How To Become an Assistant Engineer
“An Assistant Engineer’s job is difficult to condense into a few words,” says Michael Duncan, a New York-based audio professional who currently works as an Assistant Engineer with some of the most well-known Recording Engineers in indie rock. “The position is basically centered around helping a Record Producer and/or Recording Engineer with anything studio-related.”
My job is to make sure that the person running the session has everything he or she needs (hopefully before they even ask for it). In more specific terms, that could mean positioning microphones, wrapping cables, carrying amplifiers, configuring the patch bay, tweaking outboard gear, arranging gobos, prepping mixes, printing stems, doing recalls, and more.
“A typical day starts by arriving and leaving the studio before everyone else. During the session, you are at the beck and call of the person you’re assisting. Every day is different. Some days might be spent recording drums; other days might be spent labeling cables.”
The average annual salary for Assistant Engineers is approximately $61,600. The salary range for Assistant Engineers runs from $46,000 to $90,000.
How Assistant Engineers earn income depends on the studio, its work culture, and its size. “Personally, I’m paid per project,” Duncan says. “Assistant Engineers at major studios are paid hourly or sometimes barely/not at all.”
Audio professionals work when musicians book studio time. This depends on deadlines, budgets, and schedules, and can lead to some intense periods of work. “Assistant Engineers can work anywhere from twenty to eighty hours a week,” Duncan says. “Weekends and evenings are typical. Twelve-hour days are fairly standard.”
Audio professionals generally begin as studio Interns, acquiring and refining the skills essential to assist in the studio along the way. After a successful internship, they can become Runners and work their way up to a role as Assistant Engineer. Once they’ve been in this role for a couple of years, it’s possible to graduate to a position as a full-fledged Record Producer or Recording Engineer.
If you’ve ever looked for an Assistant Engineer role at a recording studio, you already know competition for these jobs is stiff. “It’s very difficult,” Duncan says. “Ideally, you should start assisting or interning at a studio while you’re still in high school or early college. That will give you a decent head start. Also, try emailing Producers and Engineers that you admire to ask if they could use some help.”
- “Find a potential mentor. Email him/her.
- If you’re self-driven, don’t waste money on audio school. (Album credits are worth a lot more than a college diploma in this field.)
- Get real, tangible experience as early as possible.
- Listen to a lot of music, read a lot of books, and don’t stop learning.”
Experience & Skills
Truly effective Assistant Engineers have already spent several years in the classroom and in studio, learning the required technical skills to be able to assist in the recording process at a professional level. “To be a capable Assistant Engineer, you need to truly understand your role in the studio,” Duncan says.
“Your job is to keep the session running as smoothly as possible, but you’re not the person in charge of the session—you’re simply there to assist. Most importantly, you need to have a really firm grasp on the basics of audio engineering.”
Passion for music and recording are integral facets of an Assistant Engineer’s personality. Duncan says, “Working in a recording studio is not as glamorous as you might imagine. Repetition and long hours are the norm in this field. I’ve seen a lot of people become very lethargic in the studio, so you’ll want to make sure that you can handle the hours, first and foremost. Overall, you should be well-organized, reliable, knowledgeable, musical, personable, determined, and creative.”
Education & Training
Many Assistant Engineers begin their careers by enrolling at a music production school and learning studio skills as part of their coursework. Others find a way into the studio by training themselves as much as possible, then reaching out to recording professionals about internships or assistantships. Duncan advises, “If you’re serious about wanting to work in a studio, I would recommend finding a mentor.”
I’ve had three terrific mentors: Dan Romer, John Siket, and Andrew Maury. All of them have had great success in the industry and I’ve learned nearly everything I know from watching them work and asking questions when appropriate.
Additionally, there are a slew of terrific books available, including the Assistant Engineers Handbook by Tim Crich, Audio Engineering 101 by Tim Dittmar, Handbook for Sound Engineers by Glen Ballou, The Audio Expert by Ethan Winer, and the many recording/mixing handbooks by Bobby Owsinski.”
Assistant Engineers never stop learning, and fortunately, there are many high-quality online resources available to audio professionals at all levels in their careers. Duncan recommends checking out the following: Audio Engineering Society, Society of Professional Audio Recording Services, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, Pensado’s Place, Groove3, Lynda, Coursera, edX, CreativeLive, Mix with the Masters, SoundWorks Collection, Working Class Audio, Noise Creators’ podcast, and Berklee Online.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Don’t do it for the money—there isn’t very much at first.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake is that they put themselves into debt before they even have a single job offer. Also, ‘overnight success’ never happens overnight so don’t think it will.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
“The Beatles because my dad has been a lifelong fan and played their records incessantly when I was young.”
Michael Duncan is a Record Producer, Mixer, and Writer in New York City. He began his career interning at Headgear Recording and assisting Producer/Composer Dan Romer (Christina Aguilera, Beasts of No Nation.) He has also worked as an Assistant Engineer to John Siket (Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Phish) and Andrew Maury (Atlas Genius, Ra Ra Riot, The Kooks). Duncan’s written work has been published by The A.V. Club, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files and more.