Brian: Don Zientara grew up in Rochester, New York. He studied at Syracuse University. In grad school at West Virginia, he majored in painting and printmaking. Don drafted into the Army in 1971. He signed up for electronics training, but after basic training finished, he was told there was a surplus of electronic trainees so instead, he was offered a position to draw and paint portraits for the Army recruiting support center, which he accepted. His career moved on to the National Gallery of Art as an exhibits framer and paper conservator, and then becoming an audio engineer, which is an amazing transition to me, and he then moved on to work as a recording studio manager, and then eventually, branching out on his own where Inner Ear Studios was born, which has been around for decades at this point.
Don Z: Yeah.
Brian: He's got two daughters, five grandkids, and one great-grandkid, and he also surfs, cooks, performs music, and excels in public speaking, which listeners, I got to work with Don because Fellowcraft, my band, recorded our album at Inner Ear Studios, and it was such an honor to work with him in hallowed ground with all those musicians. It's with great pleasure that I introduce Don Zientara.
Don Z: Aren't there some trumpets somewhere that need to [crosstalk 01:13]?
Brian: Oh, the proper introduction for you, right?
Don Z: Exactly.
Brian: Yes, I need to look at a sound file for some trumpets or something. That would be a great-
Don Z: Yeah, those English horns, right?
Brian: Exactly. Now, the first thing right off the bat, as I introduced you, it talked about how you went from the exhibits framer and paper conservator to audio engineer.
Don Z: Yeah.
Brian: How did that happen? Can you share that?
Don Z: Sure. Let me back up a little bit. First of all, just to get in some of the history behind it all. I started off playing guitar because my parents wanted me to study some musical instrument.
Don Z: I grew up in a Polish community and in the Polish community, there basically is one sacred instrument, which is the accordion.
Brian: I guess that makes sense.
Don Z: Of course.
Brian: Polish music is kind of known for that.
Don Z: Absolutely.
Don Z: Yeah, get out and polka.
Don Z: Luckily, I was born at a time when Elvis was coming into vogue.
Brian: Got it.
Don Z: I was 10 years old. They actually offered guitar lessons at the place I was at so I bailed on the accordion and I went into guitar.
Brian: Guitar, got it, which that was more appealing?
Don Z: Come on.
Brian: If you're in a Polish community, it seems like accordion would be the hot thing to do.
Don Z: You look at all the ladies and who do they flock around? The accordion player? No.
Brian: I'd like to say the accordion player, but no, you're definitely right, it's the guitarist always. It's always the guitarist.
Don Z: Yeah, or at least you'd like to think so, at least you'd like to think so.
Brian: Yeah, right, exactly. Got it.
Don Z: From there, basically, everybody joins a band if you play guitar, but we had no money for amplifiers or anything like that and so, we'd scrounge around on trash day going through and finding all these Magnavox consoles that were thrown out by the people at the time and we made speaker cabinets, a buddy of mine this is, and I had a tape recorder, a Webcor tape recorder-
Brian: Where was this?
Don Z: Yeah. This is in Rochester.
Brian: You're talking about-
Don Z: Rochester, New York.
Brian: Rochester, New York.
Don Z: That we turned into an actual amplifier.
Don Z: We played guitars through this tape recorder amplifier and sang through it. One little, probably about 2 watts, and coming out of these speakers from this cabinet we built out from these Magnavox consoles and it was exciting. We put all these things together and it was real interesting doing this. I had in electronics sort of, kind of dabbling in it to that degree.
What happened was somehow I went into art school at Syracuse University. I don't know why because I was a mediocre artist, but I figured I was a mediocre artist, but I was failing in English, Math, Science, Chemistry, Biology so we'll take mediocre.
Brian: It's the one you weren't failing in, is that-
Don Z: Yeah, it was the one I wasn't failing in.
Brian: Got it.
Don Z: Then graduate there, went to West Virginia University like you said and then, I was caught up in the draft lottery.
Brian: Oh, which was-
Don Z: You don't remember that? You're too young.
Brian: Full disclosure, I was not around for the draft lottery at that point, but what I'm curious about is, from everything I've heard, that's a hot topic at the time?
Don Z: Yeah.
Brian: That was a contested thing. When you got caught up in that, was it incredibly traumatic? Did you just accept it? What ...
Don Z: This is the Vietnam War going on and there were a lot of deferments and what was happening was because of all these deferments, some of the people in Congress were saying, "This is not fair. The inequality is all over the place. What we're going to do is we're just going to pick birth dates out of a container like a lottery and we're going to pick number one, number two, number ... " and I was number one in the whole thing.
Brian: Oh, you were the big winner.
Don Z: I was the big winner in the thing.
Brian: Got it.
Don Z: I was definitely going to go in and I checked upon it and they had some programs going on. I figured I'd keep that in the back of my mind, but I was drafted. I was selected for the draft and when you're selected for the draft, you basically have to have a physical. Everybody knows that, you have an army physical.
Don Z: I went to West Virginia University that year. I said, "I can't take a physical. I'm at West Virginia. I'm in Morgantown, West Virginia." They scrambled and they got things together and moved the physical around to Morgantown. I was back for Christmas vacation in Rochester. I said, "I can't take it. I'm in Rochester, New York." They scrambled around and they fixed it up for Rochester. I was back at West Virginia University again. Come summer time, they got me.
I figured why don't I get some formal training in electronics? I went into that program, they guaranteed training electronics, went through basic training, went to the place where the school was and waited and then waited some more and waited some more and waited some more. Eventually, I was called into maybe the front office there and they said, "You have a guarantee and we will honor it for this electronic training, but at the moment, there's too many people doing it. We just happen to have a position open in Alexandria, Virginia for people to draw and paint. Would you want to do that?" I figured for about two seconds, would I want to draw and paint rather than shoot people with a gun?
Brian: The answer was yes, clearly.
Don Z: The answer was yes, yeah. I took a moment to think about that and so, I came to Alexandria, Virginia, like you said with the recruiting support center there. I got to work on exhibits. That gave me my first taste into presentations as a whole.
Don Z: Whether it's audio or visual, I was into presentations and I loved it.
Brian: Got it.
Don Z: I went through that thing. As it was, I got out on a CO. I applied for a CO and got out. This was about 1973. Then, I went to the National Gallery of Art.
Don Z: Worked there matting and framing and doing a little bit of conservation work for getting exhibits ready. Once again, we're in exhibits, we're into presentation.
Don Z: Eventually, after about five years there, they were giving a tour around to some of the places in the gallery and they were building a recording studio and we toured that. They were hooking things up and wiring things up [inaudible 07:56]. They had problems with the power supply there. I said, "All you have to do is connect it up like this."
Don Z: They said, "Hey, do you want to run this place?"
Brian: Do you want do this? Yeah.
Don Z: Yeah, exactly.
Brian: That's how it happened?
Don Z: That's how it happened.
Brian: Just because you fixed ...
Don Z: Yeah.
Brian: I love it. Wait, then fast-forward then, so that was how long? You were there for how long?
Don Z: I was there five years in prints and drawings.
Brian: Five years.
Don Z: Then, I was there for about another four or five years in the electronics section, the audio recording section.
Brian: How did that then become Inner Ear Studios? Was that ...
Don Z: I went from there to managing a studio, which didn't work out because I couldn't get my hands dirty.
Brian: Uh-oh, because you were fixing and you were recording-
Don Z: Yeah, I was pushing papers all the time, administering it, manager.
Don Z: I didn't like that so, I just started doing stuff totally on my ... Now, I had been recording all this time already.
Don Z: Because I record a lot of the early, Teen Idles, Minor Threat, all that stuff.
Brian: Yeah, at that time, was that in your basement?
Don Z: Yes.
Brian: Was it at the location now?
Don Z: In my basement.
Brian: How did you get linked up with them? Just the underground network, they heard of you or how did that happen?
Don Z: That's a every interesting thing. There's parallel universes going on. I was playing in bands all these times and one of the bands I was in had Robert Goldstein for a guitarist and he has since passed away, but he-
Brian: For those who don't know, who's Robert Goldstein?
Don Z: Robert Goldstein was the music librarian towards the end of his life for NPR.
Brian: Oh. Got it.
Don Z: He was also a very progressive guitarist and we were like a folk rock band. We played a lot of covers and stuff like that, but he had more talent than I think I had for sure.
Don Z: Eventually, the band broke up. He went into a band that was more to his taste and called me to record one time when they're playing at I think it was American University. Playing on the same bill were The Slickee Boys so they said, "Hey, you got an extra roll of tape?" I did so I recorded them. Their manager at the time was Skip Groff who was Yesterday and Today Records and he knew all the punk people. I didn't even know punk was around.
Don Z: I didn't know anything about it, but he came in and worked with the Slickee Boys to mix their tapes and everything and said, "I'd like to bring over some people. These guys, Teen Idles, they might have something to do here." So he came over with them and this, the relationship with a lot of the guys in that band and a little later on he said, "You know, there's a black punk band that I'd like to bring over there. Would you work with them if you don't mind?" I said, "Yeah, sure, sure."
Don Z: They sound good and that was the Bad Brains.
Don Z: I was immersed into all this because of just serendipity a lot, very much.
Brian: I know people are curious because I know I'm curious, too, how did that evolve into ... There's an HBO special at your place, the Foo Fighters recorded at Inner Ear Studios. Did that network continue or how did you get linked up with Dave?
Don Z: It continued. No, it continued and Scream and Dain Bramage, I did not record Dain Bramage, but I recorded Scream and they were ... Punk was evolving.
Don Z: Punk was evolving more towards the ... It had a little bit of a pop feel to it. Kingface, there were some groups like that and Scream was one of them that had ... They could sing well and they put a really good melody behind songs.
Don Z: Kingface was the same way. A lot of the punk groups were doing that. Basically, I recorded them so I knew Dave from back then.
Brian: I see.
Don Z: Then when he broke up ... Didn't break up with Nirvana. Nirvana sort of broke up.
Brian: Dissolved, yeah.
Don Z: Dissolved, right, that's a good word.
Don Z: Yes. He came over and he said, "We've got these demos I want to record. Do you want to record these things?" I recorded the demos for him and I actually asked him, "What's the band going to be called?" He said, "The Foo Fighters." I said, "That's a stupid name," yeah.
Brian: You told him it was stupid?
Don Z: Yeah.
Brian: What did he say? [Crosstalk 12:37]
Don Z: I have struck out on names for bands. The Dismemberment Plan, I took Jason Caddell aside one time and said, "Jason, you've got to change the name of the band. Dismemberment Plan, no one's going to remember that. Come on. Let's get real. Let's get something in there."
Don Z: I have not had a good track record with names of bands. They just haven't worked out with me.
Brian: Man. Some of these are big personalities that are in the studio. What do you do? You were talking earlier about the conflict between people or we joked marital problems or stuff, when that stuff happens, do you get involved? Do you purposely not get involved?
Don Z: First of all, usually, people will act on a professional basis and these could be local people, too.
Don Z: They know how to focus pretty well. They don't get involved in a lot of stuff. A lot of the times, it's the people who are, and I'll use the term loosely, amateurs that want to be all over the place. They want to pick their own microphones out. They want to pick the position of the [mount 13:41] in front of the amplifier and, "Why are you using this and why don't we use this? I've seen this being used on YouTube. We should try that," and all that.
As an engineer I try different things at different points, but as a musician, you should ... I'm speaking for myself, you should not concern yourself with that in a way. You should concern yourself with the way it sounds. You are there to look at the sound of things and making sure that your instrument, whether it's a voice, a guitar amplifier or a base amplifier or a drum set sounds the way you want it to sound. At that point, you can say, "We need more snap in the snare or we need more bottom end to the kick drum."
Brian: I see.
Don Z: Not, "We need to use an AKG112 for the kick drum because I've heard that Def Leppard uses that when they record."
Brian: I got it. Now, I'm with you. All right, and one more question because I want to make sure we place more of the music in here about your work with some of these other artists, but the one question that I love to offer that I'd love to know from you is if you could offer one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don Z: Focus.
Don Z: Focus, rehearse. Focus on what you're doing. Focus on your job and what you're doing and be critical. Be critical. Make sure that everything is turning out the way you want it to turn out, but you need to remember that you have a certain job that you could do 100%. Everybody has their own job and everybody wears a different hat and we should keep it that way.
Brian: Yeah. Got it. Profound. Now, for those folks who are interested in finding out more about you and what you've got going on, is there a website or where should they go to find that out?
Don Z: I don't know. Wikipedia?
Brian: You're just out there doing it. Look up Don Zientara on Wikipedia. That is one way to do it.
Don Z: Yeah.
Brian: Innerearstudio.com, check out the website.
Don Z: Inner Ear Studio has some stuff, but I don't have a website myself. I just call and talk-
Brian: Got it.
Don Z: Hey, if anybody wants to call me, call the studio. I talk to them. If anybody's got ideas or wants answers to questions, I love talking about recording, microphones, tape recorders, anything along that line.
Brian: Got it. All right. Give him a call.