Writing and recording
in 2006. Belew's approach to guitar parts on the album improved Reznor's confidence in the instrument.
The Downward Spiral was conceived after the Lollapalooza festival tour as Trent Reznor thought of a "negative vibe" felt by the band when they were in a European hotel. Nine Inch Nails live performances were known for its aggressive on-stage dynamic, in which band members act angry, injure themselves, and destroy instruments. Reznor had a feud with TVT Records that resulted in him co-founding Nothing Records with his former manager John Malm, Jr. and signing with Interscope. He wanted to explore a fictional character whose life is psychologically wounded and developed a concept about the album's themes; he later used the concept as lyrics. The concept was based on Reznor's social issues at the time: he had personal conflicts with band member Richard Patrick and was known for enjoying alcohol. When developing The Downward Spiral, Reznor struggled with drug addiction and was depressed as he wrote songs related to personal issues. His friends suggested that he could take Prozac (fluoxetine), an antidepressant, but this choice did not appeal to him. He wanted the album's sound to diverge from Broken, emphasizing mood, texture, restraint and subtlety, although he was not sure about its musical direction. The album was made with "full range" and focused on texture and space, avoiding explicit usage of guitars or synthesizers.
Reznor searched for and moved to 10050 Cielo Drive in 1992 for recording Broken and The Downward Spiral, a decision made against his initial choice to record the album in New Orleans. 10050 Cielo Drive is referred to as the "Tate House" since Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969; Reznor named the studio "Le Pig" after the message that was scrawled on the front door with Tate's blood by her murderers, and stayed there with Malm for 18 months. He called his first night in 10050 Cielo Drive "terrifying" because he already knew it and read books related to the incident. Reznor chose the Tate house to calibrate his engineering skills and the band bought a large console and two Studer machines as resources, a move that he believed was cheaper than renting. The studio was also used for the recording of Marilyn Manson's debut album Portrait of an American Family, which Reznor co-produced. Marilyn Manson accepted Reznor's offer of signing a contract with Nothing Records.
Reznor collaborated with former Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins, progressive rock guitarist Adrian Belew, and Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna. Belew's first visit to the studio involved playing the guitar parts in "Mr. Self-Destruct", and he was told to play freely, think on reacting to melodies, concentrate on rhythm, and use noise. This approach improved Reznor's confidence in the instrument: he found it to be more expressive than the keyboard due to the interface. Belew praised Reznor for his "command of technology," and commented that the music of Nine Inch Nails made innovations "that are in [his] realm." Vrenna and Perkins played drum parts recorded live in the studio; the tracks were rendered into looped samples. Reznor took a similar approach to recording guitar parts: he would tape 20- to 25-minute-long sessions of himself playing guitars on a hard disc recorder with the Studio Vision sequencer.
Most of the music was recorded into a Macintosh computer using a board and manipulated with music editor programs on the computer. Unique effects such as analyzing and inverting the frequency were applied to the tracks to create original sounds. The band would "get an arrangement together" and convert it into analog tape. Reznor sampled excerpts from guitar tracks and processed them to the point of randomness and expression. Among the equipment Reznor used for recording the album are Pro Tools, Digidesign's TurboSynth, a Marshall rack head, the Prophet VS keyboard, and various Jackson and Gibson guitars.
In December 1993, Reznor was confronted by Patti Tate, who asked if he was exploiting Sharon Tate's death in the house. Reznor responded that he was interested in the house as her death happened there. He later made a statement about this encounter during a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone:
While I was working on [The] Downward Spiral, I was living in the house where Sharon Tate was killed. Then one day I met her sister [Patti Tate]. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: 'Are you exploiting my sister's death by living in her house?' For the first time, the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, 'No, it's just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I'm in this place where a weird part of history occurred.' I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, 'What if it was my sister?' I thought, 'Fuck Charlie Manson.' I went home and cried that night. It made me see there's another side to things, you know?
Flood, known for engineering and producing U2 and Depeche Mode albums, was employed as co-producer on The Downward Spiral. It became his last collaboration with Nine Inch Nails due to creative differences. A "very dangerously self-destructive," humorous short song written for the album, "Just Do It", was not included in the final version and criticized by Flood in that Reznor had "gone too far." Reznor completed the last song written for the album, "Big Man with a Gun", in late 1993. After the album's recording, Reznor moved out and the house was demolished shortly thereafter. The Downward Spiral entered its mixing and mastering processes, done at Record Plant Studios and A&M Studios with Alan Moulder, who subsequently took on more extensive production duties for future album releases.