Review of Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock III DAW


Sensomusic have released Usine Hollyhock 3, a fully modular DAW for OsX and Windows (32 / 64 bit versions). There are two different licence types, the Pro licence (for people who make money with Usine) is priced at 249 Euros and comes with 3 years of updates. The Edu or non-professional licence (for people who don’t make money with Usine) is priced at 99 Euros with 1 year of updates. The latest version of Hollyhock 3 at the time of writing is 3.0.146 available direct from the Sensomusic website.


Anyone who has heard my music or read some of my blog posts about how I’ve created some of my albums will know that I am a massive fan of Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock II.

Which is why the news of Hollyhock 3 (HH3) came with a great sense anticipation. It’s a very impressive update. HH3 is an evolution, building on the previous formula bringing a whole host of updates and improvements.

HH3 does what most other DAWs do – and some unique things they don’t – but differently. It’s no understatement to say it has revolutionised how I create music. It’s a very organic process, songs have often been created from a few sounds using in-built samplers processed with various effects and then thinking through how different sounds fit with them. In fact I’ve scoped out whole albums from a single starting point like this. It’s this non-linearity that really suits my way of thinking about approaching music.

At first glance, the version 3 GUI doesn’t appear that different. However, the workflow feels smoother, the grid is easier to use. It’s like a whole host of fine tuning that adds up to big improvements. There are also a large number of new patches and the existing ones have had a makeover that makes them easier to use.

I absolutely love HH3, it is different to typical DAWs but that is what makes it unique and so inspiring. It is an excellent tool for experimenting with sound design and creating some unique sounds; capturing spontaneity through live performance or recording and offering new ways to create music. Being a fully modular system it can be as simple or complex as you want it to be, there’s always scope to develop and learn new approaches.

A lot of my recent albums have been created in HH3 using a range of VSTs and effects. I’ve created ‘the prismatic effect of beaches in memory’ solely using the synths, effects and samplers within HH3. I’ve used some existing samples for the various samplers and have mastered these tracks – lightly, the only time I’ve used VSTs – in MuLab7. The album is embedded above along with discussion of some of the modules used in the ‘Examples of HH3 in use’ section below.

The process was to load some sounds in various samplers, load the in-built synths and effects and go from there. I’ve explored different sounds, styles and techniques and allowed my creativity to have free reign. I hope it highlights some of the potential of HH3.


Installation and set up is fairly straightforward, it’s a case of assigning audio inputs and outputs, midi inputs and outputs, specifying folders where your samples are located and scanning your VST plugins. There’s a handy option to rescan all or just rescan changes when you install new VSTs.

There’s also a very well featured online manual and excellent series of video tutorials to get you started.

It’s useful to start with a clarification of the terminology used. A workspace is the whole project. This contains racks which are like tracks or channel strips with inputs, patches and outputs. Patches are composed of modules which are the individual elements such as audio in, audio out, filter effect, delay effect etc. There are vast number of ready made built-in patches from audio effects to synths and samplers. A patch is also used to load audio files or samples and HH3 handles these differently to other DAWs – you get the option of a normal player, grain player, joggle player, x-fade loop player or grain cloud player – and patches are also used to load VST synths and effects.

HH3 allows you to use racks in pretty much any way you want to. You can use them to host VSTs and effects but you can also use them more creatively for insert effects, auxiliary effects for one or several other racks, create audio or midi busses.

It’s also worth spending time understanding how patches work. A patch is essentially a series of modules wired together. HH3 is a completely modular system so you can create your own patches from a multitude of modules by connecting them together in any way you want. This can be as simple as a delay with a filter sweep; customising a sampler with random start positions or a complex multi-effect.

Patches contain design elements such as sliders and dials; audio components and midi tools and you can also use mathematical operators, steps, switches and random modules.

Designing racks is now much easier, you can resize the whole rack and simply resize and drag / drop the patches where you want them to. Storing presets is now also easier using the drop down list of presets and adding a new one and renaming it. You can also rename and colour code patches and racks as desired.

When you drag and drop a VST into a rack, HH3 automatically creates the patch and you are ready to go. You can also edit the patch which allows you to create dials for specific controls so that you can change them when the plugin display is hidden rather than having the gui taking up a large amount of screen space but you can also get much more creative and use LFOs or randomisers for certain parameters and have control over synchro, min and max settings.

What makes HH3 different is that you can play sounds you’ve created in the racks straight away, it acts like an instrument. This means that you can load samples or VSTs and as they are playing layer other samples, drum patterns, basslines, effects etc. and see how they sound. This is partly what makes HH3 unique and why I find it so inspiring.

Midi learn is as easy as clicking the midi learn button which highlights all controls that can controlled. Click the desired element and then touch the controlling element on your hardware. The remote works properly as soon as the audio engine is switched on.

Recording audio is also different in HH3 and another unique feature. Audio is recorded direct to disk i.e. live rather than rendered which might not suit everyone but allows for spontaneous and live recording although it is possible to set up a high degree of automation so you don’t necessarily need to live edit your recording. You can record individual specific racks or several racks together as stems for remixing later or record the total stereo out. I tend to set up a very basic ‘pre-mastering’ rack that everything is routed through and this way I can capture the spontaneity of live recording and give it a bit of a polish. You can of course post process by recording the individual stems although I tend to do a basic mastering with EQ and compression on the stereo out file. This is partly because of the way I set up signal routing and partly because I’m only just getting to grips with mastering.


The Grid is another other different aspect of HH3. You use the grid to arrange the racks into your composition, it doesn’t necessarily have to be linear. You create your song using different sections. The length can be set in seconds, minutes or bars and their behaviour can be set to loop, next section or pause. The racks will only play when they are arranged on the grid and you have a huge amount of control over how they play. You can set fade in / fade out settings; Use the sync to sampler setting to play the sampler every time the section restarts. Using section sync changes the section length to fit the sample. You can also use the curves tab to set various properties such as volume or an excellent new feature is to drop presets onto the rack and you can use a fade to smooth the transition between them. You can change time signature and tempo between sections and play them in any order you like.

The physics engine is another unique part of HH3. It allows you to create shapes such as squares or circles which bounce around a box and control certain parameters of an effect or VST synth. There are controls for physics speed – the overall moving speed of the objects; gravity – determines how quickly the objects fall or float; friction – determines the smoothness of the surface; elasticity – determines the shape property from hard metal to rubber.

You can expand possibilities to switch effects on and off when shapes collide with the walls or each other for example. There are some ready built examples such as groove physics.

HH3 allows you to control lights using DMX to create chasers or certain lights to be triggered by specific notes.

You can play videos in HH3 but it will also accept video camera inputs, IP cameras and video streams.

Open-Sound-Control is another really useful feature. You can use an app like TouchOSC which turns a phone or tablet into a control device. I’ve used this with Hollyhock II and it was easy to set up and worked straight away with no issues. The beauty of OSC compared to midi is that you can design an interface to suit your exact needs. You can use buttons, sliders or faders and have a complex interface that you might not be able to replicate with a midi controller and the chances are that you’ve already got a phone or tablet so the cost of buying an app is much less than a fully fledged midi controller as long as you’re happy with a virtual interface compared to a physical one.

Examples of HH3 in use

The idea for the album was to create an album using only modules and effects within HH3 and then give some examples of what I have done.

HH3 comes with a whole host of audio effects. These are really good quality effects and cover everything from delays, distortion, compressors, filters, reverb, ring modulation to more unusual spectral effects and sequencer type effects. The ‘Mogger Fooger’ folder contains an excellent delay and reverb for example and in fact these effects are emulations of the Mooger Fooger pedals by Moog..

mogger super delay.jpgmogger reverb.jpg

You can of course use your own favourite VST effects but there are certainly more than enough available in HH3 to get to grips with.




I’ve used some external samples with the in-built samplers and this is a good place to start explaining how HH3 is different from other DAWs. If I’m using MuLab, for instance, I drag and drop a sample onto the timeline. I can set a loop section and repeat the sample, apply effects, layer different sounds. As I build the song I can copy and paste these samples but it is a linear process and does tend to make you think in terms of bar lengths, repeating sections and so on.

HH3 is different. You have a number of different options when loading a sample. The normal sample player allows you to play a sample forwards or backwards and it is easy enough to create a list and play through them manually or automatically, trigger effects every other sample restart, trigger effects when the sample has played a specified amount such as 70%.

The joggle sampler allows you to play a sample with a looping option but it also has a speed control. I added a freez effect and the Mogger Super Delay. You can start to hear how this will sound by starting the audio engine. You can get some very interesting sounds by altering the speed and direction then using the freez to record audio which can be looped against different speed and direction settings. This is done in real time and you can layer other sounds and scope out a song before arranging the different elements on the grid.

experimental freeze_freeze.jpg

Another useful sample player is the grain cloud player. This is an excellent grain sampler with a whole host of controls that can be edited live or automated if you need more precision.

grain cloud player.jpg

When you load a sample HH3 will automatically name the module with the name of the sample you loaded, When you load additional samples their names are displayed on the sampler window but, if like me, you don’t rename the module it will keep the original name. I really should be more organised with updating names.

One of my favourite samplers is ‘U-Drone’ which has also received new functionality in HH3 with the addition of an attack control and it is much easier switching between different samples. Essentially U-Drone contains a matrix where each square represents a note starting at C on the left hand side through each note in the octave to B on the right hand side. The bottom row is octave 0 going up to octave 6 at the top. You can create some excellent drone effects as well as create chords, layered sounds and generate interesting rhythms. The attack control is a very welcomed addition, it makes U-Drone much more expressive.

The photos below also illustrate how changing colours can make a big difference to the display. The first photo uses default settings and for the second I’ve added borders, altered background colours etc. For a lot of the screenshots I’ve used default colours which doesn’t really do HH3 full justice – especially as these images are low-res and I’m not sure why.

udrone.jpgUdrone (2)

HH3 has a number of ‘groove tools’. These are an excellent way to get some inspiration with basslines, melodies and percussive rhythms,

Groove bass has a whole host of controls and features a 16 step sequencer with randomisers for the notes and also step pattern. There are 6 built in bass sounds but you can load your own samples using the audio-sampler-midi to create your own presets. You can add other effects such as the filter I’ve used below.

groove bass.jpg

Groove Mangle is new to HH3 and it creates rhythmic sequences using 2 grain samplers. You can control the area of the samples used, grain size, gain and pitch and link the two if required. The matrix creates the sequence with squares towards the bottom triggering the left of the area and squares towards the top triggering the right of the area. You’d have a pretty cool live instrument if you set this up with a midi controller.

groove mangle.jpg

Groove slicer is also new, it’s a real time audio slicer. It can slice a file automatically using beat detection and offers a number of tools to create variations in real time, ‘Num slice’ determines the sequence playback and there are controls for pitch, pan and reverse all of which have a handy randomise feature. The live controls offer a number of manipulation options.

groove slicer

I’d say the one feature missing from Hollyhock 2 was an easy way to create and use drum patterns. This has been rectified in HH3 with the inclusion of a drum sequencer. It’s well featured with a number of live breaks options. drum kit.jpg

It only outputs midi although HH3 has some of the excellent BPB kits and you can also create your own banks with an audio-sampler-midi which is a simple case of drag and drop the samples onto the midi keyboard and you can specify range and velocity as required. This is the same way you’d create your own banks for groove bass. You can also use this with a VST.

audio midi sampler.jpg

There are also a number of excellent synths which are worth exploring and can create some interesting sounds, especially if you’re brave enough to use the randomisation settings.

meta synth.jpg




This is an example grid setup and I’ve altered a lot of the colours to try and make it more visually appealing. It’s a fairly simple arrangement, I tend to find that too many tracks makes the sound cluttered and doesn’t give each element enough room. I’ve used fade in and fade out times but haven’t used any other automation. Often I’ll make use of more sections if I’m introducing different elements but I tend to record live and edit settings during the recording so simple grids work better for me. Automation would give much more control and reproducibility but I like the spontaneity that live recording offers.


These are some of the patches I’ve used making the album;

experimental freeze_freeze.jpg

The Arreight synth with delay;

experimental freeze_arreight.jpg

The MatryX synth;

experimental freeze_matryx.jpg

For the ‘visions of enzili’ tracks I used the U Drone sampler and the Poly Mini Moog as the sound sources.

poly mini moog.jpg

I triggered this using a midi pianoroll, this is well featured and easy to use, each patch can have up to 8 patterns and you easily set the required length by dragging the purple bar at the top of the pianoroll window.


Both of these were routed using the aux out patch which allows up to 4 send effects. For the four effects I used a combination of reverb, delays, spectral effects, freez and grain effects which were switched on and off and their settings edited live during the recordings.





I’ve also recorded a further seven albums in HH3 which are embedded below:

(For this one I created some sounds and loops in HH3)