PLAYING CINCY: Ihlana Niayla Makes Moves In A Male-Dominated Industry

Ihlana at Timeless Recording Studio. Photo by DeAndre Favors.

Ihlana Niayla is a force to be reckoned with. Since developing a love for all things audio during college and in an audio/visual role working at the Cincinnati Zoo, the producer-engineer-songwriter followed her passion behind the board and recently became Timeless Recording Studio‘s first female recording engineer. The new title is one of many for the Cincinnati multi-hyphenate, who also heads up a cosmetics line – her second since college – called Expand Beauty Company.

Here, Ihlana gives AudioFemme a sense of the audio magic behind recording and how she balances engineering and cosmetics. She also shares how she’s been able to stay true to herself in a mostly male industry and why confidence is key.

AF: What’s your role at Timeless Recording Studio?

IN: For the most part, at Timeless, I’m an engineer. So I’m recording people, I’m mixing some songs, and that’s pretty much my job there.

AF: Do you do any producing?

IN: I do! I’ve been producing probably since 2011 but I’ve recently gotten away from it. It just became a lot to do. So I stopped and I’m getting back into it. I quit my 9-to-5 a few months ago, so now I’m going back to my passion projects, like producing.

AF: Do you think you’ll end up producing for people that come into Timeless?

IN: Yeah, for sure. At some point, I’ll be offering my production along with my sessions. It’ll definitely be in tandem with my brand and what I do.

AF: How did you get into engineering and mixing?

IN: I started at Timeless in February and before then I was at the [Cincinnati] Zoo doing audio and visual work. I’ve been doing audio work since 2014 / 2015. Audio production was my [college] major. I learned all the basics in college and then when I got out of college I started doing a whole bunch of everything. I’ve also worked in a lot of live-sound here and there throughout the years.

AF: Would you say producing is your passion, or do you like engineering more?

IN: Everything with audio is my happy place, so whether it’s working a live concert – setting up the concert from the beginning, when there’s nothing there – I really love that. I like building a whole production, from the audio side. I love being in the studio, I love engineering. I love making a song from the start. I think I just like the creation aspect of audio and how you can shape somebody’s whole experience and capture somebody’s whole experience. So anything with audio I just love. There’s not one particular thing, that’s why I’m dabbling in it all.

AF: You’re also the first female engineer at Timeless. Do you ever find it tough working in a male-dominated industry?

IN: I’ve gotten used to it. The younger me probably would have gotten super intimidated at the thought of it. Now that I’m here and I’m doing it daily, day-in and day-out for hours on end, just being surrounded by men of all different types – they’re not all great and they’re not all bad – I’ve learned to still be myself.

I think a lot of women get intimidated even in the midst of their careers by certain men but as I’m progressing – I mean, I’m still in the very beginning – I think women can get intimidated and change themselves just to appeal to the men around them. I quickly wiped that out. When I start in the beginning, I think I was kind of like that, trying to be something for somebody, but I found a lot more comfort and a lot more success from just being myself. If people don’t jive with that, that’s fine, because those are people that are not meant to be around me. The more I’ve accepted that the more successful I’ve been in my career and spiritually.

When you’re working with men, you’ve got to be like overly confident in yourself. At first, it feels like a stretch, but you get used to it.

Ihlana Niayla
Photo by Frank Young

AF: Besides being in the studio, you also have your own makeup brand.

IN: The makeup brand is called Expand Beauty Company. It’s my second company. The first company I had was called Ihlana Lip Care, which was natural and organic products, and I started that one in college, and then I kind of made that into Expand. Right now, I’m trying to balance out the audio world with my cosmetic business. I’m working on a way of intertwining the two – shaping that into something.

AF: Is it tough balancing them both?

IN: It’s so tough. On top of quitting my nine-to-five, which also made it even tougher. So, like right now everything is in a limbo where it’s kind of floating around and I’m grabbing bits and pieces and making sense of it as I can. I’m not racing myself, I’m just pacing myself this time around. So every now and then I do something makeup related. I just don’t promote it as much right now because it’s a lot, but I have plans on getting back into that for September.

AF: How did you get started in makeup?

IN: When I was a child I was always mixing things, thinking I was making makeup with just things I would find around the house. I would, like, try to make perfume or acrylic nails – I don’t know how I thought I was going to make a full set out of baby powder, lotion and water but I definitely would try it [laughing].

I’ve always been kind of a mixologist in that way and then I got to college. I went to school and Athens, Ohio; there’s nothing out there. We have like one CVS, there’s no real mall, and not a lot of access to makeup, especially not for Black women and then especially not natural and organic, so that’s where Ihlana Lip Care spurred. After college it turned into Expand because I just started to know myself better. It’s something I’ve always done, something I’m going to continue to pursue, kind of in the same sense of what Rihanna is doing. Like, she’s got the music, cosmetics – she’s killing it.

AF: With such an entrepreneurial spirit, do you see yourself opening another company someday?

IN: Absolutely! I don’t know quite what yet, but I always have ideas, for sure. As soon as I get these off the ground – get the audio aspect of my life where I want it to be and get the cosmetics to the point where it’s up and running without me being around, then I’ll be looking to the next one. Historically, I usually have so many things going on and I’ll drop the ball on one or two things. That’s one problem with having an entrepreneurial spirit – you have all these ideas and you want to pursue all of them.

AF: What’s your favorite part of engineering at Timeless?

IN: My favorite part is meeting everybody in the city that’s involved in music. Whether it be rappers, R&B singers, country singers, voice-over artists, DJs – I just love meeting everybody that’s involved in music. It keeps me inspired and I also love that I can help them create a product that matches their visual idea.

Timeless is such a great studio because it opens the door for a lot of people. It’s accessible to a lot of people. I know there are a handful of studios in the city, and I probably don’t know about all of them, but I know with Timeless we get such a wide array of people, young and old, with different budgets. I think it’s beautiful that we have the ability to allow people to come in on a small budget or a large budget or whether they have never recorded a song before or they’ve recorded 500. I love that – accessibility is a big thing for me.

I think everybody needs an opportunity to express themselves, especially creatively. When I was growing up, if I would’ve had access to a studio when I was writing all those songs in my bedroom as a teenager, I would’ve been a totally different person, in the best possible way. I see a bunch of kids coming in with that ability to do so at Timeless, and then you’ve got adults who are working on their career and they can do that there. Timeless has such a great team, I don’t know of any other studio in the city with such an eclectic and well-rounded team. I feel so blessed to be inspired every day. I feel like sometimes we take those moments for granted, but being inspired is so important.

PLAYING CINCY: Tour the Nation’s First Smart Recording Studio

Producer Evan “X” Johnson’s awards line the studio halls. Photos by Victoria Moorwood.

When CEO / award-winning producer Evan “X” Johnson and President Cameron Napier rebranded, relocated and launched Timeless Recording Studio, they had one question on their minds—how can we improve?

The two tech-savvy music professionals had already made names for themselves as innovative and reliable recording studio owners, but they were ready to elevate their craft. And so, the world’s first ‘smart recording studio’ was born.

“A smart studio is defined as a recording facility that has interconnected devices to make the experience for the client very unique,” said Cameron, explaining the concept behind their Cincinnati smart studio. “Specifically, imagine being able to book a recording session and create the environment you want to have—from lighting, interconnectivity from the Wi-Fi, and also having a sense of security for your data and your files, all being transferred all at the click of a button, all at voice automation.”

It sounds pretty complex, but it’s the future of recording technology. Everyday we use smart technology and voice automation to look up directions to nearby coffee shops, lock our doors after we’ve left the house and even order groceries. It makes sense that these technologies should infiltrate the artist recording process, and in Cameron and Evan’s studio, clients see the benefits that these advancements can have on their music.

Unlike analog studios, digital studios offer more flexibility in going back and making changes to recorded audio. A smart studio expands on that and integrates smart technology into the existing and versatile options that digital recording already provides. With the addition of the new tech, more doors are opened in terms of the artist’s recording experience, as well as data security and sharing. But, sometimes, artists just like to use the tech to flex in the booth.

“People book time just so they can come change the lights,” laughed Cameron.

It’s all about creating the most comfortable environment for recording, while using the latest technology to perfect your audio. And if that sometimes means voice-automated lighting color changes, so be it.

Clients and recording artists sign the booth wall after recording.

Of course, smart technology is experimental technology, and a smart studio is not immune to occasional technical difficulties. Whereas Evan seems to have the magical vocal tone that allowed him to change lighting and play music via Alexa, Cameron joked “We fight sometimes” when referring to the voice-activated virtual assistant.

The guys are glad to make Cincinnati the birthplace of this studio tech integration and they hope to expand it to studios nationwide.

“I think this has the potential to be the next big thing,” said Evan. “We’re the first to kind of start the infrastructure and hopefully it can be perfected.”