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The Ten Producers Who Defined the Sound of Emo

From J. Robbins to Will Yip to Sarah Tudzin, these are the behind-the-boards savants who have shaped the genre’s sound over the past four decades

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My Chemical Romance is touring again, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World are headlining a major festival this fall, and there’s a skinny, tattooed white dude with a guitar dominating the charts. In case you haven’t heard, emo is back, baby! In honor of its return to prominence—plus the 20th anniversary of the first MCR album—The Ringer is following Emo Wendy’s lead and tapping into that nostalgia. Welcome to Emo Week, where we’ll explore the scene’s roots, its evolution to the modern-day Fifth Wave, and some of the ephemera around the genre. Grab your Telecasters and Manic Panic and join us in the Black Parade.

A good producer can transform three chords and a broken heart into an indelible mark on the sound of emo. Sometimes, a variety of producers can help change the sound of one group over the course of their career—Nothing recruited sludge specialist John Agnello to build out a denser palette for 2018’s Dance on the Blacktop, but returned to previous collaborator Will Yip on 2020’s The Great Dismal to add a layer of reverb and spaciousness. But producers, who often work on multiple albums in one year, can also shape the sound of a generation of artists: It’s almost a challenge to find a seminal Second Wave emo band who hasn’t spent studio time with J. Robbins. These ten producers helped shape the sounds of emo’s past, present, and future almost as much as the bands on the other side of the studio glass.

J. Robbins

Essential production credits: Texas Is the Reason, Do You Know Who You Are?; The Promise Ring, Nothing Feels Good; Braid, Frame and Canvas; Jets to Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary; Hey Mercedes, Everynight Fire Works

It’s hard to know where emo would be today without Jawbox frontman J. Robbins. He’s been involved in the genre since its earliest days, even designing the album art for Ian MacKaye’s pioneering emo project Embrace. Robbins described the earliest days of the scene as a distinct move toward politics and against rebellion for rebellion’s sake: “Revolution Summer was about trying to engage with activism more,” he told The Ringer. “It was saying, ‘OK, well, if we’re so dissatisfied, what are we? What is it that we’re objecting to? What do we think would be better?’” He confirmed that the genre wars had been raging ever since emo’s inception: “Some people will say it’s this totally honest heart-on-your-sleeve, throw-everything-you-got-at-it kind of energy. And other people will say, ‘No, it’s defiant and ironic and inscrutable.’ That division was there.”

He picked up studio skills from obsessing over his own band’s production process: “Anytime any of my bands would record, I would be the annoying guy looking over the engineer’s shoulder asking, ‘Why did you do that that way? How do you do that?’ I was soaking up knowledge from the experience.” His move to the soundboard came because other bands admired his work in Jawbox: “Texas Is the Reason were Jawbox fans. They heard that I had done some studio work, so they asked me along.” The most emo game of telephone ever brought him further into the emo fold: “The Promise Ring were [Texas Is the Reason]’s friends, and one thing led to another,” he explained.

Robbins explained his relatively hands-off approach to production: “I never ever, ever wanted to impose my vision on somebody else. The point is to be a facilitator,” he added. “The coolest part of it and the thing that’s always important to remember is every combination of people, every combination of personalities, and every project is inherently unique.” One unifying aspect of his sound across distinct records, though, is his dedication to live, full-band recordings: “This thing energetically happens with people actually making music together in real time, if they can get out of their heads and mentally take themselves out of the studio just a little bit, and just play music together. A lot of times, these beautiful happy accidents arise that you couldn’t really capture any other way.”

Mark Trombino

Essential production credits: Jimmy Eat World, Clarity; Midtown, Save the World, Lose the Girl; Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous

Mark Trombino started out by producing his own band, Drive Like Jehu, before helping fellow San Diego shredders like Heavy Vegetable, No Knife, and Fluf. He was also involved in foundational Second Wave emo, producing Knapsacks’ Day Three of My New Life and Jimmy Eat World’s Capitol debut, Static Prevails. It was a combination of his early work in the San Diego scene and his burgeoning major-label chops that brought him his breakthrough production credit: “The guitarist and singer of [Fluf] knew those guys, and I told them to tell Blink-182 to work with me because I knew the studio,” Trombino told Modern Drummer. It turned out that Mark and Tom were already fans of the Jimmy Eat World record and agreed to swap their original producer for Trombino. The record he essentially stole from another producer became Dude Ranch, an album that transformed Blink-182 from scrawny skateboarders to international pop-punk superstars.

But back on the emo front, he helped shape the sound of early-aughts Drive-Thru Records with his work on Midtown’s Living Well Is the Best Revenge, the Starting Line’s Say It Like You Mean It, and Something Corporate’s Songs for Silent Movies. His work with Blink-182 also brought him into the fold on one of the decade’s most boundary-pushing records, the Moog-fueled madness of the Mark Hoppus–produced Motion City Soundtrack album Commit This to Memory. These days, Trombino’s traded 7-inches for a different kind of circular vice: He’s the owner of L.A.-based chain Donut Friend, memorializing his legacy with fried balls and ice cream like Jimmy Eat Swirl and Mint Town.

Joe Reinhart

Essential production credits: Joyce Manor, Never Hungover Again; Beach Bunny, Honeymoon; Algernon Cadwallader, Some Kind of Cadwallader

If you could distill the sound of Philadelphia’s emo underground from the past 15 years into one person, you’d be left with something like guitarist and Headroom Studios co-owner Joe Reinhart. Reinhart found his way into emo production out of a DIY-driven necessity, recording and producing his own band Algernon Cadwallader’s left-field debut record Some Kind of Cadwallader in various locations (including his West Philly bedroom) in 2007. Reinhart met Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan in the subterranean sludge of Philadelphia’s vibrant basement show scene and agreed to produce their then-unknown band, Hop Along. Before long, he joined the group as its lead guitarist. Reinhart doesn’t just bring a raw, fiery emotionality to his own bands, though: He helmed the production on Joyce Manor’s Never Hungover Again and transformed Lili Trifilio’s delicate vocals into a pop powerhouse on Beach Bunny’s 2020 Honeymoon LP.

Matt Squire

Essential production credits: Panic! at the Disco, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out; Boys Like Girls, Boys Like Girls; Cute Is What We Aim For, The Same Old Blood Rush With a New Touch; 3OH!3, Want; Forever the Sickest Kids, Underdog Alma Mater

When Matt Squire met the teenaged quartet in Panic! at the Disco, they didn’t even know how to tune their guitars. Three and a half weeks later, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was born on a shoestring budget. Squire was a relatively small producer at the time, having worked on a few early Third Wave emo records like Northstar’s Pollyanna; Fueled by Ramen initially balked at Panic!’s request to work with him instead of a more established name like Paramore producer Mike Green. But Squire took a group of vaudeville-obsessed Mormon teens and, through a thorough preproduction process, transformed their sound into the rock-forward pop that would land them at no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.

It’s impossible to talk about emo’s legacy without Squire, even if his production discography—Boys Like Girls, Cute Is What We Aim For, Forever the Sickest Kids—might read like an abandoned Livejournal playlist from 2007. His hands-on approach to production drove emo in an undeniably poppier direction, a path he continued with his work on records for 3OH!3 and Demi Lovato. It brought the pinched whines of horny teens into the bedrooms of other, less famous horny teens, and that’s got to count for something, right?

Mike Mogis

Essential production credits: The Gloria Record, A Lull in Traffic; Cursive, Cursive’s Domestica; Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things

Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records—home to indie heavyweights like Big Thief and Indigo De Souza—might not be primarily known for its emo output, but if an emo record did come out on the label, it was likely produced by Mike Mogis. The Bright Eyes band member and Another Recording Company cofounder brought storytelling epics like Cursive’s Domestica and Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things to life, while at the same time playing everything from mandolin to the hammered dulcimer across Bright Eyes’ discography. Like so many of the producers on this list, Mogis is self-taught: “We never learned how to record aside from just doing it,” he told Lazy-i. Mogis still records in Nebraska, growing up alongside his artists: When Jenny Lewis went solo, she turned to Mogis to help her hone her more soulful sound on Rabbit Fur Coat.

Jack Shirley

Essential production credits: Joyce Manor, Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired; Gouge Away, Burnt Sugar; Jeff Rosenstock, We Cool?

With a bird’s-eye view of Jack Shirley’s discography, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bay Area producer and Atomic Garden studio owner found his way to music through skate videos. Beyond the videos’ diverse soundtracks—a potent mix of hardcore, rock, punk, and hip-hop—their immediacy is an apt metaphor for Shirley’s stripped-down production philosophy. Shirley encourages bands to take risks, and captures those experiments with what he calls “painfully truthful reproduction.” It’s a live approach that’s birthed explosive and emotional recordings across genres, from Deafheaven’s genre-bending Sunbather to Jeff Rosenstock’s entire solo discography.

Will Yip

Essential production credits: Pianos Become the Teeth, Keep You; Title Fight, Hyperview; The Menzingers, After the Party; Turnover, Peripheral Vision

Will Yip is the definition of a studio rat: The Pennsylvania-based producer first got his feet (or, uh, fingers?) wet at just 14 years old, when he began interning at a local recording studio in northeast Philadelphia. He started out extremely modestly, earning five bucks an hour to set up rehearsal spaces. His first real-deal producing gig was even less lucrative: He paid for the studio time to record the hardcore punk group Blacklisted’s demos for their record No One Deserves to Be Here More Than Me. But it was that labor of love that introduced him to the larger world of emo: “One band particularly that wanted to work with me because of that record was Title Fight,” Yip told The Ringer, “And the rest is history.”

It wasn’t just his hardcore chops that convinced the great hardcore-to-shoegaze trailblazers Title Fight to work with Yip; it was the diversity inherent in the projects he takes on. “They didn’t want to work with just another punk, pop-punk, emo, hardcore producer,” Yip explained. Yip has never felt boxed in by genre: One of his most prolific collaborations has been with Lauryn Hill, who has produced countless unreleased recordings with Yip through the years. “I feel like I’m very attracted to artists that want eclecticism, and they want to pull references from other genres,” he added. That genre-neutral approach to production has helped guide his production philosophy: “I approach [rock records] like how I approach making pop songs. We build a song from the beginning until the end,” he said, rather than tracking all the instruments separately. “I want to choose different snare drums for every song; I want to choose different guitar amps and choose different guitars and different cymbals, the same way that I do when I program drums or keyboards for hip hop and R&B.”

So what does the producer of such forward-thinking, genre-defining records like Turnover’s hazy epic Peripheral Vision think the future of emo will sound like? “Who knows, man? But I do know it’s going to be different.”

Jacob Ewald and Ian Farmer

Essential production credits: Harmony Woods, Nothing Special; Slaughter Beach, Dog, Welcome; Caracara, Summer Megalith; Modern Baseball, Sports; Walter Etc., Dark Comedy Performance Piece of My Life

If this list hasn’t already made it clear, the path to becoming a legendary emo producer often begins by learning the ropes with your own band. Modern Baseball’s Jake Ewald and Ian Farmer dove into production headfirst with the recording of the band’s debut studio album Sports. Farmer had originally signed on only to produce the record, but by the band’s follow-up, he had joined as a bassist as well.

After Modern Baseball announced their hiatus in 2017, much to the collective chagrin of the Philadelphia emo community they had jump-started, they doubled down in earnest on their production work. Out of their home base at East Kensington’s The Metal Shop, they’ve brought their bare-bones, powerfully poignant production style to records like Walter Etc.’s Dark Comedy Performance Piece of My Life and PHONY’s Knock Yourself Out, as well as Ewald’s solo project Slaughter Beach, Dog. In a testament to the connections between their work as musicians and their output as producers, Ewald signed on to produce Harmony Woods’s debut record after frontperson Sofia Verbilla saw Slaughter Beach, Dog play local Philly basement shows. The Metal Shop has been carving out the future of emo, record by record, but they’re also an avatar for the countless emo bands that become producers by default, becoming experts in DAWs or four-tracks just to get their music out into the universe.

Sarah Tudzin

Essential production credits: Pom Pom Squad, Death of a Cheerleader; Illuminati Hotties, Kiss Yr Frenemies

Listen to any Illuminati Hotties record and you can practically hear Sarah Tudzin’s fanatical perfectionism come to life: flourishes of marimbas, doubled vocals, and crisp guitar solos spill out of Tudzin’s ebullient discography like a pandora’s box of studio tricks. Tudzin is one of the few producers on this list who formally studied studio engineering, and her dedication to the form is clear from a glimpse at her CV, with engineering credits for artists like Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Slowdive, and Weyes Blood. In her solo work and throughout her production discography, Tudzin brings an irrepressible spirit of fun and playfulness to emo and emo-adjacent records.

The emo she grew up on helped her find the massive sound that has become something of a trademark: “Iconic guitar tone, huge drums, Paramore-style hooks, I think all that stuff sneaks its way into my writing and production,” she told The Ringer. “It’s kind of a golden era of rock production to me, where it wasn’t just a band in a room anymore, and it was much closer to making pop music where it was just ear candy perfection.”

Tudzin is part of a new generation of artists that feels spiritually emo, even if their sounds hew closer to the realm of pop. She helped write several songs on Kississippi’s pop epic Mood Ring, a record that might feel out of place on storied emo label Triple Crown Records if not for the emotive lyrics at its core: “Now especially, the lines are so blurred,” Tudzin said. “You hear emo influence in rap, you hear emo influence in country.” To her, emo is as much about “über-confessional lyrics and internal dialogue emotional, hinging on melodramatic music” as any particular guitar tone.

An earlier version of this piece misstated who paid for the studio time for Blacklisted’s record No One Deserves to Be Here More Than Me. It also incorrectly credited J. Robbins with producing Dear You.

Arielle Gordon is a writer and software engineer based in Brooklyn. Her work can be found at Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Stereogum, and on her grandmother’s fridge.