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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

Miami has long been a popular recording destination — and not only for the weather...

I call up Ron Albert's mobile, and I can hear the ocean spray on the other end of the line. Ron, who, with his brother Howard, engineered classics such as 'Layla' and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young records at North Miami's Criteria Studios decades ago, motors his Viking 65-foot cruiser towards shore, and gives me the kind of weather summary that the Miami Visitors & Convention Bureau probably has carved on a rubber stamp: 86 degrees and sunny.

Even today, that climate is still the linchpin of the city's studio community. Of all the recording centres in the US, Miami was always the true 'destination' site: as temperatures chilled elsewhere, Miami's studios heated up. LA is temperate too, but, as Ron likes to point out, working there, as in New York, always meant that the industry suits were liable to drop in on recording sessions, checking up on their investments. "You came to work in Miami because they would leave you alone here,” he says.

That kind of autonomy established a pattern that the city's studios followed for decades. Artists, producers, engineers, even entire labels would set up camp at the area's studios. A Palm Beach Post article from 1970 noted that one of the two studios that comprised Criteria Recording at the time was contracted for 40 hours a week by Atlantic records, where Tom Dowd and Ahmet Ertegun churned out hit after hit, contributing to the studio tripling its size.

Miami was a remarkably self-contained place, too. Grover 'Jeep' Harned built his MCI pro-audio empire in the area, where he cobbled together the seminal JH400 mix console, and innovations like VCA automation and tape-machine autolocation.

Uptown, Downtown

Along with a few others, Criteria and the Alberts' Audio Vision studios, which they own in partnership with producer Steve Alaimo, are the base of the 'uptown' part of Miami's musical dichotomy. The downtown part, though, is the one that regularly makes the NY Post's page six. After the resuscitation of Miami's Art Deco South Beach neighbourhood in the 1980s, several studio entrepreneurs felt that SoBe's restored hipness and proliferating club population would make a good fit with music recording. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell started the ball rolling in 1992 with South Beach Studios, opened in the Marlin Hotel (which he also owned). Most recently, Setai studios, located in the South Beach hotel of the same name, opened its doors in the mid '00s.

The 'downtown' part of Miami's studio map also hosted facilities owned by the Bee Gees (Middle Ear), reggae elder statesmen Inner Circle (Circle House), and Gloria Estefan (Crescent Moon). However, the establishment of artist-owned studios that also rented time to outside clients reinforced the commercial studios' strategy of seeking out so-called 'anchor' clients. Mixer Tom Lord-Alge essentially took over South Beach Studios' main mix room, with the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams also making long-term bookings there. At Criteria, Cash Money Records and its artists like Lil Wayne took up semi-residency in that facility, which had been acquired by New York-based Hit Factory Studios in 1999. But relying on long-term clients, which Miami's studios have traditionally done more extensively than other major studio markets, had a down side, which showed itself at around the time of the housing crash. By 2008, while Florida racked up the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation, its studios saw anchor clients pulling back as label budgets collapsed. Audio Vision, which had hosted EMI's publishing division for over a decade, found themselves scrambling when EMI's assets were sold out of receivership last year.

Anchors Away!

"We've seen this before: anchor clients leaving and studios having to find new ones,” says Ron Albert. "It's just that this time, there are fewer possible candidates and lower overall budgets to work with.” Middle Ear, New River and several other area studios closed in the mid '00s, while South Beach Studios has undergone two ownership changes in that time. The model for some studios has switched to seeking more clients who book shorter time spans, looking, in the colourful words of Joe Galdo, South Beach Studios' general manager, for "fast nickels instead of slow dimes.”

The uptown/downtown nature of the studio business there seems to have stabilised itself. Matt Knobel, who runs Setai Recording and who, like many South Floridians, is a transplanted New Yorker, says the South Beach facilities tend to attract a high-end transient pop-music trade: artists who either pass through on tour or who settle in for the season for recording sessions or publisher-funded 'writing camps'. Uptown facilities such as Criteria and Audio Vision, he says, capture much of the market that lives here year-round, including Latino and hip-hop. "Down here, they want to be near the clubs,” says Knobel, who designed Setai Recording with Lenny Kravitz and acoustician Ross Alexander. "At Criteria, they get privacy.”

Not all of Miami's studio managers and owners might agree with that assessment, but they've been around long enough to have experienced both good times and bad, reflecting the allure that Miami has for music. Joe Galdo has been at South Beach Studios since it opened; Hit Factory Criteria's vice-president Trevor Fletcher played in the studio's hallways as a child while his mother handled the facility's books in the 1960s and '70s. Their facilities still enjoy an acoustical and technological infrastructure that has stood the test of time and, perhaps more strategically, one that's located at the nexus of a North America that is growing more Latino by the month: long-time Miami mastering engineer Mike Fuller says the share of projects coming from Latin America is steadily rising. Like the hotels that line the shore there, Miami's studios await their next 'season', too. And at 86 and sunny, you could do worse.

"No matter what happens,” says Galdo, basking in the sun on a January afternoon, "Miami is a good place to be.”    

Published March 2013