Time to look at another NAMM 2011 product – the Arturia Spark! It’s not yet been released, and is instead currently available for pre-order, but there’s no harm in having a look into what this highly anticipated product is capable of doing!
ARTURIA SPARK – INTRODUCTION
The Arturia Spark is a powerful hardware/software hybrid drum machine, combining the power of analogue (modeling) synthesis, physical modeling and samples. It has been designed to streamline your beat production work, saving you time when searching for the perfect kit, and offer simple, yet essential controls for creating the ideal rhythm. So if you’re looking for a new and intuitive way to create your drum patterns, the Arturia Spark could quite possibly be your answer!
ARTURIA SPARK – SOUND ENGINES
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Arturia Spark makes use of 3 different synth engines. The analogue modeling engine is based on Arturia TAE technology, and the Spark includes over 100 analogue instruments, each offering a wealth of customisable parameters. Secondly, the Spark includes a digital sampling sound engine, which includes a library of pristine quality samples. Many of these samples have been selected in partnership with leading third party companies so you can rest assured that the Arturia Spark will offer you more than enough quality sounds to get started with! However, if you feel that you want more, then it’s easy to import your own audio samples into the Spark, and make use of its inbuilt features such as multi-layering triggered by velocity response.
The third and final synth engine built into the Arturia Spark is the physical modeling engine, which lets you fine tune and distort the sounds of your drums, and gives you access to a variety of twisted experimental percussion sounds. The combination of all three of these different synth engines should provide you with more than enough variety to get producing some unique beats.
ARTURIA SPARK – DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS!
From vintage drum machines to electronic kits to acoustic kits, the Arturia Spark offers them all! It’s vintage drum machine library gives you access to analogue recreations, modeled after the TR-808, TR-909, Simmons SDS-V, as well as Eprom based LinnDrum, Drumtraks, and DMX to name but a few. As well as percussive sounds, the Spark also includes vintage bass and lead sounds created by the award-winning Arturia sound designer team, so it’s possible to produce more than just your beats – you can actually program a whole track using just the Arturia Spark!
With regards to electronic drums, the Spark gives you access to a number of kits from a variety of popular genres including House, Dub, Techno, Hip Hop, RnB, and a number of experimental styles if you’re after something new. Acoustic drum kits are also included covering the main drumming styles from rock, to jazz, funk, pop, etc. Again, all samples are recorded and produced by leading third party companies, which ensures you get exceptional audio realism, and samples are even multi-layered so they respond naturally to different velocity strikes.
It’s this extensive variety of inbuilt kits that sets the Arturia Spark apart from many of it’s rival products…with the Spark, you have everything you need right from the box to start producing or performing live – no need to scroll through hundreds of individual samples!
ARTURIA SPARK – CONTROLS AND INTERFACE
So how do you actually use the Spark? I have to admit that I had to do a bit of piecing together to get this information, as I did not find the information supplied by Arturia particulary useful. You can watch the promo video below if you want – it gives a few useful insights into how the product works but focuses a little too much on the microwave for my liking!
So, here is the basic layout of the Arturia Spark:
As the Spark is a hardware/software hybrid, it offers the same layout on both the computer screen and the controller, so you can choose whether to use the hardware to control your parameters, or your mouse (although I would assume that if you have paid for a piece of hardware, you're probably going to want to use it as much as possible!) However, the software side of the package does serve a useful purpose as it allows you to access a number of more complex Spark parameters…but I will go into this in a bit more detail later on.
At the top of the Spark you should be able to see 16 horizontally arranged numbered buttons. This is the 16 key step sequencer, capable of producing up to 64 step sequences. Basically, you just select the drum that you want to program and touch the buttons on the step sequencer to place the hits within the groove at your chosen points. You can even do this in realtime during playback if you choose, to make changes to a beat on the fly.
You can control playback, record mode, and the tempo of your project by manipulating the controls to the left underneath the step sequencer, and you can also set, trigger and adjust loops using the controls to the right of these.
In the centre(ish) of the Arturia Spark we have the LCD screen, which can be used to view parameter information if you prefer working in this way rather than looking at the screen, and to the left of this we have a rather cool FX touchpad to control filter sweeps, the slicer, or the roll function. For example, you can select the ‘Filter’ button, and run your finger across the touchpad to manipulate the controls of a low-, high- or band-pass filter, select the ‘Slicer’ button to create some crazy granular effects, or select the ‘Roll’ button to add a natural roll to the selected drum. And perhaps most useful of all, you can use the Arturia Spark’s Record mode to record all automations to really bring a rhythm to life.
On the right of the Spark we have a large circular arrangement of buttons. Arturia refer to this as the ‘Pattern Circle’. The Spark allows you to create a number of different drum patterns and chain them all together to create a more complex overall beat. The Pattern Circle lets you easily select and switch between beat patterns to customise your groove on the fly, and it also lights up in sequence so you can follow your pattern chaining at a glance. In the centre of the Pattern Circle there is a large dial, which allows you to quickly scroll through the Spark’s kits and instruments, and importantly, when you make a change, your beats still stay intact, so it’s easy to audition new kits whilst still keeping the general feel of a project.
Just below the LCD screen, the Spark gives you instant dial access to arguably the most important global synth parameters (Cutoff, Resonance, Aux 1 and Aux 2 sends for routing drums to the Spark’s effects, Panning, and Volume). In addition to these global controls, each pad also has an immediate selection of 3 controls that are specific to each sound. For example, the first pad (which automatically loads the bass drum for each kit) has hands on controls for Tune, Decay and Click, whereas the fourth pad (which automatically loads the Open Hi-hat) has 2 colour controls and an Attack parameter. This kind of selective layout makes the Arturia Spark even more powerful, allowing you to perform complex manipulations on each drum part at unrivalled speeds.
Finally, we have the 8 velocity sensitive pads at the bottom of the Arturia Spark, which can be used to trigger drums for a live performance, or program in drum hits in real-time. So for example, you can hit the pads to play live, or whilst your sequence is playing you can tap pads to record extra parts and layers. This technique offers an advantage over programming beats with the step sequencer, as all the velocity information from your taps will be mapped to the relevant parts in the sequence automatically! Plus you can also choose to use the pads to mute and solo selected drums in real time to add further variation to a performance.
ARTURIA SPARK – SOFTWARE
As well as the hardware unit, the Arturia Spark also harnesses the power of a software program (so you will need a computer if you want to use it!) As well as providing a virtual view of the hardware interface, which allows you to make adjustments to the Spark from within your computer, the software also provides detailed access to the 64 step sequencer, and the kit library, which gives you visual indications of your kit selections. In addition to this, the Arturia Spark software features a ‘Song Mode’, which lets you create and save whole songs by creating and arranging up to 64 patterns. These patterns can then of course be accessed via the hardware Pattern Circle and associated controls. And the software also features an Instrument view, which allows you to make intricate alterations to each drum sound, without being confined to the 3 hardware controls of each pad. Finally, the software also contains a full virtual mixer with 9 high quality effects, so you can create and refine your perfect performance using just the Arturia Spark package!
ARTURIA SPARK – INTEGRATION
As I have just mentioned, you can use the Spark in standalone mode to create full projects, or give professional and creative performances, but if you would prefer to integrate it as a plug-in within your favourite DAW, then this is also possible. Or alternatively, if you want to go in the other direction and use the hardware to control third party software, then this is also no problem as the Spark ships with a MIDI Control Centre Application, which even includes a template for Ableton Live, allowing you to control your performances in a new intuitive way!
Finally, you are not just constrained to the kits that come with the Arturia Spark. Import Rex, MIDI and audio files (Wave or AIFF), export audio and MIDI patterns directly to your DAW, and route up to 16 instrument audio outputs directly into your host sequencer! There are plenty of integration features with the Spark, it’s just up to you to make use of them!
ARTURIA SPARK – CONNECTIONS
Not much to say here, but then again the Spark doesn’t require many connections. If you flip over to the back of the unit you get a USB connection for MIDI communication with a computer, standard MIDI In and Out connections, and a power socket and switch!
ARTURIA SPARK – SUMMARY
I wasn’t particularly excited by the Spark when I first watched their promo video. I thought it looked 'alright', but I really couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. However, after collecting together information from various sources, it has certainly gone up in my estimations, and I can definitely see the potential for this piece of kit. In fact, after reviewing the Arturia Spark and the Dave Smith Tempest I’ve decided that a new and intuitive way to produce my drums is a ‘must’ for my home set-up! Products like the Spark just look like they bring a whole new sense of fun and creativeness to the process of beat making, and that surely can only be a positive thing.
My research into the Spark uncovered a lot of positives. However, it wouldn’t be a fair review if I just concentrated on the good points of the product! The main negative point I found about the Spark was that a few people did not like the look of the hardware controller. I can sort of see what they are saying – it does look a little like it has been designed firstly as a software application, and then built in hardware, but I really don’t have too much of a problem with it! It has a different layout to anything on the market at the moment, so maybe some people find this a little daunting. The proof will be how it handles and how easy it is to control – but I will not be able to report to you on this until we have them in store!
I also found some people commenting on how hardware/software hybrids in the mould of the Spark will never compete with Akai MPC workstations, but I personally think that they will each appeal to a different market. If you enjoy the process of manipulating software and harware together, then you will prefer to work with the Spark, or a product like Native Instruments’ Maschine. However, if you prefer to do everything on a hardware controller and not go near a computer, then naturally you are going to favour the MPC.
I for one am now very excited about the release of the Arturia Spark…feel free to comment and rate my blog post and let me know what your feelings are as well! I’ll be back again soon with more reviews and opinions so watch this space :-)
For more information on the Arturia Spark, click the link below: