5 Important Elements Of Being An Assistant

Over the course of my music career, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the room with some pretty heavy hitters. From my early days starting out running a studio in my hometown of Cave Creek, Arizona to engineering for Shania Twain, there have been a lot of detours along the way. Without a doubt, the hardest and most important lessons learned were during my time as an assistant engineer. In 2014, I moved to Nashville and by chance was introduced to Puremix Mentor (and my now real-life mentor) Jacquire King. Jacquire was kind enough and maybe just crazy enough to offer me an internship. Over the years, I worked my way from intern to assistant engineer and eventually became his main engineering partner before relocating back to Arizona to open my own space. Thanks to Jacquire, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many different artists and producers over the years. This is the music business however, and at times things get tough. There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self as an assistant; I could go on forever, but here are 5 of what I feel are the most important elements to being a good assistant and ultimately growing into a good engineer.

1. Keep Your Mouth Shut.

This sounds harsh, but keep your mouth shut. There are layers to this one, so bear with me here. There is a reason no one is asking for your input at this stage, and that’s okay. You are there to learn and observe—you’ll prove yourself in time. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ask a question if you aren’t clear on something that’s been asked of you. For sure, get clarification. Don’t just wing it on something if you’re too scared or proud to get clarification. Know the time and place.

Do not offer unsolicited advice. As my former assistant engineer and good friend Danny Pellegrini once so eloquently phrased it, “the value of your opinion is divisible by the number of times you voice it,” or something like that. He’s a Harvard graduate and is much smarter than I, but you get the idea. When I think back to some of my earlier sessions, I get cold sweats thinking about the thin ice I was skating without realizing it. Luckily for me, I had a very kind producer pull me aside and set me straight. This is the exception to the rule, however. Most wouldn’t grant you this courtesy. I want you to think of your opinion as a stack of gold coins that buys attention. Every time you spout something off willy-nilly, you lose a coin. Now what happens when you go to say something important? You’ve used up all your capital, and no one is going to listen. But, if you are thoughtful and speak up when called upon, your opinion will carry more weight.

When you are asked to give an opinion, BE HONEST. It’s all too easy to just tell the producer or engineer what they want to hear—DON’T. It does you no good to lie for the sake of someone else’s ego. If you express yourself honestly it allows for discussion about why you feel that way, which leads to two very important things: 1 - you will learn something (often why you’re wrong), and 2 - the people above you will start to get a true sense of who you are, instead of the version you’re trying to project for them. They will find out sooner or later if you are lying, and once that respect is gone, it’s difficult to earn back.

It’s worth noting that these concepts also apply to being the boss. If you use up all your leadership capital nitpicking your staff over inconsequential details of a session, your team will suffer. If everything is a big deal, nothing is a big deal. Your team will be in constant crisis mode, and you won’t get their best performances.

2. No Amount of Detail is Too Great.

Whether it’s documenting a chain, taking notes, or prepping a session, YOU CANNOT BE TOO DETAILED. When you think you’re done, do 5% more. This is actually a good principle in everything audio-related. When you think you’re good, do 5% more because I promise you that every time you think “there’s no way we’ll need that” you always do…

I learned this one the hard way. Let me take you back a couple years ago—I was assisting on a record and received oddly specific session documentation instructions from the engineer. He wanted me to document only the players’ pedal boards and amps. He was very specific about NOT taking pictures of the gear in the control room. Being the good soldier I am, I obliged. Well, sort of… it seemed odd to me, so I figured I’d better hedge my bets. So after we’d wrap for the day, I did all my documentation for the song as he requested, but then I would get to the studio before anyone else in the morning to document the rest of the gear. Golden, right? Well, one morning he caught me taking pictures and I was chastised for it.

After being reprimanded I stopped keeping track of the gear in the control room and resumed with the documentation as instructed. Now let’s skip forward two weeks. We were going over all the songs we’d recorded making sure we had tracked everything we needed before leaving the studio. Wouldn’t you know it… we needed to punch a bass part (a bass part with an overly complicated record path). So, the producer asked me to do a recall. Now my neck was on fire and my palms drenched with sweat. I sheepishly explained to him that I had documented the pedals, amps and bass used, but not the record chain. Looking visibly irritated (and understandably so), he inquired why I hadn’t documented the rest of the chain. I was in a bind… the engineer was sitting right there and hadn’t stepped in yet. The band was staring at me, and the whole situation was very tense. So, I went with my default in a high-pressure situation—honesty. I explained that I had been instructed by the engineer to not document the gear in the control room, to which he replied “No, you were not”, thus hammering the final nail in my coffin. I was naive to think it would play out any differently. Now, was that a gutless thing to do? Sure. Do I blame him for my falling short? Absolutely not. That’s on me. In the immediate aftermath of my hotseat blunder, I pulled the producer aside to apologize and explain my experience with the engineer. He wasn’t happy, but left me with a very important piece of advice: always do what you think you need to do to keep your job.

After that experience I documented EVERYTHING with paper and photos, especially when I was told it probably wasn’t necessary. Every project had an accordion folder with a spot for each songs corresponding paper docs in addition to a Dropbox folder with categorized photos as well as any related word docs/spreadsheets. In this high-tech day and age you might be thinking “why paper docs”? It seems antiquated, and you might be right. But what happens when the engineer needs to punch a guitar part or get back to a sound while you are out of the room? He might not have access to the Dropbox or Google Drive. If there is a folder with the song title and in that folder is a packet of papers that reads “John Guitar Overdub”, they can quickly grab it and get to work without having to wait on you. This can be especially helpful in the form of “Take Notes”. Keeping track of each take by matching the corresponding playlist number to comments made by those involved. If the producer wants to put a quick vocal comp together you can grab your notes and have a pretty good road map of the best ones to pick from quickly. Being a good assistant (and for that matter, building a good team) is about building systems that allow for maximum autonomy. I’ve included a PDF example of how I do paper docs for amps and pedalboards. When Danny came on board, he assumed that role and took it a step further by making highly detailed Adobe Illustrator drawings for each player. I encourage you to take your own approach with documentation, as long as it’s accurate and efficient to use when in a pinch. I’ll only insist on doing it my way if the new way creates more problems than solutions.

3. Anticipate & Execute

As an assistant you’ll have a lot of time just sitting in the back of the room. You can look at this time as boring and surf your phone (definitely don’t do that), or you can use the time to study the dynamics taking place in the room. It’s likely that as an assistant, unless you are working at a large commercial space like Blackbird Studios, you’ll work with a pretty small circle of people. Watch how the engineer interacts with the band. Pay attention to the way the producer and engineer communicate with one another. See how they individually communicate with you. You’ll notice patterns. You’ll pick up on tendencies from each. If you hear the producer and engineer planning to move onto guitars after they finish fixing the bass part, be discreetly proactive. Go make sure the amps are on; if there aren’t already mics in place, grab a mic and get it close to position; patch up the engineer’s go-to guitar chain—anticipate the next need and execute. Even if they want to swap out a mic, or maybe a different EQ in the path, you have already helped significantly reduce the amount of downtime. This goes beyond the technical aspects of recording as well. If you notice that every day at 4 o’clock the engineer gets a little snippy and blinky at the computer, bring him a coffee and a snack. This kind of attention to detail will not only bleed into everything else you do, but it will help keep you engaged when there isn’t a lot going on. Anticipate problems and execute before they can become one.

4. Always Defer to the Producer

As I touched on earlier, always do what it takes to protect your job, and the best way to do that is by keeping the producer happy. If the engineer tells you to do something you know is going to be an issue with the producer, DON’T. For example, if the producer tells the engineer that he wants a spaced pair of AKG 414EB as overheads, and you walk in for the setup and the engineer is setting up a modified Glyn Johns, tread lightly, but say something. Play dumb—this is an assistant’s best camouflage. Lead with a question “Oh, did the producer change his mind on the 414s?”. To be fair, sometimes communication can break down and you might be out of the loop, so it’s good to take a soft approach. If they are just being a maverick (which I’ve seen happen), lightly suggest that you’ll stick some 414’s on stands off to the side of the drum kit in the (likely) event that the producer walks in and questions why his requests have not been met.

It’s easy to get stuck in the middle of a power struggle. Ego is a funny thing; we all have one, and for creating art they’re an extremely powerful tool. It can drive you to achieve great things, but can also throw a whole mess of thumbtacks out on the road you’re driving. Find yours and keep it out of sight. When things start to get hairy, defer to the producer.

5. Don’t Forget Your “Why”

Always remember why you got into this in the first place. Long hours, low pay, and difficult people can leave you jaded if you let them. I’ve seen it happen to many friends, and have been through it myself. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve gotten into a room late for a setup and had to sleep on the couch for the early morning downbeat—it happens. From February 2014 to mid-2016, I worked every single day. When I wasn’t at the studio, I was working at Home Depot slinging mulch, or at Starbucks slinging lattes. Working long hours in the studio just to wake up and have a snooty Brentwood Clones condescendingly walk me through how to make their morning latte was killing me.

I regularly work with electronic equipment that’s value far-and-away exceeds the amount I paid for my first house. But, please hold my hand through making your skim milk latte. Oh, and while you’re at it, hit me with your car on your way out.

I was burnt out, irritable to everyone, and my work suffered. I had lost my “Why”. So, I quit everything but my assisting gig, thinking I’d rather fail doing what I came to Nashville to do than quietly burn out. You can’t half-ass three things—you’ve gotta whole-ass one thing.

I became interested in producing records because I was a huge metalhead in high school (still am) and heard a Killswitch Engage record called The End of Heartache. I thought “Man, I want to make a record that sounds that good one day”. Back then, I thought that the sounds were my “Why”, but I started working in studios and realized my true “Why”: I love helping artists realize a vision. There’s no better feeling than taking an acoustic demo and creating a fully-realized production. THAT is my Why. Removing the other two time-sucks from my life allowed me to jump in with everything I had, entirely focused on getting to one goal. Every now and then, I still catch myself getting jaded. It happens (this shit is hard!) but now I know why I continue to put myself out there. I’ll tell you what, it helps. Find your “Why” and do your damnedest to hold onto it.

Kolton Lee

Written by Kolton Lee

You can follow me on Instagram @Kolton_Lee or contact me through my website www.koltonlee.com. Be on the lookout for more from Red Jack Recordings soon!

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