Production Values: The Groove Is Out There

As a founding member of Nine Inch Nails, drummer-producer Chris Vrenna spent a lot of time exploring his dark side. He also spent a lot of time creating
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As a founding member of Nine Inch Nails, drummer-producer Chris Vrenna spent a lot of time exploring his dark side. He also spent a lot of time creating

As a founding member of Nine Inch Nails, drummer-producer Chris Vrenna spent a lot of time exploring his dark side. He also spent a lot of time creating unique, intense, and dark sounds that fit the raging angst of Trent Reznor's songs. But since leaving NIN in 1996, Vrenna, who got his start on the Chicago industrial scene, has broadened his scope. He has worked as a producer, remixer, and programmer with bands and artists including Hole, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, U2, David Bowie, Weezer, and Nelly Furtado. His production of Cold's 13 Ways to Bleed on Stage has recently gone gold.

He has also developed his own music, delving into soundtracks for movies (Rollerball, She's All That) and games (Matrix II: Enter the Matrix and American McGee's Alice, whose Vrenna soundtrack was deemed worthy of its own CD). In addition, he has developed his solo project, Tweaker. The first Tweaker CD, The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, was released in 2001 and was called a “riveting solo debut” by Billboard.

Since October of 2002, Vrenna has been back in tweaker mode, holing up in his home studio to write and record his second release, tentatively titled 2 A.M. Wakeup Call. After hearing some of his richly melodic new tracks, it comes as less of a surprise to discover that Vrenna, despite his notoriously aggressive sonic style, is actually a classically trained percussionist who, in his teens, performed with orchestras and marching bands as well as with the de rigueur punk groups.

Except for his time on tour, Vrenna has spent the bulk of the past 15 years in the recording studio. He has applied all that experience to his home setup, which consists of what were originally two small back bedrooms in his house in the quaint Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock. I've always considered Vrenna to be the consummate modern electronic musician, but on this visit to his studio, something looked very different.

What's with all the analog outboard gear?

[Laughs.] I know, I've done a complete 180∞ change. I was digital, digital, digital, and now I'm using all my analog outboard gear as plug-ins. For this project, I've been buying up used Digidesign 888 I/Os, with the old 16-bit converters. I don't use them for AD/DA; I'm only using the AES/EBU portion of them, which is 24-bit. Since I use a digital Yamaha 02R console, I'm breaking out 32 tracks' worth from my Pro Tools digitally, via AES, through the 888s.

That way, when I mix, I'll have 32 digital outs into the console, and I can save my two 24-bit converters for inserting analog outboard gear. I don't use a patch bay; I just hard-patch in with XLR, so it's superclean. I've been getting some awesome sounds that way, because I can easily use my analog chain. Like for kick drum, I'd use a dbx 160 and an API 560 graphic EQ, just like you would with an analog console.

But why? With the abundance of plug-ins, more and more people are working entirely “in the box.”

Well, I've done all that. A lot of the VST stuff out there sounds thin when you compare it with analog. And mixing internally in Pro Tools still doesn't sound good. Even HD doesn't fix it. It's a higher sampling rate, so your files are bigger; but there's still not enough headroom in the mix bus. You can't pin needles the way you can when you're working on an SSL console with line gains you can really crank.

I'm always trying to get a better mix out of my house. Lately, rule No. 1 is to never set up a master fader in Pro Tools. I try to keep a 1:1 output from Pro Tools into the console, so I can keep all my faders at zero, where it sounds good.

You're talking about gain structure.

I don't know the physics of it, but the further you have to pull the Pro Tools fader down, the fewer bits you end up with. Due to the lack of headroom, you can't clip that master fader at all. So if you're trying to squeeze 60 tracks out of the master fader of Pro Tools, every other fader ends up being at -40. And then your mix is tiny. No image, no depth. When I split everything out, got rid of the master fader, put everything through the console, and set all the Pro Tools faders at zero, all of a sudden my mix went “Whoa”! And it goes “Whoa” again when I mix and strap the analog gear across it. I can't believe it. I'm turning into some kind of old-school asshole.

You're a master at creating big, distorted walls of sound. But you once told me you'd learned that no matter what untraditional things you did to create that big, crazy sound, you had to record it with good technique. Otherwise, it would end up sounding small.

Exactly. And now I've taken that approach further.

But why is the gain structure such a problem? All gear has a sweet spot.

If you set it up right, yes. In Pro Tools, -18 is analog zero. But a lot of people don't know that — I didn't know that. And you're always told to print digital as hot as you can to get the best dynamic range. So everybody's printing every track clipping red.

But when you go to mix and you strap all your analog outboard gear over, if you use a zero digital signal you'll blow up your compressor, or your Neve channel, or whatever. So you've got to take all your analog gear and gain it way down, where it doesn't sound as good and it isn't in its efficient range. Suddenly, you've got the pad in, and the [good old gear] you're using sounds like shit. To interface with analog properly, you've got to print digital at lower levels.

I worked with [engineer-producer] Joe Ciccarelli, who brings his own little VU meters everywhere. He prints everything at 0 VU analog, and into Pro Tools at -18. When you look at his Pro Tools levels, they're barely hitting, but it works properly with the analog gear. You do lose a little dynamic range; your noise floor goes up a little. But as Joe says, “I'll take a little more noise to allow the analog gear to do its job in its optimal range.”

What are you doing right now, and what equipment are you using?

I'm doing rough mixes. I've got Digidesign DVerb running, which has a cool sound, and also Line 6 EchoFarm — another favorite. I use a couple of Waves Renaissance compressors and a Digi slap delay. That's pretty much it, because the way I'm working now, I carve my tone outboard, like with the API Lunchbox. With the mix split out into my console, I can really hear the way things sound. When it's in an internal Pro Tools mix, everything gets crushed. Sometimes I've made mistakes recording tones because it sounded good within that context, then I split it all out, and it's like, “Why does it sound so crappy?” Now I try to get it right going in.

What was your method for recording the new record?

First, we [Vrenna and partner Clint Walsh] wrote the whole record using the same sounds for each song. Doing that made me think more about making it work emotionally. I didn't want to be fooled by all the sweeping and swirling of the filters and not realize that the chord wasn't even a good chord. I can fill it out and make it thick later. If it works on piano, it will work twice as well when the sound is pretty or trippy or whatever. Another thing: I always write in an order and sequence as we go because I like albums, not 12 songs that don't have any relation to one another.

The point was to write the whole record with the same set of sounds. We didn't want to have a great idea for a bass line, and then spend two days deciding what the bass sound should be. We wanted the songs to work structurally and dynamically and emotionally. When we got 12 of them, we went back and replaced the programmed drums with live drums.

What were those temporary sounds?

We had a distorted patch in the Marshall JMP-1 preamp, a clean patch in the Line 6 Pod, a bass patch in the Bass Pod, and one synth patch on the Roland JP-8000 — my favorite bass keyboard because it has the most old-school, natural, Rolandy sound. We also used a string pad and an air pad from the Waldorf Microwave XT, a piano sample, and one bank of drum samples.

That's a different approach for you. From your Nails days on, you've put a premium on constructing unique sounds.

I'm finding that the fewer choices I have, the better choices I make. With too many choices, I get option anxiety. It's “Let's get a synth bass,” and there are all the synths in this room, plus samples, plus software synths, and I've forgotten what the bass line was going to be because now I'm inundated with a million bass patches. I actually sold a few keyboards before I started this record and ended up buying one, the Roland V-Synth, which is the greatest bizarre keyboard I've seen in years.

I'm still into sounds. The other conscious effort I'm making — although I use a lot of synth plug-ins — is to go back to my hardware synths. Because it drives me crazy when I'm watching TV and I hear something, and I know the patch. It's like, “That's Reason Factory User 4, but — that's interesting — he put a guitar riff over it.” Since every kid with a PC is getting cracked software off Gnutella and is getting VST instruments, I figure I'll go get the Alesis Andromeda so I'll sound different.

I'm using a lot of my older synths, like the Waldorf Microwave XT for nice sine-wave dub basses. And of course, modeling synths like the Clavia Nord Lead (see Fig. 1).

I don't know many drummers who program their parts first.

That's how I've always done it. I'm usually limited by budget, and if I go to a big studio to do drums, we don't have time to sit there saying, “Hmmm. What should the beat be?” I map it all out with samples and nitpick the fills until it's a perfect programmed performance. I also do that when I produce. The drummer has to know which fill he's going to play on every song before we walk into the studio. Drums are still the most expensive thing to do on a project because that's where you usually need a good room and a lot of mics and mic preamps.

Is it ever difficult to play what you've programmed?

Sometimes. [Laughs.] Actually, quite often. A couple of times on this record I had these great beat ideas that took me a while to figure out how to play. But that's the beauty of doing drums in your own house. You are able to take more time.

You did all the drums here?

I went to a friend's studio because I needed huge drums on a couple of tracks. Everything else I did here. Engineer Bill Kennedy came over for a couple of days and helped me. Mics in the bathroom — the typical home recording.

What were those bathroom mics?

An AKG 414 and a Neumann U47 FET. And a pair of the big Crown PZMs. That was a Nine Inch Nails trick on the Downward Spiral stuff: just a PZM and an AKG D112 on the kick for a cool lo-fi sound.

PZMs on the walls?

Yeah, or they sound really good on the floor, in the hallway outside the drum room. I vary it: doors open or closed. Sometimes I stick a 414, in omni mode, way up into a skylight for a crazy high-end sound. Sometimes I open all the doors and put the mic out in the TV room — a “down the hall” version of the classic big-room studio sound.

Then Sennheiser 421s on the toms, a vintage AKG D12E that I found on eBay for the kick — one of the square ones where the cable was permanently attached and came out the back of the mic.

Another great mic, at a great price, is the Røde, the little NT4, that has the fixed stereo pattern. I bought it to use as a drum overhead mic because I didn't have room for two mic stands. It has a very clean sound, and since it's so directional, it doesn't pick up the fact that it's in such a small room.

What other instruments are on your new record, and how did you record them?

Acoustic guitar … we did a whole day of 12-string. We used the Røde stereo mic on it, set so it was getting both the body and the neck, and it was really sweet. For the other acoustics, we used an AKG 451 through the Vintech X73 mic pre/EQ — the Neve 1073 kind of thing, which is just awesome. For a quarter of the price of a vintage 1073 module, the sound is remarkably similar. And a tube compressor, the ADL [Anthony DeMaria Labs], which is kind of like a Universal Audio LA-2A. For electric guitar, always the Vintech. Straight into the Vintech, then straight back out. We've got a whole stack of combo amps.

My drum-loop setup is my Avalon DI — the fattest of all DIs — through the API mic preamps, through the API EQ. Then insert any of your favorite compressors: a dbx, or an Universal Audio 1176, or the Empirical Labs Distressor if you want something a little spanky. We take bass direct through an Avalon and into an API graphic EQ and a tube compressor like the ADL.

For keyboards, here's something else I picked up from Joe Ciccarelli: Summit tube DIs. My synth printing is generally from that through the GML mic preamps, because they sound so open. I almost sold them because I never used them. Now they're one of my favorite mic pres for warming up the keyboards. I just use them for gain. I use a pair of API 550As for EQ, and then straight into Pro Tools through the Apogee A/D.

The piano was samples — we got a new roof instead of making a down payment on a Bøsendorfer! We did a shoot-out of sample libraries. In the end, I mostly used the Kurzweil K2000's Stereo Grand Piano factory patch. It has a really nice roundness to it. We also liked some of the GigaStudio and Miroslav Vitous library pianos.

I always thought you started as a punk drummer. But actually, you studied drums for a long time.

My dad thought I had a natural inclination, and he got me drum lessons when I was five. All the teachers said I was too young, except one jazz guy who said he'd try me. It was practice-pad only for the first six months, then you got your rudiment sheet and your Stick Control for the Snare Drummer book. It was six months before he put me on a kit. I took lessons for 12 years, and even when I was in Nails, during Downward Spiral, I went and took refresher lessons. It's nice to get different perspectives from people, and everybody I've ever sat down with has taught me at least one thing that has stuck in my repertoire of skills.

And you played in orchestras?

I was in junior “phil.” That was my first European tour, playing Aaron Copeland's music on symphonic percussion, timpani, and snare. Counting that rest bar for 112, waiting for the one triangle hit. If you blew it, you were screwed.

Well, that certainly teaches concentration.

I also did dinner theater and musicals. In school I did jazz band, marching band, and drum and bugle corps, where I played tri toms. It was like that movie Drumline. You're playing with eight other guys, and if one guy is out of sync, you get marked off. You're doing back-sticking and playing on other people's drums, throwing your sticks in the air, doing all this crazy dancing.

You've started writing for game soundtracks. How is that work different from album work?

It's similar to movies in that it's a score, and you're trying to write a theme or underscore as people are playing the game. If it happens to have a precut scene, then you have to score for picture, as you would for a movie. But for game play, once you drop into a level, if you figure it out quickly, you might be there only five minutes. Or people like me [laughs] could be in it two hours. You need to write music that can run through the whole time. It's not really locked to any particular action in the game. You have to write something that's moody and goes along with both the theme of the level and the theme of the game. But it can't get overbearing or so repetitive that people get bored.

And it can't have a finite ending.

Right. You may want it to loop for hours, until you get to the next point that will trigger the next piece of music, and on and on. I always try to make sure that the end of the piece and the beginning are the same instrumentally, so that when it ends and loops back to that beginning, you never even hear that it stopped.

It's challenging. The main thing is, you don't want the people to go to the option screen and shut the music off! You have to stay out of the way of the action and the sound effects, but at the same time you're setting the mood.

How do you approach doing remixes?

They're all different. I just did a remix of Cold's new single that was a B-side, where I got to do whatever I wanted. There was no ulterior motive other than that they wanted a cool version. But those are rare lately. Now we need a format: “It's a hip-hop track but we want a rock version,” or “It's a rock track, but we want a dance version.” Labels aren't spending money just for the art of it. So I tailor it to what the label needs. That's not necessarily negative, and it can be challenging — especially because the integrity of the artist is always on my mind. They can only be pushed so far into other genres before the red flag goes up. I don't ever want to do something that isn't true to who the artist really is. That would hurt more than help them. Fans smell a rat quickly.

Are you looking to buy anything in the near future?

The thing I'm most excited about now is the Yamaha 02R96. My 02R has been the most stable and reliable piece of gear I've ever bought. It never crashes. If I get a new digital console, that would be it. But I'm also looking at the new API 8200 series, which I can't wait to hear. You buy a master section, the 7800, and it's a master fader with an insert, switching for two sets of speakers, and a talkback system. Then you can add single-rackspace units that have actual API op amps and Jensen transformers. You get volume, pan, and send knobs; a mute button; and an insert switch. The inserts are all balanced and ribbon connected, and you can daisy-chain eight of the units. So you can do all your riding and muting within Pro Tools but get the sound of an API Legacy. That's got to be awesome.

What about upgrading to Pro Tools HD?

I'm using Pro Tools 24 Mix Plus, and I'll run this rig until somebody puts a gun in my mouth. I can't afford HD right now. The software investment alone would be another $30 grand! Plus, MP3 is the new winning format. Why would I spend $30,000 to upgrade to HD when the new format isn't even CD quality? Actually, maybe I should start making my records at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz. I'm doing them at 24-bit, 48 kHz now; what am I even wasting my hard-disk space for?

But seriously, considering how cheap Mix Plus systems are getting on eBay, you can put together a really nice setup for very little money.

What do you think is going to happen in the near future of the record industry?

My philosophy is just to go forward. I don't think major labels are going to be willing to drop two years and $2 million to make a record anymore. People are going to have to learn how to do it in a house. Labels are going to want White Stripes records, where they don't have to spend money. Why bother? “Okay, we'll give you $20 grand to make a record, or $50- or $100 grand. Not $2 million.”

You have to be able to make powerful sounding records in your house. And the people who know how to do that — who, like me, make guerilla records — are going to be in a stronger position.

Maureen Droneyis Mix magazine's Los Angeles editor. Her book Mix Masters, a series of interviews with Platinum recording and mix engineers, has recently been released by Berklee Press.



Chris Vrenna, “Take the Pill” from Matrix II: Enter The Matrix game soundtrack (Atari, 2003)

American McGee, Alice soundtrack (Electronic Arts/Kabuki Digital, 2001)

Econoline Crush, “By the Riverside” from Brand New History (EMI, 2001)

Tweaker, The Attraction to All Things Uncertain (Six Degrees, 2001)

Nine Inch Nails, “Perfect Drug” from Natural Born Killers soundtrack (Nothing/Interscope, 1997)

Producer/additional production credit

Cold, 13 Ways to Bleed on Stage (Geffen, 2000)

Rasputina, How We Quit the Forest (Columbia, 1998)


P.O.D., “Set It Off” from Scorpion King soundtrack (Universal, 2002)

Nelly Furtado, “Turn Off the Light” (DreamWorks, 2001)

U2, “Elevation” from Tomb Raider soundtrack (Elektra/Interscope, 2001)

Weezer, “Hash Pipe” (Geffen Records, 2001)

Xzibit, featuring Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, “X” (Loud Records, 2000)

Rob Zombie, “Return of the Phantom Stranger” (Interscope, 1999)

Skinny Puppy, “Dys Temper” (Nettwerk, 1998).