Let’s Listen: Nine Inch Nails – Head Like A Hole
In this post, I analyze Nine Inch Nails’s (abbreviated NIN) Head Like A Hole of their album Pretty Hate Machine (1989) [Within NIN’s “Halo” chronology, it lies within Halo 2]. The song was produced by Trent Reznor, the only true member and songwriter of NIN, and Flood. It was written in 1988, and the album was recorded in various studios, so I can pinpoint the exact location. In a 2002 interview with Reznor, he says that he used a Commodore 64 more all the MIDI and sequencing through a Mac Plus. It was by far, Pretty Hate Machine‘s most successful song climbing up the billboard charts at the time of its release.
The piece starts out with percussion, mostly panned right, with a staccato like distorted blurb popping in the center after a few seconds. A massive kick and snare soon follows, temporally dominating the mix, accompanied by “singing children”.
The verse introduces a multi-octave, square like bass line that repeats throughout the song, the kick/snare remain in the middle, but have been pulled back. Reznor’s vocals also pop in here, which contain some reverb and delay. The second half of the verse also brings back the melody the children were singing, but much lower note wise and in the mix.
The chorus quickly fires into action with raunchy, distorted guitars blazing through where the main bass once lived, which is now only a clean bass following the guitar. The vocals are also intensified with harsh screams backed down a bit in the mix, cutting through with the passion. The second part of the chorus (or post-chorus) has the vocals cleaner with multiple takes layered together. An atmosphere synth is also included, predominately in the right channel. Another low level envelope filtered synth glues it all together.
The second verse mirrors the first with the addition of some extra sounds bouncing left and right in the stereo field. The voice also sounds like it has a touch more reverb.
The second chorus and second post-chorus remain the same.
The first bridge of the song brings the return of a similar melody/sound from the first verse and the signature bassline, partnered with drums made up of a kick, snare, high hat of sorts, and various blurbs of percussion here and there. There’s also a strange vocal like synth panned somewhat to the right. Actual vocals pop back in half way through.
The final chorus repeats.
The outro is similar to the post chorus with an extra, harsh background vocal for the first part, and the last few seconds of the song drop the drums, leaving a wordless vocal melody, “hue-hue”s, and the sound of the children from the intro.
One of the qualities of this song that really stuck out to me was the mastering. The kick and particularly the snare are very punchy, and help establish dynamics not heard in modern day recordings. The choruses are also pumped up in volume more so than current music. This is easily seen if you take a look at the waveform (shown in ProTools 11):
The clear spikes indicate varying levels of loudness. If mastered nowadays, this would be nearly a straight, flat rectangle.
Here’s the song in full 1440p HD:
Notebook from the actual CD case