Interview with Stephen Howell of Hollow Sun – Part 2

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We continue our interview with Stephen Howell of Hollow Sun. In this segment Stephen tells us the history of Hollow Sun.

Hollow Sun Towers Hollow Sun Towers

Sound Btyes: So, how did Hollow Sun come to be and how did the initial product line evolve?

Stephen Howell: Hollow Sun actually dates back a long time…

When I gave up the day job in 1980 and opened up my little studio for hire, I thought it needed a name. Couldn’t think of anything. Troubled me for ages. But for reasons I will never know, I woke up with ‘Hollow Sun’ in my head. No … I don’t know either. But it stuck.

But when I started working with Akai Japan around 1985, the studio was kind of disbanded. However, when I started up in on-line sample distribution in 1998, making samples available for my S5/6000, I resurrected the name – it seemed to be appropriate. And it seems to have worked – quite a memorable name it would appear.

The product line? Well, initially that was just an extension of what I was doing with Akai. I dropped support of the S5/6000 because it was a non-starter, and I switched to Kontakt. At first, they were fairly basic – just using Kontakt as a playback engine but then I got into scripting a bit (actually, being honest, reverse engineering NI’s own scripts and tweaking) … just very basic stuff inn Kontakt 3 … but hooking up with Mario Krušelj [ed. note: Mario is well known on the KVR forums as user Evil Dragon] and switching to Kontakt 4 opened up new possibilities in terms of scripting and graphics and GUIs – this young man is a genius. And so was born the Music Laboratory Machines.

SB: The Music Laboratory Machines (MLM) series seemed to establish a unique and unmistakable image for Hollow Sun. Do you feel that way? What inspired the MLM series?

SH: I was always huge fan of early electronica and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Dr Who, Delia Derbyshire and all that as a six-year-old), Louis and Bebe Barron (who did the ‘electronic tonalities’ for the classic sci-fi movie ‘Forbidden Planet’) and loved the weird old gear they used to make/use, so Mario and I were able to design and create, using Kontakt, weird and wonderful things that flew in the face of, shall we say, more ‘conventional’ modern synths and sampler instruments. We make a good team. Though I say so myself, I’m not too shabby with graphics and product ideas, sampling etc., and Mario is just excellent at making them work in Kontakt with his enormous scripting talents. And now we’re doing the Alien devices series and have loads of ideas for that.

Oh – the MLMs have been very successful. And this is encouraging for me as it shows that not everyone is into techno loops and hip-hop but want to dabble in the more experimental – and interesting – side of electronica. But the fact is that they are great fun to do, great fun to design, to create and make, and the fact that people like them is icing on the cake as are the many emails, user tracks, their use in TV and film soundtracks, on albums and so forth. There are a lot of very enthusiastic MLM users out there … which is nice.

And now we have the Alien Devices range which has proven to be very popular … Pulstar, SOTU (Sounds Of The Universe) and more in the pipeline.

My life is charmed, it truly is. I have the good fortune to be surrounded by very excellent and talented friends from all over the world, and we work together, a co-operative, if you like. Some require payment but others give their time and talent freely because they support Hollow Sun. But I repay where I can … like Hideaway Studios and more recently, Atomic Shadow – they have been great contributors to Hollow Sun, so I do graphics and GUIs for them and have Mario do their scripting. It’s nice – like a little community of sample developers doing off-the-wall and high-quality stuff at affordable prices for people to have fun with. And I have a great bunch of customers, many of whom are friends rather than sales transaction numbers

SB: So after MLM, you’ve got the new line, Alien Devices, emerging. Is MLM complete? Can you tell us anything about future developments for the Alien Devices line?

SH: The MLM line isn’t finished … it can run and run as mad ideas come my way. The Alien Devices range is a parallel development, even though they might kind of, sort of, overlap a bit with the MLMs and vintage line.

I can’t really say what plans we have in future for any product line, not because of trade secrets, but because it’s largely skin-of-the-teeth improvised … sort of waking up with a mad idea rather than some big plan. But I will say this…

We have plans for an Optigan instrument and have secured licensing for that [it’s just been released – ed]; I have a Roland MKS70 ‘Super JX’ so that’s on the cards, and I bought a Blofeld recently, so that’s another potential product at some point – I’ll shove it through my Dotcom modular with its analogue filters and fixed frequency filter … using it, essentially, as a digital oscillator with the modular and blending it with analogue VCOs. Could be fun. And I’ve been sitting on a product I call the Electrophon which is a kind of steampunk-styled synth. But there are loads of mad doodles I’ve done that could materialise as products at some point … like the Comptomotron, for example! Mario has also suggested a truly bonkers Alien Device which I am thinking about.

But this is the great thing about what we do … I (or Mario) can wake up with some silly idea – or maybe a customer will suggest something. I can design it, do all the knob/switch animations, sample as necessary, throw it at Mario to make it work and put it out, see what happens – some will love it, others not. But that’s fine, just so long as people have fun with them … which is my main intention.

But that’s not to say or imply we’re putting any old crap out – my measure is “Would I like/use this?” If it ticks that box, it’s a potential go-er because other people will as well.

SB: What are your musical/synthesis influences?

SH: Oh – dear me … loads! Sacred music dating back to plainsong (which I adore – so pure), Bach, then fast forward to Debussy, Ravel, Prokoviev, Stravinsky and then the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, the Barrons, Morton Subotnik, Walter/Wendy Carlos, Tomita, early Tangerine Dream, early Gabriel-era Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre … but lots of other stuff as well – Jan Hammer, Chick Corea, Brand X, Depeche Mode, Go West, Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Freur (who became Underworld) and more recently, Geigertek, Martin Walker and others … Atomic Shadow and, of course, a lot of Ian Boddy’s projects and so on. But the thing is, I am as likely to put some Prokoviev on as Alexander O’Neal or Klaus Schulze, whatever, depending on my mood.

But in terms of primary synthesis influence, it has to be Tomita (the ultimate synthmeister in my opinion) and the more abstract stuff such as the Barrons and the Radiophonic Workshop used to do.

Inside Hollow Sun Towers

I recently moved HS Towers [pictured on right] to a more rural location in the Vale Of Glamorgan in South Wales – one could say that I have retired to the country. I severed my ties with the major manufacturers because I was fed up with topping and tailing drums and other dull stuff and just wanted to do my own thing, something interesting and different, unhampered by corporate and commercial pressures … so that’s what I do now. Better still is that a lot of people seem to like what I/we do and, as I suspected, there are musicians out there who want something different and interesting.

But it’s amusing as well…

There are no neighbours here so I can let rip, but passers-by hear the odd noises emanating from the studio, and when I first moved here they would ask “Are you the bloke who makes the weird sounds?” Guilty as charged! So now, in this little rural community, surrounded by burly farmers concerned about their heifers, the lambing season and udder rot, I’m the bloke who makes weird sounds! Hahaha! It’s a great place to live though. The pace of life is so calm and relaxing … it’s like living in an episode of The Archers, haha! (The Archers is a BBC Radio 4 series of rural life and has been running since 1950.)

SB: You mentioned Peter Gabriel as a major influence. I think you told me once that you worked with him. How did that come about?

SH: Again, by chance!

I was touring the UK with Akai, demonstrating the then new S1000 to the dealers and their customers – a road show, I guess. We were in Scotland, and I was in the middle of the demo, answering question, etc., when a woman comes out from the office to tell me that someone was on the phone for me. I said I’d call them back but asked her to enquire who it was first. She came back out and told me it was Peter Gabriel!!! I told her I’d be right there!

So I spoke to Peter on the phone. He told me he’d just bought some new sampling system (an improvement on his crusty old Fairlight) but no one could figure out how to use it. I can’t remember what it was called but it cost around £30,000! So he asked me down to Real World that weekend for me to operate it. Well, the reason no one could figure it out was because it was clunky, buggy, unreliable and with a cumbersome UI. The irony was that it basically had the same specs as the S1000 I was touring. Well, I/we spent all weekend but couldn’t get it to work, so I tried to get hold of a spare demo S1000 but there were none available so I suggested to Peter that we use his S900. He was dubious (mono, 12-bit) but I said we didn’t really have an option so we tried it.

Now, Peter built a lot of the tracks up through jamming with the many-world music musicians used on the soundtrack but he would also run a DAT machine so he had a box full of DAT tapes with all these world instrumentalists on them – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, L. Shankar, Baaba Maal and others. He handed them to me to see what I could do with them. It was impossible to make perfect, multi-sampled instruments so I just grabbed bits from the performances that sounded interesting. After I’d done a few, I played them to Peter and he loved them – called them ‘character samples’ and told me to continue. I managed to grab lots of earthy and breathy drones as well. They’re all over the soundtrack.

Unfortunately, I didn’t receive a credit on the album (Peter fought hard for it but I was just a lowly and unknown assistant), but whenever you see S900 credited, that’ll be the stuff I did, but it’s also dotted around the rest of the album, too. I did get a signed copy of the album from Peter but some bastards stole it some years later when we were burgled!

Peter is an absolutely lovely bloke – an absolute gent. I took my then girlfriend to Real World one day. She was a diabetic and had a low blood sugar episode. Peter found her sitting on a step looking a bit dazed. Peter stopped and asked if she was alright, offering to drive her into Bath to see a doctor. She just told him she just needed orange juice or anything sweet to get her blood sugar up. So off he went and brought her juice, biscuits and chocolate and stayed with her until she recovered then came and got me, told me stop working and attend to her.

But he was also the inspiration for Hollow Sun on-line samples … We were having dinner one evening and we were talking about this new thing called ‘the Internet’ which was in its infancy then. He said he imagined a time when people would be able to buy and download sounds from anywhere in the world any time of day and night to load into samplers. We all smiled politely thinking “You’re bloody bonkers!” …

And ten years later, when modems had become fast enough to handle such downloads, I set the Hollow Sun website up … selling downloads exactly as he’d predicted! He’s bought a few of Hollow Sun’s titles.

SB: Wow! That’s quite a story. It must have been a great experience.

SH: Oh! It was. I’d all but idolised the man since I saw him leap onto the stage of the Top Rank in Cardiff after the Gothic Mellotron chords of ‘Watcher OF The Skies’ when they were debuting ‘Foxtrot’ on The Charisma Tour in 1971/2, and here he is, sixteen years later, making me breakfast and bringing me cups of tea. Hahaha! I remember we were watching MTV over breakfast, and a Michael Jackson video was on. As we walked to the studio to start work, I said “See – that’s where you’re going wrong, Peter – you need to moonwalk.” He laughed and said “Yes … maybe … but I’d probably do it wearing clogs”!

SB: Delightful! Anyone else famous you’ve worked with?

SH: Holly Johnson (ex-Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Did the keyboards and programming on his solo album, ‘Blast.’ That was great fun. We’re still good friends now. Jean Michel Jarre and I are fairly regularly in contact, and he’s bought quite a lot of HS titles.

Continued in Part 3



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