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Tuned out: Legendary Charlotte recording studio tries to compete as newer, cheaper studios rise

By Sam Boykin

It’s Thursday morning and Wayne Jernigan is busy painting the doorway to Charlotte’s legendary Reflection Sound Studio. Some of music’s biggest artists have recorded at the Central Avenue studio since it opened in 1970, including R.E.M., Aerosmith, Robert Plant, James Brown, Whitney Houston and Fantasia.

But after decades of being one of the go-to places in the Southeast for artists to cut tracks, Reflection is relatively quiet now as it struggles to compete in an industry that has been dramatically altered by inexpensive digital recording equipment and changes in the music industry itself.

“We’re trying to reinvent ourselves to fit into what’s happening now,” said Jernigan, who owns Reflection. “We’re bringing in new blood and ideas.”

Since the 1980s and ’90s, when Reflection was always booked and a dozen people worked at the studio, Jernigan said business has dropped off by more than 50 percent, and he has only a couple of part-time employees.

“Technology has made it possible to do acceptable recordings in a lesser environment,” he said. “And with so many record labels going by the wayside, bands don’t have the budgets they used to. They can’t afford to come to a studio like Reflection. Subsequently, they’ve gone to smaller facilities and home studios.”

That explains why Jernigan was painting Thursday. It’s part of his ongoing efforts to spruce up Reflection and remain viable in an increasingly competitive and changing marketplace.

Seismic shift

As Jernigan was watching a seismic shift ripple through the recording studio industry and struggling to keep his business afloat, Era Proof was getting Lif Lyn Recording Studio off the ground. He started the business in 2005 out of his parents’ Charlotte home. “I used to rap,” said Proof, 28. “I always had dreams of becoming a star. But after I realized it wasn’t as easy as it looked, I decided to make a living being around people who had the same dream as me.”

A year after he started Lif Lyn Recording Studio, he partnered with his friend, Jorge Neri, and together they bought a foreclosed home in north Charlotte, gutted it and installed all their digital recording equipment.

They have a 950-square-foot studio and six employees. Proof charges $65 an hour for studio time, with discount packages for local artists.

“As technology became cheaper and more accessible, it became easier to get high-quality recordings,” Proof said. “All you need is a laptop and a microphone. But in order to get a higher-quality product, you still need the technological know-how. A lot of my clients record at home, but then come to me for the mixing and mastering.”

Proof said that in today’s music scene, with record labels cutting their artists’ budgets and more independent acts selling their music online, smaller operations like his stand a better chance of making it than Reflection.

“The need for these major studios is slowly dwindling,” he said. “Reflection is not down-and-out, not just yet, but those kind of big studios are suffering. They’re not attracting local artists. Smaller guys like me cost a lot less and can still produce a high-quality sound.”

Charlotte native Scott Slagle started discjockeying when he was just a teenager. In the late 1980s, a group of his friends, including two brothers from Charlotte, formed the band Jodeci and landed a record deal. Slagle helped with the band’s early recordings and traveled the country working as a freelance music producer and engineer. But in 1996 he had a son and, wanting to stay closer to home, launched Asylum Digital.

Slagle said the timing couldn’t have been better, as digital recording equipment was just starting to hit the market.

“I didn’t need this large analog console,” said Slagle, 38. “I was able to record things with a computer. It gave me a much lower overhead.”

Slagle operates out of a 1,450-square-foot studio in northeast Charlotte and works with a wide variety of acts, especially hip-hop.

“In today’s environment you have to be absolutely necessary,” he said. “If somebody can do a basic recording at home, why would they spend over $500 a day at a studio? That’s a lot of paychecks to some people.”

‘Still a need’

After pursuing musical stardom in the 1980s as the lead singer of rock band Black Glass and a foray into Nashville’s music scene, Mark Lambert, 47, returned to his hometown of Charlotte and in 2003 opened Audio Works Sound Studio.

Like Jernigan at Reflection Sound Studio, Lambert said his business has been impacted by the growing popularity of inexpensive digital equipment that allows recordings to be made at home. “There’s still a need for studios with top-notch equipment,” Lambert said. “But the advent of digital recording has changed the recording landscape a lot. A lot of big studios like Reflection are not doing half of what they used to.”

Lambert said that since he’s a midsized studio with little overhead—his hourly studio rate is $50—he’s been able to weather the storm.  Moreover, he’s diversified, and in addition to working with a wide range of recording artists, he also does a fair amount of commercial work. He records podcasts for Belmont Abbey College and commercials for NASCAR and, recently, completed recording Christmas announcements and music for Concord Mills.

Jernigan charges $135 per hour, and there’s a two-hour minimum.

“We still tell people there’s a tremendous difference here if you can afford it,” Jernigan said. “We have the best equipment and great-sounding acoustics. It’s one thing to have a great song, but you also have to have a great recording.”

From Dolly to Waylon

Jernigan, who declined to give his age, cut his musical teeth in the country genre.  In the 1960s, he worked as a drummer and toured with the likes of Ernest Tubbs, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings. During that time, he got into recording, and when his wife at the time started pressuring him to stay home, he and a partner opened Reflection in 1970.

At the time there were only one or two other recording studios in Charlotte. “We had aspirations to attract national acts and be the best,” Jernigan said.

In 1975 Jernigan bought out his partner and moved the studio to its current location on Central Avenue. The 8,000-square foot facility has two studios, and the walls are adorned with dozens of awards and records they’ve recorded.

At Reflection, he’s doing more than just slapping on a fresh coat of paint. This month, he plans to install new equipment, including a $600,000 sound-mixing console. He’s also partnered with Bruce Irvine, chief creative officer of Charlotte-based GYB Entertainment Group, which provides recording and mixing services for music, film, television and sports. Irvine, 49, is a veteran recording engineer and has worked on projects with R&B/hip-hop artists like Anthony Hamilton and Keith Sweat.

Irvine had been working on projects at Reflection for years when Jernigan recruited him to work on a studio project in 2005. The two hit it off and decided to form a partnership. Irvine moved into Reflection’s smaller studio this month.

“Bruce has the latest high-tech digital equipment out there,” Jernigan said. “And he has quite a name in the industry.”

But despite the new high-tech equipment and joint venture with Irvine, Jernigan remains adamant about what Reflection stands for.

“We’re a classic, traditional studio,” he said. “We still feel that if there’s a major project that’s going to be done in this area, it’s going to be done here. We have a reputation and we can back it up.”

While change has been slow to come at Reflection, Jernigan is making adjustments, if somewhat reluctantly, and said he has every intention of soldiering on, even if it looks like an uphill battle.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” he said. “There’s nothing more fun than having a group of musicians in here with a microphone in front of them. There’s a certain magic that happens. There’s not a whole lot of money being made. But we do it because we’ve gone down this road and there’s no exits, so all we can do is keep going.”

Sam Boykin can be reached at sam.boykin@mecktimes.com.

For the record

Charlotte is no stranger to recording studios, from those that date to the 1970s, such as Reflection Sound Studios, to others that were launched during the past several years. Here is a sampling:

Reflection Sound Studios

1018 Central Ave.

Charles Holloman Productions

2301 Distribution St.

Audio Works Sound Studio

226 Westinghouse Blvd.

Asylum Digital

5237 Albemarle Road, Suite 213

Lif Lyn Recording Studio

4931 Clintwood Drive

Gat3 Production

655 Pressley Road

Soundpost Production

4033 Churchill Road

Sounds Rich Productions

Symphony Woods

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