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Interview With Alessandro Cortini

Musician, master synthesist, and member of Nine Inch Nails, Alessandro Cortini, answers a few questions about gear and more.

Alessandro in his studio.
Alessandro in his studio.

Just a heads up that Alessandro is playing three events with immersive series Reflections next month (Synth History is excited to be a co-presenter!) Each one takes place inside a church and includes an immersive light show experience. You definitely don't want to miss it.

Los Angeles | Friday, Mar 1, 2024

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

Chicago | Saturday, Mar 9, 2024

Epiphany Center for the Arts

NYC | Friday, Mar 15, 2024

Church of the Heavenly Rest

And now, without further ado...

Synth History: How old were you when you started getting into music?

Alessandro Cortini: I grew up in a music filled environment. My mother listened to a lot of records, my father played guitar and my grandfather loved classical music. It was always a part of my life, from a listening point of view.

The first active musical steps were made on guitar of course, given that dad was playing it. Guitar remained my main focus until I started Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. There, I realized guitar to me was one element of the compositional ecosystem and slowly zoomed out to see the whole picture, with an emphasis on synthesizers. It was much easier to spark interest and creativity with knobs and sliders, virtual or not, than with guitar strings, in my case.

Alessandro's Buchla.
Alessandro's Buchla.

Synth History: What got you into synths?

Alessandro Cortini: A good friend in Italy, Franco Naddei, introduced me to samplers and synthesizers, which opened a whole new world. I came in to work with him on a project as a rock guitar player and came out the other way richer than ever, having had the chance to explore this brand new world, to me at least, of waves and samples.

Synth History: Do you remember your first synth and can you tell me about it?

Alessandro Cortini: I do! It was a Casio PT-1 and while I don’t have the original one, I bought it again and have it in the studio. I used to wait outside the supermarket while my mom was shopping, playing the demo songs.

Synth History: Can you tell me about joining Nine Inch Nails, how did that come about?

Alessandro Cortini: I saw a flyer about the audition and went to it. I really worked hard for it. I showed up with a Nord Modular G1 and my guitar, played "Closer" on the G1 with all my little patches ready and played it, then switched between guitar and G1 for "Wish".

The second audition was tougher as there were more piano-based songs and not having any sort of schooling on traditional piano, I really had to study the patterns to get through them, but in the end I believe that my lack of technical knowledge on that end was only one of the factors, and the whole presentation, picture, and strengths in other areas got me the job. It definitely was a case of being the right piece of the puzzle, in the right place at the right time.

It did help to share the same fascination for analog synths and modulars with Trent and Atticus, as I remember to this day being in the studio when they were mixing With Teeth and talking to them about their gear.

I saw and touched my first Synthi there. Magic!

Synth History: What were your first shows together like?

Alessandro Cortini: Very stressful. I had yet to grasp the concept of the whole, as opposed to my own playing abilities on their own. So a lot of my priorities were on playing the right stuff at the right time, as opposed to playing with others. It took a while to fall in the groove and feel part of a well oiled machine. I eventually got there and it’s gotten better and better with every tour, particularly thanks to having been given the chance to carve my own space and evolve as an element within the ecosystem that is NIN. A truly unique and enriching experience.

Synth History: Any shows that stick out in your memory particularly?

Alessandro Cortini: I wish I could bring one up, but they’re all part of a continuous discourse that keeps them connected and considered as a whole. The fanciest way to say it’s all a blur.

Synth History: What are some tips for balancing your solo career with collaboration?

Alessandro Cortini: I would love to know as well! I’ve been lucky in almost always finding myself involved in alternating and different projects, musical or not, that kept me interested and excited enough to continue on my discovery path.

Synth History: What are some of your current synth go-tos?

Alessandro Cortini: Make Noise Strega, of course. The whole point was to make an instrument that spoke to my sensibilities and it does just that. For all intents and purposes, it’s an extra limb that allows me to quickly articulate what I need to say sonically and more importantly, emotionally.

Synclavier 9600. I really fell in love with this old instrument, its modus operandi and its sound. It allowed me to approach sampling in a more fruitful and creative way than a normal sampler.

Baloran The River: It always sounds good. It can be roughly described as a modernized eight voice Moog Source, but it’s so much more.

Waldorf Quantum: Still the centerpiece of my workflow. In my opinion, it’s the best thing of the last 10 years.

Alessandro Synclavier

alessandro the river

Synth History: Can you tell me more about Strega?

Alessandro Cortini: As I quickly mentioned above, it’s my main instrument. All my current shows are based on improvising while utilizing it. It was born as a collaboration with Tony and Kelly at Make Noise. It was only possible thanks to the the affinity and connection I have with both of them as individuals and human beings, and with Tony‘s design approach.

It developed as music develops in a band context, simply put. It was a fun, fulfilling, challenging experience. From a technical aspect, it was born from my fascination with a specific kind of delay/timbre, often associated with the PT delay chip.

Two main things allowed Tony to utilize this platform in a different and unusually expressive way, in my opinion:

1- The PT chip usually gets filtered in order to get rid of noise at lower cycles / delay times, while the noise is something that spoke to us, so Tony’s challenge was to extrapolate its beauty in a way that could be utilized creatively rather than being an obstacle. He really worked hard on that and I think it shows.

2- Delays are usually placed at the end of the chain. Our idea and priority was to put it as the centerpiece of the instrument, on one end to allow to develop it more and exploit different aspects of its sonic peculiarities, and on the other to direct the user’s attention to it from the get go by placing it in the middle of the instrument. That way, it’s the first thing you play with, rather than a later stage of the sonic sculpture.

We have been overwhelmed with the positive feedback and I can’t describe the feeling of being sent videos and audio of what others made on it. It’s so amazingly fulfilling to see how differently everyone is using it, especially when it’s such a personal statement from a design perspective. I have learnt so much from seeing others using it. For example, Hainbach’s process of using the envelope as a second voice was key in me being able to utilize it the way I do live nowadays.

Synth History: What are some pieces of gear, apart from synths, that you like using in the studio?

Alessandro Cortini: The room is really important and probably my favorite piece of gear. Having built a proper space that has been tuned according to my needs makes music creation a pleasure and erases the usual obstacles.

Recently, I have been spending more time - and money - on audiophile equipment, headphones and IEMs, digital audio players, and I have been listening to a lot of music daily. Learning the nuances of gear, cables, speaker design, etc., improved my ability exponentially to be more resolutive during the creative process, as it helped my ears to be open to things I ignored before.

These days I find more to learn and enjoy from listening rather than making music.

Synth History: What are the biggest differences for making music with modular synthesizers versus other synths?

Alessandro Cortini: To me it’s the open canvas. As I progressed in my journey with instruments and formed my sensibilities, I’ve encountered several that I fell in love with and others that for some reason or another just didn’t work. The open nature of modular made it easier to develop the path as I discovered it, as opposed to following directions.

That said, I’m fond of the design and presentation as well. I don’t own or use much eurorack from different manufacturers, as I can’t gel with the Frankenstein nature of such systems. I understand the appeal for others, of course, but as I progressed on my own path I quickly realized it didn’t work for me and I still prefer a modular philosophy presented as an instrument both aesthetically and design wise.

Synth History: What's one album you think everyone should listen to at least once in their lifetime?

Alessandro Cortini: This is a bit of an anxiety inducing question I have to admit, and I cannot name one, nor three, or ten… rather I’d say to me one of the most fulfilling recent events was to go back to records that formed me in my youth and listen to them with current ears, trying to see what sort of connection still existed and why, if any, with who I am now.

Synth History: What is one tip you have for approaching a new synth?

Alessandro Cortini: Take it out of the box, plug it in, and play with it for a while without looking at YouTube videos until you’re frustrated with it. Try to develop a dialogue with it first, and use its limitations and obstacles as an excuse to find your own ways around it. I think it’s an essential process to develop your overall musical voice and aesthetic, regardless of the instrument staying with you for a long time or getting sold for something else.

The process is what will keep the fire lit, not the instrument, in my personal experience.

Synth History Exclusive.

Interview conducted by Danz.

Photos provided by Alessandro Cortini.


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