Being a professional engineer isn’t always easy. It’s as much about perseverance and resilience as it is about technical skill and creative talent. I believe you figure out very quickly whether the life is for you, and these are the top lessons learned my first year in the studio.
I’ve worked at the same place going on three years now. We’re a small operation with facilities in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, catering mostly to hip hop/pop/R&B artists.
Prior to that, I had no experience in professional recording, and hardly any experience in recording/production at all. I went to audio school after undergrad in an unrelated field, mostly as a hobbyist interested in recording/mixing. ‘How do they do that?’
There, I understood this was a career path I needed to explore…and of course, a special thanks to Warren Huart for giving me my first internship and subsequently my first gig (this one) in music!
Top Lessons Learned in Year One
Then I found my next studio opportunity where I work currently. I interned there for the first 6 months, then assisted for 8 more, and have been engineering since. I’ve learned a ton in that short time, particularly in the first year; but of course, the learning never stops!
1. Follow directions. Know your place.
Not to shame anybody, but it’s amazing how many people mess this up. It goes hand-in-hand with common sense, and that’s to follow the directions of whoever you’re working for.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re interning and following the head engineer/studio manager’s instructions, or if you’re engineering and following the artist’s or producer’s. The path of least resistance is doing your job, and doing it well.
I also think this relates to knowing your place. In the most transparent terms, nobody cares about the intern or assistant’s opinion unless asked. People have been thrown out of sessions for volunteering their thoughts, and at worst, fired.
I frequently end up playing producer while tracking vocals, coaching performances out of people. But I tend to be diplomatic about my critique until I’ve built a rapport with the artist, or unless they ask for my brutal honesty (and I sense they can handle it).
2. Be punctual.
The music world is full of atypical creatives who tend to live very much outside the confines of corporate professionalism. Unfortunately, engineers aren’t exempt from all of those expectations.
The artist can arrive late; that’s on them. But if you’re assisting or engineering and haven’t finished setting up by the time talent arrives — or even worse, talent beats you to the studio — that’s an incredibly unprofessional look.
Arriving with plenty of time for setting up, trouble shooting, or just getting situated is extremely important.
3. Be accommodating and agreeable.
Artists can be very quirky, sensitive people. Engineers can be too! After all, we’re creative, passionate people.
You should do anything you can to make your client feel comfortable. Have some amenities like drinks and snacks on hand — if you work with someone a lot, pay attention to what they like and get it for them before the next session.
Some artists are particular about lighting. If your studio has dimmers or, better yet, a smart lighting system, ask them how they’d like to set the room.
Finally, be easy going. You certainly don’t have to be a pushover — setting boundaries is perfectly normal. But if you have a relaxed demeanor, and artists can trust you to fulfill their requests, the session will be a much more comfortable place.
4. Make mistakes. Learn from them.
Screwing things up is inevitable, especially when you’re getting your experience on the job. How bad we screw up can vary, but it’s important to reflect on what went wrong, and how to avoid it in the future.
My very first session as engineer was a disaster. Plus, it was with a high-profile client! At one point we lost signal tracking vocals. I panicked and got flustered, the artist got frustrated, and that was a wrap.
Talking it out with the head engineer later, I learned that when there’s a full entourage in the room, if anyone so much as sneezes on our 1176, they can change its settings. In my case, someone brushed up against it and turned the output all the way down. In my panic, I’d only thought to check my preamp. Rookie mistake! But I never made it again.
5. Don’t take things too personally.
This one is really tough, but by far the top lesson I’ve learned working in the studio. Far too many times I’ve wondered why a client didn’t follow up to book another session after our first. Or, I’ve wondered why a peer got a certain gig over me. This is the wrong mentality altogether.
Firstly, not every engineer is compatible with every artist and vice versa. Most of the time it probably isn’t a personal thing. Realistically, no one is thinking about us as much as we’d like to believe!
Secondly, it’s important to focus on your own path and your own growth. We should celebrate our peers’ victories rather than constantly brood for our own. There’s very little satisfaction in being overly competitive in this world. Ultimately, there’s room for everybody at the table if you’ve worked hard and are fit for the seat.
Funny story: One night I was assisting an artist and several producers. They were making beats and tracking vocals here and there. As a studio, we’d recently upgraded our computer and cloned our old hard drive onto the new machine. Pro Tools was crashing all over the place.
It was an understandably frustrating position to be in for the clients. They were very vocal, to me, with their frustrations, even though there was nothing I could do but apologize and reboot the system after every crash. It sucked, and it felt like a personal attack every time they had something crappy to say about the studio.
But it wasn’t personal at all. These people didn’t even know me. I was their customer service rep for one night, and that was it. We had a rough evening, but life went on.
Studio Life: Top Lessons Learned Conclusion
Everyone’s experience on the path of professional engineering will be different. However, there are some common sense things to keep in mind like basic professionalism, being a kind individual, and not being afraid to make mistakes, learn, and grow!
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