In 2019, I was asked to moderate a panel at Music Expo Miami, and luckily for us one of the panelists was Maria Elisa Ayerbe, a local recordist, producer, and mixer I had heard much about and wanted to see in Tape Op. With a story stretching from her roots in Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile leading to Nashville and Miami, as well as work with legendary engineers and producers like Jose Pupo, Pino Squillace, and Julio Reyes Copello, I knew she had already done a lot and was on her way to do far more. Sessions on albums for Il Divo (massive international stars), Paula Arenas (2019 Latin Grammy nominated), Juanes, Kronos Quartet, and Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra evidence her wide range of abilities. She's also taught recording at many universities, worked in post-production, and mixes lots of reggaeton and other music from Colombia, Haiti, and elsewhere. It's not surprising that the Latin Recording Academy awarded Maria Elisa with a Leading Ladies of Entertainment honor in 2019, for "outstanding performance as a professional and socially conscious woman within the arts and entertainment fields, inspiring the next generation of female leaders." Very cool, very important, and she deserves it.
You're from Colombia?
I am, born and raised. I was born in Bogotá and I lived there for 16 years. My mom was working for UNICEF, and she got transferred to Bolivia when I was 16. I graduated from high school there. By then, I knew I wanted to do audio engineering.
How did you know that?
My mom told me to be an audio engineer. When I was born, my mom was a television producer. She would take me on set to the telenovela she was shooting. I remember being at recording studios with my mom since I was seven or eight. She'd be like, "Do you want to go inside the booth and do a recording for a young girl?" She'd have me overdubbing and doing voiceovers for her shows.
You learned the routine of it, to wait for the cue and to put on the headphones?
I'd have an audio engineer saying, "Could you please get close to the microphone?" Very early on in my life I realized I was very musical. When Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York came out, I knew I wanted to play guitar. I really wanted to go to music school, but I never felt I was a performer. I can sing in tune, but I never thought I had the personality to be a singer. I was studying classical guitar, but I didn't see myself as a classical guitarist. The other thing is that, throughout my life, I've always been very handy at fixing things. When I was about to graduate, my mom said, "You know, there's a career called audio engineering. There's a career where you can blend those two." There weren't any universities in Bolivia that offered that program, but I moved to Chile and got into the Universidad de Chile – a huge university. They offered an audio engineering program inside the arts faculty. I lived in Chile for almost three years. Then one of the top universities in Bogotá had changed their audio engineering program into a five year music program, with a major in audio engineering. I basically had to start over. I was already two and a half years in from Chile, so I ended up doing seven and a half years in undergrad programs. I was working at a post-production house as an audio professional already while I was still a student, and I was also teaching audio basics as a student. I was also a sound designer for a couple of movies, one of which [Contracorriente] got picked by Peru for their selection for the Oscars as a foreign film; a French/Peruvian/Colombian production. I was dealing with real clients. There was a Colombian audio engineer, Jose Pupo, who had just come back from the McGill University program in Canada. Martha De Francisco is one of the head professors at the McGill program; she's Colombian. She came to Bogotá, where we had several workshops with her. Her assistant, Jose, who had been working with her for a while, came back to Colombia and was doing some recordings, and he chose me to assist. After that, he was going to do the first big classical professional, all-in album for the Bogotá Philharmonic, with a real budget and distribution deal. They took me again to be the assistant recording engineer. That's how I entered the classical recording world as an audio engineer.
Were they tracking sections of the score and editing later, or was it a full performance?
It was a full performance, with some retakes. That special record was orchestral renditions of Colombian folklore. The arrangements included Colombian instruments. By the end of that recording session, I was sleeping one or two hours a day. We were obviously running on a budget and tight on schedule. We had 120 mics to set up. I didn't really do the studio thing, like being the proper studio intern. I had a different internship approach doing post-production; I was dealing with real clients and real television networks with real, paid expectations. Then, on the other hand, I was dealing with real recordings of classical sessions of people who were expecting a lot. Classical musicians are interesting; their relationship with technology is very weird. They hate the presence of the microphone, because it's all about them being on stage, which I understand.
What happened after school in Bogotá?
When I graduated, I kept working with Jose Pupo. There's a big festival in Colombia for classical music in Cartagena [Cartagena International Music Festival]. It's a beautiful city, and they bring the top classical performers from all over the world. It's a once-a-year program – four to five concerts a day, for a span of two weeks.
You were out of school and working?
Out of school, but I couldn't find more work in Bogotá so I went back to teaching at a college. I was producing bands, as well as recording and mixing, but it was at a very limited level. Not because there wasn't a scene there, but because people would see me, which still happens. "Can you do what you say you do? Are you actually good at doing it?" That happened 12 years ago, and I'm still getting the same questions. I've gotten used to it. If I'm in a venue and I have a guy who's assisting me – who might look much younger than I am – the fact that they're going to say hello to him, and introduce themselves to him, that tells you something about what people are expecting.
It's so annoying.
Then again, I understand I'm not the face of audio.
The sexism is going to go away someday. That's my belief.
I hope. I've suffered through it, in a way. That's why I'm very supportive of every single initiative that comes in, or that I hear about [that champions women in the industry]. She Is The Music, SoundGirls, Women's Audio Mission, Women In Music – you name it. The farther south you get from Miami, the more sexist it is going to get. That's our culture; we can't deny it. It got to the point where I wasn't doing the job that I wanted. Jose hired me to be the post-production supervisor for a reality show [Protagonistas de Nuestra Tele]. I was the second in charge. We had a team of 20 audio engineers, and they were all under my wing. We had 15 people living underneath a roof, and everybody was wired. We had about 70 mics all around the studio house where they were living. The audio engineers would do shifts of eight hours. After everything was shot and recorded, I was doing post-production on that. I got the episode delivered at 2:30 p.m., and by 9:30 p.m. the episode was airing for millions of viewers in Colombia. It was very hard work.
How did you end up in Nashville and going to MTSU [Middle Tennessee State University]?
I always wanted to be at a studio. Things have drastically changed in Colombia, so what I'm saying may sound irrelevant to people now; but back then there were two places where you could go and see an SSL console, or a Neve console, or gear. I didn't see one at my university. Nowadays they have the biggest audio program in Latin America. Back then we only had three computers for the entire program! I thought about going to McGill, because it made sense. Parallel to this, I was starting to get professional label mixes in Colombia; reggaeton, back in 2010. I wanted to get a different perspective. Jose was like, "You're not McGill material at all! You're going to drive yourself away from pop music and be stuck in this whole musical jazz super-strict world. But I've heard about a program in Tennessee." I started looking into it and thought it was perfect. But I had no money to go. In our career, we don't make a lot of money.
If I'd gone to a college in a different state than I grew up, it would have cost me more.
When you are an international student they ask you to have a lot of money in your bank account, just to get the visa. I thought, "I'm going to write to them and say, 'Here's my biography and resume. I really want to go there, but I have no money.' Let's see what they can come up with." They actually offered me a full tuition. They have a program that's an assistantship tuition. I became a graduate teacher; an assistant. So, I did the graduate program for three years.
What did you think of going to there from a totally different culture and school?
I loved it. The audio engineering program was a dream to me. There's an API Vision [console], an [SSL] Duality [console], two SSL 900 [consoles]. Any mics that you want. The rooms were beautiful. Because I was a tutor and working as a graduate teacher, I had the chance to stay at the studios and do more studio time than anybody else. For me, it was a dream come true. Then I started interacting with the whole Nashville community, going to shows, and meeting people. It was perfect.
I assume you were still mixing and working while you were doing the school thing outside of work?
Yes, I never stopped. I was getting mixes from Colombia all the time. I kept working for all of my clients. I was lucky to find an internship at a studio, Creative Caffeine, in Nashville with the sweetest, craziest Italian producer in Nashville; Pino Squillace. He's probably the only guy who knows how to really play Latin percussion in Nashville. He played with Tito Puente. I managed to start out the internship through MTSU. The day I arrived, the studio engineer quit. There was an Amek Angela console wired to a Studer. Pino was on the drums, and there was a guitar player. They're like, "Do you know how to run this?" I jumped in and I ran the session. He said, "You're no intern. You're going to be the studio chief now." My entire one year internship, I was actually the studio chief and I ran all of the sessions. We were getting a lot of work, but, at the same time – because of my whole immigration situation – I couldn't get paid for it. When I graduated, it was the summer in Nashville. It's dead. I needed to figure out my situation; I needed to change my status from being a student to having a one-year work permit. Then I thought, "What if I go to Miami?"
How come Miami?
Because I'm Colombian, and it makes sense! Miami is the hub for the Latino music industry. I had been applying to other different jobs in Nashville, and people would say, "Do you know how to record country drums? You're Colombian!" I'm like, "Yes, I know how to do it."
With coming to Miami, what was the path to finding people to work with?
I had a professor from MTSU, John Merchant, who helped me out with a lot of introductions. He had lived here for 20 years; he was one of the head engineers for Criteria Studios. He introduced me to the people at Criteria and all of the top engineers from here. I drove here and interviewed with a bunch of people, and I also called old acquaintances who had moved here. I was an intern and a runner for ten days over at Hit Factory Criteria Studios. They offered me a job, a contract, and everything that I needed. The hours were crazy. I was delivering pizza to Lil Wayne, which was obviously a different status in the chain, but I was okay with it. Then one of the top producers from Miami called me, and said he was producing Il Divo. They're huge all over the world. He said, "My in-house guy is not going to be available tomorrow. Are you available tomorrow?" I said, "Uh, I have a shift at 6 p.m. at Criteria. I need to take out the garbage." He's like, "What?" He's got a beautiful studio down by Coral Gables and is the top Latin Grammy-nominated producer.
Is that Julio?
JulioReyes Copello. He's also Colombian, and a very nice person. When I met with Julio, he said,"You're coming to work with me."I left Criteria, and I ended upmixing for Il Divo and doing all the engineering for half the album [Amor & Pasión].I worked for the top Latin artists with Julio.
That's a really amazing opportunity.
Yeah. Then when I needed to get an actual work visa, he offered to be my sponsor, and he still is. He basically gave me the opportunity to stay and work. Nowadays, I'm a freelance engineer. Whenever Julio wants to work with me, or sees an opportunity where I can jump in, he'll hire me right away, and he recommends me a lot. He runs a production studio, not a commercial studio. It's not open for the public. He's also allowed me the freedom to work for whomever I want to work with. Before working with Julio, I'd never done professional live sound. Then he partnered up with a very fancy restaurant venue here in Miami, and they came up with a showcase for his label, Art House Records. Julio said, "You're going to do it!" I said, "I don't know how to do live sound!" He said, "Well, you've worked with all of the artists, because all of them have come through our studio. Even if you don't know how to do live sound, I'd rather have you there because you know how to deal with them and know how they should sound." I had no idea how to tune front-of-house. I hadn't done that since college. It was very stressful, but I figured it out. Now I'm getting lots of live sound gigs. When you're at a studio, the monitors never bite back at you like they do in live sound. You're not doing that in front of 500 paying customers. I was a total nervous wreck for a few months until I figured it out.
What about studio work?
There isn't a lot of tracking going on in Miami besides vocals. I have a pool of customers. They know I'm a go-to person when it comes to real tracking, and they'll call me up. I also started working for the New World Symphony – a symphony made up of graduate students. It's like an in-between orchestra for professional performers between college or graduate degrees, as well as a professional orchestra. I worked with them, recording all sorts of different shows and performances with New World Symphony. The venue is beautiful. The audio system they have there is the top in the country, and the hall sounds amazing. I did that for about a year, and then I started getting back problems. I spent so much time at the computer, and we had to set up and break down about 100 microphones for every show. You can't do that when you're in pain. I dialed down on that and started getting more and more into mixing and recording.
Where do the mixing jobs originate from?
From Colombia, or from here. I started getting a bunch of clients from Haiti and the islands. I've actually managed to work with Haiti superstars that I didn't even know about. The Haitian community is huge here in Miami. We're blocks from Little Haiti right now, which is the second most Haitian populated place in the world. I also produce and look for bands to develop.
Have you gone back and done sessions in Colombia?
I have. I've also taught classes and done workshops. I feel like you've got to go back and tell your story.
Do you feel like there are more jobs in Colombia for people in audio now?
Yeah. Studios are popping up everywhere. Now it's cheaper to travel to the U.S. People can come here and buy gear. Colombia is a place that has exported talent to the world. Everybody knows who Shakira is. Those sorts of talents open up the world to Colombia. J Balvin is Spotify's most played artist in the world. "Despacito" was produced by a classmate of mine. Andres Torres and Mauricio [Rengifo] are both Colombians, and I went to school with Andres. As I took off to Tennessee, he went to L.A.
With the mixing work you're getting sent, do you have a space that you work out of?
Yeah. I came to the U.S. with a couple of bags and my computer. With the very few bucks that I would make a month from MTSU for being a teacher, I saved for about a year and I purchased myself really nice acoustic treatment that I've been tweaking over the years. I started getting very used to my home studio situation. When you walk into the actual studio at my place, it's like you're in a real studio. I call it my mixing suite. I've tweaked my speakers. I work in the box. By mixing a lot of reggaeton and a lot of urban genres, I noticed certain analog equipment colors my low end. It's beautiful for when I do rock or pop, but it doesn't work for this. As audio engineers, we know what is right and what is wrong. But when you're dealing with a style, such as the urban style, their roots are in the street. The music comes from people who didn't know what they were doing. That was the sound, like reggaeton. It was people in San Juan, Puerto Rico learning how to do that. The amount of compression they're getting on it is stylistically correct – it doesn't matter how technically "incorrect" it is.
It's not our job to change that, but instead to reinforce it and do it as well as we can.
I recently became the Chair for the P&E Wing here in Florida for 2019-20. We had a loudness committee with the P&E Wing in L.A. in February. They all said, "Loudness is killing us!" I said, "Hold on, hold on. If we don't have loudness in Latin America, we're going to disappoint an entire continent. People are not going to be able to dance, because we're giving them some air to breathe. They don't want that!" A reggaeton track has to make your chest pump and your hips move. You can't take loudness away from trap. It's not going to make cars rattle.