Arturia have pared down their hybrid drum controller. It's cheaper and more compact — but does the Spark spirit remain?
In many ways, Arturia's Spark 'Creative Drum Machine' was a logical extension of previous controller/software partnerships. Having already given the world a range of modelled analogue synthesizers, adding a drum machine to the family made perfect sense for Arturia. The Spark was large, knobby and brought tactile performance to the purely software environment. Its size represented either the spacious, ergonomic drum controller of your dreams or a challenge to squeeze in somewhere, but, sonically, the cool collection of modelled and sample-based kits was almost irresistible. Seeking to trim off that 'almost' and to lighten shelves and laptop bags everywhere, Arturia have combined the same wide resource of beats and percussion with a cheaper and more petite controller. The SparkLE is here!
With a footprint that's smaller than a sheet of A4 paper and without the ungainly plastic legs of the original, the SparkLE is compact and robust. The blue backlit buttons are the only possible source of uncertainty, being slightly spongy, but they're only slightly more so than those of my Korg ESX1, which have lasted for years.
The SparkLE is a slender slip of a thing compared to the first model, but the most obvious operational difference between them is the new machine's lack of display. If you're fixated on replicating the feel of stand-alone drum machines, the SparkLE won't quite do it; you must keep an eye on the computer screen for many operations. Also, there are just a single set of instrument-tweaking knobs compared to the eight independent sets of its big brother. Otherwise, there are fewer compromises than you'd expect.
Arturia have wisely retained the touch-sensitive FX Live pad, its six buttons the gateway to global or instrument-level tweaking. Although there are still only eight drum pads to hit, they are solid enough to endure the most frenzied finger-tapping. Actually they're better than that: their velocity and polyphonic aftertouch response encourage performance nuances that leave classic drum boxes in the dust. With two pad banks to choose from, you have playable access to 16 separate percussion voices in every kit. Mute and solo functions are sensibly implemented, too: ie. you can mute and solo multiple voices, which is far better than on those machines that take 'solo' rather too literally. In practice, the SparkLE feels like a drum machine and handles like one.
At just 17mm high, the SparkLE has no room for MIDI ports; it really is an in-the-box experience from start to finish. Bus-powered, its single connection is a mini-USB port on the left-hand side. That's not the most rock-solid way to attach any device, and its inclusion could mean that the SparkLE isn't thrown around as wildly you might comparably slim controllers (such as the Akai MPC Studio). Fortunately, the software continues to run smoothly if you accidentally pull the plug. A soft carry-case is supplied, which you'll appreciate when taking it out to play.
In our September 2011 review of the SparkLE's forerunner, we saw that the hardware consisted of dedicated pads, knobs and buttons for the Spark software. Without a USB connection breathing life, both controllers merely look decorative, but with the larger model you could practically fool yourself that you were handling a stand-alone drum machine, able to select kits, projects and instruments via the small but serviceable display. Lacking this display, the SparkLE might seem at a disadvantage, but in typical use I doubt the loss will trouble anyone hugely.
The software's graphics are tailored for the attached hardware, but the functionality is consistent. I therefore recommend checking the earlier SOS review at /sos/sep11/articles/arturia-spark.htm to get a feel for the synthesis and sample-playback functions on offer. Simplicity is the key, and this translates to just three panels of drum-related options. At the top is the sequencer, in which patterns of up to 64 steps are created and, if required, organised into songs. The middle panel is an approximation of the hardware, while the lowest is a repository for mixing and library functions, which also houses the parameters used to edit individual instruments. Whether modelled or sampled, there are never too many parameters to pick through; the SparkLE is intended for no-nonsense drum emulation rather than experimental weirdness. To avoid excessive mousing, the Select button may be used in conjunction with the step buttons to leap around the software's main components, the destinations shown on-screen when you click the '?' button.
Inevitably, there are some elements that are only available in software. The mixer is one, as are the shuffle function and the whole business of song construction. Some of these decisions are more readily justified than others; the arrangement of patterns into songs is ideally accomplished using a computer, for example, but finding the right Shuffle setting is more natural from a physical control every time. Even more limiting is the suggested technique for setting each drum's volume in hardware. Instead of a knob, you're offered the FX Live pad, which is a poor and imprecise substitute. It's best to bite the bullet, grab your mouse and hit the mixer screen.
With just three generic knobs to call on, the software helpfully places instrument parameter names on the panel as each is selected. This is vital for those of us unable to recall how every instrument in every kit is programmed. The knobs can, at least, be reassigned instantly and without a mouse. Using the Select button, turn the knob for the instrument of your choice and pick an option from a pull-down list. The options depend on the type of instrument — whether it's a sample, or whether analogue or physical modelling is involved. If you're using insert effects for that instrument, the effect parameters are also at your disposal.
Since the previous review, a few additions have found their way into the Spark software. An accent button has popped up on the Spark GUI, which is intended for traditional accent programming, even though the velocity of real-time performance is faithfully captured. Appearing in version 1.6.1, and without a corresponding hardware button, accent felt like an afterthought and I must confess I frequently forgot it existed. Of more immediate value is the boosting of the FX Live pad's armoury: you can temporarily re-route any instrument's first two controls (P1 and P2) to the pad's X/Y axes.
Running as a plug-in (VST, AU, RTAS), the Spark drum brain neatly integrates into regular song construction. If you prefer to work stand-alone and then migrate into a DAW later, there are sufficient export options to make this quite painless. This time out, the Spark software ran smoothly under Logic, consuming minimal resources on my quad-core Mac Pro (OS 10.6.8, 12GB RAM), so I felt stand-alone use was probably unnecessary. I was able to drag patterns from the Library screen directly onto Logic's arrange window, which proved to be a great time-saver. It's your choice whether the import generates MIDI or audio files, but I noticed that importing in MIDI format only generated notes; any recordings of instrument parameter tweaks in the pattern were discarded. Having reported this anomaly, I'm assured it's scheduled for a 'quick fix'. If you prefer to capture your patterns 'as is', audio is currently the way to go. You can even drag in a complete bank of 16 patterns as one long audio file, for subsequent chopping and arranging in your host environment.
The Spark engine be can directly triggered from within your DAW, whether the notes are generated from Arturia's controller or from a keyboard. Right now, some Environment tinkering is required in Logic before knob twiddles can be captured as host automation; it's not just a matter of hitting record and tweaking freely. Other DAWs should be considerably easier in this respect.
Building new kits is super-fast if you're working from samples: you simply drag and drop them directly on to pads. The only drawback is the lack of an audition function, which slows you down slightly. There's also an assumption that you'll be importing percussion samples, so don't be surprised if long chunks of audio are seriously truncated. Perhaps it's just a quirk of mine to fill drum machines with sound effects, lengthy speeches and yowling jungle noises, though! You can import REX files and Standard MIDI files as well as samples.
Most of the Spark sounds were poundingly familiar from my first review, and with a library in excess of 1GB, containing over 1600 instruments and more than 100 kits, you're well supplied with first-rate drum sounds even before you start building your own. Lovers of elderly drum machines are going to be mighty chuffed with the kits added since the earlier review. These are Roland's CR78, TR727 and R8, the Korg Mini Pops 7, Ace Tone's FR2L, Yamaha's MR10, the Maestro Rhythm King MRK2, Boss's DR55, Emu's SP12, and Casio's VL Tone and SK1. There are further expansions available from Arturia's web site and if the included patterns aren't uniformly inspiring, the kits and instruments almost always are.
Thanks to the Tune mode, with its friendly, dedicated button, you can play drum or synth patches chromatically from the velocity-sensitive pads or the 16 step buttons. Since this is an Arturia product, it only seems fitting that there are synth voices amongst the percussion, and for adding deep, fat bass lines or other synth parts, you can't go far wrong. Tune is a button not found on the larger model and its presence here is in recognition of the value of synth parts amongst a kit's 16 instruments. There's no way (yet) to play each part chromatically from an external keyboard.
I mentioned earlier that the SparkLE's FX Live pad has two operational modes that are either global or specific to the currently-selected instrument. The Global options are labelled Filter, Slicer and Roller, and they have a range of alternate modes crammed in for the fun of it. In just one example, Slicer can be switched to emulate a tape recorder slowing down, or going into reverse, or it can provide more extreme effects, such as a bit-crusher.
Via the Select button, you can freeze the position of one pad effect then let your fingers loose on another — one of many tricks you'll learn to adopt when jamming. The filters are particularly sweet, recent additions being Arturia's Oberheim SEM filters in low-, band- and high-pass modes, plus two multi-mode filters. Their quality is everything we've come to expect from a company with an enviable track record of emulating classic analogues — they'd be a major plus on any drum machine.
Of all the controls, the Divide/Move knobs are probably the most mysterious. The first sets the length and the second the offset of a 'loop within a loop' function. I felt the 'On' button should have been optionally momentary, but once it's active, you can manipulate the loop with both knobs, shifting patterns around like a glitched-out Kaoss pad. Wacky!
The SparkLE's secondary ability is as a programmable MIDI controller. Lacking a MIDI output, it can't cover all the ground of its larger brother, but it could come in handy nevertheless. All the knobs, buttons and the X/Y pad can be allocated tasks such as the transmission of MIDI CCs and NRPNs, the generation of notes, pitch-bend and MMC (MIDI Machine Control) commands.
The SparkLE incorporates much of the original machine's playability in a far neater package, one that can snuggle up to your laptop for whenever inspiration strikes. It'll slot easily into gig bags, and into studios where desk space is at a premium. Most importantly, there are no sacrifices in pad quality, and even the lack of a display proved no great hardship for me: you simply embrace a computer screen as an integral part of your drum-box fun. I had no crashes or problems, either — right until the point when I upgraded from version 1.6 to 1.6.1, after which I received a warning message each time the software started. Fortunately, this didn't prevent the SparkLE from working and I subsequently learned that the problem was a Mac permissions issue, which Arturia are now sorting out.
By omitting sampling and slicing, Arturia have concentrated on the feel of conventional drum machines, which may also explain why there's no tap tempo. However, for most operations, once your project and kit are set up and ready to go, you can lay into the pads, twist the controls and make edits in X0X-style with ease. If you can cope with the none too arduous task of selecting each drum before using the same set of controls, the SparkLE hardly ever feels like the poor relation. Personally, I'd rate the knob reduction as well worth the savings in space and cash.
The included sounds and kits range from good to pure magic and, notwithstanding the included synths, the emphasis on traditional percussion and rhythm programming establishes a sparklingly clear personality. There's a demo version of the software (with disabled saving and export), enabling you to get a feel for the sound and response on your system before forking out any readies, and If your DAW-bound beats never quite flow like the old days when you had a hardware drum machine, you owe it to yourself to give the demo a try.
The immediately obvious alternatives both cast their nets wider than simple drum-machine duties. I'm talking about Native Instruments' Maschine Mikro and Akai's (more expensive) MPC Studio, both of which can be excellent, if more complex, sources of rhythm patterns, and more besides. The remaining competition is largely software-based. For example, FXpansion's Geist and Rob Papen's Predator are both very powerful and can be readily paired with a generic pad controller. Finally, there's Spark EDM, a Spark sans hardware that's cheaper still, although supplied with fewer instruments and kits.