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Arturia Spark LE Controller and Software Review

Arturia Spark 2 Software


Arturia SparkLE and Spark 2 Review. The SparkLE is the smaller brother to the Spark. It is a brilliant feature packed drum machine focused USB controller that offers a great deal of flexibility with the Spark 2 software.

Review Preface:

Founded in 1999, Arturia specialises in music hardware that is accessible to both professional and amateur musicians. Focusing on innovation and boasting ‘True Analog Emulation’ that allows accurate modelling of the behaviour of analogue circuits at your finger tips, Arturia have made their mark in the industry.

Having already given us a wide range of modelled analogue synthesizers, such as Jupiter 8V and the Prophet V, adding a drum machine to the family made sense for Arturia. The original Spark was widely regarded as a successful venture into the realm of drum production in both software and hardware. The original Spark drum machine expanded on the purely software environment to bring a more tactile element to the purely software environment. For some, the size of the controller was just right and for others it was too big to be portable. With an irresistible collection of modelled and sample-based kits, people still keep using the original iteration of the Spark with pride.

Seeking to trim off the edges to achieve that needed portability, Arturia have combined the same wide resource of beats and percussion with a cheaper, more petite controller. Enter the SparkLE.

Package Contents:

Continuing on from the original Spark software, Spark 2 includes the same drums, one shots, synths, FX whilst greatly expanding on the original’s library, boasting a collection totalling up to more than 2,800 instruments that are flexible to most musical genres. The interface of the Spark 2 has evolved with a new uniform and professional look, making it more user friendly and easy to navigate. This is due to the release of the new SparkLE hardware, which the main page of the updated Spark software now mimics, making integration of the hardware seem very seamless. With the updated ‘Studio’ tab and the new ‘Modular’ section, the possibilities Spark 2 creates in regards to building sounds and hits from scratch are vast. Giving the user the ability to customise existing kits and sounds alongside the option to import your own, makes this beat creation software a powerhouse in its on right.

Spark 2 can be accessed as a stand alone piece of software or inside a DAW. With the ability to route each channel of the mixer in the software out to individual channels in the host sequencer, it makes processing and editing more flexible, meaning you can get the most out of the sounds created.

The SparkLE is the hardware interface that compliments the newly updated Spark software, which is why Spark 2 is included in the hardware purchase. It may seem small but the SparkLE has quite a bit of weight to it, with the build quality complimenting this. The device is also slim which, given its smaller size over its older brother, makes for transporting it much easier. It also comes with its own case supplied by Arturia which is a nice addition to the package. The pads feel very responsive, especially in regards to velocity. The knobs on the SparkLE feel great to use although on specific ones such as ‘tempo’ and ‘volume’ the incremental ‘clicks’ that are in the divide, move and the main selector knob are not present. This seems odd as in a live scenario it would be ideal to feel how much the respective parameter has been altered and to be precise about it, rather than having to look at the screen and visually see the change. For some people, the exclusion of a screen may seem odd, but given that the SparkLE is meant to be used in tandem with the Spark 2 software, it is understandable as to why one is not present on the device. Instead of a screen there is a track pad, which is one of the key elements of the hardware. It feels smooth and is very responsive to use with no latency issues encountered. This is the section where you can utilise the different modes such as filters, slicers and rollers. However, the main drawback to this feature is that you cannot quite tell which parameter you are using just by looking at the hardware; you need the software present to see what actual change is being made. That being said, with extensive use of the hardware, it could become the case that familiarity trumps this particular issue.

Overall, the SparkLE and inclusion of the Spark 2 software make for a great package, giving you the foundations to start implementing the beats into your song writing from the get go: it is simply the case of plug in and play when it comes to the SparkLE

Supported Platforms:

Spark 2 supports both Mac OS X 10.7 or higher and Windows 7 or 8. The minimum system requirements are 4GB RAM; CPU 2GHz with multiple cores recommended and also 2GB of free hard disk space. In all Spark 2 is not a demanding piece of software and can be run on many different machines. It supports VST, AAX and AU plug-in types in both 32 and 64 bit environments meaning that it will also run in a wide array of DAWs. Installing and testing took place on Mac OS X 10.9.2 and functioned very well with no crashes.

Uses, Function, and In-Use Thoughts:

The Spark 2 and SparkLE exemplify what Arturia set to out achieve: they both compliment each other with seamless integration with a view to becoming your new go to platform for composing beat, drum and percussion patterns. Whatever the need is, Spark 2 can get it done. Spark 2 is separated into 7 main ‘tabs’ which combined, make up the core of the beat creation tools. Upon starting, the ‘Main’ tab is selected which is effectively the SparkLE hardware. One of the goals Arturia have achieved with this update is to keep everything uniform and clear to navigate. The ‘Main’ tab does exactly that, by mimicking the hardware it makes plugging in and playing easy to achieve. The most noticeable difference between the software ‘Main’ page and hardware is that the SparkLE only holds 8 drum pads whereas the software contains 16. On the hardware it is easy to cycle between pads 1-8 and 9-16 with a touch of a button and in practice, it feels natural. Excluding the extra 8 pads from the hardware was a good decision as it keeps it tight and compact without suffering.

The ‘Sequencer’ tab is a familiar sight, it follows the same tradition with the pad list on the left, a controller lane at the bottom and the matrix taking up the bulk of the application screen. The sequencer is arguably where you will spend most of your time composing different patterns and it has a great deal to offer. In the matrix, you can see up to 32 steps at once with the ability to toggle to steps 33-64 at a touch of a button. The resolution of these steps can be changed from the default 16th notes, to 32nd notes or 8th notes etc. This area of Spark 2 is also where you have the ability to save each of your patterns which is a necessity when it comes to the new ‘Song’ mode. In regards to the patterns, you can save up to 16 in any of the four different bands (A, B, C, D) giving you a total of 64 which is a substantial amount for one project. Each of these individual patterns can be up to four bars long (64 steps) and overall, this gives you a lot to work with. As per the norm, each pad has its own volume, pan, mute/solo options that are essential in every beat production suite. These patterns can be created manually in the software by clicking in the matrix section or they can be sequenced via the SparkLE hardware with the smaller pads on the controller labelled 1-16. The latter option allows ‘on the fly’ beat making, facilitating a creative and fluid workflow. The controller lane at the bottom of the sequencer tab is quite interesting as it sets itself apart from other drum sequencers out there. As usual, in the controller lane you can change parameters of each individual pad such as the velocity, cut off, panning, aux sends, attack, decay and more making it very flexible. However, in tandem with this there is something called the ‘relative tool’. This changes all the values of each of the selected pads relative to one another, meaning that if you wanted all the snare drums to be lower in volume you can do it with ease and in one motion. In Spark 2, it is the little ‘quirks’ which make the software shine. The export function included in the sequencer tab is also a very welcome addition as you can easily export a pattern into a wave file or a midi file just by dragging and dropping into the desired location. In regards to using it within a DAW, this function will be the most used as it makes sequencing a simple process. Despite all of this, the lack of being able to route out to an external MIDI device to use in tandem with the SparkLE is disappointing. Spark 2 does however send out MIDI clocks so that you can sync certain elements such as arpeggios but this is not doable in stand alone mode. To get the most out of this part of Spark 2, using it within a DAW is essential.

There is also something called ‘Tune’ which is present on both the software and hardware. This mode turns each of the smaller 16 numbered pads into a semi tone, giving you scope of just over an octave’s worth of notes for any one of the main 8 pads selected. One of the drawbacks of this mode is that even though you can play each of the main 8 pads on a separate MIDI keyboard if desired, there is no way to route MIDI note information individually to any given pad. The lack of this can be quite frustrating in some scenarios such as playing chords or generally just needing more notes to work with. One of the nice features about this mode is that you can automate in real time on the hardware by simply pressing record and adjusting the automation with the effect being shown in the controller lane. Overall this is not as elegant as it would seem. Some sort of a piano roll or the ability to expand a specific pad with a synth patch loaded in a kit to sequence a melody separately would have been a very welcome addition.

The ‘Song’ tab is a mode that seems to be specifically tailored for live performances. In this mode you can choose from all the patterns created in each of the 64 banks available and have them in the default orders, A1 to D16, or you can mix and match them up by dragging in certain banks, re-arranging them or deleting the ones that are not needed. This is a very simple and effective way to prepare and perform in a live scenario. A major downside is the fact that there is no simple way to audition what each pattern is going to play. You could go into the sequencer tab, select the pattern from the bank, see what it contains and drag it into the song mode but if you are working in real time, this can be counterintuitive. Another missing feature is the lack of being able to name each of the different banks to makes things easier for the user. For example, being able to rename C5 as ‘chorus’, or A1 to ‘intro’ would have been a nice addition. The playback mode in this tab can be a tad frustrating at times because as soon as one pattern finishes, it carries onto the next which may not be desired in some circumstances. This ‘Song’ mode will get a lot of use and attention to users who favour live set ups whereas people using Spark 2 in a studio environment, may never use it.

However, Arturia did take the studio user into account and have expanded on their ‘Studio’ tab. This is where you can look into the inner workings of each pad and treat and tailor each of them to your own liking. On the sides of the window you can select one of the 16 pads with the centre of the page detailing the contents of each pad, including the different changeable parameters, what each pad is made of etc. All the parameters are also MIDI controllable, and can be changed from the SparkLE controller itself or from an external controller keyboard. There are three types of ‘instrument’ you can load into a pad, these include; Samples, REX Loops or Modular. When working with samples, you can load in up to 6 different samples to layer up on one pad and coupled with the ability to use existing samples or loading in your own samples, this feature is very flexible. These samples can be triggered in different modes, for example via velocity, stacked so that they all play at once (and in practice, this is the most ideal), random, circular and threshold. The option to reverse the samples is also present opening up further possibilities. You can also change the gain of each sample to ensure that when layered, the mix is even. A new edition to Spark 2 is the inclusion of REX support. This allows the use of REX Loops which are automatically sliced when loaded into one of the desired pads, with these slices being mappable to each of the 16 pads opening up many possibilities for users who use REX Loops in tandem with the new ‘Song’ mode. There is also the option to add two effects to each pad with these ranging from a bit crushers to adding EQ if so desired; these effects are surprisingly useable and you may find yourself tending towards processing each element within Spark 2 instead of using external effects. The ease with which kits can be built from the ground up in the ‘Studio’ tab is truly remarkable, whether it be from using the sounds already present in Spark 2 or by using your own samples and sound sets.

The ‘Modular’ tab is arguably the best addition to the upgraded Spark software with it being the most extensive section yet. Upon first visiting this tab with a preset already loaded it can seem quite overwhelming as there seems to be a lot going on in such a small window, and as a result confusion may ensue. The sounds created in the ‘Modular’ tab can also be used in the ‘Studio’ section of Spark 2 but, I can see quite a few users passing this new section altogether and solely using the ‘Studio’ tab for their kit creations. The main reason for this is because of the lack of any in-built tutorials or tips on getting started in making sounds in this modular environment. For people who are interested in synthesis or for those who want to learn (mainly in regards to drum synthesis), this new addition to Spark 2 will play a key role in that process. Within this section of the software, you can choose whether to use samples, REX loops or virtual analogue instruments in order to create your sounds with the ability to only use one of these three methods at a time. Given the breadth this modular mode covers I would highly recommend looking at the tutorials Arturia have provided online to get to grips with what each section does. After some study of the presets available, getting to know how to configure basic LFOs and Filters on virtual analogue oscillators is fairly straight forward with the routing of each module being self explanatory, but when adding others such as one called ‘KarplusStrong’, things start to get a bit complicated as it is not obvious as to what the function is of certain modules. At the bottom of this page there is a section for assigning up to 6 different macros to any of the effects built up in the main modular window; this level of extra customisation on top of the free roam you have in building any sound you so desire is spectacular. What Arturia have done with the new ‘Modular’ tab truly is exceptional. When you take a step back and look at what they have offered users, this section could easily be its own stand alone feature given the detail and care Arturia have given it. The one thing I have to stress is that in the modular mode you can only create either a virtual analogue patch, a sampler based patch or a REX Loop based patch, you cannot have multiple instances of each on one given pad. If you have started to build a modular patch and decide that you would rather import one of your own samples instead of using one of the virtual analogue oscillators, you will have to start the patch again. The sonic possibilities of the ‘Modular’ tab do seem endless but, the amount of macros (6) available to the user to customise their patches further does seem fairly limited given the scope and Arturia’s background in synthesis. One of the downfalls of this section of Spark 2 is that when working with synth like sounds or when experimenting with sound design, the lack of support from a MIDI keyboard does make this process feel slightly clumsy when solely using the pads on the SparkLE.

Spark 2 also contains an in-built mixer where you can monitor and mix each pad. Each pad has its own channel strip with an effects panel, aux sends, solo, mute, pan etc. For users who prefer to mix inside their DAW, the ability to route each pad to separate channel strips is there when opening the software as a multi-output instance. A feature that may be overlooked by many is that if you are working on a notebook with touch screen capabilities, the faders on the built in mixer are all multi-touch. Considering the ease with which Spark 2 runs on many devices, this feature will prove useful when working whilst travelling.

The last section of the Spark 2 software is the Library. This is where you can see all the different kits, the individual samples and your own saved kits and samples. It is also where you can view your own ‘projects’ saved from previous sessions on kit building and sequences previously saved. In all, everything is laid out in the same uniform manner shown throughout the software meaning navigation is quick and easy.

Review Conclusion:

The more time spent with Arturia’s Spark 2, the more I see it being ‘app-like’ and tailored for laptops, notebooks and general ‘on-the-go’ usage. Compared to other drum samplers out there, the SparkLE and the updated Spark 2 software has a narrower focus, it knows what it wants to do and does this very well. Some aspects of the software may seem limiting such as the lack of external MIDI device support in some scenarios, the ‘Tune’ mode being slightly lacklustre and the ‘Song’ mode not working all too well but when it comes down to it, it is a simple case of loading up what you want and playing. For this reason we award the SparkLE and Spark 2 software with a very respectable four stars.

Harnek Mudhar

Harnek Mudhar 30th June 2014

US RRP: $249.99 | UK RRP: £169.00

Four Star Award
Arturia Spark LE and Spark 2 Review
4/5 stars
Arturia SparkLE Review. The SparkLE is the smaller brother to the Spark. It is a brilliant feature packed drum machine focused USB controller that offers a great deal of flexibility with the Spark 2 software.

Editors Rating: