An Assistant Engineer’s Guide to Assisting Engineers (and Producers)

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So, you’ve finally made it! Congratulations. You’re no longer “the intern”. You won’t be getting everyone’s coffee, picking up lunch orders, vacuuming the live room, and doing other menial chores all day, right? NOT SO FAST. Get ready for longer hours, little pay, and a lot more work.

If you’re new to the assisting gig, or even a seasoned pro, here are some essential tips that will make your job so much easier:

BE ORGANIZED

Get your ducks in a row for the session. (Image supplied by Shutterstock).

Get your ducks in a row for the session. (Image supplied by Shutterstock).

Great, you’ve successfully moved up the recording studio ladder, but don’t even think about slacking. You’re now in charge of track sheets, take sheets, labeling files and sessions, daily logs, recalls, equipment setup, handling expensive microphones, wrapping cables, prepping mixes, and everything in between.

Here’s the bottom line: your job is to keep the session running as smoothly as possible. And even though you’re not a “runner” anymore, you’ll still be running around. Make sure the rooms are clean and comfortable. Miking up a drum kit? Run the cables neatly. You definitely don’t want to induce any problems (or injuries) before the artist even has the chance to get comfortable.

As author A. A. Milne once said, “Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.”

BE RELIABLE

Back when I was assisting John Siket, he’d always chuckle right after opening the door in the morning. Why? Because I was on time.

It’s somewhat of a cliche in the music industry to be fashionably late to everything. But this isn’t a record release party, it’s your job on the line. If the session starts at 10 AM, you shouldn’t come strolling in at any point past then. Not only will you look like an utter fool, you’ll have missed a very important opportunity to show how dependable you are.

The best assistant engineers aren’t always seen or heard but they’re always there.

BE AGREEABLE

Mental preparation will get you everywhere -- think before you speak.

Preparation will get you everywhere — think before you speak. (Image supplied by Shutterstock).

We’ve all recorded music we don’t love. That’s part of the job — or at least it is for the vast majority of us. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best to help capture the artist’s vision of the song.

To put things plainly, never offer your opinion on the music unless you’re absolutely sure that it’s constructive and appropriate. I was once asked by an artist what I thought of the guitars in a song. When I responded by saying, “They’re very sparkly,” she swiftly knocked me down a peg and scolded me by saying, “You should work on your bedside manner.” She didn’t want the guitars to sound “sparkly” and felt like I was making fun of what she had worked hard to record earlier that day.

You never know what people are going to be offended by, so unless you’re in a position to speak your mind freely, remember to be positive and respectful of the artist and their work.

BE KNOWLEDGEABLE

You should have an impeccable understanding of the equipment in the studio.

Learn how to solder. Always wrap the cables properly. Can you restring a guitar? This is your moment to shine. If you don’t know how to use a particular piece of outboard gear, plugin, mic, console, tape machine, or software, do some research. The Internet is your oyster. (I recommend Groove3.com.)

BE MUSICAL

Can you play an instrument? If so, you’re already one step ahead. Knowing the fundamentals of music (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, texture) will help you understand so much more in the studio.

I once did a full day of drum replacing for a producer. When I finished, he took a listen to the songs and told me that his usual assistant (who I was subbing for at the time) is more of “a technical guy” and didn’t know how to “feel out” the right sound for a particular song.

Something as simple as knowing what drum sounds fit best for a specific style of music can land you many repeat gigs.

BE RELATABLE

Even though you’re not always in the foreground, it doesn’t mean that you should act like you don’t belong. Remember to participate. Don’t just stand in the corner and stare at the latest issue of Tape Op. (I’ve made this mistake before.)

Keep the vibe alive and stay immersed in the music and discussions around you. The studio is an amazingly fun place to be.

BE HYGIENIC

Get thyself fresh as a daisy!

Get thyself fresh like a daisy. (Image supplied by Shutterstock.)

This one should go without saying. I know, I know. You’ve been at the studio since 7 AM and sweating profusely ever since you downed your ninth cup of joe today. And maybe you shouldn’t have had that extra helping of tacos, enchiladas, and beans — there’s a little Doris Day reference for those of you who grew up in the 1940’s.

Listen, all I’m saying is bring a stick of deodorant and toothbrush with you. If you’re pulling an all-nighter, and you don’t have access to a shower nearby, use your next available break to freshen up a bit. Everyone will be glad you did.

BE CREATIVE

Just because you’re not in charge of the session it doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to be creative. For example, I’m stealthily writing this article right now on my phone in the control room. (No, just kidding. Don’t do that.)

But, honestly, find something you’re good at doing and really drive it home. Maybe you know a lot about some cool, new recording app? Better yet, maybe you spent your time out of the studio coding it! And if you have the chance to do a rough mix at the end of a long day when the engineer’s ears are totally fried, don’t think twice.

Michael Duncan is an up-and-coming producer/engineer based in NYC. He’s assisted several notable producers, including Dan Romer, John Siket, Andrew Maury, Rick Kwan, Oliver Straus, Jon Kaplan, Jeremy Scott, and more. In addition to his studio accomplishments, Michael has years of experience in radio (Nights with Alice Cooper, HardDrive, Touchdown Radio) and runs a rock/metal website called Rock Edition (an affiliate of Substream Magazine) on the side.

  • PG

    good advice!

  • KB

    CHIRAQ HOTTEST!!!