Wednesday, March 1, 2017

31 Women in Audio: Fela Davis

Mix Messiah Productions presents: 31 Women in Audio, a series celebrating Women's History Month.

Day 1: Fela Davis, 23 dB Productions

Today, we are featuring Fela Davis, a New-York based audio engineer and co-owner of 23 dB Productions. Together with co-owner Denis Orybekov, she has worked with MeShell Ndegocello, Christian McBride, Ron Carter and Swiss Chris, among many others. Leslie Gaston-Bird and Fela chatted by phone. 

Leslie Gaston-Bird: "What was your earliest experience with audio?"
Fela Davis: "I went to Full Sail. And I was self taught. It wasn't like my father or uncle inspired me or anything -- in fact, my parents have no idea what I do. I didn't know audio engineering was a thing. I didn't find out about it till 8th grade when I saw a career placement brochure that listed “audio engineering”. I thought it was something to look into.

LGB: What about childhood experiences with music or audio?
FD: I played trombone, and I loved music, although I couldn’t afford it (it’s expensive as a kid)! Kids today have YouTube. But I didn’t want to be a musician. I wanted to be a toymaker, I wanted to do something with my hands. I was always into electronics, stereos, VCRs -- I was the only one who knew how to program it! I also knew that I wanted to be successful and interested in what I was doing.

LGB: What is it like running your own company?
FD: I never felt wanted at most gigs I did. And not in a bad way - but I never feet comfortable. It always felt like I was never good enough, or there should be someone else doing it. And I would go to audio workshops to hear “golden ears” and I would come away unimpressed. There was a chasm there between what was promoted and what I heard, and as an engineer, I have to be realistic about what I hear.

Smaller studios needed help so I got the gigs at the little studios. They’re not killing it, they’re not balling, but they have a nice living. And I had also worked for big stuff. And being one-on-one with the client was good. There is always a disconnect between you artist when middle men like accountants are in the way. And once I proved I was worthy, and then stuff started to happen. Christian McBride got in touch with me. Then I got hit up by a 3-time Grammy award winner.

My advice is do what the f--- you want to do. So yes! YOU ARE WORTHY! Nepotism is a problem. I can’t think of anyone better to hustle for than yourself. And having a good partner is key, someone who is just as committed as you.

LGB: What do you hate/love about answering questions related to women in audio?
FD: I want to say: Anybody can do it. I don’t care if you have kids, whatever you want to do you have to sacrifice anyway. Audio, lighting, whatever. I’m from South Carolina doing audio. No one expects that! And I'm on the higher end of people that do it. But in terms of questions I'm asked, nothing really gets on my nerves - I’m glad someone is asking. The first 12 years of my career no one asked me anything. Guys don’t ask much; girls are more like family. But women who want kids sound defeated before they even start. Kids don’t kill your dreams.

LGB: Yes, it seems to me that fear is more about parenting, not about audio. What fictional or real role models do you have?
FD: Janelle Monae. She said “I want a black female engineer”. Artists don’t always realize the power they have in the industry to change things. That’s how many careers got started: the FOH guy at the Apollo, India Arie, and Quincy Jones all said, “I want a black engineer”. And we are hard to find. 

LGB: What upcoming projects would you like to mention?
FD: I'd like to let everyone know about the workshop on drum and recording techniques next month with Swiss Chris.

 To learn more about 23 dB Productions, please visit

-Leslie Gaston-Bird
Owner, Mix Messiah Productions, LLC