Sarah Tudzin loves solving sonic puzzles, in a quest to bring unexpected depth to her clients’ albums as well as her own. With Illuminati Hotties, Tudzin’s main songwriting outlet in which she is guitarist, singer, and producer, she’s mined veins of punk, from tender power pop to SoCal-indebted prog. This year’s release, Let Me Do One More, sees the band dialing in spacy sounds and crunched guitars to level up its heartfelt whip-smarts. As an engineer, Tudzin soaks up tricks from each of her collaborators. Considering her client list – !!!, Macklemore, and Weyes Blood are a few of the many – she’s developed a multi-textured palette of sounds. I was lucky to work with her on mixing my recent Sad13 album, Haunted Painting, staying up all night to get the most out of Sonic Ranch’s SSL console [Tape Op #94], and she’s my go-to friend when I need production advice. Tudzin talked to me about how working from home compares to Sunset Sound, finding time for Illuminati Hotties when she’s engineering others, and the emotional intuition that’s become one of her most essential production skills.

Did you start playing music on drums?

Piano was my very first instrument. In middle school, I got bored of practicing and watched the film Drumline, starring Nick Cannon. I thought, “I wanna be that.” I started drums in middle school band and quickly found out my high school had a horrible football program and no marching band. But jazz band was the thing, so I played drums.

But you went to Berklee [College of Music] for drum performance.

Yes. In the music industry I thought you could only be an instrumentalist or a manager. I had no idea you could be a writer, producer, or engineer. But when I got to college, they had a nice studio program with access to cool gear, and it occurred to me there were people very creatively involved in records who weren’t necessarily playing on them. I got bored of drumming eight hours a day all alone, and instead wanted to be in the studio eight hours a day [with others]. So, I moved into their production and engineering program.

Did you study with Susan Rogers [Tape Op #117] there?

She’s one of my favorite teachers of all time. She’s a nut about recorded music and science. She had a whole psychology and music cognition career that came after engineering Prince for 15 years. Another teacher there, named Enrique Gonzalez [Müller], who has a Latin Grammy and did a Dave Matthews Band record, really got my organization and mix game up to speed and made a big impression on me. Prince Charles Alexander, who did a lot of ‘90s hip-hop, taught a lot more at the forefront of popular music, which was also helpful.

Sarah Tudzin

Were there other production heroes when you started recording?

I got into reading credits; most of the ones who stuck out to me were artists who produced, as well as engineers who seemed to have more say in the production. Susan, for example, started her career as a tech for Prince and she became a real sounding board for him. I was also into Justin Vernon [Bon Iver]; knowing how he approached music as a writer and artist, and that he did a lot of creative sound work. I loved Jamie xx and finding out he made The xx records. Brian Wilson is the obvious answer; someone who’s a weird freak and touches every piece of those records, and makes a difference in everything from the songwriting, through arrangement, and through sonic choices. Emile Haynie had a production project. Ariel Rechtshaid [Tape Op #111]; I was hip to him early on. On Vampire Weekend and HAIM, he was so involved, in an artist’s way, even though those aren’t his bands.

What kinds of bands were you in, back in Boston?

I played drums in a lot of Berklee kids’ bands. I didn’t do my own projects much. I was writing, but not thinking I’d ever perform it onstage, nor did I try. I’d do a gig that paid me on the weekends, playing Irish rock.

That sounds very Boston.

It was very, very Boston. We’d play at random beer festivals. It was cool to get paid for music. I did a lot of theater and pit band, because I could read music well. As a kid, I played in random punk or ska things.

When you finished Berklee, I seem to remember you called around a bunch of studios to find work.

I graduated and briefly looked in New York City for studios. They were all like, “We’d love to have you intern!” However, I could not move to New York with a zero dollar paycheck. I moved back to L.A. and stayed at home. I started working at a big recording studio; large-format, old school vibe. I don’t want to be disparaging, but it was a horror story. I was like, “I can’t be cleaning toilets at 3 a.m. for the next three years.” I’d call different management companies and make friends with the receptionists, who were usually my age, and ask if I could email a résumé in case their clients needed assistant...

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