Modular Moods

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FIG. 1: Taking the Buchla 200e head-on. Cortini finds both the sound and the interface inspiring.

I didn''t really give up the guitar. It stopped inspiring me,” explains Alessandro Cortini on a warm spring day at his home in Los Angeles. “I got more into the song itself, as opposed to just the guitar.”

Born in Bologna and raised in Forli, Italy, Cortini moved to L.A. nearly a decade ago to attend the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT), where he met Swedish guitarist Pelle Hillström. The two later formed the duo Modwheelmood (with Cortini on lead vocals), whose melody-laced, 3-volume EP Pearls to Pigs (Modwheelmusic, 2007–2008) has been released as downloads over the course of several months.

After graduating from GIT, Cortini''s creative focus shifted from guitar to synths, which ultimately helped him land a coveted role in Nine Inch Nails. Recently he collaborated with leader Trent Reznor on the instrumental masterpiece Ghosts I-IV (Null Corporation, 2008) and contributed to its immediate follow-up, The Slip (Null Corporation, 2008).

His ear for catchy melodies and infectious rhythms, as well as his mastery over guitar, drum machine, and synth, has brought him to the attention of other noteworthy acts. He''s contributed to Ladytron''s Velocifero (Nettwerk, 2008), Yoav''s Charmed & Strange (Verve Forecast, 2008), and the scores for the upcoming films Righteous Kill (Millennium Films, 2008) and Tropic Thunder (DreamWorks SKG, 2008).

Alessandro Cortini and the Buchla 200e, pt. 1
Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Alessandro Cortini talks to EM editor Gino Robair about using the Buchla 200e modular synthesizer on the recent release Ghosts.
Alessandro Cortini and the Buchla 200e, pt. 2
Alessandro Cortini tells how he patched and recorded the Buchla 200e modular synthesizer while on the road with Nine Inch Nails.
Alessandro Cortini and the EAR Synthesizer
Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Alessandro Cortini talks to EM editor Gino Robair about using his custom-made EAR modular analog synthesizer that features Livewire and Plan B modules.
Alessandro Cortini in his Personal Studio
Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Alessandro Cortini shows us the various synths and effects in his spartan personal studio.

Cortini''s personal studio, where he does much of his work, is no-nonsense to the point of austerity—if a piece of gear doesn''t inspire him, he doesn''t keep it. The result is an exquisite collection of vintage and modern instruments (Korg MS-20, Macbeth M3X, Analogue Systems French Connection, Jomox Sunsyn and Xbase 09) and processors (Vermona spring reverb, Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo, Line 6 DL4, ToneLux modules, various stompboxes), with two standouts: a Buchla 200e (see Fig. 1) and a custom Eurorack modular (see Fig. 2).

“I''m not an analog aficionado,” Cortini says. “There are certain things that software can do that hardware can''t, and vice versa. I think it''s limiting to commit to only one or the other.” His main sequencer is Apple Logic, with a Metric Halo 2882 and a Digidesign Mbox mini for interfaces. A Monome and a Native Instruments Kore 2 interface are also within reach. (Visit to see video of Cortini in his studio.)

When I caught up with him in April, the humble and charming Cortini was about to begin rehearsals for the upcoming Nine Inch Nails tour. After introducing me to his big friendly dog and three cats, he showed me around the studio. “Modwheelmood is basically out of this basement—everything. The only things I outsource are some mixing, and mastering.”

Where did you track the drums for Pearls to Pigs?
With Greg Panciera at Musician''s Institute, because there was a good room there and Greg took the time to make things sound right. But everything that has to do with programming or recording I do here. Some of the tracks on Volume 2 I mixed myself, and I''d like to do more of that.

Do you cowrite with Pelle?
It depends on the song. A lot of the stuff I''ve done on my own, and Pelle comes in and, since he relates to the way that I write a lot better as a guitar player, he adds parts that are a lot more memorable than mine. Some songs we wrote together. They just came up: I had a verse and he had a chorus, or vice versa. Or we''re in the same room and come up with something that works.

In here mostly?
Yeah. He recently bought a MacBook and records stuff at home using [Apple] GarageBand, and he sends me the demos. Sometimes they spark something in me and I''ll sit down and add parts. On a couple of songs—particularly “Crumble” from Volume 2—he sent me a rough of the first verse and chorus. Then I added stuff and sent him what I did, and it went back and forth like that. But most of the time we just work here because it''s at home.

I wrote and recorded some of the Enemies and Immigrants EP [Buddyhead, 2006] on tour, and mixed it when I was home. I plan on working on some sort of music on this tour, if there is time: after the live show and during days off, I can usually concentrate on other things. So I''ve always tried to bring something with me to keep me sane. Last tour it was the Buchla.

You finally dropped the dollar on a Buchla 200e.
Oh man, I''m still dropping it [laughs]. It was kind of like buying a car. But this takes me more places than a car. It''s my favorite piece of gear. If I had to pick one, it''s the most creative. Just the way it''s laid out.

Is this a standard setup, or did you pick the modules you wanted?
This is a small configuration—just a 12 panel. I knew that I couldn''t begin with an 18-panel instrument, so I tried to get as many high-density modules as possible. The 249e [Dual Arbitrary Function Generator] was a module they weren''t making anymore, but I was able to get one. It''s two sequencers in one. I could have worked with a 250e [Arbitrary Function Generator], but I felt the more each module can do, the better. And I wanted variety, so I have one of the old 259e''s [Programmable Complex Waveform Generator] and the new 261e [Complex Waveform Generator].

I''ve had the pleasure of working with companies like Plan B and Livewire on the EAR system, which are Buchla oriented in a way. But one thing is that they''re not replicating the [Buchla] interface, for good reason. They might be able to replicate the functions: Plan B has the Heisenberg Generator, which is, in a way, like a simplified [Buchla] Source of Uncertainty. The Model 15 oscillator is half a [Buchla] 258. And they sound awesome. But it''s an ⅛-inch interface. I hate to be this new age, but it doesn''t call me the same way that the Buchla''s banana jacks call me. The fact that it''s half ⅛ inch and half banana makes you work in a certain way. The density of the modules makes you work in a certain way. And the fact that it''s designed to do quad and that voltage-controlled panning is built in—it''s so easy to achieve stuff that moves around.

It''s hard not to do it.
Yes, it''s essential.

It''s interesting in a rock environment such as a Nine Inch Nails concert to have a musical element like your EAR system that''s always different for every show. That''s unusual these days.
As long as you''re not pretentious to the point of making it a centerpiece. But it''s a color. It just adds to the whole appeal of the show, that it''s not the same every night. Modular synths—everybody sees them only as lab instruments, but it''s not true.

FIG. 2: Cortini creatively patches his custom analog modular synth onstage each night with Nine Inch Nails. Built by the Electro-Acoustic Research group (EAR) using Plan B and Livewire modules, it accepts an audio click from a Pro Tools rig offstage to drive the sequencer. As a result, Cortini can patch as creatively as he wants, knowing that his sequence will stay in time with the music and stage lighting.

What modular do you use the French Connection with?
At the moment, the EAR system. I used to have a small Analogue Systems rack, with one oscillator, a subdivider in order to get some sort of octave out of it, and two multimode filters. It was at the beginning of a Nine Inch Nails “With Teeth” tour. But now I''m using the Livewire AFG, because it allows for a lot of modulation at the oscillator stage, as opposed to utilizing other modules after that [see Web Clips 1 through 4].

Do you use the French Connection with the Buchla?
No. I don''t use a keyboard-based controller with the Buchla. I started to use it as an instrument on its own and was really successful being creative with just that. The next step was to find a way to slave the Buchla''s sequencer to Logic, especially with the sequences that I would come up with. There are a couple of ways to do it. Because it doesn''t receive MIDI Clock, I can either send a MIDI Note On message and then take that pulse to clock the sequencer. Or I can do exactly what I would do with my EAR system, which is send an audio click from a dedicated output of my interface to the mic pre in the Buchla. In good old Buchla tradition, the audio generates an envelope and a pulse that I use to clock everything. Then I realized that some of the sequences I came up with in the Buchla I wanted in a certain key, so I integrated the MIDI side of the instrument. I can make my sequence follow the chord changes in a song by programming them into Logic and sending the MIDI to bus 1 and 2 in the Buchla, which are sent to oscillator 1 and 2 automatically. To me, it''s like a chess game when I play with the Buchla. You make a move, then you see how much the Buchla allows you to do, or maybe it takes you somewhere else. And then you have to make your next decision according to what the Buchla decided. And that''s what I like. But it''s not just up to you, because otherwise I''d just pick up an acoustic guitar and do things that way, you know?

How do you work when you''re writing on your own?
It depends on what I have in front of me; I don''t have a typical way of working. I never really sit down and think, “Let''s see what comes out.” It usually comes from something new that I have, either gear or something that I haven''t used in a certain way.

There has to be the child factor of not really knowing exactly what''s going on, in order to spark some sort of creativity. That''s why I haven''t really played guitar as a creative instrument in a long time. I used to end up playing the same chord progressions over the same tempo.

I sit down in front of the modulars a lot and come up with a sequence. “MHz,” from Volume 1, came about by plugging the Plan B oscillator into the [Livewire] Frequensteiner. I came up with this really cool, tuned sequence and I just let it run. Then a bass line came to mind, so I went to the MS-20 and played it. And after that I came up with a guitar accompaniment.

It''s always something different. But I would say that the modulars are the main source of inspiration, or a drum machine. Something that doesn''t have to do with melody, most of the time. Melody usually comes later.

So you''re really starting with a rhythm or a mood.
Yeah. But this is a personal preference, not when it comes to something that I need to do for somebody. For example, I''ve been working with composer Ed Schearmur on some cues for a movie called Righteous Kill. If he says, “Try this” or “Try that,” I might not have the luxury of being able to pick whatever I want. I have to be creative with what he suggests, but that''s good, too, because I didn''t set the limit. It''s somebody else setting it. In that way it''s challenging.

Are you playing guitar on this Nine Inch Nails tour?
Yes, if it goes like last tour. I played a lot of guitar, which is great for me because I consider myself better at playing guitar than “piano.” I''m good when it comes to synths and stuff like that. But I wasn''t schooled on keyboards.

Do you play guitar in Modwheelmood?
I do [see Fig. 3]. Mostly rhythm parts. But usually, if I leave Pelle room to do his thing, he''s probably going to come up with more memorable parts in the song.

You do a lot of live vocal processing in that band.
Yeah, I love delays. I use a Line 6 [DL4] to loop my vocals. A lot of it came from having to adapt what we had in the studio to a live situation, because there''s only two of us. We got rid of the computer and put the drum programming on an iPod. And I try to replicate the pads with layers using the delay.

Do your songs stretch out longer live than they do on the record?
It depends. We try to if possible. We played two shows with Ladytron, and this time we approached it differently. We went into rehearsals with a drummer, with no electronics whatsoever.

This time I''m playing bass live, and we have some sequences going on, as well as the drums. A lot of things from Pearls to Pigs Volumes 1 and 2 have real drums, so it''ll be cool to be able to do it that way onstage.

This environment was mostly born for me to work on Modwheelmood. But I''ve been working on other stuff with it, such as the Ladytron album.

Tell me about your remixes for Ladytron.
It started with them asking me to be a guest on the album and add some tracks to “Versus.” I added a couple of synth parts, a little bit of French Connection, and they liked that. So they asked me if I wanted to do another.

They sent me a track that, to my ears, was particularly empty, and one night I had probably too much coffee and recorded as many things as I felt belonged in there. I''m pretty sure it was “Ghosts,” the single, where I added background vocals, a guitar solo, a couple of Buchla tracks, and the Korg MS-20 synth line, which is the main synth line. I wrote an introductory email saying, “Hey, I might''ve gone a little overboard [laughs]. If there''s anything you''re not going to need, feel free to mute it or whatever.” But they really liked it, so two tracks turned into six. And I''m really happy with the results. It sounds awesome and the guy who mixed it, Michael Patterson, did an amazing job with it. Having heard the roughs of what Ladytron recorded, and then hearing the final product that Michael mixed, I was blown away.

Did they send you multitrack files?
Actually, no. At the time, they were working in Paris, and they just sent me stereo rough-mix bounces of what they had so far, and I took it from there. Some of them were demos that they still had to work on.

You sent them Logic session files?
First I sent them an MP3 with what I''d done. Then I just sent them stems.

The first song, I sent everything dry. But since I use a lot of delays, they just asked me to print all that stuff. So I just started printing everything the way that it sounded here in the studio. Then Michael Patterson imported the stems into his [Digidesign] Pro Tools session.

Are you using software delays in those pieces?
It depends on the song. Most of the songs, I used SoundToys EchoBoy. In other songs, I used hardware for the guitar parts—in “Season of Illusions,” either the Diamond Memory Lane or BlackBox Quicksilver. I ran the guitar into the pedal, into a preamp, and then into Native Instruments Guitar Rig, and then I would print the whole thing.

You never mic an amp?
No. I don''t own an amp at the moment. I had an old Fender that I sold to buy a Rhodes Suitcase 73 to practice keyboard parts on when I got the gig with Nine Inch Nails. Then I sold that because there''s no room in this studio for something that big. There''s a lack of keyboard instruments here. I do have a controller that I use sometimes with virtual instruments.

When it comes to programming things like the Sunsyn, I''ve always done it in the piano roll. To this day, I write all the voicings, whether it''s a pad or a melody, on the piano roll. I just loop a section of the song and come up with a melody in a Tetris-like way, as opposed to sitting in front of a keyboard controller.

But it depends on the instrument. If it''s the Korg MS-20, then I obviously have to play the part, and it takes a little bit more time because I''m trying to get a take that is in time, as opposed to recording whatever and fixing it later. I like the fact that some of the instruments in my little studio force me to work in a certain way, as opposed to having everything MIDI remote controlled.

When you are asked to do a remix, how do you approach it?
The way that I do it is not the typical remix dancy stuff. Not that I''m against it, but I know there are a thousand people that could do a lot better job than I do at that.

When I was asked to do my first remix—Nine Inch Nails'' remix of Year Zero—I approached it as “What if Trent and I were in the room, and Trent had this idea and asked me to finish the song with him?” With the wonders of technology, and using [Celemony] Melodyne, I was able to reshape his melody according to the chords that I wrote.

I realized I couldn''t do the same thing for the Ladytron “Ghosts” remix, even though I didn''t change the chords that much. But it''s usually “What if these artists would''ve written the song with me?” Sometimes I can relate to the song melodically to the point that I don''t change anything. And other times I feel like I would''ve gone here, and I just bust Melodyne out and change it.

With Yoav, I did two remixes. He does everything with acoustic guitar and vocals—he loops the guitar, playing percussion on the body of the instrument. So the whole album is really sparse and really raw, with a lot of reverb and delays, but the instrumentation is really basic. The first song I did, “Adore Adore,” came out really quick, because obviously I busted out a drum machine and synths. And all of a sudden it was a Modwheelmood tune, to me. It''s a really melodic song.

In the Nine Inch Nails remix, I sang the harmonies myself. But now, because it sounds better when it''s the original artist singing, I started using Melodyne to copy the original vocal take and then harmonizing it in another track.

You can do that when you get stems from the artist, right?
Yes, for those I received stems, with the bpm and everything. And I just work in Logic. I''ve been able to spend a lot of time on the Modwheelmood stuff, and then working with Ladytron on their new album, doing these remixes for them and for Yoav, and working with these movie composers. It''s been a really creative time.

What inspires you lyrically?
It all depends. A lot of songs have been around for a while, and others come the day before we release an album. Most of the time, it''s personal experiences. Then, two or three weeks into the recording process, I reread the lyrics and change something, and it takes another meaning for me. And at the end it''s just a mash-up of different concepts.

Lyrically, I''m of the school that each of the listeners should make the lyrics their own. A lot of the songs that I was listening to when I was young, whether the author said what the song was about or they didn''t, didn''t really matter that much to me. And most of the time, it kind of bummed me out when I found out what they meant [laughs].

I really like the fact that music, and sometimes lyrics, can allow you to interpret the song the way that you want and make it yours.

What did you listen to when you were young?
My mom was a huge Beatles fan, so there was a lot of Beatles in the house. She was obsessed. I think a lot of my attraction to chord changes, to melody, comes from that. And then there was a lot of Cat Stevens growing up.

When I started making my own choices, Duran Duran''s Arena, the live album, was an overplayed album in my cassette player. I listened to a lot of Terence Trent D''Arby growing up, believe it or not—the Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D''Arby album. A lot of the ''80s European pop, like Bronski Beat, Alphaville, and New Order. Depeche Mode was kind of dark and I got into them later—when I discovered Violator, that was the end. Also, Guns N'' Roses'' Appetite for Destruction was one of my favorite albums, and still is. Great songs. Just a perfect album.

Had you listened to Nine Inch Nails before you did the audition?
I remember listening to Downward Spiral, yes. I remember finding out about Pretty Hate Machine after. I liked the songs in Pretty Hate Machine a lot more than in Downward Spiral, but I liked the sound design more in Downward Spiral. When it came time for the audition—granted, it was after The Fragile, which, sonically, was a big influence on me—I kind of knew what to expect, that I wasn''t jumping into the Downward Spiral band. It looked like it was following a natural evolution and it was going to be a little different.

But what attracted me to the gig itself was the sound. Knowing that there was a statement being made, soundwise, independent from the songs themselves.

But I remember when, after the first two rounds of real auditions I did in front of them, they invited me over to the studio—they were at the Village mixing With Teeth. Atticus Ross, Trent''s programmer and coproducer, played me some of the stuff on the album. The first song that he played was “All the Love in the World,” which is one of my favorite tracks from Nine Inch Nails, ever. And I knew that that''s where I wanted to be. It sounded awesome.

When you work with Trent, do you bring the Buchla and the EAR synth, or do you use whatever he''s got?
I just bring the Buchla. If there''s one piece of gear that he doesn''t have, and he''s probably not going to be able to get the sounds any other way, it''s the Buchla. I figured I might as well bring something new to the table.

But I ended up using other stuff over there. He has a little bit of everything. A lot of the stuff that I wrote for “Ghosts” was done on his equipment, especially the modular. He has a huge mixed Euro-format system.

And obviously in an environment with Nine Inch Nails where if even one piece of gear—one pedal or whatever it is that he buys—brings one idea, it''s worth it. That''s one thing that I think made me feel better. Because no matter what, you always feel guilty when you buy gear. But then you go see Trent, and you don''t feel guilty anymore.

So how does he deal with having so many options?
I don''t know, but he does it. I envy him for that. I think that in my case, limiting myself is good. I can sit in front of the Buchla and come up with enough stuff to keep me busy creatively for a long time.

You''re going to be in a different mode when you sit in front of one machine. I have different machines, and each one does a different thing. It''s not like having everything in front of you on a computer.

There is a side of me that wants to specialize. Let''s face it, if you find an instrument that really makes you happy, and you''re allowed to create textures with that instrument that are not that common, and if you''re lucky enough that people call you because of them, then why concentrate on something else?

Gino Robair is the editor of EM.


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