Where do I even start with this introduction?
Nine Inch Nails helped make synthesizers bad ass. But then again, whatever Trent Reznor touches becomes bad ass, whether it be a drum machine or art itself. His score production for David Lynch’s Lost Highway, his collaborations with Atticus Ross for The Social Network, Gone Girl, for DC’s Watchmen, Halsey's latest record, his remixes for Bowie, I could go on for a long time. To put it simply, things that are cool become cooler when Trent Reznor is involved. He’s a hero of mine and I know a lot of you probably share the same sentiment.
I like to think of things in terms of a butterfly effect. Like Wendy Carlos' influence on Rick Wakeman, Giorgio Moroder and Dave Smith - all of which would become enamored with synths after hearing Wendy's Switched-on-Bach album for the first time - directly impacting rock, disco, a plethora of other genres and the invention of MIDI - Trent has influenced a whole generation of musicians. I truly believe hardware synths in particular wouldn't be where they are today without his advocation for them. I remember watching a video from Moog a while back where he talks about the Voyager. That video is the reason I got into Moog and the reason I made the leap from software synths to hardware synths. If Trent had the Voyager - well, it must be bad ass. What the hell am I doing with a MIDI keyboard and sounds from my laptop? The Voyager was my first hardware synth acquisition [I’m not counting a semi-broken microKORG I got off Craigslist]. And if we’re still talking about butterfly effects, Synth History might not even exist without Trent Reznor.
I don’t want to ramble because that’s not what you’re here for. Suffice to say, yeah, this one is exciting.
About thirty minutes after the interview, I watched NIN absolutely rock the fuck out at Primavera this past weekend. Without further ado...
Synth History: Out of all the synths you've had throughout the years, do you have some all time favorites?
Trent Reznor: All time favorites. It's like when someone says, "What's your favorite movie?" I love synths. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, far away from anything cool. I was kind of trained to be a piano player, was being urged to be a classical pianist and drop out of school and study with a nun at about age 12 and then I got exposed to Kiss and I realized that I want to do that. You know? I want to be in a band. I also want to escape from this town somehow. My dad got me a Wurlitzer electric piano with a phase shifter, an MXR Phase 100 pedal. Started playing, got some friends, we played in basement bands and fucked around a little bit and I'm dying to get a synthesizer. It wasn't until a few years later I got a Moog Prodigy, which we could afford, my Grandpa got it for me. And that blew my mind. Pitch bend, can't do that on a Wurlitzer. And I just loved that thing. So there's a soft spot for that and the sound of Moog.
Eventually, I got a Korg Mono/Poly... chords! And I don't know, I just thought I'd throw that little bit of history in there. But I mean, I look at what's available now. In terms of this kind of renaissance of analog synthesis and excellent recreations and reissues of some classic synths, the Prophet 5 and 10, the Moog Modular shit, I think they’ve done a great job. Even Korg with the Odyssey and 2600. You add that to the limitless amount of plug-ins that I think are also pretty excellent, Arturia's shit and G-force. There‘s some great things out there. It makes me appreciate the scarcity of what I came up with, when you could afford one thing and you had to learn every possible trick and you've mastered it.
My first real sampler was an Emax. I started working at a keyboard store in Cleveland mainly just to get discounts on shit - and also to be punished eight hours a day showing assholes how synthesizers work and stuff. The Mirage was the big breakthrough at the time, sounds like an Emulator, you know, for a 10th of the price. Anyway, I got an Emax and that was Pretty Hate Machine. It was pretty much all Emax and just figuring out every way to milk every bit of interesting stuff out of the limitations you had. Jump ahead to now, I have the privilege of not only having a lot more stuff being available but being able to afford stuff and collect things and spend time with them.
My relationship with synths now, I was thinking about this, I still get excited about new video games that come out because I'm trying to stay 17 years old and part of me has never matured past that. And synths, apart from my kids and watching what they're excited about, that's what interests me more than anything, kind of just new stuff coming out. What I'll do at the studio now is when something grabs my attention bring it in and there's always a good song in everything, an interesting experience to be had. The good synths that make it, stay in the room after a while might become the thing that you really love.
Synth History: What synths stay in the room and sound good no matter what?
Trent Reznor: Right now what I don't let leave the studio, I invested in a reissue Moog IIIc. A couple years earlier I got the Model 15 reissue, so I wanted to kind of expand it and see it with an older Moog oscillator approach. And that I find fun. I don't end up using it that much, because what I struggle with in the studio is following a creative path. If I'm in there writing a piece or we're scoring a film, I usually have this thing I hear in my head and I have to translate it to the computer. A lot of times with modular it's leading me somewhere. I might go in with an idea, but it changes the path and I want to pursue that. But a lot of what I'm doing in the studio is - I have this thing I have to quickly get out before I forget it. I find that turning to something that's too open ended can distract me down to something else.
So those Moogs I love. I'm obsessed with the mobile one, although I have a love-hate relationship with it, because I thought it would be the greatest thing in the world and then every time I tried to use it, it sounded bad. And I hated part of the way it works.
Synth History: What do you think of the Memorymoog?
Trent Reznor: I had a Memorymoog, I didn't like it that much. Buttons bummed me out a little bit. Double stack. But the Moog One - I've realized if I treat it like a monophonic synth, it fucking sounds great. It just gets a little out of control, and I hate the digital effects on it. What else do I have lying around in the studio right now... I'm currently kind of into the Prophet 6, which has been around for a long time as a go-to. An ARP Odyssey, I have a couple old ones and I have a new one. I just love the way ARPs sound. Because of that bite-y, kind of ugly, great sound. I've got Dreadbox Nymphes, it sounds great. I don't know why I love it, but as soon as I plug it in, I like the imperfection of it. I've got an Oberheim Four Voice, nothing sounds better than that, but it's punishing to set the patch up. If I kinda have one patch I like I'll just leave up.
Synth History: Technology continues to make recording easier with each decade. Almost any instrument is available in software form, live takes are quantized, vocals are pitch perfect. Do you think technology always impacts music for the better or are imperfections and humanness important to maintain?
Trent Reznor: That's a good point and one we've thought about a lot. You know what? I often think with all these tools available, every synth in the world - available to anybody essentially for free, or for you know, what's the cost of the Arturia collection, three or four hundred bucks for every classic synth you need? You'd think that maybe music might sound more interesting or experimental or exciting or branch off into new places because all this stuff is available. But, does it seem like that's happened? Not that there isn't some cool things happening, but a lot of it sounds like shit to me. They're all just tools, in my opinion. I try not to take an elitist stance. I think lowering the bar where anybody - my kids have access to an entire studio on their laptop, and most of it came with the laptop, you know, that's pretty cool. Will they ever know what it's like to plug a real compressor in? Probably not. Do they know why that vintage effect is designed that way, because it was based on the limitations of this and the other thing and why tape sounds cool? Probably not.
What we have tried to do, Atticus and myself over time, is before we start any project, whether it be a new film or an album, we consider the workflow. The last few years I've written exclusively on Ableton rather than Pro Tools, I fucking hate Pro Tools, but I like the way [Ableton] makes me think. I've moved over to hardware drum machines and Digitakt, I like touching stuff. We will often say, let's not quantize anything after, get picky about rhythm stuff, but then no vocals get slid around - or no tuning of vocals. Often what will get us in trouble is there's a cool groove of some sort happening from a detune thing and the low end starts to have a pitch to it because we're distorting it. We don't spend the 10 seconds it would have taken to run it through a tuner to figure out what that note is, we just start tuning instruments to it, and then we realize, oh fuck, that's more than 30 semitones lower than something that's for the rest of the songs. Then that song's life is a hassle, but it feels right. So we attempt to not overcorrect and over deploy the tools that can become lifeless, a sterile sound, too perfect. I'll say one more thing. I love the old Smiths shit and I love Soft Cell. Those are two vocalists that stand out to me that I've always thought were great, but if you listen, Mark Almond is always ahead of the beat and sharp - criminally sharp, but it helps make the song feel the way I think he's intending for it to feel. It's meant to sound anxious and it's meant to sound a little uncomfortable because it's not right. It's not in tune or in time. I think a lot of that can get lost in the ease of snap to grid.
Synth History: What do you think drum machines add that acoustic drums do not and vice versa?
Trent Reznor: To me, drums have always been coming out of a sampler or a drum machine. And Atticus and I just talked about this last week for the 100th time. We get an idea "Hey, let's get a real drummer in and play something and that's gonna start us down a path" almost every time, ever, that we've thought that, it's... [pauses]
Synth History: [laughs]
Trent Reznor: You know how this story is gonna go. "Let's put a sample... oh fuck, that's what we needed!” We've been having that happen a little bit with orchestral stuff, too, a couple scores we recently did. The intention was just dropping some Spitfire strings to mock-up something and then when it's time to do it for real, after you've spent a fuck-load of money and add 1,000 people in and an orchestrator and you record it you go, "It's cool... but I kind of liked the way that other one sounded, it was also excellently recorded." You know what I mean? And I liked the fact that we're treating it as sound. We're not approaching an orchestra like, “listen to the sweeping way the strings-“ it's mainly, "does it sound fucking cool?" Yes. I like having the control of something I know that I can manipulate the way I want.
Synth History: What are some tips for someone new to the modular synthesis world and where do you even start?
Trent Reznor: If someone can answer that question for me [jokes]. When I think back to my exposure to modular synths, I got a Doepfer system, kind of had to think about "Oh, I guess if everything had to be patched, oh, I hadn't thought about modulation that way, CV." I kind of went crazy with the idea of it for a while. When I started off, I was the programmer and the writer and the engineer and then I realized... I can't excel at all those things. Programming, say mid 90s, was uncomfortable. I kind of turned that job over to someone else. So I was more of the producer. Then I realized, I'm not good at that anymore because I wasn't paying attention and I was more comfortable thinking about the song rather than where the files were being kept on the drives and all that shit. Around the same time I was able to access more instruments, I realized I can't be the master of all these. I can't spend six months just learning every intricacy of this thing. I don't have the time and my time would be better spent thinking about the song and what I'm trying to say and... this is all an excuse to make me feel better.
Somewhere along the line, modulars kind of exploded and now there are a million boutique companies, it became overwhelming. You know what it's like, just to even try and keep up with what's happening. Now, you turn on YouTube and there's already somebody that's figured out something that's got something else hooked up to a watch and... [jokes] fuck you, I'm just trying to make sound come out.
I think it's a great time for cool, creative types to be making these things and for the public to have access to stuff relatively cheap and try things out and plug something in that no one else has ever done. It's all super cool. I find personally, even though in the last few months I've been on a deep modular dive, it’s more hobbyist. With the stuff I've been working on, which has been films mostly in the last year, it hasn't allowed for "Let's see where the modular takes me." It's been more like I have to orchestrate or realize something I'm thinking and I find with modular you can get lost in space.
Synth History: How do you know when a song is done?
Trent Reznor: You know, that used to terrify me, because I've always felt that hard work equals... I felt like I can outwork you [the song], not you personally. Make up for any inadequacies by paying attention to details. It's not like mathematics where there's an end, you've solved it, when you know what's right. I've come to trust my instinct of recognizing when fatigue is part of it. Allowing yourself to realize that's really fucking good. Could it be better? [pauses] No.
Synth History: [laughs]
Trent Reznor: You know? And living with that, waking up the next day and not feeling like “could have made that.” That's not to say, you might listen back five years later and go "not sure what I was thinking at the time". But I can say at the time, anything I've put out I felt was the best it could be without compromise.
But it's funny, I'll run into musicians sometimes and they'll say, talking about something they've done, "that's the first time I've ever felt good about putting out a piece of music.” And it's like well, if you haven't thought it was great... why would you think anyone else would? If I'm going to ask the world to consider spending time, then I want you to know, hey, this is the top tier. Not just, "It's okay". This was the best shit I could do. Maybe it's worthy of your attention.
Synth History Exclusive. Interview conducted by Danz. Photos: John Crawford, Pooneh Ghana for Primavera, Synth Scans via Muzines Archive, Retro Synth Ads.