Photo by Lissyelle Laricchia

The current music industry landscape finds many artists handling every aspect of their creative output. They are the performer, engineer, mixer, and promotor all wrapped up in one package. For some, it's a system that kind of works, and for others, not so much. But then there is Sarah Tudzin, someone operating on all fronts at an elite level and having a lot of fun doing it.

Sarah does everything so well that it's hard to tell how most people actually know her best. The Los Angeles native has been on the scene since the early 2010s. She spent time under the tutelage of Will Wells (Barbra Streisand / Hamilton: The Musical) and Chris Coady (Porches / Slowdive) before ultimately setting out on her own. Since then, she has engineered, mixed, and produced records for Pom Pom Squad, Sad13, Goon, and her own musical project, Illuminati Hotties. 

Illuminati Hotties is an extension of Sarah's personality and work in the studio. The band's first two albums, Kiss Yr Frenemies and Let Me Do One More, have been an eye-opening look at her keen production sense and ability to write poignant songs about the health goth trend, skateboarding, late-night hangouts, etc. 

Vintage King recently sat down with Sarah to give her the 20 Questions treatment. Continue below to check out our conversation, as we talk about perfect Taco Bell orders, favorite summing boxes, dream vocal chains, and so much more.  

  1. What was the first record that you heard that made you say, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life?”

Blink 182’s Take Off Your Pants And Jacket and Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens.

  1. How did you end up at Berklee College of Music and what led you into production?

I went to Berklee to become a drummer and left as a total nerd. Actually, I probably entered Berklee as a nerd too. I didn't even know there was so much cool shit you could do in the studio until I got to college! And for some reason, spending hours and hours alone in front of all that analog warmth was way more exciting to me than spending hours and hours alone in a small cold basement practice room playing drums at full volume. Go figure. At that time, it was so exciting to discover that I could be so deeply entwined with the creative process behind the scenes of what makes records so special to me.

  1. What’s your favorite fast food/unhealthy food? 

Crunchwrap Supreme, black beans instead of beef, add guac, add rice, add potatoes, no cheese, no sour cream, and a buttload of hot sauce… Actually, yeah, I'll get a Baja Blast, too.

  1. What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?

My buddy Nick (check out Belle's Bagels in Highland Park, fellow Angelenos) made short ribs for dinner once and I swear everything I've ever tasted since has felt like absolute garbo compared to this meal. Nick is absolutely legendary.

  1. What’s your favorite tip, trick, or studio hack you picked up while working as an assistant with Will Wells and Chris Coady? 

From Will: Detail is everything. There is no job too small or too specific. Attention to detail elevates everything to a level of professionalism and care that goes a long way and sets up everyone around you for success.

From Chris: Your job is not to make something you want to listen to every day. It's to make something everyone else wants to listen to all the time. In other words, take your ego out of the process and throw yourself into your work with unbridled enthusiasm for making the greatest version of the program at hand. Learn the tools around you and be curious about those you haven't yet had a chance to use.

  1. If you had an assistant (or if you do have one), what’s one lesson about the way that you work that you would hope they would take with them into their career? 

Aside from the basics (exceptional organization, being a part of the session without overstepping your role or seeming unengaged, and passion for the craft), I hope a future assistant of mine will take on the lesson that if they are trying their best, there is no failure. People appreciate people who care.

  1. You’ve worked on a lot of big records that have had a cultural impact, but perhaps none more than Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). What was it like working on that project? Anything unique that stands out about it? 

Wow! It truly is wild that this project has such a far-reaching scope. When I worked on it, I assisted Will Wells by taking all of the drum samples, keys sounds, and SFX for the stage performance and making them sound as legit as possible. At that point, we were just working off Logic demos that Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton's orchestrator, arranger, musical director, conductor, and keyboard player) sent Will. I never had much Broadway experience, so I honestly had no idea what the Hamilton team was destined for at that point. I was such a small cog in an unstoppable machine!

  1. What’s your favorite plug-in or piece of software? 

My favorite plug-in is Aberrant DSP's SketchCassette II. My life has never been the same since.

  1. Do you have a home recording rig? If so, what’s your set-up like? 

I mostly do vocals, overdubs, and mixing at my home currently. The setup is really quite simple. My main goal is to do the least amount of work possible while trying to get sounds in or out of the box. 

I've got all my keyboards running to a rack mixer that feeds Pro Tools, and two floating mics for vocals and other instruments. There is an SM7 that hits a Purple MC77 and one SM57 on a Fender Princeton. I've got a rat's nest of pedals to run sound through either straight to an amp or as an FX send with minimal patching necessary. 

Moving fast is crucial, and if I'm doing a writing session or running down an IH demo, I don't really want to have to go sound-hunting in a laborious way. 

  1. How did Illuminati Hotties come about and describe the ethos of the Tenderpunk genre you’ve created? 

I started to record music as Illuminati Hotties as a way to create a calling card for myself as a producer/engineer. I wanted to have music to point people towards when they asked, "Well, what have YOU produced?" Also, I just wanted a way to express myself as a writer! Tenderpunk is all heart, no conceit, and lots of burritos.

  1. Alright, as the creator of the genre, name five proto-tenderpunk artists that were seminal to the foundation of what you created. 

Kimya Dawson, Paul Baribeau, Suburban Lawns, Harry Nilsson, Black Flag, Hop Along, Bikini Kill, Arthur Russell, Bart Simpson

  1. The video for “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” features Nickelodeon levels of slime. What was your favorite game show on the network back in the day and why? 

Wild & Crazy Kids! It looked like being at the greatest summer camp of all time that was also a televised competition.

  1. Money is no object. What’s your dream signal chain for vocals? 

I want an early 60s Neumann U47 -> Neve 1073 -> CL1B -> perhaps a GML EQ before it hits tape just to smooth it out a bit. 

  1. Describe your approach to the mixing process. 

First, I sit down and listen to the tune all the way through. Then, I get a Spindrift from the fridge. Listen again, but this time I start prepping, editing, and sending it through my basic template. If it's a track that I didn't produce, I pull all the faders down, make a new rough balance starting with drums, then bass, then vocals, then all the good stuff in between. Next step is usually corrective EQ, then compression, then creative EQ, and then FX. 

Most of the time, I'm just running with what feels good or moves me emotionally through the song. I make sure to stand up and walk around, so my ears don't tire out quickly. Then, before sending it off, I take it to car speakers or casual headphones/AirPods and make sure the mix still guides me through the song in an impactful way and that it makes sense for the contents and attitude of the song. Then I send it off, take a skate, and start another one!

  1. What are some essential outboard gear pieces to your mixing process?

Essentially every mix I've made passes through Shadow Hills’ The Equinox. I found one used (from VK, actually!), and there's something about summing mixes through The Equinox that makes mixing so much faster for me! Getting a first pass to a good spot feels easy when the music is hitting all that analog good-good before the print stage.

  1. How do you find a balance between your life as an artist and life in production working with other artists? 

So far, I've managed to keep it relatively balanced. I'll be away on tour 50-60% of the year and in the studio with other folks when I'm off the road. And hopefully, I'll be able to sneak in some writing or recording time for myself while I'm home. I throw myself deeply into whatever project is in front of me at any given time. I guess some compartmentalization is required for that to happen, but I'm hyper-focused on the tasks on my to-do list, whether they are editing vocal comps or getting the van packed up at 2 AM after a gig.

  1. Most engineers don’t find themselves in touring situations. What’s your favorite part of touring life? 

Strangely enough, my favorite part of touring is also my favorite part of engineering: every day is completely different. I love walking into a place I've never been with the only goals of making exceptional music in a space and having a good time doing it. New experiences and new puzzles to solve each day really lights my brain up.

  1. What’s the most memorable studio space that you’ve worked in? 

One of my most magical recording experiences was going out to Rancho De La Luna out in Joshua Tree with Speedy Ortiz. There is something holy happening there, all funneled together by the sage wisdom and first-rate cooking of David Catching. The house mezcal helps too.

  1. Do you have a favorite collaborator from all of your time in this industry? Someone you wish you could work with again and again?

If I'm being totally candid here, I've gotta say that I've been pretty lucky that the people who walk through the studio doors tend to be pretty fun to work with. So many of the records I've worked on have resulted in lifelong friendships, people who have become family to me, folks I can call if I'm in a bind or if I just need a great coffee recommendation in their city. Since this is a non-answer, I'll give you my dream collaborator, Carly Rae Jepsen.

  1. You truly do it all in the studio; perform, record, and mix. If you could only do one for the rest of your life, what would you choose and why?

I hope I never have to choose! My all-time dream has always been to make my bag as a producer. There is something special about being so intimately involved in the creative process and guiding an artist toward their final vision. Nothing beats hearing someone say, "Yes, this is exactly what I was hearing in my head!"

Stephen EarnestIf you have any questions about the gear mentioned in this blog, we're here to help! Please contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.