Interview with Stephen Howell of Hollow Sun – Part 3

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We conclude our interview with Stephen Howell of Hollow Sun.  In this part Stephen shares his opinions about the current state and future directions of sampling technology.

Sound Bytes: Why are your libraries not available for use with the free Kontakt Player?

Hollow Sun Towers

Stephen Howell: Well, they kind of are, but as I make clear on the website, the Player will be in ‘demo mode’ and time-limited. But it CAN be used. However, the full version of Kontakt is recommended, obviously, for unlimited use.

But the reason it’s not fully compatible is because it’s bloody expensive – like a five figure Euro sum for a license. [Ed. note: some vendors offer Kontakt libraries that do not require their customers to own the full version of Kontakt, but these are inevitably much pricier than other libraries which do because the vendor must pay NI an up-front royalty for the “rights”.]  Which is fine, and I could take that risk, but I couldn’t sell my stuff for the price I do – instead of £10, they’d have to be £100! My intention has always been to provide sounds that are affordable so that as many people as possible can enjoy them but that requires a full version of Kontakt. That said, my stuff CAN be used with the Player and many people do use it – they just have to be quick!!

I wish that NI would release a low cost player with no limitations, but I can understand why they won’t – it may well kill sales of Kontakt.

SB: You’ve been commercially tied specifically to Kontakt for quite some time and are in a better position than most to offer a critical opinion of that technology.

SH: Well, I am not ‘commercially tied,’ but it is the ‘industry standard.”  It’s also very, very flexible and modular.

I flew the flag for hardware samplers for a long time because they were what I was used to, but once I got into Kontakt, I was impressed – amazed even – at what it was … IS … capable of. Just being able to apply any filter or processor or modulation source, whatever, is staggering. But for me at least, as a developer, it’s the scripting that sets it apart … it allows me to design my own synths and products pretty much exactly as I want them. It’s very liberating … and great fun.

Oh – I still like hardware … there’s a certain immediacy and simplicity about it but it’s hard to compete (or should that be ‘Kompete?!’) with Kontakt. That said, the new Mach 5 from MOTU is good too … maybe better … but Kontakt (for now) is the market leader so is the one to go with.

I do get a little confused when I read about people not liking ‘the sound’ of Kontakt – maybe I am cloth-eared in my dotage, but it sounds fine to me, and there are various playback quality options. And some people complain about the cost of it. Come on – it wasn’t that long ago we paid £2,500 for a sampler (the Emulator II was nearly £10,000 FFS [for f’cks sake – Ed.  🙂 ]) and they came with a handful of floppy disks. Kontakt is $300 USD or so and comes with squigabytes of library – in my eyes, it’s a bargain. Not just that, but NI do their sales offers – I picked up Kontakt 5 from them recently for $150 USD – or was it Euros – whatever. Cheap. An initial outlay perhaps, but cheap. But whatever – I realise everyone has their own budget they have to justify (especially if they have a ‘significant other,’ kids and what not!). Even so, even as a modest hobbyist, I consider Kontakt to be a good investment as there is a whole universe of sounds out there from free to cheap to moderately priced to silly priced stuff. It’s a damned good tool to have. Komplete could keep you amused for years.

I am not affiliated with NI, by the way, in any way, shape or form.

SB: What’s missing from Kontakt that you’d most like to see in terms of being able to improve your own products?

SH: Hard to say as it’s fairly complete (or should that be ‘Komplete!’ with a ‘K’). I’d love to see a ring modulator in there – probably wouldn’t suit everyone but would open up possibilities for my weird synths and stuff. It’d be nice if they had an oscillator and noise generator in there as well so that you could build a synth without shedloads of looped samples.

I (personally) could lose the sample editor – it’s just rubbish in my opinion … so clunky and cumbersome. But I know some people use it. To them, I’d say, “Use a proper wave editor” … but whatever.

SB: Do you feel that sampled synths are somehow bogus as some people claim … that real musicians only do the real thing?

SH: Oh God no. Look… if anyone knows about ‘real’ synths, it’s me – I have a bloody great analogue modular sitting next to me here … I built it myself. I know analogue and synths intimately since the early days of the 70s … it’s what I grew up with – Moogs, ARPs, Oberheims, Rolands, Korgs, etc.  If I thought for one second that sampling wasn’t up to it, I’d be buggered. But I don’t. If anything, read some of the comments on the HS website and you’ll see many people saying my stuff doesn’t sound ‘sampled’ at all but ‘organic,’ especially the MLMs. It’s all down to how you sample it, I suppose and I guess I might have the knack! I don’t know how or why … perhaps keeping it simple perhaps. I don’t believe in processing the crap out of stuff – just sample the thing and present it as is. In many ways, it’s the imperfections that count – like people … it’s the imperfections that create characters and not bland ‘me too’ dullards. You only have to look at politicians for evidence – so bland and eager to please and not offend that they end up being useless. The same can be said for a lot of music acts these days as well. Give me character, personality, imperfections and eccentricity all the time – I don’t like bland. But that’s just me I guess, being imperfect and eccentric myself!

But I don’t like imperfections if they are ugly – there has to be a beauty there, an ‘intelligence’ perhaps. I dunno … I suppose I like perfect imperfections! Hahaha!

Inside Hollow Sun Towers

SB: So what can we expect from Hollow Sun Towers in future?

SH: F’ck knows. I wing it half the time, making it up as I go along. I just want to make interesting and intriguing stuff that’s affordable so that lots of people can have fun with it. Some of it might be a bit esoteric and niche but bollocks to it – people like it and have fun with it and some make a living from it, and I do OK out of it so win-win! It’s always good to get a few quid out of a sale but I am happiest when people send me stuff they have made with my work, especially when it features in soundtrack work. One customer contributed soundtrack work to a BAFTA Award-winning programme and the MLMs were instrumental in that – according to the producers of the programme – they provided that ‘other worldly’ element, a hint of mystery that they wanted.

And then there’s the use of the Novachord by Petri Alanko in the award-winning Alan Wake game – Petri said it added an air of mystery and sat well in the mix. But others, too, who use HS stuff, either as hobbyists to full on LA soundtrack pros. And I have a very loyal customer base. One common (and lovely) comment I get is “I don’t even listen to your demos anymore – I just buy” which is enormously satisfying. Some of them send me what they’ve done with it which is even more satisfying, because it’s always interesting to hear what people do with the stuff; a lot of it quite unexpected. I have a vision for something but it’s always beguiling to hear how people use – or abuse – it.

SB: And your thoughts on piracy?

SH: Bollocks to them. Some people say they represent lost sales. I disagree – these people will never buy anything, they expect everything for free. I call them ‘digital magpies’ going after any and everything that’s shiny and grabbing it even though they quite possibly don’t know what it is they have. I don’t accept the argument that people get pirated copies of stuff because they can’t afford it – I know people with good and well-paid jobs who scour the Internet of an evening getting illegal stuff … they just want stuff for nothing. And the pirates’ silly stance on “We’re promoting the product” is just arrant nonsense! How? By giving it away? But lost sales? Probably not. Some perhaps but these people don’t buy anything – they expect it for free.

Me? I’d rather make friends with people who buy my stuff rather than chase after the sad individuals who steal it and whose efforts will come to nothing.

And I don’t accept the nonsense of “I can’t afford it” – people have pirated my £1 special offers … Christ – they’ve even pirated my freebies!! But, in my opinion, you just have to ignore it as best you can … like a corner shop has to accept there will be some shoplifting – fight it where possible but don’t become obsessed by it else it will drive you insane.

SB: What annoys you most about your business?

SH: Apart from accounts and the paperwork? Hahaha! God, I hate all that! But anyway…

People who judge a library by its size, sampling rate, bit depth, price – like if it’s not gigabytes at 96/24 and only costs 20 quid, it must be crap. That is just SO wrong and mistaken.

SB: How do you see the future of sampling?

SH: Oh God – I don’t know. No doubt more and more features will be added, some useful, many just added bloat.

The fact of the matter is that sampling can be bloody hard work and there’s no getting round that if you are to do the job properly and it can be quite tedious a lot of the time. But the end result is usually enormously rewarding. It’s a bit like sculpting, I suppose – chipping away for weeks or months on end, sanding and polishing, etc., but ending up with a beautiful statue. Or gardening, perhaps – you can’t just throw some seeds on the ground and then ‘batch process’ them all to produce beautiful flowers or vegetables in two minutes … it needs nurturing and careful attention and effort and time … and love, I suppose.

But I do suspect that the days of the big, expensively priced libraries might be on their way out. Let’s face it, probably 90% or more of this market are – with all respect – hobbyists, enthusiasts, semi-pro … they can’t be shelling out $100s USD for libraries and for many, £10 or £20 is their price range, some even less, and I suspect that more and more library will be entering into that ‘no brainer’ territory. In fact, we’re already seeing it. The only problem with that is that some pros look at the price and dismiss it for reasons stated earlier.

SB: And the future of Hollow Sun?

SH: No idea – just keep on doing what I/we do until A) people  don’t like it any more or B) my health and stamina gives out. Fortunately, I/we don’t seem to be short of ideas. If the worst comes to the worst, I can get some heifers and concern myself with udder rot creams. Hahaha!!

SB: Nice to chat with you, Stephen.  Thank you so much for your time.

SH: Likewise. Thanks for your support of Hollow Sun and good luck with your new magazine. Always a pleasure dealing with you. And to anyone reading this, David [Ed. note: the interviewee is talking about the interviewer here] is a genuine customer, not someone given NFRs and freebies.


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