March of the DVDs:
The ME Interview With Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails
By Mike Mettler

m-emag.com - may 2002

Trent Reznor is a driven man. He spent the bulk of last year holed up in his home studio in New Orleans (Nothing Studios) readying the concurrent CD and DVD release of nine inch nails live: and all that could have been (Nothing/Interscope). When I mentioned to him how much I'd been looking forward to experiencing the final DVD mix at the time, I'd only previewed it at the pioneering industrial band's provocative and ever-evolving website, www.nin.com he replied, with no trace of irony: "Yeah, me too." Now that I've had a chance to live with the finished product, I can report that the and all that DVD is indeed all that; it's an intense, immersing surround experience that deftly reproduces what it was like to be in the thick of the audience for NIN's acclaimed fragility v2.0 tour in 2000 just the way Reznor planned it. In the aftermath of all that, Reznor, who just turned 37, is now considering recording an EP's worth of studio NIN material in 5.1.

Car Tales

MIKE METTLER: What kind of car do you have?

TRENT REZNOR: I have a dark green Porsche 911. I got the last air-cooled one, a '97. That replaced a wide-bodied '94 I had. This one's a convertible.

The problem with the 911 is that there's no room to put anything in it. The back seat has been replaced with a big fiberglass subwoofer. It's either a 15- or 18-inch sub; I don't recall who makes it. But I'm not really losing any space there because no human can sit in the back seat, anyway. Luckily I'm not that tall, because I can't put my seat back any further.

METTLER: What other gear did you put in the Porsche?

REZNOR: Whatever the newest Alpine head is, with a six-disc changer. The shop that did the work is Mobile One in New Orleans. All of the amps are under a grille in the front trunk with a Nine Inch Nails logo that I didn't ask for, but it's kind of cool. [laughs].

METTLER: What are your favorite cruising tunes?

REZNOR: My mainstays: Roni Size & Reprazent, A Tribe Called Quest for those Sundays with the top down, and the latest Cult album, Beyond Good and Evil. I drive around to get out of the studio every once in a while.

METTLER: Which places do you like to cruise to?

REZNOR: I'm not far from Audubon Park, so I'll go there just to get out and see human beings, I'll hit that, or I'll go to Jean Lafitte Park [on Canal Street], which is just a half hour from here. It's a straight stretch of highway, so if you take your chances, you can open things up.

METTLER: What do you think of satellite radio?

REZNOR: The idea of that is excellent, and I'll say that for this reason: The only time I listen to radio is when I'm not in my own car and the person I'm riding with doesn't have a CD player. I hate radio, and I HATE the homogenous nature of this Clear Channel BS where every station in the country is exactly the same and they play the same five songs. I find rock radio to be an absolute shame right now, totally unlistenable. And I'm insulted by moronic Morning Zoo nonsense. That makes me hate music and hate listening to radio even more.

Down here, the choices are the blandest rock or college radio that's the worst in the opposite directions "Here's a tape of my friend's band made in the basement." Nobody seems to have the courage to try.

I think satellite radio is a great idea. I was thinking just the other day, how do I even get exposed to new music anymore? Sometimes it's word of mouth, friends, or M2 [MTV2].

And All That It's Become

METTLER: You've been working on and all that could have been for a long time. Just how long has it taken you to get it to your liking?

REZNOR: That's a tough question. We made the decision to do this project in house for a number of reasons. One, we wanted the final product to be what we wanted it to be, not a film company's. And the idea was that I thought the show was good, and I wanted to show you what I wanted you to see of the show not from a swooping crane or behind-the-stage images, but what it was like being at the show. We filmed it ourselves with MiniDV cameras. We edited it and did the final cut on Macs using Digidesign's ProTools software.

METTLER: Was DVD your original format goal?

REZNOR: DVD was desirable because its audio quality all of its qualities, really was better than VHS, plus we had the chance to work in 5.1, and I thought, "Let's use this medium, let's exploit it and find out what its limitations are."

METTLER: Had you worked with 5.1 at all before this project?

REZNOR: Not at all.

METTLER: After working with it for a while, what have you found out about the format?

REZNOR: Aside from understanding that it's a film format adopted into music, the main problem that you run into in the music world is: What the hell do you do with the center channel? We did quite a lot of research. When we decided to do it ourselves, we got the room properly set. I learned a lot about bass management listening to pretty much every live DVD out there. Just about anything on DVD in surround is based on a live performance including our own.

One of the comforts of being in this studio [Nothing Studios] is that we have just about any piece of outboard gear in the world. We've got the ability to incorporate just about anything into mixes. But I didn't have any idea of what I was getting into, such as a) the difficulty of getting the room set up properly to mix in 5.1 and b) I wasn't sure how difficult it was to work in that medium. I consulted with a few friends of mine some studio owners in L.A., the guy from L.A. who tunes my room, and picked some other people's brains. I set up a temporary system to listen to as many 5.1 mixes that were out there to get a gauge.

METTLER: Any examples you can mention?

REZNOR: After listening to everything out there and consulting with some people, we started wondering: What's the point of that center channel? It can bring things out in a mix, but it can also destroy a mix. Examples of poorly mixed surround DVDs would be U2's Rattle and Hum and Rage Against the Machine's The Battle of Mexico City. They sound like somebody just took a stereo mix and put some reverb in the back or did some trickery through phase to get things to pop in the back. Those two DVDs are examples of mushy, ugly sound.

For me, I want the band to be playing in front of you, and not lose any impact it would have if it were in stereo but then also immerse you in the crowd. I thought, "If we're going to embrace this format, how are we going to get that accomplished?" When I recorded the audio for this project live, we recorded five nights of performances, setting up a series of stereo mics throughout the venues different distances from the stage. Because anytime in the past I ever tried to record the band live, it seemed the least amount of care went into the audience mics. We found that when we started positioning things around the surround field, we didn't need to "trick" things that much we didn't need to rely on reverb to set the space.

For this project, I adhered to the idea that when you put a powerful stereo mix on, you're not missing the extra speakers; it sounds great as is. I wanted to have that same effect in the stereo field and not get too distracting with the rear speakers, because I think the tendency is when you have them, you're going to use them. That's true with DVDs in general: DVD offers a few more creative options than standard you have multiple camera angles, audio tracks that come up at the same time, etc. but that doesn't mean you should use them all the time.

I'm real pleased with the surround mixes of this stuff. It sounds like I imagine it would at the front of the house. There's a powerful band in front of you, and you do seem like you're in the audience. It's not the most creative in terms of abstract use of six speakers, but that's not applicable to this situation. It's a live show, and I wanted it to remain a live show. From all that I've learned here, I'd be interested in doing an EP's worth of music that's not live and that uses six speakers.

Dry in the Center

METTLER: That was one of my next questions: Would you record original music in six channels?

REZNOR: It is interesting, and it's something that I would like to do. What got me inspired about it is the attitude that there is no wrong way to mix for surround. In the early days of stereo, you'd have some instruments solely on one side and others only on the other side. No one was saying that was the wrong way to do it yet. I do believe there are mistakes that you can make with surround. One giant is that they put the lead vocals in the center channel, dry. I recommend checking out Metallica's Cunning Stunts and one of the Rolling Stones live ones, Bridges to Babylon Tour '97 -'98, to experience that. As a singer, I can assure you, I never want anyone to hear my lead vocal dry, especially live. I don't think Mick Jagger realized that you could turn off all of the other speakers and just listen to that one. Even if you're a good musician, that naked, dry, ugly sound you realize things you can do wrong.

The subwoofer is another world of trouble you can get into. It's been a real educational experience. The medium is interesting. I don't think it's the end-all thing. Another challenge/factor we had to consider you know how many people have trouble setting up a stereo system because, well, that speaker looks better over in that corner, so the sacrifice is that it sounds terrible! So imagine having six speakers in that equation, and having them at the right distance, and right level. I get into the world of everything being exact, and, sadly, most people aren't going to experience what we did for this DVD exactly the way I'd like.

Finding Closure

METTLER: Will Closure make it onto DVD one of these days? [Closure, released on VHS in 1997, is a two-cassette set that features live and backstage footage from the Self Destruct tour as well as all of the NIN videos made through '97.]

REZNOR: I'm considering reformatting it and adding a commentary track to it, yes. That might be interesting.

METTLER: You did a commentary track for this DVD. How'd you like doing that?

REZNOR: I had a bunch of people who were involved doing it, but then you realize how incredibly dull it is having your lighting director talk. It may be interesting to other lighting directors, but it's probably not for everybody else.

The only one that made it: Bill Viola, the video artist, who did some video for the middle of the [live] set, the instrumental portion. He could show you a white piece of paper, explain why it's white, and get you to frame it because it now means something to you. His enthusiasm comes through, and I thought that was worth inclusion on this DVD.

Listening to DVD-A

METTLER: Do you listen to any DVD-Audio or SACD?

REZNOR: I've picked up some DVD-A's that I don't like that much, like Metallica's Metallica [AKA The Black Album]. I have a near-field system to get acquainted with the technology. I can't think of any that are phenomenal, though I'd say that, in the DVD-Video world, the Underworld disc [Live Everything Everything] is pretty great.

METTLER: It's bizarre listening to six-channel music that's not original for the format.

REZNOR: Let's take the Steely Dan Two Against Nature DVD. I like it for what it is. When I'm sitting in the middle of the field and I hear the background singers behind me band the saxophone player off to one side, that's interesting, but one of the problems is, when I hear instruments isolated like that, I hear it being separate from the "unit." My way of absorbing the music is more fragmented. It's not cohesive. Everybody's over in "that" direction. That distracts me from the whole.