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Review of Usine Hollyhock II by Sensomusic (version 2.0.81b) — December 23, 2015

Review of Usine Hollyhock II by Sensomusic (version 2.0.81b)

Usine Hollyhock II is definitely under the radar, although I’m not too sure why. It’s not new software by any means, the original version called Usine launched in 2006 undergoing version changes up to v5 in 2010. Hollyhock launched towards the end of 2012 with Hollyhock II launched in March 2015.

Currently the launch price is up to 60% off. There is only one product but the price depends on your utilisation. If you’re a professional user (defined as making money with Usine) then a lifetime licence costs 229 euros. If you are a student, teacher or non-professional user (defined as not making money with Usine) then a new licence costs 69 euros which includes a year of updates and then 49 euros for a subsequent year of updates.

Usine Hollyhock II is lightweight and uses a portable install meaning you can take it anywhere or even have different install locations for different live sets.

Bear in mind Hollyhock II is not a traditional DAW. In essence it still does everything that a traditional DAW does and a lot more besides, it just does it differently. The workspace is the total environment. Racks are like tracks or channels and patches sit within a rack and it’s where your VSTs, samples, effects etc are loaded. Modules are the smallest part of a patch and can be a delay, filter etc. connected with wires. Hollyhock II has a modular nature which gives amazing flexibility and options.  It’s an intuitive process, reminds me of electronics where each module looks like an integrated circuit with pins for inputs and outputs which you drag from one to another to connect with a wire.

Scanning VSTs is a fairly quick process, it crashed twice in the process however. First impressions are very good, the UI looks excellent, a sleek and modern look and feel. Hollyhock II very helpfully comes with example templates and demos to get you started and the user manual is excellent too and a must read.

In a rack you set the input device i.e. audio, midi, external instrument or another rack; the outputs i.e. stereo out or another rack and load your patches i.e. synths, effects. You can position racks exactly where you want them or minimise them to make the workspace tidier.

I find the racks and patches concept really easy to get to grips with and it’s a straightforward process to set up your inputs and outputs. Hollyhock II has a very good range of built in effects (delays, reverb, EQ, distortion, compressors etc) and processors (groove machines, grain processors, loopers) which you can use for a large part of your project. In fact, Invisible Boundaries uses all internal processors and effects, only using VSTs on the master channel to provide a basic EQ and compression.

I really like the flexibility provided by patches. If you typically use a stock delay, you tend to get what you get. Not with Hollyhock II, you have control over the inputs, outputs, delay and feedback. This means that you can choose whether you have knobs or faders for controlling delay and feedback; there’s a ‘random data’ option which allows you to experiment with synchronisation or use some physics to automate control of certain parameters. Once created you can save for future use.





It feels different to other DAWS, I find that most traditional DAWS concentrate your focus on the timing and sequencer grid. Hollyhock II doesn’t do this, instead the focus is on the racks and more specifically the patches they contain. It feels like the instrument / synth, sounds and effects are at the heart and it’s more about crafting and manipulating sounds and the overall performance. And this is to be expected considering the software was developed by Olivier Sens, himself a talented performing musician.

What’s so great is that the software grows with you. By this I mean the process I followed was to set up a couple of racks with samples, one of which used the granular sampler, the other a normal sampler with a delay. I then added automation, edited the patch to include a knob for delay / feedback parameters, added automation to these parameters and then controlled them live during the recording. It allows you to be as simple or complex as you want to be and gives you massive flexibility to set up and control parameters as you wish.

To create a song, you need to display the grid. This is where you drag your racks onto separate lines and sections and change the duration to suit i.e. time or bar lengths. You can play once and put in a break ; play once or repeat a number of times and continue to the next one or loop the section. You can apply automation curves and specify steps when they are played for instance for a reverse mode.  This is a fairly non-linear process but I soon got the hang of how it works.

If you’re using Hollyhock II for a live set you can specify several workspaces to create a playlist.

Another powerful function is the interface builder which provides a clean layout space where it is useful to see only the minimum controls needed for a performance.

The physics engine is also worth a special mention. It is a brilliant idea to give automation with an element of randomness. For instance you can set up a cross fade sampler with a ring mod effect and use a ball bouncing around a box using the changing x and y positions to control ring mod parameters.

And this is the beauty of Hollyhock II for me. You could force it to work like a conventional DAW but this would be hard work and why would you want to? It really encourages you to push the boundaries and experiment with your creativity. For someone who likes to manipulate and mangle sound, this is a very intuitive piece of software that enables you to do this easily and include all manner of automation and control that a conventional DAW simply cannot do as easily.

You don’t have to necessarily use it for live performance, you could as easily set it up for live recording. I’ve recorded a couple of live albums and if you like doing this Hollyhock II is a brilliant choice. Even if you don’t want to manipulate parameters live you can still set up workspaces with automation and record songs that won’t sound like anything you’d record in other DAW software.  That’s where Invisible Boundaries came from, I really enjoyed exploring the provided processes and the live performance aspects that a 7 track album resulted.

One very notable difference is the way Hollyhock II handles audio files or samples. In many DAWS you simply drag and drop the sample onto a track / channel and add effects or route as you see fit. In Hollyhock II you have to load the audio file into a sampler. There are 5 in total – normal; grain; midi; joggle; cross fade loop. These give an amazing variety of options and control over the sound and I really like this approach, it quickly feels natural.

The normal sampler has common modifiers such as pitch, gain, reversal and quantisation options. The grain sampler is really powerful, a granular engine with size, duration, speed syncronisation, manual percentage adjustment, shaping grains etc.

The midi sampler allows you to set up key-to-pitch playback so you can have multi-layered samples to create a full instrument or drum kit.

The joggle sampler has one fader to interact with the speed and direction of the sample. This is useful to play a sample forwards or backwards and control how fast the playback speed responds.

The cross fade sampler allows you to create a smooth loop from a portion of an audio file placed between 2 markers.

With the samplers, once you’ve loaded one into a patch its possible to load more samples into the same instance of the sampler and then switch between them whilst the workspace is playing. You can also use this process to clear current sample lists then load new lists and save them as individual lists you can use later and also save presets. Using multiple samples is a great way to keep the same effects for subtle differences in sounds. If you use a cross fade sampler, for instance, the loop settings are the same for all samples and any changes will be applied universally. This makes sense and in any case it’s easy enough to load another instance into an additional rack to use different loop points and copy the effects.

The samplers handle audio files really well, adjusting for tempo and looping pretty seamlessly. Some files need a bit more attention with the loop points to ensure that you don’t get clicks.

Another big difference is recording your project. In Mulab for instance, I’ve often used a lot of delays and processor heavy effects they have overloaded the CPU. However, recording to audio always works perfectly.

With Hollyhock II the audio recorder works in the background like a tape recorder whilst your workspace is playing. And this makes a lot of sense because it is designed as a performance tool. It is very flexible though because like a traditional DAW you can record individual tracks as stems so you can record either wet or dry if you wish or alternatively record the whole project via the stereo out.

I found it a little tricky to start because some of the looping samples were playing depending on the grid section I was working on. It took a little while but the answer is simple – turn off the audio engine using the button in the top left. This means you can get everything ready and nothing plays until you’re ready to record, just another example of working differently.

The big advantage to implementing recording this way is it makes live recording very easy and this can be as complex or simple as you choose. For instance you could record your workspace with little interaction when you’ve set it all up beforehand with automation or alternatively edit settings on the fly and play a synth or bass part live for instance.

I’ve often said that I need a better controller with more knobs. One feature that could save you a lot of money – and my ethos for making music is always that it doesn’t have to be expensive – is to use OSC. There are apps that allow you to control Hollyhock II over WiFi. At home this is brilliant, bear in mind for a live performance you better make sure you make provisions for that WiFi connection. There are a couple of apps, Touch DAW and TouchOSC are two examples. A skim read of reviews suggested that TouchOSC was easier to set up and since the manual contains basic instructions I opted for this one.

At £3.99 it’s about the price of a pint. Or a large coffee. Now I’m sure many would prefer a hardware controller but for such a low price it gives you control options with sliders, knobs and xy pads that you might not otherwise have unless you spend upwards of 20x that amount. There’s a few default layouts provided and also a handy layout designer tool is available from Hexler’s website.

Never has something setup so easily. You enable OSC in Hollyhock II settings and type the IP address of your computer into the settings in the app. Then type the outgoing port settings from the app into the computer. Select show OSC messages, move a fader and you’ll see that it’s working – all within 20 seconds. However, you will need to allow the IP address through your firewall or you’ll be scratching your head thinking these things never work.

It’s very easy to set up and use, I’ve right clicked the knob I want to control, clicked the learn option, moved the corresponding knob on the touch OSC app and you’re good to go. I’ve found changing the range to 0..1 seems to give better results. It works seemlessly and it’s very impressive that you can change so many parameters markedly without any noticeable glitches in the sound which I’ve experienced in traditional DAWs.  Creating layouts is also an iterative process, for instance I’m finding that templates of the various processors I want to control work really well although I keep finding I just need a couple of extra buttons which are easy enough to update.  The templates can also be sent wirelessly to your tablet too which is really easy to do.

A tip here is this principle works for VSTs that don’t support midi learn, you simply drag the knob or fader you want to control from the VST into the patch editor window to create an inlet / outlet.  Drag a wire from this to an empty space and you can assign a knob or fader.

I’ve really enjoyed learning to use Hollyhock II for this review.  I’d normally include a demo track or demo sounds but instead I’ve created a 7 track album embedded at the top of this post.  These tracks are not perfect by any means but hopefully they help to highlight some of the potential of Hollyhock II.  They are experimental to a certain extent, the sound processing and automation options really encourage this approach.  I love the groove machines, it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for and not found anywhere else.  I’m also looking forward to using some favourite VSTs like Polygon (Glitchmachines) and B Step sequencer (Monoplugs) in Hollyhock II controlled with TouchOSC  in a live performances to further explore their combined potential.

Cities and Memory – A review of 2015 — December 16, 2015

Cities and Memory – A review of 2015

Cities and Memory is a global field recording & sound art work that presents both the present reality of a place, but also its imagined, alternative counterpart – remixing the world, one sound at at time.

Every faithful field recording document on the sound map is accompanied by a reworking, a processing or an interpretation that imagines that place and time as somewhere else, somewhere new.

The listener can choose to explore locations through their actual sounds, to explore reimagined interpretations of what those places could be – or to flip between the two different sound worlds at leisure.

2015 has been quite a big year for Cities and Memory, they have almost 900 sounds, with over 170 contributors and are closing in on a quarter of a million plays. To celebrate and as an early Christmas present, they’ve released a free album of some of the highlights of their sounds from 2015:

I’m delighted to be featured on this album, I’m a keen supporter and contributor to their projects and would encourage anyone interested to participate in a future project. In fact the next project is not that far away – the end of the month – with a project around the theme of Dada, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dada in February 2016.

For me there’s something very unique about working with field recordings. On the one hand they’re a unique snapshot in time, capturing a particular moment and on the other they offer a sound source that cannot be created by synthesis. Reimagining the sound gives you the opportunity to put a different perspective on the moment in time, whether it’s an extreme remix or really subtle use of contrasting or complimenting sounds.

Some of the highlights for 2015 have been:

Oblique Strategies : Artists reimagined field recordings using creative techniques from Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards.

Quiet Street : Reimagining the entire city of Bath in the UK for a two-week installation and an online sound map – including one piece with 30 vocal contributions which you can listen to here.

Sound Waves : Celebrating World Listening Day 2015 with a sonic examination of the role water plays in our everyday lives.

Utopia : Imagining the soundscapes from one of literature’s most iconic works, Thomas More’s Utopia.

Berlin Ringbahn : A special album-length composition made for us by contributor Martin Kristopher last month.

An installation using the amazing Memoryphones devices, exhibiting work in Bath and in Oxford.

Invited to speak on sonic matters at conferences in Amsterdam and Cambridge.

I’ve really enjoyed submitting entries to some of the various projects as well as reimagining other sounds too.  My favourite entry of the year  is ‘Our Lady is Also the Moon’ which was a collaboration with Kim Reuger (@BellyfullofStar) for the Sound Waves project.  I’ve previously written a blog post about this project and some others too which I discuss how I reimagined the sounds.

To find out more, visit the Cities and Memory website where you can also sign up to their newsletter to receive email updates on collaborations and forthcoming projects.

Review of ‘Music for Icy Summits’ by permafrost on mobiusspin (mbsspn027) — December 9, 2015

Review of ‘Music for Icy Summits’ by permafrost on mobiusspin (mbsspn027)

This is presented as one 59m49s long piece. It’s testament to the two musicians, 3dtorus and Javier Bilbao who recorded under the name permafrost, that they’ve been able to produce the album in this way which suits the piece really well.

It has a slow evolving opening with great layering of sounds, there’s an emerging drone, sparse delayed percussion, a looping sound almost. Other percussive impact type sounds give a harsher edge and a good contrast.

There’s a great flow, the drone kind of swells and rises in waves dominating the sound before returning to the background.

It’s really well produced, there’s an excellent range of sounds that are really well crafted and processed. It’s got an ambient heart but really good contrasting harsher, darker and noise elements that ebb and flow.

The emergence of a delayed synth riff is a great element, it too rises and falls sounding quite organic in its evolution being filtered and with feedback at times whilst the background drone / noise increases and resolves tension really well.

As the tension rises again a subtle melody emerges against delayed looping percussive sounds and other really well layered sounds providing a great overall release to the album.

Review of ‘Beyond the Mirror’ by The Oscillation on All Time Low Productions — December 7, 2015

Review of ‘Beyond the Mirror’ by The Oscillation on All Time Low Productions

Over the course of three albums in the shape of Out Of Phase (2007), Veils (2011) and From Tomorrow (2013), The Oscillation has come to be established as one of the premier voyagers and navigators of the politics of consciousness. While the purity of their vision is diluted in lesser hands in an ever-expanding scene, The Oscillation’s dexterity in moulding and manipulating sound into an aural kaleidoscope remains undiminished.

Presented here is a collection of not only rare and previously released material grabbed by eager hands but also a handful gems that are finally seeing the light of day. In doing so, The Oscillation are giving off more than a reflection of their talents; here, they’re offering something much more and go beyond the mirror.

This is an excellent idea to release rare and unreleased sounds. I really like the way the album highlights how The Oscillation push the boundary of their sound from fuzzed out psych rock to a chilled atmospheric vibe with great use of feedback and delay in between.  It’s a great selection of songs, they compliment each other really well.

Braindrainer (taken from Fall EP 2012)
The song has great wah guitar to open, then bass and drumming propel the song with a great momentum. There are some great feedback / delayed effects too. The wah chords form a kind of backbone for the riffing and soloing. I really like the change in feel.

Waste the Day (B-side of single ‘No Place to Go’)

I really like the feedback and sound effects to open, a simple delayed note works really well. Brilliant bassline and drumming give a great momentum. The vocals suit the style of the song really well having a kind of ethereal presence and there’s a nice build and release to end the song.

Kissing the Sun (Hands in the Dark ‘Travel Expop Series #2’ 2013)
A synth drone to open with an urgency provided by the drumming accompanied by another great bassline gives a great opening to the song. There’s really good layering of feedback / effects too and a great change in feel with really good lead guitar and background sound effects to round out the song.

The Mirror Pool (previously unreleased)
An emerging synth drone to open with a great edge of tension contrasts against an arp and background sound effects. Vocals are processed really well, they have a great presence. The song has a great edge to it. The guitar lead line works really well and there’s a great tension from the layering of sounds.

Endless Oblivion (previously unreleased)
Great feedback leading into a really distorted riff, drumming and bass give a great momentum. I really like the wah lead line and soloing too. The song has an excellent brooding quality, some great pulsing sounds and great use of feedback.

Crystalline Tears (previously unreleased)
The song has a great atmospheric opening with some really good delayed effects. It’s a really good soundscape, the piano is a great element and there’s some really subtle guitar in there too.

Insect Attraction (Hands in the Dark ‘Travel Expop Series #2’ 2013)
Another atmospheric opening with great feedback and delayed effects. The drumming and bassline provide a great groove. The vocals are processed really well and sit quite low in the mix. Excellent use of delay and feedback.

The Detour (previously unreleased)
Great reversed sounds to open and a more acoustic feel to the guitar chords. The vocals again are processed excellently and have a real ethereal feel. Drumming and bass give a subtle but really well defined momentum. It’s another great soundscape, really well produced with a great vibe.

The Oscillation on twitter

The Oscillation on facebook

Review of ‘Oblique Seasons’ album by Deleter on Land Ski Records — December 3, 2015

Review of ‘Oblique Seasons’ album by Deleter on Land Ski Records

Deleter is a Minneapolis post-punk attack team composed of vocalist/guitarist Knol Tate (Askeleton, Killsadie), bassist/vocalist Travis Collins (Spirit Of 76, We Are The Willows), drummer/percussionist Josh McKay (Farewell Continental, Small Towns Burn A Little Slower) and guitarist Jordan Morantez (Blue Green, The King & The Thief).

Oblique Seasons is their debut album and will be released on Monday 07 December 2015. There is also a release show on Friday 04 December 2015 at the Triple Rock Social Club (18+) with Ripper, Murder Shoes and Cherry Cola. More details can be found here.

Oblique Seasons is a great album, it has a solid indie rock guitar vibe with a punk attitude and a more laid back feel at times too. There’s great riffing from really distorted to clean tones propelled by solid drumming and bass playing. The vocals are excellent too, a variety of styles to suit the songs and always with great attitude.

Dysphoria (Dictionary Definition)
A strummed riff leading into a great indie rock vibe propelled by solid drumming and bass, the song has a great energy with really good attitude in the vocals. There’s great riffing too and nice build of tension to end the song.

A great groove to open with, another song with a solid indie vibe. There’s some really good riffing and solo guitar with really good harmonised vocals too.

A Ridiculous Man
There’s a really edgy feel to the song, a hint of surf guitar with some great shimmery chords too.  The vocals are spoken with a real brooding quality.

Militant Idiot
Great riff to open, I really like the effects. Drumming and bass provide a great momentum. The vocal style suits the song really well and there’s great riffing through the song too.

Macy Shot a Cop
I really like the distorted riff to open leading into a really uptempo sound with great attitude in the vocals.  There’s solid drumming and bass and great riffing again.

Worst Person in the World
Another uptempo opening with a strummed riff and great momentum from the bass and drumming again. Great harmonies on the vocals too. The song has a punk vibe at times.

Oblique Seasons

Deleter have recently released a video for the title track and the song continues the album with a similar kind of vibe, great vocals again and the synth adds a great element. The song has great riffing and a nice change of feel to a more urgent feel at times.

Worry Less
Full on opening from uptempo drumming, bass and riffing. There’s great angst in the vocals and the song maintains a great energy.

No Culture
Has a more laid back vibe, great chords and riffing again. I really like the different vocals, they suit the style of the song really well. There’s a nice build of tension in the chorus too.

A great strummed riff to open propelled by solid drumming and bass again. Great riffing and I really like the organ type sound which adds a great element.

Lab Rats Revolt
Uptempo drumming and riffing to open, this is a really high energy song with a great edge of tension. Vocals are excellent again.

You’re Assassinated
Has a more laid back vibe and great riff to open. The song has a kind of brooding quality to the opening with a nice change of feel into the verses. Has a kind of surf guitar feel at times with really good distorted riffing in the chorus which has a great release of tension. The violin adds a great element.

Deleter on facebook
Deleter on twitter

Land Ski Records website
Land Ski Records on twitter
Land Ski Records on facebook

Review of Skellums ‘Clarion Call’ EP on Rent & Debt Records — December 2, 2015

Review of Skellums ‘Clarion Call’ EP on Rent & Debt Records

Skellums was formed because “there was nothing else left to do”.

The band strive to produce music with dignity and meaning rather than aspiring to join the long list of bands who have success, but nothing to say.

Forming their own record label Rent & Debt Records, their mission is to take on the world, one little venue at a time.

Clarion Call is an excellent EP, it’s quite hard to describe the sound but Skellums have their own great indie sound with a really upbeat feel from jangly chords, uptempo riffing to funk-vibe chords. The vocals are excellent too and tell great stories.

We Are One
Great opening riff to the song with an excellent change of feel into the verse. Vocals are really good and tell a great story. I really like the uptempo riffing in the chorus and there’s a great solo to end the song.

The Avenue
A more jangly feel to this song, there’s really good riffing and great vocals again with some really nice harmonies. There’s quite a laid back vibe to the song with more uptempo parts providing a great contrast.

Another great opening, the song has strummed chords and arp with a great change to a more uptempo feel in the chorus. There’s great vocals again and the song has a great solo too.

Growing Old
This song has a great synth riff to open, I really like the percussive rhythm and funk vibe to the chords. It’s another great story, the song has a great vibe.

Skellums on facebook
Skellums on twitter

Blue Soap Music website
Blue Soap Music on facebook
Blue Soap Music on twitter