Don Zientara of Inner Ear Studios
Don Zientara of Inner Ear Studios; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

When Inner Ear Studios in Arlington closed last October after more than 30 years at their South Oakland Street location, owner Don Zientara weighed his options, looking to potentially rent another commercial space. “I looked at a few avenues,” says Zientara. “The cost was prohibitive. I just didn’t want to really go in that deep. … The rents are not going down.”

Instead of going into debt with a new location, Zientara decided to bring the studio home, literally, returning to its original space in the basement in his Arlington home. Here, the reputation of Inner Ear began and grew in the late ’70s and ’80s as Zientara captured iconic recordings from the growing D.C. punk scene including releases from Bad Brains, The Slickee Boys, and Teen Idles. The success of that studio led Zientara to look for a larger location, finding a home on South Oakland Street for the past 32 years. He would have stayed, but the Arlington County Board purchased the land that the building sits on, forcing Zientara to relocate. To date, the building sits empty with no set plans from the county as to its development, it seems. The County plans to demolish it this coming winter, and tells City Paper they’ll initiate “a community engagement process this spring on the development of a temporary outdoor arts activation plan for the site.” 

Having spent the past several months clearing out the South Oakland Street location of recording instruments, musical gear, and other paraphernalia, Zientara donated items to various organizations throughout the country, and Mount Pleasant’s Lost Origins Gallery plans to exhibit the artwork that hung on the studio walls: “As much as he can fit in the gallery,” says Zientara. Slowly getting the essential recording equipment returned to his basement, Zientara is easing his way back into the recording process. The room where artists will record, which is about the size of the control room in the last location, is not yet completely operational.

“I’m not fully set up, but I’m functioning as if I was,” says Zientara, laughing. “I’m doing projects as we speak. I’ve been doing a lot of mixing projects. I just did some recording Tuesday (March 15). Yesterday (March 16), I did some more mixing and tomorrow (March 18) we’ll do some more mixing.”

One of the projects that’s still in the works from the previous location, and helping break in the new setup, is the recording of seminal D.C. punk band Scream’s next album. D.C. Special will be their first full-length release in 30 years. “Pete [Stahl] has done vocals here and Franz [Stahl] has done some guitar work here,” says Zientara. The album is being produced by Ian MacKaye (of Teen Idles, Minor Threat, and Fugazi), and Zientara hints that a release date isn’t that far off, telling City Paper, “It will be done very, very soon.”

In the meantime, Zientara hopes to have the basement studio fully functional and ready for recording bands in May, knowing that musicians are already anxiously awaiting its revival.

“I have heard from past customers and they want to record,” explains Zientara. “We’re going to go into full bands very slowly because there’s not much space in there. But eventually we’ll go into that phase, but it just won’t be as hectic as it was at the studio.”

During all the upheaval, one thing that hasn’t been updated yet is Inner Ear’s website, which Zientara hopes doesn’t cause confusion for any potential clients. 

“Phone numbers have not changed,” says Zientara. “Emails have not changed. The website needs to be updated. The website is still the old website, which has, of course, the wrong address and the wrong photos and the wrong everything—but not the contacts.”

While the return to a normal recording process may take some time, Zientara emphasizes patience.

“It’s gonna be very gradual,” says Zientara. “Not bands every night. Maybe not even bands every week. Just very slow getting into it. There’s still a lot to do in the other room.”