September 17, 2013

Review – Arturia’s SparkLE and Spark version 1.7


Arturia’s SparkLE Hybrid Drum Machine

So, I’ll be the first person to tell you I’m a hardware guy. I don’t “do” purism, and you’ll get my computer out of my studio ONLY if you are handing me a newer/bigger/better one. However, when it comes to sound, my computer mainly amounts to being the editing and summing facility. In that arrangement, my computer is where effects are applied and things are locked in. I do it for a few reasons, among them being that I love not even worrying about my CPU load once during the course of very dense productions. That said, as much as I can appreciate a good software instrument, I typically would rather have the hardware equivalent any day. That’s why I was deeply troubled this past January when I was watching Arturia’s Mike Hoska bang out some of the best sounding beats I’d heard from hardware or software from a little white square just larger than an iPad. I looked closer and realized someone had shrunken the original Spark, and I had to say it looked a lot more ready to go in my studio in the new compact form. I started to get really excited, but then my girlfriend said “is that Sinbad?”

OMG, it was totally Sinbad. To be fair, he seemed far more preoccupied with the MiniBrute than the SparkLE. Really, he seemed mostly preoccupied with trying to pretend like he didn’t hear people going “Holy Crap, it’s Sinbad.” At any rate, Sinbad and his entourage (yep. Sinbad has an entourage.) shortly departed, and I was quickly able to resume my drooling over a white box that was violating one of my basic studio laws. I shouted back and forth over the NAMM noise (think of the sound of ocean if it was actually being made by the sound of a bunch of people trying out everything from accordions to modular synthesizers while every dad with a home theater you have ever met cranks their copy of Spinal Tap to 11) with Mike asking about the unit. I was trying to find the obvious reason to rule it out, so I asked the street price… That didn’t do it. Hearing it should street around $250 just made me want it that much more. I peeked around to see if it was whacking the hell out of the processor, and again, found no joy. Things were comfortably under 25% and there was a load of stuff going on. It was the end of the day, and time to go, but it was the second year in a row that my visit to Arturia land at NAMM had resulted in a pleasant surprise. (Last year it was the MiniBrute, one of which is resting comfortably to the right of my mouse as I type this.)

SparkLE Motion

So let’s play catch up. SparkLE is a welcome rework of the Spark “hybrid” controller Arturia released for their Spark drum machine software. Spark offered a few more knobs that mainly allowed for controlling individual instrument parameters without selecting them first. Unfortunately, the cost of such luxury played out in footprint size. While slick in design and substantially meatier than its most obvious competitors, I obviously wasn’t alone in not finding room for the first on my own desktop. I can only speculate if the device was confronted with a lack of interest, or if people mounted a “Shrink Spark NAO” mailing campaign. Whatever the reasons, there were obviously enough to warrant revisiting the product for a “mini” version, and the result, SparkLE, is a testament to how thoughtful design can reinvigorate an already solid product.


A reworked control screen with a matching software view awaits SparkLE users…

I think part of it is that we have already been so used to minimal controls on our hardware, that despite the quest for “Knob per Function” devices, we are equally delighted when we see utilitarian designs create affordability and retain convenience in a device. Quite a long way from “Knob per Function,” SparkLE totals at 7 knobs. The obvious functions of tempo and volume each get their own knob, with 2 others devoted to loop and pattern functions (Divide, Move.) The remaining three small rotaries represent the consolidation of the larger part of the Spark’s instrument parameter controls. While the original had provided three knobs per drum pad (of which there are 8), SparkLE provides a single row of three (marked P1, P2 and P3 respectively) that operate on whatever instrument the user highlights with the select button. The remaining large knob is the magical browser button. Whether in VST mode or running standalone, pressing this dial will launch a menu for the attached Spark software that allows selection of Projects, Kits, and individual instruments. Twirl to browse, press to select.

The drum pads feel great. I personally don’t buy into the whole MPC pads as the gold standard here, because I don’t personally relate to the world MPC first. What I will say is that they are responsive, feel sturdy, and anything backlit blue on a white surface is going to automatically get bonus points with me. The step sequencer and pattern selection controls have been moved to just above the drum pads (while previously stuck in the top left with the sequencer ) and this is a design alteration that seems insanely logical when using them in their alt mode for changing pitches on the drum. The remaining buttons are fairly standard fare in the drum machines world, and keep shocking amounts of functionality at the top level. The only other major player worth mentioning is the touch pad sitting in the center.

Let me tell you, the touchpad is just awesome. I am not currently using one of the older Spark units, and can’t tell you how this has affected their own use of the pad, but when Arturia were choosing to eliminate 6 of the knobs no longer available in the SparkLE version of the device, they did so in the coolest way possible. The six knobs in question were much like the P1-P3 knobs on SparkLE. They were Cutoff, Resonance, Aux1, Aux2, Panning and Volume controls for the individual instruments in the kit. Much as the P buttons work now, they functioned to adjust whatever instrument was highlighted with the “select” button. On SparkLE they have been replaced by an additional 3 buttons appended to the side of the TouchPad controls. What this means is that the TouchPad feature, which still accesses controls for a filter that sits over the main mix as well as the slicer and roller functions, now also operates as a quick X/Y pad for adjusting the mix, send settings, and filter settings on selected instruments. While I wasn’t sure about it at first, after a few projects I have grown to really, really, REALLY, like mixing the drum parts this way. There is something shockingly tangible about spatial mixing concepts when one is literally moving their finger left and right and backwards and forward to mix in their overhead drums.

As mentioned, SparkLE is a hybrid device, meaning it sits in that world where Maschine, MPC Renaissance/Studio and all of Arturia’s virtual libraries with dedicated controllers sit. Without the software side it won’t make a peep, but it is built with the intention that the controller replace or largely eliminate the tedium of mousing one’s way through use. SparkLE, perhaps less than it’s older sibling, accomplishes this all the same. However, its tiny size and efficient redesign make it more alluring to some (myself included,) and set it up for success by minimizing expectations. SparkLE is like that intern kid you hired thinking he/she would get a Summer of emptying trash cans and picking up lattes, but one night they pulled a hat trick and saved your ass. Suddenly you can’t imagine going to the Catalina Wine Mixer without them… or something. Maybe that metaphor isn’t universal, but hopefully the Catalina Wine Mixer is. If not, I just don’t know what we all have in common anymore… Anyway, let’s move on to the software component.

Can’t Start a Fire Without a Spark… Version 1.7

Just a few short days ago, this section would have been about version 1.6, but Saturday Morning, before I’d finished even one cup of coffee, Gmail was squawking at me that an update had arrived in the form of Spark version 1.7. That’s pretty exciting, and there’s some stuff to talk about there, but first I am going to account for all the folks who may or may not be familiar with Spark’s “virtual drum machines” software.

The Spark software is nothing short of fantastic. With their usual prowess for emulation, Arturia have identified several golden greats in the history of drum machines and provided appropriate modeling for each. The models are classified into three categories: Analog, Physical and Sample. Analog uses drum synth engines to recreate the characteristics of famous analog drum systems like the TR-808, TR-606, CL-78, and other classic drum machines, giving you the ability to shape sounds as you would have on the originals, as well as make some altogether new ones with the options available. The Physical components are a variety of real and imagined instruments modeled to give you control over the sound with a more “real world” slant. It isn’t the most complex physical modeling system of all time, but it sounds pretty good, and is ripe for experimentation. (Jazz Drums from Venus anyone?) Finally, the Sample instruments account for so many of the classic sample based drum machines like the TR-707 and the Linn 9000. What’s fun about the different sample based instruments is that depending on the model emulated, different parameters are on offer in the Studio panel depending on how sound shaping was handled on the original device. I have yet to find a sample in here that doesn’t come off as authentic on reproduction, and even if the samples were just playback, these are some of the best samples of these machines I have ever heard. I haven’t felt like researching the technology too deeply so far, so until corrected, I am attributing this to magical gnomes that dwell in Arturia’s labs. Whatever it is, the drums sound good.

The Spark software runs standalone or in any number of plug in formats. Standalone mode and flexible routing options mean that even a Reason user can have a look at the SparkLE as of version 7 and its MIDI out options. Similarly, with the robust onboard sequencer, and the “touch it, automate it” logic of the Spark design, standalone mode is, arguably, one of the more powerful drum machines of all time. That said, when Spark is dropped into your favorite DAW as a plug-in, the power on offer can begin multiplying exponentially so long as your ears and CPU can stand it. Multiple instances of Spark can be loaded and each can be controlled by the hardware  through the fairly straightforward connection button (a picture of a drum machine near the upper right.) So long as this is lit, you are controlling that instance of the software plug in.

Here's a snapshot of how I wired up the MIDI pass through channel. SparkLE Motion is the track where the plugin sits and all clips are stored.

Here’s a snapshot of how I wired up the MIDI pass through channel. SparkLE Motion is the track where the plugin sits and all clips are stored.

Something that is the subject of many threads for Maschine users is the matter of MIDI routing for hybrid solutions. Often, for the sake of providing step and pattern sequencers onboard hybrid systems like these, the prospect of simpler control from the host leads to MIDI hangups like the annoying phasing of doubled notes, or elaborate control clips to call program changes from the software hybrid that is acting more like an external. Given that I have made tutorials on how to workaround Maschine and Ableton, as well as how to convert my Machinedrum into something that can take advantage of step sequencing features on Push, you can imagine that I was approaching Spark thinking “ok, how much MIDI mangling will I have to do to make this thing behave?” While I did discover that Spark would require a quick routing trick for operating “my perfect way” I also discovered that there wasn’t nearly so large or loud of a discussion on the matter as I had encountered for Maschine regarding the task. I am probably going to do a tutorial video on the matter as I couldn’t find suitable documentation, but I did find a handful of hints that showed me the way to what, I think, might be the most brilliant checkbox in the entirety of the spark software:

As I mentioned, MIDI implementation for these hybrid/standalone devices is made complex by the effort to offer their own onboard sequencers. Because they have their own onboard sequencers, Onboard MIDI is sent internally. That’s fine in standalone mode, but when you want to, let’s say, make your pattern and play it back via Ableton clips, or add parts to a long arrangement without doing old school drum machine math (it’s a thing that happened back when pens and notepads were “electronic music gear.” It was also something that was always directly involved in whatever the cat knocked over/ spilled.) However, when wanting to use a machine that sends internal messages via external triggering, the act of triggering from the host results in the pads essentially being hit twice. The slight bit of difference in timing between the DAW and the Plugin MIDI results in a slight bit of phasing. If you have never encountered this, it is far more infuriating than anything the cat did back when I was doing drum machine math. When I was still using Maschine, I simply gave up on the fight and allowed clips to trigger scenes in Maschine (I am fully willing to accept that this may have been worked around since I quit using Maschine in my studio- feel free to correct me.) Ultimately, it was a limitation I didn’t agree with. Spark/SparkLE on the other hand, did something so simple to break the loop that I still find myself thinking at odd moments “man, that was brilliant. How the hell didn’t I think of this?” They made the simplest little check box in the preference panes:

To send notes to your DAW from the onboard pads, click “Send Midi from Pads” in the MIDI Import/Export dialogue. Then, because I guess they wanted to show off, they went ahead and added “Send Midi from Sequencer.” Meaning that you can send the onboard patterns to your sequence should you have the inclination.

The simplest little checkbox that solved more headaches than Advil

The simplest little checkbox that solved more headaches than Advil

This in and of itself doesn’t solve the problem, the matter of MIDI I/O on the sequencer side still has to be accounted for. In Ableton, I created a single MIDI track that routes MIDI from the Spark device channel directly back to a virtual input on Spark designed to bypass the pads. That channel can be minimized/ removed from view, and then all that has to be done is to tell that channel to receive its MIDI from the pass through channel. Once configured, all information for sequence and automation can be stored on clips kept on the same track as the Spark instance. It sounds more complex than it is, honestly, and if you’re anything like me you can do this once, template it, and only worry about it when you switch DAWs or are adding in more machines.

While I don’t know that this would be the feature anyone else would champion most highly (and should probably be standard logic for any such device,) being able to deploy a solution in a method which most practically takes advantage of all features available is, to me, the best feature of any product. I want and expect to be challenged by software to think differently etc., but I resent the idea that I should have to rebuild the house every time I add to my existing rig. The fact that Arturia have dealt with this allows me to enjoy Spark for the quality of its instruments. I can use it on projects I was working on before I got it and I can put exploring the sequencer and live uses behind getting things done. There are plenty of things to keep me from making music, and endlessly hacking my instrument into doing what I need it to simply shouldn’t be one of them. The fact that I am a week or so into working with SparkLE and have a few tracks finished with it is one of the fastest “box to uptime” experiences I have ever had in my studio on anything more complex than a simple component.

The Mixer window on Spark makes the bold move of… looking like a mixer!

All that out of the way, the level of control and the quality of the User Interface in the Spark software frankly surpass those present in the more popular contemporaries I named earlier. The bottom window of the three paned workflow provides a mixer with two aux effects and two insert effects for each instrument. As mentioned before, these can be mixed via the X/Y pad, but the insert effects must be dealt with here. The effects are great and the internal summing sounds shockingly good. The level of control on offer internally gives a user little reason to route to a separate output for their sounds, but if they still want to, the options are all right there in the mixer area. Finally, on the master bus, two additional insert effects slots are provided for bus compression and that sort of thing. Also available via the button panel that calls up the Mixer is the Library, which opens a browser view of the kits and samples on offer that has a pretty slick UI similar to Apple’s Coverflow. The button to the far left is labeled Studio, and it calls up the instrument view. All 16 available instruments for a kit are broken across 2 pages of 8. This is where the larger view of available parameters per instrument are available and, as mentioned, the parameters on offer will differ depending on the type of instrument and what specific model or set the user chooses. Filtering options allow for LPF/BPF/HPF per instrument and basic pan and volume controls are available on this page so you needn’t toggle back and forth to make basic adjustments.

Spark’s convenient browser.

The leap from 1.6 to 1.7 was something that happened while I was still getting sorted with the package, but even so it was an experience of immediate improvement. Interface controls that had previously required a bit of angry clicking to activate seem to be acting like they want to be clicked now, and my CPU use has returned almost to the level it was before Spark was dropped into the system. Bear in mind that I start thinking I need to go shopping as soon as I am regularly breaking 25% in Ableton. With Spark active and running effects on each bus playing crazy patterns (stress test mode) and a host of plugins running across other channels, as well as automation running, I was peaking around 17% on a Quad Core i5 with Chrome, Messages, Spotify and Steam all just being on for no good reason. (Well, Steam was on for a good reason, Borderlands 2 just released a content update. That thing isn’t going to buy and download itself… Chrome was on because Facebook because reasons…) AT any rate, this appears to be (at least in part) due to the new streaming engine that is designed to ease the load on your system and make browsing more responsive. A number of other bugs have been eliminated as well, with some specific fixes for Logic and Pro Tools users. 6 new effects join the existing small army, and bring with them an analog chorus and as well as an analog delay. Two new parameters have been added to assist those who prefer to build their beats in the Spark sequencer. The list of improvements is a shocking split between new features and bug fixes… See it for yourself here:

We’ll be doing a video soon, but I can say without hesitation that the Spark series is a fantastic drum solution and one of the better ones I have used. It is certainly the best one for how I work and what kind of sounds I like to use. Being able to add my own samples negates any “well, I use this method when I want to use something blah blah” additional task distribution. If anything, Spark has freed me to let my Elektron Machinedrum be the drum instrument I go to when I am ready to nerd out deeply, sequence like it’s 1989, or do some seriously intensive pattern creation Saturday type stuff where I just nerd out deep within the device. At the same time, Spark offers those same kind of deep diving nerd out Saturdays, or it can drive right into a job and help me finish in half the time with drums sounding exactly like I like them. I can’t go on enough about how good it sounds. I mean, the emulations sound like the real thing, and the clarity and punch A/B’d very well with similar sounds from the Machinedrum. As much as I will swear by hardware, I have to say there is no difference worth ignoring SparkLE or Spark for. The sound is there, and with so many classic drum boxes shoved inside… well, I guess I’ll just have to look at something else on eBay when I can’t sleep from now on.

Don’t worry, I’ll find something new to lust after. I always do. In the meantime, here’s something I recently finished with SparkLE on drum duties. There’s a lot of other processing happening, of course, but the 707 kit is at the heart of it: