Process: Nine Inch Nails

June 23, 2015

In our new video series, Process, we’re meeting up with some of our favorite artists to talk about gear, sound, and making music. In the series debut, watch Trent Reznor and the members of Nine Inch Nails share their creative process, the use of effects in live performances, and the ways in which they use Soundtoys plug-ins on their latest record, Hestitation Marks.

Q: Do you find inspiration in gear or effects?

A: Trent Reznor
I’d say in the last 10 years or so –– it’s probably been longer than that –– but I’ve moved away from being the programmer guy that sits and does everything myself, into being more of an arranger and producer. I’ve become heavily reliant on the guy next to me, which usually is Atticus Ross, to be the guy manning the computer. And I’ve learned that the better knowledge I have of what’s in there, the more I can extract it out, without getting bogged down in the actual programming side of things, and try to remain somewhat objective as to the music and what’s happening. Being a bit more out of the picture rather than right in the computer. But with that said, in terms of effects and whatnot, I’ve always looked at an effect, or a pedal box, or a new synth, or an interesting plug-in… All of them have songs inside them somewhere that can inspire me into do something. I haven’t done this in a while, but it’s always a fun trip to go to the synth shop or the effects shop and come back with a box full of pedals and things, and just start experimenting, and generally that inspires me into parts, which leads to songs often or things like that. So I’m more inspired by that than I would be sitting down at a piano, probably the way real songwriters work, thinking about melodies. I like to start with sound, and space and a kind of texture, and then adapt that into something that feels, if I’m writing a song, that becomes “song-ish.” So effects are a pretty big part of that, or having a good grasp on how I can achieve what I’m hearing in my head.

A: Alessandro Cortini
Well, we worked on an introduction for Hesitation Marks, which is called The Eater of Dreams. And I used two boxes made by this company called Ciat-Lonbarde run by Peter Blasser, who makes wooden boxes. They’re circuits; they’re instruments and they’re unlike anything else that I’ve seen before. They’re banana based, so it’s a modular. And one is a drum machine, but it doesn’t do 4/4, it’s not 4/4, never. And the other one is an eight, it’s a dual-mono eight-bit delay with a big LFO in the middle. It’s not really an LFO, but it’s something crazy. And just the way that they look, they look like Ouija boards kinda, they look crazy. And we did that whole intro with that live, and Trent’s vocals going into the delay, and then just chopped it up and made it a little bit more 4/4 in a way, if you want.

I just enjoy using instruments that I haven’t used before. There tends to be a period where if I spend too much time on one, then it become routine. And I know that I can get certain things out of it. Then it becomes a job. And I don’t feel like a kid anymore that has fun with stuff, but it feels, “Aw, okay, I have to do this again.” That’s usually when I try to find either another use for that instrument, or to look for another instrument, and start all over again. I’ve done a lot of that with the Buchla Modular instruments. Recently it’s been the old Prophet 5 –– I fell in love with it again.

A: Ilan Rubin
Whenever Nine Inch Nails are in the studio, it really is Trent and his group of people. I was fortunate to come in and play some drums for a day. From my understanding, a part of the process is just experimenting a lot, and sifting through different performances and ideas, and then him honing in on what he likes. So I just went in the studio for a day, and played on seven songs. And whether those things were cut up and manipulated, and who-knows-what was done to them, that’s really in Trent’s domain, and Atticus and Alan Moulder, and whoever is in the studio all the time. So, in terms of real detail, I don’t know. All I know is that I went in, played some drums, and how they came out the album will tell.

Q: Is there something specific from the album that you could identify where an effect, maybe specifically a plug-in, shaped that part of the song in that instrument?

A: Trent Reznor
I’ll say, on the new record, Hesitation Marks, if not every song, almost every song, was me just with the headphones on, working in Maschine, as in compositional environment. And I just found that to be fun, and I liked the limitation that everything was in Maschine; I liked the fact that it could be easily automated with fingers on knobs, and you don’t have to spend time assigning stuff. And I liked the fact that it felt pattern based. My machine consists of whatever sound banks they have, along with Soundtoys Native [Effects] bundle, a couple soft-synths go outside of the native instruments thing.

But just that was a kind of template to work from. I didn’t feel exhausted when the record was finished, and I could have kept going. And probably we’ll do the next thing I do in the same capacity, ’cause it just felt right. And the combination of what a Maschine as a kind of compositional tool, on top of the effects I added became something that I didn’t miss being in a full studio, you know? And sometimes having a limited work environment makes me work in a way that pushes me into something I wouldn’t do if I’m sitting in a studio and I can reach for my favorite things that are within arms length.


Q: What’s in your live rig?

A: Trent Reznor
My live rig for Nine Inch Nails is a laptop running the MainStage, which is either playing back samples for piano and bass instruments or it’s a vocal effects chain, sometimes at the same time, where I’m controlling it from a controller on stage. It’s really just a momentary switch. Or it’s my guitar amp. All of which are virtual, but the effects pretty much are all EchoBoy and FilterFreak, actually. A combination of those two is pretty much the whole library where each song has it’s own patch, that’s got the tempo set and I’ve got a variety of different delays that get the sound I need in live environment effortlessly.

A: Alessandro Cortini
In MainStage, basically there’s Decapitator on each one, pretty much, to a certain extent. I don’t know if it’s just a mental thing, but I feel that just running it through and going through some of the presets. Not the presets, but just the [Style] buttons and see what sounds more appropriate. Basically, I treat it like an EQ. Having to go through the cuts and try and cut what’s not pleasant. I hear what everybody else is doing and then I’m in front of my computer and switch and that seems to be a very easy way to make it sit better with everybody else’s. MainStage… there’s a setlist, basically. There’s a master song list and every night there’s a setlist that Justin [McGrath], my tech, sets up. So it’s just all the songs that we play on any given night, and I have a remote midi controller that allows me to switch between those. If I forget, he changes by hand by clicking on it and a lot of the times plug-ins are remotely controlled by pedals. I have volume pedals or control pedals, they are assigned to delay mix or delay repeats or I have switches also that are assigned to BPM so I can tap the BPM say of EchoBoy.

A: Robin Finck
We’ve built a brand new rig from the ground up for every tour. We don’t have any audio going to the stage, it’s just a midi controller and everything’s in the rack and there’s presets galore. It’s kind of necessary to cover all the different sounds that are happening.

A: Ilan Rubin
Well, as you can imagine with somebody like Nine Inch Nails, there’s so much detail that goes into each sound and each part that you can only do so much live so things have to be reinterpreted. When I say you can only do so much live, I don’t mean that in a negative way or taking a step back, it’s just, a live show, one of the great things about it is that you can bring across more power. So whether there are loops, I’m talking about my territory specifically, loops where sometimes, I’ll recreate that loop on a live drum set with samples and sometimes that’ll be enough. Or sometimes the loop really is carrying enough weight and it’s a matter of playing around it in a way that feels like it’s picking up the tempo of the song or just making it a little bit more exciting and kind of interplaying with that.

That’s really what happens at rehearsals whenever new material is introduced, sort of these are the songs, we kind of sit down and discuss who gets what part. As a drummer it’s pretty self-explanatory, but there’ll be cases where, like I said, the loop is so strong that me recreating it is almost too much and there’s no point because it was already done perfectly there. So finding a way to fit in and around that becomes a fun challenge and then everything just kinda falls into the group. When things feel good and natural that’s I think when everyone realizes that, “Okay, that’s the right part for you to do, you to do whatever it is.” It all comes together very quickly, and then of course you practice it a million times to make sure it goes well the night of the show, but yeah.

A: Trent Reznor
What I control of myself is often certain words will have delay on it and rather than have the burden of him (FOH Mixer Gary Bradshaw) trying to figure out when I’m gonna say it, I can just creatively kind of either get a kind of stuck a loop that’ll repeat a phrase or if I’m catching certain words like in The Wretched or… There’s a number of songs where I’ll just grab a certain word here and there that I control myself and he has a parallel feed of my dry vocal all the time and then just wet coming from what I do on stage.

Q: Would you say that plug-ins like Soundtoys are a creative tool? i.e. in that they’re like an instrument, or are they all a post production aspect?

A: Trent Reznor
No, it’s part of the compositional thing. I’m not just saying this because you guys are here, but the reality of it is that I’ll look at the way Alessandro writes and works, and stuff where he’ll immerse himself in a piece of gear, or a platform, and that becomes kind of the challenge to figure out how to make that thing. And he draws inspiration from that. I tend to not be that way as much. I’ve got some in my head and I need things to get it out of my head.

What I like about Soundtoys plug-ins, particularly EchoBoy and FilterFreak, is, from a purely functional, I want inspiration quickly and I don’t feel like going into the laboratory and trying to write a Reaktor patch, I just wanna get something that I know is gonna sound good and sounds musical, I can achieve that right away effortlessly, but if I do wanna dig in and see where that leads me down the path, I rarely find that it can’t do something that I’d like it to do or it doesn’t… Or it usually surprises me when something that sounds musical and inspiring without a lot of effort just by kind of fucking around with it. So, it feels a part of any system I put together usually installs Soundtoys right away as it’s part of what I need those things to do. They just sound good.

A: Alessandro Cortini
There’s still a definite difference between what I do when I record stuff and when I mix it, and I always look forward to the mixing phase just because I know that this is gonna be pretty much as much creativity as there was during the compositional process, and tools like Decapitator, I’m thinking about when I record. I don’t use recording ’cause the system, the latency and stuff like that, I don’t wanna deal with stuff like that, but I already know that if you open my own logic session, you’ll see that out of the 24 tracks that I usually use, all of them have it, they’re not bypassed on just not doing much, but doing. I see Decapitator as a distortion for grownups in a way, ’cause you can go crazy, but if you bypass it after having it on for a long time, you’ll hear the difference, there’s something that it does to the sound which is very comforting.

A: Ilan Rubin
Well, I use Soundtoys stuff all the time, and I mean that. Because, aside from Nine Inch Nails, I have this other thing called The New Regime where I write, play, and sing everything. I’ve been doing that for quite a few years. So, Soundtoys is very much a part of the creative process as well as the mixing process. Now, because I’m not a mixer, I use it more as a creative tool, and I really enjoy that about it. What I use most it’d probably be EchoBoy, and what I love about EchoBoy is that it really does cover every end of the spectrum in terms of echoes and delay, and aside from modeling certain things which it does extremely well, the amount of detail that they let you dive into is fantastic. For example, the drop tab where the warble and the diffusion and all this stuff, and you can EQ decay and the saturation. It seems like with Soundtoys stuff you always have multiple ways of how to take things to the next level whether it be with distortion or saturation or whatever it is, and I love that.

So, I can always get what I’m looking for out of EchoBoy. And the more you use a plug-in, and you get to know how it works, and you know the ins and outs of it, you kind of have it in mind for a part that you’re writing. So, whether I’m playing guitar or a synth or something, I know, “Okay, I’m gonna run this through the Space Echo modeling on that, and I’m gonna open the diffusion all the way and spread the width 100%.” It really does become part of the creative process for me.

Q: Any interesting or unusual tips your want to share?

A: Trent Reznor
Now, I’ll tell you something that we do in the studio quite a bit that may or may not be unusual. Most of what I’ve been trying to do musically, whether it be the scores or within Nine Inch Nails is to try to show contrast between a stereo mechanical sound or rhythm and some element of humanity or decay or organic or live or whatnot. And a process I will use quite a bit, whether it be on a lead vocal or melodic lines or pretty much anything is the no brainer of using Decapitator on things, slightly, just to grit it up a bit, but also run it through EchoBoy with no delay, all wet and treat that like a tape emulator.

Just by easily flipping through the different presets and the types of tapes or simulated delays, it’s a whole palette of sometimes interesting character that doesn’t sound like a delay, it immediately has an interesting texture that I can find very inspiring. I’ll sing through it sometimes when coming up with ideas because I want something to sit in the track in a place that doesn’t feel like high-end mic through high-end mic-pre. That needs to feel like it’s in a place sometimes, that’s kind of a trick I’ll use that nine times out of ten creates that thing that makes it come to life or gets it close to something that suddenly feels sexy or exciting and keeps it going, so… Don’t tell anybody, that’s my trick, okay.