Award-winning record producer and sound mixer Chris ‘Von Pimpenstein’ Carter discusses his journey from the West Coast to D.C.
Before you reflexively defend our city and its music scene, at least hear out Chris Carter, an audio mixer and record engineer who moved to the capital region—but isn’t quite on the bandwagon that D.C. is a music mecca. Carter, who earlier lived in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, claims that he isn’t “down on the D.C. area” and its soundscape; rather, it’s simply not the main business keeping the capital city going.
“This is a government industry area. Los Angeles is [based on] entertainment. Nashville is the center of all songwriting,” Carter said. “By going to Los Angeles and wanting to get into the federal government, it’s not going to work out super great.”
Carter wishes to reiterate that he isn’t hating on Washington but being realistic. Audio engineers tend to gravitate to the coasts, Atlanta, Austin, and the aforementioned country music capital of Nashville. If it weren’t for 21st century technology, as well as a healthy rolodex of artists he works with, it’s likely very few people would even know his name.
“I’ve never really been able to get a strong foothold in the D.C. area, but…it would probably be worse if I started out here,” Carter said.
His musical journey has indeed been unusual. Raised in Eugene, Oregon, Carter took piano lessons in his youth at the urging of his mother, but switched to trumpet as soon as he enrolled in band class. While still in high school, he and some friends started playing gigs, routinely attracting hundreds of loyal fans.
“We took all of [the] net profits of our shows, and we went into a big fancy schmancy recording studio [to record] an EP on a cassette,” Carter said, adding that this experience in the late-’80s proved to be both formative and a forecast of his eventual career. “I had never been in a recording studio. I was like, ‘Holy shit, what are all these blinking lights? What the fuck is going on?’”
Realizing his musical ambitions were more serious than his fellow players’, Carter left his bandmates behind and moved to Oakland. He recalls the Bay Area was experiencing an industry bonanza, with all of the major labels operating satellite offices around the region. Carter even enrolled in San Francisco State’s vaunted music recording and industry program, while pursuing his artistic dreams.
“By the time I graduated, I already had records on the radio. I was actually running a record label called Shady Music Inc. in between classes,” Carter said. “With a big old school cell phone, I was making phone calls, trying not to let people know I was in college. It was comical.”
Carter eventually made the pilgrimage down I-5 to Los Angeles to become a full-time producer. He recalls this as the time when artists were transitioning away from hauling 8-inch tapes and hard drives into the studio; it was flash drives and, soon enough, high-speed internet.
“As a producer, I was doing a lot of pop and hip-hop stuff. A significant portion relied upon beats, and this whole beat-basing phenomenon started taking off when I was in L.A.,” Carter recalls. “Producers were playing less and less of a role. I just saw the writing on the wall.
“And I also realized that I’m only going to get older. So I transitioned into mixing more and more.”
Carter also picked up the moniker “Von Pimpenstein,” bestowed upon him by pop-rock artist Stormy Strong when Carter filled in on drums for one of Strong’s recordings. The name stuck, and Carter has been known around the industry by that handle ever since.
So back to that little matter of him decamping from the West Coast for his current home in Washington, D.C. As is true in so many decisions in life, the move east happened as Carter elected to support his wife, an immunology microbiologist by trade.
“Los Angeles is an absolutely horrible place for somebody like that. And she got laid off, along with every person at the company except for one person,” Carter relates, adding that he initially thought his spouse would find another job in a short time. “I started to learn that her industry is basically hire and fire, and everybody bounces around all over the place. And I said, ‘I don’t care if we end up in Montana, all I care about is how many other companies in the area could you work for?’”
Big Sky Country wasn’t their destiny, it turned out. And so, heading away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood’s music industry, the couple landed in Silver Spring. (D.C. has often been called “Hollywood for ugly people.”)
“Usually, people leave here to go to L.A. or New York, but that’s the meaning of life,” Carter says philosophically. “I was really naïve, to be honest with you. I didn’t really know anything about the [D.C.] area at all. Zero. So when [my wife] got a job offer here, I was like, ‘I’ll make shit work.’”
And making it work he has very much done, despite not being able to have other musicians and engineers walk to his home, as was possible in his Los Angeles neighborhood. Still, Carter maintains a full roster of clients from across the music landscape. The vagaries of pandemic paradoxically worked in his favor, as he was able to receive files over the internet that required his unique master’s touch—no social distancing required.
“That kind of saved my butt when I moved out here. There’s a lot of live music here, but there’s a lot of live music in all metro areas,” Carter said. “There’s not a lot of industry here. … There are industries that are popular here, [but music] is not one of them. [But] just like any non-music hub area, people are figuring it out.”
Carter believes his know-how makes him indispensable to artists who might not yet have label experience. It’s not that many artists are “clueless,” they simply have yet to put in the time that Carter has thanks to his lengthy career.
Indeed, Carter has worked with such big names as the Backstreet Boys, a not-quite-pleasant memory he says nudged him to learn more about music law to be better prepared. (He says he was 20 at the time.) “It was a harsh introduction to how shady the business can really be,” Carter said. “After that, let me tell you, I fucking learned the law. I read every legal book on music law I could get my hands on.
“I was getting screwed over by multiple people, but that’s kind of how everybody learns. Every artist that I worked with, they’ve all got horror stories.”
Of his work, Carter says his main job is helping get artists’ vision over the finish line as he processes “the emotion of what they’re trying to get through.” Furthermore, his lengthy time in the recording industry allows him to bridge concerns both commercial and artistic.
“And then combining that with…understanding how is this even going to be marketable? What are the steps that you are going to need to take with a song like this in terms of releasing it?” said Carter. “Or, if we’re working on an album, where are the singles? Where are the gaps? How do we tie this whole thing together to make a cohesive project, where I can see you’re going to be able to do a release schedule promoting songs off this album?”
These are the types of queries he is happy to work with you to answer—though Carter admits some would-be clients do indeed balk upon learning of his rates.
“Since I moved here, the vast majority of my work has been remote, mixing for artists that are not in this area, or an occasional artist flying in to work with them,” Carter said. “Sometimes I’m producing an artist that I know really well that I worked with when I was in L.A.”
Which goes to say, if you live in D.C., or anywhere in the world, give Carter a call.
“I’m lucky that this has been my full-time job for the past 25 years,” he said, “not including all the part-timey, making-records-on-the-side type thing. I’m just the guy who makes records.”
Learn about Chris Carter at https://www.vonpimpenstein.com/.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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