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
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
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
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
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
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.