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...