Chad Clark serves as one of the main engineers working at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, VA, recording many of DC's finest acts, among them Dismemberment Plan, Burning Airlines, Calibos, Semaphore, National Stranger, Kathy Kashel, Maestro Echoplex, Blinder, and Bald Rapunzel. I was first introduced to Chad's work via his own first band, Smart Went Crazy, which he fronted. Upon hearing their second album, Con Art, I was immediately impressed by the combination of his imaginative songwriting, crisp engineering and a very clever and appropriate sense of production. I later investigated and subsequently came to appreciate Chad's production skills on other albums, such as Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I and his own post-Smart Went Crazy project, Beauty Pill. Recently, he's opened an affordable mastering studio in the DC area, Silver Sonya Mastering Services, with which he mastered the latest Fugazi album, The Argument.
Didn't you study literature in college?
Yeah. I never went to school for recording. My whole thing is I'm obsessed with records. I've always had this really huge record collection, and I've always looked for information about how such and such a record was recorded, and that's always been the way that I've taught myself.
Did you become formally involved with studio work when you were in Smart Went Crazy?
Yeah. By the time I started Smart Went Crazy, I was really, really into records. I loved playing live and everything, but almost the point of having a band for me was making records, and getting to work in the studio. But I was definitely the member of Smart Went Crazy that was most interested in records and learning how things were done in the studio. When we got Dischord to sign us, I took it as an opportunity to become a student of Don Zientara, who's the owner of Inner Ear. He's very inspiring to work with, a very intuitive engineer, a very technical engineer, but he really just makes stuff up as he goes along, which is something that really left an impression on me. I'd basically always ask Don, "What is that microphone!? Why are you putting it there? What does that do? How does that work?" I was really kind of annoying, I think, when we were making records. But it helped me get a grip on [all] the possibilities. In Smart Went Crazy, we were definitely empowered — all that knowledge helped us to make the last record we made [Con Art], which I was really proud of.
With Con Art, you mixed and produced. Did you engineer as well?
That record was done in an unusual way, at least at the time. Don Zientara recorded the bulk of the rhythm tracks (bass, drums, and guitar) on the analog 2" at Inner Ear. Then, in order to record the overdubs (vocals, cello, guitar, keyboards, sampler, etc.) at our practice space, we purchased an ADAT XT and synched it up with the 24-track, using an Alesis BRC. We recorded a synchronized rough mix of the basic tracks onto tracks 1 and 2 of the ADAT and then took it home into our practice room. We did a lot of the recording of the overdubs at home, and then brought it back into the studio and mixed it. It was like we were off the clock, and we could experiment and try things without really worrying about paying so much per hour, but we could also take advantage of the fact that it was recorded professionally by a real engineer in the studio. I'm surprised more people don't do this, especially 'cause it's so much easier now.
I want to talk for a while about your role as a producer, in the studio. Do you do pre-production with artists at all?
It depends on the situation. You know, I work with a lot of bands that don't have any money, so you don't really have the budget to be getting into that. So I really enjoy a lot of times operating purely as an engineer, you know, kind of the Steve Albini mindset. I really enjoy also just going on instinct and improvising. Sometimes the band just comes into Inner Ear, and I record them, and we make it up as we go along. But sometimes, as in the case of Dismemberment Plan, there's usually a little bit more intense and long-term involvement. It's more of a musical collaboration. I really believe in acting on instinct and I like to not plan things too much. I'm not always the most organized guy in the world — I like to just keep doing what makes sense at any given time, whether that's the technical stuff like microphones or preamps, or whether the drummer is overplaying in the second verse. All records are different, all bands are different, all situations are different.
What do you try to impart on a session?
If there's one thing that I'm always pushing for, it's for people to aspire to do something great and to try to imagine that it's a perfect world, and the radio actually does play great music. That if you turn on the radio you're gonna hear Steve Reich, or Jeff Buckley, or Neil Young, or the Clash, or whatever. Even if that audience doesn't exist, you have to imagine it, you know? Otherwise, what are you doing?
You're just making music for yourself. What was your role in the making of Emergency & I? What was the division of labor with you and J Robbins, who co-produced?
That is a good question! [laughs] I don't really know. I don't think anyone fully understood. We used to have this joke that he was Mr. Rock and I was Mr. Pop. Which is totally ridiculous, because both of us are both things. But I think that they assumed that I would be the guy that would make the trippy sounds, be the Brian Eno figure, and he'd be the person keeping the project moving in a really organized way. The truth is that the two of us are both capable of both things. But it is true that generally, J is definitely more organized and he has a lot of... I don't know how to explain it. J will be the kind of person who's just always got the plan. He always knows what the next thing you should be doing is. Whereas actually, most of the time, I'm totally making it up. That record was very difficult to make, but I'm really happy that people seem to love it. I think, at the time, everybody wanted to make a world class record, but we all had different ideas of what that was. You could tell that Interscope was primarily interested in the band's "wacky" radio-friendly aspect, unaware of the grander artistic ambitions and intense eccentricities at the heart of the band's creative engine. It's kind of amazing that we got it done. On the next record that we did together, which is Change, we actually had more of a division. We sort of figured out what people's roles should be, even though that in and of itself didn't work out as well as we thought it would. [I've] made four records with Dismemberment Plan, and each situation was totally different. And I love them and they're a totally brilliant band, but there's always a small component of "What's going on?! Ahhh!"
The Beauty Pill record, The Cigarette Girl from the Future, says it was recorded with the Black Sonya 2000 Migrant Recording System. What is that?
Black Sonya was [originally] Smart Went Crazy's name for a cassette deck that was made by Sony that was black. The recording quality was really bad, but we had a lot of affection for it, it's kind of weird. So when Beauty Pill started, we decided to try to take advantage of the fact that the ADAT technology was blossoming at the time. So we decided to invest in that and we got a couple of 20 bit ADATs, the XT20 ADATs, which actually are really cheap now, and people see them as worthless and people put them down, but the 20 bit ADATs are surprisingly good. The whole Beauty Pill record was done on 20 bit ADATs.
You know, it was what we could afford. During the Beauty Pill process I learned that it's really important to have a rapport with your instruments. I got really good at using the Distressor, hearing what it was doing, understanding ratios and attack and release characteristics, knowing how and when to use it. It was basically our only compressor. Since then, I've acquired a lot more, but I still feel a special rapport with the Distressor. But I wasn't relishing the idea that I was working with digital, with ADATs. We wanted to travel around, and record in different places. So Black Sonya 2000 was our joking name for this kit of stuff that we'd bought, because it was like this tribute to the original idea of recording ourselves on a cassette deck. I think you gotta seize what you can afford and try to do the best you can with it.
A lot of times it comes across better in a cheaper medium because it's more honest.
For me, that's just so amazing that this stuff is happening. People think Beauty Pill spent ages in the process, but the truth is we operated very quickly. Most of the time we took was to reflect on what we had executed. Because of our limitations, we were forced to commit to certain things and I learned that, in general, commitment is an important part of the creative process. It's good for art to make choices that you have to stick to and reckon with. In terms of music recording, I feel like it's such a great time to be alive, like all these little small companies making cool stuff, and people able to bypass the music industry and record on their own and express themselves? I think it's just great. The only downside of this whole "democratization" of the recording process is that some people have bad taste when it comes to sonics, and that is resulting in some bad sounding records.
I noticed you mastered the CD version of Fugazi's The Argument. How did you get into mastering?
I'm glad you asked that 'cause that's the thing I'm really psyched about now. You know, you can do anything in the studio, you can make a great record, but the mastering engineer, in transferring your source material to the delivery medium, whether it's vinyl or CD, they can just totally fuck you up! 'Cause they can just take all the bass out, or add a bunch of crazy low end. The last process seems to me to be critical. And DC doesn't have anybody who is affordable and accessible that is doing mastering. So I thought it'd be cool, almost like a community service, to set up an affordable mastering process. So that's what I did. On this record, Fugazi and Don Zientara started investigating these advanced, deliberately out of focus (for lack of a better term) recording techniques and there's a lot of application of willfully gelatinous compression. And throughout the whole record, there's definitely an agenda to flatter and emphasize the low end. They were keen to [see to it] that the aesthetic of the session be gracefully rendered to the CD. This whole past season, one of the coolest things I've been doing is remastering the Dischord catalog. I'm really thrilled about it. It's great cause I get to live this fantasy! The CDs sound so much better now. The technology when these CDs were done just wasn't very good. CD technology just wasn't great. So yeah, I'm really super psyched about it. I hope people buy them.