Sound Dependent In New Orleans

Originally published in unknown on May 1, 1996

It was, in the beginning, somewhat of a dichotomy. There was this band which was electronically-based. Their whole sound had a calculating, mechanized texture with background loops pumping out from a sequencer. There were keyboards and guitar, but sometimes the bass was on tape. Despite this machine-hardened edge, real-live humans brought the music to life, and contrary to the status quo of mechanized expectations, established themselves as a touring act instead of in the studio.

Fueled to an extent with all of the bellicosity and roiling angst found in hardcore punk or the heaviest metal, the band's lyrics nonetheless came across as confessional. Having released their first disk, Pretty Hate Machine, in 1989, their name today has come full circle from alternative known-by-only-the-coolest to a point of wide recognition.

Before the band even existed, there was Trent Reznor. As a young man from rural Pennsylvania with a serious appetite for music, keyboards, and synths, Reznor pulled the plug on a college education in computer engineering in favor of a move to Cleveland and a 10-to-6 gig seven days a week at a music store specializing in electronic instruments. Following time spent with the mandatory number of struggling bands and a stint with a recording studio, Reznor's musical vision ultimately led to the creation of Nine Inch Nails. By a number of informed estimations, Nine Inch Nails' moment officially arrived with their presence on the first Lollapalooza tour.

There, against the bizarre backdrop of Mr. Lifto, Matt the Tube, and the rest of the freaky Jim Rose Circus, the band reached new heights on an entertainment level as well as musically.

Following the debut of Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails released three singles: "Down in It" (1989), "Head Like a Hole" (1990), and "Sin" (later on in 1990). By 1992, the band had completed Broken, a six-song EP. The Downward Spiral made its appearance on March 8, 1994, and in addition to the title track, the full-length disk included 13 other songs including "Piggy", "Big Man With a Gun", and "Eraser".

A long-time adherent to the principle that technology is but an instrument to be manipulated as a natural part of the creative process, Reznor has made a habit of maintaining a project studio environment for Nine Inch Nails which naturally encourages participation from the other band members in the recording process.

The first such studio was located in the late Sharon Tate's former Hollywood home. When the lease ran out at this infamous site of one of Charles Manson's 1969 murderous revels, Reznor and crew packed up their gear and moved to New Orleans, where, in yet another macabre turn worthy of a Charles Addams, they now occupy a renovated funeral home.

Used for Nine Inch Nails' own Interscope projects as well as by bands such as Marilyn Manson signed with Reznor's Nothing label (which distributes through Interscope), the studio features an SSL 48-track A room, a B room outfitted with 32 tracks of Tascam recording capabilities and a fully-automated Amek 56-input console, and two live rooms, one of which is used for rehearsals.

Before Sharon Tate's house and the funeral parlor, back when it all began in that Cleveland music store, Reznor met up with two individuals who still maintain a large presence in his life. The first, John Malm, is his manager and co-conspirator in the creation of the Nothing label. Chris Vrenna is the second. Nine Inch Nails' drummer, Vrenna maintains his own personal studio-within-a-studio upstairs at the New Orleans compound, where he naturally focuses his energies upon creating drum sounds for the band. Kind enough to devote time to explaining his role in the NIN production process in an interview conducted in May of this year, Vrenna went on to hit upon other topics related to the project studio, among which were sampling, technology, Marilyn Manson, Coil, and the egalitarian synergy which inspires the production efforts going into each NIN recording.

Let's see, first there was Sharon Tate's house and a move to a funeral parlor. Then this group called Marilyn Manson, in which all of the band members have taken the surnames of famous serial killers, shows up one day at the funeral parlor to record. Correct me if I'm wrong, but by all just appearances, this has turned into quite a horror show, hasn't it?

I must admit that I have made my share of jokes about the whole progression of this project studio. I mean first Trent gets this spooky house in Hollywood, and now he buys a funeral parlor here in New Orleans. Oddly enough, with regards to the latter, it's worked out well. We have lots of space. We're on Magazine Street in the Uptown area, and in addition to the A and B recording studios, we have the two live rooms, a full lounge, reception area, three bathrooms, a full kitchen, and even a laundry room in what used to be the embalming room. The Studio A control room was once the chapel. It's located in the center of the building, and is--no pun intended--as quiet as a tomb. The isolation is simply amazing. We raised the floor in there and moved in the gear. Studio B and the two live rooms were once viewing rooms for the dearly departed.

Studio A is your SSL room, right?

Yeah, it's the main room with a full 72-input G+ SSL console with Utimation. It has two 24-track Studers, two E-mu EIVs and a 16-channel Pro Tools rig from Digidesign with a Macintosh that includes all of our sequencing software. We moved a 56-input Amek console here from the Tate house, and had planned on selling it after purchasing the SSL. As things worked out, however, it wound up collecting dust in the studio garage. Trent got frustrated seeing it just sitting there and thought, 'hell, I'll build a B room'. So he did, and that's where the Amek is now. It has full automation and all the upgrades. For live recording, we added four Tascam DA88 machines with remote to create a total of 32 tracks.

The entire studio layout seems to accommodate the band's own creative needs. Each person has his own space to develop musically and experiment. We've found that's the way we work best. I have my own personal studio upstairs. Inside, there's a Pro Tools workstation, everything I could ask for from Studio Vision, and all the software programs I need for sound manipulation, as well as a DAT machine, an E mu e64, and drum machines. Of course, I am more focused on drum sounds: acquiring them, making them, re-synthesizing them. I will do things like borrow guitar pedals from Danny [NIN's multi-faceted Danny Lohner, who plays guitar, keyboards, and bass for the band -ed.] for the day and see what kind of sounds I can create. There are so many endless possibilities when it comes to making sounds, messing up sounds you already have, or taking a sound you like or have heard and making it into something new. I'll be up in my studio working while Danny's in the B room experimenting with guitar ideas. If I have a bank of drum sounds I've been putting together, it's no problem to save them on disk and give them to him or any of the other band members in the studio. We all spread out and develop ideas on our own. Then, when the time comes to start the real work, everybody can bring in what they've been laboring over, and we begin to sort things out. This is a serious group effort. For instance, we'll all listen to various drum beats and compare them to guitar parts and whatever else, combine them, and then see what happens.

Sounds time consuming.

It is. All of this takes a big chunk of our time.

Tell us about Marilyn Manson, the band that's in here right now recording for Trent's Nothing label.

That band is doing really well. Their latest release, "Sweet Dreams", is number one on MTV. We're in the middle of recording their follow-up record. Part of Trent's deal when he was signed to Interscope was that he'd form his own label, Nothing Records. That gives Trent the power to sign bands to his label, and then those bands get the clout, distribution and money of Interscope behind them. Interscope is an awesome label, so it makes a good working relationship.

Coil is another band recording on the Nothing label, right?.

Yes, that's a band that's been around for quite some time. They'll be coming over here in June and will basically reside in the B room. Like Nine Inch Nails, Coil is another group that is totally sound dependent. A big part of the band's identity comes from the actual sounds and the way they use sounds. This is opposed to a bass/guitar/drum band you listen to where they may write good songs, but they always sound the same.

How will you work with Coil in the studio?

Coil is very much their own band. I don't think we'll be directly involved with their record. In fact, we'll most likely sit and watch, and probably learn some things.

Is that how you relate to Marilyn Manson?

They're a rock band, but they thoroughly enjoy sounding weird and having certain nuances added to their music. That's where we come in.

What are you using to produce those sounds and nuances?

When we finished the last tour we began gearing up for a Marilyn Manson remix. Having been out of the studio for a while, we had missed out on the introduction of a lot of new technology, and didn't have the time to go shopping for new gear. We were in high-experimentation mode and just happened to borrow an E-mu EIV. It loaded all the sounds automatically off our old Akai S1100's and did many other cool things our old samplers can't do. To make a long story short, we ended up buying four new units, two EIVs, and two of E-mu's e64s. I bought an e64 for my studio. I think the e64 is every bit as worthy an instrument, minus the hardware upgrades. For my purposes, I can live without 32 MIDI channels and extra RAM capacity. Trent bought an E4K to serve as his master and portable controller keyboard for home. This has worked out very well for him since he prefers to work from home when he is really deep in writing mode.

So, with the matching hard drives and Zip cartridges, you are free to create material and transfer it back and forth without a glitch.

Exactly, each time. As we set it up, now every room has a compatible machine.

What sequencing programs are you using?

We primarily use Studio Vision from Opcode. Studio Vision now supports 16 tracks of Pro Tools audio. We save the Pro Tools tracks for vocals and guitars because it's easy to comp them. You just copy and paste the parts you want and build the track. We've found it to be much easier than the old tape-comping methods, which is great since we print all of our final product on tape.

How do your drum sounds fit into the overall scheme?

We use the EIVs and the e64s for all the primaries--drums, loops, drones and any other noise--basically anything that isn't a synth.

It appears as if you're as masterful at manipulating computers as you are with sounds. Explain how you use all this stuff.

I will frequently sample my sounds in Sound Designer on the Macintosh. E mu has a very cool function page on the master which allows the Emulator ID to be permanently SCSI'd into the Mac. By setting the ID, I can create an entire SCSI chain which includes the e64, the internal drive, the hard drive and the Zip cartridge drive on the Mac. Everything has an ID number. When I go to the disk page on the e64, for example, it will see any disk on the bus, including a built-in CD ROM. If I want to add an emulator or CD ROM onto my Macintosh, the e64 will read it and load the sound from my internal Mac CD ROM. With the Zip drive being on the chain, I can insert an e64 Zip disk and load sounds into my e64. It is also possible to insert a Mac-formated disk into the Zip drive and the Macintosh will recognize it on the desktop as a Macintosh disk. Since it SCSI's between the two units, I can use my Zip in both formats.

And the moral is...

I can build an entire bank of sounds on the Mac, SCSI-dump them into the e64, save them in e64 format, and transfer them to a Zip cartridge. At that point, I walk downstairs, hand the cartridge to Trent, and he simply loads them into the EIV in the main control room.

What's coming up after Marilyn Manson?

After that, we'll be working on Nine Inch Nails. At this point, everything's been tracked for Manson's album and now we're in mix mode. They got here right after Mardi Gras which was the first of March, so they've been here two months already. We should be done by the end of May. We've also been working on sound effects for video games.

Is that the new Doom video I've heard about?

Yeah, it's called Quake. It's like the new super 3-D version of Doom. In fact, we just got the new version yesterday. We've been playing a couple of levels just to see how the game's improved--and if there's anything we need to look at for sound. It's going to be pretty amazing when it comes out. This has been in the works for months now.

As for the next Nine Inch Nails release, how far along is the project?

What we're doing for ourselves right now is lots of sampling, pre production stuff. Because a big part of the process comes from adapting whole rhythms of songs to newly created sounds, our energies have been focused on sampling. Going back to the keyboard and saying, we can't use those bass sounds because we've used them on another disk, or whatever. We each develop our favorites and then keep coming back to them. We hate that, but we stay with it and continue the experimentation process and eventually we end up with lots of new material.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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