Interview with Stephen Howell of Hollow Sun – Part 1

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We speak to Stephen Howell, the mad (in a wonderful way!), inspired mastermind at the helm of Hollow Sun and developer of some of the most innovative Kontakt sounds available today.

by David Baer, May 2013

This is the first installment of Points of Kontakt, an ongoing series in which we’ll look at noteworthy Kontakt libraries, concentrating mostly on those featuring non-acoustic sounds like classic synths, and the like.

Stephen Howell (or is it?) Stephen Howell (or is it?)

But in this first installment, we have the pleasure of hearing from Stephen Howell (pictured on the right), the man responsible for Hollow Sun.  I’ve always been a huge fan of the creative output that Hollow Sun is becoming so well known for, so for me this is a special treat.

Hollow Sun has provided unique and inspired recreations of vintage electronic rarities since 1998.  For some time now, Hollow Sun has focused exclusively on sound libraries for Native Instruments’ Kontakt and is one of the premier providers of third party content for Kontakt.  Those familiar with Hollow Sun’s offerings have become accustomed to uncompromising quality and delightful doses of whimsy along the way.

In the first of three parts to this in-depth and wide-ranging interview, Stephen talks about his background and association with a number of classic hardware sampler technologies that have brought us to where we are today in the world of high-quality sampling technology.

Sound Bytes: When you meet someone for the first time and they ask what you do for a living, what do you tell them?

Stephen Howell: Ermmmm… I make sounds!

Naturally, this normally causes confusion so I don’t go into detail … I just say “You know those electronic keyboards … well, I make the sounds that go into those.” That’s usually enough but some people are a little more switched on (you can kind of tell) so I explain that I make sounds which I sell at my website which people can use on their computers.

But it can be quite interesting…

I’ve had a few dental woes of late and at the dentist, he asked me what I do so I (kind of) told him … and his dental technician assistant piped up, “What?  For Logic or Kontakt?” I was quite surprised – it transpires that her husband has a Mac and uses Logic and Kontakt and does local production work.  Small world.

Inside Hollow Sun Towers Inside Hollow Sun Towers

But there’s also a local greengrocer where I get my veg from (I refuse to use the übermarkets – get fresh, local produce … cheaper and better), and the lad there asked me what I do so I kind of explained, and he was fascinated, visited the website and the following week when I was there, he told me he was thinking of getting into making music because he liked what he heard.  I hope he does.

But I quite liked what Eno used to say at parties, etc. … “I’m an accountant.” That usually ends the conversation. There was a time when I said I was an astronaut, but that just led to further complications!

But yes, it can be awkward – it’s an unusual occupation. Even my nearest and dearest don’t fully understand it … sometimes, I don’t.  Hahaha!

SB: So how did you end up doing this?

SH: By chance!

SB: Tell us first about your academic background and musical training.

SH: How far do you want to go back?!

My father was always in choirs and presumably thought I should be too, so at the tender age of four, he had me enrolled into the local parish choir. F’ck me, that was a baptism by fire. But I must have been pretty good because the choirmaster recommended that I be entered for a scholarship at a local preparatory/choir school.  Suffice to say, I passed the entrance exam and, aged eight, became a boarder at the school. Pretty frightening at the time, but in hindsight it was a hell of an experience and a good one at that.

We sang some of the most sublime sacred music, I met modern composers such as William Mathias, John McCabe and Alun Hoddinott, was picked personally by Benjamin Britten to sing in one of his operas; we toured the country, sang for the royal family at Windsor Castle chapel; I met Prince Charles several times and we recorded an album for Decca on which I was selected to sing in the boy soprano trio of Parry’s ‘I was glad.’  It was quite lucrative too … payment for the record and the 2/6d (25p in modern money) we were paid for singing at weddings. Doesn’t sound like much now, obviously, but back in the late 1960s, it was a fortune, especially to a ten-year-old!!!

It was a fairly severe regimen though – compulsory piano practice at 6:30 AM in some freezing cold room, breakfast then off to choir practice, back to school chapel to sing matins, then academic lessons, lunch, more lessons then grab a quick late afternoon meal then off to the cathedral again for more practice, and then evensong. And Sunday we had two major services a day (morning communion and then evensong). Don’t even mention Christmas and Easter – on the go all the time with several services every day … when most kids were opening their Christmas presents or chomping into chocolate eggs, we were practicing or performing in the cathedral … or on a coach to perform in some other church or cathedral … voices for hire. But it was a good discipline.

My parents were not well off – I only attended the boarding school because I achieved a scholarship and the fees were waived so, come 13 (which is when you leave prep school), I didn’t go on to further private boarding school and attended a state school instead. That was interesting – whereas the cathedral school inspired us to think, to question everything, the state school just had us sit down, shut up and learn by rote … which was kind of dull, actually very dull. So I rebelled!

My father had lost his job and couldn’t afford to give me pocket money, so I took on paper rounds … that is, delivering newspapers – unheard of these days. Earned me a few quid a week. I also got a Saturday job at a local gentleman’s outfitters which earned me a few more quid. I saved this up and bought an electric guitar and then effect pedals and bought loads of albums. My state school’s music teacher, knowing of my choral background, roped me into the school choirs and orchestras; she had me learn to play double bass (or contrabass) which I took to easily.

But it was also around this time (1971 or 1972?) that I first heard Walter Carlos’s ‘Switched on Bach’, saw Genesis debuting ‘Foxtrot’ then heard Tomita’s ‘Snowflakes are Dancing’ and Tangerine Dream’s ‘Phaedra,’ and I was hooked. Synths became a rather unhealthy obsession. In class, when the other pupils were copying notes off the blackboard, I was doodling with synth designs!

The state education system was so mind-numbingly stifling and uninteresting and seemingly irrelevant, I kind of gave up on it and pretty much came away with nothing, but I had a passion for synths. As a 14-year-old, I’d written to ARP and Moog, and they sent me their brochures; but EMS’s were the best – they sent me the operator’s manual for their VCS3, and for some reason it all made sense. I also had a brochure from a small UK company called Dewtron who made synth kits. I saved up and bought some of those from my paper round and Saturday job money and built them … with varying degrees of success. Gave me a taste though.

Anyway, I came away from school with enough to get me into the Welsh College of Music and Drama (or mucus and trauma as we called it), but I’d got a summer holiday job with the civil service. The work was deathly dull – actually, it wasn’t always … it was the Ministry Of Agriculture, and I was out at farms and later was seconded to the cartography department mapping out the locales and peoples’ farms. But I liked earning money so turned down college, took a full-time job with the Ministry of Agriculture and took out a loan to buy a Mellotron and ARP Axxe. My parents very kindly bought me a Sony TC377 tape recorder for my 18th birthday – quite an expenditure for them … they couldn’t really afford it but they understood my passion.

It was liberating – I could do basic ‘sound-on-sound’ multitracking, and one thing led to another. I saved up and bought another TC377 so I could bounce back and forth in stereo … then a 4-track, a crusty tape echo that wowed and fluttered, then a bucket-brigade echo box and a cheap and nasty spring reverb along the way. This was around 1978 or 1979.

I was using all this to make soundtracks for local theatrical production which led to TV work and subsequently local session work until it got to a point where I was so busy, I had to give up the day job. I finished on the Friday, had a celebratory weekend but woke up on the Monday thinking “WTF have I done?!” My father wasn’t too helpful – he’d always been quite supportive, but now thought I was an idiot and that I should have stuck with the civil service and done this as a hobby.

But I was so busy – working with bands, mixing their live gigs, having them in to record in my little studio and ‘producing’ them, writing for TV and stuff, doing my own stuff, etc. Not enough hours in the day. I was doing session work through the night or gigging and going straight to work the next day with no sleep. It was unsustainable, so the day job – and regular income – had to go. There were some very lean times … was seriously skint a lot … well, most of the time, actually.

I was also writing for various UK music tech magazines like Electronics And Music Maker, Home And Studio Recording, Music Technology and, later, Sound On Sound and teaching a synth and recording course at Gateway Studios in London.

But to answer your question … no formal qualifications – there are none really in this business and frankly, all these ‘Music Technology’ degrees today are pretty pointless. But that’s another story.

SB: What came next?

SH: Chance again.

I’d bought an Akai AX80 (a very underrated analogue polysynth) and an S612 sampler (neither of which I could really afford, but what’s a chap to do?). But the AX80 seemed faulty, so I called the new, at the time, Akai UK and explained the situation and was asked to bring it down. The fault was confirmed and it was exchanged. But in the process, while the MD and I were chatting, I said I’d also bought an S612 and he asked if I had any sounds/samples because they didn’t have anything. As it happened, I’d taken some Quickdiscs with me, and he liked the sounds. I left them with him and thought that was that.

Next thing I knew, he wrote to me (by letter … pre-email days) commissioning me to make sounds for their new and upcoming S900. I duly obliged and next thing I knew, I was off to Japan – they heard the sounds and liked them. I was with them for some 20 years, at first just doing sounds but then they discovered I could write so had me doing manuals as well and through dealing with the engineers, I was contributing to feature ideas and the UI and was then being asked to design gear for them. I did the S3000, S3000XL and S2000 but I suppose my greatest claim to fame were the S5000 and S6000. The head of R&D in Japan had sourced a large LCD and asked me to design a UI from scratch. That was a challenge! I also had a fairly major hand in the design of some of Akai’s disk recorders, notably the DD1500 and DPS24.

But the point being is that if my AX80 hadn’t been faulty, who knows how things might have turned out?! Chance meeting and more than a hint of ‘right time, right place’.

It was great fun working with Akai Japan. I travelled the world, did all the major – and minor – trade shows (which became a bit tedious after a while … sorry if that sounds ungrateful or ungracious, but they are so noisy, and when you’re doing them back to back, you quickly tire of them) and was lucky to meet some fantastic people – the Michael Jackson band, Ricky Lawson, Roger Linn, Gary Numan, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Bob Moog, went to Wendy Carlos’ brownstone studio … had her cat on my lap, THE ‘Switched On Bach’ Moog and recording equipment behind me, and her serving me a nice cup of tea. I was also working with the legendary David Cockerell (formerly of EMS – he designed their gear), Chris Huggett (he of Wasp, OSCar and now Novation fame) and some of the finest engineers and people in the business. A real privilege. I also ate at some of the best restaurants and learnt to speak Japanese. (I pretty much lived in Japan for about 3/4 of the year at one point in the 90s and had to survive.) It was a fine time.

But Akai’s fortunes changed for the worse around 2003/4 … they couldn’t compete with Kontakt and the like which, with faster computers, etc., were now more viable and so Akai were bought out by Numark (primarily for the technology and the MPC range).  A few things killed the ‘old’ Akai off – they’d lost their founding visionaries (Mr. Toshio Tamaki and Jack Sugino) and without their guidance, made the ill-fated Z-series samplers rather than developing upon the successful S5/6000 – they made a sampler with a smaller screen, less outputs, and it was more expensive! Ermmmm. And then, to compound things, they decided to give their Z4 (the worst selling sampler in their history) a new paint job, give it a silly name (Boreas) and thought it would be a success. Errmmmm… not quite! Akai cocked up big time, but the MPC1000 kind of – almost – kept them going. But we weren’t getting paid some months. Difficult times. Which is where Numark stepped in.

But Numark also owned Alesis and they were having trouble with their new Fusion, so I was taken on to ‘rescue’ that which was good fun – free rein to make great sounds for this underrated synth/sampler. We gave the sounds away for free and that, with some price reductions, kind of saved the Fusion until it was discontinued. It was a bloody good piece of kit, actually, and a shame in a way that it wasn’t developed further. But kind of understandable. After that, though, it was drum samples, and believe me, topping and tailing hundreds upon hundreds of drum samples day in, day out is not a great deal of fun. That said, I was asked to design the UI for the DM10 eKit which turned out well. I was also doing a fair bit of stuff for the Akai MPC5000 … samples and so on and also had a hand in the design of the built-in synth, but it was a bit unsatisfying. The final straw was being asked to create a massive hip-hop library for the ‘MPC Renaissance’ – sorry, I was 54, wear tweed and brogues, was brought up on choral music, prog rock and weird beard electronica, and am not down ‘wiv da home BoiZ.’  Hip-hop is well outside my comfort zone, so I tendered my resignation to concentrate on Hollow Sun.

Continued in Part 2

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