Meet the team: Maria Elisa Ayerbe

For our second article, we would like to introduce you to one of our senior audio teachers at Abbey Road Institute Miami; Maria Elisa Ayerbe.

about Maria Elisa Ayerbe

Maria Elisa Ayerbe is an audio engineer with over 13 years of experience in recording, mixing, music production, and audio post-production. She has worked with some of the biggest names in music on various GRAMMY, and Latin Grammy-nominated albums.

Maria Elisa is an active member of the Recording Academy and is currently serving as Board Governor and Chair of the Producers & Engineers Wing for the Florida Chapter. Due to her outstanding performance as a professional and socially conscious woman, Maria Elisa has been recognized by the Latin Recording Academy with the Leading Ladies of Entertainment honor in 2019.

Besides having an impressive track record as an audio engineer, she’s also been involved in education for many years, having taught at various university programs and audio engineering schools.

So, yes! We are delighted to have her as part of the team, to say the least.
But what made her start a career as an audio engineer? What does she love the most about her work, and who are her big inspirations? We interviewed Maria Elisa for this blog article, to find out more about her journey, taking us from Colombia to Tennessee, her determination to make things work, and a fascinating perspective on the future of audio engineering.

meet Maria

So, let’s start at the beginning; what or who inspired you to become an audio engineer?

It was not who inspired me, it was the one who told me that I could actually be that person. Because I didn’t know that I wanted to be an audio engineer, I wasn’t even aware that it was an actual career or something you could go to school for. I was always super involved with music. I started playing the guitar, and I was singing when I was eleven. But I knew that I didn’t want to go to school for guitar, nor singing. However, I really wanted to continue studying music.

“I was living in Bolivia at that time, because of my mom’s work. She worked for 25 years as a communications officer at UNICEF, producing television series, documentaries, recorded songs and produced albums. Whatever worked to provide a good communication campaign. So, when I graduated and not knowing what to do next, she was the one saying: ‘You could become an audio engineer!’ At first, I was surprised by that, but she added, “you’re good with music and like the production part of it. Besides, you are really good with technology, you like taking things apart. It might be the perfect career for you.” And that really sounded appealing to me. And that was the start of it,” she says with a smile.

Sounds like a conscious career choice at a young age?

Yeah, then I started looking for places that I could go to, and I ended up in Chile to study audio engineering. But after five semesters, I moved back to Colombia because a new program had just opened at the Javeriana University in Bogota, the same university where Julio Reyes Copello (Campus Director Abbey Road Institute Miami) studied Composition. And because I already did five semesters in Chile, I started tutoring students for different classes and assisting them in using the studios, until I graduated. My first teaching experience, so to speak.

Did you stay in Colombia after that?

So, six months after I graduated from Javeriana University, I started teaching at the Politécnico Grancolombiano for their multimedia degree as an audio instructor. And in the meantime, I was also recording classical music, producing local bands, mixing for a reggaeton indie label, and was the sound supervisor for a reality show on TV. I was doing a bunch of stuff, but my passion had always been recording and mixing for music. I really wanted to work in a studio. Back then, the new musical explosion hadn’t happened yet in Colombia, and there weren’t a lot of studios available in Bogota. So, then I thought that the best chance that I was going to get, was to move abroad. And I figured that if I got a master’s degree, I would get access to a bunch of studios and technology that wasn’t available to me. And second, it would make my transition into the work field a lot easier.

That’s when you moved to the US?

Well, the thing is, we are talking 2011, I really wanted to go to London. That’s because I love British music and the culture. And I actually got accepted into a master’s degree in London. But I couldn’t find the money, and I didn’t get a scholarship. So, then I started looking for different options. And then, I found the Audio Recording program at MTSU, the University in Tennessee. And I wrote to them that I loved their program, but I had no money. And then, they replied and asked if I had ever considered teaching? I’ve been teaching for like five years at various programs at that time, so I explained to them, and they were very pleased with it. So, that’s when I started at MTSU in Tennessee. I received a full assistantship where I also worked as a Graduate Teacher Assistant for the program.

It sounds like your teaching experience opened up quite some doors for you in your journey?

“Teaching is something that comes really easy for me. Mainly because I like to talk. I’m a good talker!” she says, laughing. “And I have a good memory. I like remembering things and then share them with others.”

Great talents and skills to have as a teacher?!

True, but there is another thing that I really try to do when teaching, something that is very important to me, from an internal perspective. I have been a victim of poor education in the past. For instance, there was a moment in my life where I was terrible in math. But then, when I moved to Bolivia, I had a different teacher and she showed me that it was not that I wasn’t good in math, it’s just that I had a different way of learning. She told me that ‘if you want to be an audio engineer, you really have to know how to do math,’ and then she showed me a different approach to understanding math. And I eventually became really good at it. She showed me that it wasn’t about me, it was just the way I’ve been taught.
So, one thing that I always try to do when I’m teaching is that I try to acknowledge everyone in the room. I continuously ask, and when people don’t understand, I try to offer a different perspective. I don’t want my students to feel that the lecturer is inaccessible.

Audio engineering and teaching. What is it that you really like about your work?

First and foremost, mixing. Like in the studio, mixing music. But I also really love recording classical music. It’s so much fun. For me, it’s like organizing. When I’m mixing sixteen or fifty channels or recording a big ensemble using a hundred microphones or something, it’s exactly the same thing for me. It’s my job to make everything cohesive, like into a song.

I’m super methodical in that sense. For example, I have my own color-coding for audio tracks for ten years or so. And it’s really hard for me to mix if my session is not prepared the way I want it. When it comes down to like audio engineering and my job and everything, I try to be really structured.

And teaching, for me, is all about sharing. Sharing is caring. That makes teaching and education so important to me. For some reason, people have always reached out to me and asked me, how do you do this? How did you learn that? And then more recently, it comes down to the fact that the more I’ve achieved in my career and reached my goals, more girls and women reach out to me and they ask me how I did it, why I did it and what’s the best way to approach it? So, now it also feels like a moral responsibility. And you would think it’s like young girls starting out. But I’ve also gotten messages from ladies my age and older that are trying to make it happen.

How do you feel about that role?

I mean, again, sharing is caring. Whatever I can do to help out someone, if I have the tools or if I have the knowledge or if there’s something I can do like to connect with people, I will do that. Because that’s really important. It’s something that has happened to me. There were periods when I reached out to music producers, where I’m like ‘Hey, we’ve known each other for some years, and it would be really great if I could mix your music at some point,’ and the person would be like, ‘Oh wow, I never thought about working with you in one of my projects.’ And then I think to myself: this person congratulated me on my mixing, helped me share my work but never thought I was for hire!? In most cases, they start working with me and realize how professional my work is and eventually, become clients.

Most of my clients realize they could have hired me long before we started working together. I don’t want to sound whiny or victimize myself, but I know that this wouldn’t have happened if I was a man. It’s not that they are ill-intended, or that they don’t want to hire me or any other girl just because we are women. It’s more that, when you think about ‘insert audio engineer,’ you insert a 50-year-old bearded, white, gray hear looking male. And that’s the face of the ‘audio engineer.’ Of course, I’m heavily emphasizing here, but you get the point. And when people try to find an audio engineer, they look for that option. That’s the thing they relate to. So, when other girls reach out to me, then I tell them like hey, it’s not that they don’t want to work with you, sometimes people don’t realize that we are also capable and as available to work like any other dude. So yeah, I like to connect people and help them with that.

Role models change people’s perspectives and break stereotypes.

That is a really important thing, especially for education. And it goes even further. I mean, a lot of the books and videos that are out there tend to be very genre-specific. I mean, if you’re a new audio engineering student and you want to record African drums, you’re not going to find a single scholar text about it. They mainly deal with either classical music, jazz, or rock. But then again, we are now living in a world where pop music is entirely fusion. Take a look at a trap beat. The trap beat has like a bunch of samples with African and Oriental influences and Asian sounds and all that. Those are the available instruments. So, there is a bridge. Like a generational bridge between the older generation that grew up in a different era that is definitely not coming back. And we all know that. And then a lot of the things that they talk about in the books and some of the things that teachers still try to teach have absolutely no reflection on this new generation. It’s essential that young people who want to learn engineering feel represented and connected.

Maria Elisa Ayerbe audio engineer behind a mixing console

Photo credit: Andres Franco

A new generation of audio engineering?

I hope it heads more to like what I was talking about, engineers understanding that this is a very culturally diverse world and if we really want to strive and to continue having a job in the future. Professional mixing engineers are going to need to live outside the box, and I’m not talking about the computer here. It’s about being open to other genres. I think there’s going to be a point where, if you are a genre specialized mixing engineer, sooner or later, that’s not going to work anymore. I mean, if you are a hip-hop specialized engineer and you apply the same ‘template’ so to speak on every other genre, it will sound the same, and you’re blinded to the genre you are mixing at that moment. If you take mixing engineers like Manny Marroquin or Dave Pensado, they are involved in lots of different projects, coming from different backgrounds, but you can hear their influences. They’ve been shaping the way people need to approach mixing. The world is really diverse, and cultures are mixed and everything. You hear it in music, and the audio engineering will follow.

What kind of projects do you work on nowadays?

Everything. If we take this year, for example, I have done classical music like orchestral music. I have mixed Reggaeton, Urban Latin, Urban American, Rock, Christian gospel, Latin Tropical Pop, Haitian music, African Music, music for television. Everything.

You like your work being so versatile?

I love it!

Is that why people work with you?

Referring to what we spoke about earlier, I am not genre biased, and I am not genre specialized. I do have my own sound, that is for sure. I mean, I don’t know how to mix a reggaeton song like someone that was born in Puerto Rico, but I’ll certainly turn it into a really good reggaeton song. In my way. And it’s going to sound commercial, and it’s going to be the best for the song.

I am Colombian, and we feel music. I mean, that is one thing that is very different from a lot of engineers. That some engineers mix things to make them sound pretty. I try to mix things, so they make me feel. In Latin America, we feel music. Music needs to make people dance.

Everyone in Colombia knows how to dance. You learn how to dance, and we are taught at a very young age how to feel. So, it’s not uncommon that I am dancing to my own mixes. And if I am at that point, that means I’m getting somewhere.

Who are your role models or inspirators?

Obviously, my mom. And when we’re talking about heroes in recording and engineering, it’s undoubtedly, Sylvia Massy. She’s a great inspiration for me. She’s a fantastic teacher, and she loves sharing all of her secrets. Like, we all know how to record through vegetables because of Sylvia, or how she uses old phones and to record. She’s been great at sharing her life story and sharing how she does things and how she approaches everything.

And there is a producer that I love, which is Flood (pseudonym for Mark Ellis). I’m a huge Depeche Mode fan, and he was involved throughout most of their history, but also U2 and many more. He’s a producer who comes from an audio engineering background. I can really relate to him. Besides Flood, I really like Manny Marroquin, who has worked for Alicia Keys, John Legend, John Mayer, just to name a few. He is one of my top mixing engineers.

And how did you end up in Miami?

Once I finished my master’s degree at MTSU, I had been working as a studio engineer at a studio in Nashville. The producer was terrific, and it was a lot of fun, but they were not getting a lot of the top projects in Nashville. And that’s when I started reaching out to different studios. I then realized it was a little bit hard for a Colombian female engineer to find the right spot at a Nashville studio. So, I started reaching out to people here in Miami. I had a couple of friends here down in Miami, came down a couple of times, and eventually, I moved in here. I was interning and assisting at a studio right after I moved, just to get a foot in the door. And while I was doing that, a good friend of mine from Columbia introduced me and my experience to Julio. And he called me up one day to meet at his studio, and we talked about our work, and he was like ‘come and work for me as the studio recording engineer.’ I obviously left the other place like ten days after I came to Miami and started working for Julio.

So, I was permanent at Julio’s Art House studio for a while. And then, I was getting other side projects that were demanding that I would spend time outside the studio. So, I started doing outside projects, and whenever he needs me, he’ll call me up, and I’m there. It allowed me to keep building my career as a mixing engineer, and I also wanted to start investing in my own studio. Because as a mixing engineer at a certain point, you need to have your own room and tailor it to your personal taste and needs.

and now Abbey Road Institute in Miami?!

Julio always had this dream of having an academy. He also has that natural thing of teaching and sharing. For instance, when you work with him, it’s like you’re working for him, but there’s always a teacher-student relation. So, for example, if I would be showing him what I’ve been mixing, and he’d be like, “it’s not there yet because I feel like this, and we should be striving for that.” Other producers would be like ‘bring up the volume in this section, do this and that, giving you instructions, but Julio is more like ‘in this section, I want to feel more passion.’ I really like that.

He’s not really teaching in the technical matter. He’s giving advice in this emotional matter, which in the end is what connects and what a producer should be concerned about when dealing with music. Julio knows that I’ve been teaching and that I’ve been involved with education for a while. So, every time that he spoke about his own academy, he’s always expressed the idea of me being there. And I also met Robin Reumers (Head of Education at Abbey Road Institute Miami) through Julio; however, Robin and I also have a really good friend from Columbia in common from the time they were both working at Galaxy Studios in Belgium. Through that friend, we met, and we became really good friends.

How does it feel for you, Abbey Road Institute coming to the US?

I think there is a standard to live for. Obviously, as an audio engineer, just to be associated with the name of one of the top three audio institutions that basically created the industry standards and the technology and everything that we are using. I mean, thanks to them, it’s that we have an industry that we can work in. So, I think that is something that we should definitely look up to, and it’s quite an honor. And I love to see what they bring and how to transmit that information to our students. And at the same time, because we all come from so many different backgrounds and we’re going to be here in Miami, it’s going to be a very interesting merge of different worlds.

But then again, most of the music that I listen to is British music. And I’ve studied those techniques. And when I was growing up, I grew up with the Beatles because my dad was a Beatles fanatic. So, that sound is familiar to my ears, and all the Beatles music is an example of emotional mixing. Like all of the music that I listened to from the 80s, from that era of British producers, it’s all very emotionally driven. I love that. I definitely apply that kind of stuff when I’m mixing. It’s in the back of my mind.

What advice would you give other audio engineering students that are starting out?

To be patient. Be patient. I see it with so many students, including myself. I mean, I was very anxious when I started studying audio, because it felt like I was going nowhere. All the things that I studied, I knew there were there, but I had no idea how that would translate into me becoming someone or doing something with my life. It was a very long process. But everything will fall and its place. I mean, even until now, things fall into place for me. Take compressors, for instance; I’ve been using compressors for as long as I can remember. But then there was one day, like five years ago, where I was like ‘Oh, now I get it!’. And many engineers I know have the same experience. I once got the advice from Lenny Kravitz’s engineer, talking about his own compressor moment. Don’t worry, you’re on the right path. So, I always tell my students; Be Patient. Knowledge, understanding, success – Everything will fall into place later.

Thank you Maria!


More about Maria

Meet that team: Meet Julio Reyes Copello, our campus director.