 84 on snare.
“That KM 84 mic was one of the original ones from Germany, and they did not have pads,” Ron notes. “You had to unscrew the capsule and slip on a little pad, and then screw the capsule back.
“Keep in mind that in a 16-track world, we rarely had more than two or three tracks for drums,” Ron continues. “You had a left and a right, and possibly a kick-drum third track. So we had to get the drum sounds correct between the cymbals, the toms, the snare—everything had to be correct, because we only had the ability to effectively change the levels with EQ after the fact. “
The engineers tracked Franklin and band to an MCI JH16 machine—one of Emerman’s many early-generation designs from his friend, and MCI founder, Jeep Harned.
“Again, in the world of 16-track, which we were in for a long time, we recorded at 15 ips a lot for R&B so we’d get a bigger bottom end and not worry about the noise level,” Ron says. “We printed a lot of those tapes at 15 ips, and the MCI machines had a sound that was very unique when we saturated a bit extra.”
Harned also created the custom consoles in Criteria. The board in the B room was developed to do double-duty in the studio and on the road. It had a center section that could actually be removed from the rest of the chassis, installed in a truck, and used to mix remote dates.
Another unique characteristic of Criteria B was the control room layout. The Harned-designed console was installed perpendicular to the window into the tracking room. A separate producer’s desk, also perpendicular to the board, allowed producers Dowd and Wexler to look straight into the studio, while the engineers faced the producers’ profiles, and beyond them, a wall with soffited Altec Lansing 9844 monitors.
“I remember those speakers well because I actually have them!” Howard says. “They’re in my home theater system. I love them—two 12s and a horn.”
“That was an amazing sound system, and part of the reason they sounded so good was they were mounted in a cement-block wall; there was no window in that wall,” Ron points out. “The wall was rigid, and when you cranked them up, the room hummed. The bass was amazing.”
Howard is pleased to have such a memorable souvenir from his days at Criteria, but the real takeaway for all the engineers was the life-changing experience of working with world-class artists like Franklin, under Dowd’s wing.
“We learned everything from Tom Dowd. He was our mentor. He treated us well, and he taught us everything we know,” Howard says. “The beauty of Tom was he never tried to dictate anything,” says Kirkpatrick. “He assumed that I, or anyone else he worked with, knew what they were doing, and he would let us set the mics and get the sounds.
“The only time I remember him sort of jumping on me—and I think this was on an Aretha mix—was when I was putting a rough mix up and he came over and took all the faders with one arm and slapped them all down to zero. He said, ‘When you mix, I want to see 70 percent modulation of the drums on the left, and I want to see 70 percent modulation of the bass on the right.’
“He wanted to see 70 percent on the meters of nothing but bass and drums, and whatever was left, that’s what you can do with guitars and vocals, but he had to hear those drums and bass way out front. That was such a big part of Atlantic’s R&B sound.”
Kirkpatrick left Criteria in 1972 to pursue his own music career but eventually returned to engineering. Today he’s on staff at music house Avacom (Coral Gables, Fla.), which specializes in production for radio and TV spots.
The Albert brothers are still working side by side in Miami, where they own and operate AudioVision Studios, and obviously still enjoy their nautical pursuits.
All of those legendary Atlantic producers are gone now, but the Queen of Soul still reigns: an 18-time Grammy winner, she’s number one on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of all time and a Kennedy Center Honors recipient with 20 Number One singles to her credit.
“I wish I could spend one day in a time warp back in one of those sessions,” Kirkpatrick says. “I could appreciate it so much more now.”