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Raw Power

von Robert Hanson

Photos by Rob Sheridan

 

 

Trent Reznor sheds the excesses of the past to deliver the brutally honest With Teeth

Trent Reznor operates on a timeline that’s probably more suited to orbiting celestial bodies than being the front man of a hugely successful band. Every few years, Reznor’s work seems to come out of nowhere, burn brightly in contrast to whatever the musical climate happens to be and then fade into the background just as quickly as it appeared. His latest Nine Inch Nails album, With Teeth (Interscope, 2005), is only the fifth proper release of his career, and it marks the end of a six-year recording hiatus. Six years is longer than the entire career of most bands. Six years is longer than most marriages. Six years is longer than most people serve in prison for armed robbery. Suffice it to say, for any musician of note, six years out of the public eye is seldom a good idea.

"The reality of it was, I just wasn’t in a place in my life where I was ready to put out a record quickly," Reznor explains. "I needed to address some issues, and I had to get my life in order, and that took some time."

Surprisingly, the time off has done little to damage his popularity. Tickets to the first leg of the band’s spring tour sold out around the world in a matter of minutes, prompting the immediate booking of a more ambitious, arena-size tour in the fall. And the leadoff single, “The Hand That Feeds,” a politically charged new-wave romp, instantly became of the most downloaded songs on the planet—before and after its official release. But the band’s draw on the tour circuit and its ability to crack the singles charts is nothing new. What is new is Reznor’s approach to creating music. Gone are the careful, almost symphonic transitions from one song to the next. Gone is the feeling that every hi-hat tick was agonized over for months and programmed under a microscope. On With Teeth, Reznor challenges his listeners with a record on which performance and emotion are held in a higher regard than exploiting every nuance of today’s production palette.

“There were a few rules going into it that I kind of had in place,” Reznor says. “And one was, I’ve grown tired of the sort of perfect-sounding records that are easy to make these days. I think the great thing about technology becoming cheap and affordable and able to be obtained by anyone is that it’s really put a lot of power in a lot of people’s hands. The downside that can come from that is, now everybody can chop drums to be perfectly in time and tune vocals to be right in, and there are all kinds of great-sounding expensive reverb programs, and everybody has got all this stuff. To my ears, if you turn on the radio, a lot sounds like it could all be the same band. I can’t tell the difference between a lot of it because it all sounds correct.

“I wasn’t doing anything consciously to react to what I thought sucked around me,” he continues. “And I didn’t do this record to be the opposite of The Fragile, although it kind of came out that way. It just seemed fresh to me. It seemed inspiring. And the records I found myself listening to while doing this record—like old Gang of Four records, Stooges, Iggy Pop—felt fresh, felt dangerous, felt underproduced. It felt like the spirit of a human being conveying an emotional message was there in those things. And it wasn’t caught up in the glitz and glamour of production bells and whistles, which I myself have embraced at times in the past. So I wanted to kind of strip it down, and I realized I felt comfortable not fitting a lot of layers of stuff in. I thought, ‘Let’s only put in what is absolutely necessary. Let’s take a stripped-down approach.”

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

With this latest record, Reznor tried something that most artists have been doing all along: writing demos. “I realized that the last couple of records were written in the studio,” he says. “So the writing and production and arrangement phase all kind of took place at the same time, bypassing having demos. Songs would start sometimes with a soundscape, sometimes a visual idea, sometimes a drumbeat, sometimes a cool effect, sometimes a chord change. But, usually, the setting was created first, and then a song kind of got wedged in there later on. And this time around, I went about it pretty much the opposite way. I set up a kind of demo room out in Los Angeles and moved out here from New Orleans, really just for a change of pace. I wanted to set up a place where I didn’t have too many options, and I wanted to do demos this time around.”

Reznor’s tools of choice for the record’s writing phase included really nothing more than a Digidesign Pro Tools rig, a microphone and a couple of generic synths. And to jump-start the writing process, he put himself on a strict schedule of trying to finish two songs with vocals every 10 days. “So instead of arranging and tinkering around with sounds, I just narrowed it down to starting with vocals and lyrics and melody,” he explains. “And given the amount of time I had to do these, all self-imposed, I didn’t have much time to flesh it out with stuff. And I found at the end of it, I had 25 songs that I thought were pretty good. It was a totally different way of wring for me. The other thing is that a lot of there were written with the idea that a live drummer was going to play them. So I wanted to actually record drums this time.”

Reznor, programmer Atticus Ross (formerly of 12 Rounds) and recording engineer James Brown then set to the task of tracking live drums against this new batch of material. They brought in both NIN drummer Jerome Dillon and ex-Nirvana member Dave Grohl. The drum sessions and the subsequent editing phase presented a number of challenges. Because the songs were still in a demo form, the drum tracks had to be recorded in way that would yield the most flexibility when it came time to mix. The second challenge was finding a way to make the drum tracks sit correctly against the other, more rigidly programmed elements of each song without losing the human feel in the process.

“They only had three days to record the drums for the whole album,” explains co-producer Alan Moulder. “In that situation, you had to get a drum sound that was a good drum sound and versatile. In an ideal situation, you’d tailor the drum sound for each track a little bit—maybe move the room mics around or maybe change the snares a bit, tweak it for each song. But they didn’t really have the luxury of time for that. So James Brown, who recorded it, just got a good all-around sound that kind of worked for every track. I would have certainly wanted to spend a bit more time, especially with the ambience. Once we got to the mix, it was actually very flexible, and it did work.”

“To my ear, the drums on this record have maintained the performance aspect,” Ross says. “It just depends how you want to approach it. Obviously, I’m not going to let a drum track go with 100 flams against a drum machine. One of the problems with Pro Tools is that people have started to make music with their eyes. We’re obviously not going to have flams or something that’s going to make the song sound bad. But there’s a good example on ‘The Line Begins to Blur,’ and that’s Grohl, just really a live take of him. Now, we’ve got some pretty heavy programmed drums in there, as well. There is an element of tightening up certain kick drums or whatever, but what there isn’t is a methodical 16th-note edit. There is a way to use Beat Detective where you can keep the swing of the drums. Beat Detective all depends on the trigger points you use. Now, I just tend to use the two and four as the trigger points. Or maybe it’s the downbeat kick and snare drum. You want those to be in time. But the swing of the drummer is what happens between those notes.”

MODULATIONS

Reznor has always been known for his ability to get new and bizarre sounds out of his always-growing collection of synthesizers. On With Teeth, Reznor and Ross took things a step further and built their own modular-synth array with selections from Doepfer, Analogue Solutions, Metasonix and others. A great deal of synth lines and textures that made it to the record were recorded live as audio rather than manipulated through MIDI. This approach enabled Reznor to manipulate the patches in real time or to add effects while he was playing. And because they were using a totally analog rig, it was impossible to save patches, making each performance even more unique.

“When it came time to arrange the synths and whatnot, I got more into modular analog synths, where you can’t save the patch,” Reznor says. “Although you could go round and round and record it as MIDI and edit it and all that, we tried to record everything just as performances rather than how I would have done it in the past, which was play, record it as MIDI until I get the right bass line, then quantize it and repeat it and chop it. We were treating this kind of like multitrack tape. It was more to infuse some humanity and imperfection back into the equation—still using computers as the workplace. To me, going to tape would be just stupid. I’ve always composed on computers, and I never see that changing. The power and the flexibility is not something I’m going to give up. But I did want to get away from the sterility that seems to have permeated what’s out right now.”

A great example of this performance-oriented approach is on the track “Sunspots,” which, toward the middle, includes a thick, distorted synth line that sounds like it was created with only pitch bend or portamento. “I believe we did that with the French Connection, which is a CV keyboard controller based on the Martenot,” Reznor recalls. “Essentially, it’s got a wire control with a ring on it, so you put your finger in that, and you’ve got a keyboard right above it. The wire acts almost like a Theremin, but it just sends out continuous CV. You can choose to either play it from the keyboard or from the ring, and it’s difficult to get it right. That’s another example of something that lends itself to performance instead of MIDI recording: You try it, and you realize that you’re off a little bit. It’s tough to do. But it does give you a very distinct performance. I think its origins were back in the days of trying to take the idea of a synthesizer and making it an expressive instrument that’s not just locked into an organ-type keyboard and very strict intervals.”

KEEP THE GRIT

As the record progressed from the writing phase through the drum-tracking sessions and beyond, Reznor had every intention of rerecording the majority of the elements, especially the vocals, in his SSL-equipped studio in New Orleans. To his surprise, though, he continually preferred what he was hearing on the demos. “The plan was to be a bit more objective and whittle it down to what I thought the best of the best was,” Reznor says. “And then [we’d] go back to New Orleans, where I had my full studio, and then kind of flesh these things out—arrange them, rerecord them properly, so to speak, put different layers of stuff in, add some depth—or so I thought.

“When we tried to ‘properly’ record these things and go back in and do them right, we found that in four to five cases, the demo was better,” he continues. “There was spirit there. You know, I can think, ‘I want to get this vocal done before I go out to get something to eat.’ And just quickly sing it in. and then I’d resing it 50 times and never be able to get the same spirit. I think that profoundly had an effect on the sound of the record.”

“Well, they weren’t really demos,” Moulder adds. “A lot of what was on the demo was actually the master. The demos were like a master work in progress. And we redid things that we thought needed doing: redoing certain sounds, changing structures, redoing vocals if necessary. We just took them up to a level where they seemed finished.”

One of main tactics for fleshing out song ideas was the use of loop recording. Ross often looped a section of music, and Reznor then either sang or played some other instrument over it, often for as long as an hour. The resulting audio files were then examined for possible inclusion in the finished song. “It’s very unusual that you encounter a singer who can do that,” Ross says. “The body of the body of the outro piece on ‘All the Love in the World’ is done in loop record. But he’s not listening to the track he recorded before, in his mind, he knows what he’s aiming for, so he’s just singing different harmonies without hearing the one before. And that goes on for probably an hour with just recording, recording, recording. Then, we go back and go through all the different ideas and kind of arrange them, and he has them up on the board, and through muting, he decides what he does and does not like. And then we go back and retrack if need be. But a great majority of the ideas come from him on the fly. It’s just very unusual that you meet people who generate so many ideas like that.”

RACE FOR THE FINISH

One of the most common misconceptions about Nine Inch Nails is that long breaks between records are completely consumed by marathon knob-twiddling sessions in which records are literally one kick drum at a time. And even though huge blocks of time were devoted to hapless noodling and sonic explorations, the formal production period for With Teeth was not only the shortest of Reznor’s career but also that which presented the fewest problems when it came time to mix.

“When I think of every other record I’ve done, there is usually at least one song per album that fights you from the beginning to the end,” he explains. “Like on the last album, it was ‘We’re in This Together.’ We literally mixed that track for two-and-a-half weeks. I was ready to kill myself by the end of that. And usually the problem is, when you’re looking at something that doesn’t work, it’s always the part that you think is the best part that’s throwing it off—the part you’d never consider getting rid of. On Downward Spiral ‘Ruiner’ was that track. We kept going back to it. We thought it had merit, but it was just really tough to get the right approach, production- and mixwise. On this album, nothing really became a big issue. There weren’t any real battles that I can think of.”

“When I came to finish off the tracks to get them to mix stage, we blasted through 18 songs in seven weeks, getting them up to speed,” Moulder explains. “And that includes some pretty good rough mixes that we then grew to really like. So they were our templates for the mix. They just grew on from there. At the mix stage, we still add stuff like other instruments or a bass line, maybe. Nothing ever goes to the mix stage where it’s finished. There is always a bit of adding. It was always a constant evolution, really.”

Overall, the experience of recording With Teeth has left Reznor with an unexpected sense of accomplishment. “I have an all-new team around me, and everyone seems to have the same goals. I think they understand what I’m trying to do better than they every have—and that is putting out music that still puts music and art first and understanding that it is in a world where, yeah, I do want people to hear the record. And I will tour to support the record and to get people to hear it. And I do believe in what I’m doing. It’s odd to put shows on sale after years of being dormant and selling quicker than they did before. Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, but right now, I feel really good about myself; I’m proud of the record. It did what I wanted it to do. It feels right. The band I put together feels vital. It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to live in the past. The old songs we play still feel fresh to me. I really don’t have much to complain about right now. See me in a few months, and I’m sure I’ll dream something up. But right now, everything feels pretty good.”

WITH EVERYTHING

Selected Nine Inch Nails Gear

“Walking into Trent’s studio is like walking into a music store that has all your favorite gear, old and new, and in vast quantity,” says Atticus Ross. “We used so many guitars that it’s hard to know what to say. Trent literally has hundreds of pedals, and a typical guitar session would start by picking out, say, 10 or 15 and going from there.”

COMPUTERS, DAWs, RECORDING HARDWARE

Ableton Live 4 live-sequencing software

Apogee AD-16x 16-channel, 192kHz A/D Converter; Big Ben 192kHz Master Digital Clock; DA-16x 16-channel, 192kHz D/A converter

Apple Logic Pro 7 software; Mac G5/dual 2.5GHz computers (3)

Digidesign 192 I/Os (6), Pro Tools 6.7 Software, Pro Tools|HD3 Accel systems (2)  w/ expansion chassis

Lavry 4496 2-channel A/D/A converter

MOTU 896 FireWire audio interface

“We always used two rigs, one for Pro Tools and one for Logic with digital ins and outs,” Ross says. “The Logic rig would also be used for CPU-intensive stand-alone pieces. When we mixed, we had a third rig with Pro Tools and a 192. So each song was put down in three formats: half-inch, 96k through the Lavry and192k through the Digidesign 192. There was no conclusive winner: different songs sounded better on different formats, and all were used in the final mastered album.”

HARDWARE SYNTHS

Access Virus C

Alesis Andromeda

Analogue Solutions Vostok

EMS Synthi Keyboard 1

Moog Minimoog Voyager

Sequential Circuits Prophet VS

 

MODULAR HARDWARE SYNTHS

“Trent’s modular is a beast made up of Doepfer, Analogue Solutions, Analogue Systems, EMS, Metasonix,” Ross explains. “[There is] every module imaginable, with various sequencers, though the favorite was the Schaltwerk and a couple of analog drum machines like the Vermona and Simmons. The French Connection was the controller of choice, though there were a couple of others, and we would often integrate keyboards with the modular, like the Vostok or the Voyager.”

Analogue Systems French Connection Keyboard controller

Kenton Pro-2000 MIDI-to-CV converter

SOFTWARE SYNTHS

Arturia Moog Modular V

GMedia ImpOSCar, M-Tron, Oddity

MOTU MachFive

Native Instruments NI Komplete

SOFTWARE EFFECTS

Audio Ease Altiverb, Nautilus

Cycling ’74 Pluggo

iZotrope Trash

Line 6 Echo Farm

Ohm Force Quad Frohmage

Soundhack Binaural, Morphfilter,

Spectralcompand, Spectralgate

Trillium Labs TL|Space

Waves Diamond Bundle

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