‘What is important is the intention’: Talking Tech with Alexander Robotnick

If you have even a cursory interest in Italo Disco, it’s likely you’ve already heard Alexander Robotnick’s ‘Problèmes D’Amour‘. With it’s 303 bassline and cooing background vocals, it’s one of the genre’s most recognisable and prescient songs. It was a hit with US DJs looking for hot imports, garnering plays across a number of key venues in NYC. Francois K remixed it when Sire licensed the track two years after its initial release. And in Chicago in particular, there was a strong affinity for it: It was a fixture on WBMX, and a favourite of Frankie Knuckles

Beyond ‘Problèmes D’Amour’, Robotnick a.k.a Maurizio Dami had a storied recording career from the early days of Italo until now. He was the heart of Florence’s Fuzz Dance label – he’s responsible for Mya & The Mirror’s haunting ‘Hesitation‘ and the latinate swelter of San Giovanni Bassista’s ‘Summer Sweat‘; a copy of the latter is proudly displayed up against the wall in his studio. 

In our interview, Dami walks us through his studio and the gear he’s used over the years, as he reaffirms the importance of intentions over tools, while reminiscing on the setup that created these iconic records – and having to buy it back!

Alexander Robotnick’s latest release, The Hidden Game, is out now on Bosconi.

What’s your musical education?

I attended a three year course in a popular school in my city (Florence). I studied jazz guitar.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music?

Guitar Gibson SG, Tascam porta-studio cassette recorder, Boss DR-55 (dr Rhythm), Casiotone keyboard.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

TB303 – TR 808.

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components?

My studio is based on Cubase. There’s a PC, two audioboards Motu 24io and “Sylent Way”, a plug-in that sends CV and GATE to the MOTU outputs allows me to play analog synths as if they were plug-in instruments and also drive the TB303 with an analog clock.

Also taking advantage of the numerous outputs I can use my outboards as if they were plug-ins.

So in the end everything is clearer and not complicated (a ton of wires anyway). You can concentrate more on music.

My outboards: Roland Space Echo – Korg Stage Echo – Chatterbox – Ring Modulator – Chorus- Flanger (homemade by my mate Ludus Pinsky) – Roland SRV2000 reverb – Aphex.

My Synths: SH101 – MicroKorg – Roland JX3p – Roland Juno 106 – Oberheim Biphonic (2 sem modules) . Korg Monopoly – Korg Wavestation SR – TB303 – WASP – Arthuria Freak.

Only for Live stage: Doepfer MSY2 – Roland RE-20 Space Echo – Novation Audio Hub – Novation 25SL MK2 (Keyboard Controller) – Laptop ASUS

Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

It’s a basement in Firenze (Italy) – no, it’s a private studio but obviously I share it with other artists for some productions.

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

No, I just laid it down following acoustic needs and ergonomics. An instruments is beautiful in itself.

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

Let me be clear. I started I was about 30. Now I’m 72. You can imagine how many changes I’ve made. Anyway at the end of 80s my dream was to put all wires, gear and synths into the trash can and to have just a small computer that allowed me to produce music wherever I was. At the end of 90s I made that dream come true. I produced an album (Oh no! Robotnick!) and the audience reacted like this: “Where’s the Robotnick’s sound?”. I understood. So in few years I bought back all the previously sold stuff. Luckily at that time I was Djing and I had some money. Moreover still the prices of analog synths weren’t that high.

Anyway I never created a studio. The tools came and went according to my needs and the kind of music I was doing. I’m not a collector, I am not an engineer. I don’t believe much in the cult of technology. Some of my early tracks I made using a 4 track cassette recorder that still sounds fresh to my ears. Likewise I appreciate something I have recently produced. What is important is the intention you have rather than the tools.

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change?

I have never liked to change or accumulate instruments and gear. First because I never had the money, second because I was often rather skeptical of new technologies so I was selling stuff to buy stuff. Sometimes not correctly, I made mistakes, anyway I survived. Now luckily I’ve no reasons to give something away, I’m very happy with my gear.

If money were no object what would you add?

Honestly I am happy with what I have. I’ve never believed in a killer instrument or studio gear that could seriously improve my music.

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

Probably the Oberheim.

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets?

I don’t bring with my heavy analog synths with me but the WASP and TB303. I replace the tape echoes with the digital Roland RE-20 Space Echo. I use Ableton Live and the Novation keyboard- controller. Arthuria Freak is the last entry. During my performance I mostly play the Wasp and improvise patterns on TB303. I play also some arpeggios and chords on my keyboard controller using Taluno plug-in synth or the Arthuria Freak.

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

Sometimes I head to the studio with a melody or a rhythm in my mind, but I’ve no rules. Sometimes I’m totally blank, no ideas, I start exploring chords and bass lines and often something comes.

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

It could be both of them. Anyway it’s always difficult to talk about creative processes. If you can analyze them they are no longer creative processes.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

Again I have no rules, sometimes I get into details as soon as I start composing, sometimes I go on leaving mistakes and unfinished parts with the intention of developing the material at a later time. It depends on the kind of music I’m making.

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writer’s block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

Can you reset your mind? You get into your studio as you are in that moment. What is important is to be there, and also do not have deadlines or guilt feelings for being there and so on, then the music can reset your mind.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Love and traveling.

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new Bosconi release, and why?

Probably the SH101 which produces a rather raw but easily manipulated sound. It’s totally 80s.

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

Same as ever: concerts, tracks to compose, travels.

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