keyboards are considered unfashionable these days, but I don't give a f..."
Trent Reznor isn't one to mince words. Since bursting onto the scene in
1989 with his Nine Inch Nails platinum debut Pretty Hate Machine, he's
proceeded to shock, offend, and, yes, amaze us with his twisted brilliance.
In his hands, vintage synths, guitars and raw samples become harsh, yet
ingeniously crafted electro-metal landscapes. Once-recognizable instruments
are digitally stomped, scratched, and mangled into noisy byproducts using
Digidesign Turbosynth and other, more fiendish sample-editing techniques
- ultimateley to be layered with Reznor's own tortured voice. Even though
he makes no bones about his high-tech allegiance, Trent Reznor has surged
to the forefront in a technology-hating genre.
think keyboards have been given a bad rap in rock music", he says with
disgust. "The Pearl Jams and whoever, that's not what I'm about. I like
keyboards. I like technology. This is who I am."
mid-1992, after a real estate deal in New Orleans fell through, Reznor
flew to L.A. in hopes of finding the ultimate home studio site. And boy
did he ever ... the infamous "Charlie Manson" Tate mansion. Considering
his affinity for things abnormal, the match wasn't sur- prising. What was
surprising, was the fact that he picked the place unknowingly.
a whim, I came out to Los Angeles," he says, sprawled across a sofa at
the Record Plant in Hollywood. "It was a whirlwind tour: I looked at maybe
15 houses in one day, and at that time I had no idea one of them was the
Tate house. No one brought that to my attention, even though they should
closing the deal, and driving halfway across the U.S. from his digs in
New Orleans, Reznor wasted little time in transforming the spooky confines
into a high-tech showcase. Rooms that once witnessed the deeds of Sir Charles
were now home to a new breed of dementia. The Downward Spiral(Interscope),
the result of his Tate tenure, is aggressive, rude, inventive, and unpredictable.
The lyrics are cold, and packed with references to such items as pain,
sex, and disease. From the opening cut, "Mr. Self Destruct", a jagged aural
assault reminicent of "Wish", to "Closer", an electro-groove laden with
808 drums and watery bass lines, Reznor's vision is distorted, unnerving,
and altogether brilliant.
was a difficult record to make", he grimaces. "I didn't have a definite
idea of how it should sound. I mean, I had a theme lyrically and vibe-wise,
but musically I wanted to put more emphasis on textures and mood, and not
rely on the same bag of tricks. I had to develop a whole new palette of
sounds to work with.
thing that delayed this record was me learning how to write again", he
continues, "deciding what I wanted to do. I didn't want to make another
Broken(Interscope). I didn't want to box Nine Inch Nails into: 'Make every
song harder than the last one, meaner, tougher.' I think that's a trap.
That's not really what Nine Inch Nails is about. And I didn't want to go
completeley back to the Pretty Hate Machine style: percolating synth stuff.
But I realized that when I sat down and started noodling around with ideas,
I was much more inspired to sit at a keyboard than I was with a guitar."
noodler Reznor isn't; he was classically trained on piano as a kid. And
even though he doesn't like tooting his own horn, his studio chops aren't
too shabby either. As a teen, he logged time as an employee of a Cleveland,
Ohio recording facility, an association that eventually led to the formation
of Nine Inch Nails. Those unfamiliar with Reznor's past work might want
to check out his hellish electronic stylings on Pretty Hate Machine and
it's six-song follow-up, Broken.
Broken", he explains, "I wanted to do something a lot harder than I did
on Pretty Hate Machine. I wanted it to be a blast of destruction." Broken
was made in secret because, according to Reznor, "we were in the midst
of a legal tangle with TVT, our old record label." His signing to TVT (a.k.a.
TV Toons, the company that brought us soundtrack compilations from the
likes of Gilligan's Island), served to launch Nine Inch Nails' music. But
in retrospect, the pairing of personalities couldn't have been more disjointed.<
Reznor is all ready to kiss the studio world goodbye and get back to the
altered reality of life on the road. A tour of Europe kicks off in April,
followed by an extensive swing through the states. Keyboard spent a day
with Reznor at the Record Plant recently and learned firsthand about the
aches, pains, bumps, and bruises associated with a do-it yourself record.
Why did you decide to make this record at home?
I wanted to fine-tune my engineering skills; That's one thing we've allways
lacked in the Nine Inch Nails inner circle. I figured if I had a studio
around, I'd inevitably figure out how to do it. And also, for the first
time, we had the resources to do something right, so we ended up buying
a big console and a couple of Studer machines because it was cheaper than
renting, in the long run.
The project took considerable longer than anticipated. What happened?
We moved out here [to L.A.] on July 4, 1992. What we thought would take
X amount of time to get a studio set up, ended up taking three times as
long. As much as I enjoy equipment, fucking around with stuff, systems,
and all that, there came a point when the whole focus was just to get the
damn thing working and then learn it. Eventually I realized, "Okay, I'm
sick of being in this room, now it's time to write an album." So I started
writing, and by Christmas I had about four songs that I thought were decent.
Were there many gear snafus or other problems associated with working at
There were a couple peices of gear crucial to the way the studio worked
at the house. One of them was a [Timeline] Micro-Lynx synchronizer. It
syncs the two Studers, [Digidesign] Pro Tools, and everything. To be honest,
It didn't work. Ten times a day we'd have to turn it off, unplug every
cable, plug 'em back in, turn it back on, call the company, and, "Guess
what? It doesn't work." There were many times when I thought, "Am I the
only person in the world who's ever tried to hook these two pieces of gear,
that they say work together, together?" So between that, and the terrible
automation on the Amek board that we had, things would grind to a halt.
I cannot tolerate equipment fucking up when you're trying to write a song,
when you're on a roll. When you're in a [commercial] studio and something
breaks, someone is usually there to fix it. When you're in a house, you're
lying on your back under the board, scratching your head, trying to figure
out what the fuck. I mean, we can get people, but it might mean five hours
of waiting around.
danger of having a full studio in your house is: What do you focus on?
I could spend, and have spent, a month just sampling things. so now, when
it comes time to pull up a drum bank, it's all cool sounds that I've created,
rather than leftovers from things I've used before. We spent a lot of time
sampling and processing the sounds through different things. That way,
when the actual writing and arranging moment came ... when you went to
reach for that bank of sounds, they were inspiring, instead of, "Fuck,
I'm in the middle of writing a song, but I really should spend a couple
of days getting all new Oberheim sounds."
What were some of the things that you sampled?
My assistant, Chris Vrenna, probably went through 3,000 movies listening
to them without watching them. Not to find the cliche spoken dialog sample,
but just to hear sounds. He'd through them on DAT, then I'd listen to them
-- I didn't know where they came from -- and I'd cut 'em up into little
segments and process them further through Turbosynth or whatever. We compiled
almost ten optical disks of "things" like that. We'd do a new song: "Okay,
what's the mood?" "It's Grim." so we'd put up a bank, find a sound, set
thing I did was ... a guy came to tune our studio and he had one of those
real-time frequency/noise-generator things. So I sampled it. I think there's
something strangeley musical about noise. If you take a high frequency
and pitch it way down to where it's aliasing, you've got a pretty cool
thing. You layer that in the mix, and suddenly it becomes thicker, even
though sometimes you can't necessarily hear it. A song like "Mr. Self Destruct",
obviously you're going to hear it, it sounds like a vacuum cleaner running
through the whole thing. But a lot of times it just thickens things up
without being noticed as, "Oh he's just layering some noise in there."
Let's get into the components of the record. Your drum tracks sound like
a mixture of machines, samples, and maybe a bit of live drumming.
Everything was programmed. My idea of a drum is a button on a drum machine.
When I hear a real drum kit...when someone hits a kick drum, it doesn't
sound to me like what I think a kick drum is. Any time I've been faced
with, "Let's try miking up the drums", well, you put a mike up close, you
put another one here, 300 mikes, gates, bullshit, overheads, bring 'em
up and listen to it and it doesn't sound at all like it did in the room.
It sounds like a "record-sounding drum kit". It doesn't sound like being
in the room with live ringy drums. You read these interviews where producers
will say, "It sounds like you're in the room with the band." No it doesn't.
Nirvana's record doesn't sound like you're in the room with them. It might
sound sloppy, and it sounds interesting, but it's not what it sounds like
in the room, to me, anyway.
we were experimenting with just two mikes, PZMs usually. We ended up taking
a drum kit into about 25 different rooms---from sneaking into live rooms
at A&M Studios, to bathrooms to living rooms to a garage, to outdoors.
We didn't close-mike anything, just put mikes in the same position about
the same distance away from the drums, then hit each drum at several velocities
and recorded them on a DAT machine. Then we sampled them all in stereo
with velocity splitting on the Akai S1100s. I noticed that when you sat
down and played those on a keyboard, they sounded exactly the way they
sounded in the room: shitty, ringy, you know. When I programmed them, an
even when they were perfectly quantized, they didn't sound like a drum
machine. And that, in itself, lent a strange, unexpected vibe to the thing.
So on a few songs, we used that. I purposeley made the drum programming
very rigid, so that maybe someone will listen to it and think, "Is that
a machine? Nah, can't be. No machine sounds that shitty." I like the idea
of hearing a record and thinking, "That's guitar, bass, and drums," and
then, on further inspection, "Wait a second, that's not what it appears
to be". So that was one thing we did. And then sometimes, it was cool to
say, "Well let's see what these drums would sound like in the bathroom."
So we'd load another disk and use it with the same sequence."
Did you use drum machines?
Well, we sampled a Roland TR-808 as you have to these days. I try to avoid
using it, but there's something about that low end. It's hard to beat that
great low 808 kick. Actually for "Closer", we sampled the kick drum off
an old Iggy Pop record, "Nightclubbing", off Idiot. Most everything was
sampled, but I did use a Roland R-70, just because I wanted something that
was a drum machine. I ended up being pretty impressed with it's sounds,
although they're somewhat generic sounding. Good idea, but terrible operating
Toward the end of the song "Piggy", it sounds very much like live drumming.
Okay, I confess, that one thing was live. For that part, I had a rigid,
weird sixteenth-note pattern going. A kit was set up in the dining room,
and I was playing along, fuckin' around, testing out the drums. I'd go
in the other room, start the machine, run back in, put the headphones on,
and play along. I couldn't hear it very good and I was way out of meter.
So I just played as insaneley as I could so I could hear how the drums
were going to sound on tape. When I listened back, I thought, "Hey, that's
pretty cool. Someday I'll come back and fix it." And of course, I never
did. That was it. That was the final take. A lot of what I do is accidental.
I luck into things. I think that due to laziness---not coming back and
fixing things---they end up becoming more interesting. My instinct is to
repair, edit. "I'll get to it later". But then I'll get so used to hearing
it, I'll end up leaving it alone.
How much of this album was recorded to hard disk?
Pretty much any real instrument like guitar or vocals or bass was recorded
into the computer first; I use Opcode's Studio Vision all the time now
for sequencing. Usually I'd loop something and then play along with it
for a while, then I'd go back and listen. If anything was decent, I'd cut
it together into something cool. All the guitars I played were cut up and
put together like that.
Did you mike the guitar cabinets, or go direct?
I never mike cabinets. I've tried it, but I just don't like the sound that
much--versus just going direct or through amp simulators. Broken, for example,
had a lot of that super-thick chunk sound. Almost every guitar sound on
that record was me playing through an old Zoom pedal, direct, and then
going into Turbosynth. Then I used a couple of key ingredients to make
it sound unlike any real sound in the world, and layered about four of
them together. By then, it wasn't a guitar anymore. It's an awesome sound.
great thing about the guitar as an instrument is its expression. It's much
more expressive than playing a keyboard. Unquestionably, the controller/input
device of the strings is a lot more expressive and accidental and uncontrollable.
When you then can take that, and process it in a computer environment,
you still get some of those elements of randomness.
What are those 'key ingredients' you mentioned in Turbosynth you mentioned
a minute ago?
Usually I call up the Waveshaper and click through a few of them, or "convert
sample to oscillator" sometimes. A real low pitch can get you some insane
sounds. I also use the modulator: Taking the sound as one input, getting
the oscillator module, taking something with a real low frequency that
has a bell tone or some odd harmonics, and modulating those two can actually
produce some awesome death vocal or guitar sounds.
for guitar, almost everything was put through a Zoom 9030. I don't like
the distortion stuff in there---it's too traditional sounding ---but I
really like the amp simulator. We also have the new Marshall rack-space
head, the JMP-1 I think it is. It's a great sounding head. So I take the
direct out of that through the amp simulator in the Zoom, and you can get
a pretty good, almost Pantera-ish power metal sound. I use that as a basis
to start with, and since everything's recorded into the computer, it's
easy to take it into Turbosynth and fuck around with it. Sometimes in real-time,
too. With [Digidesign] Sound Tools, I'll mess around in the parametric
EQ windows in real-time when it's previewing. It's also out- putting digital
at the same time, so I'll hoook a DAT up and record it while it's previewing,
sweep through stuff, and get some insane distortion stuff. Load that back
into Studio Vision and you have a performance of an EQ thing that you couldn't
do otherwise. We do a lot of stuff like that.
"Mr. Self Destruct", we ran the whole mix through some old Neve mike pre's:
a couple of channels of an old board. Those have great distortion; they're
what I use for vocal distortion on almost everything. Those and the Zoom,
which has a great ring modulator. I will say though, that vocal distortion
has become an incredibly cliche thing these days. It's become overused
and uninteresting. But I think that there are varying degrees or blending
it in, or different effects that can come across. I want people to hear
what I'm saying, but then again, I'm not interested in the great Phil Collins
vocal sound. Maybe it's because I'm insecure about my own vocals. I don't
know. But it's my record, and I'm gonna make it sound shitty if I want
What are the roles of your various synths and samplers?
Most everything is Akai samplers. I think the best thing about having some
amount of success is the ability to get cool gear... not being bummed when
some new sampler comes out that you know you can't afford. So we have two
S1100s, each one with an expander, so essentially four samplers. And that
works out perfectly: One's almost always used for drums, one for miscellaneous
stuff, and so forth, with quite a bit of memory in each one. Then it comes
down to...I use the Minimoog a lot. I don't really like getting new synthesizers.
It seems the emphasis now is building these all-in-one workstation same-sound
ROM-playback bullshit things. I really kind of fell out of touch with what
was happening until someone suggested I check out a Kurzweil K2000, which
I did, and bought. I think that's the only keyboard I've bought recently
that's new, and I think it is potentially awesome. I don't know all I should
know about it, but we used that a lot because of the fact that it can read
akai banks. To me, that's kind of like real-time Turbosynth that's midi-controllable
in a sampling situation. So we'll take a drum bank from the Akai, load
it into the Kurzweil, and set up the programmable sliders on my MIDI controller
to control some parameter that modulates something. On the song "The Becoming",
all the drums were done on the Kurzweil like that. You could never do that
in the Akai. I was also surprised by the amount of shit that's in there.
In the day of preset piano sounds, it's incredible that someone put that
much thought into an instrument.
That was the "Ober-Moog," or whatever it was going to be called. I got
it from Richard Bugg, my repair guy out here who was one of the guys designing
it. I asked him, "Have you heard about this Oberheim-Moog thing?" And he
says, "Yeah, I've got one out at the house. Wanna borrow it for a while?"
"Bring it over!" that thing is the fuckin' greatist-sounding keyboard in
the world, because it sounds like a Minimoog and an Oberheim, and you can
run each one through each other. It doesn't quite work right, and unfortunateley
the project was scrapped, but that's what I used. [Editor's note: The OB-Mx
was officially released the same month as this article. An ad for it actually
appears on the next page after the article. It comes with full midi, and
two voices, and is currently about $2000. Extra two voice cards are about
$800 a peice, and I think you can have up to 16 voices on the unit. It
is fully programmable old-analog style knobs and buttons, as well as a
modern menu-driven interface. It stores patches in memory, a good amount,
and it is a rack-mount unit taking up I believe six slots] It shows up
in a couple of places mainly because I was getting bored using the Minimoog,
which I've used for almost every bass sound I've ever done. So now I use
the Minimoog a lot more for running stuff through it's external input and
through the filter. Aside from that, I still use the Oberheim Xpander,
but it's roll has decreased a little bit; I'm just kind of bored with that.
And the Prophet-VS, I still use that. I had a PPG when they were out, and
I have a Waldorf MicroWave now. If I go about trying to program that thing
in a logical way, it comes out sounding like mid-1980s synth pop--kind
of dated, digital-sounding. But just through randomly generating stuff
with Opcode's Galaxy, and I did this a lot on the Xpander and the VS, I'd
generate thousands and thousands of programs. Then I'd hear an element
of one that was cool, and fine-tune it. That may be a cop-out way of programming,
but it was pretty interesting to find out, "What the fuck did it do to
make it sound like that?" Then you go in and look and see what it did randomly.Every
patch I have in the Waldorf is from that origin.
You mentioned having difficulty with your synchronizer. Did you have any
similar problem keeping your synths, samplers, and hard disk tracks in
Not too much, really. Studio Vision was great -- very few hassles keeping
stuff together, in that respect. But we're not too anal about...if something
is happening, we'll try to work around it. We'll figure out how to fix
it later. We do a lot of stuff really sloppy on certain levels. On other
levels, it's a very laboratory-like environment.
problems? Sometimes I'd be in the studio and discover, "Why are all the
vocals I've recorded suddenly in the wrong pitch and out of sync?" Then
you realize the tape calibration somehow got turned on in Studio Vison---some
mysterious element that changed the pitch and the tempo of the sequence
and...it's gone, you'll never get it back at that point. You can diddle
around with equations, pitch-shift everything down, slow it down X amount.
Forget it. Go have a beer, come back the next day, and start over.
What was it like working with Flood?
Flood is an awesome guy, the best programmer I've ever been around in my
life. You tend to work a certain way, which is very methodical ---chisel
away. "The completion of your record is so far away, don't even think about
it. Just think about the completion of this hi-hat program." Then I read
where Nirvana recorded and mixed an album in two weeks, and I'm going,
"Fuck, that's gonna sell a lot more than mine is." There's got to be some
balancing. So the next record I'm gonna do is going to be one that's a
lot more spontaneous. One that better hides the horrors of technology,
which can bog you down to a crawl. Many a time I've been sitting in front
of an Akai with it's ridiculous, archaic operating system trying to put
these 400 samples in a keygroup and..."Why am I doing this? This is stupid.
Why haven't I hired someone to do this for me yet?" That's another thing
that led to the delay in putting out this record: getting bogged down in
the studio. "There are 40 things I could do right now. I could write a
song, which is the most important, or I could sample drums, or I could
try EQing this, or programming that", and so on. It's lacking the discipline
and focus to say, "Forget all the fun stuff. I'm going to sit down and
write a song."
In addition to the familiar NIN suspects, did you collaborate with any
other outside artists?
We had [guitarist] Adrian Belew come in just to see what would happen.
He showed up and said, "Hi, what do you want me to do?" And Flood and I
were like, "Well we don't know." So he looks at us, scratches his head,
"All right, what key is it in?" We look at each other, "Hmm, not sure.
Probably E. Here's the tape, do whatever you want to do. Go!" So he started
noodling around and...Adrian is the most awesome musician in the world.
I've never seen anybody play guitar like that.
How are you going to pull this music off live?
Well, the thing I learned from the last tour...the dilemma that I faced
was: I didn't want to have three guys onstage, faking every- thing, with
a tape machine running. However, I also didn't want a seven- piece rock
band where every cool bit of electronic-ness was converted into people
approximating it live on other instruments. I don't use electronics as
a cop-out: "I couldn't get a drummer, so I just programmed it", or, "I
couldn't play this part good enough, so I programmed it". It's not that
kind of thing at all. I program because I like the way it sounds. I like
quantization. I enjoy the sound of it. I like using those elements of perfection
amidst randomness. And live, I didn't want that element to be brushed under
the table by a big live band. So we used four tracks of tape and four musicians:
I'd play guitar on some songs and sing, plus a keyboard player, a guitar
player, and a drummer.
the time, there were no digital four-track devices that were affordable
to us, so we just used a four-track cassette deck---high-speed Tascam special.
One track would be a click that the drummer would play to; he'd wear headphones
onstage. One track would be bass because 90 percent of the bass was synth,
and I wouldn't want a real guy playing bass, simulating that, nor would
I want to see a keyboard player tapping sixteenth notes with his head down.
And the other two tracks were stereo miscellaneous. Maybe it would be a
percussion loop. Maybe it would be some sequency-sounding key-board part.
Stuff like that. And all the drums, vocals, main keyboard parts, and guitars
were being played live.
feel we have to justify why we used tape onstage---I've allways admitted
that, and I will admit that we're going to do it again on the next tour---but
the point was, that was the best way to get the stuff across live. That
was the best way to maintain what was good about the electronic side of
it. I didn't want to take sequencers and shit out live: "Excuse me ladies
and gentlemen, while I get on my back and get under the keyboard rig and
figure out what MIDI cable isn't plugged in." I mean, we had enough problems
with the one peice of gear that can fuck us up: the tape deck. We had a
lot of problems with that. The only MIDI onstage was from triggers on the
drum kit. The keyboard player just had an [E-mu] Emax; he'd load a disk
for each song.
What will the lineup be for this tour?
Since we never played most of the Broken stuff out live--- which is way
heavier on guitar, and I don't want to be bogged down playing complicated
guitar parts and singing---I've got Chris Vrenna on drums, James Wooley
on keyboards, and two new guys, Danny Lohner and Robin Finck, each of whom
is a guitar player/keyboard player/bass player. They're the best musicians
I've had involved in the band so far. I even forsee moments when everybody
is playing keyboards onstage.
Care to expound on any of those hellish gig experiences?
Opening day, Lollapalooza, Phoenix. We couldn't play because one of the
power boxes had melted, and every time the low end ofd the P.A. would rumble,
it would jiggle the cord and all power onstage would just shut off and
turn back on. If you have a sampler, that means you're down for a minute.
And if you have a tape deck, ahem, that means it stops. But I think because
we were an "electronic" band, everyone was just waiting for us to fuck
up onstage. So this started happening and: "Hello, does anybody know what's
going on?" A voice from backstage: "No, but I think it's working now."
Turn to the crowd: "Okay, hey, we suck, so here's the next song." And ten
seconds into it, every time he hit the kick drum, there it went. Turn back
around: "This is the biggest show we've ever played, does anyone know what
the fuck is wrong?" Voice from backstage: "We think we have it!" Turn to
the crowd: "Okay, one more time," and...
So what did you do?
We smashed all the gear, and ran to the bus.
End - by Greg Rule (Keyboard Magazine 3/94)
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