Review – Arturia Spark 2 and SparkLE Controller
Spark is a groovebox-like pattern-based sequencer. Add the SparkLE controller and you’ve got a groovy thing going.
by Jon K. Carroll, Sept. 2014
Being a user of a couple different ‘groovebox’ type electronic musical instruments, and a user of Arturia softsynths, I was greatly excited when Arturia announced the original Spark. When the SparkLE came out, I was glad to see a better price point. It is also available in pure software form without the controller, coming in the form of Spark 2 Drum Production Center, which is the full “kit” as it were with a more extensive sound set, Spark VDM (Vintage Drum Machines), Spark EDM, and Spark Dubstep. The Genre-focused versions of Spark contain a reduced sample set and reduced number of presets, and cannot use the expansion packs that are made for Spark, but are much cheaper.
I received the SparkLE with Spark 1.7, before Spark 2 was announced at Winter NAMM 2014. So I had to wait for the release of Spark 2 with everyone else. So, I will occasionally mention some things that are of interest to Spark 1.x owners wondering if they should upgrade.
The main screen of the Spark software looks like an abbreviated version of the controller. Once the controller connects to either the standalone or plugin versions of the software, the main screen responds almost immediately to your actions on the controller, and things like the lit pads on the controller respond to your actions in the software. This goes a long way toward reproducing that “groove machine” feel. Basic and even complex operations in Spark can be done using the controller and just this screen, so if you’re using Spark you’ll be spending a lot of time here. If you’re using Spark live, you’ll likely be entirely on this screen while playing it.
Like most hardware grooveboxes, Spark 2 uses a pattern-based sequencer. Patterns are arranged into “songs” by chaining one pattern to another, then another. The various parts can be sequenced separately as in a conventional hardware drum machine or groovebox, or in the sequencer interface using the mouse. There are provisions for both step recording and live recording, including recording knob manipulations and use of the X-Y pad. This can also be helpful in certain styles of live play where you are starting from a base sequence and building off of it as you go.
The Studio page shows each of your instruments as separate items and is where you can access the top-level adjustments for each instrument as well as the two effects channels for each instrument.
The Mixer page shows you the effects of all the instruments as well as their pans, levels and the two aux sends. On top of that, it also allows you to access the two Master effects. Here you can see I use the Master effects channel to add reverb to the whole mix.
One thing that Spark 2 adds over the previous versions is the Modular interface page. This allows you to get into the guts of the synth, as it were, and really work on the sounds. It also tells you a lot about how the sounds for Spark are made- as you see above, the vintage drum sounds, which I found to be good starters for making your own vintage-sounding drums, if not spot on, aren’t made from independent modeled components, but from generic components that are built together to sound like the vintage units. What that means is there isn’t an ‘808 oscillator’ and a ‘909 oscillator’, but a generic analog-style oscillator (and generic analog-style filter) built using Arturia’s TAE technology, that are arranged to sound similar to the instrument. Sample based drum machines (or loading your own samples) use a sample import module in place of an oscillator (and, yes, you can mix them pretty freely). There is no demarcation between a digital filter and an analog one so the dry, clean sound of vintage digital drum machines can be hard to nail down. Spark also has physically-modelled type drums and these are a bit more CPU intensive than the analog style (which are, again, more computationally intensive than samples) and can once again be mixed in with the other types if you want to create really deep layered sounds.
Different controls can be mapped in through the modular system, including the knobs, X-Y pad, and external MIDI messages. You can have the X-Y pad controlling similar or different things in multiple instruments at once, in addition to controlling things like the filter.
Beyond that, the X-Y pad can also be used to control the roller (for rolling drums and for drum loops) and slicer (for beat slicing effects) which expands the capabilities of Spark a bit beyond what most hardware grooveboxes are capable of.
For users of Spark 1.x, mapping samples to drum pads is much easier in Spark 2. Under 1.6 and 1.7, I had problems getting samples to load and to ‘stick’ on a pad once loaded and the redesigned interface and slightly different methods of handling things in Spark 2 greatly resolved that.
The controller itself is of very robust construction and, being primarily metal, heavier than you would expect. Even though the knobs are surface mounted instead of panel mounted, they have very little wiggle. The pads are nice and responsive, and have some give to them without being squishy… without being as stiff as the [pads on some other pad controllers. The pads can be calibrated so you can get the specific velocity response you like.
All in all I found Spark to be very good at what it is meant for- pattern-based sequencing like you’d do with a groovebox. The SparkLE controller is very helpful in that, especially when placed near the screen so you can glance back and forth. If you’re considering Spark, though, you might want to look at the original Spark controller instead of the SparkLE. The expanded controls and the display on the original controller make for a much better head-down “groovebox” experience and mean you spend a lot more time focused on the controller itself instead of looking back and forth to the screen. That said, once you learn where things are on the SparkLE controller it becomes like using any other groovebox-type hardware – albeit one that is tethered to your computer and has effectively infinite storage instead of the comparatively tiny storage in most hardware units, with a much deeper synthesis section that you can actually get into and create your own sounds.
Systems used for evaluation:
Samsung RF710-S02us, Intel Core i7-720QM processor, 8 GB RAM, TASCAM US-1640 audio interface
HP z600, 2x Xeon E5520 2.26 GHz, 24 GB RAM, Echo AudioFire 2 audio interface