Born and raised in Colombia, engineer and producer Maria Elisa Ayerbe began learning audio engineering at Universidad de Chile in Santiago. She returned to Colombia to continue her education, and by the age of 23 she was producing bands commercially and even teaching audio engineering. Maria later relocated to Nashville, where she continued to study while mixing professionally for a growing list of Colombian artists. It was her creative investment in the Latin music industry that eventually brought her to Miami, where she lives and works to this day. Maria remains as driven and busy as ever, teaching at the Abbey Road Institute Miami and even hosting the HBO TV show A Tiny Audience, all the while continuing her work as a commercial producer and engineer.
“It’s interesting how a lot of people consider Latin music a ‘genre’ here in the States,” she reflects. “But I don’t see how a culture can be defined as a genre. That’s something I keep stressing a lot, that I keep fighting against. In the US we have to advance from that standpoint, of thinking that everything in Spanish is in the same genre. We are Latinos, we do speak Spanish, yes. But our cultures are completely different!”
At the moment I can’t stop listening to
Right now, I’ve fallen in love with Bonnie Raitt. I’ve always listened to her music, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. But this past album, Just Like That: I really, really like it. I just love her songwriting. I love her voice. I love everything about her. She is such an amazing guitarist! She just makes it so easy! You see her performing, and she’s singing while sliding on a Telecaster... And it’s like, ‘OK, I could either do one, or the other.’ And she’s singing flawlessly. She’s leading the band. She’s doing both rhythm and lead guitar, all while she’s performing. She won the Best Song of the Year [Grammy], and I think even she was surprised. But to me, she’s always been amazing. As a songwriter, she’s got such a defined sound. And her voice is flawless. And her production has always had this trademark.
The project I’m most proud of
That’s a hard question... But I think I’m gonna say it’s an album that I worked on two years ago now, by a Colombian artist named Paula Arenas. It’s an album that we worked on during the pandemic; she was pregnant and we were very limited so far as what we could do, because this was right during 2020. We actually didn’t have lockdowns here in Miami, but still it was very constrained — plus, of course, she was pregnant. It was very risky. She and I, we recorded everything between her living room and my home studio. It was a very intimate album. It was this thing that was flawless to us, and we just released it independently. And then, during the 2021 Latin Grammys, we were nominated for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Vocal Album! And still to this day, we’re both like, “What!?” It was absolutely unexpected, to be honest. Sometimes you work on big projects which carry a huge name, and, you know, the name is going to do its own thing. But this album, we just worked on it by ourselves, just looking to do whatever we felt.
Maria Elisa Ayerbe: If you really want to know a studio, look at the patchbay.
The first thing I look for in a studio
The patchbay. This is what I always tell my students: if you really want to know a studio, look at the patchbay. It’s where everything is! And you’ll know right away if the patchbay’s messed up, just by reading the labels. You might be like, “Oh, what are these people doing!?” If I find a patch that’s already been made, and I’m only just walking into the studio, I want somebody to tell me, like, “What is this? And why do you have it? Why did you feel you had to make this routing happen?”
The person I would consider my mentor
I’ve had different mentors in different times of my life, who have each been pivotal. So I’m gonna say two mentors. First I’ll say Jose Pupo. When I was still in my undergraduate programme, he had just finished the McGill master’s degree over in Canada. He’s also Colombian. He visited us for some workshops at my university. While I was doing that, I was I was fortunate enough to be part of his recording workshops. And because of that, he really liked the work that I had done. And he chose me to be his assistant, in my first actual credit. We ended up recording the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra, which was a great, great thing to participate in. And after we were done with that recording and I had graduated, he hired me in for a couple of different projects and I became his assistant for a while. He taught me a lot about proper studio etiquette, proper recording etiquette, how to be professional. He was also the one who said I should go to Nashville. At one point I wanted to go to London. I had actually made it into the London College of Music for their master’s degree. But I couldn’t find the funding, because it is really expensive for Colombians to go to the UK. So I had given up on the UK and said “I’m just gonna go to McGill.” And he said, “No, no, don’t go to McGill. You’re not made for that programme.” He knew me well enough to know that was not going to be a good fit for me. So he said I should go to Nashville. And I really appreciated him being that honest.
I also have to give a huge credit to another producer, the person who actually opened the music industry up for me, here in Miami. His name is Julio Reyes Copello, and he is probably Colombia’s top producer. He’s been Grammy‑nominated over 30 times at this point, I believe, and he’s won over 20‑something Latin Grammys and Grammys. When I moved from Nashville to Miami, I had a lousy job working at a studio because I really needed a job. And when Julio found out that I was Colombian and that I had all of this experience yet was just doing this crappy job, he offered to hire me. I partly needed to be hired so I could get a work permit to stay in the USA, and he offered that to me. But obviously that also opened a door for me, to participate in huge projects with huge Latin names. And I just learned a lot, sat by his side. And even having left that studio to do my own thing and be able to take on my own clients, I’ve kept working with him on many things. I’m actually working with him on some stuff right now. It’s great.
My top tip for a successful session
Know your studio. Be prepared. Come with your [DAW] session ready to go. Don’t wait until you’re actually sitting in the room to prep your session up, you can create your session at home and bring it with you, so you’re not wasting time doing that. You don’t have to wait for the artist to be there to set up a microphone. You can already be patched and ready to go — actually, it’s better to be patched and ready to go, so you’re not doing the whole “I don’t know why this is not working” thing right in front of the artist, you know? Because the artist is paying you, as an engineer or producer, so they can record their stuff. They could always do it by themselves. So if someone is troubleshooting in front of them, they might as well just go and do it by themselves! You have to prove the added value of the situation.
The studio session I wish I’d witnessed
Can I say something that’s not a studio session, but a live concert that was recorded and became a great album? I love Erykah Badu. I’ve always loved Erykah Badu, and while I would definitely have loved to witness the Baduizm recording, hands down, there’s a concert recording that I actually like more than the album: the Baduizm live concert. That concert was fully recorded, but nobody shot it on video! And I have heard it so many times! It’s weird, because I think it’s from ’99, or something and that was a thing, back in the day, to record those types of concerts and shoot it on video. But I wish I’d seen it. I wish I had been there.
The producer I’d most like to work with
Ooh... Flood. I’m a huge Depeche Mode fan. I’ve always felt very inspired by him because he’s an audio engineer who produces, like myself. So I would really like to see how he incorporates that. How he makes those two worlds come together.
The part of music creation I love the most
I think it has to be tracking vocals and drums. I love tracking drums. I just love, like, sticking mics underneath a cushion, or putting them in the weirdest places ever! Or just finding that really nice spot in the room where it’s like, “Why am I getting this?” and just incorporating that into the drums. I’ve done things like tape PZM microphones onto pieces of wood and then experimenting with where to put the piece of wood, so that the PZM mic might be capturing whatever is happening in one side of the room, kind of thing. And vocals, too. I love to produce vocals, to create harmonies and just do weird stuff. To experiment.
The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago
I’ll always have the same answer: Eat well. Sleep well. Look after yourself. I still try! But I still wish I’d done it better, 10 years ago.