Grammy-winning producer ECHO talks The Lab Studios and Latin music trends

Paul Irizari, better known simply as ECHO, is one of the Latin market’s premier producers and engineers, having worked with many of the scene’s biggest names over the past 20 years. Here, he joins Headliner from his Miami facility The Lab Studios to discuss how he almost joined the air force before taking up music, as well as the tech that has shaped his career.

For the past two decades, Paul Irizari, aka ECHO, has resided at the top tier of the Latin music market. His work with the likes of Ricky Martin, Maluma, Pitbull, the London Symphony Orchestra, Tego Calderon, Nicole Scherzinger, Tempo, Don Omar, Ivy Queen, Thalia, Nina Sky, to name a mere few, has earned him multiple Latin Grammy awards and a reputation as one of the industry’s go-to engineers. Hailing from Puerto Rico, he now runs his own studio, The Lab Studios, in Miami. It is from here that he joins us via Zoom for an in-depth chat about his upbringing and a far from conventional route into the music business.

“We're in studio A, which is my newest studio facility, and I'm happy to be here with you guys,” he beams, greeting us with a walk through the studio. “We have three rooms here. Two are SSL rooms, both of them with Augspurger speakers and we have a Dolby Atmos room. And this is my private space, more oriented towards production and mixing and Dolby Atmos, but it's also a not-so-private commercial space for people that I know, from labels and some artists etc.

“You need places where you can listen to what you're doing correctly before it goes out,” he continues. “Because we're moving at this turbo pace in the music industry where everybody's looking to put stuff out quickly, and unfortunately there is a sacrifice and a lot of quality is lost in the process. So, I brought together a lot of equipment to create a nice semi-private commercial space here in Coconut Grove, Miami. We've been operating for almost a year, and it's been great.”

Despite his status in the market today, the young Irizari seemed destined for a very different career. As a passionate music fan, he exhibited signs of a budding musical talent during his childhood, but a life in the arts was never on the cards during his formative years.

“Nobody in my family had anything to do with music,” he recalls. “But, when I was five years old, my dad bought me a small Casio keyboard and I played it all the time and became very good, mostly playing by ear. I took some music lessons but didn't feel them, so I became good at using my ears. But as a child I wasn't really seeking a music career.

“I went to the Air Force Academy in 1995 after school. I was actually going to be a pilot and an aeronautical engineer, but music pulled again, and I ended up back in Puerto Rico a few years later, where I'm from, and started messing around with creating music and buying my first pieces of equipment and starting to look at it at from a different angle. And here we are, almost 28 years later! I've been blessed to do what I love and be able to feed my family and my kids while doing it, and I’ve also been blessed to help a lot of people take the correct route in their careers.

We're moving at turbo pace in the music industry. ECHO

“I could have probably ended up in the street or in jail or dead. Puerto Rico, at the time, had a very crazy social environment, and I think music has become a great career for many people who were seeking some kind of escape from a not-so-great lifestyle.”

So, did he ever feel at risk of being dragged into such a lifestyle himself?

“Not at all,” he states. “My dad retired from the Air Force after 20 years of service when I was born, and he started building furniture on the actual roof of our house, and he ended up growing that into a humongous furniture factory. He then sold that and was able to retire. I had that example of building something with your bare hands. So, I don't come from that street ghetto environment, but I had a lot of friends, and I always knew that it was there.”

As for how he made the move from the Air Force to music, ECHO explains how a family emergency would redirect the course of his life.

“I was fully into the Air Force, but life can throw you different situations,” he says. “I ended up leaving the Air Force because my dad needed a triple bypass surgery and I thought he was gonna die. I couldn’t not be with him, and I didn't have any leave days in the Air Force, so I was forced to do an honourable discharge. When I ended up returning to Puerto Rico, I started getting back into music. Around 1996/97 I just took a leap into it, and here we are.”

ECHO’s first foray into music upon returning to Puerto Rico arose from a dissatisfaction with a lot of the music he was being exposed to at the time. As such, he wound up creating his own beats, which would soon draw the attention of fellow local artists and producers.

“I started trying to discover this whole world of production and started doing my own thing,” he elaborates. “I purchased my first Akai MPC 2000 and a Korg Trinity if I'm not mistaken. I started messing around and understanding the basics of production. I already had music embedded in my brain, so it wasn't as hard, it was more about understanding the technical parts. Back then we're talking MIDI, no computers, no Pro Tools, no internet. So, I read a lot, and I started recording myself and some friends.

“We did a jingle for a radio show, and we took that jingle to the radio show. It played urban music which at that moment was growing, but it was more of an underground movement, and the jingle sounded better than most of the music the station was playing! So, we immediately got calls and the station was like, hey, what was that? It sounded louder, clearer and better than most of the music, and by word-of-mouth people started calling me and coming to my home to record. It was crazy.”

We had to make sure we could not only compete in Miami, but set a new standard. ECHO

It quickly became clear that having a raft of artists constantly turning up at his house was not a viable way to continue in his new profession. A dedicated studio space was essential for his career to develop to the next level.

“I built the first Lab studio back in 1997,” he continues. “I was still in college doing civil engineering, and a civil engineer who graduated in Puerto Rico maybe made $38-$40 thousand dollars a year, and all of a sudden, I was getting paid $10,000 to do an album that might take two weeks. Obviously it wasn't quite that easy, but in that moment, you're a kid and you see an opportunity to make money doing what you like. But it's a lot of work. It's not parties and drinks like most people think. It is a pretty tight work schedule.”

Having established himself as ‘one to watch’ in the region, ECHO soon began working with local rapper Tempo. As one of the most exciting breaking acts at the time, their work together opened the floodgates, with many of the scene’s top talent heading for The Lab in pursuit of his sound.

“I started getting some low-level artists that were coming up, but when I started working with Tempo is when it all took off and I committed fully to doing music,” he says. “And when other artists heard what Temple did, then other artists were knocking on my door to look for either the music I was making or the sound I was creating as an engineer, or both, because it's mostly been both.”

One of the most crucial components of his sound through the years has been not only his Augspurger® Monitors units, but also his relationship with its owner, Dave Malekpour. The pair have been close friends for many years, and for ECHO, his speakers have been an invaluable tool.

“Dave has been a great friend for many years before we actually did business,” he says. “I’ve recommended a bunch of friends and customers to him along the years, but in my early years I wasn't in need of such powerful systems. I didn't have the space. But when we decided to do this whole project here at The Lab we knew we needed to go big and make sure that we could not only compete here in Miami, but set a new standard. And we've done so. Dave helped us not only with the Augspurger speakers; he helped with a bunch of other equipment.

“In this room we have a DUO 8 with DUO 12-inch subs and I cannot think of any better mixing room with less ear fatigue. It gives a better perspective, image, dimension, everything you need when you're mixing in any room. We made sure they sounded perfect with this room and its dimensions. They spent a few days out here making sure that they sound good on everything, because obviously we have customers that do jazz music or salsa, it’s not only hip-hop and urban.”

“I've been to many studios throughout my career,” he continues. “Most have speakers with high energy levels and you will have to take breaks after 40 or 50 minutes because of ear fatigue from the mid-range These speakers do not do that. I can sit down if I want to for four hours and I won't get to a point where I don't know what the hell I'm listening to because the speaker is so comfortable.”

For now, ECHO remains busy as ever. On top of working with a multitude of artists and running The Lab, he is also working on his own artist project, with his first release pencilled in for the summer.

“There is just so much going on at the moment and it’s all very, very positive,” he concludes. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”