THE BASEMENT of Don Zientara's Arlington home looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. In a cozy control room are tape recorders, mixing boards, digital mixers, drum machines and a variety of devices that can make voices and instruments sound like just about anything.

Beyond a thick glass partition a set of drums bristles with microphones. Cables are running everywhere and a few guitars are leaned casually against amplifiers. Rockabilly group Kelly and the Fireballs are taking a break from doing what every modern musician from Elvis Presley to Prince has been driven to do: They're making a record.

For a town supposedly not known for its local musicians, Washington is home to an abundance of recording studios. While not every one of them is turning out a "Thriller" or a "Sgt. Pepper," they are a valuable part of the city's music scene, offering services that appeal to amateur and studio pro alike. "There's quite a lot {of studios} to choose from," says Chris Murphy, an engineer at Bethesda's Balance Studios. "All different levels, all different prices, all different qualities."

And they're doing all sorts of things. The bread and butter of many area studios is commercials, including voice-over narration and jingles. While such spots help pay the bills, it's music that satisfies the creative urge.

There are nearly two dozen studios in the Washington area that record the music of local musicians; they're a good barometer of what's happening on the local scene.

"I see the fads as they come through the studio," says Richard Sales of Glasswing Studios in Hyattsville. "A few years ago it was the Prince sound. Everybody wanted to be a one-man band because of Prince. The impact of that is wearing off."

Sales is now seeing more groups, from go-go to rock 'n' roll. But such relatively mainstream sounds as go-go and rock aren't the only things being recorded here. Washington has become known for recording acoustic, folk and bluegrass groups. Contemporary Christian ensembles, heavy metal groups, punk acts and even high school marching bands are also committing their performances to tape.

They're doing it for a wide variety of reasons. Some just want to hear what they really sound like. Others have a deal with a record label, large or small, and are actually working on an album. Some bands, in hopes of getting a record deal, are recording demo tapes to send to record companies. And more and more, bands are putting out their own records or cassettes to help spread the word (and to sell at gigs).

The increase in studios in Washington over the last 20 years has placed their services within the grasp of more musicians. Classifying these studios can be done a couple of different ways. One is by the number of "tracks" they can record.

When the Beatles labored in London's Abbey Road studios, they used what's known as a four-track recorder. It was like recording on four separate but synchronized mono tape recorders. Each track could be mixed separately, allowing overdubs of vocals, guitars, or anything (that's how Paul could sing his own harmonies). Technology has come a long way since then. You can buy a four-track cassette recorder at your music store and most of today's studio recording is done on 16-, 24- and 48-track machines. Up to 48 separate sounds can be recorded, although by combining some of the tracks as you go along, an almost limitless number of instruments can be used. For the most part, studios in Washington use eight-, 16- or 24-track equipment. The more tracks, the more quality -- and the higher the charge per hour.

Many of the studios in Washington are like Don Zientara's: in home basements and run by entrepreneurial recording engineers who generally started with one reel-to-reel recorder and slowly accumulated equipment. Because of their lower overhead, most basement studios have very reasonable prices and thus are popular with beginners or bands on a budget.

There are some limitations to basement studios, though, as professional studios are quick to point out. The equipment may not be as up-to-date or as well maintained and there may be constraints on recording because of the neighbors. There's also no getting around the fact that the studios are in -- well, basements. But as Jeff Jeffrey of Cue Recording Ltd. in Falls Church points out, "I wouldn't take anything away from basement studios. If they weren't around, a lot of people wouldn't be able to record."

As musically invigorating as the increase in quantity of studios is the increase in quality, with technological advances that border on the revolutionary. With MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology and digital sampling -- the storing of actual instrument sounds on computer disks -- a single musician can compose and arrange and record an entire song, from drums to string sections, from one keyboard. In the past, young musicians yearned for a beat-up guitar to strum; now they want a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.

All this technology has resulted in what many call the "democratization" of music. "Let's say somebody doesn't really know {how to read or write} music," says John Ramo of Sonic Images. "They could come into the studio with just the melody and a few chords and we could arrange it on a synthesizer. This democratization of music allows amateurs to go into the studio and walk out with a very professional-sounding tape."

Area studios charge from $13 an hour for eight-track recording to $120 an hour for 24-track. Nearly all have "block rates," discounts to clients who reserve more than six or eight hours of time. Musicians also have to pay for the recording tape, and a roll of the two-inch tape normally used in 16- and 24-track studios costs around $140. Sometimes it's hard for musicians to predict how much studio time they'll need. "I usually tell people to expect to spend at least five to six hours per song," says Balance's Chris Murphy, who adds that he's had clients spend up to 50 hours on a single tune.

Some musicians look for certain types of equipment when selecting a studio. They want to use a particular mixing board or type of reverb or delay. Studios that don't record a lot of live music -- studios that mainly do commercials, in other words -- may not have some of these bells and whistles.

Before any decision is made, musicians should visit the studio and decide if they'll feel comfortable there, cooped up in a room with no windows for long periods of time. They should listen to tapes of other bands that have recorded there, preferably ones that play a similar type of music. And they should talk with the studio manager and recording engineer.

"It can't be stressed enough that musicians must have good communications with the engineer," says Zientara. "If you can't get along with the engineer it just won't work at all."

Since the clock is ticking all the while they're in the studio, savvy musicians get the most out of their time by using the four Ps: pre-production, producers, practice and patience.

"We definitely advise a pre-production meeting," says Cue's Jeffrey. "We'll sit down with the client beforehand and discuss what they want out of the session and allocate all the tracks." Many engineers want to hear any tapes the band has made, even rough live recordings. A few will even try to catch the act live to get a feel for the music.

Getting the right feel, the right sound, is the producer's job. While fewer than half the bands that record in Washington use one, all studios recommend them. A producer makes the final decision on what sounds good and what sounds bad. Says Zientara: "A producer can really help a band save time. He will have a coherent, focused idea of their sound. The musicians shouldn't have to do anything but play and devote themselves totally to their performance." Many studios have a list of producers and, depending on your music, can recommend one.

Knowing the songs you'll be recording inside and out is another important part of going into a studio. Nothing irks a recording engineer more than a band that's not prepared to record, and at $70 an hour, a recording studio is expensive rehearsal space. Musicians should "be able to play the songs three times in a row without a mistake" is how Steve Carr of Hit & Run Studios in Rockville puts it.

And then there's patience. A studio should be a relaxed place but isn't always. Pressures can build as you do the same song 50 times in a row. (Remember the studio scene in "La Bamba"?) "It takes time," says Willie Jolley of Jolley Studios. "There's no use trying to do a record in two hours."

You have to be realistic, too. Even the most advanced studio cannot perform miracles. "What {studios} are -- from the smallest basement studios to {the biggest} -- is a mirror," says Omega's Bob Yesbeck. "{A big studio's} mirror may be clearer than others because {its} equipment is more precise, but a more precise recording of someone singing off key is not going to be any more pleasing than a poor recording of someone singing off key. In their heart of hearts of hearts a band should know if they're ready to preserve what they do on tape. A studio is a cruel, cruel place."

Such honesty notwithstanding, Washington studios are some of the biggest supporters of Washington music. Says Jolley: "I tell everyone who comes in here, 'I want you to have a hit record. I want you to be a success.' Because this city needs it."


AMBIENT RECORDING -- 9622 52nd Ave., College Park. 982-9288. $50/hour. Ray Tilkens, a guitarist for Root Boy Slim, among others, has been in the recording business for seven years and now runs this basement studio. Rock 'n' roll legend Bo Diddley was in Ambient earlier this year, as were DC-101's home-tape search winners Calculated Risk. Jazz musician Marshall Keys and Patti LaBelle's backup group have also done work at Ambient.

BALANCE SOUND STUDIOS -- 4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 951-3900. $70/hour. Engineer Chris Murphy doesn't like to pigeonhole the music that's been recorded at Balance. It runs the gamut from Southern boogie (the Roadducks) to speed metal (Annihilator) and more. Murphy and Balance's other full-time engineer, John Biehl, are musicians themselves and both strive to create the "snare drum that ate Chicago."

BIAS RECORDING CO. INC. -- 5400 Carolina Pl., Springfield. 941-3333. Studio A (24, 16, 8 or 2 track): $100/hour. Studio B (16, 8 or 2 track): $70/hour. Bias started as a basement studio when founders Bill McElroy and Bob Dawson were on the A/V crew at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. It's one of the biggest in town today, producing about 20 albums a year, including recent releases from Mary Chapin Carpenter (for CBS Records, no less) and B-Time.

BIG MO -- 12255 Viers Mill Rd., Wheaton. 946-7364. A mobile studio. $50/hour to record in Wheaton, $1,500 a day, plus $1 a mile for remote recording. Owner Ed Eastridge specializes in remote recordings, engineering from his control-room-in-a-truck via two video cameras. He recently drove Big Mo to the Kennedy Center to record the Seldom Scene's 15th anniversary concert. When not on a remote outpost Big Mo is berthed in Wheaton, where musicians can set up inside while the tapes run in the truck. Clients have included Danny Gatton and Jr. Cline and the Recliners.

BLACK POND STUDIOS -- 5 Anita Ct., Rockville. 340-1700. $50/hour. This basement studio made a name for itself recording punk bands. Now engineer Chris Biondo does a bit of everything, from go-go to adult contemporary. And, like most engineers, he loves his job. "It's not like work," he says. "It's like playing with people for 15 hours a day." Among the bands Biondo has played with lately are Eubie Hayve, Experience Unlimited, Little Benny & the Masters and Frontier Theory.

CUE RECORDING LTD. -- 109 Park Ave., Suite E, Falls Church. 532-9033. $50/hour. Cue also offers a block rate of $350 for eight hours of studio time, one free roll of two-inch recording tape and one free roll of quarter-inch mastering tape. The studio, which started in Jeff Jeffrey's basement, has just moved into commercial space. The Newkeys and Assane Thiem, Paul Simon's percussionist, have worked on projects at Cue.

HIT & RUN STUDIOS -- 18704 Muncaster Mill Rd., Rockville. 948-6715. 24 track: $65/hour. 16 track: $40/hour. Steve Carr has been a fixture in the Washington music since he opened Hit & Run Studios in his basement in 1979. Locals Tommy Keene, Edge City, Billy Kemp & the Paradise Rockers and the Wets are among "his" musicians.

LION & FOX RECORDING STUDIOS -- 1905 Fairview Ave. NE. 832-7883. $80/hour. Hal Lion had his start as a soundman for Hearst Metrotone News, where he recorded, among other things, JFK's famous "Ich bin eine Berliner" speech. Today, he and partner Jim Fox oversee a full-service, three-room, six-engineer studio that's open virtually round the clock. The reggae label RAS Records sends many of its acts to Lion & Fox, and hardcore favorites Government Issue recorded their latest album there.

MASTERWORKS STUDIO -- 4024 Williamsburg Ct., Fairfax. 385-1780. 16 and 24 track: $75/hour. Owner Mike Zook's first recording endeavor was a small eight-track studio. He's up to 24 now with Masterworks, a brand-new studio that also offers real-time cassette duplication. The husband and wife jazz duet Ron Elliston and Ronnie Wells have worked at Masterworks, as have Mad Romance, Magpie and Cathy Fink.

OMEGA RECORDING STUDIOS -- 5609 Fishers Lane, Rockville. 946-4686. Studio A (24, 16, 4 and 2 tracks): $120/hour. Studio B (24, 16, 4 and 2 track): $105/hour. Studio C: (8, 4 and 2 track): $75/hour. Omega's Bob Yesbeck readily admits that his is the most expensive "room" in the city. Still, it's cheaper than the studios in New York City, which is why many of his regular clients are New York advertising executives who fly down a few days a week on the shuttle to do their jingle work. Among Omega's local music customers are jazz pianist Monty Alexander, Nantucket, Trouble Funk and the Naval Academy Concert Band.

SONIC IMAGES -- 4590 MacArthur Blvd. NW. 333-1063. $90/hour. Extra $10/hour to use the Macintosh MIDI system and Kurzweil synthesizer. Sonic Images is inside eight inches of solid concrete block, making it one of the most soundproof in town. President John Ramo and Zenon Slawinski, director of creative media services, are composers in their own right (theirs is the theme music to NBC's "McLaughlin Group," for instance) and spend a lot of time on their state-of-the-art MIDI gear. Other groups who have recorded at Sonic Images include Mass Extension, Rick Nash & the Nuniles and Last Straw. 16-TRACK STUDIOS

GLASSWING STUDIOS -- 6002 Ager Rd., Hyattsville. 559-3556. 16 track: $35/hour. 8 track: $25/hour. Extra $10/hour for Kurzweil synthesizer. Glasswing was started six years ago as a way for owner Richard Sales to record his own "black and white" music. Now it's a "conduit for people who can't afford other studios." The studio is on the first floor of Sales' Hyattsville home. He watches the musicians via video camera from his second-story control room. Some Glasswing alumni include Johnny Seaton, the Clovers, Woodstock emcee Wavy Gravy and local rap artists the Pretty Boys.

INNER EAR RECORDING STUDIOS -- 712 South Ivy St., Arlington. 892-2123. $40/hour. Inner Ear owner Don Zientara has worked with everyone from punk bands (he's popular with artists on the Dischord label) to area theaters (he engineered the sound effects for Source's "How I Got That Story"). What started 10 years ago as a two-track studio with no effects is now a fully-appointed 16-track in the basement of his house. The Neighbors' new album "Welcome Wagon" was recorded at Inner Ear.

JOLLEY RECORDING STUDIO -- 1225 Shepherd St. NW. 829-8222. 16 track: $35/hour. 8 track: $18/hour. Owner Willie Jolley is familiar with the recording process: the singer has had three major-label record deals himself. Local arranger Al Johnson has worked at Jolley as have Darius Moss, formerly of Hot and Cold Sweat, gospel singer Lauren Mulraine, and the Howard University Jazz Ensemble. Jolley also offers "Demo Delight." The basement studio will produce a final vocal demo tape, incuding music, musicians, studio time and tape, for $149. Jolley and his staff will turn the client's song ideas into music or provide a backing track of a popular tune. "All the person needs to do is come in and lay the vocal tracks," he says.

ROAR PRODUCTIONS -- 6655-H Dobbin Rd., Columbia. 596-2600. 16 track: $45/hour. 2 and 8 track: $40/hour. "There's always been a fairly large gap in Washington between the major studios and the basement studios," says owner Stephen Rosch. It's a gap he was aiming to fill when he opened Roar in 1980. Rosch's background as a songwriter and arranger means he also gets involved in producing many of the acts. Dan Winans, brother of the popular gospel group, has recorded at Roar, as have rapster Haji Rock, the reggae group Junio Prophet & the Logics, and Andy Smith and Trash & Passion.

SONGWRITERS RECORDING STUDIO -- 5819 Dade St., Capitol Heights. 350-5672. $30/hour. Carl Hattley opened his basement studio in 1980. Today, the majority of his clients' work is being transferred to vinyl. Most of the tunes recorded at Songwriters Studio fall in the go-go and dance music category. Recent acts include AM/FM, Spellbound and Tyrone Brounson.

TRACK RECORDERS -- 8226 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 589-4349. $65/hour. Track just celebrated its 18th birthday and the list of major acts who have recorded there make it one of the most venerable studios in town. Track alumni include Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Jimi Hendrix. Local musicians, including Teresa Gunn, Random Samples and the Cultevaders, also take advantage of Track's services. According to vice president/studio manager Mark Greenhouse, Track also runs its own vanity record label (it's called, appropriately, Vanity Records). The acts on Vanity put up the money themselves and are rewarded with an ultra-slick package that includes record, sleeve and promotional advice. 8-TRACK

CONSCIOUS AUDIO -- 1903 N. Quintana St., Arlington. 237-7735. Ben DePauw started this home studio for bands interested in getting a demo at a reasonable price: $13 an hour. While clients have included vocal groups, commercial producers and soloists, his mainstay is high-school bands.

GERALD LEWIS RECORDING -- 216 S. Pershing Dr., Arlington. 521-1871. Remote recording. 8 track: $70/hour. 2 track: $60/hour. Lewis does remote recording only. He'll park his Dodge Maxivan anywhere, from the Kennedy Center apron to the sidewalk of a church. He works with everything from gospel choirs to classical groups and high school bands.

HITLINE STUDIOS -- 3011 Dennis Ave., Kensington. 949-5895. $20/hour. Engineer David Moore works with a variety of bands in his Kensington basement studio, and will write music for music-less lyricists, for $100 per song plus $10 an hour while the lyricist adds the vocal track.

RK 1 RECORDING STUDIO -- 1757 Scribner Pl., Crofton. 858-0098. Open since April 1985, RK 1 is an eight-track studio in a two-car garage at $18 an hour. The manager is Bob Kellner, the engineer Eric Copeland.