Keyboard Magazine February 2000 - NINE INCH NAILS
The album, the tour . . . behind the scenes with the biggest, basses band in the land by Greg Rule
One sentence. One simple sentence that hit like a hammer. "Most of the album is actually guitar," declared Trent Reznor in a press release about The Fragile. Just as it felt when the great Michael Jordan announced he was leaving basketball for a career in baseball, Trent Reznor dealt the synth world a low blow by admitting that he'd made a "guitar album."
Or had he?
"There's a general theme of systems failing an things sort of falling apart," says Trent of the record. "In keeping with the idea of making everything sound a little broken, I chose stringed instruments because they're imperfect by nature." But a closer examination of the two-disc opus reveals that Trent hasn't abandoned his black and whites. Far from it. The synths are there, and are employed more creatively than ever. You just have to dig a bit deeper at times, listen a bit closer. And even when the guitars come crashing through the mix like bulldozers, such as on "The Day the World Went Away," it doesn't take long for the mood to shirt. In that case, the grinding riffs give way to a whisper-soft piano interlude ("The Frail").
When sonic landscape is non-keyboard, Trent and company cut, paste, twist and mutate the audio in brilliant NIN fashion. "When it came to instruments that I didn't really know how to play, like the ukulele or the slide guitar," he says, "we were able to get some interesting sounds by making the studio the main instrument."
What studio techniques is he talking about? What happened between the end of The Downward Spiral and the launch of this tour? What programming tips and tricks did the Reznor collective employ on this record and for the subsequent tour? You're about to learn the answers and more as Keyboard goes behind the curtain with two of Trent's techno wizards, Charlie Clouser and Keith Hillebrandt, plus a special road report from keyboard tour tech Bruce Hendrix.
Before one note of The Fragile was recorded, Trent had to move his elaborate home studio setup from the temporary confines of the Sharon Tate house in Southern California to a new permanent home in New Orleans. Charlie Clouser, who was there for the relocation, recalls the process. "Trent was looking for a suitable building in New Orleans, and - just as it was a coincidence that he wound up in the Charles Manson murder house in Los Angeles - the only suitable building that was empty and available in the right neighborhood just happened to be a funeral home. So Trent bought the building, and moved all of his studio gear into it. Studio A has an 80-input SSL console in it, two Studer 24-tracks, a Digidesign Pro Tools and Macintosh system, and a massive collection of keyboards and guitar pedals. Studio B in the back is equipped with Mackie digital consoles, a bunch of [TASCAM] DA-88s, and a lot of synths. Then, there are the recording spaces, two or three live rooms of various sizes, and a garage-style live room for recording drums. Upstairs there's an extensive video arcade [chuckles], a computer server room, a studio manager's office, and at the end of the hall are separate studio rooms for myself, Danny [Lohner, bassist/guitarist/programmer], and Keith Hillebrandt, our nuts and bolts programmer."
For the finishing touch, the computers in the studio were networked. "We set up an Ethernet network," says Charlie. "We laid the cable ourselves, wiring the whole building for 10BaseT, and we set up file servers because we were all using Macintoshes with Pro Tools hardware in them. Having the setup that way enabled us to work in a collaborative mode. In the old days there wasn't really room for collaboration in Nine Inch Nails, partly because there was only one studio going In order for me to sit down and fiddle with a synthesizer and try to decide whether to turn the knob to the left or right, Trent's gotta step aside, and that would interrupt the flow too much. But having the studio set up the way we did, where we each had a separate room and we were all linked with the computer network and file servers, meant that as we were working Trent could say, 'Here, I'm going to put this track aside for a few days. I'll put it up on the file server. Why don't you guys grab a copy, go into your studios, and add whatever you feel like adding, be it a guitar track, a drum overdub, filtering something I've laid down through your synths, or whatever. Then record that back as audio and put it back on the server in the appropriate folder."
When Trent and co-producer Alan Moulder would get back to a particular song, "they would take a prowl on the file server and see what contributions Danny and I had created," says Charlie. "'Oh look, Charlie has laid down a bunch of keyboard parts.' And what it would be was, I would create stuff using the synths and sequencers in my room, and I would record it as audio." To make sure the files were interpreted properly at the other end, Charlie would always create audio files that would start at bar 1 of the song, even if it meant adding empty space before the first note. From there, Trent and his cohorts in Studio A would sift through the tracks and pick out the audio they wanted.
"The combinations of Trent's wanting to open up the creative process to contributions with the setting up of the facility in such a way that it would make a smooth process really enabled the collaboration to take place," Charlie relates. "It meant that he didn't have to stop the work on what he was doing in Studio A in order for me and Danny to spend a week fiddling with synthesizers and guitar sounds and stuff, and of course downstairs Trent is doing the same thing. He'd be spending days fiddling with different guitar sounds, learning to play a cello, and all that kind of stuff. At the same time we didn't have to sit around with our arms folded. We could be upstairs in our rooms working endlessly on one little nugget of a sound that would turn into an intro of a song or something. If it hadn't been for the studio setup, I don't think the level of collaboration would have been as high on this record."
There was a new collaborative spirit in the air, but what prompted Trent to open the doors to contributors? "I think part of the reason for that is because the band was really sounding good and kicking ass at the end of the touring for The Downward Spiral record," says Charlie, "and I think Trent wanted to inject some of what was good about the live performances into the construction of the album. So he made the offer at the close of the tour: 'Hey, why don't you guys move to New Orleans, I'm going to build a huge studio, and you can stick around for the creation of the next Nine Inch Nails record. I'd like to make it a more collaborative environment.' It sounded good, although I'm sure we were all slightly suspicious, considering the fact that Trent had written and played basically every note on the previous Nine Inch Nails records. So we were thinking there had been no precedent established for this to take place, but it was a fantastic opportunity and we all jumped at the chance."
Not only did the personnel change for the making of The Fragile (longtime drummer/programmer Chris Vrenna departed the Nine Inch Nails camp, to name one), so too did the process of writing and recording. Trent had started to pen new material during a sabbatical in Big Sur, California, but it wasn't until he returned to New Orleans that the tree started to bear fruit. "Trent had these basic categories of songs he wanted to fill," explains Charlie. "There was a blackboard on the wall, and it said things like: old style NIN jams, rap-influenced drum beats, Atari Teenage Riot level of chaos, and so on."
While there was no one way of developing a song, Charlie says that ideas often started with a foundation groove. "Trent would be working on bass and drum tracks; he'd start with a rhythm of some sort, a drum part or a synthesizer part, and build it from the bottom up. The lyrics and vocals usually came at the very end, after the song was well developed. For a good year there, we were all listening to instrumental tracks with no vocals on them. One collaborative song, 'Starfuckers,' for example, grew out of a Quasimidi Rave-O-Lution  through a fuzz pedal jam that I had done upstairs in my studio. That had fallen into the 'Atari Teenage Riot' category of song ideas. It was just something I'd spent about a day and a half fiddling with. I'd gotten some crazy sounds, and I Created a basic bass an drum track that I dropped onto the server, and Trent pulled it downstairs. Then, in his weekly or monthly review of song ideas, he picked that one out and said, 'I want to add some things to this.' So he added some bass, some guitars, and eventually wrote the big, heavy riff that comes in the chorus. The final resulting song bears little resemblance to the original track idea that I had laid down, but the original data that I Had put in there - the Quasimidi through the fuzz pedal - is the drum track in the verses. So working in the computer let us keep every scrap from our demo ideas, ' cause it was all recorded correctly from the beginning."
The process also worked in reverse. "Trent would sometimes have a very sketchy idea that might not have many instruments on it," Charlie explains. "It might be just drums and bass and a couple of keyboard sounds and a guitar loop or something, and then Danny and I would pile on so much stuff up in our studios that Trent was able to pick through all of our overdubs and find bits and pieces that accentuated the mood that he was trying to get to. So on some of the songs, we were all generating track ideas and swapping them off."
Sound design ace Keith Hillebrandt was brought into the fold early on to create a gigabyte of fresh samples for the album (more on this below), but his role expanded. "We were working on 'The Perfect Drug' remix at the time I arrived in New Orleans," says Keith. "I was under the impression that I was pretty much going to be running the sequencer for Trent and coming up with sounds, but when I actually got here, I realized that my contribution would be greater than I initially anticipated. It was everything from running the sequencer, recording Trent, and editing the sequences to come up with sounds, manipulating them, and arranging a lot of the demos that Trent was coming up with. He gave me a lot of free rein to pick out the parts that got used, in terms of.... He played a lot of guitar on this album. In some cases, there were up to two hours of guitar tracks for a single song, and I would basically sift through all of that and find the parts that I liked." One of Keith's proudest moments on the album was the middle break and the guitar solo of "The Fragile." "We looped the middle section of the song and Trent just kind of banged away on a guitar, and worked out al these dissonant things. Once we had recorded it all in, I cut up and turned it into this strange dissonant build that leads into the guitar solo. The solo was something that, again, was the result of looping the section. Trent played a series of four-bar phrases, and at the end of playing, he left the room and let Alan and I sift through all the different bits, which eventually turned into the guitar solo you hear on the record. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the album - the way the guitar solo builds up into the end of the song."
If you haven't guessed already, The Fragile was recorded digitally. "Everything was going to hard disk," says Keith. "We only started going to tape when we were running out of hard disk channels, which, when we had 72 tracks of hard disk channels... we knew we were pushing the limits. There were things like 'We're in This Together,' which turned out to be a massive undertaking. We had so many guitar tracks on that, it only made sense to start dumping them off to tape because even until the last week or so of working on that track - I think that track took nine weeks to complete - we were still not sure exactly what kind of guitar balance we wanted. I think at some point we had maybe 40 or 44 different guitars playing in the chorus. Alan was experimenting with different combinations of guitars and things like that for the chorus, so I think at that point we started dumping tracks off to tape because it was getting a bit chaotic. There was everything from Trent's very low, muddy 'swollen pickle' guitar sound to some fuzzier Tone Machine type sounds."
SYNTHS & STUDIO GEAR
A mountain of gear was used in the making of the record, but a few key items made repeat appearances. "The main tool in my studio was a Macintosh computer with [Digidesign] SampleCell and lots of TDM plug-ins," says Charlie. "Instrument-wise, the [Clavia] Nord Lead had just come out as we were beginning this record. Trent has always relied heavily on some of the old favorites like the [Sequential] Prophet-VS and the Oberheim Xpander --two unique-sounding synths. But when the Nord Lead first came out, it kind of cracked open the door for a lot of new synth technology."
Trent used "a Nord Lead on almost every song," says Keith. And not just for leads or synth bass. "He used it for... it was pretty much all over the map. There wasn't any real definitive synth bass. I mean, we used the Minimoog, we used the Nord, we used the [Novation] Bass Station on 'The Wretched.' There wasn't anything that we always went back to for a specific sound, but if he had a melody in his head, the Nord was always the first synth he'd walk over to. He'd basically flip through sounds until he found something in the ballpark, then we'd record in the synth line, and then tweak the sounds as the sequence looped around."
The Access Virus and Waldorf MicroWave also played prominent roles on the record. "In my studio," says Charlie, "I basically rely on three synths - the Nord, the Virus, and the MicroWave - as well as the Nord Modular, which is also a big part of this record. A lot of the processing and drum sounds were actually done on the Nord Modular, which Trent is really good at programming. He's always been really good at using white noise, sweepy drum sounds - not so much synth drum sounds, but synth sounds used in a drum context. And a lot of those kinds of things were done with the Nord Lead and the Nord Modular."
"I'm also a big fan of the Prophet-VS and Xpander," he continues. "I found an Xpander that has external audio inputs to the filters, which have a unique musical character and quality, and a bunch of interesting filter types. The Waldorf family of synths are featured heavily on the record. Their Pulse analog synth was used on quite a few songs, and the family of MicroWaves has been a huge success in our building. Trent owned an all original MicroWave module. When the MicroWave II came out, we all got those. Then, of course, the day after we all bought Iis, they came out with the MicroWave XT, which has knobs all over the front."
As the album progressed, Charlie also started getting into boxes "like the Quasimidi Rave-O-Lution, the Jomox Xbase 09 drum machine, and the FutureRetro 777 303-clone, which are all strange and wonderful devices. Many happy accidents occur when I use those types of devices as opposed to something like a [Korg] Trinity. We don't really have many sample-based workstation-type keyboards in the studio, except for the Kurzweil K2500."
The NIN team started out using Opcode Studio Vision, but switched to Emagic Logic halfway into the sessions. "Initially we were working in Studio Vision," Keith confirms, "but that was before we threw our hands in the air and switched over to Logic. It got to the point where Studio Vision just wasn't reliable enough for us to work with consistently." How seamless was the transition? "I had been a studio Vision user for six years," says Keith, "so it took a little bit of time to learn Logic, and to learn to use it in a professional manner according to what Trent and Alan were used to. There was a point where we had a guy from L.A. come out, Paul DeCarli, who's a brilliant programmer. He took the reins for a bit and in the meantime was really helpful on getting me out of the way of thinking of Studio Vision and in the way of thinking of Logic - seeing it as more of a transparent interface than what I was used to in Studio Vision."
Switching platforms is easier said than done, and for many reasons. Trying to convert the band's elaborate demos, for example, was anything but a picnic. When they switched, "Everything was in a demo form, which was over 40 tracks that we had to convert," says Keith. "It took a while,and there were some bugs in trying to get it to sound the same way the demos sounded. For instance, if an audio track didn't have the same plug-in on it, or if the correct sys-ex for a synth didn't get sent along with the sequence. Trent's process for synth sounds is basically to dump a single track into the sequence he's using, not to do big dumps. I mean, there are so many synths in the studio, it kind of makes sense. So for every song we had a single sys-ex dump of each Nord Lead, the Virus, the MicroWave, depending on which synths were used on that song. But things like that did make the transition a bit sketchy, and it also made it a little bit tough to bring up the recalls when Trent wanted to further develop a song."
The magic combination for Keith and company turned out to be Logic with Digidesign hardware. Pro Tools software came into play later in the process. "We weren't using the Pro Tools app that much, until we got to the compilation stage - compiling the sequence of the album. But using Logic as a front end for the Digi hardware, it was pretty much flawless. Logic is a very impressive sequencer. It's a lot different that what Trent and I were used to, since we were both Studio Vision users. Charlie made the transition pretty seamlessly."
Keith Hillebrandt first came to the attention of Trent Reznor for his sound design magic on the Diffusion of Useful Noise sample CD. When he got the call to join Nine Inch Nails in New Orleans, his first order of business was to create a 1GB sample library exclusively for Trent. "A lot of stuff was similar to what I'd done on Diffusion," says Keith, "a lot of strange, evolving drones and a lot of envelope-triggered loops, which were basically noises that I ran through my [ARP] 2600 and then had the envelopes triggered by drum loops. That would create strange peaks and valleys, kind of giving you the feel of drum loops but it didn't sound anything like your standard off-the-shelf CD_ROM drum loops. There were a lot of effects-type sounds, things I processed through [Digidesign] Turbosynth and [Prosoniq] SonicWorx. I created a lot of the stuff that way. I'd get off on a little tangent in SonicWorx, and before I'd know it I'd have 20 sounds that came from those processes."
How much creative latitude did Keith have in designing the sounds? "Charlie gave me some ideas for rhythmic loops. As far as the more tonal things, like drones and samples that you could transpose and actually play melodically, Trent kind of gave me an idea of things he was interested in hearing. Things that would complement the ideas that he was coming up with. He was really interested in sounds that evolved, that sounded more alive. Not just simple two-second loops. Things that were ten to 20 seconds long that had a development stage. He was looking for things that had a kind of organic nature in and of themselves, so he could drop them into tracks or use them as segues between pieces. He wanted things that would create an evolving feel, as opposed to an obvious three-second loop. He really gave me a lot of free rein. Continually over the two years of recording the album, we were always able to go back to it and find things that we hadn't listened to before or hadn't yet exploited."
You can hear Keith's handiwork throughout The Fragile. For example, "there's a shrieking type of sound in the verse of 'The Wretched' that kind of peels off into this odd stereo space. There's an evolving drone in 'I'm Looking Forward to Joining You' that moves around in the background behind his vocal."
How did he create these signature sounds? "I would get my source material from all over the place, from pulling it off AM radios or the television to sticking a microphone outside my car window as I was driving home. But I know the sound in 'The Wretched,' the very sharp stereo peeling out sound, was created in Turbosynth using the Diffuser module, which actually turned out to be a great device for creating unique stereo effects. It wasn't something that sounded like it was run through, say, a spatializer kind of plug-in. It wouldn't create that kind of effect. It would be something that always seemed to move a bit further out beyond the speakers.
Charlie Clouser contributed his fair share of strange noises and loops to the record as well. "We did rely heavily on processing on this record," he reveals, " because there were so many new tools around. A few years ago our choices were limited to basically running stuff through the filter input of the Minimoog or putting it into the Eventide H3000. Those were the two main choices in those days. Now there are piles of plug-ins and crazy processing tools. We used the TC Electronic Fireworx effects unit a lot, which has some interesting filters and such. We also did a lot of passing audio through the filter inputs of the Access Virus module and the Roland JP-8080."
Case in point: "The pulsing synth-type line that runs throughout 'Into the Void' is Trent playing guitar through the MicroWave XT's filter inputs, and the big heavy sub-bass sounds that come in on the song 'The Great Below' are, I think, Quasimidi Rave-O-Lution through the filter bank on the JP-8080," says Charlie. "There are also a lot of ambient drones on 'The Great Below' and 'The Way Out Is Through" which are, I believe, a [Steinberg] Rebirth bass sequence running on a Macintosh passing through the filter inputs on the JP-8080. So there was a lot of starting with one thing and ending up with a completely unrecognizable result by basically removing 99% of audio from a sound, and just winding up with a delicate little squaky noise when the original was a screeching, squalling sequence."
Trent's studio complex has no shortage of Macintosh computers, but PCs were integrated into the studio setups along the way. "About halfway through the album, a couple of us bit the bullet and got Windows machines," Charlie says, "because there is a lot of shareware-level audio software for PCs that we wanted to try. Programs like AudioMulch and, on the professional side, [Native Instruments] Reaktor, Generator, and Transformator, which are modular synthesizer-type situations in software that offer a different set of module choices that what you get in a Nord Modular. We also got the Pulssar audio card from Creamware, and I believe on one song we actually used the simulated Minimoog that comes with the Pulsar. We mostly used the PCs for audio processing and drone creation. Basically it was a whole new world. I mean, we didn't learn most of these programs from top to bottom; it was more like, plug it in, bring it up on the console, and see if anything interesting comes out. You know, you're putting in a vocal, and what's coming out is a small crackling sound. The PC< with all these strange shareware programs, provided just another color to the spectrum. But we still did all our sequencing and audio recording on the Macs. The Logic Audio/Pro Tools combo is a lot more evolved on the Mac, and many more plugins exist. Plus, we kept breaking our PCs' operating systems by installing audio drivers and shareware stuff, so we didn't rely on them too much."
If you happened upon the Nine Inch Nails website late last year, you might have noticed the virtual tour of the Nothing studios. In one room, there was an array of stompboxes that had to be seen to be believed. "Keyboards were run through [the pedals] occasionally," says Keith, "but for the most part they were used on guitar. Before Trent would record a guitar track, he would describe to Alan the kind of guitar sound he wanted and Alan would get about five pedals, plug them all in, and start dialing in sound according to what Trent was looking for. But on occasion we did do things like putting drums through the stomboxes and things like that. A lot of the sounds that I developed for the album were run through Electro-Harmonix pedals the Screaming Bird, which basically only lets everything about 8kJZ through, and that created some nice upper frequency ambiance. But yeah, I did use quite a few pedals in the sound-design stage of the album."
In late 1999, Nine Inch Nails kicked off their Fragile world tour with a month of shows in Europe. The touring ensemble consists of Trent (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Robin Finck (guitar, vocals, keyboards), Danny Lohner (bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals), Charlie Clouser (keyboards, theremin, vocals), and Jerome Dillon (drums). Two weeks after opening night, Charlie told us that the tour was going well. "It took us two or three gigs to crack the rust off the joints, but once Robin took a head injury and shed some blood, we felt like we were back [laughs]. We don't know what he hit his head on, though. It was either his mic, Trent's mic, his guitar, Trent's guitar, or the drum kit - all of which he impacted on the second song of the third gig. Blood was streaming down his face, but it looked a lot worse than it was. He took six stitches, and had to play a few songs sitting down with an icebag on his head, but he's fine now."
Leading up to the tour, Charlie faced the enormous task of sifting through the multitracks and figuring who would play what on stage. "Fortunately, Trent by no means wishes to duplicate the album version of the songs live, which would turn into a science experiment trying to recreated the layered stuff on the album. Plus, the band has a history of doing live versions that sound different than the album version, but still kick ass in their own right. In the process of stripping songs down to play live, you have to eliminate a lot of extraneous stuff, and what you wind up with usually sounds tougher and more raw, which is what we're after. Trent does give us a pretty free hand to determine how we want to interpret the parts. Basically what I'll do is take the multitrack of whatever parts made it onto the final version of the song, put that up in Logic, start divvying up the tracks, and say, 'Okay, these are the things that Jerome is going to play.'"
That wasn't as straightforward as it sounds, though, since many of the sounds on the record were on-the-fly accidents, and weren't easily recreatable. "A lot of stuff would be labelled something like 'Mulch Drone' so we know it obviously came from the AudioMulch software," Charlie recalls, "but God knows what we did with the preset, if we saved it after we were done. You know, a lot of the stuff was like, 'Record it now, because if I touch it, it's going away.' We did make an effort to document and store presets and do sys-ex dumps and keep track of things so we could come back, but something or other is always irretrievable for one reason or another. You do a software update on the synth and you can't receive the sys-ex dumps from the old 1.0 revision. So there were a million little snags that prevented us from doing a total recall of a song. But as we were working in Logic, if there were any synth parts we'd keep the MIDI hanging around, but we'd also record it as audio back into the computer. So we'd never have to rely on, 'Oh, you wrote over preset 35 on the Nord Lead #6. Oh, no. I Needed that sound for this song.' We never had to worry about that, because we'd recorded it as audio, and that made it pretty easy for me to figure out who was going to play what on stage."
Sometimes Charlie would make a reference cassette of each part, "so Robin, for example, could listen to the texture of a given sound on a song and try to duplicate it using the effects units in his rack. For most of my keyboard parts, I'd sample the original synth that made the sound, or grab bits from the multitrack. If I grabbed parts from the multitrack tape, I'd put it into ReCycle, break it back down to its individual notes, separate those notes out, and map them out on the keyboard to recreate the part."
Charlie's stage setup is a streamlined beauty. "My entire live rig consists of an E4 sampler and a really long MIDI cable. I use a four-octave controller keyboard [Yamaha CBX-K2] and a little Evolution Dance Station, a two-octave keyboard controller that looks like a Bass Station. Just a tiny little thing that I mount off to the side, because I'm using Vocoder on on a lot of songs live, and that gives me a separate controller that I can use for the Vocoder"
Which Vocoder did Charlie choose to take on tour? "I'm using the Nord Modular. I have a Nord Micro Modular in my rack, and during rehearsals I made a patch that has one input coming from a separate output of the E4, and the other input comes from a little mic preamp that I have in the rack. So I have two microphones on my riser: one's for singing, one's for vocoding. When I do vocoding, I'll play something on the min-keyboard that triggers a sample of something that comes out of the individual outputs on the E4, routed directly into input 2 on the Nord Micro Modular. Input 1 on the Micro Modular is my mic preamp, and a mono output of that goes over to the P.A. So I'm kind of a self-contained Vocoder system. I can choose what sample I want to use as the audio source of the vocoder by just dialing up the correct sample on the E4 and routing it out of individual output 1. On some songs, like on 'Starfuckers,' it's basically a sample of crowd noise, screaming and clapping, and that's looped and smoothed out. That forms the audio source, so when I scream the word 'Starfuckers' we get this huge 'STARFUCKERS' - it sounds like a gang of people screaming it. There are also backing vocal effects on 'Into the Void' and 'Please,' where on the record we actually used Vocoder to create a kind of quasi-synthetic backing vocal texture here and there, and I'm kind of duplicating that with a sound I made on the Virus as the audio source that's sampled into the E4, and my voice as the modulator."
On previous tours, the Nine Inch Nails keyboardists would often load sample banks between songs, "but nowadays," says Charlie, "you can throw 128 MB of memory onto these things, so I loaded it up. By sample-rate-converting everything and shortening, truncating and looping, I managed to squeeze everything we need for 32 songs into one 97MB load, which fits on a Zip cartridge. At the beginning of show we load up the E4, and I used a ground controller to send program changes to the E4. Since the E4 has two MIDI inputs, it's very convenient to plug the ground controller into one input and the MIDI controller keyboards into the other. I don't need any MIDI mergers, I don't have any MIDI patchbays. I don't take any risks in that department. It's fairly simple: Before every song I hit a switch on my ground controller that calls up the patch for that song, which will have al the sounds I need for that song on the keyboard somewhere. And because you're working with a sampler, it's convenient to do things like... on 'March of the Pigs,' for example, I need a fairly full-bodied and full keyboard's worth of piano sound to play the piano break, but I also need guitar samples and noise drones and all the other bits and pieces, so what I do is erase the piano from a couple of the black keys a the top and bottom of the keyboard on the E4, and I put the guitar samples and noises on those keys so they'll be easy to find in the heat of the moment."
Rather than make charts or visual aids to help him remember what sample was mapped to what key from patch to patch, Charlie "just memorized everything. We had rehearsed so much, for a solid month in the Bahamas and a solid month before that, so just by sheer repetition I've got it memorized now. I do, however, obey some kind of system of mapping, where some sounds ill always be on the high and low keys on the keyboard, so I'll know where to find them."
On the Downward Spiral tour, the band used TASCAM DA-88s for some of the backing tracks. "We're still using that for a lot of the old songs," Charlie reveals, "and that basically consists of a click track, a mono track for sequenced bass, and a stereo pair for the sequenced rhythmic elements that nobody can play. Things like sixteenth-note quantitized bass lines and so on. So we still use that system for most of the old songs."
For the new songs, however, things have changed. "A lot of the new songs are being played completely live with no tape," says Charlie. "Songs like 'The Day the World Went Away' and 'Starfuckers' we can play completely live. On 'Starfuckers' I've broken up all the drum loops in small pieces and laid them out across the keyboard, so I can manually ReCycle them as I go. The drummer picks a tempo, and I hammer away at the keyboard, retriggering the snipped up bits of the loop to try and recreate the original loops as close as possible. So we're actually moving away from the former reliance of having a lot of sequenced elements. If any new song would need tape, you'd think it would be 'Starfuckers,' which on the album is so heavily sequenced sounding. But we realized that we'll be sending the wrong message if we go out, roll the tape, and stand around as the tape goes. So with typical Trent Reznor wisdom, he said, 'Let's just play it live. Make it a punk rock song. Break up the drum loops, put 'em on the keyboard, and we'll just bash our way through it.' I think it works much better, because we can now do tempo changes, we can stop in the middle and improvise, and it's nice to not be constrained by a tape that's running in the background."
As for Trent, he plays piano on three or four songs during the set, "and usually does a piano-only version of 'The Frail,' which I love," says Charlie. "Hey plays Prophet-VS on 'Closer,' as always, but he's playing a lot more guitar than keyboards on-stage these days." Of particular interest to many fans on this tour is Charlie's on-stage theremin. "I've got the little Etherwave theremin from Bob Moog's company Big Briar. When we were getting ready for touring this time, Trent suggested that I give it a try on a few songs, and it's made the cut so far. It's kind of a risky instrument, because you never know quite what's going to come out of it. I've got it going through a TC Electronics Fireworx for distortion and echo, which helps. I use it on a couple of older songs, like 'Sin,' and four or five of the new songs. There's a segment in the set where we do 'La Mer,' 'The Great Below,' and 'The Way Out is Through,' and the theremin makes an appearance on all three of those, as well as on the songs 'Even Deeper' and 'The Day The World Went Away." Sometimes I'm attempting to play small melodies with the thing, and sometimes it's a distorted screaming sound. You feel a bit silly, standing there doing a modern dance duet with a radio antenna, but occasionally it sounds cool."
The Nine Inch Nails roadshow will be rolling through the States in mid-2000.