Interview with Charlie Clouser
Keyboardist / Programmer
Nine Inch Nails
By: Chris Youdell - Analogue Modular Systems
12.00

CY: Which Analog synths have you used and how have they influenced the sound of NIN in the process of recording?

NIN: I've always kept every synth that I own such as the Korg MS 20 Arp Solus, Korg MS 50. Trent early on had some odd ball synths like the Prophet VS, and Oberheim Xpander, that really became essential to his sound over the first couple of albums. The first album was all Minimoog, and Emulator II for most of the sampling, the Xpander and Prophet VS played very heavy roles that time. I have always been a fan of the Prophet VS, but when I joined NIN it made those types of things more usable because they have become a trademark part of the band's sound, particularly the Oberheim Xpander patches and the Prophet VS patches that we have in our machines. We just hit the key and there is only one thing you can do with that sound...and it's play a NIN riff!!! That's why it's one of the reasons why we end up chasing vintage instruments. It's a sad but true but there are some things which are crucial to what we are doing, which have yet to be replicated effectively with the modern stuff. I mean we have every single model of Nord, Virus, Micro-wave, numerous duplicate copies of every single modern synth, we are searching for things that can help simulate, duplicate, or replace some of these admittedly rather delicate instruments like the Prophet VS, it is very delicate physically. We are hoping that eventually there will be a modern replacement for some of these things. We find that because the Prophet VS is not all that great for what it originally set out to do, we don't wind up using it for those original sounds, that were in the machine when you bought it. For instance, Trent stumbled upon new sounds, and turned the characteristics of some of these instruments into a whole new genre of sound for himself to work with, and sadly, and I hate to be the guy that says it, these vintage instruments are irreplaceable, and you can't truly imitate them.
CY: So you still use all those old synths you mentioned, you haven't discarded them over the last few years and gone onto newer synths that have come out?

NIN: Oh no, not at all!!! Actually sitting right in front of me I've got a little panel that has the Nord rack, JP 8080, Virus, Microwave II, and Nord modular, and that's a little modern stack. Then there's the Prophet VS rack, Super Jupiter with programmer, and of course two E-Max's , Mirage, Jupiter 8, Prophet VS, and Oberheim Xpander. Trent's set up is much the same although he's got some other more exotic pieces, like PPG Wave 2.3 with Waveterm, Voyetra 8, and some other interesting things. He's been quite a fan of his Oberheim SEM Modular, he's got a little stand alone SEM that was used quite a bit on this album, and it undeniably pokes through the clutter. His arrangements have been very dense and with a lot of his sounds we are working with, there's a lot of stuff going on, like three drum kits playing at once, and things like that, so we are searching for sounds that can poke through that murk and have some characteristics, not just being a loud brass sound, but something that can poke through and have some personality. He's been going back to the older stuff. But for a minute, you always get infatuated with the newer stuff, because it does do many things that the older stuff won't do, like having LFO's that sync to midi clock, and convenient features like that. Where you'd go "oh man, this use to take us all day and a bunch of patch cables to do this remember!!!" Doing things like when you used to have to simulate it, now they give quick and easy ways to get some of these effects. But then in the longer run the underlying sound technology is not as burly or as appealing as it used to be. In the old days they used to have coax every ounce of simulated life and warmth out of these things. Now they can just throw a sample and it sounds like a string section, so you don't have to work too hard to get it to sound fantastic. They can put an eighty cent algorhythm on a chip that will spread things out in stereo and make it all fizzy and great, but you look at an Oberheim Xpander and all you'd have to work with was three oscillators times six voices. They would work every trick in the book to make it sound like more. There is one thing I am waiting for the new synths to have is like on the Xpander, where you can turn on and off the individual wave shaper for the oscillator, you don't have a mix control or a switch select for what wave form you want. You can turn them all on and that is how you get some of the most dense and kind of overdriven, but not distorted, but warm and fuzzy, glued together sounds, and its kind of got all the stops pulled out. That's not an option on these newer instruments, where they can go "oh!, it's only one dsp chip, and how about if we throw four more chips" and you can just stack all the voices. Or they are using other tricks to get largeness out of a sound, where as in the old days they only had a small bag of tricks, and they had to tack them with shear hardware. I don't have one now, but for instance, the Memory Moog which I used to own three of at one point, they became so troublesome in the late 80's, I got out from under them, but that was one of those instruments that would just decimate all competition if you were looking for a large sound, or a sound that sounded like a whole record being played under one key. Things like that had some real thickness to them and I am finding now that although I've had a brief infatuation with some of the more modern instruments, that now I am resorting back to the old favorites.

CY: Right, and those old ones the ones pre-midi how did you solve problems with triggering those? Did you just use cv and gate for recording ? - how did you get them all to talk to each other?

NIN: Yeah, well basically, I've got an MPU 101, the old Roland CV box and Trent's got a couple of those, and those things are amazingly durable, they do just what they were advertised to do. I bought mine new in the store 15 years ago, and a pity they still don't make them. Even though there are many replacements, probably even better, like the Kenton and stuff like that, but we find the cv and gate stuff triggers amazingly quickly, and actually subconsciously, probably psychologically only, it feels tighter than some of the midi instruments.

CY: I think Vince Clark doesn't use midi because of its inherent slowness. I think he always uses cv and gate doesn't he?

NIN: Exactly. We are still triggering it from midi, so were subject to the same delay in processing but there is something about the regularity, it's all in the MPU 101. I'm sure it's a fact that that thing is very quick at triggering. But it's subtle effect to how it feels and I know talking about Vince Clark he uses analog sequencers, Roland MC4 microcomposers and things which are not transmitting anything serially, and that's even more fantastic than what I am talking about. We've had very good luck and a lot of these instruments only need minor tuning and adjustments, surprisingly they are usually in scale across at least three or four octaves, even some of these old beat up Mini-Moogs that Trent has, and he's got three or four of them!!! Some of the older strange instruments they've been midi retro-fitted. Like I've got a Jupiter 8 and fortunately I've got the MD8 box which adds midi, but of course there's a huge processing delay on some of those things. With the MD8 you can't really play the Jupiter 8 effectively in real time over the midi, but we are talking sequencers here!!! So it's a simple matter to record the sequence part, and yeah it sounds a little fudgy while your doing it, but then you just slip the track back in the sequencer and line it up. Its a small matter considering the DigiDesign ProTools systems, still forces you to manually f**kin re-align tracks after a plugin introduces in a delay. It's not that big of a deal!!!

CY: What about processing gear. I know you bought some EMS rack processors from me - what did you think of them?

NIN: Great - we are enthusiastic customers of Analog Modular Systems!!! They are huge part of our arsenal now, generally external filter boxes and things which can just remove or destroy large portions of the frequency spectrum, like those EMS boxes from you - which I gather are quite rare. Admittedly we are attacking the problem kind of by throwing mass piles of gear at it, and often will use some piece of gear which will only make one sound in our world. Unfortunately, often you buy a piece it might be \$600- and it might only do one good thing and you might only get to use it once on an album, anymore than that your over using it! Admittedly, these are not the kind of pieces your bedroom studio guy is gonna wanna have. Trent's got a huge collection of that sort of thing, and I have one or two things, like I have one of the EMS phase shifter's that he also has, although he has three or four other pieces, I've just got one of them when it turned up on your stock list. I am not going to attack it with the same gusto that he does!!!Trent will just take it all, have one of everything, and will use everything once. I have been able to watch and learn which pieces are the most outrageous, the most truly precious moments in musical instrument design, and some of those I try to snag. I consider myself to a certain degree, a project studio guy, because i don't have a huge, well I have a pretty huge gear collection, but it's all in a small room run with 02R's and ProTools. I don't own an SSL...I'm not that out of control!!! I'm not just buying things wantonly, so when I buy an Oberheim Xpander with that Obermart mod thats kind of a big purchase, I try to make sure that it's not something that I'm just gonna let sit and that its something that can be called upon to get you out of a pinch, when your bored to death that day, and your just looking for something to throw a little spice in. TC electronics boxes, and zoom many of these things of the digital age won't surprise you. But say that EMS phase frequency shifter, will give you a headache if you use it the wrong way!!! - it will physically make you nauseous (laughing) and things like that. I find interesting, partly because my love of odd ball moments in musical instrument design, the strange impressive delusion that someone was operating under when they built this wonderfully deranged thing - all before somebody in the company said what are you thinking!!! Those are the moments which produce like the most fantastic and creative pieces of gear. But nonetheless you have to rely on certain utilitarian pieces like a D-Drum drum sampler, its very unglamorous, but winds up getting used everyday to solve a problem which it was uniquely suited to solve. Then there's pieces like the EMS pieces, and weird odd ball synths, like I don't have one, but love the sound of the Oscar, or Electro Harmonic pedals, I'm sure the dude didn't really know what he was doing when he designed them, he kind of did, but it was just screwed up enough, and didn't have a board of directors breathing down his neck, and produced some of these great odd ball units. It the same with the legendary story of the Oberheim OBMX. Trent has this prototype, and as you know its one of the two prototype hand built units, and apparently some of the right people were involved in designing it, and this thing sounds fantastic, and then the production units came out, and I gather are still available, well they physically look different, different inside, different build of quality and don't sound anywhere near as good. There's potential for there to be a huge and intangible difference in the sound of an instrument, the intangibles in the circuit design sometimes, no one knows quite why for instance they used to use thicker circuit boards. Maybe that contributes to it and there's little chance they would go and re-engineer some of these things. It's possile that Fender would re-engineer a vintage Strat and it does sound like the original with the original cheap thin wire, or the hard wood neck, or whatever, because that's something that's attainable, and quantifiable. But with some of these electronic things, there's little chance that they could put there finger on what made it so special. It's a lost cause if you can convince a company to build a 303 or 808 truly from scratch with analog circuitry they probably wouldn't sound the same, for the exact reason that they used to hand wire things back in the old days, there's something intangible that we may never know - it's sad but true!!! I believe that a lot of these instruments deserve a good home, and be kept up like with these Prophet VS's. I'm anxious to lay in a stock pile of sliders, and displays and things for when the long cold winter ahead!!! These instruments will remain in playable condition, they're not just gonna sit on the shelf, and they don't won't to be run down units - you know you don't use them anymore because the data slider broke off and you can't edit the patches anymore.

CY: What about live? Are there any of the old analogue synths you use in the band live?

NIN: Believe it or not for the entire last tour which was about two years long, there were a few things that Trent would need to play that couldn't be reproduced by samplers namely Prophet VS sounds, signature sounds that he plays. He actually has a Prophet VS rack which carried around the world twice, which sat out in the rain for two years, and still to this day works fine. It's beat up to shit, but works fine, and the display works and the joystick, and slider are still there!!! I look at the thing and I say that poor thing, we shouldn't take that out, it's too valuable and rare!!! So this time I will be looking to sample and duplicate it's crucial patches, because I am afraid to see an instrument like that get smashed because some roadie dropped it on the road. But we have actually hauled that thing around. There's also one Prophet VS that Trent has, a keyboard version, that somehow got broken, one of the vca chips or something, it doesn't respond correctly to envelope, and keyboard tracking, but it's broken in a unique and wonderful way. If you load patches in they don't sound right but they sound cool, and they get all distorted, and certain keys on the keyboard, as the voices rotate their assignments will be distorted, and others won't be. It's got big pieces of tape all over the front saying, "Do not repair under any circumstances" (laughing!) attention techs do not open this keyboard or repair it's just a happy accident that one of them broke in a great way. Also, Trent's got a Roland, I'm not sure of the name, I believe it's the Chorus Echo, it's the rack mount orange and black, the biggest heaviest, narliest one they made, fantastically sexy piece of technology. I believe it was \$1,500 at the time, something ridiculous, and that is also completely out of whack and broken. There's something sticking on the capstan motors and the tape makes warping sounds, and it's basically an instant Mellotron!!! You can take a terrible sounding string patch from any workstation and run it through this thing with no repeats, and just hearing the delayed signal off the first head and it sounds like it's being played off of a broken Mellotron!!! Off this new album, we ran off a lot of vocals and guitars and strings through it. Like Trent's playing a violin very faulteringly, and run through that thing, it's a mess!!! It just makes the person sound like you just can't play!!! Plus it's on a broken Victorola, and that's another case of "do not touch" only power up if necessary, because soon it's gonna break completely, or it will fix its self and sound fine!!! Those are two prime examples of old technology that feature very prominently on this record. Especially the Chorus Echo you'll definitely here stuff that sounds like the whole mix is on an Mellotron, well it kinda of was (laughing!) I think one of the first singles has some broken tape echo on that-some kind of warbly songs!!!

CY: So when is this new record coming out?

NIN: Well were hoping to finish it in the next month, so we will finish around June 1st, and hopefully, in theory it will come out in August.

CY: Thanks