Eight (and a half) Questions with DON ZIENTARA of Inner Ear Studio in Arlington Virginia
1 TNF TV: Why do bands and artists come to Inner Ear to record?
DON: Hopefully it’s because we do an exceptional job. But maybe they just stabbed the phone book with their finger.
2 TNF TV: Do you ever have moments of reflection regarding the many artists you've recorded at Inner Ear and the reputation that you've managed to cultivate as a unique studio? What feeling does that evoke?
DON: Kinda "full speed ahead”. If we concern ourselves too much with the past, nothing ever gets done. And all that really matters is the job at hand. I’ve seen too many people dwell on their past, and shortchange the projects they are actually working on. The only feeling I want at the end of a session is that we were successful at achieving our goal.
3 TNF TV: What kind of pleasure do you get out of performing on your own as opposed to your involvement and commitment at Inner Ear?
DON: It’s different. But performing (hopefully) gives me some insight into what working musicians are up against in clubs, with live audiences, chickenwire and all. I’m playing in all kinds of dives, bars, and open mics, so hopefully I get a small taste of the challenges they face everyday.
4 TNF TV: Can you share a particularly memorable recording experience that stands out in your mind?
DON: There are a lot - but that’s because I treat the studio as a lab. Experimenting all the time. Once (no band mentioned!) I had to mix a song, and decided to make it a little interesting by starting out the tune with a very lo-fi sound, and building it up to a full tone. This was back in the ‘80s, and the song was on a four track recorder, so options were limited. Well, I put headphones in a large soup pot, plugged the phones to an output of the mixer, and put a mic in the pot with the phones. The mix starts with the sound of the mic in the pot getting the song through the headphones, and ramps up from there to a full regular tone. At first, when I sent it to the band, they hated it! But a few listenings in sold them on the idea. A four track punk song made more beautiful!
5 TNF TV: Are albums that have been recorded at Inner Ear like your "children" in some way? Are you attached to them the way that the artist gets attached to their songs?
DON: Yes, in more of a nerdy technical way. I hear the songs, but I also hear the sound of the drums, the guitars, the bass compression, the vocal effects, etc.. I believe the artists go deeper, but this is because in the recording process I try my best to channel the feelings that they want to have embedded in the song. But the artists have a more “parental” outlook, where they see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and accept it because it is their child.
6 TNF TV: Do you follow the careers of artists that you've hosted at Inner Ear?
DON: As much as I can. It’s a 2-way street - If I get info, I follow up on it.
7 TNF TV: Do you foresee Inner Ear continuing on indefinitely?
DON: Of course not! Especially with this pandemic thing! The “arts” were always a hard way to survive, and now it’s much harder still. But my heart truly goes out to the performers, really, whose jobs just disappeared! There is NO safety net!
8 TNF TV: At what stage of operations did you realize that the studio reached a point of "success"?
DON: Success for me is doing better than you did yesterday. So, if I don’t slack off, I’ll be successful around 2034. After that, it’s all downhill!
8.5 TNF TV: Is there an artist who you admire that you'd love to record?
DON: Yes! The one that brings their heart into the studio, and, somehow, we both manage to get that exact feeling into a digital or analog format! Gene Clark and Willie Dixon come to mind, but they’re no longer around.