The Melodic Alchemy of Trent Reznor
From the time his major hit Head
Like a Hole broke through in 1989,
through his late 1999 release, The
the sound of rock music.
Strongly inspired by songwriters like David
Bowie, Prince (the artist formerly known as
"The Artist") and Brian Eno, Reznor
developed a unique sound and style that made
him one of the most influential songwriters of
the past decade.
Reznor even managed to return some
inspiration to one of his idols, Bowie, while his
immense success on the radio and with record
sales sparked a new generation of alternative
rock bands to add digital samples, sound
design and heartfelt lyrics alongside their
crunchy guitar tracks.
Heís additionally touched the worlds of film
and video games by doing soundtracks for
Oliver Stone and David Lynch, and by scoring
the music for the original Quake.
Reznor now spends his days either touring the
world with his band, Nine Inch Nails, or back
at his New Orleans compound composing
new musical arrangements from an unlimited
palette of sounds, especially created for him
by a dedicated team of audio engineers.
But how did he get there?
Harvested at a Young Age
At the age of 5, Reznor was forced into piano
lessons, and got good pretty quickly. Music
came naturally to him and at one point he
considered dropping out of school to become
a concert pianist. But when he hit high school,
his musical interests tuned into rock & roll.
"I always knew what I wanted to do, but
growing up in Pennsylvania in a corn field, I
just didnít have any idea how to go about
pursuing it," says Reznor.
But he managed to reap a dream bigger than
most farm town kids would ever know: his
own team of sound engineers, a top-notch
sound studio in New Orleans and a life fully
dedicated to creating his art.
His First Synth
Reznor got his first synthesizer in high school.
"I knew it was the right time for me, because
all of the things I was interested in,
computers and music, were coming
together," reminisces Reznor. "When I
realized I could start making music on
computers, thatís when I found a direction to
Reznor Calculates His Future
After high school, Reznor thought about
designing synths or recording consoles of his
own. To pursue this idea, he went to college
to study computer engineering. But like a lot of
creative kids, he realized he didnít enjoy doing
calculus all day.
So he dropped out of college. "I got a job at a
studio, basically cleaning toilets and doing the
odd jobs no one else wanted to do," explains
Reznor, "But this gave me the opportunity to
spend time around recording equipment." And
thatís how Reznor got into audio engineering.
basics, he felt it
was time to test
his ability to do
writing. But he was plagued by self-doubt.
"I was afraid to write because I knew what I
liked and what I didnít like," says Reznor,
"but I didnít know if what I could create
would be something I liked." He had played
keyboards in a bunch of bands, but the focus
of the band had never been his vision.
As an experiment, he stopped every other
aspect of his life and spent every waking
minute writing music, using the studio he
Then a revelation hit him.....
"I realized Iíd never
really worked that hard
in life before, because
things had always come
pretty easily to me,"
says Reznor, "And I
realized Iíd never really tried anything,you
know, really tried.
"So then I really wanted to see what would
happen if I went wholeheartedly into it," he
Spiraling Down His Budget
"I got my living expenses down to sub-poverty
level and just spent several months locked
inside the studio," says Reznor. "When I
wasnít doing sessions for terrible Cleveland
bands, I was working on my own stuff."
He couldnít find a band at the time, so he
wrote and recorded everything by himself.
And that resulted his first hit record, Pretty
Sometimes Less is More
"I made Pretty Hate Machine using a Mac
Plus, an Emax keyboard and a Mini Moog, "
"That set up was cool because it was so
limiting that it forced you to get the most out of
what you had to work with. It was just basic
MIDI, with no digital audio. But I knew the
three pieces of gear I had inside and out," he
Going for The Gumbo
"Every band Iíd been in seemed to think the
way to make it was just to play bars where
somebody would hear you some day and it
just seemed stupid, especially in Cleveland,"
So he put together a demo tape, shopped it
around, and quickly received several offers
from the small labels he had approached.
Reznor finally signed on with a label then
known for its distribution of old television
tunes, TVT. But that turned out to be a
painful, rather than pleasurable, experience.
"They had no artistic insight whatsoever, and
were very meddling and interfering," Reznor
reflects. "So I had the pleasure of putting a
record out that I was told would be my
Proof in the Puddiní
That same album, the completed version of
Pretty Hate Machine (PHM), released by
Reznor under his assumed band name Nine
Inch Nails (NIN), went on to sell several
million copies over the next few years.
Yet relations did not improve as a result of the
albumís success. Luckily, due to the immense
success of PHM, a bigger label, Interscope,
came over and bought NIN out of their
contract. Reznor and his longtime manager,
John Malm, started their own label, Nothing
Records, which Interscope agreed to
Audio Enters the MIDI Picture
After Pretty Hate Machine took off, Reznor
moved into recording audio tracks on his
computer, a step that required a tad more
hard-drive space than his previous all-MIDI
"The album took off and I got some money for
a change," revels Reznor. "That was right
when sequencers started to able to record
audio. It was a big turning point in how I
"When sequencers started to
be able to record audio, it
was a big turning point in
how I wrote music," says
Following PHM, Reznor added four channels
of digital audio to his MIDI arrangements for
Broken. "I switched mid-project from Digital
Performer to StudioVision just so I could add
in those audio tracks."
Reznorís use of StudioVision continued
through The Downward Spiral, and by the
time he started working on The Fragile, he
was completely settled into the program.
Chaos Strikes The Fragile
Then, like Murphyís Law would have it,
StudioVision failed him right in the middle of
The Fragile. This resulted in a creative
nightmare for Reznor.
"As we added
could do, it just
got too bogged
stopped working," he says.
This put Reznor in a sticky predicament. The
program he was comfortable with wouldnít
work anymore, and the other program being
used at the studio for sound design was too
complicated for him to master quickly.
As a result, The Fragile demanded a bit more
collaboration than the standard NIN project
would, because Reznor had to let someone
else do his sequence programming.
Heís Out of Control
"The bad thing is that I got lazy, and now I
donít know how to work the sequencer that
weíre using," Reznor confides. "So I really
feel like my hands are tied."
And thatís not a very nice place to be,
especially for the man who coined the phrase
"Iíd rather die than give you control." But
fortunately for Reznor, Digidesign released
ProTools 5, and his hope is restored,
"Now that ProTools 5 can deal with MIDI
primitively, it feels more like Iím working on a
Mac again, " he explains. "Although there are
some things you canít do in ProTools 5, it
handles audio great so Iím making myself use
it for the new stuff weíre working on now."
"It may be a nice program,
but Iím not going to endorse
it if it doesnít run on a Mac,
and I told them that," he
The Sacred Art of Songwriting
Reznor may have a team of engineers
designing original sounds for him, but doesnít
mean that songwriting has evolved into group
process for NIN.
"I tend to get a bunch of ideas at one time and
a pretty clear idea of what I want to do,"
explains Reznor, "so rather than try to
democratically talk my way into getting what I
want, itís just easier to pick something up and
do it myself."
Reznor still has a bunch of songs left over from
The Fragile that are in various states of being
finished. He hopes to finish these songs and
release them on the next NIN album.
Further, heís considering putting out "a real
stripped down (not unplugged) minimal,
kind of acoustic-sounding thing"which would
be a bit unusual for them. But the band did a
radio show like that a while back, and it
worked out really well for them.
Touring with Final Cut and QuickTime
NIN is known for its intense and visual live
shows, and wanted to share the live
experience with its fans around the world. So,
Reznor hired a photographer to shoot footage
for the NIN website in conjunction with the
bandís world tour.
Since the tour launched a few months back,
the site has featured regular post-show
QuickTime movie clips of fans along the tour
circuit, and some live footage from select
"We have Final Cut Pro, and we have been
filming the last several shows with about seven
different Canon XL1 digital cameras," says
Reznor, "Then the plan is to edit it and finish it
all on a Mac."
Reznor decided to enlist a single camera
person, Rob Sheridan, in lieu of a film crew.
"Weíve gone the route of hiring big film crews
and fighting with editors and cameramen who
think theyíre Orson Welles," he says.
Sheridan manages everything to do with
filming for NIN, from setting up the cameras
to capture the live energy of NIN, to editing
clips of the tour in FCP for the website.
"Weíll probably do a DVD release of this tour
later this year," says Reznor, "Itís an
experiment and an excuse to kind of dig into
Final Cut and see what happens." Sheridan
will work alongside Reznor in editing the
footage for the DVD release.
G4/ProTools on the Tour Bus
Meanwhile, the tour bus is stocked with a
media lab for both audio and video editing,
including a rack-mounted Power Mac G4 with
a ProTools rig in it. "Weíve got that with us for
less excuses to waste time," he adds.
Looking to Score
Reznorís experience in movie making had
already extended into working on soundtracks
for some major motion pictures, and scoring
music for a popular video game.
"I did Natural Born Killers, and Lost Highway
for David Lynch," says Reznor, "but Iíve
really no interest in doing any more
compilation albums. The only thing Iíd want to
do these days is actual scoring."
"Iíd love for David Cronenberg to call me on
the phone and say, ĎScore a filmí," he adds.
Reznorís spooky, atmospheric sound would
blend well with the film making style of the
creator of films like Crash, Naked Lunch and
Heís Game for Games
Then he confides that heís been talking to
John Carmack about scoring the music for a
new version of Doom. "I would do something
like that mainly because itís a hobby of mine, I
appreciate the technology, and itís fun to work
outside Nine Inch Nails once in a while."
Nailed to their Macs
"Everybody in our camp is Mac and thatís it,"
stresses Reznor, "Weíve adopted a pretty
purist attitude. There have been some
software companies who develop PC-only
software whoíve approached us ,the people
who make Acid, Sonic Foundry, for one.
"It may be a nice program, but Iím not going
to endorse it if it doesnít run on a Mac, and I
told them that," he adds.
"Even if it does run on Virtual PC, I tell them,
ĎWake up and do the right thing.í" he says
"With Web integration stuff, there have been
companies that are like Ďuse our playerí but it
only runs on a Windows machine, and Iím
like, ĎNo, Iím not going to help the enemy.í"
"Iíve just always had a soft spot in my heart
for Macs." admits Reznor, "Like, I just got the
blue-and-white machine and then oh,out
came the cooler looking G4!
Someone bought me an iMacDV for
Christmas, and itís just something as simple as
plug-in the DV and the first time ĎOh wow! it
works.í I mean, here I was expecting to have
to hunt down a cable, but ĎWoah, itís in the
box.í Thatís what I think a lot of the PC
people donít understand," Reznor concludes,
"the pleasure of not having to worry about
<< Previous Page
is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.