In 1969 Wayne Jernigan was making decent money as a drummer in Nashville, playing alongside country legends such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Still, he wasn't quite making it as a studio musician. Wayne had always been fascinated by "the other side of the glass," he says. During his playing days, he recorded every performance on an audiotape. So when he moved to Charlotte to be with his wife, he took interest in a studio that had just closed down after being open for only six months.
Reflections (at its old location on South Boulevard) closed because the three owners hated each other. Wayne bought out two of the old owners (and eventually, years later, the third). "It's off the beaten path," he says of Charlotte, in relation to other musical hot spots. "But just because we're in Charlotte, North Carolina, doesn't mean we have to compromise on what we offer."
The first year was rough. In 1970, Jernigan made $22,000 drumming in Nashville and only $13,000 running the studio. His first major-label session was an Allen Toussaint-produced Lou Johnson record. Business started to pick up. In 1972, an up-and-coming gospel singer named Shirley Caesar recorded the classic "No Charge" at Reflections. The recording took place in a single day. "No Charge" stayed at the top of Billboard's gospel chart for 52 weeks. The Durham-based Caesar has continued recording at Reflections through the years, even after she became the reigning queen of gospel. Jernigan estimates she's created 35 records at the Central Avenue location.
"If you have a hit, people want to know why," says Jernigan. "They want to experience the possibility of them having a hit. There's a certain vibe, a certain excitement. People in the business, they'll come in here and they're kind of in awe of having been at the same studio that, say, R.E.M. recorded at."
Reflections went mainstream with R.E.M. The band recorded its first couple of albums, Murmur and Reckoning, at Reflections in the early 1980s. Don Dixon produced the albums and was at the studio last week producing a record for the Charlotte-based Volatile Baby. Dixon recalls R.E.M.'s earliest sessions: "They were a young band, who was kind of cool. They had a relatively solid following by then, but still played places like the Milestone. It was different back then, because it was a less corporate college radio scene.
"With R.E.M, the rest of the band didn't have any idea what Michael Stipe was singing about," Dixon recalls. "Especially back then, he was very closed about what he was saying."
As a producer, Dixon is a nuance expert. For Volatile Baby, he arranged the three female singers into an asterisk formation as they recorded the vocals. In that formation, the microphones could pick up faint traces of the other singers for a more harmonizing effect.
When I was in the studio with him, Dixon was making changes to "Wild Irish Roses," a song he wanted to turn acoustic: "Let's get rid of all the fuzzy guitar shit." Leaving the control room as producer, he entered the studio and became musician, picking up an upright bass and, with headphones on, plucking the mammoth instrument to add the low-end track. After three tries Dixon was satisfied with the result. He listened to the song again and switched instruments, this time adding the tambourine track.
Behind the glass, the most important member of the team is the 18,000-button Neve control board. Jernigan bought it for $750,000 in 1984. (He has spent more than $4 million on equipment in 30-plus years of owning Reflections.) Console operator Bruce Irvine is a rock star in the music engineering world. "As much as I would like it to seem like brain surgery, it's really not that difficult," he said. Watching Irvine manipulate the console, pressing buttons and adjusting knobs, it's clear he was being modest.
Living in LA in the 1980s, Irvine worked on albums by Pink Floyd and Guns N'Roses. He was known for giving records huge drum sounds, but of late he's focused on R&B (last year he worked with Grammy-nominated Charlotte singer Anthony Hamilton). Back in the 1980s, he would listen to a song 400 times before he finished tweaking it. Now, with studio time at a premium, that isn't possible.
With the influx of do-it-yourself recording, life for independent recording studios has gotten tough. Ultimately, Jernigan said, it comes down to the quality of the song. "You can have a mediocre recording of a great song and it still be a hit," he says.