Attributes of a Great Assistant Engineer

Creative Commons image Engineer by Incase from Flickr

The following material is from page 211 of The Recording Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski

1. An assistant should be well versed in the use of Pro Tools.

  • This has become very important. Most studios today won’t hire assistants unless they are proficient with Pro Tools. It’s almost mandatory.

2. Most of the good assistants we work with today are good musicians in their own right.

  • They can read music. When we’re punching in and have a score in front of us, it’s easy to find the spots, and this saves time. We work with a lot of artists, and occasionally some temperamental ones, who don’t want to be wasting time while an assistant is looking for the top of the second verse, bar 84, or the third beat of bar 22. This has to be done quickly, and it is up to the assistant to be able to find these spots fast so that we can do the punches and fixes.

3. Good personal hygiene was cited by nearly everyone I spoke to.

  • Very simply put, a good assistant smells good. I don’t necessarily mean cologne. I mean no body odor, bad breath, dirty socks, and so on. No one wants to be in a small control room for 10 or 12 hours with someone who smells like an old goat. Take a shower, wear clean clothes, and keep the breath mints handy.

4. One of my engineer colleagues used a word that describes well an important attribute of great assistants: transparent.

  • When you really need them, they’re there. The other times, they’re in the background. But they’re always paying attention to what’s going on and staying with the program. If the assistant sees a problem, he tells the engineer at the appropriate time, and it’s the engineer’s job to take care of it. A good assistant never displays a bad or negative attitude and always leaves his ego at the door.

5. Develop strong computer skills.

  • With everything we use today being computerized, you’ll need to be up to speed on Microsoft Office and all facets of the Internet.

6. If you make a mistake, admit it. Right away.

  • You may have to take your lumps, but we’ll fix it and move on. And once the mistake has been corrected, don’t continue to dwell on it. If you’re worrying about a mistake you just made, you’re going to make another one right away. It’s like golf; you learn from your last shot, but you’ve got to focus on your current one.

7. Keep a good, accurate, and legible track sheet.

  • It’s very important. Otherwise, you’ll create a lot of confusion and mistakes. We find many interns coming out of the schools who just don’t have this skill down, and it’s one of the most important things an assistant does. When noting the track sheet, make sure you talk to the engineer and find out whether it’s a DNU (“do not use”) track or a TBE (“to be erased”) track. If it’s supposed to be on track 18, make sure it is on track 18; if it’s supposed to be on track 6 or 7, make certain it is. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
  • Download sample track sheets:

8. If you are asked a question by the engineer or producer and you’re not sure of the answer, don’t guess. Be honest.

  • Let them know you’ll find out and do it. Today, with the Internet and the great maintenance crews, information is readily available. Get the right answer and give them the information.

9. An assistant needs to know how to align the tape machine.

  • The ability to line up an analog 2-track machine or a 24-track machine is a skill you should master. There isn’t always going to be a maintenance guy around at the moment that it’s required, and you should be able to do it well and accurately.

10. When I was starting out, I found this item very important and helpful. Keep a notebook with you during a session and make diagrams of all the setups, note how the board is laid out and the names of the engineer and artist, what microphones are used, and so on.

  • Three months from now, if you’re doing a follow-up to the session, this information will be a big help to you (and to the engineer) because you’ll be prepared and know what he needs. This notebook will also prove very important to you if you later find yourself thrown into a session on your own. You can refer back to the session in the notebook (assuming the recording sounded great) and see how the studio was physically set up, what mics were used on what instruments, and where they were placed. Believe me, this will prove a big help when starting out on your own. But in the near term, while you’re an assistant, this will help you be more prepared and efficient.

11. On a light but nevertheless important note, keep food menus at hand and be sure to know where you can get a good pizza, good chicken, good burgers, sandwiches, and so on, and who delivers.

  • You’re at a studio where you’re working all the time, and people come in from out of town. They’ll want to know where they can get good sushi or whatever. You should know where the good places are and who delivers and have the menus available.

12. And last but not least, know how to make a good pot of coffee!

“To me the assistant has two main jobs. One is he’s your liaison with the studio, obviously, and the second is documentation. One of the things that is sorely missing is the need for proper documentation from studios. I’m amazed that studios don’t require every assistant to write up a proper track sheet on a session. I don’t care if it’s recorded to Pro Tools or a DAW, I want to see a track sheet at the end of the day.” —Frank Filipetti