Name: Alexander Kowalski
Occupation: Producer, performer, DJ
Current Release: Alexander Kowalski's Reference EP is out via Made of Concrete.
Gear Recommendations: For me one of the best and most underrated software synthesizers is a freeware named “Surge”. Great sound, a lot of wavetables and really good modulation features.
The other one would be Waldorf Blofeld. I think this is the best value for money Synthesizer out there. Every time I use it I love it more and more.
If you enjoyed this interview with Alexander Kowalski, be sure to visit his homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
What was your first studio like?
When I started making music I was only 15 years old. Back then, I used an Amiga 500 with a Tracker Software. And I bought a sampling module for it. So I was able to record my own samples in lovely 8 bit resolution.
As speakers I used my Pioneer Hi-Fi that my parents bought me when I was 12. It wasn´t much, but it got me started.
How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
For me a studio is in a state of continuous evolution. After the limitation of the tracker software I bought a lot of hardware synthesizer and drum-machines. When the VST world got better I transitioned into doing more and more things in the computer.
Now I have a hybrid set-up. Best of both worlds. But still the most important piece of gear is my computer. It stores all my ideas of the past years. And I can open songs I´ve worked on 10 or more years ago.
Despite that there are some pieces I will never let go: NordRack2, Virus B, Waldorf Microwave XT (Black Edition), Waldorf Blofeld and my beloved Waldorf Pulse+.
[Read our feature on the Waldorf Microwave series]
Some see instruments and equipment as far less important than actual creativity, others feel they go hand in hand. What's your take on that?
I think hardware is a source of inspiration and creativity. When I go through presets or tweak my own sounds, I get a lot of track ideas. Whenever I feel stuck or lack inspiration, I take a synthesizer and try to make a track using only sounds coming from this device.
My new EP on made of Concrete is a good examples for this. 90% of the synth sounds on it come from my Roland JD-990.
A studio can be as minimal as a laptop with headphones and as expansive as a multi-room recording facility. Which studio situation do you personally prefer – and why?
As I said before, I prefer a hybrid set up. I think using the computer and having total recall was a big game changer for me.
But I also love to have hardware in the studio. At one point I had too much to handle. So I minimized my setup again to not feel overwhelmed by the options.
For me the most important thing is that everything a easy to reach and up running. All my synthesizers are connected directly to the soundcard. All is set up well in Ableton. So I don´t have to think too much and won't waste time.
From traditional keyboards to microtonal ones, from re-configured instruments (like drums or guitars) to customised devices, what are your preferred controllers and interfaces? What role does the tactile element play in your production process?
I´ve learned that ergonomic are really important for me in the studio. I remember something like 20 years ago hearing Jeff Mills talking about his studio being a “Spider Formation”. This idea stuck to me.
[Read our Jeff Mills interview]
I like to be in the center of the studio. And all the equipments is surrounding me like a circle. Everything easy to reach from my position. Being able to work fast and bringing my ideas to life is the most important thing for me in a creative moment.
In the light of picking your tools, how would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Our tools have evolved a lot over the years. We can now use software and equipment I couln´t have dreamed of 20 years ago. This of course brings evolution into the music. And there is a lot of new music to discover.
But I will always remember the music that shaped me and my taste of music when I was young. I think this is something you will never forget. So for me the most interesting thing is to find a combination of both past and future and make them work together.
Most would regard recording tools like microphones and mixing desks as different in kind from instruments like keyboards, guitars, drums and samplers. Where do you stand on this?
A mixing desk or a compressor can also be a instrument. For example a 909 sounds really different when I use it clean and plugged straight into my soundcard, or if I run it through my old Mackie CR1604 mixer in combination with a tube compressor.
I love everything that brings life into sounds.
How would you describe the relationship between technology and creativity for your work? Using a recent piece as an example, how do you work with your production tools to achieve specific artistic results?
Just a few month ago I bought the new SSL Big Six mixer because I wanted to have compact modern mixer with built in USB to track some channels from my Ableton and be able to jam with tracks like back in the days when I used hardware only. I also wanted to use my old effect hardware units like I did when I recorded my first album Echoes.
The result of this was my new EP on made of Concrete. This is the perfect symbiosis of new technology in combination with trusted old hardware. For me this is really inspiring.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
I really like having this option of total recall.
I have sooo many sketches on my computer. When I´m in the studio and I have a good day I make like 5 or more sketches in one session. Its a big advantage not to be forced to finish the first sketch to make my hardware and mixer free to work on something new.
As much as I like to work fast, sometimes music needs time to feel right. I really like to work on small details. So some of my tracks take months to years to get finished. Some will never be.
How do you retain an element of surprise for your own work – are there technologies which are particularly useful in this regard?
I like to push myself to try new ways of working. Sometimes I really have to focus on not going down the same route of doing things all the time. It's nice to try new synthesizers or plugs ins for this as well. They also bring new inspiration.
Production tools can already suggest compositional ideas on their own. How much of your music is based on concepts and ideas you had before entering the studio, how much of it is triggered by equipment, software and apps?
Switching to Ableton Live had a huge impact on the way I work. So it also has a impact on how I create my ideas. I think software can be really inspiring.
I was always a big fan of NI Maschine for example. I think its a great tool to create track sketches. Just a short while ago I created an expansion named “Lunar Echoes” together with Alex Retsis for NI. For this I had to go even deeper into Maschine and to do the whole track just with Maschine. This limitation was really inspiring to me.
It is really interesting to how much just one piece of gear can trigger your creativity.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
It´s just crazy how computer software has evolved from me sitting in front of my Amiga 500 with a 4 channel 8-bit Tracker Software to having a full studio with the craziest synthesizers and the best sounding equipment emulations in my laptop.
I once spent so much money on compressors and now they are just software and you can use them on every channel in multiple instances. I think this is the biggest change – and one that I could not have ever imagined.
To some, the advent of AI and 'intelligent' composing tools offers potential for machines to contribute to the creative process. Do you feel as though technology can develop a form of creativity itself? Is there possibly a sense of co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I am not so sure about this to be honest. I mean, I also use step sequencers with random functions and things like this. But at the end I am the one to make decisions and edits the final result.
For me making music is a way to express myself. I want to put emotions in music. Not sure AI can do that.
What tools/instruments do you feel could have a deeper impact on creativity but need to still be invented or developed?
Hmm. Not sure if we still can invent such a big game changer.
For me Eurorack hast the most potential in that direction. If you are not happy with the instruments you can get or missing something : just build your own.