Trent Reznor On Songwriting And Pro Tools 5
Digi's Userville 10.00
by Jim Batcho

"I think it's an interesting time right now with the amount of stuff you can do inside of the computer. I'm seeing the full benefit of the Pro Tools world right now."

"With the interesting amount of great sounding plug-ins, and now that we're mixing in Pro Tools, having the ability to automate everything -- the potential just seems limitless."

Back when Trent Reznor was working on Nine Inch Nails' seminal Pretty Hate Machine, using computers to make music was a novelty. But it was a medium he embraced. Composed primarily on a Mac Plus, the debut album re-defined what rock music was all about and helped set the tone for much of the popular music heard today.

A longtime user of Apple and Digidesign hardware in conjunction with sequencing software for music creation, Reznor has dealt with the growing pains associated with a mix-and-match computer-based production platform. Listening to Reznor today, it seems the Pro Tools hardware/software combination is the stable, creative and mature solution he's been looking for.

Prior to the making of last year's The Fragile, Reznor needed to find something to replace his Studio Vision sequencer application. Wanting to concentrate more on writing and less on the technological aspects of production, Reznor left the task of choosing the new platform up to his team of programmers. The consensus at the time was Logic Audio.

"We switched from Studio Vision to Logic, which I personally didn't care for so I never really learned it," he says over the phone from NIN's Nothing Studios in New Orleans. "I'd look at it and it looked like mathematics. It didn't look like music to me."

By the time The Fragile was complete, Pro Tools version 5.0 was released. When he saw it, Reznor says he was so impressed that he urged the rest of the NIN team to move from Logic to Pro Tools software.

"I was so enthused by the fact that MIDI was integrated into it in a more sequencer-type way that I just pushed everybody. I said 'let's try this out' and Pro Tools has moved to the forefront of what we're using right now," he says. "It's been a pleasure for me to put that Logic manual back under the couch and get down to making music."

Two New Projects
Nine Inch Nails is getting set to release two projects: an upcoming live concert DVD and Things Falling Apart, a remix of The Fragile. For the remix album, due out Nov. 21, Reznor eschewed the typical DJ-of-the-moment approach and instead took the copious ideas that emerged from the album's writing process and compiled mixes from within the NIN camp itself.

"We have a fairly large network at the studio and everyone has their rooms they work in at the main studio," he says. "When we were working on The Fragile a lot of times when tracks were somewhat developed or near-finished, guys like Charlie Clouser, or Keith Hillebrandt or Danny Lohner -- guys that were in the band and around the project -- would show interest in re-constructing things or trying to take a song in a different direction. So when I finished the record and sequenced everything together and made the decision of what to throw out and what to keep, there were a lot of these things left over.
"So when we got off tour we went back and listened to all these things, and it was a pleasant surprise. They were better than I remember them being, which I thought was pretty cool. And I thought I'd make a record that is a collection of things. It isn't the major next statement of Nine Inch Nails, it's more of a breeding ground and collection of curiosities and things that I find interesting that are more geared toward the fan."

Reznor is also writing new material, some of which came about while on the road. For The Fragile tour, Nine Inch Nails fitted the tour bus with a complete Pro Tools rig with ProControl. Reznor packed an expansion chassis with TDM DSP cards and used a 1622 I/O interface to patch in a choice selection of synths, mix within Pro Tools 5, and monitor from the interface's stereo outputs.

"With The Fragile I was still in kind of an old school -- get the sound outside the computer and then record it in the computer mode," he says. "Now I'm just realizing the capabilities with bussing and the use of plug-ins and now having the DSP to just slap on as many effects as possible. With the interesting amount of great sounding plug-ins, and now that we're mixing in Pro Tools, having the ability to automate everything -- the potential just seems limitless."

Working with Pro Tools in conjunction with his synths, Reznor says he is able to come up with sounds he can't produce on any other system. "With a fairly boring synth like the Triton we had out with us, suddenly I could take that sound that you could tinker around with in the synth and try to dress up that string sound -- slap Lo-Fi and a couple other things on it and record the automation in time with something else. That's something I could have never done outside Pro Tools. That impressed me enough to get my head around the different way of thinking of everything inside the computer."

Creating sounds inside Pro Tools has also helped to alleviate the paranoia Reznor experienced working with Studio Vision. "I was used to the days of Studio Vision where you just prayed that it would stay up long enough to get that one part down and save before it crashed. Now I'm really impressed with the stability of Pro Tools and just the flexibility when you get your mind around that way of working."

The Songwriting Struggle

Reznor says songwriting has always been a "back and forth struggle." Up to the time of The Downward Spiral, he says he would usually sit in front of a computer and get some kind of feel happening, whether it's a drum groove, bass line, or just some ambiance. "At the same time, but not purposefully together, I'd be working on lyrical ideas and formulating different emotions I wanted to convey, and then later I'd put some of these musical bits together and see what fit. At that time they both would mutate into a new thing that would start to become a song."

As his Pro Tools system grew with additional I/O and DSP, in addition to an upgraded synth collection, Reznor says he began to break the "cardinal rule of songwriting" and began composing in the studio. The studio workflow used to consist of a lot of time spent on his SSL, Amek and a couple of Studer tape machines locked to Pro Tools. But by the time he was working on The Fragile, his writing tool -- his Pro Tools rig -- had become his studio.

"My little work area had become the studio, and it was a great luxury when I could envision a song in my head and I could look at the rack of stuff and say 'OK I think it's this piece' and it's already wired up," he says. "So writing and arranging almost became the same thing, but the problem there I think is that sometimes songwriting suffers because you're more into the window dressing than the actual structure of what you're dressing up. So what (co-producer) Alan Moulder and I have done, especially on The Fragile, is to make every aspect of the production as important as the songwriting, because the songs were more moods than say Beatle-esque, well-constructed pop songs. And that was a conscious thing."

At one point, Rick Rubin, producer for such bands as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beastie Boys, suggested that Reznor take a more traditional approach to creating songs.

"He said 'just sit in a room with a guitar or piano and just come up with some things that way more based on melody and harmonic structure,'" Reznor says. "And it just sounded like Billy Joel; the things that came out weren't inspiring me. I almost quit making music from that. I was afraid, so I dove back into making noise."

Wearing Different Hats

Because he takes on so many different roles as the leader of Nine Inch Nails, Reznor says it's important for him to look outside of himself to gain objectivity into the music he's creating.

"When I'm working on a Nine Inch Nails project I always like to have a producer with me to provide me with objectivity," he says. "Because it is difficult when you're struggling in your bedroom over lyrical ideas and you've got these demo bits of music you've thrown together and then you try to kick into an interesting way to record and arrange this thing. And then try to objectively look at it from another level and say is this a piece of s#@t or is this good? Does it say anything?

"In the case of The Fragile, it was a two-year marathon of 50-some songs to look at. In each one you had your 'I love this one because it reminds me of something great that happened at that time' and 'I hate this one because I fought with this guitar solo for two weeks.' Things that no one else would get from it. It's tough at that point to be objective."

At times Reznor says he almost has to become different people depending on the task at hand. He'll become the programmer and look at songs from that angle, then he'll look at things from an arranger's perspective, then examine the lyrics he's developed with a critical eye.

"I found with The Fragile, because it took so long, that there were times when we just went off on tangents that were unnecessary. And I think it was because we were afraid of addressing the bigger issue which was 'is this any good or not?' At some point I have to treat my head like it's a few different people in there and wear a different hat."

For the live DVD, Reznor got fully into 5.1 mode, which was unfamiliar territory for him. With the surround mix, he chose to feed stems into his SSL, which he fitted with a Martinsound MultiMAX. But when it came time for the PCM stereo mixes, the decision was made to go back to Pro Tools.

"I thought, every single thing is in the computer now, because we recorded everything live to 48-track digital and worked with it in Pro Tools," he says. "And I thought, 'this is stupid, why are we even doing this?' So we wheeled out the ProControl and set all the automation in that way -- riding the faders. And that made me think, OK, now I've got a 72-input giant analog piece of gear that I really don't need that much anymore because I can do most of it inside the computer.

"So I think it's an interesting time right now with the amount of stuff you can do inside of the computer. I'm seeing the full benefit of the Pro Tools world right now."