Producer Bill Szymczyk (The Who, The Eagles) and Mack Emerman in 1974 out on Mack’s boat in South Florida.
The recording industry lost a true pioneer on May 17 with the passing of Criteria Studios founder Mack Emerman at the age of 89. Emerman not only built a successful studio in a time and place where independent studios did not yet exist, he also continued to expand and improve his facility over decades, creating the launching pad for countless engineering careers and artistic triumphs.
Emerman, a jazz trumpet player, was continually inspired by the energy of live performance. It was his lifelong goal to capture inspired music beautifully and accurately.
Moving to Miami after his college days at Duke, “He put together a hodgepodge of equipment and dragged it around in a VW microbus from venue to venue,” says current Criteria manager and longtime employee Trevor Fletcher. “His passion had overtaken his house, where he set up microphones and recorded—trying to do what people are doing now, 60 years later.”
Emerman hand-built the first incarnation of Criteria in 1959, when the business of studio design was still in its infancy. “The first studio was a one-room building, and in every direction, you could see nothing but pine trees,” says Fletcher.
Criteria received its first Gold record in 1965, for James Brown’s iconic “I Got You (I Feel Good).” The studio thrived and grew from Emerman’s constant curiosity and expertise with new techniques and technology. He found a kindred spirit in MCI founder Jeep Harned (1930-2003), who worked closely with Emerman and used Criteria as a proving ground for new equipment.
From left: Mack Emerman, James Brown and Sid Nathan at the presentation of the Gold record award for Criteria’s first big record: James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”
“The technology then was all about trial and error,” Fletcher observes. “Jeep was an electronics genius, and between Mack, Criteria and MCI, they were trying to facilitate everybody’s desire to record music better and have it sound better faster.” “Mack was a gear freak. Sometimes we’d change speakers in the control room three or four times in a week,” recalls former staff engineer Chuck Kirkpatrick. “We’d get these 200-pound things up in the soffitts, and he’d say, ‘Put the other ones back.’ But it was such a family vibe. I have great memories of late nights with Mack and Jeep in the shop, taking things apart, putting them back together, analyzing, fixing, chasing ground loops and sharing stories.”
Kirkpatrick was on staff during Emerman’s long, fruitful association with producer/engineer/label executive Tom Dowd and Atlantic Records. Dowd’s arrival brought Aretha Franklin, Derek & the Dominos, the Allman Brothers and others to the studio. Other massive hits included the Bee Gees’ songs on the Saturday Night Fever film soundtrack (1977).
“I started at Criteria as Mack’s assistant; we all did,” Kirkpatrick says. “But as soon as we were ready to leave the nest and do sessions on our own, he let us. I got a Gold record for Aretha’s ‘Don’t Play That Song,’ and one for Brook Benton’s ‘Rainy Night in Georgia.’ But Mack had his favorites. He always did any big band sessions on his own. Those were his babies, and if any of us seniors weren’t doing anything, we would still assist him.
“I probably drove him crazy,” Kirkpatrick continues. “I was taking off Fridays to play with my band and coming in late on Mondays, but he was so forgiving. And he was so generous with studio down time. We were able to come and experiment with our own music.”
The Hit Factory Criteria Studio A
“Mack allowed me to work at Criteria freelance, which was very nice of him,” says engineer/producer Eric Schilling (David Bowie, Gloria Estefan, Elton John, Shakira, etc). “I still work there today, and there wouldn’t have been a Criteria without Mack. I’m serious when I say that everybody in the South Florida recording industry owes their livelihood to Mack.”
“The rocket ship he launched achieved great heights; he just couldn’t ride it forever,” says Fletcher, “but Mack’s passion for music was the driving force. We’ll all miss him.”