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A picture of Peter Hollo

Peter Hollo

Musician (FourPlay, raven, Tangents, Haunts)

in mac, musician

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Peter Hollo. I have a degree in pure maths & philosophy and a qualification in book editing which together have found me working in IT as both a programmer and sysadmin/desktop support guy - but that's not why I'm here. I'm a musician. I've been a cellist in bands for over 20 years - I'm not a classical musician anymore. At least equally, I'm a music fan and DJ, with a long-running show Utility Fog on Sydney's FBi radio.

FourPlay String Quartet is my longest-running project - an electric string quartet known for playing covers of anything from rock to hip-hop to folk, although our focus is on original material these days. We've been collaborating with Neil Gaiman and have a new recording due in 2016 and a major new project in 2017.

My solo electronic/experimental thing raven has been going almost as long. Early productions were inspired by idm and breakcore, more recently cello and piano are melded with electronics - while live the focus is on live looped and improvised cello.

My "post-everything improv" quintet Tangents combines cello, piano, guitar, drums and laptop with a plethora of live and studio processing. We have a new album coming out in mid-2016.

And my indietronic trio Haunts combines cello, keyboards, samples and drum machines and has actual songs. Album due out early this year.

What hardware do you use?

As a solo artist, it took me a surprisingly long time of struggling with primitive soft synths & samples before I realised that I have some rather obvious sound sources at hand, viz my cello and piano. The cello remains my most important piece of hardware in music-making.

For a long while I was devoted to the (still true) fact that PCs are just as valid for making music as Macs. However, at some point I realised that Apple just make really great hardware, and having a *nix backbone and native shell is just too damn tempting.

Currently I've been using a basic combo of (borrowed) Korg nanoKONTROL and nanoPAD to control parameters and loopers within Ableton, and again, you can do a lot with something that simple. But it's limited, because I need to maximise what I control with my (bare) feet (OK, I can wear socks), with some space for the hands in between bowing and plucking! And the lack of visual feedback can be tricky.

But my technological grounding in performance has for a long time been the good ol' looping pedal. They're also so ubiquitous that people write thinkpieces about freeing ourselves from them, but I still find so much to say with my little Line 6 DL4. The green pedal with four switches and four knobs. You can double the loop length, thus dropping anything in the current buffer down an octave (and it sounds gloriously lo-fi!) - or vice versa. You can reverse the loops - and then record some more forwards over the top. You can lay primitive but lovely delays over the top. And the loop lengths are determined purely in performance - start recording, then start overdubbing.

And what software?

When I moved over to the Mac world, it was clear from the start that my love of Apple's computer hardware and basic OS is about equalled by my dislike for just about all their software, with iTunes staring out from the top like a baleful Eye of Sauron (more an Ear of Sauron perhaps). There's no way that Music Fan Me could countenance having to use that piece of crap for music library maintenance, tagging, playlist management or even just listening, so ever since I moved to Mac I've run Windows virtually on the Mac in order to use the king of audio players, foobar2000. For masstagging (because you can never trust third-party databases, especially for esoteric music, especially if you care about consistency - even though the Discogs tagger component is essential), for file naming and arranging, playlist management and smart autoplaylists, for the incredible waveform seekbar component, and much more, there is nothing else, in any OS.

The length of the preceding paragraph probably indicates just how much music collecting matters to me - and I extrude as much as I can through my radio show and social media presences. Still, making music is an instinct and a passion too. On PC I taught myself primitive sample-choppery and beat juggling in Sonic Foundry (and then Sony)'s Sound Forge and ACID programs. As I imbibed glitchy experimental stuff in the late '90s I started to rely a lot on the excellent Aussie program AudioMulch for granular synthesis. Mulch became cross-platform some time ago, so I was able to take it with me when I moved to Mac. I replaced ACID with the far superior, cheap and powerful REAPER as my DAW - except that it became clear that really I could do everything and more that Mulch and standard DAWs offer within the ubiquitous Ableton Live.

There's an awful lot of boring, uncreative Ableton pap out there in the electronica world, no doubt. It's easy. But there's no reason you can't also run your live, acoustic instruments through complex patches, automate unusual parameters in drum machines, timeshift samples, then layer more live sounds on top, or overdrive your wolf samples to terrifying effect a la Ben Frost if you like. To my mind most modular synth buffs are creating masturbatory yawnfests too - it's what you do with the tools that counts.

What would be your dream setup?

The controllers I have in my current setup, as mentioned above, have their drawbacks - and while creativity draws its strength from limitations, eventually standalone looping pedals become frustrating and the musical structures you can create inevitably repeat themselves.

My dream situation would be to have a grant and some time to spend with an Ableton/MIDI expert and a fuck-tonne of hardware, and just find the right controllers and mappings. The Keith McMillan SoftStep looks really cool, but it's a bastard to configure, and still wouldn't be enough on its own.

So whatever setup I end up with, I want to be able to extend the capabilities inherent in my beloved DL4 pedal. It's really important to be able to loop in time with beats and samples when necessary, but I want to be free not to sometimes too. Overdubbing is important, but I want to be able to separate out a few different loops, at different divisible lengths from each other (or tempo-independent) - some looping pedals can already do this. And I need to be able to apply the plethora of effects and processing available, independently over any running loops and live instruments or vocals.

It's important that all of that control is as natural as can be, so that I can improvise live within its frameworks - the cello is such a versatile instrument that I can lay down basslines, percussive beats, yearning string pads and melodies. And not just solo - this is a setup which means improvising with live beats & electronics, and other looped and effected instruments. With my quintet Tangents we're fast realising this dream - creating a technological space where we can combine the most futuristic aspects of studio post-production and remixing with acoustic and electric performance, in a live context - and that's incredibly exciting.

There are plenty of other people exploring this space, like Tim Exile and Matthew Herbert - and there are others like Owen Pallett and Zoƫ Keating who have perfected the art of making their deep control of the technology invisible. I think my way, and Tangents' way, is different, and hopefully illuminating and satisfying for the audience at least as much as for us.