The Do's and Don'ts of Being an Assistant Engineer
Before bedroom producers and YouTube videos took over the music business, there was a clear path to success for aspiring audio engineers. When you think about it, it's kind of ironic, because there was no formal training like there is today.
Instead, those interested in the craft of audio engineering would go into apprenticeship mode. They would start as interns or runners and learn on the job, eventually working their way up to an assistant engineer position.
But what does an assistant audio engineer even do. Pretty much whatever they’re told to do.
Only a small percentage of making music is creative — the rest is the rather mundane work of setting things up and keeping things organized. That’s where an assistant comes in.
Assistant engineers in recording studios are typically responsible for:
- Placing microphones
- Setting up the console
- Patching in outboard gear
- Setting up DAW sessions
- Recalling sessions and settings
- Adjusting mics during a recording session
Some assistants are responsible for editing tracks, tuning vocals or even rough mixes. You may also be responsible for administrative duties like booking or finances. Your experience all depends on your relationship with the head engineer.
Most assistants are paid for their time, which means the “dirty work” of wrapping cables, zeroing out the console and sweeping up at the end of the night is usually reserved for the interns — usually.
Getting The Gig
The first step to becoming an assistant is proving why a successful engineer should take the time and effort to mentor you. You’ve got to prove you’re worth the investment.
Here’s some advice on getting the gig:
Do: Research the studio you’re applying to. Learn their history. Learn the owner's name. Learn the name of the office assistant. Most importantly, learn the name of the person doing the hiring.
Don't: Send a generic email that can be copied and pasted. Audio engineers pride themselves on their attention to detail, and your lack thereof won’t slip by them.
Do: Address the person you’re writing by name when you email them. Include something personal that shows you did your research.
Don't: Ask someone to give you a chance. Prove to them that you’re worth hiring! They know you love making music. How are you at making coffee? What about your time management skills? Do you know how to hang drywall?
Do: Be honest.
Don't: Oversell yourself.
Do: Be Persistent. It’s ok to send follow-ups and reminders at respectful intervals.
Don't: Be obnoxious. Spamming someone over and over again isn’t going to get you anywhere.
On The Job
Assuming you get the gig, your new goal is to prove that you can actually get things done.
The more you impress the head engineer, the more work they’ll give you. Eventually, you’ll have so many responsibilities that the studio would fall apart without you. You’ll become an indispensable part of the team.
Here’s some advice on working your way up the ladder:
Do: Always go the extra mile. Show up with coffee in the morning. Stay late and sweep up at night. Underpromise and over-deliver every time.
Don't: Just do the bare minimum. It’s important to know your worth, but it’s equally as important to know you value.
Do: Be proactive. Take care of things that need to be done before someone asks you to do it. Have a pot of coffee ready when the clients arrive. Re-solder that cable that went bad during the last session. Make sure there’s toilet paper in the bathroom.
Don't: Be lazy. No one wants to listen to you whine about doing something you don’t want to do. There are hundreds of recording school graduates waiting in line for this gig. It can definitely be tough sometimes, but don’t take it for granted.
Do: Always show up early. Early is on time, and on time is late.
Don't: Waste any time. You know the old saying... “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean and calibrate the tape machine.”
Do: Cater to the clients. It’s tough to swallow sometimes, but this is a customer service industry. The better experience the clients have, the more likely they are to return. Help them unload their gear. Ask them if you can get them anything to drink. Offer to make a sushi run at 3 AM if you have to.
Don't: Get starstruck. You may find yourself dealing with some high-profile clients. Don’t lose your cool. Don't start asking for selfies. It’s embarrassing for everyone…
Don't: Offer your opinion unless you are invited to do so. If someone specifically asks you what you think about something, then you can politely tell them. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.
Do: Ask questions… When it’s appropriate. At the end of the day after the client has left is a great opportunity to ask the head engineer questions about why they made certain decisions.
Don't: Ask questions at inappropriate times. Questioning an engineer’s decisions when in front of a client is a bad idea.
Do: Always give 100%. Even on the projects you don’t want to. Especially on the projects you don’t want to. Remember, you’re not judged on your best work, you’re judged on your worst work.
Don't: Try to steal work. If you end up working closely with an artist on a project as an assistant, you may develop a bond. They might even ask you work on future projects with them. Not only is this ok, it’s expected. This is perfectly acceptable, as long as you discuss it with the head engineer first.
Life After Assisting
Eventually, the student becomes the master and starts taking work on their own. Your last few sessions will likely be spent training some young pup to do your job.
It won’t belong before you need an assistant of your own. And so it repeats — the circle of life for audio assistants.