Nine Inch Nails founding member, Chris Vrenna, on the making of Quake, 25+ years later

Kevin Keating
Chris Vrenna in his home studio (Photo: Vrenna archives)

With the worst of the pandemic now behind us, bands have been able to get back on the road and resume some of their interrupted plans from 2020 & 2021. One of those bands is Nine Inch Nails. The industrial powerhouse returned to the Bay Area this past Sunday with a sold out show at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Next week, the band heads to Cleveland for another sold out and extra special one-night performance on September 24th to belatedly celebrate their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. An induction that was forced to shift online back in 2020 due to the pandemic and which robbed the band of the traditional live performance during the typical in-person annual ceremony. However, they're making up for it by having two other favorites of ours, Ministry and Nitzer Ebb join them in Cleveland for a show truly worthy of a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony! 

Among the Nine Inch Nails members inducted into the Rock Hall was founding drummer, engineer and programmer, Chris Vrenna. Vrenna's driving rhythms propelled tracks like the GRAMMY winning "Wish" and the pounding "March of the Pigs" with its 7/8 time signature into the stratosphere. But Chris is also known for his work scoring video game soundtracks, and got his gaming start with the groundbreaking 1996 release of the first person shooter Quake from id Software.

Chris Vrenna (Photo:

A first for its time, the video game featured a recorded soundtrack written and performed by Nine Inch Nails, notably, Trent Reznor and Chris Vrenna. As the game celebrated its 25th anniversary last year with a re-release on modern game consoles, and as we look towards NIN's belated Rock Hall performance in Cleveland next week, we reached out to Chris for a look back on the making of the seminal video game soundtrack 25+ years later, and you can find our full conversation below! Chris, thanks for making the time to speak with us! Can you believe Quake celebrated 25 years last year with a re-mastered re-release across all the major game consoles, and not only that, but that the annual Quakecon gaming convention is still going strong all these years later? Let's start from the beginning, how did you originally get connected with id to score the Quake soundtrack?

Chris Vrenna: So let’s go all the way back to 1993 and Trent and I had moved to Los Angeles and we were living in the famous Sharon Tate house where we were finishing the Broken and Fixed EPs and we were just beginning The Downward Spiral. Trent was a massive, massive gamer back then; I don’t know if he still is or not — he’s got 5 kids now, so I don’t know if he plays games with them or not — but back then he was a huge gamer.  That was right when Doom II came out and the very first Wolfenstein came out, and the term ‘crackware’, where they would give you the first 3 levels on a 3.5” floppy disk, and would give it away… We got so hooked on first person shooter games, and these were like the first, first person shooters. I can still remember the Doom II level one theme is ‘duh, duh, da-nah, duh, duh-na-na’… I mean, I still remember the themes of certain levels! But anyway, we’re making Downward Spiral, we’re in the Tate House, we had a PC there, and the full Wolfenstein 3D Spear of Destiny had just come out and that became our addiction for like a month and every morning, let’s wake up, let’s get a cup of coffee, let’s play that next level! Trent would drive and I would navigate, I’d be like ‘nope, nope, nope, it was down the hallway to the right.’ He was just running the controls because he was better at the controls than I was… The next thing you know, we’d look up and the sun is setting — a beautiful sunset over the Los Angeles skyline, and we’d be like ‘ah, shit, ok, let’s just finish this map today, and tomorrow we won’t play the game at all, we’ll just go straight into whatever we were working on yesterday’, and I’m like ‘ok, deal’, and of course the next morning would come and then it’d be like, ‘you know?’ we got so stuck on Spear of Destiny that I’ll never forget it. It was so fun, we just thought that technology was so amazing. 

So on our tour, so now Downward Spiral finally gets done and out, and we go on tour... Trent actually got two PCs. Back then, I think they were 486’s, and we put one in the front lounge of the tour bus and one in the back lounge of the tour bus and we ran cable down the entire length of the tour bus so we could play deathmatches against each other. And so, we had that going, and Trent would talk about this stuff in interviews and somehow the guys at id found out what a huge fan Trent was, Nine Inch Nails was of all this, and they [id] loved the story of setting up a LAN network in our tour bus so we could do deathmatches. And so they were working on this new game that was going to become Quake, and I’m sure we were all NDA’d like we are today, and so Trent and I flew to Dallas to meet everybody… The working crew for that game was Tim Willits, John.. It was [John] Carmack, [John] Romero, [Tim] Willits and American McGee. And they showed us the time of our lives in Dallas because they were the king of the city back then… Remember back then when they all had matching Testarossas? I mean, they were rock star gamers. I think a couple of them ended up getting Dodge Vipers back then. They had Trent in one car, I was in another… They had us going 140mph up and down the freeways outside of Dallas. I was white knuckling it! I think I was in American McGee’s Viper and it was like the scariest thing ever.

We went out to dinner, and it was just a bunch of nerds, of famous nerds with too much money, and they asked us if we wanted to do this new game called Quake that they were working on. American McGee was really our point person for the game, so after these couple of days in Texas, we go back to New Orleans which is where NIN is now based. Trent had purchased an old funeral home and that’s what got turned into the studio down there. We did Quake in that studio, we did [Marilyn Manson’s] Antichrist Superstar there, there was a band signed to Trent’s record label called Prick that we did in that studio, we did a Coil record in that studio. It was on Magazine Street, and I think the building is still there. All the viewing rooms were different studios, so we had two control rooms, we had a big A room and a slightly smaller B room, and then one of the other viewing rooms was our live rehearsal room. We had a small PA in there, we kept all our live touring gear in there, so that we could rehearse or just jam or do whatever. So we go back to New Orleans, and American was the guy who came to New Orleans for a few days. And at that point in Nine Inch Nails, uh, we were, ugh god, how do you explain it? You know bars never closed in New Orleans, you know? Staying out, and walking out of a bar and not realizing it’s actually 10am was not uncommon, and so you’d sleep all day... and man, we just abused poor American. It was like, ‘alright, you took us out in your world, now it’s our turn to take you out in ours’. So he would go back and forth between the things while we worked on the music for Quake. And then, the game comes out and one of the weapons that they did was the Nail Gun and so when you pick up ammo packs, you’d see NIN logos on the wooden crates of ammo; and that was their way of tying it into Nine Inch Nails and everything like that.

It was one of those special ‘of the moment’ collaborations, of two people that just, you know, two organizations that mutually respected and loved what each other did, and it just kinda worked out that way. And yeah, then it’s just gone on to be this legendary thing afterwards that people loved. That was how the whole thing came to be, just a couple of fanboys. Trent would always talk about playing Doom deathmatches on the bus, and they [id] just thought that was so cool.  

SFBAC: How did writing and composing for Quake differ from writing and recording a Nine Inch Nails album?

Chris Vrenna: Well, it’s different in the fact that obviously you know there’s no proper songs in the traditional sense of the word, that’s kinda the same thing with all game music. Game music is challenging on a couple of different levels, it’s not a traditional song. It’s not verse, chorus, verse; you also don’t have any lyrics, so it’s all instrumental music, but back then it was something new for us. The other thing about game music is that as you’re playing a deathmatch or any sort of game, you need to be able to hear the sound effects and those effects really tell you a lot about what’s going on in the game. Like if you hear footsteps coming up behind you, and you hear them coming up on the right, you need to turn right, and the music needs to be subtle enough that it can fit underneath those sound effects so you can hear the sound effects in order to play the game. And you don’t know when the action’s going to happen, it’s not a linear event like a movie that’s already been edited and you just follow the cuts; so the challenge was to make it ambient enough that it would stay out of the way of all that.

One of the first things you learn is that you go in and add a lot of kick drums and snare drums, like you wanna do something very rhythmic that adds a lot of action. Well, you know the problem with adding a lot of distorted snare drums (like 808’s or 909’s)? It’s the exact same frequency and the exact same transient sound as a gunshot. So now you don’t know if you’re hearing ‘dat-dat-dat’ as a snare drum fill, or a ‘dat-dat-dat’ someone shooting at your ass. So you can’t really do that. We learned a lot about how music had to sit within the confines of other sounds that are needed to play the game and not get your ass murdered immediately. That’s part one of our segue into game music. Then the other part is that most music in these games will just loop; today, most music can be full fidelity 24-bit WAV files, but back then, RAM was at a premium in the 90’s and how much you could load in off a level that was loading off a disc. I wanna say that the game elements of Quake would load, but the music would stream off the CD that you bought in the store -- and the game would trigger to play in the CD tray because there just wasn’t the space to put the music in the game. The game would just say ‘trigger this piece of music’, and the music would end, and a command would trigger it to play again, and that’s the only way it could loop. Because it wasn’t loaded in as a WAV file and then looped inside the game like it is today. So if you had a song that was like A/B/A/B, just two parts that would cycle back and forth, the gamers would like after the fourth loop would be like, ‘ok, i got it, it’s A/B/A/B’, so you have to work around and create things that you can’t really tell when it’s changing because it morphs over a gradual period of time and then when it does re-trigger (ie. loop) like it does today, it doesn’t immediately like ‘ta-da, here we are again’ you know what I mean? So making these ambient pieces that can play over and over and flow in the background like they do, that was another challenge. It’s much easier today to do that. Because they’re WAVs files, when I did Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - Exo Zombies, literally, they wanted 24-bit 96khz audio files, and I was like, what? You’re putting out 24-96 audio? And they’re like, yup! They’re like ‘depending on the system you want to run, yeah! In surround!’ And I was like, ‘holy crap!’ But you know, back then, we were challenged to create these beds that could flow. The 3rd challenge was, now we’ve got the technical crap out of the way, the 3rd challenge was to create something thematically that would create a mood for the game. And that becomes the artistic aspect. Then comes the creative part, so let’s create these pieces of music that are fucking scary because the game was going to be really scary. That became the fun part, which was experimenting with drones and sound designy stuff and real distortion sounds, everything was just mangled sounding, to create the feeling and the mood that we wanted to create… which is what all composers do, for all sorts of media, where you have to create a mood and that atmosphere… so that part is the same.

We had 3 different rooms working. Trent was in the main room, I was in the back room with Sean Beavan, our engineer from forever. Sean was always with us, he ran our live sound which is why our live sound always sounded so good, because Sean was either involved in tracking it or mixing it, so it was always just perfect. And upstairs we had Charlie Clouser and Danny Lohner, they were up in Charlie’s little room working on stuff. And the idea was to just generate as many of these ambient and scary, but interesting and cool sounds that we could create and then we’d bring them all together… And the other thing about games, is that you write twice as much music as gets used, for one reason or another… So we were working in all these teams coming up with stuff, and we’d send id the stuff and get their feedback. Another thing working with games is that it’s very collaborative with the developer, and id, like a lot of developers, were very hands on. They know what they want, they know what they don’t like, they know what they love. I’d say that’s true with all the companies I’ve worked with ever since this very first one. So you know, we send them stuff and they go ‘these 4 we liked but these 2 we didn’t like, because of X, Y, and Z, so give us 5 more like these 4, stay kinda away from these 3’… Maybe it was too distorted sounding and it sounded like someone’s speaker blew up. {chuckles} It can’t be like that. We did a remix, it was “Closer to God”, where at the end of it, the whole thing distorts and we were running them through these Neve pre-amps and by the end of it, the remix is… the pre-amps were all the way up, and there’s nothing but sputtering distortion kinda like it was a gated thing and it was… anyway, ha, that may not work coming out of someone’s tiny little PC speakers... haha, we don’t want people thinking we’re breaking their systems… and we’re like ‘agh, alright.’ {chuckles} So you know, it’s just this collaborative thing and you just go back and forth… And we did it all in New Orleans and American would come back and forth. There was a studio on Magazine Street called ‘Hot Snakes’ and American would come check-in and that was the process that went on until they had enough tracks.

SFBAC: Was there awareness at the time that this all-new, original music would be breaking the mold for what was expected from video game scores?

Chris Vrenna: No, not at all. We just did it because we thought it was fucking cool, and we really loved id! And we were like, man, if we can be friends with the guys that did Wolfenstein and Doom?!? That would be rad! And it was just something different. By ’95, Doom was Doom, and Wolfenstein’s Spear of Destiny, and so they were rock stars. I can’t tell you how many game magazines I read, and I remember this one where the three of them were sitting on the hood of their Testarossas… Man, I think Romero’s was black, American’s was white, Carmack’s was red, and somebody else’s was yellow, and those were the only colors you could get. And they were all in the parking lot right outside of the office we visited, and I just remember seeing that picture in a gaming magazine and thinking ‘man, those guys are awesome’ {chuckles}, But no, because it didn’t resonate, because even the Doom games, it was chip music back then, it was all midi files that were just playing off whatever… I think even Doom was like that… It may have used an internal synth, but yeah, we never really thought about it.

You know, you’re making me remember stuff, I do remember Trent saying…{pauses} man, you just connected a synapse that I thought was probably long dead… I remember when we first got going that it was going to be an issue on how to make this music because everything up until this point, was pretty much chip music (let’s call it that, I don’t know exactly how they did it.) and I remember Trent saying that if you want something innovative and cool, we can’t work with that. What are we going to do? Just make a drone sound 1-second long? That won’t work. And I think the compromise was that they [id] can fit the music on the disc, but it would need to stream from the disc. We won’t be able to load them into memory, and Trent was like ‘that’s fine, I don’t give a shit about that, whatever you gotta do, that’s a 'you' problem, we’ll just give you the finished mixes.’ So you know, I remember that now being a challenge! And the music will just be on the CD, and players will need to keep the CD in the tray to hear the music. And I remember Trent saying that they’d never get anything like Nine Inch Nails by sticking with what was done prior, with respect to music capabilities. So that’s where the compromise came about, the music wouldn’t be in the game, but it would be on disc that would stream from the disc. I can’t believe you made me remember all that. I don’t want to say that Quake was the first game that ever did that, but at the time, something that could stream the music from the CD was probably one of the first to do that, and it was really a breakthrough because you were kinda listening to an instrumental ambient Nine Inch Nails album that was made specifically to be played with this game.

SFBAC: Do you remember any interesting stories around the sounds that you guys came up with?

Chris Vrenna: Oh man, a lot of guitar droning. Running guitars through pedals and different types of effects and even through the synthesizers like the mini-Moog which has an audio input jack on it… a lot of synths have an input to process external sounds though the filter section of the analog synth, so a lot of weird drone-y stuff would be done that way. A lot of using effects which has always been a Nine Inch Nails thing, is using lots of interesting and esoteric effects that we can get our hands on. We used the Zoom 9050 which was a secret weapon for Downward Spiral guitar sounds back in the day. Super processed and super digital. Trent was never precious about, ‘well, I need a Marshall stack with a tube amp’, he was like  ‘I don’t give a fuck about a tube amp’, he was running straight into a pedal, straight into a board and let it go.. ‘perfect’… We were doing a lot of bizarre sampling and just mangling it. During Mardi Gras one year, Trent gave me the portable DAT machine and a stereo handheld microphone and told me to just go for the day, capture sounds… We would capture all this weird shit, almost like sound designers would do for movies and games, and then just dump it into the samplers and tune it to a pitch that actually was a musical scale and that we could play it as melodies, so a lot of those sounds are just hand sampled sounds that were then tuned to something like a ‘b’, and mapped it across the keyboard. Now it scales right and will play in tune to a bass guitar or a piano or anything else. So we did a ton of that, and that’s how all the Nails records were made back then. It worked really well for Quake. Those Quake beds are some of the coolest and scariest, and the other thing about them, is that when you listen to them now, they still hold up. And there’s not a lot going on in them, there’s not a whole lot happening, they’re not excessively layered with stuff. Things come in at the right moment, and they build and ebb and flow, they stay really subtle. And I think because of that, that’s one of the reasons why they hold up so well. It’s because they’re not so overdone, that it becomes a cliche or something else.

SFBAC: How about the whispers on the “The Hall of Souls”?

Chris Vrenna: Oh yeah! Dude, it’s been so long since I’ve listened to the whole thing! Yes, that was another thing we did, we wanted to put in tortured voices the whole time. So you know the main title theme, the main riff from the title theme, and at the very end there’s this scream? That’s Trent and you can tell that it’s him, but there are other songs that we did things like breathing in there, and we did all that whispering where we hard panned all that stuff. If you’re listening with headphones, there’s all these whispers, oh my gosh, I forgot all about that.. Yeah, so we would get each one of us, so there’s a production trick with whispers… if you do all of it yourself, it gets all cluttered because it’s the same timbre, it’s the same voice just on top of each other… So we put two of us on one side, and two others on another side (of the mic) and then we would take some of those vocals and then flip the whole audio file backwards so they were reversing, and that everyone would have a job to do… you’re going to whisper this… I can’t remember if we had passages from anything, but you know reading the Book of Revelation and flipping it backwards is always good! {chuckles} But I wanna say, that there wasn’t a lot of true words, I think it was just whispers. Man, I forgot all about that. You’re making me remember all this stuff! ha!

SFBAC: How does it feel that the game was re-released on the 25th anniversary?

Chris Vrenna: I think that it’s so awesome. It was a shock to me when you told me it was happening. I think it’s cool to look back on some of these classic games and get to revisit them and for new people to be able to play them. It’s nostalgic in a certain way, but it’s also cool to just see how games have progressed over 25 years technologically and the story-telling and the whole thing, but I think it’s awesome. I think fans are going to love it and any fan of first person shooters is going to want this in their collection for sure, and want to see where it all began. And to have the game complete with the original Nails score that needs to go with it… Fans are going to be psyched to have the full experience!

SFBAC: I completely agree Chris! The game’s out now and can be found here. Thanks again for your time and I’ve been amazed at how timeless the game still feels! We hope to see you back in the Bay Area soon or better yet, hear a new game with your score! Thanks again Chris and a belated congratulations on your induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!

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