End of an era: Charlotte’s Reflection Sound Studios to close

Produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, the R.E.M. album was recorded at Reflection Sound Studio in Charlotte over 16 days in December 1983 and January 1984.

On Monday Don Dixon recorded what will probably be the last music tracked at Charlotte’s famed Reflection Sound Studios, where R.E.M. recorded its first two albums.

Wayne Jernigan, who owns the property and operates Reflection, says the property is under contract to be sold. Reflection and its neighboring properties on Central Avenue near 10th Street (including Grand Central) would be bulldozed and turned into condos or apartments.

He would not say Reflection is ending its run until the closing on June 2 because previous deals have fallen through.

But a Craigslist ad for musical equipment ignited online furor this month. The ad said, “Reflection Sound studios is closing its doors and will be selling its musical gear.” The ad was also posted on eBay and reported on Billboard.com.

Jernigan and the staff are clearing out some of the equipment while operating Studio A, where Lancaster, S.C., native Don Dixon – an artist in his own right and one of the co-producers on those R.E.M. records – recorded Carolina beach music band Dip Ferrell & the True Tones this week. He recorded an earlier incarnation of the group there in 1978.

Through its 45 years, major artists Whitney Houston, James Brown, Joe Walsh and Robert Plant recorded at Reflection. So did a slew of gospel greats, alternative and indie-rock artists, and award-winning soul and R&B singers Fantasia, Calvin Richardson and Anthony Hamilton.

Dixon says Reflection is “my favorite studio in the world,” and that’s saying something, considering he has worked in some of the most famous studios on the planet. He estimates he participated in more than 50 projects at Reflection.

“We wanted to be the last ones in there before they start ripping out the paneling and tearing out the wire,” he says, calling from his home in Ohio. “I worked in more famous studios that were great, but there is still something about that room that I particularly like. Part of it may be that I worked there so much, but something about Reflection was just optimal.”

Dixon compared it to studios in Los Angeles and Nashville. “Maybe it has the same combination of dry and wet areas – meaning areas that were echo-y or not so echo-y.”

Part of its charm, especially before the gentrification of the neighborhood, was its nondescript location. Famous faces could pop in undetected. When Joe Walsh of the Eagles recorded with producer Bill Szymczyk, the staff was instructed to tell people “a local band” was recording there, said mixing engineer Mark Williams, who worked at Reflection for nearly 18 years.

“Walsh was a shortwave radio fan. One of the first things he did when he got settled into his hotel was go to Radio Shack and set up short wave radio in his room,” Williams said, adding that Walsh shared his location with a deejay over shortwave radio. “His manager got all over us for telling people he was here, but it was Joe happily telling a deejay he was here.”

The surprising R.E.M.

Another attraction for foreign bands was the proximity to the Salvation Army store and a long-gone Krispy Kreme.

“Across the street at the Salvation Army salvage store was where (guitarist) Peter (Buck) bought the two plastic dinosaurs, Left and Right, that sat on the studio speakers of ‘Murmur’ and every record we made after that,” recalls R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills via email.

“Murmur” in 1983 and its follow-up “Reckoning” in 1984 became calling cards for the studio and for Charlotte.

Producer and engineer Bruce Irvine, who began recording artists at Reflection in 2004, remembers the first time he heard R.E.M.’s “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” in a mall in Hattiesburg, Miss. “That record changed me,” says Irvine, who worked with Hamilton, Fantasia, Mary J. Blige, B.O.B., and J. Cole at Reflection.

Producer Mitch Easter recorded the unknown R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” single and EP at his garage studio in Winston-Salem. When R.E.M. signed with IRS Records, the group moved the operation to Reflection with Dixon and Easter at the helm.

“(The Spongetones’) Jamie Hoover and I were working with bands like Killer Whales, who everybody were convinced would be huge at the time and nobody thought this weird band that Dixon and Mitch were working on would do anything,” Williams said with a laugh.

“Reflection was one of the last of the general-purpose studios,” Easter said. “They did voice-over and commercials, radio ads, and all that is gone now. It was sort of a classic Southern studio in the sense that it had a nice Hammond organ and a nice piano and some nice amps. That must’ve come from older gospel traditions. You had to have an organ in the South. When I started working in other places, they didn’t have that. It surprised some people by being able to compete with any place anywhere.”

Studio B, where the voice-overs took place, provided R.E.M. with an uncharacteristic commercial appearance, Mills said.

“Someone was making a Dodge truck commercial in an adjacent studio. They wanted to get the lonely whistle from ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,’ but couldn’t quite get it right. Then they heard (drummer) Bill Berry making that sound, came rushing over and asked if he would let them record it,” Mills said.

Changing industry

The music industry was a different place when those albums were recorded.

“There was a robust, active record business. ... You needed professional recording companies because you made big professional records,” Williams said. “We did six or seven of those major label projects every year. That was what supported us. That was the first thing to get clobbered by file sharing. By the late ’90s, all the studios were scrambling to figure out what in the world record labels would spend money on. It turned into teeny-bopper and hip-hop stuff. Because by the time the file sharers were ready to trade it, it was over.”

Irvine, who manages Charlotte-based band Matrimony, says the group’s new album “Montibello Memories” was likely the last major label recording at Reflection.

“It breaks my heart,” Irvine said. “It’s closing a chapter.”