Process and Purity
Taming technology and un-tethering talent with the dark prince of Nine Inch Nails
By Stephen Fortner for Keyboard Magazine on September 1, 2005
Since Plato and Socrates held forth in the square of Athens, great minds have pondered the question What is justice?" How about this: Trent Reznor, pantheonic idol to black-clad teenagers for two decades, is one of us. Interviewing this true synth enthusiast is so much like talking Nine Inch Nails with a keyboard-head friend that you almost forget you're talking with the guy who is Nine Inch Nails.
With Teeth (Interscope) is NIN's first studio album since 1999's conceptual, atmospheric masterpiece The Fragile. Digital piracy having since become a household concern, Reznor made his feelings on the subject known online, telling fans "The last way I'd want you to hear the first new music from me in a long time is a shitty quality rip." Pre-release auditions of the real deal were granted selectively, happening only on Interscope's turf, with their executives holding the CD remote. Promo copies? Fuhgeddaboutit.
The wait and security were well worth it. Emphasizing songwriting and solid, memorable hooks, With Teeth reminds us why Pretty Hate Machine threw open the Gothic-industrial sanctum occupied by Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and Throbbing Gristle to a far wider range of admirers. On the other hand, its warmth and range bespeaks an evolved Reznor, confident in his vision and comfortable in his own skin.
Music journalists, myself included, are falling over themselves, analyzing how With Teeth is both like and unlike your previous work. What do you say?
In my mind, I'm primarily a keyboard guy and sound designer. The Fragile and Downward Spiral developed from that mentality. I'd be in the studio, and start with a sound, or drumbeat, or chord progression, or mood, or even a visual description of a setting I'd heard. Eventually, I'd try to insert a 'song' into that - or wait for one to coalesce - fitting a melody and lyrics into the soundscape, as it were. I actually hadn't thought much about how The Fragile was put together until we were remixing it in surround a few months ago.
That record is certainly known for its intermorphing walls of sound, whereas this new one is definitely more of a rocker.
That's because the process was totally different. I made myself begin with melody and lyrics by setting up a studio in L.A. with not much more than a digital piano. There was Pro Tools for recording, but I treated it like a four-track! No plug-ins or soft synths at that point, and I gave myself a rule that every ten days, I had to finish two complete songs with lyrics. There were no means to go off on sonic tangents or get lost in knob-turning, which, of course, I really love to do. It's not like I self-consciously went, "I'm gonna make this record the opposite of The Fragile." I just wanted to work according to a new discipline, and it was refreshing.
So were you happy with the initial results?
In a few months, I had a collection of about 25 songs, which I whittled down to the best of the best, then went back to my 'real' studio in New Orleans to add all the layers and production I thought I'd need. I was really surprised at how little that turned out to be. It was like, "Wow, this record doesn't need a lot of crap all over it."
I'm betting fans and critics alike wouldn't call your earlier production values "crap." In fact, Bowie's pianist Mike Garson once told me that contributing to The Fragile was like laying his piano parts "on top of falling snow."
Mike has been a huge inspiration to me; he's such a monster player, he never disappoints. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of my thick sonic tapestries. But to be perfectly honest, there was always a little motivation of "Don't look under there" in the mix. Part of the difference is that I'm in a better place in life lately, with more confidence. Historically, I've always been the guy reaching to turn down my vocal, with [producer] Alan Moulder swatting my hand going "Don't touch that f***ing fader!"
On the topic of minimalism or simplicity, there's a fair amount of acoustic piano on With Teeth.
That's also a direct result of the demos. Again, the intention was to replace it with something more 'interesting' when we cut the tunes for real. But as some songs gestated, I tried to substitute a filtered or prepared piano, or synth, and it felt gimmicky. Especially in what's already this harsh, alien environment of distorted guitars and violent drums, there's something beautiful and honest about an unadorned piano anchoring it all. At first, I actually told myself I was copping out, and it took some thinking outside of my own head to realize piano was simply what worked.
How did your new philosophy affect the more openly synth-y songs on the record? "Only," in particular, is just dripping with old-school analog goodness.
We treated all the instrument parts like live performances. Atticus Ross, my Pro Tools engineer, has taught me so much here. My world has always been: Do everything in MIDI, and at the last second, lay it down as audio. That's how Pretty Hate Machine largely was, and it's a natural way to think for keyboard players recording their own stuff. In the past, I would have sequenced a riff, and tweaked away while it looped and looped. Atticus' world is: Immediately print it as audio, and manipulate it in that domain. It seemed stupid to me until I realized how much can be done, but more importantly, it forces a commitment. Not that you can't hit "undo," but there's more advance decision making. I now realize that too many options means I get less done!
It can be like doing the remix before the song is even fully written.
Exactly. "Only," like the whole album, used a lot of modular synths. We'd just roll PT like tape, and I'd play the keyboard part I'd worked out in the demo, but I'd be patching cords and twisting knobs like crazy. When it was over, we got what we got, and I couldn't necessarily remember how! It added an element of playing I honestly had never experienced before, and maybe ten or so great parts came out of it.
So most of the synth sounds on the record came from analog modular synths?
I've really fallen in love with 'em since the last record. Plug-ins have gotten very good - the best ones, like Reaktor for example, are true instruments in their own right, not just toys. Still, there's something about having a tangle of cables hanging there with real voltages coursing through 'em, VCA distortion - a "what the hell's making it sound that way?" factor. On the record we had modules from Doepfer, Analogue Systems, and some from Metasonix. We also used a Minimoog Voyager, and this cool suitcase synth from Analogue Solutions called the Vostok.
"Beside You in Time" is a fascinating track. I hope it's not out of line to say it has almost a bluegrass feel? There's this shuffling backbeat and rhythmic pulse that could be a jaw harp. Then an evolving, droning wall of what sounds like fiddles.
It's interesting you say that. This was, in fact, the first song completed, when a lot of the albums overall "sound" was still undetermined. The drone was done with granular synthesis modules in Reaktor, building chords by feeding in separate guitar and vocal notes on their own faders, blending those in and out, that kind of thing.
That shuffle was an accident, really. I wanted the whole thing to pump - to disorient you and suck your head in like a giant speaker cone. We triggered a gate with the kick drum to get this effect, but something else - I still don't know what - bled onto the track and also opened the gate a little, giving it that backbeat feel. My country tune! [Laughs.] I wound up putting it towards the end of the album, which veers off into more ambient, Fragile-like territory.
Our more technically-inclined readers are going to want a pornographic exhibition of your recording tools and process . . . for the production sessions, not the demos.
You got it. Atticus and I decided on two Mac G5s. The primary one ran a big-ass Pro Tools HD rig, with a lot of interfaces including an Apogee AD-16. We needed tons of I/O because we were still tracking through an SSL mixing board. The second Mac, bussed digitally to the first, ran Logic. Essentially, anything that worked better as an Audio Unit or other native plug-in lived there. I happen to think the latest versions of Logic's own virtual instruments are awesome. I even did an alternate version of "Right Where it Belongs" entirely in Sculpture. We used some Altiverb, and also had a VST wrapper, so I could access the GForce Oddity and ImpOSCar soft synths, two of my favorites.
Oddly, we used ProTools, not Logic, for what MIDI sequencing we needed. I'm not alone in wishing the MIDI portion of PT was friendlier, but Atticus preferred to stay in that environment.
We saw your set at Coachella, and Alessandro is handling the keyboard duties phenomenally. Will the frontman be joining him more anytime soon?
We geared up 30 or so songs for the first wave, and initially focused on the new band getting fluent with the sets and kicking ass. That's happening now . . . everything sounds vital and alive. With the pleasant surprise of shows selling out all over, we'll be back in the States in the fall doing arena shows, and they'll have more "big production." The range of moods will be greater too, so for all those reasons, yeah, I expect I'll be playing more keyboards. Alessandro has a way of making me wish I was the keyboardist in this band!"
Before You Die, You Hear the Ring
Trent calls the Analogue Systems French Connection, a voltage-based controller for modular rigs, "one of the greatest things I've ever come across." Its unique interface is inspired by the Ondes Martenot, a coveted electronic instrument from the - talk about vintage! - 1920s (see 'Vintage Gear,' Mar. '00). Beneath its keys is a finger-sized ring suspended on fishing line-like wire, stretched between pulleys at either end. Sliding it along four octaves provides continuous, infinite pitch control. "It's very Theremin-like, but much more playable," explains Trent. "It imparts such a human feel to ungodly synth sounds, one I've always heard in my head but not really been able to get before." To hear it in action, cue up "Sunspots," track 10 on With Teeth.
Touring With Teeth
Alessandro Cortini has stepped into the large and well-worn shoes of veteran NIN keysman Charlie Clouser, touring from the Coachella Festival (Jul. '04) to Manchester, UK as of this writing. Alumnus of alt-rock statesmen Everclear, Alessandro nailed the NIN gig while teaching at Hollywood's Musicians Institute and fronting his own band, Modwheelmood. Reznor recalls the initiation:
"The new band started with [drummer] Jerome Dillon, bassist Jeordie White [a.k.a. Twiggy of Marilyn Manson fame], and I holding open auditions in L.A. My first thought when Alessandro walked in was that he didn't look like what I had in mind. His presence was intense but gentle, not the "I'm gonna attack you" energy fans might associate with NIN. Then he started, and within 30 seconds I was like, "That's the guy!" I've never once regretted it. Without taking anything away from Charlie, Alessandro is really into playing the studio parts as much as humanly possible. Before, our mentality was to get all the licks into a sampler so nothing could screw up onstage, but now, things are much more organic.
Cortini explains taking it all to the stage: "Dissecting the album began with Atticus Ross at the Pro Tools rig exporting original tracks. I'd be on another Mac on the network, and would open them in [Native Instruments] Kontakt, building a patch designed for playing live, not just triggering sequences from one key.
"I love N.I. stuff, but with gear bouncing all over the world, I'm more comfy with hardware, so I use Akai Z4 and Z8 samplers, controlled by an M-Audio Keystation Pro88. We actually shaved the knobs off of it, so nothing can get bumped by mistake. A Keystation 49 above that plays an Access Virus C for lead sounds.
"My pride and joy is the 'analog corner.' Several Analogue Systems modules are played from a French Connection. I can also route our minimal backing tracks through my Sherman Filterbank or the Virus, tweaking the latter with my custom Korg KAOSS pad. My tech, Jason Cobb, mounted the membrane on clear plexiglass, which sits on a boom coming off my keyboard stand. The guts are back in the rack."
Production To The People
"Everyone can have the technology to make 'perfect' records now, not just the top-tier rich guys," observes Reznor of the digital revolution. "There's a downside, because it's tempting to make things too perfect, and you get today's overproduced modern-rock sound where every band sounds the same. But overall, it's a good thing that power has been taken to the people."
Trent put his music where his mouth is, releasing the first single, "The Hand That Feeds" as a multi-track Apple Garageband session for fans to remix, overdub onto, and otherwise re-interpret. Now he's outdone himself, adding Ableton Live, Digidesign Pro Tools LE, and Sony Acid Xpress Pro formats to expose the hit "Only" to the broadest possible spectrum of would-be producers. Details at www.nin.com/access/only speculate that "We may construct a more formal community for remix postings or possibly some 'official' endorsement by means of an EP or something. . . ." So what the hell are you waiting for?
What's In Their CD Players?
Trent Reznor: "Well, there's the new Death in Vegas album and Queens of the Stone Age, but I've really been surprised by Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. - just excellent. Her and Saul Williams are the two most interesting artists in hip-hop, a style I'm known for not being a fan of. I just can't believe how good they are." As of press time, Trent has invited Saul to open NIN's UK shows.
Alessandro Cortini: "Check out this programmer named Alva Noto from Germany. He's got a very unusual rhythmic style. Other than that, I've been getting into a lot of the older Aphex Twin stuff, and I love Rahiohead's Kid A.
What was Trent's worst gear
"At Lollapalooza of '90 or '91, one of the tape decks we were using for backing tracks just stopped. Later we found that an internal power line had melted. We got through the first song, smashed our gear very theatrically, and ran offstage. That's right up there. . . .
"Next, the Timeline Micro-Lynx, once used to sync up tape machines in the studio. If I could only get back the hours of my life spent on the phone with those f***ing guys over their junk. Things where the fix is like "Pull out and re-seat the circuit board" and hope it works. Please.
"Here's the latest thing where everyone thinks they know the solution, and of course everyone has a different idea. Some earlier backing tracks we wanted for the current tour were originally on 2-inch analog, then backed up to half-inch digital when that was the format du jour. We printed it all to Pro Tools, but it keeps drifting out of tempo. Subtly, and halfway through the song, but eventually you notice it.
"Usually it's sync-type issues that make everyone just want to kill themselves. I'm lucky enough to be able to make it someone else's job, and thankful I can say "Call me when it's done, because I'm not going to lie on my back under this console anymore, trying to decipher inscrutable bullshit!"