How to Get and Keep a Recording Studio Internship

by | Sep 30, 2016 | Music Production

Are recording studio internships worth your time, or complete bullshit? Engineer and studio guru Jordan Tishler breaks things down in his latest column.

Those of you who know me and who have been reading my music production columns for Performer know that I take a bit of a different approach in the music industry.  It’s served me well over the years. Internships in the music industry are no exception, so I was asked to share with you a bit about my views on this.

Most internships aren’t worth your time.  Typically an internship is an unpaid opportunity to stand around in a studio doing nothing, learning nothing, and being ignored.  Or abused. Far too many studio owners/managers take the view that they suffered, so you will too.  It builds character?  Bullshit.  The only value in this sort of internship is that if you survive and happen to fit into their clique, you might, maybe, possibly get elevated to actually helping out on a session or two, which could, maybe, possibly let you impress someone with your eagerness if not your skill. Sound like a longshot?  It is.  And your success has more to do with your “being cool” than your work ethic or musical chops.  I don’t recommend this sort of internship, although they are easier to find.

The alternative sort of internship, which is the sort that I run, is an intensive, elbow-to-elbow in-studio experience where you learn directly from an engineer or producer who has chosen to be dedicated to the art of teaching.  Essentially someone looking for a protégé.  Think how Bruce Swedien brought up Chuck Ainley, or Phil Ramone brought up Ed Cherney. This is an apprenticeship and may not be what you’re looking for, but for the right learner, it’s the key to the kingdom.  This is not standing at the back of the room hoping to catch a glimpse of what’s going on.  This is sitting at the console with the mentor, being instructed on how to think about and accomplish the task at hand.  This is getting your hands dirty doing the work while the mentor oversees what you’re doing.  I hope that you see the differences in these two styles.  I’m sorry (OK, I’m really not) if I’m biased toward the second option.

Years ago I didn’t have any interns.  I was working hard and doing well, but didn’t think I had enough to offer interns.  I was on a high-profile panel at the national music conference in Philly (I think) with a friend who is also a music educator.  He was talking about his students’ internships and how rough they are.  I mentioned that I had never taken on an intern.  He was stunned. He told me that I’d be great at it and practically begged me to try it. I figured if this respected educator thought I’d have something to contribute, I’d give it a go.

I’ve had some really fantastic interns over the years!  Not all have been studio interns either; many have worked for me on the band management side.  The material covered might be different, but the approach is the same. I’ve had folks from Berklee, Northeastern, Boston College, Northeast Institute of Audio, Harvard, Emerson, University of Massachusetts, and even University of Iowa and University of South Dakota. These interns have stayed on for years at a time, and then moved on to prestigious gigs in Berlin, LA, London, and New York.

Interns Elena Klinova and Debbie Tjong with producer Al Watkins and me.

Interns Elena Klinova and Debbie Tjong with producer Al Watkins and me.


So how did these folks get these positions?  First, they were all reasonably well prepared.  They all knew the basics about how a studio works, signal flow and patchbays being a key. Second, they all knew they didn’t know very much.  They were humble (which is not to say meek) and were eager to learn.  They’d do anything I asked (but I wouldn’t ask anything I wouldn’t do myself) and give it a really great try.  I often let interns run with an idea to see where it’ll end up before stepping in to jump to the answer. Third, they were quick to learn. The classic is knowing to keep your mouth shut in front of the client, but that’s so basic it’s cliché. I’m happy to show you or explain to you how to do something once, or twice, but after that not so much. Most importantly they were reliable, honest, and good people.

I once had an intern from out West.  I don’t recall how she found me.  She was a business intern from a University majoring in business.  She was terrible.  I couldn’t count on her to be able to do anything on her own.  I had to hand-hold her through even the simplest task.  It burned up too much of my time while I was supposed to be in the studio serving our clients’ needs.  Ultimately I had to let her go.  Oddly, her boyfriend came to Boston with her for another internship at another studio.  They had apparently forgotten that he was coming and instead of admitting that and finding him stuff to do, they put him through a grueling first day of “testing” and then fired him, publicly, calling him incompetent. When he came to my place that evening to get his girlfriend, he broke down in tears.  I found him something to do for the summer and despite firing his girlfriend, he was a stellar intern.  See a pattern?

I had an intern who on day one, sitting beside me at the console, with the client on the other side of me, kept interjecting his opinions.  This client was difficult to begin with, both very picky and also indecisive.  Needless to say this intern’s comments only made it more difficult to handle the client’s neediness. At the end of the day, I took the intern aside and before I could say anything he blurted out, “I talked too much, didn’t I?”  I agreed and thought that’d be the end of the problem.  However, the next day, while working with the same client, this intern sat on the studio couch.  Good, I thought, he won’t talk too much.  When he started snoring during the session, I lost it.

AJ Johnson at the console with me. Note I’m holding a laser pointer, my hands are not on the console, his are.

AJ Johnson at the console with me. Note I’m holding a laser pointer, my hands are not on the console, his are.


On the other hand, one of my interns was so good that it led, as I’d hoped for, to his becoming my chief engineer for several years.  He had a natural feel for the studio.  He got so good that he could practically read my mind. It was like having another pair of hands, but hands that came with some great ideas of their own.  Working with him made me proud of him and his contributions.  This is how a mentor should feel about his or her protégés.  They are an extension of you, surpass you, and bring honor and credit to you, as a result of their hard work and your helpful nurturing.  When it works, it’s a beautiful relationship.  I still work with this engineer as often as I can, and I call him friend.  Go and find your mentor, sit at her knee, learn all that you can, work hard, get good, remember where you came from, and pay it forward.


Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston MA. Currently in the process of designing and building a new facility with renowned designer Fran Manzella, DBE will, once again, be the pre-eminent mix/overdub room. The SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments helps Tishler meet the expectations of artists including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar.