Maria Elisa Ayerbe is a Miami-based recording, mixing and post-production audio engineer who has worked with GRAMMY and Latin Grammy-nominated artists such as Mary J Blige, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, JLo and more. Maria was also recognized by the Latin Recording Academy with the Leading Ladies of Entertainment honor in 2019, for her outstanding performance as a professional and socially conscious woman within the arts and entertainment fields.
We recently sat down with Maria for our Five Sounds With... series. Read on to learn about her approach to working with up-and-coming songwriters, her favorite technique for recording acoustic guitar, and how she recorded 120 drum tracks in one recording session.
Paula Arenas - "Nada"
"Nada" was the first single from Paula Arenas’ Matices EP. At the time it was released, Paula was a brand-new artist in the Latin music industry, so our plan was to continue recording and combine the EP with the new songs to create a full-length album.
We were all very lucky to have both instances recognized by the Latin Recording Academy. Matices got Paula nominated for Best New Artist, and when it grew into Visceral it received Best New Album and Best Latin Traditional Pop Album for the Latin Grammy Awards. One of the songs on the album was also nominated for Song of The Year.
“Nada” was one of the first songs that Paula wrote with the producer, Julio Reyes Copello. Julio has worked with several genres and is an amazing producer, orchestral arranger, piano player, and songwriter.
I was the recording engineer at Julio’s studio and we wanted to find a very organic sound for her. It was important that we nail the sound for “Nada” because it would eventually define Paula’s sound for the entire EP and her full-length album.
We recorded vocals with a Neumann M49 and a Neve Genesys console. The Genesys combines tubes with a solid-state sound, which pairs well with Paula’s deep, full-bodied vocal tone. When you’re recording ballads, you need to have that present, full-bodied sound. It’s very chesty, but also very detailed, and you feel that. When you listen to that vocal, you really feel how intimate that recording came out.
That song also has an acoustic guitar in it, which I recorded using this really cool technique I learned while living in Nashville. It’s a very singer-songwriter type of approach, where you use a large-diaphragm condenser microphone placed behind the guitarist’s right shoulder, assuming they’re right-handed.
You’re basically placing the microphone right next to their ear to capture what the guitarist is hearing. It’s such a unique perspective. It works great for recording while the performer is singing and playing as well. Then you’ve got another mic coming from the front to capture the main sound of the guitar. You just have to be wary of phase correlation.
We also recorded piano for that song. Julio is a great piano player and has a full-sized Yamaha grand piano. I used a pair of Royer R121 mics inside the piano and left the lid open. Then I placed a pair of AKG C 414 mics facing the piano from about three feet away in cardioid mode. It sounded great!
Julio also has a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie amp in the same room, and we were so happy with the piano part that he suggested we also record a B3 part. I was setting up in the control room and Julio started playing the B3. I told him, “I haven’t moved the mics from the piano to the Leslie yet.” He said, “Don’t! It sounds amazing!”
So we ended up tracking the B3 through the piano mics, which were facing the complete opposite direction of the Leslie, but it created this amazing ambient sound. You could totally hear that the B3 was on the opposite side of the room. You can really feel how out of phase and open those tracks are.
Mau y Ricky - Arte
Around the same time that Julio and I were working on Paula’s project, we also started working with Mau y Ricky, who are pop singers from Venezuela. They’re huge in Latin America. This was their first Sony album, it was supposed to be their breakthrough record.
It was mainly a ballad album, which is why they were working with Julio. Ballads are one of his specialties. When we were working with them, they were very young, they were 23 and 25. We weren’t really sure what they wanted to do.
It turns out, not only are they great singers, they’re amazing songwriters. Mau is a really good drummer and Ricky is an amazing guitar player. That really changed the perspective. We thought they would be a really strict pop duet, but these guys were awesome.
Because of that, I was really bold. I wanted to get as much from them as we could. There are plenty of amazing session musicians, but none of them are ever going to sound the way that these guys already sound together. Julio gave me free rein to explore sounds with them.
We ended up recording all of the guitars with Ricky. We recorded acoustic guitar using that same Nashville technique I learned, but we would also experiment with other mic placements. Sometimes he played a dobro, or a baritone electric guitar. Sometimes in Latin music there isn't a lot of time for experimentation, but we had the opportunity to do it for their production
We recorded at Julio’s personal studio in Miami, which he built by joining two separate houses together. It’s called Miami Art House, and it feels like you’re actually inside a house. The live room is actually a living room, but there are lines run all through the house so you can patch into any room.
For one song, we put a speaker in the bathroom and recorded the sound of the reverb with a mic, just because we could do that sort of thing. When we were doing the drums for that project, I was able to spread mics all throughout the house. I was using every mic we had, Royer R-121s, U47s, M49s.
On one track, I placed a Neumann U47 in the hall, which I ran through an API preamp and compressed the hell out of it with a Universal Audio LA-610 channel strip with the optical compressor. It sounded great with tons of smack, almost like recording in a garage.
For one song, Julio wanted Taiko drums, but I told him there were none in all of Miami. Instead, I convinced him to let me record a drum circle. We ended up inside the live room with Mau, Ricky, Julio, and two other musicians. We put all of the toms and kicks we had in a circle. I placed a Blumlein pair in the center with spot mics for each drum and room mics all over the place.
I had all of them playing at the same time, and we layered it over and over again until we had 120 tracks. It took me four hours to comp a drum loop, which made it on the album and it sounds huge!
Rosa Rosa - "Mantra"
I’ve been producing, recording and co-writing with a band called Rosa Rosa. They’re a brand-new band that we’ve been developing for a while. I’m finishing up the EP right now. The first single that we released is called “Mantra.”
We were really lucky to have Juanes’ musicians work with us on this song. I recorded every single one of them and we have top-quality tracks. When everything was done and I was mixing, I realized the song was missing something.
I happened to have a theremin in my room, so I plugged it into one of those tiny Marshall amps... You know, the little 4-watt full-stack? It was actually my first amp, my Dad bought it for me when I was a kid.
During the bridge, the vocalist does this really cool ad-lib. So I connected the theremin to the amp and distorted the hell out of it. I put an Audio-Technica large-diaphragm condenser mic in front of it and doubled the ad-lib with the theremin. You can hear it going nuts! It’s spooky but it turned out really well.
The band was waiting outside for me to finish mixing the song. They were like, “What took you so long?”
Il Divo - Amor & Passion
Il Divo is an vocal operatic pop group. They’re international superstars. They’ve sold millions of records. They sell out every show whenever they come to the US. The group was created by Simon Cowell from American Idol.
While I was working with Julio, he got the chance to produce their entire album. Most of the time they do covers of popular songs in this super-sexy crooner operatic style and it’s always amazingly well-produced.
So for this album, they wanted to do famous Latin American traditional ballads from all eras. From really old traditional tango songs to Cuban songs, songs that we all know in Latin America.
This album is actually one of the reasons Julio hired me. Before coming to the US, I had already been recording orchestral and classical music. I actually have a music degree. My emphasis is in audio engineering, but I graduated from a music conservatoire.
When I moved to Nashville I went to Tennessee State University, which was the only university to offer a Master’s program for recording in the US. I chose to do my thesis project on classical recording and stereophonic microphone techniques.
I ended up recording 20 different classical ensembles throughout the span of two years. So when I graduated, I moved to Miami. 10 days later, Julio heard that I was an efficient dialog editor and that I had experience with orchestras, and he hired me to help with the Il Divo project.
The Il Divo project was five guys singing for the entire song in an operatic style, which is very complex. Some of the songs were in different languages. Some of the songs are just orchestra, and others are orchestra with a full band on top.
By the time Julio brought me in, they were about halfway through the project. All of the orchestra tracks were performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra. They had a team doing the recordings in Prague. Our job in Miami was to supervise the recording via Skype.
Then they would send the tracks over and it was my job to make sure that everything worked together and layer the band tracks and programming. I also had to comp the vocals for all five singers on 12 or 13 tracks.
But this is operatic-pop singing. It’s not the same as traditional pop. You can’t just throw Melodyne on it to fix a problem. So my vocal comp had to be perfect. They’re all amazing singers, but I had to find the best take for each of them.
When I was mixing this, I had the pleasure of using the Neve Genesys. I spread the entire mix out on the board, including the orchestra. It sounded huge! You can really feel the openness and the width in that track.
For the vocals, I summed them through the eight-track matrix in the Genesys and then ran a stereo track through a Tube-Tech multi-band compressor. It allowed me to really control the vocals. If you listen to the song, these guys are singing their lungs out. No regular compressors were giving me enough control, so I had to use something else.
Alma de Heroe
I worked on a film called Alma de Heroe. The keyboard player and musical director in Juanes’ band is a renowned producer in Colombia, and he had the opportunity to produce and write the score for the film. This was one of the first full-length war films produced entirely in Colombia. They had top-quality production and effects.
Emmanuel, the producer, reached out to me because he knew that I was going to be able to deal with the orchestral soundtrack. When there are war scenes, you want an orchestra behind it.
I didn’t participate in the recording stage because they had received private funds from the government, so they had to record everything in Colombia. The entire soundtrack was recorded in three days.
The producer and composer spent a week comping and editing all of the takes, then I had two weeks to mix over 110 minutes of music. It was crazy, we worked until 4 AM almost every day. I don’t know how we pulled it off.
Luckily, all the music used the same tracks and the same orchestra, so I was able to set a template for my mix. Because of the time constraints, I did the entire mix in-the-box, otherwise, it would have been impossible.
Thank God for Universal Audio and Plugin Alliance. That was basically the core of my sound. I’ve always loved the Neve 33609 for my master bus compressor for orchestra. I used it when I was mixing Il Divo too. I just love the response that it has, because the dynamic range for orchestral music is huge. So it has to be a very delicate, but very precise compressor.
I love the way the limiter reacts, too. It doesn’t push or squeeze the sound of the orchestra. It lets the track breathe. And it doesn’t color the sound or add any artifacts, which is important because orchestral music is a very sensitive subject.
From Plugin Alliance, I used the bx_digital V3 EQ, which is a mid-side EQ. It sounds beautiful and super-transparent. It allowed me to really control the mix.
I love doing MS EQ for everything, but for this particular soundtrack, I used it a lot. For the orchestra, there were a lot of synth sounds and programmed bass sounds happening underneath. Sometimes we even had real drums on top of that. The V3 EQ allowed me to open up a lot of room for the other things that were going on.
For reverb, I used the Ocean Way Studios reverb plug-in and Avid Reverb One, which is very understated. For orchestra, I use a combination of small room reverbs and medium hall reverbs.
On one track in particular, I used the Universal Audio RealVerb for a really short room reverb as well. I like that one because you can play with the different materials in the room. I like that when working with an orchestra because about half of the sound of the orchestra is the sound of the room.
When recording orchestra, you would typically have main mics, room mics, and close mics. But when you’re mixing for film, you’re not using the classical approach of letting the mains and the rooms lead the tone of the sound and bring out specific melodies with close mics.
Instead, it’s more of a pop orchestra with a cinematic sound. There’s less of the room and more of a full-bodied sound. So in that sense, you have to close your rooms a little bit and I always try to add a little bit of presence with reverb so it doesn’t feel like it’s too dry.
On this mix, I had a small wooden room with RealVerb. I also had a medium hall preset that I love from Reverb One. I got more of the big room tone from the Ocean Way Studios reverb, which gave me a long chamber sound.