Interview with Sound Wizard Joseph Hollo
We invite you to meet one of the world’s most talented sound designers, Joseph Hollo, (and to learn what a very nice fellow he truly is) in this interview.
by David Baer, May, 2015
Holló József (pictured right) is a remarkably talented synth sound designer living in Hungary. He anglicized his public name to Joseph Hollo, the name he is more commonly known by in the worldwide electronic music community. We will use the qwerty-friendly version of the name here.
I first came across Joseph’s work when my fellow SoundBytes writer, Dave Townsend, spoke of it in glowing terms on a music forum we both frequent. Those sounds consisted of three libraries for Zebra 2.5 called the Padsheaven series (available here: http://sound.artenuovo.com/ ). I had ignored them because of the “Pad” part of the name … pads I have in profusion. Fortunately, my ignorance was corrected and I discovered what a remarkable talent we had in our midst. To call some of his creations poetry in sound would not be an overstatement.
He followed the Padsheaven libraries with another stunning collection of sounds for Massive. Frustratingly, for me anyway, there is also a library for Spire and another for Serum available. I own neither of those synths or I would certainly would have picked up those two libraries for them as well.
Excellent demos of all Joseph’s sound design work can be found on his Soundcloud page here:
and more YouTube demos are here:
SoundBytes contacted Joseph and he kindly consented to giving us the interview which follows.
SoundBytes: In a just a few words, can you tell us who Joseph Hollo is?
Joseph Hollo: I am happy to be two people in one: an enthusiastic amateur and a cool-headed pro. So, I can have my own battle between the two sides and, luckily, most of the time I can arrive at an acceptable cease fire and get to the final deal.
SB: So please tell us how you first became involved in music. Did you have formal training?
JH: At age eight I got an acoustic guitar from my parents – I had been begging for since my brother’s friend was in our home with his shiny stringed guitar. I was desperately in search of a teacher, since unfortunately nobody could show me even a single chord. So I was picking only melodies for a while.
At age ten my parents decided I should go to a music school, so we went there and I became a clarinet player for the next eight years because the first man we met in the hall of the music school was the clarinet teacher. They said I was too old to begin with piano lessons.
I wasn’t too happy with playing clarinet, but I was keep at it in order to learn music, so that I could eventually get to the conservatory.
In the meantime I always had an amateur rock band with my guitar, finding friends who could play some chords, and playing Rising Sun form the Animals and such.
Then when I was sixteen or seventeen I encountered the organ – the classical one. I was fascinated by the magnificent instrument. It was usually dark and only the keyboard and pedal lamps were on. I felt my whole body was shaking when pressing the bass pedals.
I started the whole thing over, letting the clarinet go and practicing the organ like crazy to get to the conservatory again for organ and composing classes.
Interestingly it went smoothly and was easy compared to the obligatory piano lessons, which were a pain for me (I didn’t like to play scales and technical stuff on the piano, but Bach had written some lovely, easy pieces for beginners so you could enjoy real music while learning the technique). I even quit playing bands for two or three years for the sake of learning the organ.
SB: So when and how did synthesizers enter the picture?
JH: Inevitably, the bands came back to me. Ha ha … I was playing on a gig Saturday night, I played the organ in the church as a cantor Sunday morning, and went back to the road on the afternoon with the band – who needs sleep at age 20?
Synths came along about this time. I had the cheapest little four octave Vermona organ and my guitarist friend, who was engineer as well, built a little one-oscillator Moog Satellite inside my organ.
That was fun, but it was unstable. It needed to warm up for two hours before getting into relatively good tune, but it did have some really thick saw waves for leads.
In fact this synth was my main instrument when our group got to the “pro level” and we made our first LP which became a huge success in Hungary. We sold more than one-and-a-half million copies of that record. The name of the group was R-GO.
[Editor’s note: to see a 90 minute video of R-Go in their heyday and to experience a concert of infectious music that should almost certainly put a smile on your face, there’s a delightful YouTube offering available. In particular, pay attention starting around the 15 minute mark for a song written by Joseph and highlighting his performance. The image to the right is a frame from that concert, showing Joseph in is R-GO “uniform”. Find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?t=3006&v=wNJuMT6PnBE ]
I had this synth as well as a little Crumar Compact Piano when touring with the group in 1983. Ha ha – all the technicians knew they had to plug it in first to warm up the synth before they started to build the stage.
So I know the feeling of not having a proper instrument – it was simply out of reach. To get a Prophet 5 it was out of question.
About a year later we was playing gigs in Berlin when I wanted to buy a Prophet 600 in the store, so we went there and I tried to like the synth, listening on some quiet headphones. But it was impossible because on the big PA was a shiny new DX7, and those Tubular Bells, Marimbas and E-Pianos just blew my head off. It was expensive and I could not afford to get both, so instead I got the DX and a much cheaper little Korg Poly800 to have some analog pad function.
Our next LP was inevitably full of factory DX presets.
I was lucky to be doing what I liked to do: it was time in the studio, making songs, making records, practicing and going out on the road playing concert tours … and repeating the circle.
I was there with only a sixteen track tape recorder and a mixer, playing all the tracks in real time, mixing the vocals to a stereo master tape, cutting the tape with sax (editing) and re-recording to the multitrack tape to tape, starting manually – hit and miss. I learned the Commodore 64/C-Lab (now is Logic) MIDI Sequencer, Sync track, Atari with Cubase, E-Mu e6400 sampler and so on.
What we have now in PC/DAW plug-ins is a miracle – the only limit is our imagination. All is possible and affordable.
What I learned via classical training is that I can use it to make a nice sequence of chords, but beside that I am totally self-taught with respect to all the pop/rock/dance stuff and all the technical knowledge for arranging, mixing, tweaking instruments too. This why I said I earlier that I am an amateur.
These days if someone is interested in learning something, they can just browse YouTube and find invaluable courses, information about anything.
This is absolutely a great time. And we are blessed these days with all these wonderful, truly great synths like Zebra, Diva, Omnisphere, Spire, Spectral, and Serum. I feel these are really close to the hardware sound and have even much more possibilities.
SB: How did your direction evolve so that you became an accomplished synth sound designer?
JH: After more than twenty gold, platinum and even diamond plates with R-Go, plus many of the famous Hungarian lead singers and other pop groups for whom I was writing, my lust for making songs or records was a bit dampened (in Hungary that time 100,000 sales was gold, 250,000 platinum and 1,000,000 was the diamond. Only two groups got diamond – we were one of them).
I was not satisfied with most of the software synths that time, (around 2000) thin, plastic sounds, poor filters, it was frustrating to get useful sounds out of them.
It was a dream studio in front of me, – what I always wanted – in a simple PC: countless audio and MIDI tracks, mixpult, effects, instruments, samplers with tons of libraries. But there wasn’t any sign of today’s great synths.
I remember browsing tons of presets to find some inspiration ended up in an almost depressed mood.
Also endless possibilities sometimes kill the creativity. I had a period with low interest in studio gear and plugins. Also the whole record business was going down to nonsense.
And then one day I made a wish …
Maybe this is the most important thing I could say to you. When I was teen my biggest dream was: if only I could make a living just by playing music. Strangely, my dream came true in a very short time. And when I had this low mood period, I was also asking myself: what do you really want? So I found my next wish: I set my mind to have some great new, nice and interesting toys to play with – ones that would give me back my lost interest, joy and inspiration.
Very soon I found Zebra (it had been available for a long time, but I didn’t know anything about it – I guess because of the Zebra name I didn’t think it was a serious synth before).
What moved me in Zebra while demoing, was the hardware-like meaty sound. Hey what? Is it real? It’s responding to velocity or Modwheel like a real instrument. I never had any software synth like this before. I felt the aliveness of the synth, but didn’t find presets that perfectly matched my taste. I was sure I could make sounds out of this that I had been missing my whole life: the big Oberheim, Prophet, Fairlight, PPG sounds – the unreachable superstar category. My joy and enthusiasm was already coming back.
So I begin to make presets for myself for a future unspecified project with all the best sounds I could imagine. I was very slow, was also learning the synth on the way, but the sounds were coming one by one. Suddenly I realized that if I make a few more, I would have a nice full-blown 128 preset sound set. So I made it, and that became Padsheaven.
I’ve such an overwhelming warm welcome at the u-he forum on KVR that I realized I had found a new job: I am now a sound designer too.
[Editor’s note: the thread just mentioned can be found at http://www.kvraudio.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=356672&hilit=Padsheaven. Joseph was not exaggerating when he said “warm welcome”]
Now I know I have had my wish come true: I am surrounded by nice, great, shiny and fun tools, full with joy and inspiration. After Padsheaven the Spire was arriving, so I made some factory presets and a sound set also, then Spectral – only factory presets at that time.
Last year Serum was hitting me like a storm. It was too tempting not to make a sound set for it. There was so much talk of it being cold and sterile, so I tried to show it for everyone it can be warm and alive, so it became “Warmed”.
All of these are incredible great synths, and all of them bring some kind of revolution to the scene.
SB: You got started in synths with an FM instrument. Have you had any compulsion to do FM sound design?
JH: No, apart the must-have editing tweaks when we used it in the band. You know: faster or slower attack, release, velocity settings. It was too difficult for a simple musician mind to change the colors or brightness. It didn’t have a filter that you can open or dampen. You had to move output levels and envelopes, and the changes were usually too drastic.
But if your question is regarding the present, then, yes, I am delighted if I can remake some of those iconic FM sounds from the 80s. It’s like a little victory when I get close to the original sound and keyboard response. The Dx7 envelopes were incredible powerful. They were not the usual four-stage ADSR but had 8 stages and key mapping to all 6 operators! So, even with today’s great synths, it is quite a challenge to emulate those sounds – sometimes simply impossible. I guess I have in all my sound sets some of those legendary FM sounds.
SB: So it was Zebra that was the main inspiration for you to create the Padsheaven soundset and to start to work as a sound designer. Is Padsheaven complete, or will we have more to look forward to?
JH: Yes, without Zebra I wouldn’t have started at all to make my own presets. All I was missing I found in Zebra.
I guess Padsheaven is nice as a trilogy, but I am not sure when a new inspiration will strike me again to make new Zebra sounds. I think a single lifetime is too short to explore all what Zebra is capable of. It’s always joyful to come back to it. However, I am waiting more and more impatiently for Zebra 3.
SB: Speaking of Zebra, what kind of relationship do you have with Urs, the man behind u-he? Have you offered suggestions for Zebra3? Have you seen any Zebra3 prototypes or alpha versions?
JH: Urs is really my hero. I feel deep gratitude for creating Zebra for us. I am also very thankful for the u-he forum. It’s an invaluable place to get advices and tips. I was learning almost everything there and by following Howard’s [Howard Scarr, u-he sound designer wizard] tips and insights.
Yes, I am actively taking part of the Zebra 3 discussions. I don’t have any alpha version yet, but Urs was asking me if I would be interested to participate in Zebra 3 factory patches and I quickly said “Yes!”.
SB: What’s on the horizon? Are there other synths you’ve got your eye on?
JH: I am sure I will make a sound set for the new u-he synth, Hive, it’s surprisingly capable of a lot more than what I initially imagined, and the sound is also great. Omnisphere 2 is on the horizon as a big project.
SB: Finally, we would like to ask about your process – how you go about designing a sound. Is there usually a result in mind, or is it a process of serendipity?
JH: I’ve tried both ways. Like everything in life, if I have a clear picture in my head about what I want, it will manifest almost effortlessly, like magic. Without an idea, I can sit there for long time tweaking around, trying this and that, thinking I am working now, thinking I am having fun. Or I just get tired, get a pain in the back and finally deciding the best choice is pushing the delete button.
SB: Any advice to pass on to bidding sound designers who would like to follow in your footsteps?
JH: You must have a strong and clear inner vision about what you want or what you want to become. If you decide where you are going to go, things will come your way to help you. Then take some steps/actions to start and have a great deal of dedication to follow through on things.
I am a total amateur, I didn’t want to be a sound designer, but I had a very strong desire to make these sounds. I am not even all that aware of the techniques/tricks of how a pro designs sounds. But I am willing to tear apart hundreds of presets to learn something new, something of what is needed for my next imagined sound. So I am struggling with techniques but using my ears extensively.
I always like to imagine a keyboard player loading preset of mine and thinking “Wow! This is really what I need to put in my next music or arrangement”. I want all of the sounds alive, with little (or even big) movements, so if a player just holds a chord on the keyboard, it will grow, increase, and unfold into the next step of the music. When still, fully-relaxed sounds are needed, I still am putting in some very slow subtle movements. I really try to avoid stagnant, stationary, boring, dead sounds.
I am also making the presets like standalone instruments by applying supplemental variations via the controllers. So it’s good to learn how to play with them, like a real instrument that you have to practice to play well.
Listen to music where you’ll find the ideas you like best and repeat until you can understand what’s going on. You’ll need this to build up your own preferences, your own taste. In the 70s I listened to Deep Purple and Queen all the time. In the 80s I was crazy about Toto, Foreigner, Saga – mostly rock with strong keyboard emphasis. Conversely, I love Vangelis and Jean M. Jarre. If I had to say just one name, I would say David Foster (songwriter, keyboardist, producer for Earth Wind and Fire, Chicago, Celine Dion and countless singers).
But the most important thing is: I love doing this very much and enjoy all the minutes I can spend on it.
SB: Joseph, we want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us. We wish you much luck in the future and look forward to your upcoming creations.
JH: I want to thank you David, for thinking of me as your subject for an interview and for the chance you gave me to put my thoughts together! Much luck to you too, that’s all we need. 🙂