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Tech Talk with Trent Reznor

By Bela Canhoto for native-instruments.com on June 29, 2005

Six years after the epic soundscapes of his double album "The Fragile", Trent Reznor returns with a minimalist, song oriented redefinition of his band Nine Inch Nails. The crude aggression of his album "The Downward spiral" from 1994 with its labyrinthine song structures has been replaced with straightforward tunes. His political message is just as uncompromising: Just recently, Nine Inch Nails dropped out of the 2005 MTV Video Movie Awards show after a disagreement with MTV over the use of an image of George W. Bush as a backdrop to the band's performance of "The Hand That Feeds". NI visited Trent in his studio in Los Angeles to talk about the background of the latest album, his longstanding Reaktor addiction and his future plans.

In contrast to your earlier albums, the new Nine Inch Nails album presents something like catchy pop songs. What would you say is the biggest difference between "With Teeth" and the rest of your work?

I went at it with the mind set to create an opposite of “Fragile”. While that one was expansive and there weren’t really any rules other than what felt right, this time I wanted to return to discipline and make something that was more song based. By this I don’t mean pop songs necessarily. I mean structurally more in the world of a song, with its melodies and hooks and the format being more rigid. Sound wise I wanted to make it as minimal as possible, without bathing everything in sound and without layering too much and making it too lush. I wanted to see what would happen if what had to be in such a song-format was in there as an experiment.

Did the re-orientation towards a song format affect the recording process?

For this record I went back to the concept of making demos, similar to when I did my first album, where each song was like the 30th revision: It would go from demo to demo until the album was done. But once I had finally gotten some money, I put a studio together. So I found when it was time to write, I would just do it in my studio. Pretty soon the whole concept of a demo dissolved, because song writing and production and sound design and arranging all became the same process: a song would evolve out of a series of sounds, drum loops or a visual abstract idea. And potentially I might fit words in.

This time around I wanted to approach it the other way to keep myself from going off on sound design or on some concept like that, which I find myself wanting to do, when I should sometimes be concentrating on other things that I feel less confident about, like lyrics and the actual songwriting part of it. So this time I had a deadline every ten days, when I wanted to finish each song. I sat down with Battery, sometimes also Elektrik Piano, and recorded vocals into the computer. I tried to keep it just drums, piano, and vocals. After four to five months I wound up with about 25 songs that I thought were really good, but that felt like demos and weren’t arranged.

When I had those demos together, we went through them and picked out the best ones that worked as an album. Then I went to New Orleans studio to formally record them. I wanted it to make it sound performance-based. I was using live drums, most of the tracks have live drums on them. A lot of the sounds were miked. Even if it was a synth line, it might go through a speaker cabinet to give it the impression of it being played. We used guitar and bass, and we would go from the instruments right into the DI box and then into Reaktor, where we had made a couple of patches that were like an elaborate guitar switchboard all made up of filters and various types of different distortions. Very few things were chopped up in Pro Tools. A lot of it was entire verses or phrases.

NI software seems to be at the core of your musical work. How were you introduced to it?

Around the time we were working on the "Fragile" record, we ended up getting a PC hooked up just to run Generator, the first version of Reaktor. It was quite a battle to get the right interface and to get it to work, so we really just used it as an occasional sound design type thing, but it seemed like the most amazing tool that we'd ever come across, because of being able to go to levels deeper than you ever imagined you could. It made a lot of the things that we were messing around with at the time seem like they were going to be obsolete.

For the last two albums we used Battery exclusively as the drum sampler because I just like the way it works, it's set up the way I think, and it's an easy drag and drop tool. When Kontakt came out, I would primarily use that as a sound design tool less than for the meat and potatoes of sampling, because we had already started in another format. In Kontakt pretty much any sound will sound like a really interesting sample within a matter of minutes. I think that audio software really has come into its own right and is not just an emulation of hardware, but a truly great musical instrument in itself.

Guitars and distortion have always been a focus of the "Nine Inch Nails" sound. How did you create those sounds for your current album?

For a large portion of what we did, we treated Reaktor like a guitar pedal, like the ultimate distortion box. Instead of having an array of pedals on the floor, a lot of the pedals became virtual in Reaktor. We went out of Reaktor into the amp head for most of the record. Running it through a real guitar amp and miking it up brought it back to sounding less like science fiction and more like real world. Some of the sounds were like "Wow, I haven't used it that way before". We had a lot of flexibility in the tone.

You chose to use Reaktor rather than Guitar Rig?

Well, eventually Guitar Rig worked its way into the process. Sometimes we'd make a very clean patch that only utilized the amp simulators or different arrays of speakers and then take whatever we might be using as the front head and run it through the amp simulator in Guitar Rig. In the studio we had two Apple G5's, one running Pro Tools hosting Guitar Rig, and the other one with Logic hosting Reaktor, so we could suck as much horse power as we needed and then just digitally transfer it to the computer with the main Pro Tools system. We didn't swamp the computer too much, but those were two instruments that kept coming back up. Even most of the synths on the record this time around were made or edited with these tools. What I wanted was a low tech sound, the opposite of what "Fragile" was loaded with.

What other software have you been experimenting with?

I have gone down the path with Spektral Delay a lot and really like messing around with Vokator. But opposed to my first album, where I only had an Emax sampler and knew every possible trick, it’s impossible for me to keep up at that level with everything today.

Generally, do you make your own sounds or rather the ones that come with the software?

Depends, back in the older days I loved getting new keyboards which now means getting a new piece of software. There’s always some inspiring thing in there that has at least one or two songs that are ready to come out. Once I hear it, then it’s that first excitement of figuring out what an instrument can do and learning how to manipulate it and play it and checking how musical or non-musical it is.

What I used to do, is listen to the factory patches for a minute, then erase them and check out the possibilities, like creating some random things. Then you could see how you could edit that randomness into something that might be more manageable and stumbling into what the instrument could do that way. Rarely would I use a factory patch. But these days there’s so many things out that have so much depth, most of which you guys are responsible for, that I just don’t have the time to keep up to the level that I remember being at back a hundred years ago.

You'll be on tour for about a year and you're half way through your next album. I guess this means the next album will have a similar vibe as it is being written around the same time?

Well, I do have some songs left over, because I wanted to give the record a digestive length. But I also realized I wasn’t through the writing process when I finished it. There were a lot more ideas that seemed to be coming out. I could imagine that a third of this stuff will be part of the next record, depending on what feels inspiring to me when the time actually gets around.

"Bite[sic] the Hand that Feeds" is available in the iTunes music store in a format that actually allows people to download it and remix it themselves. Can you explain how that works and why you did it?

When "Fragile" came out, some people expressed interest in being able to tinker around with tracks and to create remixes, experiment, embellish or destroy what's there, something I had already been thinking about. So we built a tool in shockwave, but it sucked, you could mix no more than five tracks. Then I realized that I'd never even booted up Garage Band. I didn’t know what it was at that time, but it dawned on me that there is a multi-track mini audio studio that everyone has got for free on their computers enlightened enough to have a Mac. Then I wondered what it would sound like, if I just bounced the whole multi track of "Hand that Feeds" into Garage Band format so you could play and mix all the single tracks. So I converted the mix that we did into loops to make things a bit smaller. Much to my amazement it's a perfect mix of the song, broken down into 15 or 20 stereo tracks. What's fun about that software is that it’s set up to let anybody drag, drop and manipulate loops, while complicated technology stays hidden behind the scenes, making it pretty easy to use. You can just speed it up or slow it down for example, and suddenly it’s turned into a trip hop thing. I spent five hours remixing my own track. And then I thought it would be cool to just give it away on the internet. So I explained what I was doing to the record label and they understood. Just the other day, I saw a webpage with a couple hundred remixes of the track on there, surprisingly good.

Is this something that you want to do regularly with your music in the future? Is it to allow fans or listeners to be more interactive with the music you create?

Well it makes the creation of music more transparent, and I’m not losing anything by doing it. It’s fun and the technology is out there for free. Even if I wouldn’t like a certain band and saw you can download their single on a multi-track, I would do it anyway, just to have fun with it. But there certainly isn’t any master plan behind our remixing platform, in terms of taking over the world or trying to get rich of it.

Is there anything that you would like to see from NI in the future?

What always struck me, and I'm not just saying this because I am speaking to you right now, is that everything that’s come out by Native Instruments has always been top notch quality with a depth to it that I really appreciate. That’s why I would not ever use a pirate copy, because the price that’s paid for the product ultimately keeps it alive. And NI products are worth their money.

When synthesizers went from 00 to affordable software plug-ins, the overall sound almost seemed less important than the fact that it had maybe a shitty sounding synth, that sounded good only when it was layered and bathed in reverb and chorus, so you didn’t really notice that what wass behind it is crap. Whereas the Native Instrument stuff always seemed to go into that extra detail, not only in terms of sound. You can tell that a lot of thought went into it. NI is listening to the needs of musicians, I can tell by the software you make. I rarely do an interview for a company. But in this case, I really feel NI is a great company with a great series of products, and it's not as in return for anything, it's just to get the word out.

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