Trent Reznor’s secret weapon has always been his curiosity about electronic sound. Fuzzy synth beds, harshly grating electro shrieks, and airy atmospheres have comprised an exoskeleton for his vocals and guitar lines since Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, amplifying the despair, tenderness, and anger of his songs. Those same tonalities have helped him and his writing partner, Atticus Ross, in their score work, defining the emotional moods of scenes in Watchmen, Gone Girl, and The Social Network — the last of which won them an Oscar.
Reznor reflects on the ways synthetic sound have shaped his life in a new book, Patch & Tweak With Moog. Author Kim Bjørn has focused the tome on analog synthesizers with the intention of honoring the legacy of electronic-instrument pioneer Bob Moog. It includes chapters on synth basics, music-making techniques, and spotlights on artists, like Reznor, who have made electronic sound the backbone of their music such as film composer Hans Zimmer, Stranger Things artists Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, and Queen and ELO producer Mack.
In this exclusive excerpt, Reznor reflects on the diversity of electronic musicians that have influenced him throughout his career and the excitement he felt when his grandparents bought him a Moog Prodigy.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, almost two hours away from the nearest music shop, Trent Reznor appreciated his first electronic instrument.
“I was a piano player, and my dad had bought me a Wurlitzer electric piano. That got me into bands, and at the time I also had a Roland RS-09 string machine, which was cool because its filter sounded different than the Wurlitzer through a phase shifter. But my heart was set on some form of analog synthesizer. We didn’t have much money, but my grandparents got me the Moog Prodigy when it came out – and that was life-changing.
“Finally I had the ability to do what I’d heard on records – to get in there. The feeling of actually using a modulation wheel or pitch bend, having control of that domain, was more freeing than I’d anticipated. To have access to that kind of expressiveness that wasn’t available to a piano player just blew my mind. And that sound…
“I lived with that thing and looked at it every day – it was sitting on the dining room table, and for whatever reason, it kind of worked as a setup in our house. It was a lot of fun.”
The gear goes where it wants
Trent’s experiences have shaped what might be called an organic approach to working with sound. Knowing how each synth behaves and interacts with his instinct and emotions, his results are often organic themselves – like the distorted ARP Odyssey synth line from 2009’s “The Hand That Feeds.”
“Everything is purely instinct, really – it goes through the filter of your tastes and what seems interesting to you at the time. I’d say in my latest chunk of time, what has become interesting to me is the world of synthesis as an organic sound. I don’t necessarily mean just analog, but the imperfections.
“Every once in a while, I’ll pick up old synths that don’t quite work. One of my favorites right now is an Oberheim Four Voice that is impossible to get into – you could spend an hour to get the sounds up – but playing it with its shitty imperfect keybed, it’s its own entity. When approaching it in the studio, you know it’s not going to be a quick encounter. It will take you in the direction it wants to take you in, versus where you think you might be headed. But the richness of that sound, the combination of analog imperfections and the deterioration of stuff with age, adds to the feel of what’s coming out the other end.
An invitation to creativity
Trent’s studio is now home to a variety of Moog gear, both modular and semi-modular, and he believes that it will be of help as he prepares to shift gears into a compositional mode that’s been missing – and missed – for some time now.
“For quite some time, the pace at which Atticus and I have been working on things is dictated in our routine. If it’s a Nine Inch Nails song we’re working on, and there’s an idea that needs a few parts, what are the right tools to execute that? That’s what’s usually leading the process. There is a song being written, there is a need in that song, and one turns to their collection of instruments to figure out what would be right to realize that goal.
“What has fallen by the wayside in the last several years has been, ‘Let’s start with seeing where the instruments lead us. Is there a song in there? Is there a reason to record that? Is something worthy of keeping or is it just what’s happening in the moment?’ I believe the modular, and other less linear instruments, are going to play a bigger role. It’s exciting to me as an artist to see where that goes. So I hope I can get back to it, so I can just start twisting knobs and I’ll find myself in a place that’s rewarding. It may not be where I intended to go, but…
“There are limitations that I actually find comforting and inspiring.”
From Eurorack to wonderful limitations
The idea of limitations as a guiding principle for creativity came into focus when Trent went in the opposite direction, towards the endless universe of Eurorack modular synthesis.
“I find inspiration in instruments. To me, it’s trying to thread a needle – you’re looking for something that for unknown reasons excites you as a person, gets you enthused and gets you inspired, that offers a unique sound identity with its own things to say.
“There are limitations that I actually find comforting and inspiring. It’s the same way as when we’re working on a new project – we spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re not going to allow ourselves to do, how we’re going to confine ourselves. What’s the kind of ‘one-sheet’ summary of this record or score? How could it be distilled? Maybe we say, ‘no all-live performance’ or ‘no quantizing’ or ‘analog garage music’. It conjures up something, even while it’s malleable.
“Having those road maps and limitations inspires me because you can’t decide to do just anything. With a well-put-together synth or circuit it can be, ‘How can I make this, how can I get the most out of this?’ – but all within the frame of what it is.
“There is a real skill set involved in putting the right pieces together that make for a harmonious musical instrument. And again, that’s where I think Moog really excels. I feel like I’ve found that definition now, but it wasn’t what I was led to believe initially from my own experiences.
Song or score, the goal is the same
A varied career beyond Nine Inch Nails, with everything from Emmy and Golden Globe nominations to an Oscar, leads to the question: how did an electronic rocker end up creating film scores – and do so well at it?
“When I was asked to score a film, at first I felt, ‘I don’t know how to do that. I know how to write a song, kind of, but I’m not sure how to score a scene – the strategy or techniques one deploys to do that.’ I didn’t go to school or study how to do that. It got me thinking, ‘Well, what is it that I do do?’. And to me, it’s simply trying to evoke an emotional response of some sort, through something you listen to that I’ve made.
“Knowing when it organically feels right is the one skill set I think that I bring to the table. Thinking too much about why it’s right, or what makes it right, or if it’s fulfilled some criteria to become right – that’s when you can fuck it up. Get out of the way and feel.
Surrounded by possibilities
When working on Pretty Hate Machine, Trent remembers using an E-mu Emax sampler.
“It wasn’t because that was the best-sounding sampler, it was because that’s the one I had. It didn’t have enough memory and it did a lot of things poorly, but I’d find every trick you could imagine – from sampling things three or four times higher than they normally are to stretch them out, to using some of the weird aliasing that might come in when something was dropped four octaves down. Because it was all I had, I had to understand it deeply: there was a sense of having mastered it. I haven’t felt that way about any instrument in years – not only because I have more instruments now and I have less time, but also because I have less discipline to spend the kind of time it takes. I’m distracted by the other things that also matter, like writing songs or composing.
“It’s good to treat your inspirations as precious.”
The precious idea, so easily lost
All that said, Trent is particularly mindful of not losing the moment of inspiration just because of technical issues. In contrast to his more playful creative mindset, there are times when the need of the moment is to capture something specific.
“Nothing kills inspiration faster than things like, ‘Why is it not in sync, where’s the power cord, how the fuck do I get the sound to come out?’ There are times when many choices get set aside, just because I know what I need to get out. It’s about looking at things from a practical point of view. It sounds boring, but I know I need a bass sound, a melody, a rhythmic component – that’s not the time to play around or you’ll lose something.”
“It’s good to treat your inspirations as precious. As a lyricist, I can’t tell you how many times as I’m just about asleep, at the last seconds of semi-consciousness, I’ve been thinking, ‘That’s a really good line. I’ll remember it in the morning.’ No chance – it’s instantly gone.
“So have a little recorder by your bed. You may be thinking you’re going to remember it. I assure you, you’re not. You’ll remember that you had a good idea – ‘what was that thing I was thinking of?’ – but it’s gone. That feeling is the worst.”
Learning is free
Even surrounded by musical tools, Trent’s advice to synth newcomers concerns knowledge, not gear.
“I’m blown away by the plethora of sound creation tools out there now, from the apps on your phone to what comes with laptops these days. Even a modest investment gets you a lifetime’s worth of sound designing tools. I’m super pleased that that’s in the hands of everybody – you don’t need a $30,000 Moog synthesizer or a Fairlight or a $1,500 multi-track tape machine just to get in the game.
“Still, I hope that somewhere out there, people realize that it benefits them to know what subtractive synthesis is, where it came from, and what’s happening behind the front panel of that virtual synth plug-in, and inside the presets. It helps your music to wrap your head around how sound works.”
“I guess what I’m saying in a long-winded way is that you need to respond – listen to what you respond to, and what sounds exciting. To me, that’s the whole key to everything.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and every day I wake up and I’m excited. I want to fuck around with this thing or try that thing because I want to see what it sounds like. You know, it’s hard to think of other things that I’ve been this interested in for this long. Part of it is the techy puzzlebox aspect – the riddle of this new thing. How am I going to crack it open and see what it does?
“A lot of it, though, isn’t the tech at all. I just love the way that stuff sounds. I love sitting down at a piano that might have gotten slightly out of tune or is decaying a little bit. It’s nice to find these great new (new to you) and old things that you can express yourself on, and that can bring you joy.”
Excerpt from PATCH & TWEAK with Moog, published by BJOOKS