Arturia Spark 2
By Phil O'Keefe |
Software drum machine
By Phil O'Keefe
The humble drum machine really set the world of music on its ears as it started coming of age in the early and mid 1980s, and a generation of musicians grew up with them as practice, composition, recording, and even live performance tools. Drum machines have remained popular ever since - however in today's musical world, MIDI hardware has largely given way to software and virtual instruments, so many of today's musicians, as well as the musicians who once used hardware drum machines and slaved them to their computers via MIDI, are now using software versions instead.
Arturia's Spark 2 is an updated version of their popular drum production plugin - in many ways, it's a virtual drum machine, and while what is under review here is just the software, Arturia also offers hardware such as the SparkLE and Spark Creative controllers that are designed to interface seamlessly with the software. That's bound to be a popular option for DJs and others who are interested in using Spark 2 in a live performance environment, and who want to be able to enjoy the benefits of real-time tactile control.
What You Need To Know
- The Spark 2 software is laid out in seven main screens, or as Arturia calls them, "panels" - Main, Sequencer, Song, Studio, Modular, Mixer, Library, and Prefs. Each allows you to control various aspects of the software.
- Spark 2 can be used in standalone mode, or as a VST, AU or RTAS / AAS plugin on Mac (OS 10.7 or later) or PC (Windows 7/8) computers equipped with at least 4GB of RAM and a multi-core processor. I tested it on both Mac and PC systems, with equally excellent results and stability on both platforms. When running as a plugin, up to 16 individual outputs are supported.
- Copy protection is via an authorization code, and the entire installation and authorization process went off without any problems on both systems.
- The main panel / screen corresponds closely with the layout of the SparkLE controller. There are 16 tracks, and 16 main "instrument pads", laid out in two rows of eight on the main screen.
- Mute and Solo functions are quite cool - you can specify which pad(s) you want to solo or mute in any combination, and turn them on and off at will. Perfect for live performance breakdowns.
- There are three knobs of Instrument Parameters that allow for quick, on-the-fly adjustment: Pitch, Frequency Shift, and Decay. A Loop function is also available, and includes a nifty Divide feature that allows you to break a loop down into smaller sections, such as the first 1/8th, 1/4, 1/2 or 1/16th of the original length.
- Strike 2 uses a Banks and Patterns organizational structure, with four banks, and each bank filled with up to 16 individual patterns. These patterns can be chained together to form Songs.
- Sequencing using a familiar grid paradigm makes dialing up your own patterns a snap. You can quantize while recording if you wish, which can save time when using external hardware controllers and "playing" your parts while tracking. Spark 2 features a 64 step sequencer, although you can create patterns with fewer steps, such as the 16 and 32 step patterns used on many vintage drum machines.
- Song creation is also equally easy, with drag and drop of patterns into chains. This makes it quite simple to sequence full song arrangements.
- When using Spark 2 as a plugin, Sync Playback and Sync Tempo with Host allows you to synchronize Spark 2 to your DAW.
- The sound creation capabilities of Spark 2 are worlds beyond the typical vintage hardware drum machine, with not only sample playback (with multiple layering), but also a virtual analog engine based on Arturia's TAE analog modeling, and physical modeling too. The realism of the acoustic type sounds, and the quality of the sounds in general is quite good - they're sourced from well-respected third-party developers, and there's a large variety available; whether you're into House or Rock, EDM or Pop, you'll find suitable sounds in Spark 2.
- The new modular drum synthesis is very powerful. In the past, only developers had access to this feature, but now users can add and subtract modules such as oscillators, filters, LFOs, and envelopes, set the routing between modules, and do all sorts of creative sound design.
- Are you into the sound of classic vintage hardware drum machines but don't want to throw down large sums of money on a collection of temperamental old hardware units? Spark 2 has you covered, with emulations of the sound sets of loads of vintage drum machines, including models from Korg, Yamaha, Emu, Roland, Linn, and others.
- In addition to the large variety of drum and percussion sounds (both acoustic, as well as vintage and cutting edge modern electronic sounds) various other sounds are also included, such as basses, synths and effects. There's enough here to keep you busy creating for hours on end, and for some genres, Spark 2 may be all you need to lay down some serious (and surprisingly complete) tracks and arrangements.
- There's MIDI as well as WAV export, and both are super-easy to use - just go to the Sequencer page and drag the Wav (represented with a waveform graphic) or MIDI icon from the Export section to your desktop, and a file containing the current pattern is created.
- The program's Studio tab allows you to do all kinds of creative processing to individual kit components and sounds. You can adjust volume and pan, mute and solo sounds, load different sounds and samples, control the cutoff, pitch, and decay of individual sounds within kits, and even apply effects. This is also where you'll find Choke groups, which allow you to cut off one sound with another, such as when a open hi hat is cut off by a subsequent closed hi hat hit.
- Projects can be exported and imported from the Library screen. Overall, the Library functions are good, if not spectacular. There are separate libraries for Projects, Kits, and Instruments. Although this section of the program may look a little less polished than the rest of Spark 2, you can still load and save to disk, import REX files, and do all the other file management things you need to do.
- The Mixer page provides a nice range of basic mixing functions for each instrument in the kit, including level, pan, mute, and solo. There are two aux sends for effects such as reverb and delay. There are also two insert points on each channel and a wide range of insert effects, such as compression, delay, flange, distortion, subharmonic generator, rotating speaker simulation, destroy, graphic EQ, phaser - fourteen different effects in all. These are all nice effects too, with a decent amount of adjustability and solid sound quality. Arturia even gives you a handful of presets for most of them to get you started, and of course, you can save all your own edits and preferred settings too. The master fader also has two inserts so you can add compression or other effects to the entire mix if you wish.
- There's plenty of other features in Spark 2 that time doesn't allow me to cover, but fortunately, Arturia does offer a demo version of the program so you can experiment with it yourself before deciding whether it's for you or not. Save, Save As, and Export are all disabled when running in demo mode, but it's the same program, and everything else is fully functional.
- This is a deep instrument, and it is going to take you a bit of time to get up to speed with it. Don't expect to turn it on for the first time and immediately use it on a session or at a gig. It's not that the program is difficult to use, but there is a lot there, and while the interface is generally well-designed, as with most complex programs, it's going to take a while until you really know your way around it.
- Unfortunately, there is no tap tempo feature. Spark 2 will lock to your DAW, and you can adjust tempo manually, but you can't tap in a tempo in on the fly.
- There is sample playback, but no real user sampling available. You can import samples that you created and manipulated with other programs, but recording them from within Spark 2 is not supported.
Spark 2 is a very cool and comprehensive drum machine in software form. As with traditional hardware drum machines, it comes with a wide variety of different sounds that are suitable for many different styles of music. In fact, it has far more sounds included than most hardware units ever dreamed of. I really wish I would have had the opportunity to try out one of the hardware controllers, but that wasn't in the cards. The close integration between the two is apparent from what I can see from the software side, and the tactile responsiveness of real controls is something I always appreciate. I'm sure that those who are looking for a live performance instrument will also gravitate towards using the hybrid approach with both hardware controller and software. Still, it's nice that the program works so well without the hardware, and that the option of getting it sans hardware is available for those who prefer working entirely in the box or already have a controller they prefer. Those who just want a great software replacement for their old hardware drum machines are going to love Spark 2 since a lot of the working paradigms will already be familiar to them. While you still need to spend a bit of time getting to know where everything is located, it's relatively easy to learn - and once you do, it's fast and efficient to use.
The lack of tap tempo may be a bit of a drag for some users - especially in a live performance situation, but other than that, and the lack of user sampling capability (which is somewhat offset by the improved REX capabilities of Spark 2) there really isn't anything glaringly missing. The effects are surprisingly good. The sounds and patterns included are also first-rate, and Spark 2 gives you plenty of ways to change and mangle those sounds too. I was impressed with the heft, substantialness and weight of many of the sounds - the overall character is big and fat, with solid low end that is not overbearing, but yet still quite impressive. You also get a lot of patterns that you can use as-is or as the basis for your own edited patterns, and a wide range of genres is represented. The ability to use the Spark 2 software with dedicated hardware controllers will also appeal to many, and while I didn't get to check it out with the Arturia controllers, it worked fine with my DIY MIDI drum pads and other MIDI controllers. All in all, Spark 2 is a well designed, easy to use, solidly reliable and great sounding drum production software program that should be on your short list of plugins to check out if you need outstanding rhythm parts. And really - who doesn't need that?
Arturia Spark 2 ($189.00 MSRP, $169.00 "street") Demo download
Musician's Friend Arturia SparkLE Hybrid Hardware / Software Drum Machine online catalog page ($299.00 MSRP, $249.99 "street")
Arturia Spark 2 product web page
Spark 2 introduction and tutorial videos
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.