The Melodic Alchemy of Trent Reznor June 2000

From the time his major hit Head Like a Hole broke through in 1989, through his late 1999 release, The Fragile (which was selected as Album of the Year by Spin), Trent Reznor has significantly changed the sound of rock music.

Strongly inspired by songwriters like David Bowie, Prince (the artist formerly known as "The Artist") and Brian Eno, Reznor developed a unique sound and style that made him one of the most influential songwriters of the past decade.

Simply Irreplaceable

Reznor even managed to return some inspiration to one of his idols, Bowie, while his immense success on the radio and with record sales sparked a new generation of alternative rock bands to add digital samples, sound design and heartfelt lyrics alongside their crunchy guitar tracks.

Heís additionally touched the worlds of film and video games by doing soundtracks for Oliver Stone and David Lynch, and by scoring the music for the original Quake.

Reznor now spends his days either touring the world with his band, Nine Inch Nails, or back at his New Orleans compound composing new musical arrangements from an unlimited palette of sounds, especially created for him by a dedicated team of audio engineers.

But how did he get there?

Harvested at a Young Age

At the age of 5, Reznor was forced into piano lessons, and got good pretty quickly. Music came naturally to him and at one point he considered dropping out of school to become a concert pianist. But when he hit high school, his musical interests tuned into rock & roll. "I always knew what I wanted to do, but growing up in Pennsylvania in a corn field, I just didnít have any idea how to go about pursuing it," says Reznor.

But he managed to reap a dream bigger than most farm town kids would ever know: his own team of sound engineers, a top-notch sound studio in New Orleans and a life fully dedicated to creating his art.

His First Synth Reznor got his first synthesizer in high school. "I knew it was the right time for me, because all of the things I was interested in, computers and music, were coming together," reminisces Reznor. "When I realized I could start making music on computers, thatís when I found a direction to my life."

Reznor Calculates His Future

After high school, Reznor thought about designing synths or recording consoles of his own. To pursue this idea, he went to college to study computer engineering. But like a lot of creative kids, he realized he didnít enjoy doing calculus all day.

So he dropped out of college. "I got a job at a studio, basically cleaning toilets and doing the odd jobs no one else wanted to do," explains Reznor, "But this gave me the opportunity to spend time around recording equipment." And thatís how Reznor got into audio engineering.

Fearing the Music

Within After teaching himself the basics, he felt it was time to test his ability to do some serious writing. But he was plagued by self-doubt.

"I was afraid to write because I knew what I liked and what I didnít like," says Reznor, "but I didnít know if what I could create would be something I liked." He had played keyboards in a bunch of bands, but the focus of the band had never been his vision.

As an experiment, he stopped every other aspect of his life and spent every waking minute writing music, using the studio he worked at.

Then a revelation hit him.....

"I realized Iíd never really worked that hard in life before, because things had always come pretty easily to me," says Reznor, "And I realized Iíd never really tried anything,you know, really tried.

"So then I really wanted to see what would happen if I went wholeheartedly into it," he adds.

Spiraling Down His Budget

"I got my living expenses down to sub-poverty level and just spent several months locked inside the studio," says Reznor. "When I wasnít doing sessions for terrible Cleveland bands, I was working on my own stuff."

He couldnít find a band at the time, so he wrote and recorded everything by himself. And that resulted his first hit record, Pretty Hate Machine.

Sometimes Less is More

"I made Pretty Hate Machine using a Mac Plus, an Emax keyboard and a Mini Moog, " says Reznor.

"That set up was cool because it was so limiting that it forced you to get the most out of what you had to work with. It was just basic MIDI, with no digital audio. But I knew the three pieces of gear I had inside and out," he adds.

Going for The Gumbo

"Every band Iíd been in seemed to think the way to make it was just to play bars where somebody would hear you some day and it just seemed stupid, especially in Cleveland," remembers Reznor.

So he put together a demo tape, shopped it around, and quickly received several offers from the small labels he had approached.

Reznor finally signed on with a label then known for its distribution of old television tunes, TVT. But that turned out to be a painful, rather than pleasurable, experience.

"They had no artistic insight whatsoever, and were very meddling and interfering," Reznor reflects. "So I had the pleasure of putting a record out that I was told would be my Ďcareer ender.í"

Proof in the Puddiní

That same album, the completed version of Pretty Hate Machine (PHM), released by Reznor under his assumed band name Nine Inch Nails (NIN), went on to sell several million copies over the next few years.

Yet relations did not improve as a result of the albumís success. Luckily, due to the immense success of PHM, a bigger label, Interscope, came over and bought NIN out of their contract. Reznor and his longtime manager, John Malm, started their own label, Nothing Records, which Interscope agreed to distribute.

Audio Enters the MIDI Picture

After Pretty Hate Machine took off, Reznor moved into recording audio tracks on his computer, a step that required a tad more hard-drive space than his previous all-MIDI arrangements had.

"The album took off and I got some money for a change," revels Reznor. "That was right when sequencers started to able to record audio. It was a big turning point in how I wrote music."

"When sequencers started to be able to record audio, it was a big turning point in how I wrote music," says Reznor.
Following PHM, Reznor added four channels of digital audio to his MIDI arrangements for Broken. "I switched mid-project from Digital Performer to StudioVision just so I could add in those audio tracks."

Reznorís use of StudioVision continued through The Downward Spiral, and by the time he started working on The Fragile, he was completely settled into the program.

Chaos Strikes The Fragile

Then, like Murphyís Law would have it, StudioVision failed him right in the middle of The Fragile. This resulted in a creative nightmare for Reznor.

"As we added channels, which it claimed it could do, it just got too bogged down and stopped working," he says.

This put Reznor in a sticky predicament. The program he was comfortable with wouldnít work anymore, and the other program being used at the studio for sound design was too complicated for him to master quickly.

As a result, The Fragile demanded a bit more collaboration than the standard NIN project would, because Reznor had to let someone else do his sequence programming.
Heís Out of Control

"The bad thing is that I got lazy, and now I donít know how to work the sequencer that weíre using," Reznor confides. "So I really feel like my hands are tied."

And thatís not a very nice place to be, especially for the man who coined the phrase "Iíd rather die than give you control." But fortunately for Reznor, Digidesign released ProTools 5, and his hope is restored, post-Opcode.

"Now that ProTools 5 can deal with MIDI primitively, it feels more like Iím working on a Mac again, " he explains. "Although there are some things you canít do in ProTools 5, it handles audio great so Iím making myself use it for the new stuff weíre working on now."

"It may be a nice program, but Iím not going to endorse it if it doesnít run on a Mac, and I told them that," he adds.

The Sacred Art of Songwriting

Reznor may have a team of engineers designing original sounds for him, but doesnít mean that songwriting has evolved into group process for NIN.

"I tend to get a bunch of ideas at one time and a pretty clear idea of what I want to do," explains Reznor, "so rather than try to democratically talk my way into getting what I want, itís just easier to pick something up and do it myself."

Whatís Next?

Reznor still has a bunch of songs left over from The Fragile that are in various states of being finished. He hopes to finish these songs and release them on the next NIN album.

Further, heís considering putting out "a real stripped down (not unplugged) minimal, kind of acoustic-sounding thing"which would be a bit unusual for them. But the band did a radio show like that a while back, and it worked out really well for them.

Touring with Final Cut and QuickTime

NIN is known for its intense and visual live shows, and wanted to share the live experience with its fans around the world. So, Reznor hired a photographer to shoot footage for the NIN website in conjunction with the bandís world tour.

Since the tour launched a few months back, the site has featured regular post-show QuickTime movie clips of fans along the tour circuit, and some live footage from select shows.

"We have Final Cut Pro, and we have been filming the last several shows with about seven different Canon XL1 digital cameras," says Reznor, "Then the plan is to edit it and finish it all on a Mac."

Reznor decided to enlist a single camera person, Rob Sheridan, in lieu of a film crew. "Weíve gone the route of hiring big film crews and fighting with editors and cameramen who think theyíre Orson Welles," he says. Sheridan manages everything to do with filming for NIN, from setting up the cameras to capture the live energy of NIN, to editing clips of the tour in FCP for the website.

"Weíll probably do a DVD release of this tour later this year," says Reznor, "Itís an experiment and an excuse to kind of dig into Final Cut and see what happens." Sheridan will work alongside Reznor in editing the footage for the DVD release.

G4/ProTools on the Tour Bus

Meanwhile, the tour bus is stocked with a media lab for both audio and video editing, including a rack-mounted Power Mac G4 with a ProTools rig in it. "Weíve got that with us for less excuses to waste time," he adds.

Looking to Score

Reznorís experience in movie making had already extended into working on soundtracks for some major motion pictures, and scoring music for a popular video game.

"I did Natural Born Killers, and Lost Highway for David Lynch," says Reznor, "but Iíve really no interest in doing any more compilation albums. The only thing Iíd want to do these days is actual scoring."

"Iíd love for David Cronenberg to call me on the phone and say, ĎScore a filmí," he adds. Reznorís spooky, atmospheric sound would blend well with the film making style of the creator of films like Crash, Naked Lunch and The Fly.

Heís Game for Games

Then he confides that heís been talking to John Carmack about scoring the music for a new version of Doom. "I would do something like that mainly because itís a hobby of mine, I appreciate the technology, and itís fun to work outside Nine Inch Nails once in a while."

Nailed to their Macs

"Everybody in our camp is Mac and thatís it," stresses Reznor, "Weíve adopted a pretty purist attitude. There have been some software companies who develop PC-only software whoíve approached us ,the people who make Acid, Sonic Foundry, for one.

"It may be a nice program, but Iím not going to endorse it if it doesnít run on a Mac, and I told them that," he adds.

"Even if it does run on Virtual PC, I tell them, ĎWake up and do the right thing.í" he says "With Web integration stuff, there have been companies that are like Ďuse our playerí but it only runs on a Windows machine, and Iím like, ĎNo, Iím not going to help the enemy.í"

"Iíve just always had a soft spot in my heart for Macs." admits Reznor, "Like, I just got the blue-and-white machine and then oh,out came the cooler looking G4! Someone bought me an iMacDV for Christmas, and itís just something as simple as plug-in the DV and the first time ĎOh wow! it works.í I mean, here I was expecting to have to hunt down a cable, but ĎWoah, itís in the box.í Thatís what I think a lot of the PC people donít understand," Reznor concludes, "the pleasure of not having to worry about compatibility issues."