Tucked away on the second floor of the Del Ray Building, 417 W. Seventh Street, Swahill Studios is the home and nesting place for one of Tulsa's hidden talents.
Usually sitting behind the mixing board and recording console of the small studio, Damen Banks is in his element.
The afternoons are usually quieter, filled with administrative duties, creating beats and samples, running errands or mixing a recently recorded project.
The nights are more often than not filled with activity: music flowing, artists laying down their tracks, and Banks working his magic.
Banks established his studio in Tulsa in 2002 and has moved operations a couple of times as business grew. The most recent change came in October 2009, which saw Banks transition the studio from its location on the 9th floor of the Main Mall Plaza--its home of three years--to the current location in the Del Ray Building.
Although the space is relatively small, it doesn't feel cramped or inadequate. Instead, it's peaceful, cozy and comforting--the kind of space that encourages creativity, and that's exactly what happens here on a regular basis.
Artists of all types, from country to pop to soul and gospel have recorded at Swahill, but Banks is stepping up as one of the premier R&B and hip-hop producers in Tulsa.
Banks isn't just a producer or a simple recording engineer, however. His experience and talent are multi-fold, and his career as a producer came about naturally as he tapped his strengths on a quest to become a more complete artist.
Born and raised in Tulsa, Banks began writing when he was young by composing short stories and poems. It wasn't until later that he learned to tie those stories to his passion for music. From there, the sky was the limit.
"My friend Billy came down from Philly and introduced me to freestyling, and it just went from there," Banks said, as he reflected on how he got started as an artist.
By the time he met up with a producer for the first time, Banks said he had 103 songs ready to be put to music.
When he met with that producer to see what it would take to put the songs together, however, he wasn't satisfied with the results.
"I just couldn't get him to nail it down and find what I was looking for," he said, "so I went out and bought a keyboard. It started germinating from there and by the time I was 19 or 20, I was a full-fledged artist -- writing, producing and performing my own material."
Banks made his Tulsa debut as an artist in 1992, but he wouldn't stay here for long. Encompassed by his love for music and a desire to do things himself, he moved to Los Angeles. He began attending the Los Angeles Recording Academy, where he earned a degree in recording engineering and sound reinforcement.
Internships at Silent Sound and The Enterprise in L.A. were followed by a couple of years spent in Sacramento, where he worked at Division of Rhythm and The Candyshop. This is where Banks started making the connections that would help him launch his own studio back home.
During his time in Sacramento, he served as an engineer for Black Market Records, and he worked with C-Bo, recorded with singer D'Angelo as second engineer and worked with artists such as Marvelous and Brotha Lynch.
Today, Banks plays down those experiences, not wanting to cash in his credibility by name dropping. His humility shows through and through, but it's exactly that experience working with major acts that has shaped his ear and built his credibility as a producer.
The concept for Swahill Studios was born in 2001, and Banks turned it into a reality when he returned to Tulsa in 2002.
Eight years later, he has quietly built his little empire and become one of the best R&B producers in Tulsa, if not the region. During that time, he estimates that he's worked with roughly 140 artists in a variety of styles.
Banks has experience in everything: he's had a hand in recording light rock, reggae, country and even spoken-word, but his real forte' has proven to be in hip-hop and R&B. To that extent, Banks prides himself on the diversity of his work, openly and eagerly.
"I'm a producer, but I don't put limits on genres because I love music of all styles," Banks said.
Back to the Core
Although it can be easy to see Banks as only a producer and engineer, that's certainly not the case. He started out as an artist himself and that's what he'll always be at his core. Whether writing his own songs, creating beats for someone else, or helping shape and direct one of his clients, Banks is driven by the creativity that flows out of him.
After all, it was out of an overflow of that creativity and lyricism that Banks emerged on the Tulsa music scene as a rapper and hip-hop artist back in 1992.
Throughout time, that creativity has only proven to multiply and take Banks in a variety of directions. So even though he's been busy building a reputation as a producer, that's hardly been his only outlet.
Aside from collaborating with and producing other artists, Banks has also invested a great deal of time in a new album of his own, The Score (A Swahill Ensemble), which is currently planned for a mid-2010 release. A sneak preview of the disc quickly proves Banks' diversity, while building on his strengths.
With 20 tracks and more than an hour and ten minutes of music, The Score is simultaneously a departure and logical growth from Banks' hip-hop past.
It's a far-reaching project that ties together many of his influences and loves, tapping into dance, R&B, jazz, ambient and world music. The combination can be at times perplexing, but Banks' vision for the project and ability to tie it all together ultimately make it work.
Banks' musical roots lie in hip-hop, R&B and pop and as such, he acknowledges that his work will always reflect some mix of that. His overall love of music in general and willingness to experiment with and implement different elements, however, is what makes The Score such an intriguing and hypnotic work.
"I have a passion for chamber music, it's a personal favorite," Banks said of his artistic direction. "This is my own version of chamber music."
Banks' vision goes beyond the music and productions side of the project however and into the packaging and presentation of the material. Although the music and recording of The Score are complete, Banks is holding back the disc's release, so he can present it in accordance with his vision, which includes a fully animated video for the first single, "She's Like the Mafia."
Although The Score can be a little overwhelming at first, it also provides a window of sorts into Banks' world. Undeniable innovative and creative, it makes sense that he should end up going into production, if only to accommodate his own creative desires. In fact, that's the whole reason Banks originally went to school and wanted to build his own recording studio -- to be a self-contained artist.
Eventually, he began working with other artists and one thing led to another to the point where he is today: recording, producing, mixing and mastering other artists.
A Man of Many Hats
The transition to producing other artists is something that has come naturally for Banks. With a keen ear for music and composition, a desire to grow creatively (combined with his training and polished technical abilities), it makes perfect sense that he should use those strengths and talents outside of his own performing career.
He understands each of the key roles in the studio and what needs to be done at each stage of the creative process and that makes him a valuable resource for other artists to draw from.
What many people don't understand is how each of the roles is different, yet intertwined.
Acting as a recording engineer and a producer are two distinctly different roles, much as mixing and mastering are two separate, yet inter-related processes. Fortunately, Banks not only understands the differences but is experienced in each.
For the uninitiated, recording and producing might seem like the same thing, but they aren't. Although a producer might very well also serve as a recording engineer, setting input levels and physically recording the tracks, Banks' role goes beyond that, providing the type of input that helps shape not only a song but ultimately the artist.
A producer's job is essentially to make the song sound as good as possible, but it entails more than just the recording aspect of the process. A real producer gives input regarding the artist's performance and even the arrangements of the songs, providing a sounding board for the artist's ideas and a more objective perspective on the material at hand.
When discussing the producer's job and responsibilities, Banks touched on each of these things, essentially explaining the role as "a musical shaman."
"You coach them (the artists) through their song and try to make it as solid as it can be. You've got to be a Simon (Cowell)," Banks said, referring to American Idol's Simon Cowell, and the input he provides to aspiring artists on the show. For Banks, this has become a common theme or mantra of a true producer's role.
There's also a technical side to the recording process, and it's something Banks knows incredibly well. The mixing process includes setting the levels of all of the separate instrumental tracks and balancing the overall sound, drawing attention to each instrument or vocal part as appropriate. While it is a separate function, Banks said that a good producer usually has an ear for mixing as well.
"For me, I like to get a good solid recording with nothing peaking (maxing out on the volume or recording levels) first, then come back to it," he said. "I tend to separate days and start with a decent pre-mix to work from, but I prefer to come back to it."
That break from the material gives him a fresh ear and perspective from which to work once he returns.
The most mysterious piece of the recording puzzle tends to be the mastering process, something that provides an intangible quality to the finished product.
Since most people don't understand what this entails, Banks gave a little insight into it. Essentially what it all boils down to is frequencies and numbers, Banks said. The final mix of a recording is put into a "pool" and standardized to bring the frequencies and peaks to within broadcast levels, as per a set of pre-established Redbook values. (Basically, this ensures the recordings aren't too quiet or experience feedback distortion.) Once mastered properly, the music is then ready for radio stations to put on the air.
Banks' experience and training from his time in California prepared him and made him adept at each of the steps of the process, so he can offer a complete and comprehensive package to his clients. More often than not, however, his main role is usually that of producer.
Even in that role, however, Banks is careful to measure out his input. Some artists just want to come in and record their ideas without an outside influence, while others are looking for a degree of guidance.
From there, he said he gets a lot of calls from hip-hop acts, and he sifts through the requests to see who is real and approaching the music seriously versus the acts that aren't.
"If I know they're serious in what they're trying to pursue, I don't treat them differently, but I do give them my input and true answers," Banks said. "Ultimately, though, I believe it should be their choice, and I give them that freedom because it's their artwork, not mine."
The Real Purpose
While most musicians always seem to want to escape their hometown and move to the East or West coast, Banks always intended on returning.
His initial move to California wasn't to escape but to get the training he needed to be able to produce and record his own projects. Even so, once people leave Tulsa, many don't return.
In his return to Tulsa, Banks said that he wanted to come back and fill a gap that he saw in Tulsa's music scene.
"When I started, it was hard for me to find a quality studio that I could afford," he said. "And I knew other people who had the desire but couldn't afford to record."
Even while working in Sacramento, Banks felt the pull to return to Tulsa, and the concept for Swahill Studios came together.
"I wanted to provide a service that was affordable and had A+ technical abilities and equipment," he said. "That's why I went to a top-notch school with ProTools and SSLs and all of the latest equipment."
If you think a little studio in Tulsa can't crank out top-notch material, think again.
Banks' reputation continues to grow, even as he works from T-Town. In 2008, Banks produced a collaboration between Celly Cell and local artist Daye Greene, entitled "Miscellaneous Jerk," which drew major label attention to Greene.
The year then saw him go on to produce C-Bo's mix tape that featured rapper Young Buck and the song, "Look at My Car," which is currently designated as the first single for Daye Greene's Universal Records debut, Miscellaneous Jerk. The album is presently scheduled for a late spring release this year.
"I love Tulsa," Banks said in an open profession about his city. "I love the downtown area and being downtown." Although the studio's October 2009 relocation wasn't completely of his own accord (tenants were being moved out for renovations because of building code), the move has proven to be incredibly synergistic. The Del Ray building currently houses a handful of entertainment and media type tenants, ranging from Swahill's cozy, yet swank new studio to AXiS Entertainment's offices right across the hall, to a photography studio on the floor below.
Banks' commitment to Tulsa isn't limited to just moving back and establishing his business here, however. As part of the partnership that has already been established between AXiS Entertainment and Swahill Studios, the two will be co-hosting the Artist Educational Industry Forum, an informational session and discussion designed to educate artists about the music industry. (Check out "By the Book" at urbantulsa.com)
Initially planned as a monthly event and training opportunity for developing artists, the first forum was held on Feb. 25, with Banks focusing attention on technical and production related issues and "Sunshine" from AXiS Entertainment focusing on marketing, record label and industry-related topics.
The forum is open to artists of all genres, but with previously established ties to the local R&B and hip-hop music community, this could potentially be a cornerstone for Tulsa's local urban music community to start making headway, especially in the marketing and promotions aspects of business.
Swahill Studios has recently emerged as one of the premier studios in town, especially for urban and hip-hop artists. With Damen Banks at the helm, it only promises to grow in stature.
You'd be mistaken, however, to view Banks as solely a producer. Yes, his talent and technical abilities push him to the front of the class as a local producer, but he's far more than that. A true and well-rounded artist and business man, we'll surely be hearing much more from him as 2010 progresses.
The Universal Records release of Daye Greene's new disc should draw even more national and label attention to his technical abilities, but the real surprise for many will hit when he finally releases The Score.
Once it drops, he should be looked at in a whole new light as the artist at his core takes the spotlight. Add to that his role as co-presenter of the Artist Educational Industry Forum, and you've got an incredible package -- producer, artist and educator.
By the end of the year, Damen Banks could be recognized as a modern Renaissance man as he serves as a valuable asset and resource for Tulsa's local music community and hopefully the spark that helps ignite our local urban music scene as well.
Share this article: