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Legendary Inner Ear Studio is making music again in Don Zientara’s Arlington Heights basement

The legendary Inner Ear Studio has reopened in the founder’s Arlington Heights basement.

Last week, the recording studio’s founder Don Zientara spoke at length to the Embracing Arlington Arts podcast about what’s been happening since the studio moved from its home of three decades on S. Oakland Street last year.

The biggest change is that the studio is now back in Zientara’s basement in Arlington Heights where Inner Ear started in 1979.

“It isn’t gone, it’s still thriving,” he told host Janet Kopenhaver. “I’m back in my basement and realizing I can’t fit everything in here.”

He was able to bring over some of his favorite microphones, but much of his old equipment had to be sold or given away. Zientara said that he gave it to people that he “thought could use it the best.”

Much of the art, band posters, prints, drawings, and ephemera that lined the walls at Inner Ear Studio are now at D.C.’s Lost Origins Gallery. It’s set to be on a display soon as part of an exhibit about the famed recording studio.

“They took a lot… they were cutting walls out,” Zientara said. “Some posters there that I thought ‘Come on, this is going to go down with the ship,’ but they were cutting and sometimes took pieces of drywall.”

Zientara told Kopenhaver that he harbors no ill will towards Arlington County for making the studio vacate the building on S. Oakland Street it had called home since 1990.

In 2021, Arlington County purchased the building for more than $3 million, with the intention of demolishing it to make way for an arts and industry district.

As Arlington Cultural Affairs director Michelle Isabelle-Stark told the Washington Post at the time, the county saw this as saving the property from being bought by a private developer. The plan for the new district has some Green Valley community members concerned, though.

“There was no sense in trying to argue with anyone,” Zientara said about the move. “It was fine. A lot of businesses don’t last 32 years. I’m good with [it].”

Inner Ear Studio is famed for being the recording studio where many of the region’s well-known punk bands recorded. That includes Fugazi, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and, one of the biggest acts in rock, the Foo Fighters. Some called it “the Abbey Road of Arlington.”

Zientara said that the reason a lot of the indie punk bands came to his small Arlington studio was that they were often rejected from the more polished, bigger recording studios.

“I had equipment that was, let’s say, less than ideal. I had a space that was less than ideal,” he explained last week. “[The] bands were not welcomed at a lot of the studios, but I could record them.”

While the studio is now smaller than in its heyday, Zientara described the situation as going back to his roots.

While he could have fully retired or taught at one of the region’s universities — he said he had offers on the table — Zientara is currently in what he calls “semi-retirement.” That means he’s working when he wants and with who he wants.

In fact, when ARLnow reached him this morning for a brief conversation, he said that D.C. punk music icon Ian MacKaye was coming by the studio today to “mix some things.”

Zientara said there remains plenty of studio availability for others to get recording time and work with him by going to the Inner Ear website.

The studio owner is also playing his own music with the “South Ivy Street Consortium,” which is preparing for a “little street party” this Friday (Sept. 2). It will feature Zientara and several other musicians playing on the front lawn of 713 S. Ivy Street for several hours, starting at 7 p.m. He recommends bringing lawn chairs.

Zientara said he has really been enjoying the last several months of re-setting up his studio. It’s been like “putting together a puzzle,” he told ARLnow.

While his basement recording studio may not match the size of Inner Ear’s former home, it’s providing exactly what Zientara has been looking for.

“I love the results I am getting,” he told Kopenhaver. “It is very homey.”

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