Pablo Munguía : The Man Who Shaped the Sound of Your Favorite Aughties Songs
The veteran sound engineer on how he moved from mopping the floors to manning the console for big names like Alicia Keys and Pharrell Williams
It’s probably the wild guesswork that Pablo Munguía’s anecdotes spark that make them so riveting. The forty-something sound engineer has a proclivity for revealing his big-name clients as the punchline of his stories, keeping curious listeners hanging from a cliff throughout.
“One day, this young girl came into the studio and she wanted a demo…She sat down at the piano and was great, she started programming her own MPC, and I was like, ‘Wow okay, so you can program your own MPC, make your beats , what else can you do?’ And she started singing and she was amazing … I finished this demo, it went out in the morning and I didn’t hear back from them [for] six months. Six months later I got the pre-press copy of her album. So she was signed and did her first album and that was Alicia Keys.”
Munguía grew up in Mexico City where he played the guitar for a bunch of bands. Like most cash-strapped young rockers, Munguía and his mates were always trying to figure out homespun ways to record songs on cassette. “We didn’t even have microphones; we were using headphones as microphones,” recalls Munguía. Things have come pretty far for Munguía since then: not only does he count Pharrell Williams, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera as previous clients—he’s also something of a veteran sound engineer today. Last week, Munguía flew to Mumbai to host a Signature StartUp Masterclass organized by Berklee College of Music, his alma mater.
For someone who seems to have always enjoyed the ins and outs of sound engineering, Munguía only turned his hobby into a career later in his life. “Fortunately–or unfortunately–I always did really well in school,” says Munguía . His excellent academic record landed him a spot at MIT, where he did his undergrad in Material Science, and he even acquired a PhD from the University of Texas in Austin. In 1996, however, Munguía decided to flip a switch and pursue a career in music instead, and enrolled himself at Berklee for Music Production and Engineering.
Post Berklee, Munguía moved to Los Angeles where he started as a runner at Westlake Audio Studios. “I started from scratch. I started from the bottom,” he says. “I started bringing the coffee, and mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets.” Thanks to his musical background, however, he was able to jump in on a session if an engineer didn’t show up. His first real session, by fluke, happened to be for legendary New York rapper LL Cool J, who had come into the studio to cut vocals fresh off a concert. “They were very skeptical, they were like, ‘You with the mop, are you sure you know how to run the console?’” says Munguía . “I was like, ‘I promise I know how to do this.’ I thought, ‘Alright, leave the mop in the kitchen and go into the studio.’”
Of course, Munguía did actually know what he was doing, and his chops and know-how ensured that he moved up the rungs of the ladder at break-neck speed. Within three years at Westlake, Munguía had become the top engineer at the studio. “I was getting first call to do all the big sessions that came in,” he says. “It put me in a great position to meet all the great engineers and producers and fabulous artists.” In 2001, the sound engineer decided to go freelance. His transition was seamless, and he found himself in demand with all the top names in the early Aughties industry.
Last year, Munguía took up a position at Berklee in Valencia, Spain as the program director for masters in Music Production, Technology and Innovation. “The most important thing is that this path is about hard work, and about perseverance and knocking down doors that are closed very often,” he advises. “I find really successful artists, producers and engineers are always the ones that have been persevering and not taken no for an answer. And stayed at it even in the face of hard circumstances.”
At his Signature StartUp Masterclass for Berklee, which was held in partnership with Mumbai-based Oranjuice Entertainment, Munguía focused mostly on another area of his career; he also works in television and does live sound engineering for a wide range of live music variety shows. Munguía has worked on shows such as the Oscars, Grammys, the Superbowl halftime show, American Music Awards, MTV VMAs, Billboard Music Awards, Rockstar, American Idol and The Voice. He’s also won five Primetime Emmys and one Daytime Emmy Award. “When people go to see a live show, the audience has expectations as to what they’re going to see, what they are going to listen to, what they expect to happen,” says Munguía. “So as engineers, as producers, as artists, we need to be able to deliver on those expectations.”
The sound engineer enjoys having the opportunity to jump back and forth between the studio and live work. “In the studio you have a lot of time to work on things. If you want to make the snare perfect, you can take two hours and get the perfect sound. In live TV, you don’t have that luxury of time,” he says. “So actually being a good live sound engineer makes you a better engineer in the studio, because you get to learn very quickly.”
Munguía is an undeniably seasoned sound engineer in both live and studio realms, but there are still a few things he’s never experienced, and things he wants to learn. His trip to India for the Masterclass is his first to the subcontinent. “When I came to India I had expectations and many ideas in mind of what this would be like, but I quickly realized that that was not what the trip was about,” he says. “This was a trip where I wasn’t going to know what will happen. So I’ve left all my expectations back at home and I’ve come with an open mind and heart to be amazed, and I guess to learn and find out new things. What I hope to take back from this trip is new insight, new knowledge, perhaps a change on how I view things.”