MIAMI -- On any given night, as the fabled moon rises over Miami, the densest concentration of pop stars per square foot is likely to be found not in some South Beach nightclub, but in a quiet warehouse section 15 miles to the north. Rolls-Royces and Ferraris fill spaces reserved for Justin Timberlake or Jennifer Lopez. Assorted rock stars stop to chat in a parking lot next to the studio that many music aficionados consider hallowed ground.
"It's like an auto show," says Iggy Pop, who recorded most of 2003's "Skull Ring album" at the studio founded 50 years ago as Criteria. "All these rappers have these cool cars. And then Michael Stipe leaves a note on your window."
In these days of cheap digital home recording programs, professional studios seem like endangered species -- Hit Factory's original New York studio closed its doors in 2005 and Sony Studios in Manhattan shuttered a year ago. But in Miami, the Hit Factory has brought a second life to one of the hardest-working spaces in the recording business, a place where the technical, creative heavy lifting of making hits has been innovated, defined and refined for five decades.
A who's who of artists -- from James Brown to Bob Marley to the Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson to Madonna -- have worked at the studio now known as the Hit Factory Criteria. A recent check of the Billboard Hot 100 found that virtually every other song -- including Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," Madonna's "4 Minutes," and Usher's "Love in This Club" -- was cut, tracked, mixed or remixed in one of Hit Factory Criteria's renowned high-ceilinged rooms.
"I used to see 'recorded at the Hit Factory Miami' written in the back of some of my favorite CDs," says Nelly Furtado, who recorded her 2006 album "Loose" there. "When I finally cut an album there, I understood why. The whole building has this creative magic."
If the Hit Factory walls could talk, what stories they could tell stories about rock-star decadence, the birth of disco and teen-pop titans. When Mack Emerman, a jazz fan, founded Criteria in 1958, the Rat Pack was playing Miami Beach hotel clubs and Miami's Overtown neighborhood had a jumping late-night blues scene.
Local singer Steve Alaimo, who had a '63 hit with "Every Day I Have to Cry Some" and was a founding figure of what became known as the Miami sound, says he was the first to record at Criteria, back when it was one room.
"We only had three tracks," Alaimo recalls. "James Brown happened to be in town and said, 'You need a band, take my band.' James played organ."
Brown's "I Feel Good" was Criteria's first gold record. Miami soul queen Betty Wright was 18 when she recorded "Clean Up Woman" here. But it was after Atlantic Records co-chair Jerry Wexler and engineering pioneer Tom Dowd decided to make Criteria their tropical base that the flood of top stars began in earnest.
"I wanted to escape the rigorous Northern winters," says Wexler, who recorded Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, among others, at Criteria. "And I wanted to play golf and do a little fishing."
Criteria -- which became known as Atlantic South -- was renowned for a certain sound and studio wizardry. Emerman was a gear-head. By accident, brothers Howard and Ron Albert created a booming sound by hooking drums up to expensive microphones. "The magic was this fatback drum sound," Howard Albert says. "That brought in all the R&B; people."
Landmark 1970s albums "Layla and Other Love Songs," "Saturday Night Fever," "Hotel California," "Highway to Hell" and "Rumours" were recorded in whole or in part at Criteria. The Albert brothers remember all-night jam sessions with Clapton, the Allmans and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The sound of cars going over a nearby bridge inspired the Bee Gees' "Jive Talking," produced by another Emerman protege, Karl Richardson.
Trevor Fletcher, general manager and vice president of the Hit Factory Criteria, whose mother managed Criteria in its first heyday, recalls as a kid riding circles on his skateboard around a meditating Cat Stevens as he sat on Criteria's helicopter pad, which was shaped like a giant record album.
"The echo was unique and recognizable," says Joan Jett, who recorded there in 1980. "The vibe at Criteria was always so calm and inspiring."
The pad is gone. So is the original studio room -- it's a lounge area now, with gold records from floor to ceiling. Emerman fell into hard financial times in the '80s and sold Criteria. The Hit Factory's Ed Germano bought the place in 1999 and massively renovated it. Most of the old Criteria names have passed away, retired, or moved elsewhere.
Alaimo, who now works with the Albert brothers and Richardson at nearby Audio Vision, bemoans the sterilized glitz of the house he helped build. "It's pizazz; it's the Ritz-Carlton; you pay for it," Alaimo says.
Stars rub elbows
The Hit Factory's managers don't necessarily disagree. Offering plush surroundings, first-class concierge-style service and state-of-the-art equipment is part of their strategy. Each room has its own engineer and runner; the latter's job is to go out into the Miami night and fulfill any request -- no matter how peculiar or picayune -- for amenities or cuisine.
"You go to a studio and expect a certain level of accommodation and technical support," Fletcher says. "Hit Factory is synonymous with a level of quality. Every room and every part of the facility and personnel needs to be conducive to creativity. When you come in here, yeah it's nice, yeah it's fancy, yeah everything works well. It's also comfortable."
In these days of such programs as Pro Tools and GarageBand turning amateurs into hit makers, Hit Factory's survival savvy is no small achievement. Even Alaimo credits Germano, who died in 2003, with Criteria's revival. Widow Janice Germano now owns the studio.
Germano astutely foresaw futures in hip-hop and Latin music. You can still hear some of that fatback drum sound in Hit Factory records by Ricky Martin, Rihanna and Rick Ross. Producers love the place. Timbaland has been known to sleep in his tour bus outside.
And while the days of Stephen Stills and Eric Clapton staying up all night jamming may be over, all kinds of mash-ups are still possible as international artists converge here. "[Judas Priest's] Rob Halford and Julio Iglesias were in the lobby joking about doing a duet," Fletcher says. "Fortunately that never happened."