For 63 years, Miami’s Criteria Studios has recorded some of the country’s most popular albums and artists.
By Janet Scherberger
In 1977, “Hotel California,” the Eagles classic recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. The album had topped the charts for eight weeks and would go on to be the third-best-selling album of all time. But the band lost the honor to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” another popular mega-success, now ranked 10th top seller in recording history. Both albums were recorded at Criteria, a relatively little-known studio in an unassuming building in North Miami.
The two albums, along with gold and platinum records from Bob Marley, the Bee Gees, Britney Spears and many other familiar names, hang on the walls of the studio, now in its 63rd year.
On a recent tour, general manager Trevor Fletcher paused in Studio C. “This room probably has the most impressive lineage,” Fletcher said. “This was where ‘Hotel California’ was done, where parts of ‘Rumours’ was done. Clapton’s ‘461 Ocean Blvd.,’ Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell,’ Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Margaritaville;’ Dr. John’s ‘Right Place, Wrong Time,’ Joe Walsh’s ‘Rocky Mountain Way.’”
Argentinian producer Sebastian Krys, who recently mixed Latin vocals onto Elvis Costello songs at Criteria, calls the space “one of the temples of music.”
“A lot of these old studios, they have a certain energy about them,” says Krys. “I’m not too zen when it comes to this kind of stuff, but you definitely feel something.”
Legendary musicians from the Duke Ellington Orchestra to James Brown, Bob Dylan, Gloria Estefan, John Mellencamp and Britney Spears have created some of their best-known music in this sacred space.
What started as a one-room building is now a sprawling 26,000-square-foot complex that includes seven recording studios. They range from compact spaces for writing or recording vocals to the massive Studio A, where the Miami Symphony recently recorded a new score for the second season of a Telemundo novela.
Criteria opened in 1958, when Mack Emerman, a trumpet player whose passion for recording and playing with jazz musicians had outgrown his home, converted a one-room building in a quiet industrial area dotted with pine trees into a studio.
It took off.
The original space is now a lounge with low-slung leather chairs, a pool table, piano and gold and platinum records hanging on the wall: “Eat a Peach” by the Allman Brothers, “The History of Eric Clapton,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “CSN.”
“The story of popular music and the story of Criteria are joined at the hip,” says Reynaldo Sanchez, music-industry veteran and associate dean at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “Criteria got famous because of two things: Atlantic Records R&B—Aretha Franklin— and the Jackie Gleason Show.”
Jackie Gleason made news in 1964 by moving his television show from New York City to Miami Beach, promoting the area each week as “the sun and fun capital of the world.” Four years later, Emerman built Criteria’s Studio A to accommodate the Jackie Gleason Show orchestra. Jeep Harned, who had a record store nearby and would later found MCI Records, helped customize Criteria’s recording facilities.
Criteria was among a wave of local businesses opening in the mid-’60s as the area cultivated a reputation as a center for entertainment production.
Ace Music, an industrial-sized music gear store; Ivan Tors Studio, producer of the TV shows “Flipper” and “Gentle Ben”; and Channel 2, Florida’s first public television station, all opened within a few years. At one point, more than 100 production studios were in operation. Meanwhile, Jerry Wexler, co-owner of Atlantic Records, had discovered the sun and fun. Wexler would later retire to Sarasota, where he died in 2008. He also discovered Criteria, where he recorded Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted and Black.” His recording of James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” became Criteria’s first gold record.
Wexler introduced the studio to Tom Dowd, a legendary Atlantic engineer and producer. Dowd never left, working largely at Criteria as a freelance producer. (Dowd appears as a character in the Ray Charles biopic and the recently released film “Respect,” which is about Aretha Franklin.) He brought Derek and the Dominos to Criteria to write and record the 1970 release “Layla.”
“Rock’n’roll was taking off. It was a different style of recording than the traditional recordings that were done at RCA studios or Columbia—all big rooms,” says Sanchez. “Criteria had a bunch of smaller rooms that were better for the rock bands. They were embracing the new sound.”
But Criteria also still had Studio A. The vast space became popular with a wave of Latin musicians and their big orchestras that first hit Miami in the 1950s and ’60s. Artists including Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan recorded at Criteria.
Technical features, though, weren’t the only draw.
“One of the components was obviously the fantastic weather, the beaches, the ocean,” Fletcher says. Bands also appreciated escaping from label executives in LA and New York, who constantly popped into studios to see what was going on.
“It was a destination,” Fletcher says. “You could get artists to come down here away from friends, wives, relatives, business, whatever, and focus on music.”
So many people creating in the same space sparked collaborations such as Duane Allman playing on the “Layla” sessions and Stephen Stills playing percussion on the Bee Gees’ “You Should be Dancing.”
Fletcher grew up at Criteria, hanging out after school while his mother, who started working there around 1970, answered phones. During high school, he remembers getting kicked out of rooms because he was playing pinball loudly and pulling roaches out of ashtrays.
“I did every job in the building. I started out helping the janitor, I answered phones, I ran the tape library,” he says.
Now he runs the studio and loads Criteria’s social media with current video, vintage photos, and T-shirt Tuesday, when you can see everyone from Joe Walsh to Barry Gibb wearing a shirt with the Criteria logo.
Fletcher keeps a clear head about his brushes with celebrity.
“You have these international icons that you interact with, and in their day-to-day life they deal with people who are super impressed with their celebrity. They don’t need that when they come to the studio. They need someone who’s going to do a good job, perform a task and doesn’t want anything from them,” he says. “At an early age I learned that you respect these people for their craft, their business acumen. You provide a service and that’s the end of the story.”
Typically, it’s the artist’s team he gets to know. An artist doesn’t come to his office to ask for water. “Someone else is going to do that,” Fletcher says. But he does get to know some artists, most recently Diana Krall (“a real classy lady”) and Iggy Pop (“a gentleman. Well read”), who recorded an album together with Sebastian Krys. Fletcher says they work to provide an environment that fosters creativity, whether it’s installing pink carpet or creating a different sound profile for each room.
Speakers on springs keep heavy bass sounds from vibrating through walls. Rooms with walls that aren’t parallel prevent sound from bouncing back and forth. A/C units on the roof mounted on hurricane stands are set on compression springs so they don’t make any noise. Colors, lights, fabrics, textures—and even the staff—are selected to provide a certain type of experience.
“The room is another instrument,” says Fletcher, who started the hashtag #RespectTheRoom.” “Bill Szymczyk the producer of the actual song ‘Hotel California’ has famously said they recorded that song many times all over the world. They recorded it here in Studio C and said, ‘That’s the one.’”
They’re open 24/7 to whoever wants to pay the $500-plus per hour to rent a studio. Musicians in different genres, Fletcher says, tend to pick different times of day. Advertisers start their sessions for jingles first thing in the morning and are in and out quickly. (“Because their world revolves in 30 second and one-minute increments,” Fletcher says.)
Country artists come in midmorning, go home in time for dinner and come back the next day. (“It’s very humane.”)
Rock artists sleep in late and come in early afternoon, rap artists start at 10 or 11 p.m. and go into the early morning hours, and jazz musicians like early evenings, when they’re used to playing.
Although a group of women once hitchhiked across the country and pitched a tent across the street hoping for a chance to see the Bee Gees, a security fence and controlled access gate keep fans from harassing artists.
Except that time Justin Bieber decided to post where he was on social media. Almost instantly, hundreds of tweens were surrounding the parking lot and trying to climb over the fences as the TMZ helicopter swooped in and hovered overhead.
“We had to call the police,” Fletcher says. Just as the Miami area helped shape Criteria, the studio has left its mark on the area.
Musicians, including the Bee Gees and Szymczyk, moved there, becoming part of the community. Dowd taught master classes and helped design studios at Miami Dade College and the Frost School of Music.
The industry of course, has changed dramatically. Not just the music but the way it’s recorded, distributed and consumed.
“Back in the day, you would have a band that would come to the studio to record and essentially the recording studio would say, ‘Here’s a bag of money, go record us a record,’” Fletcher says. “They would have three or four songs written, but they’re recording 10 songs, so they would come in and create, write the song, bounce ideas off each other, jam, and the song would evolve organically. It would be created inside the four walls.”
Now artists do a lot of recording at home or in significantly smaller studios. With much less demand, Criteria charges less per hour than in 1976.
“The moment I could do stuff in my home studio and then take it to a bigger studio to finish it off, I started doing that.” says Sanchez, who before becoming a professor worked for 20 years in the music industry and still has a production company.
Old reel-to-reel recorders with the chunky “stop,” play” and “record” buttons are stowed away and pulled out on rare occasions. (They were just used to help restore 50-year-old Bob Marley tapes recently sent from Jamaica.) Plugs under the black granite counters allow MP3s from iPhones to play through the studio equipment.
The internet has become a virtual recording studio, allowing people to collaborate over long distances. Carlos Rafael Rivera, who won an Emmy for the score for the TV series “Queen’s Gambit,” recorded most of it at his home studio in nearby Doral, sending orchestrations to Budapest to be recorded there and sent back, Fletcher says.
Two-hundred-dollar software that provides infinite tracks on a home computer has replaced the multi-track machines and mixers that cost $1 million and were available for rent only in a studio. It used to be impossible to edit music at home. Now you can edit out a truck coming down the street. Electronic bass music, hip hop and electronic dance music don’t require a quiet room until you do the vocals—and even then, you can just go into a closet.
“Look,” Fletcher says, leading a group of tourists into Studio F and pointing to tape labeling one track Pro-Tools 1 and another Pro-Tools 2. “A perfect example,” he says, waving his hand across the machine. “Two faders. You have a 48-channel board, somebody came in, put their laptop on top of it and then ran two channels into the board instead of availing themselves of all of this.”
Fletcher doesn’t foresee needing to build another studio, but he continues to stay on top of the latest technology. He’s planning a renovation and exploring three-D sound recording.
And a new crop of music industry professionals cutting their teeth in the studio comes from the media-oriented Full Sail University near Orlando.
Tony Mandilla, a professor at Full Sail University who also graduated from the school, went on to work at Criteria.
For anyone who loves music—any kind of music—moving through those hallowed halls, seeing wall after wall of gold and platinum records by Jimmy Buffett and Dr. John and Bob Dylan and Aerosmith and Mariah Carey, is inspirational.
“That stuff is still living and breathing,” Mandilla says. “You walk in and you know you’re in a special place and you’re going to come out with something incredible.”
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