On the edge of an industrial warehouse district in Jonesboro, in an aging brick strip mall right next door to the Greater Works M.B. Church, where the sign promises, “I Will Make You Fishers of Men,” you’ll find one of Metro Atlanta’s longest-running, most well-tuned and unpretentious studios, Real 2 Reel.
“A lot of studios build their reputation off of big-name clients,” says engineer, producer and publishing director Bill Turpin from behind an impressive handlebar mustache. “We have big-name clients, too, but everybody that walks in the door at Real 2 Reel is given star-quality treatment.”
“You always have to treat people right,” echoes Turpin’s partner, producer/engineer Steve Rawls, the studio’s business manager. “We’re about customer service. Anybody can buy our equipment; what sets us apart is our people, the level of care we put into our productions, and the fact that we have a studio designed by [former NASA engineer and acoustics wizard, the late] Les Duncan. Our space here—I’ll put it against anyone’s in Atlanta. There may be bigger studios, there may be fancier studios, but there’s not a studio with a better sounding room than ours.”
Turpin opened Reel 2 Real back in 1976 at its original Stockbridge location while playing in jazzgrass-fusion group Saturday Session. In 1990, the studio relocated to its current Jonesboro space, where Turpin remains co-owner, along with his sons, Michie and Will, and Rawls. Turpin met Rawls while the first studio was under construction. At the time, the latter was playing in local band Jacob Rye, and helped build Real 2 Reel in exchange for recording time.
In the mid ’80s, the studio employed an engineer who‘d eventually achieve stardom himself, a 19-year-old Berklee dropout named Ed Roland, who went on to start Collective Soul (with Turpin’s son, Will, on bass). “It took about eight or nine years for him to become an ‘overnight success,’” reflects Turpin. “Ed learned a lot at Real 2 Reel, at my side. When it came time for him to sprout his wings and fly, I went out and found someone with money and wrote the game plan for them, so they’d know what to do. I guess you’d say I was the founder of the feast, and feel very responsible for launching Ed’s career as far as getting the right people in place and telling ’em to do the right things.”
In addition to Collective Soul, many notable artists have recorded at Real 2 Reel over the years: Grinderswitch, Johnny Van Zant, Derek Trucks and Wet Willie’s Jimmy and Jack Hall. One of the studio’s most bizarre clients, though, has to be drag queen RuPaul, who—nearly a decade before his campy breakthrough hit, “Supermodel (You Better Work)”—booked a session at Real 2 Reel with Roland as engineer. Only problem is that the gender-bending artist never paid his bill. “Yeah,” Rawls says with a grin, “he can still send us that $600 he owes us.”
Success through diversity
Turpin and Rawls lead the way down a long hallway, through a few doors and into the control room of Real 2 Reel Studio B. Inside, “Hot Rod” Walt—frontman of Atlanta rockabilly outfit the Psycho DeVilles—is mixing his band’s new record, Night Prowler, with in-house engineer/producer Jonathan Beckner at the helm. It’s the band’s fourth album, and the second they’ve cut at the Jonesboro studio.
“Real 2 Reel is a true one-stop shop,” Walt says. “Tracking, mixing, mastering, manufacturing, [print design]—they’re good at all of it. The studio is spotless. They have great gear. All the people who work here treat you with true Southern hospitality. … You never feel like they’re milking the clock, and you can tell they want your record to sound as good as you do.”
Real 2 Reel’s ability to do so many different things under one roof has been a big part of what’s kept artists coming back. “It seems braggadocio to say we can handle everything from soup to nuts,” Turpin says, “but when you’ve been in business for 30 years, and you watch your clients struggle with other people trying to get their artwork done, or trying to get something duplicated at a decent price … you have two choices: you can let ’em suffer, or you can buy some more software and do it for them, cheaper and better.”
Classic-rock-radio staples—and longtime Georgia residents, Kansas—came to Real 2 Reel for the first time in 2001 to record an original Christmas song “Looking for the Light.” When the band saw that the studio also had a video-editing suite, an enduring, prolific relationship began. Kansas enlisted Rawls to co-produce its live Concert DVD, Device – Voice – Drum, which was edited and mixed at Real 2 Reel. “It was a six-camera film shoot, 48-track live recording with a 74-person choir and a string quartet,” says Rawls. “So that was quite an undertaking. [Since then], we’ve done quite a few projects for Kansas: stereo-to-surround conversions, live DVDs, a couple compilations, manufacturing.”
Real 2 Reel also takes on a lot of non-music work, which has helped Turpin and his partners weather the ups and downs of the industry and economy. After the video-editing suite was installed in 1990, the studio began doing local commercials—a gig that’s since blossomed to include several clients with deep pockets, including Coca-Cola. Rawls estimates that 90 percent of Real 2 Reel’s video work is now corporate, including training, marketing and TV commercials—especially hotel commercials, for which Real 2 Reel has now won several national industry awards.
At a time when so many studios are shuttering, this diversification—in addition to a welcoming, artist-friendly attitude—has helped Real 2 Reel survive and thrive. “[In the late ’80s], I realized that audio was going through a paradigm shift, Turpin explains. “In 1976, we had a line out the door waiting to record at $35 an hour. Now, it’s not that much more. … I got in a taxicab the other day, and the cab driver said, ‘Would you like to make a recording while I take you to your destination?’ Apparently everyone has a studio now, either in their house, their car, or their taxicab.”
In this crowded environment, the team behind Real 2 Reel seems to have found a sustainable formula—one that will continue helping it overcome whatever obstacles the rapidly shifting recording industry has in store. “Thirty-three years,” Rawls says, “and counting!”