The Role of an Assistant Engineer

Assisting at its finest!
Assisting at its finest!

I have trained quite a few assistants over the last few years and I definitely remember having to be one! Assistant audio engineers almost always start as unpaid internships, work their way up to assistants, and then eventually start doing their own sessions, as full-on head engineers. I don’t think there has been many professional situations where one can skip the assisting gig altogether. In fact, skipping the asst. role will only hurt that engineer and his/her ability to have their own assistant later on.
If I see that someone isn’t doing a 95-100% perfect job at being my asst., they’ll never get to do their own session until they have consistently done the assisting job to my complete satisfaction…I mean, how could I expect someone to remember and do the 5,000+ things needed in a lead engineer’s position, if they can’t even remember to sweep, take out the trash or back up the session correctly? I believe that in this age of everyone having their own home studio, the assistant’s role will be all but eliminated, but there will always be a need for great Assistants at the higher budget levels in this “game”.

So, what makes a good assistant? What makes an AMAZING assistant? What are the major pitfalls? What would get an assistant fired? What would get an assistant a promotion? Here are some of my closest Engineer friends’ opinions on what makes (or breaks) an assistant engineer. I’ll start with the shortest and simplest explanation….

from Mike Mattingly (of Perfect Timing Ent.- drummer and audio engineer):

“Seems to me all assistants should be like Mike (Fearless; of Uranus/Fuzzywallz). He’s great at it and he knows his stuff. Should be someone you could trust to run a session alone if need be.”

Mr. Mattingly managed to get that super short, but perfect, in my opinion. While an assistant should never purposely “take over” a session or step on the lead engineer’s toes, he should be knowledgeable (and practiced) enough to run the whole session if the head engineer needs or desires this. Hell, sometimes I just have my asst. do everything (engineering-wise) and I’ll play more of a producer role from the couch;)- depends on the client, of course. “Fearless” has been consistently assisting me since 2010. He has also helped in the training of numerous interns, including our current crop of successful engineers/assistants. Let’s see what the “the man”, Fearless says. If there were anyone I know that could answer this correctly, it would be him…

from Mike Fearless (of Uranus Recording and Fuzzywallz):

The “Do’s” of Assisting:

1- Make sure that the little things (water/T.P./etc) are all good to go before the session starts. Even if there is an intern to take care of these things, make sure it has been done.

2- Make sure you are capable of taking over the session if necessary. Things happen and the Head Engineer might have to leave the session for one reason or another.

3- Pay attention and listen to the music, so that if someone wants your input about how something sounds you are able to give it.

4- What the Head Engineer asks you to do. If you are “too good” to be taking out trash or doing any other task that the Engineer requires, you should not be in an assisting position.

5- Answer questions directed at you, try not to answer for the Head Engineer if he/she is being asked a question.

6- Be respectful to the client. Even if you do not like the client or their music, you are providing a service that they are paying for and you should always respect them.

7- Keep busy when possible. If there are cables to be wrapped and mics to be taken down in another room and you aren’t busy with something else, go do those things.

8- Compliment the band (or artist), you shouldn’t be overly chatty but it is okay to occasionally tell the band when something they are doing sounds great to you.

The “DONT’s” of Assisting:

1- Get chatty on the clock – the client is here to record and mix music not to find out how your day is going.

2- Make the session about you. You are here to assist the Head Engineer, not to tell the client about how great you are and who you have worked with.

3- Question the Head Engineer – he has a reason for doing what he is doing. If you wish to discuss why he does things a certain way do so after the client has left.

4- Deviate from the way the Head Engineer likes to do things. The Head Engineer does things a certain way because it makes the session run smoother for him.

Dang! I can’t add much or dispute ANYTHING Mike has mentioned…. Every point he made is right on the money and many of these aren’t necessarily common sense or obvious items. Although I taught many of those lessons to him, a few were 100% of his making. He has taken this job from important to ESSENTIAL for my sessions. I also trust him even better than myself for imparting the basic assistant’s mentality to our new guys/gals. Speaking of our “newer” peeps, here is Tony’s take on the assisting role.

from Anthony Brant (of Uranus Recording and Fuzzywallz):

I would say the main thing that makes a good assistant, is knowing each session’s ins and outs from front to back. i.e.- good training, but knowing what the lead is probably thinking/being aware and able to adapt to the situations at hand. They should also know specifically how their lead works and adapt to that. Don’ts of an asst. are: touching the musicians instruments, touching mics w/o permission, taking the lead’s parking spot, showing up late, slow breakdown.

Here, Tony has touched upon some previously mentioned ideas and brings up some new ones. His point about knowing the specific, unique workflows and preferences of that session’s lead engineer is crucial and could make or break a session. Also, messing with the client’s instrument (or any other property) is only OK if requested specifically to do so. As far as taking the parking spot, this kind of falls in line with knowing the idiosyncrasies of whoever the lead engineer is, not to mention any specific company policies. Reading Tony’s paragraph the first time, it hit me that someone hasn’t truly assisted me until they figure out a whole new “do” and/or “don’t”. Everyone is a little different in his or her approach.

In closing, here are a few more points from me:

MY BIG 3 – DONT’s!

1- PUNCTUALITY/ATTENDANCE/NOTICE- Not being there, cancelling last minute, being late or having to leave early. These are all 100% “fails”- just don’t do them! If we have arranged something like this awhile beforehand because of a necessity or inevitability, then it is different; but if my asst. is late or leaves early without ample notice, then they’re already skipping the most important aspect(s) of their job. Oh, and the ‘ol No call, no show = No more job; or you better be dead or in jail!

2- FOLLOWING EXACT DIRECTIONS- Do it the way I explained! I’ve spent many years figuring out what works for my clients and me; to to be questioned about it (especially in front of the client) is VERY bad. I don’t want to hear the way you would do it right now. If there is something I am missing that could speed up the operation or improve the workflow of the session(s), then talk with me privately about it AFTER the session. I have definitely been “schooled” in the past by certain interns/assts.., but it is a rarity. Many of my interns have just gotten out of audio school, so of course they may have some fresh knowledge nuggets, but if you try to show me in front of the client (on the clock) it makes me look stupid and wastes the client’s valuable time. Command + Shift + yadda, yadda can wait a few hours- really).

3) Don’t damage the gear! If you are unsure about how to do something- ask! Something as simple as pressing one button (ex. Phantom Power, power OFF) at the wrong time, could cost me and/or the studio thousands of dollars. Also, if you fail to back something up properly, we could be in danger of losing a whole project’s files. That could be even worse that $1,000 loss!

MY BIG 3 – DO’s!

1- MAKE MY JOB EASIER! – Before doing/saying ANYTHING, ask yourself if it is going to make my job/life easier, or if is going to give me extra work and/or grief. Straight up- if you are there and making my job tougher, you’ll be replaced- fast! No offense, but if something happened in your personal life that is going to reduce your effectiveness or consistency…let me know or you’ll be quickly replaced! There are a lot of people in line for gig like this;)

2- MAKE ME PROUD! I know when someone has “arrived” as a great assistant, when they not only make my job easier, but they “Wow” the client and/or myself. This normally happens when someone has really found the rhythm and love for their job. Here are two excellent examples-

Many times we have been recording or mixing a song and Fearless stays pretty quiet; doing his job and letting the artist and myself do ours with no interruption or issue. Then we’ll have an issue or questionable part that leaves the artist and myself unsure of how to proceed. Fearless will wait until we have tried to solve it ourselves, but if asked- “Hey, Fearless- what do you think?” he already has a great idea that works wonderfully, almost shocking the rest of us! The key here is that he was already thinking like a full-blown producer, but made sure we (artist mostly) had the first chance to address said issue. Also, normally the client ends up raving about Fearless’s contribution and then pushes to have him at ALL of their sessions…BAM!!!

Another “wow” example is going above and beyond the call of duty. One of our engineers, Tony, was asked to set up a certain microphone for a recording session. Without having to be asked, he not only setup the proper microphone, but he wired everything in according to the client’s setup notes AND setup an extra microphone (one that he knows I like) on the side, in the event that we need it…. also, BAM!

3) PLEASE DON’T DISSAPEAR! This covers everything from getting back to me in a reasonably short time frame, to not “disappearing” without notice at a session; all the way to “moving on” in your career, without timely and helpful notice to me. There’s almost nothing worse than taking months of time to train someone, only for them to bail on a session(s) and never be heard from again! We have had (a few) perfectly good interns lose out on any chance of advancement, only because they couldn’t simply tell me that their car is in the shop, their phone/email is on the fritz, or they’re going on vacation. The most common one is the intern who gets a new part-time job during their training and then makes no effort to pencil the studio into their new schedule…. Some of this stuff is just so obvious, but it still happens. That is also why I/we are not hiring anyone new right now…. Good people are seriously hard to find!