Spark’s main interface (top) closely mirrors the hardware controller (bottom).By John Krogh
The market for hybrid soft ware/hardware instruments is still very niche, but it’s heating up with the recent addition of Spark. This new drum machine packs an impressive production punch for beat makers. And for those who prefer the vintage tones of analog beat boxes, Spark looks to be on the forefront of a new wave of old school. But does it beat the competition?
Borrowing concepts from Arturia’s Analog Experience synths, Spark is a soft ware instrument with a dedicated hardware controller that handles very much like the grooveboxes of the late ’90s. Spark’s hardware offers physical controls for recording drum patterns in step and real time, basic editing of individual pad sounds, and realtime effects manipulation via the touchpad. The Jog Dial area provides access to banks of pre-programmed patterns, making it easy to find an inspiring idea and get going quickly.
While you can take your ideas from concept to finished grooves directly from the hardware, much of the deeper-level sound and pattern manipulation is accessible from the soft ware, which mirrors the hardware control surface, and provides additional panels that can be expanded to reveal the sound engine’s inner workings.
Spark ships with 480 internal sounds arranged into 30 kits, based on styles such as hip-hop, pop, R&B, jazz, dubstep, and so on. The software’s sound engine offers sample playback, physical modeling (put to good use on some of the acoustic-type kits), and what Arturia calls True Analog Emulation, or TAE. This is the analog modeling technology found in their “V” soft synths and Analog Experience series. In Spark, TAE is used to model analog drum machines of yore, most notably the Roland TR family (see Figure 1).
Everyone likes the idea of rolling their own patches, but in today’s fast-paced world of music production, many musicians want loads of fresh, inspiring sounds to work with and re-contextualize immediately. Specifications Spark comes with a solid collection of patterns that showcase the library of drum and percussion sounds in a somewhat stripped-down way, which I found made it easier to infuse my own aesthetic into the preset material. There isn’t the kind of “busy factor” to the grooves that you’ll find on, say, keyboards whose factory patches are intended to catch your ear in a noisy music store.
As for the sounds themselves, Arturia rounded out the sample-based area of the collection with content from noted developers Ueberschall, Modern Beats, and Sonic Reality. We’ve uploaded a number of audio clips of the included patterns and sounds to our website, which should give you a clearer idea of Spark’s sonic foundations.
Fig. 1. Here, you can see the modeled kick drums on offer. Similar choices are available for hi-hats, snares, and so on.
There’s a decided “synthy” flavor to many of the kits, which makes sense given Spark’s groovebox stylings. Even the acoustic kits have a mechanical quality that evokes memories of my favorite ROM-based drum machines. Th at said, I do wish there were more kits that layered multiple samples in order to create composite sounds—the kind of thing you’d want for modern hip-hop, R&B, downtempo, and other heavily sample-based styles. Yes, these styles are represented in the library, but there’s not a lot to work with. In fact, Spark’s total of 30 kits and 480 individual sounds seems slim compared to some of the competition. Fortunately, this is easily remedied—you can add your own samples (yes!), and Arturia is already offering add-on sound libraries.
Spark’s hardware control surface oozes class and coolness. The controls are, for the most part, easy to work with. Featuring a metal top panel, the build quality gave me the sense that I could pound away without ever worrying about damage. The endless rotary encoders spread out across the top feel appropriately firm and operate with a smooth resistance that makes it easy to dial in precise parameter settings. This thing feels like an instrument, not just a controller.
Patterns can be entered in step fashion from the smaller pads along the top, or recorded in real time by playing the larger pads along the bottom. The center section is festooned with various controls, some hardwired to specific functions (aux sends, pan, shuffle, etc.), and others soft ware-assignable to useful parameters, such as drum pitch, decay, and filter cutoff . Some detractors have criticized the horizontal row of Spark’s pads and said that a four-by-four, MPC-like grid would allow for more pads. This is true, but I didn’t find eight pads arranged horizontally to be a limitation. In fact, I actually preferred this because it forced me to concentrate on the foundation of my grooves—kick, snare, and hi-hat.
Fig. 2. Spark’s top panel is expanded to reveal the pattern and song sequencer. The hi-hat track is further expanded to show velocity—one of many parameters available for automation—on each hit.
The hardware can be powered via USB or an AC adapter (not included). A dedicated MIDI input and output are onboard, a rarity on many controllers these days. These ports may not get much use in a totally soft ware-based studio, but since Spark can serve as a programmable MIDI controller, they’re a plus for those of us with larger setups.
There’s no audio interfacing on the hardware. Having audio I/O would undoubtedly add cost, but I think there’s a missed opportunity here: For live performance, I could see having a setup based solely around a laptop and Spark. At the very least, a stereo headphone output would have been nice.
The X/Y touchpad is a fun addition that can be used for one of three realtime performance tweaks: filter sweeps, slicing (similar to Ableton Live’s Beat Repeat), and roll (similar to the Akai MPC’s drum roll function). In practice, these three modes are effective for adding interest to an otherwise repetitive groove.
Spark’s onscreen interface mirrors the hardware, but the top and bottom panels that can be expanded from the main interface add a lot more control. Patterns and songs can be further edited and massaged from the top panel (see Figure 2), which will be familiar to anyone who’s worked with pattern sequencers. Each pattern can have up to 64 steps, complete with automation for pad-specific parameters. Things you can automate include velocity, attack, decay, aux sends, and more; none of this detailed editing is accessible from the hardware alone.
Patterns and songs can be imported and exported as MIDI and REX files, or exported as audio for direct use in another application. The processes for this are somewhat hidden, though—you do it from the bottom panel by entering Edit mode, where you’ll then find the Import and Export options. This could be made more intuitive by adding these commands directly from Spark’s File menu or from the Pattern/Song area.
The bottom panel also lets you access Spark’s virtual mixer, which includes discrete channels for each pad plus aux returns and a master fader. Two insert effects can be added per channel, with choices of “crush,” compression, EQ, distortion, phaser, delay, and chorus. Reverb and delay are hardwired to auxiliary sends 1 and 2, respectively—a sensible choice for conserving CPU resources.
Fig. 3. Spark’s bottom panel provides the Library view, in which you can drag-and-drop individual hits onto the virtual pads to create new kits. This is also where you assign patterns to the buttons surrounding the Jog Dial.
Studio and Library tabs are also in the bottom panel. Kit sounds are selected and edited from the Studio area, which is logically arranged and easy to navigate. The Library lets you browse the included content in “cover flow” view, so you can flip through your collection to find what you’re after (see Figure 3). It’s here that you can also populate and arrange patterns into banks, which can be recalled from the Jog Dial. As a handy shortcut, individual drum sounds and complete patterns can be dragged-and-dropped to customize your setup quickly.
I put Spark through its paces both as a standalone beat-making station and as a production tool within Logic. Throughout the review period, Spark ran flawlessly without so much as a hiccup.
I found the pads to be very musical in their response, especially at lower to middle velocities. When compared to my other two controllers that have drum pads (a Korg PadKontrol and an M-Audio Axiom Pro), Spark more faithfully captured subtle differences of dynamics. However, when I hit the pads hard, it seemed like the samples didn’t quite sound loud enough—as though they weren’t generating the maximum MIDI velocity of 127. Attempting to adjust the response, I found that you can’t set different velocity curves (nor minimum and maximum “boundary” values) on a perpad basis or even for the group of pads as a whole. While you can calibrate the pads (essentially teaching Spark how hard you play), this is only configurable when the unit is in MIDI Control Center Mode, and isn’t really close to the ability to set specific velocity responses. Editor Stephen Fortner tested a separate unit and didn’t have the same loudness problem with the pads.
I also found that, despite Spark having a lot of hands-on control, I still had to use the computer for things that would be better handled from the hardware. At press time, you could only turn the metronome on or off from the soft ware, though Arturia promises a hardware shortcut in OS version 1.13, which will likely be downloadable by the time you read this. The velocity issue could also be addressed in a future update, and to be fair, we’re talking about a version 1.0 release. Given my experience with other Arturia instruments, I expect Spark will continue to grow and improve.
There’s an immediacy to Spark that I don’t find with soft ware-only virtual instruments. When working with most such VIs, the best you can hope for is that they offer a template for the particular MIDI controller in your studio—or that your controller has a template or automatic mapping abilities. At worst, you’re forced to “MIDI learn” each knob, button, slider, and pad. Th at process is counter-productive to creativity, to say the least.
Spark, by contrast, gives me the inspiration factor of dedicated hardware. Its physical controls are automatically tied to parameters that make musical sense, so it’s easy to get into a creative space and get down to making music. In today’s world of soft ware-based studios, Spark is a refreshing take on making beats, and despite a currently slim library of content and some “1.0” soft ware oddities, it’s an impressive platform that manages to put the fun back in musicmaking.
PROS Fun and inspiring. Employs analog synthesis and physical modeling in addition to sample playback. Musically useful sounds. Solid build quality.
CONS Some functions could be better implemented for easier operation. Slim sound content compared to the competition. No choice of velocity curves.
CONCEPT Software drum machine with dedicated hardware controller.
FORMATS AU, RTAS, VST, and standalone mode under ASIO or CoreAudio.
SYSTEM REQUIREMENTSMac: OS 10.5 or higher; Windows: XP, Vista, or 7. Both: 2GB RAM, 2GHz processor, 2GB free hard disk space.
PRICE List: $599
Approx. street: $550