As a studio owner, I get several calls and emails per week from people looking to break into the "glamorous" world of recording through interning. These people wish to gain experience in the studio, learn session routines, see records being made — and hopefully "graduate" to engineer at some point, all while usually working for free. For me, or any other studio owner/manager, it's a way to get free labor — and sometimes even train someone who will be able to pick up sessions as a freelance engineer. But becoming an intern isn't easy, and doing a great job of it is even harder.
Geoff Sanoff, now head engineer of Stratosphere Sound in New York City, had no prior experience recording but "Sony was the first place I worked and I was hired for two reasons. First because they needed people badly enough to take me and second, because by utterly blind luck I had met the guy who hired me at a friend's party two days before my interview." He was able to find a paying intern gig too, though it didn't pay much. Mike McDonald, whose "side job" is Big Toe Recording in Cleveland, OH, got in through other connections. "I got the job 'cause I worked with a gal at a pizza place and she knew the engineer and said I should come on in and meet him. That got me in the door: Pizza." Jonathan Kreinik, a freelance engineer, who's worked with Trans Am recently, got in to Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church, VA, through persistence. "[I] called and asked. And again, and after two months of asking and a couple trips down there they said come on in."
Sooner or later you might end up on the other side of the fence though. Now Geoff "hires" interns where he works. "The only people I've ever turned down were ones who were chomping at the bit to engineer and you could tell that they were just not going to have the heart or patience to be an intern regardless of their previous education. Some people are better off opening their own studio and learning the hard lessons of studio life on their own." Jonathan says, "the most important thing is that they have a car, and some parents paying their bills, while having a Machiavellian ability to see past plunging a toilet or getting food instead of producing. A good intern should have a sense of humor, a willingness to work hard, a love of music or real interest in learning the work at hand and an awareness of what their 'place' is in the studio environment." For studio owners, Bryan Bingold (who once interned under me at Jackpot! and Tape Op) advises (with a bit of paranoia), "Screen your interns. Interview them beforehand. See what music they are into, if they are musicians themselves. Most important, try to get a sense of trust with your interns before they get into the studio, and work with them for at least a year before you decide to hand keys over to them."
There are many "wonderful" chores that await an intern lucky enough to get a position at a studio. Geoff reminisces, "Basically in major studios like these, with multi-million dollar facilities, interns are a way to avoid hiring janitorial and cleaning services. I cleaned the rooms after sessions, I cleaned the bathrooms, answered phones and went on errands." Matthew Cullen got his first internship at Matrix Recording in London and remembers "cleaning toilets, cleaning the studios, making cups of tea, getting food for people, running errands, DAT to DAT copies, multitrack copies, tape library stuff and cleaning the owners car!" But sometimes the tasks were a bit more, um, unusual. "We had a huge thunder storm and the studio flooded, having to quickly take stuff out of the lower racks and build some dams to prevent the tape machines from getting wet." Matthew also had to do more than food runs for the bands. "The studio was located in London's West End, near Soho. It was a fairly common practice amongst rock bands to send me out to find the nastiest kinds of porn available. I also had to take several Japanese bands to peep/strip shows. [Also] to score various kinds of 'substances' for several well known artists." David Patterson, of Missing Link Audio Services in Knoxville, TN, remembers his stint as an intern at Battery Studio in Nashville, where he "swept, vacuumed, cleaned toilets, made coffee, cleaned the basement, repaired DI boxes, made copies, filled out track sheets, stayed the hell out of the control room when requested to do so, read the automation manuals, answered the phone, ran to get food, located the source of some mysterious RFI, advised 'producers' on how to get a simple slap echo [plus] I even got to mix twice just 'cause nobody had the place booked!" Mike remembers dealing with "track sheets, logs, zeroing out the boards, editing, transferring, DAT copies, DAT storage, setting up the mics, running cable, getting food, load in, load out, cleaning toilets, mopping floors, answering phones, bulk erasing tapes, cassette dubs, some overdubs, some playing of guitar... basically anything they wanted." Jonathan did much of the same, including "toilet cleaning, markerboard cleaning, coffee making, studio cleaning, cable wrapping, putting shit away, vacuuming (this was my primary task, sometimes twice an evening). Eventually I answered the phones, did tape dupes, scheduling, message taking, head cleaning, session set-up, assistant engineer, (under-aged) beer getter, rough mix setter- upper." Bryan had few more chores due to the magazine's presence at the studio, "I edited, transcribed articles for Tape Op and cleaned the toilet, mopped the floors, cleaned the live room after sessions, hauled band equipment, opened mail and took phone calls, painted a little, responded to letters, watched and learned."
But having an intern and putting them to work are two different things. Geoff adds, "My biggest frustration with interns is finding things for them to do that I am comfortable asking someone to do. Knowing what it feels like to always do shitty menial tasks makes me dislike busting the whip. Managing people in general is an art."
An intern's attitude can have more impact than their abilities in many cases. Geoff says, "A good intern is motivated to learn and knows when to ask questions but also when not to. They know how to sit in a studio and observe without making their presence uncomfortable — basically this means knowing how to take your cues from those around you. Sometimes that means shutting up and being still, but other times it means talking with band members, making the beer run, and being part of the gang. Some bands/clients are friendlier than others and a good intern knows how to gauge this and interact accordingly. This social aspect is the key to success as far I can tell because the other stuff you'll learn on your own anyway." Matthew looks for "someone who is prepared to listen and learn. A positive attitude, despite doing the crappiest jobs. Someone who realises that it is a means to an end... you won't always be cleaning the bathrooms, especially if your enthusiastic." Bryan sees it a bit harsher. "Interns need to know that the studio doesn't really need them. They are lucky. It's rare that you can work in a place where eight out of ten clients are people whose music you actually listen to and obsess over."
Sure, there are lots of menial chores to perform and much time spent sitting on a couch being quiet, but what can an intern actually learn from their time in the studio? Matthew learned "how not to make a record! How to line up various tape machines, how the patchbay works, how to mic things, how to keep your mouth shut, how to stay awake for extended periods of time, how to live on £50 ($70) a week, and how to make a 'proper' cup of tea." But interns can also come in expecting too much, like Mike. "I thought I'd learn a lot more than I did 'cause I thought I'd come out knowing everything and running the joint! I learned I knew nothing and many others around me in the home/project studio world of the early '90s in my area knew nothing as well. Ownership of the tools didn't mean one could use them. However, I picked up confidence to go to the next job for peanuts. Mic placement and mic selection was another big one." Jonathan goes into more detail, having learned "how to be a working engineer. How to run sessions, how to treat 'clients', which were strangers coming in off the street mostly. This was a professional studio, after all. People had no clue then, how the sound gets stuck on the tape and comes out the boxes with the white cones. What I witnessed was how to deal with these random folks, day in and day out, performing a service. Interning at a professional studio seemed to be much less about creative recording than about getting them in and getting them out. Understandably, the fellow I worked for, whether I knew it at the time or not, was all about interpreting whomever's ideas rather than creating the new, bad-ass sound. He was mellow and I liked to hang out with him. Another fellow I worked for had his sights set on L.A., so he seemed to go for the big rock thing. Both had their merits, I suppose. The biggest thing you learn is how to hang — have a good hang so people aren't having nervous breakdowns and get good takes. Most people in bands are not rock stars, but they ALL act like it. Especially when they're paying $55/hour (in 1989/90 money)." And Bryan expresses his grief at working with me. "I wanted hands-on experience, but my boss knew I didn't have that experience. But what I wanted to learn I eventually did learn by watching how my boss interacted with clients and watching what he did in sessions. To run a successful studio you need to be about six different things at once. You need to be a business person, an engineer, a mediator, an electrician, a host and a secretary."
Hanging out in a recording studio can also let you in on some crazy scenes. Geoff saw "the usual display of illegal drugs and prostitutes that occasion big budget major label records." Matthew was happy he wasn't "the guy who fell asleep/passed out with the door left open. When the band arrived in the morning they found that all their guitars had been stolen, as well as two DAT machines and a cassette machine." On a lighter side he witnessed "Neal X ,from Sigue Sigue Sputnik, making Susan from Pillbox drink and smoke, when she does neither, and get naked in the dark to sing — to give the song 'some sex'." But most interning seems to be about waiting around an performing menial tasks, something a prospective intern should be ready for.
All this work for free can leave some with a bitter taste in their mouth. Geoff remembers that "the really frustrating thing for me was that I could never learn enough to move up to the next level — the assistant job. While I was invited by several of the assistants to come by 'after hours' and hang out and presumably learn more useful things, I had to work my other jobs to pay the bills and so I simply did not have the time to take advantage of this opportunity." And expectations of employment may be dashed too, as Mike explains, "There was no paying job after the time period specified and they asked why I was leaving!" Sean Hanney, a home recordist in Long Island, NY, has an even worse tale though, when he "interned in a local project studio and actually got hired on for a year to 'engineer' full time. I didn't attend any formal schooling for recording and was taught by one of the owners of the studio. What I didn't realize then, but have now realized, since I no longer work there, is that everything he taught me, he taught me incorrectly. In other words, I learned what NOT to do by working there. Poor mic placement, phase incoherency, and over- equalization (or compression or gating) to tape were all regularly embraced actions in that place."
And where can interning lead? Does everyone end up breaking into the biz? Or do they give up in disgust? Or do they simply "graduate" like Dave did, from a recording school? Mike's interning at a studio "got me a foot in the door at the next place which paid a little. Too little though, I got a day job and have been here ever since... got mouths to feed." Matthew was lucky to be "made assistant engineer and then house engineer" at the studio he had interned at. Luckily Geoff "ended up as a studio manager at a small studio where I was encouraged to learn on my own time. As they were great folks and actually paid me enough to live on, I had the extra time to hang out and learn after hours. Plus, the house engineer there was a friend of mine (from my band days) as well as a great teacher and so I became his assistant and quickly started doing assisting and engineering jobs as well as managing the place. This is where my career really started. Interning was a way to get my feet wet, but it is skull-crushingly frustrating and only for those determined to prevail."
Is interning the right way for you to get a foot-hold into the recording game? Maybe. But remember, so much of this is luck, social skills, hard work, persistence, personal drive and passion. Plus you'll still need to learn the technical side of recording, whether you go to recording school or study on your own. It's not going to be an easy path, and just getting an intern position in a studio won't turn someone into an engineer. I've had a handful of interns over the years, and the best ones come with more self-initiative than anything else. When someone has begged me to hang out at my sessions and then proceeds to read magazines, uses the phone a lot and asks to leave early every day, I know they are not really driven to follow this as a career. When a person is recording bands on 8-track at home in-between interning and sleeps 4 hours a night... then I know they may be on the right track.
Music Genres and Studios
If you are thinking about becoming an intern you should think about where you want to end up working and what kind of music you want to work on. The studio you start off at particularly if you are fresh out of school is often the place you meet your initial contacts for later down the road. These are often the people that will give you your first big gig. In New York, the major studios do predominantly hip-hop and R&B. My background is as an indie rocker/rock guy and I realized quickly that it just did not make sense for me to try and work my way up the food chain at a major studio where my big break might have been engineering a MIDI dump or vocal session for Destiny's Child. So I found a small studio where I could learn a lot more on the job and where I got to be around bands whose music I was already aware of and that meant something to me. -Geoff Sanoff