Guitar Player Magazine

April 1994

Rusty Nails

Trent Reznor set high expectations with the two albums he masterminded under the name Nine Inch Nails. The visionary blend of industrial-metal aggression and pop tunefulness that he pioneered on 1990's Pretty Hate Machine and last year's Broken have left fans breathless with anticipation over the new The Downward Spiral album.

Like previous NIN releases, it's an exhilarating and excruciating collision of digitally deformed guitar, tortured vocals, and ingenious rhythmic and melodic hoods. "It was a difficult record to make," admits Reznor. "I didn't have a definite idea of how is should sound, and I didn't want to rely on the same bag of musical tricks." To help fuel his creative fires, Reznor flew in guitarist Adrian Belew for a two-day tracking marathon at the NIN project studio, located in the same Los Angeles house where the Manson clan murdered Sharon Tate. ("I won't lie," confides Trent, "the first night there was pretty fucking creepy.")

Reznor and producer Flood let Adrian Belew's creativity run wild. Recounts Trent, "Adrian showed up and said, 'Hi, what do you want me to do?' We said we didn't know, so he scratched his head and asked what key it was in. We looked at each other and said, 'Probably E. Here's the tape, do whatever you want. Go!" The results, raves Reznor, were spectacular: "Adrian is the most awesome musician in the world. I've never seen anybody play guitar like that."

The admiration was mutual. Says Belew, "Trent has an astounding command of technology, old and new; he's such an intriguing person to work with." Belew wasn't familiar with Nine Inch Nails before the session. "But that may have actually helped in some way," he suggests. "The music just lent itself to so many ideas that are in my realm."

For his self-described "rambling" solos, Belew dusted off several vintage effects. "I used some sounds that I don't normally put on records for anybody else," he notes. "I also ended up climbing around in the back of my rack and connecting things together in ways I've never done before. The two things they like the most were the Foxtone -- an old '60s fuzz box -- and an Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer, an old version of a ring modulation. One of them suggested, 'What if you put those sounds together?' So I did for the first time, and we got some really nice things."

Reznor set Belew's excursions against his own signature distorted guitar and harsh vocal textures. Trent generally records guitars and vocals directly into a computer via Opcode's Studio Vision software. "I never mike cabinets," he declares. "I've tried it, but I just don't like the sound that much versus going direct or through amp simulators. Broken, for example, had a lot of that super-thick chunk sound, and almost every guitar sound on that record was me playing through an old Zoom pedal and then going direct into Digidesign's TurboSynth [Macintosh software]. Then I used a couple of key ingredients to make it unlike any 'real' sound."

Those "key ingredients" are computer manipulations of the digitally stored sounds. "Usually I call up the 'waveshaper' function and click through a few of them, or use the 'convert sample to oscillator' command," details Reznor. "A real low pitch frequency from the oscillator module, something with a bell tone or some odd harmonics -- that can usually produce some awesome death-vocal or guitar sounds. Also, for guitar, almost everything was put through a Zoom 9030. I don't like the distortion stuff in there -- it's too traditional -- but I really like the amp simulator. We also used a new Marshall rack-mount head, which sounded great. I'd take the direct out of that through the Zoom amp simulator for a pretty good, almost Pantera-ish power-metal sound. I use that as a basis, and since everything's recorded in the computer, it's easy to take it into TurboSynth and fuck around with it."

Another favorite Reznor technique involves real-time manipulation of the parametric EQ functions of Digidesign's Sound Tools. "While it's previewing, I'll sweep through stuff and record it to DAT," he explains. "You can get some insane distortion stuff that way. Load that back into Studio Vision, and you have a performance of an EQ thing that you couldn't have done otherwise."

For the opening cut, "Mr. Self Destruct," Reznor ran the entire mix through the mike preamps of several modules plundered from an old Neve board. "Those Neves have great distortion," he enthuses. "I use them for vocal distortion on almost everything. Vocal distortion has become incredibly clichéd, but there are varying degrees of blending it in and different effects that can come across. I want people to be able to hear what I'm saying, but I'm not interested in the Phil Collins vocal sound. Maybe it's because I'm insecure about my vocals, but it's my record, and I'm gonna make it sound shitty if I want to."

The road version of NIN won't include Belew. Says Trent, "I've got new guys, Danny Lohner and Robin Finck, both of whom play guitar, keyboards, and bass. I've also got Chris Vrenna on drums and James Woolley on keyboards." The European leg of the band's tour kicks off in April -- just when Belew's new solo release, Here, is due out on Caroline Records.

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Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.