Digital Native

Jed Gottlieb
September 28, 2019

An early switch to hard-drive recording made Gustavo Celis Miami's go-to engineer. 

On occasion, Shakira has made life hard for Gustavo Celis B.M. ’94, but she’s also helped him become a master of his craft. 

“In terms of making her happy, it’s insane,” the producer and engineer says of the Colombian megastar, with a laugh. “For one of her records, she decided headphones were giving her headaches, so she wanted to record her vocals with [studio] speakers on.”

Shakira told Celis she needed backing tracks blasting through the recording booth. But filling the room with these tracks would flood the vocal mic with guitars, drums, and synthesizers. 

“I told her, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to do it my way,” Celis says. “I made her sign a little napkin as a joke agreement. The agreement was the microphone would never move position and I would place the microphone every time we worked.” 

Painstakingly, over hours, Celis edited out the music, isolating the singer’s voice. He says that if you listen back to the vocal tracks, you can’t hear anything but Shakira. 

The international pop queen has run through plenty of engineers during her 28-year career, but has consistently trusted Celis to do what other engineers found impossible (he has logged sessions with her from 2001’s Laundry Service through 2017’s El Dorado). 

Celis has a dozen anecdotes that illustrate the “crazy lengths you go to with artists that have the means to do anything.” For him, making crazy work has become a calling card. 

In the early 1990s, when Celis left his native Venezuela to study at Berklee, the music business sat at the dawn of a new era. Digital recording software, such as Pro Tools—now an industry standard—had just debuted on the market, but skeptics outnumbered champions of the new technology. The idea of abandoning analog tape—a tried-and-true format used on recordings for myriad artists, from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to Fleetwood Mac—for hard drives seemed downright silly to some. But Celis saw and heard the future in digital. 

“Gustavo seized upon this early and was very astute,” says Rob Jaczko, chair of Berklee’s Music Production and Engineering (MP&E) Department. “He guessed digital was going to be the dominant direction of the business and that being a pioneer of the tools was going to be to his advantage. He was clearly correct.”

After Berklee, Celis went straight to the Hit Factory in New York City. He was one of the few Berklee alumni hired by the legendary recording studio. “That first year alone, on any given day it could be Michael Jackson recording HIStory or Bruce Springsteen or Mariah Carey,” he says. 

But after two years, he headed south for personal reasons and landed in a smaller, Miami-based studio. The inferior equipment at his new job made him cry for a week, he jokes. But the move jump-started his career. 

“Some of the assistants I was working with at the Hit Factory had been there 10 or 12 years and had never made a record,” he says. “The minute I hit Miami I’m overqualified so I immediately become the head engineer of the studio and I start making records and winning Grammys. The move was a blessing in disguise.”

He started by recording artists to the hard drive of a beat-up Mac he bought as a student in Boston. Over the years, he upgraded his hardware and software, eventually putting together one of the first digital recording systems fit for superstars. 

“I started going to some of the best studios in the world with my primitive little Pro Tools setup, telling them, ‘We’re not going to use the $250,000 machines, we’re going to use my thing,’” he says.

“Everyone thought I was crazy to record to a hard drive,” he adds. “They asked, ‘Are you going to record Gloria Estefan to a hard drive? Are you going to record Céline Dion to a hard drive? I told them, ‘Yes I will.’ I’m going to tell artists we could lose everything, but we can work twice, maybe three times, as fast as we can with tape. And that alone really my made my career.”

In addition to his longtime partnership with Shakira, he has produced, engineered, mixed or arranged for Ricky Martin, Beyoncé, Menudo, David Bisbal, and a score of other international A-listers. 

For two decades, his approach has balanced cutting-edge technology and a musical ear. Years ago, when they were undergrads together, Dan Thompson, who is now Berklee’s assistant chair of MP&E, stopped by a session Celis was running. The session arranger didn’t show up, so Celis deputized Thompson to arrange while he ran the boards. Even then, Celis’s skills surprised Thompson.  

“I turned to Gustavo and said, ‘I didn't know you could do this, I didn’t know you could do that,’” he says. “But I guess there was no reason I should have thought that he couldn’t do everything. He’s always been very musical, with a great ear, and very understated about his talents. He’s never crowing about what he can do and I think that made him a perfect alum to honor [with an Alumni Achievement Award this spring].” Those talents also led to two Grammy Awards and seven Latin Grammy Awards, as well as the 2003 Academy Award for Best Sound for the film Chicago. 

In every session, he wants the technology to service the song. He didn’t push for digital because it was new. He saw how it could aid artists’ work. 

“If someone says, ‘Let’s make our record without hard drives.’ I say, ‘OK, but why?’” Celis says. “I always get it from the same type of musician who is looking for that Beatles thing. Let me tell you, if the Beatles were around now they would be the first to invent things like this. That’s what they were doing back then: inventing new ways to record. The Beatles’ music works in spite of the technology, not because of it.”

“Write a song like the Beatles and then let me worry about recording it,” he adds with a laugh. 

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