“People ask me, ‘So what do you do?’” says José “Chilitos” Valenzuela. “I say, ‘How much time do you have?’” To call Valenzuela a multitasker would be an understatement: The talented engineer/producer has mixed the likes of Keith Emerson, John Waite, Michael Sembello, Pepe Aguilar and Alejandro Lerner, and he has designed sound effects for feature films such as Star Trek: Generations and other TV movies. He’s worked for network television. He’s collaborated on the design of numerous audio products. He runs an audio production facility and an international school offering Pro Tools certificate programs in English and Spanish. Highly committed to education, he teaches a Pro Tools class at UCLA, and his “Chilitos and Friends” recording seminars in Mexico have drawn thousands of engineers from all over Latin America. (A Los Angeles event is in the works for the fall.)
And somehow, he finds time to write: He’s the editor of Digidesign’s Spanish DigiZine, former editor of Guitar Player‘s Spanish edition, and he has worked extensively with the Latin Grammy Magazine Spanish edition and Mix en Español. He’s written numerous audio textbooks in both Spanish and English. “The problem is, I’m a workaholic,” he jokes.
CHARTING A PATH
As a young child in Tijuana, Mexico, Valenzuela was surrounded by music, playing guitar, listening to old Cuban songs and going to Beatles concerts with his parents. “I had a dream when I was 18 to go to L.A. and become a rock star, like everybody else,” he says. Technology, however, would ultimately become his true calling. Singing in a children’s choir in Tijuana, “I remember we went to do a record, and I saw the microphones and the engineers and thought it would be great to do this type of work.” As he grew older, audio developed into an obsession: Driving, he would glance at his speedometer and visualize VU meters. “For me, that was practice checking out audio meters.” Valenzuela decided to go for the dream: He received a degree in electronics at Baja California’s Institute of Technology in Tijuana, Mexico, and later went through the Audio, Electronic Music and Computer Science Engineering program at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif., and then UCLA.
Like most eager audio students, Valenzuela yearned to work in a big recording studio. “Everybody’s dream was to work at Capitol Records or A&M Records,” he says. “I really wanted to work at A&M for the longest time because I knew that A&M was Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass. And I always thought Herb Alpert was from Tijuana because of the band Tijuana Brass,” he says, laughing. (The band actually comprised studio musicians.)
But before he even finished school, he landed a job as an electronics tech with Oberheim. “I was hired a month before I even graduated from college,” he says. “The last final was on a Thursday, I started Monday. It’s been like that ever since.” A synthesis expert, Valenzuela was also called to program instruments for studio sessions in Los Angeles, and the recording gigs just snowballed from there.
Today, he runs AudioGraph International, a recording facility in Santa Monica that does double-duty as a surround-equipped studio and an educational center. In 10 years, more than 5,000 people have graduated from his Pro Tools programs; students have included engineer Ed Cherney and Men at Work’s Colin Hay. He still writes, and is currently developing and producing new U.S. and Latin acts. Working on multiple careers at once, Valenzuela admits finding that balance is a challenge. “I never stop thinking about that,” he says. “I have a schedule; everything is a ‘crossfade.’” He insists, however, that he remains focused on his true love: audio. “Everything that I’ve done, and what I do, is related with sound.”
WORDS OF WISDOM
“I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’m always working and there’s always something going on,” Valenzuela says of his long and diverse career. But good fortune, of course, is only part of the equation: Like many top audio pros, Valenzuela is thriving in today’s climate by reinventing himself and always being a step ahead, offering solutions people don’t even know they need. “I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I have asked people, ‘Do you have something that I can do?’” he says. “I’ve always been an instigator.
“Create something and show it to somebody as a product,” he advises. “Nobody asked me to write books — I wrote the books as a necessity to give notes to my students. If there is no work out there for you, create something; be creative. It’s really exciting with all the media now; multimedia, digital media, radio, TV, all using hi-def audio. There’s a lot of competition right now, but I think that makes it better — you get better results, more quality.”
Valenzuela advises his students to aim high, but to also walk the walk. “I tell them they have to be inventive,” he says. “They say, ‘Well, you can say that because you have a school,’ but nobody asked me to have a school.
“You already have an answer,” he adds. “Everyone’s going to say ‘no’; you have to look for the ‘yes.’”
Sarah Jones is Mix’s features editor.