Sliders, Switches, Knobs & Dials: How Latin Music Legend Rudy Pérez Learned to Produce
By Rudy Pérez • July 23, 2019
With over 300 #1 and Top 10 songs to his credit, ASCAP writer-producer and Board member Rudy Pérez is a true icon in Latin music and beyond. His talents have brought him five Grammys and five ASCAP Latin Songwriter of the Year awards, among his many accolades; as one of the Founders of the Latin America Recording Association and the Latin Grammys, and as Co-Founder of the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame, Pérez has helped to enshrine the importance of Latin music creators, past and present.
Over the years he has helped countless music superstars tell their stories - from Julio Iglesias to Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera to Michael Bolton, Jose Feliciano to Natalie Cole, Marc Anthony to Jon Secada, Cyndi Lauper to Il Divo and dozens more.
Pérez tells his story in his engrossing new memoir The Latin Hit Maker: My Journey from Cuban Refugee to World-Renowned Record Producer and Songwriter, released on Zondervan on July 23.The book documents Pérez’s incredible journey, from fleeing Castro’s Cuba with his family in the late ‘60s, to earning a designation as Billboard’s Producer of the Decade, 40 years later.
In this excerpt from the book, Pérez details his early days as a producer, learning the ropes at two respected studios in Miami. Pérez, in his early twenties at the time, had recently left the popular Miami band Pearly Queen.
Sliders, Switches, Knobs, and Dials
I decided the time had finally come for me to learn how to be on the creation end of the music, so working in a studio made sense. When Pearly Queen recorded “Adoro,” we had worked with the legendary producer-engineer Carlos Granados, who ran Miami Sound Studios, a full-service facility offering recording, mixing, mastering, and vinyl pressing. Recalling my experience there from years before, I walked in their front door one day with no appointment and no resume. I announced to the person at the front desk that I wanted to become a recording engineer. They called for Carlos as I nervously waited.
Finally, he appeared from the back. As we shook hands, he commented that he remembered me and that I was a very talented musician and songwriter. When he asked what he could do for me, I told him why I had come. He just looked at me with a you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me look on his face and then motioned for me to follow him. As we walked down the hall, I thought, “Is he going to interview me? Where are we going? What’s he doing?”
Carlos led me into one of the control rooms. He flipped on the lights and went over to a trash can full of pieces of half-inch-wide analog recording tape—hundreds of sections of tape, in various lengths, from who knows how many past recording sessions. Carlos told me if I could go through that can and splice together at least one minute of a song that made sense when he heard it, then he would hire me.
Now, whether he was playing a cruel joke on a kid or was serious and had decided to take a risk, I didn’t know. But I didn’t care about his motive. I’m sure he suspected that if I even attempted his challenge, I would get frustrated and be out the door in half an hour. Case closed. Regardless, a prominent studio owner was giving me a shot, so I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. To give you a better idea of the challenge here, it would be like someone putting a wannabe mechanic in a junkyard and telling him to build a drivable car. But I thanked Carlos for the chance, sat down, and went to work.
Back in the days of analog recording, to play back the recorded performance, you would set up two reels, one holding many yards of tape, and as the reels turned and the tape passed from one reel over the magnetic heads to the other, you could hear the song on the speakers. But with only small pieces of random tape, there was no way to put them on a reel to play on the machine, so I had to hold each piece of tape with my fingers and run it over the head enough to hear whatever was on it. I figured the first thing I needed to do was find sections in the same key and then from there find the ones with a similar tempo. After that, I would build some kind of song by splicing the pieces together one by one. Finally, I would place the finished product on a reel so the pieces could be played back in sequence.
The next day, I went and found Carlos. I asked him to come listen to the song I had salvaged and constructed. I’m sure that as he was walking to the control room, he was skeptical about what he was going to hear. Before I hit play on the machine, I told him I didn’t have a one-minute song; I had a three-minute song! He couldn’t believe it. And the song actually came together nicely and made sense as a musical piece. Needless to say, I got the job on the spot. I think that not only had I proved to Carlos that I could master the equipment, but my ingrained work ethic was also obvious to him.
As I had done all my life since the barbwire job, I threw myself 100 percent into the work. I took every recording session I could get. I started learning every detail of the trade—all the hundreds of dials and buttons on the board, microphone techniques, cable routing, recording, editing, and mixing.
For the next year and a half, I worked with a lot of artists and bands. The most notable session was one with Bob Marley where I assisted Carlos and engineer Juan “Pericles” Covas. I also had the privilege of working with the band Wild Cherry, who are most famous for the song “Play That Funky Music,” and also Bobby Caldwell, whose biggest song, “What You Won’t Do for Love,” is still played on classic radio today. Through my growing list of connections and collaborations, I began to build a solid reputation as an engineer among the music community in Miami.
One day, a guy from Climax Recording Studios, which was another Latin American–owned recording studio in Miami, approached me about working for them. At Miami Sound, the entire business was built around Carlos—understandably so—which meant there had not been much room for me to grow my own clientele. I primarily assisted Carlos. The guys at Climax wanted me to expand my own reputation as an engineer and bring new blood into their business. I was all in.
To save money on a place to live and also dive 100 percent into the work there, I asked if I could move a mattress in under the huge recording console. At night when my session was over, I could just sleep down there. They agreed. In one fell swoop, my cost of living dropped, while my opportunity for growth skyrocketed.
The two owners of the studio were Papito Hernández and Pablo Cano. Papito was a bassist who had played with major artists like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Diana Ross, and other greats from that era. Pablo had played guitar for artists such as Nat King Cole and Roberta Flack. He was known for his Cuban style of guitar playing.
Papito had sons around my age—Julio, who was a bass player, and Orlando, a drummer. Both were very good musicians. Any evening that the studio wasn’t booked, I would call and invite them and their musician friends to set up and play. I would practice recording and, equally as important, start learning to produce songs.
For those of you not familiar with these musical terms, a producer has total creative oversight in a recording project. He or she develops the specific arrangements of the songs by writing out all the parts and chord charts, as well as hiring any musicians needed. The producer makes certain the music and vocals are recorded to create and capture the very best performance of the artist and the songs as possible. As a result, this role can make or break an artist’s career.
In 1982 I worked with Miami music legend Willy Chirino on his album Chirinisimo. I also wrote one of the hit songs from that project, called “Sin Ti Asi Yo Soy” (“How I Am Without You”). Willy and I had a lot in common besides music. He was also from my hometown of Pinar del Río and came to America through the Pedro Pan project of which I spoke in chapter 1. A song he later released, “Nuestro Día Ya Viene Llegando” (“Our Day Is Coming”), became an anthem for Cuban exiles. In 2014 we honored Willy, at the age of sixty-seven, with a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
For many years, I worked with a great musician named Eddie Martinez, who became a partner in the production work. Eddie played keyboards. He had come to Miami from Cuba on the boatlift that Castro had allowed for several months in 1980, sailing out of the port of Mariel. I met him one day when he came in to play on a recording session. We immediately hit it off, striking up a friendship and working relationship.
During this season, when I was literally living at the studio, I also started to get serious about writing my own songs. Since penning my first one at fifteen, I had worked hard to grow in and be excellent at this art form. I began having Papito’s sons record demos I would produce of my own music.
Adding to the list on my resume—live musician, songwriter, singer, guitarist—I was becoming well known in Miami as a recording engineer. During my time at Climax, I was able to work with so many major Latin artists of the day, such as Celia Cruz, Julio Iglesias, Roberto Carlos and Ednita Nazario. Some of these were people my parents had played for me as I was growing up, and now I was in the room with them, creating music. Slowly…I was building a respected career and reaching the goals I had set.
Excerpt taken from The Latin Hit Maker by Rudy Pérez. Copyright © 2019 by Rudy Pérez. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. The Latin Hit Maker is now available on Amazon or directly from Zondervan.
For more information about Rudy Perez, visit rudyperez.com.