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Arturia Spark

Drum Machine
Published September 2011
By Paul Nagle

French synth experts Arturia get their groove on with a hybrid software/hardware drum machine. Zut alors!

Arturia Spark

Arturia know a thing or two about bundling software and hardware together — remember the Analog Experience and Origin synths? Now it's the drum machine's turn, in the form of the Spark. Its classic drum machines and acoustic kits are created by modelling and sample playback, and this engine is paired with an impressive‑looking Controller supplying the hands‑on relief that drum-machine lovers crave.

Bright Spark

Where better to start than with the Spark Controller? This large and imposing chunk of aluminium (approximately 36 x 27cm) has buttons and drum pads that glow brighter than Hollywood dental work! The panel is a stylish design, spacious and welcoming, although the display is rather small and therefore restricted to simple messages. Considering that there is no sound‑generating circuitry inside, the Controller is heavier than it looks and it's tilted at a slight angle courtesy of rather spindly plastic supports. These will require handling with care if they're to survive outside the safe environment of the studio.

The rear is quite minimal, having just MIDI In and Out sockets for use with external gear and a USB port that acts as the main computer connection. For power, its perfectly happy to get its juice via USB but there is a 9V adaptor socket, should it be needed.

The Controller's solid presence is reinforced by a highly whackable row of eight pads positioned along the bottom. In an ideal world, there would have been 16 of these — one for each drum of a kit — but as it is, toggling between two rows is a workable compromise. The pads are both velocity and aftertouch sensitive, and they shine white when hit or triggered. Three encoders per drum ensure instant access to favourite parameters, while six other encoders adjust the filter, effects sends and mix of the currently selected pad.

Performers and experimenters will instantly notice the 'FX pad' and begin pondering its filtering, slicing and rolling capabilities. Perhaps even more eye‑catching is the circle of buttons with a large and distinctive encoder at its hub. Marked 'A' for Arturia, this is primarily used for kit or instrument selection.

Which brings us to the rubber buttons. These are used for pattern selection, sequencer programming, transport controls, and so on. I'm afraid those on the review unit were also eye‑catching, but not in a good way. Many were uneven, or wobbled when an adjacent button was touched. A couple even needed coaxing back up manually after being pressed. I queried this behaviour with Arturia and they confirmed that a problem had been reported with some units in the first batch. These have now been recalled and the factory placed on high alert to ensure it doesn't recur. Arturia are therefore confident all new Sparks will be free of this flaw.

Soft Sell

The Spark's rear panel features just MIDI I/O sockets, a USB port and a socket for an optional 9V power supply.The Spark's rear panel features just MIDI I/O sockets, a USB port and a socket for an optional 9V power supply.

By itself the hardware is mute — it gains a voice only via the Spark software on your computer. Installing this became a bit of a trial, perhaps because I chose to place the content (around 700MB) on a drive other than my Mac system disk. Having picked a location and folder, I installed from DVD, before downloading and applying the updates from Arturia's web site. The online authorisation went fine, but on starting Spark, I was plagued by a long list of messages about missing samples.

Eventually, I discovered that my content had become fragmented, a situation I rescued by gathering all the folders together, then reassuring Spark of their location. Finally I was up and running. A couple of weeks later, I very carefully installed version 1.1.2, the one I've been working with since. This addressed several issues that had arisen in the time I'd been Sparking and also appeared to reduce the number of crashes.

The Spark software will run stand‑alone or under a DAW host — it's supplied in AU, VST and RTAS formats. Running it mostly under Logic 9.1 in 64-bit mode, I was initially warned about MIDI ports that must be hidden or I'd risk unspecified dire consequences. It turns out that the Spark Controller has two MIDI ports, one marked Private for communication with its own software, the other Public. Hiding my privates from Logic involved virtual cabling in the Environment. The instructions received from Arturia were just what I needed, so hopefully they'll appear in a future version of the manual. Cubase users can simply un‑tick the Private port in Device Setup, and I expect there are similar processes for other DAWs.

After the software initialises, the Controller is recognised and becomes your primary interface. However, if you were considering starting to bang notes into your DAW with it, think again. We'll look at how the controller side of the Spark's personality is implemented later; for now it helps to imagine you're working with an 'enclosed' drum machine, with kits, patterns, effects, and a basic song mode to string them all together. When running under a DAW, you're free to slave your song or patterns to it, automate parameter changes, and even export patterns. Alternatively, simply drag them (as either .WAV or .MID files) from the Spark software straight into your arrangement.

The software has three functional areas: a centre section resembling the hardware, a bottom part for editing kits, drums and effects, and at the top an area for the creation of patterns and songs. Navigator buttons are on hand to enable speedy section jumps. My only negative comment is that the graphics are rather dark and dreary. The manual's rendering of these, all in greyscale, is darn hard on the eyes, but that gripe aside, there's not much to confuse anyone. This is a drum machine, and mostly it behaves like one.

Projects

Two screens from the software that forms part of the Spark system: at the top is the pattern editor (where the song editor can also be viewed), while the lower panel mimics the hardware controller's front panel and gives 'mouse access' to the same facilities.Two screens from the software that forms part of the Spark system: at the top is the pattern editor (where the song editor can also be viewed), while the lower panel mimics the hardware controller's front panel and gives 'mouse access' to the same facilities.

The highest level of the Spark's operation is a Project, and 30 of these, each with kits and patterns in various styles, are supplied to kick things off. A kit consists of 16 drums derived from modelling (analogue or physical) or samples. Loading each project in turn and auditioning the songs, the word 'quirky' kept appearing in my notes. A taste of 'Acid' and I was treated to a smattering of beats up against a barrage of squelchy, analoguey synths. 'Brazilian' could have been the backdrop for a weird carnival — or the ritual murder of a cuica. Similarly, these 'Zulu Beatz' won't worry Michael Caine much, unless he (like me) has a morbid fear of disco toms and cowbells. Of the projects that most whetted my appetite, 'Industrial' is brimming with seriously cool sound design elements, while 'Mad Scientist' is so far from sanity I felt instantly, joyously at home.

Kits & Hits

Even if I'd personally discard most of the factory patterns, the kits on which they're based are another matter — they're often great starting points for original tunes. There are acoustic kits, synth‑based kits, and others that are close emulations of classic devices, including the Simmons SDSV, the Oberheim DMX, SCI Drumtraks, LinnDrum and Roland's mighty TR909 and TR808. Definitely a collection you can work with, especially since you can build new kits from any of the available components!

There are 480 individual instruments to draw from, divided first into modelling or samples, then sub‑divided by type (kick, snare, cymbal, and so on). Regardless of the method of sound generation, there's a multi-mode resonant filter to provide final sculpting for each drum.

The tweakable parameters vary according to the drum selected. Taking a sample‑based instrument as an example, I might pick an ''80s Studio Snare' and be able to adjust its attack, decay, frequency shift and so on. But if I picked the 'Lynn Dream Snare' instead, I'd be given control over an alternate set. The parameters aren't yet documented in the manual, but that's no reason not to experiment with them!

A sample‑based drum has up to six layers to populate with raw material from the factory library — or from your own. Arturia's are sourced from various third‑party companies and contribute welcome additional flavours to the mix. To import a user sample, first select a layer, then navigate to your source library and make a choice. Let's hope your file names are sensible, because there's no built‑in means of auditioning the sample first. But at least (as of version 1.1.2) the path is remembered for subsequent imports. Ultimately, some kind of dedicated file browser would be a welcome time‑saver — and while I'm pointing out items ripe for improvement, I have to say that the velocity layering is a bit unsophisticated. Right now, pre‑allocated velocity windows are dynamically divided amongst the layers, when ideally you'd prefer full control over them.

Turning to the two model‑based synthesis types, there are way more options than a review could meaningfully address. Even different models of the same type of drum call upon parameters that are unique — and again undocumented. There's simply no alternative to trying each one. I don't mean to imply that this is a chore — it's rather enjoyable — but it would have been slicker if every parameter was instantly available from hardware. With six parameters per drum and three physical encoders, I couldn't help looking for a shift key, or equivalent. Still, after creating some rather outlandish drum voices based on models for cymbals, toms, percussion and even analogue synths, I found myself warming to the Spark's potential.

When I'm 64

The Spark software's Studio mode, where individual samples  can be edited.The Spark software's Studio mode, where individual samples can be edited.

The number 64 crops up a lot in Spark terminology. It's the maximum number of steps in a pattern, the maximum number of patterns in a Song and therefore the maximum number of patterns in a Project too. The hierarchy is easy to understand; patterns can be as simple or as complex as you require, while a song is merely a sequence of them placed in order. You can freely switch between song and pattern playback at any time, to add a little randomness, say, to an otherwise structured song.

In total, there are a healthy four banks of 16 patterns instantly accessible. When a new pattern is selected, you have the choice of whether it switches immediately, or when the last step is reached. During playback, you'll notice the tracer light marking progress along the row of sequencer steps. Select any drum and you can view and modify its active steps. For patterns with more than 16, the display will optionally follow playback.

Mirroring traditional 'x0x' programming methods, an accent row is just a button‑press away. While not as 'deep' as editing individual velocities, accent could be enough to get you through a live set. Accented steps play at the maximum velocity of 127, others at the default (64).

In‑depth pattern manipulation is really only possible at software level. Patterns are highly configurable in terms of the number of steps, resolution, and even time signature. Active steps show up clearly against a dark background and each row has a small '+' sign that, when clicked, reveals underlying values such as the velocities of each note. A pull‑down menu shows that velocity is only the tip of the iceberg; in every step, you can draw synthesis and effect parameters, note repeats, mixer or effect values and more. Sadly, just one lane of this parameter automation is viewable at once. However, when you begin drawing sequences of values — such as the pitches of a synth — the Spark really ignites.

Given those knobs and pads, many are going to prefer creating patterns by real‑time recording, fine‑tuning later if necessary. If you record without quantisation, the software's automation view shows clearly which notes occur before or after the beat. You can then manually adjust each one with the mouse. Surprisingly, there are no global quantise options, let alone refinements such as groove quantise.

Recording freely is great, but you definitely appreciate the Controller's Erase button to wipe mis‑played drums or entire patterns at a stroke. There are other important hardware shortcuts too: for example, if the current kick fails to inspire, simply turn the central encoder and select another. Similarly, to replace an entire kit, press and hold the encoder until it shifts to kit selection, then pick a new one.

Fat Controller

As already noted, there are a fair number of operations that can't be achieved mouselessly. The list extends to include copying patterns, activating the metronome and toggling between quantised and unquantised recording.

Despite this rodent fixation, the Spark Controller has plenty of old‑school performance charm, as well as innovative new tricks. One of my first finger destinations was the FX Pad, with its intuitive filtering, slicing and rolling. Repeatedly pushing these buttons steps through the available options. In the case of the filter, it's switching between low‑, band‑ and high‑pass modes, with resonance and cutoff on each axis of the pad.

The Slicer is possessed of multiple personalities, all related to shunting patterns around in time and space. These are: Repeat, Tape, Reverse, Strobe, Pan, Repeat Mixed and Bit Crusher, and each add their own particular transformations. For example, Repeat creates a stuttering snapshot of notes that temporarily defeats the pattern's usual playback. Tape neatly simulates a tape slowdown effect. You need a reasonably good feel for timing to avoid sloppiness when you release your finger, but when you get it right, the effect is impressive. Amongst the other options, Strobe works rather like looped gating, with various divisions of the loop's width spread across the pad. Bit Crusher you can probably guess!

The Roller is a little different: it works in conjunction with pads rather than the active pattern, generating repeated notes at various rates. With practice, you can transfer the repeat effect across instruments, creating instant robotic tom rolls by holding and releasing multiple pads in turn. If you don't mind right‑clicking the Roller's button in the software, the effect can be latched, freeing up the FX pad finger for other duties.

You could be forgiven for overlooking the Loop button, but don't! Its purpose seems harmless enough: to temporarily shorten a pattern. The Divide and Move encoders set the width and the start point of the 'mini loop', all while the pattern continues to play. Maybe that doesn't sound like much when written down, but it proved to be an instant source of weird fills and breaks and is very definitely worth having! Finally, the dedicated Shuffle encoder puts a smoothly‑variable shuffle right where you want it.

Mixer & Library

Straying well beyond the remit of classic drum machines, the Spark features a 16‑track mixer with two auxiliary effects. Each drum has its own channel, plus two insert effects with nine possible effect choices. It seems almost indecent to whizz past them at this speed, but suffice to say they are consistent with the Spark's high sonic standards. They include most of what you'll typically need: compressor, bit crusher, EQ, chorus, delay, reverb, and more. If you prefer to use your own plug-in effects, there's a multi‑output mode to re-route individual voices to as many as 16 stereo channels.

One click away from the Mixer, the Library contains the import and export options and provides drag-and-drop utilities for compiling kits from existing projects. I should also mention that REX loops can be imported, their individual samples automatically allocated to pads, and a pattern generated to recreate the loop. There's a fix scheduled in v1.1.3 of the software for some aspects of this, but even though slightly broken (you currently may need to tweak sample end points so that the loop plays correctly) it's a well useful function. It would be wonderful if, in the future, you could import and slice audio files directly, as per FXpansion's Geist or Native Instruments' Maschine.

Conclusion

If the Spark existed purely as hardware, it would rank amongst the top drum machines of recent years, and by opting for the software route, Arturia have made far more possible in terms of samples and projects that are instantly available — and don't forget the ever‑important DAW integration. Although I initially felt the Spark was rather 'feature‑light' compared to other software drum machines, its old-school approach will appeal to anyone who wants to avoid in‑depth synthesis, sample slicing and menu‑hopping.

I had a few crashes along the way — even when running stand‑alone — but after an update it began to feel more stable. Further fixes are scheduled for problems I experienced. Notably, I broke several Logic songs by editing their projects stand‑alone — Arturia advise not to do this until a fix is issued. Also, when running multiple Spark instances there were issues such as increased latency and connectivity glitches to contend with. On a general point, I expected less mouse‑handling. Hopefully more control will be given to the hardware over time.

At the Spark's core is a superb‑sounding engine, whether playing samples or modelled percussion voices. When you begin recording knob movements or adding parameter automation, simple patterns can become startling. Assuming the button issue of the early models is resolved, the Spark Controller is solid and handles smoothly. Its pads are ideal for programming beats or for accompanying existing rhythms, and the many buttons and encoders contribute to a fast, efficient workflow. Highlights are a matter of personal taste: I'd opt for the FX pad, knobs and instant access to 64 patterns — an ideal combination for jamming and experimentation. Finally, the transformation into a programmable control surface could mean this Spark is never allowed to go out — except to party!  

Alternatives

The most obvious of these is Native Instruments' Maschine. Although more expensive, it's had a long head start and as a result feels far more evolved. It has two graphic displays, 16 pads and can act as a VST/AU host by itself. The MPC‑inspired Maschine feels more hands‑on than the Spark and with its large core library, sampling and sample slicing too, it's clearly the one to beat. The Spark acts more like a traditional drum machine, its improved interface, sample library and modelling appealing in their own right. Other alternatives to consider include FXpansion's Geist or Rob Papen's Punch paired with a generic hardware controller.

MIDI Control Centre

To get more out of the Spark Controller — literally — Arturia have thoughtfully provided MIDI Control Centre software. Via this stand‑alone program you can configure the MIDI information to be sent from every pad, encoder, button and FX pad.

To switch between Controller and drum machine roles, hold down the Filter, Slicer and Roller buttons. Now the Controller and MIDI Control Centre can talk and the Controller transmits notes, CCs and even aftertouch — both sorts of aftertouch! In this mode, you can trigger Spark kits directly and record the results into your DAW.

It's a fairly open‑ended system and therefore requires preparation before you start defining the various pads and buttons. Naturally, MIDI notes can be triggered; either toggled on and off by alternate hits (good when triggering loops) or gated normally. Oddly, the Controller can only send unique notes for eight pads; engaging the '9‑16' button doesn't permit any more. Similarly, you can't copy a definition from one on‑screen object to another, which makes setup fairly laborious.

Different actions are possible depending on whether a pad is used in combination with Mute, Solo or Select buttons; you could generate a different CC for each of these circumstances — oh, and each of these has its own range and MIDI channel. In this light, the Spark hardware looks quite impressive!

There's still one more bonus to mention: the Controller can double as a USB/MIDI interface. It's easy, too: just direct your MIDI stream to the Public port and connect the Spark's MIDI output to the device of your choice. It works just as well the other way: connect a MIDI keyboard to the input of Spark and this information is carried into your computer via the USB Public port.

Arturia supply an example control template (for Ableton Live), but otherwise it's up to you to program as you see fit. Admittedly, the MCC software still feels like a work in progress, but its inclusion gives the Controller tons more scope — and that can't be bad.

Published September 2011