A Classic S+V Interview with Oscar Winner Trent Reznor

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Social Network, and it's a modern and adventurous film score if ever I've heard one. It's haunting, of-the-moment, and immersive - and, best of all for us S+V types, it's available in surround sound. Go here to get yours.

Last Thursday, I cued up the Social Network Blu-ray Audio disc on my in-office surround system (which includes Thiel SCS4 speakers and a Thiel SS1 sub, in case you were wondering) to get into the proper pre-Oscars mood. From the plaintive piano buildup of "Hand Covers Bruise" to a sweeping reading of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," it's another shining example of how surround mixes can enhance the listening experience.

Reznor is no stranger to surround, having engineered cutting-edge 5.1 mixes for two Nine Inch Nails albums - The Downward Spiral (done in 2004 for this 1994 classic release) and With Teeth (2005) - not to mention the live Blu-ray Beside You in Time (2007) and the And All That Could Have Been DVD (2002).

I conducted the following interview with Reznor back in early 2002 to discuss his groundbreaking mix for Could Have Been, which captured all the nuances of NIN's brutal and brilliant Fragility v2.0 Tour from 2000.

Did you experience any problem mixing a live performance to 5.1 channels?
The main problem I ran into was, what the hell do I do with the center channel? We did quite a lot of research, and, after listening to every live DVD out there, we started questioning the whole point of the center channel. While it can bring things out in a mix, it can also destroy a mix.

By the way, two examples of poorly mixed multichannel discs are U2's Rattle and Hum and Rage Against the Machine's The Battle of Mexico City. They both sound like somebody just took a stereo mix and put some reverb or phasing trickery on them to get things to pop in the surround channels.

What did you do to avoid that pitfall?
I wanted the band to be playing in front of you and not lose any of the impact it would have if it was in stereo, but at the same time I wanted to immerse you in the crowd. When we recorded the audio for All That Could Have Been, we set up a series of stereo microphones throughout the concert venues, all at different distances from the stage. Because of that, we found that when we started positioning things around the surround field, we didn't need to rely on reverb to "set" the space.

When you listen to a powerful stereo mix, you're not missing those "extra" speakers; it sounds great as is. So I didn't want to get too distracting with the surround-channel speakers. This mix may not be the most creative in terms of abstract use of six speakers, but that wasn't the goal. It's a live show, and I wanted it to remain a live show.

Is there a "wrong" way to do surround?
No. However, I do believe there are mistakes that you can make with surround. One giant mistake is that some people put the lead vocal dry in the center channel. I recommend checking out Metallica's Cunning Stunts and the Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon Tour '97-'98 to experience that. As a singer, I can assure you, I never want anyone to hear my lead vocal dry, especially live. I don't think Mick Jagger even realized that you could turn off all the other speakers and just listen to that one. Even if you're a good musician, that naked, dry, ugly sound can be very unforgiving.