Arturia Spark LE Drum Controller Review

Arturia Spark is a Hybrid Drum Machine, a combination of 2 separate elements:Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.com IMG_2311

Spark LE, the USB MIDI controller and the Spark 2 software instrument.

The controller visually mirrors the software exactly. This very much gives the impression that you are playing a classic hardware drum machine. However, since the sounds are kept on your computer, there is almost unlimited storage space available, and much more processing power at your fingertips than you would find with conventional drum machines. Arturia have been at the forefront of software-based instruments and synthesizer emulation design for over ten years; and have pioneered this hardware-software combination approach. With Spark, they turned their attention to drum machines and have put together a really reasonably priced powerful product – particularly if you consider what is packed into it!

 

Introduction

Spark gives you access to 100s of drum kits; many of these are emulations of classic hardware drum machines. You are able to control them very intuitively – the controller combines elements of the Roland TR drum machines and the Akai MPC workflow into one device.

If Spark existed purely as hardware, it would easily be one of the best drum machines of recent years. By choosing the software and controller option, Arturia have made much more possible, in terms of the amount of the kits, sounds, samples, kits, presets and projects that are instantly available to pick from. Added to that, it can be fully integrated easily into your existing Digital Audio Workstation environment. In general, a hardware drum machine will use its onboard analogue circuitry to generate sound, which tends to result in small number of sounds. The other alternative if using hardware, is to buy a sample triggering device. Spark gives you both of these form factors in one product.

Also, since many of the ports that would usually be added to a hardware machine, such as power input, audio out, MIDI in and out ports, are eliminated, this makes the Spark LE a very compact and lightweight controller, without loosing any of the functionality of a hardware device. There is just one single connector, a mini USB port on the left side, and it takes power from USB.

For a novice, there is a slight learning curve, as there is with every new device, but it shouldn’t be long before you are able to quickly create beats with ease, and fun!

The Spark LE hardware and the Spark software together are a sophisticated beat-making environment that give tactile, inspiring and unique ways to create drum beats, build sounds, improvise and perform live. It’s straightforward to use, whilst providing in-depth editing.

Core Features

The Hardware

Made of tough textured clean-white plastic with a metal base and metal side panels, the controller construction is very solid and compact, being thinner than a typical modern laptop.  Spark LE has a real ‘musical instrument feel’ to it, that is lacking in other controllers.

The pads have a springiness to them and respond very well, not unlike an Akai MPC, and are of similar size. They are made of translucent soft rubber and are backlit when hit, as are all of the buttons. They feel satisfying and responsive to play when programming beats.  The dials are a tough squeezable plastic, with the feel that they should return years of undamaged service.

The quality of design is very apparent, Arturia are real specialists in design and that is reflected in this controller.

The layout of the pads, buttons, and dials is very logical and well thought-out, making Spark LE a very intuitive, pleasant and fun controller to use.

Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.com IMG_2204
With the controller, you can create sequences in two ways:

  • By replicating an Akai MPC sequencer – press record, then play any of the 8 MPC pads in realtime. The 1-8/9-16 button lets you switch between the two parts of your drum kit.
  • Just above the pads, we have 16 buttons, layed out horizonally as they are on a Roland drum machine. As you select an instrument (e.g. bassdrum) and press the step sequencer buttons, the instrument will play at whichever of the 16 positions in the bar that you selected. You can edit what plays by adding and removing notes from th sequencer, whilst the sequence is playing.

There is also the option to the drum sounds ‘completely’ live – without using any type of the sequencing, by striking the pads with your fingers.

The buttons of the step sequencer section also have additional functions:

You can trigger sequenced patterns from them, and switch between pattern banks, very much as you can on Roland machines. The Seq. button on the hardware puts the sequence buttons into ‘Step’ mode. The Tune button allows you play melodies with whichever sound is currently loaded!

The X/Y effects pad and the Loop section will bring a lot of joy to people who perform with Spark. The X/Y pad is switchable so that the effects make changes to one sound or all sounds at once. It is remeniscient of the Korg Kaoss X/Y pad and returns similar results. Quick access to Filter, Roll and Slicer, make Spark a very dynamic and playable instrument, whilst providing the ability for some great creative patterns.

The loop controls are are great for performing live variations to your sequence, by breaking it up into small sections and repeating them at your will.

The Controller is divided up into the following areas:

  • Transport section.
    Buttons with visual feedback – to Select, Start, Stop and Record the beats.
  • X-Y Effects Pad.
    The touch-sensitive Korg Kaoss-style X-Y effects pad is loaded with a 3-mode Filter, a 6-mode Slicer, and works really well to instantly transform sounds, to create live rolls, fills and more.
  • Mode selector Section
    Switch between the 4 primarly modes of Spark – Bank, Pattern, Seq and Tune
  • The 16 step sequencer. Very reminiscent of the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, with almost identical programming.
  • Master volume & Tempo dials
  • The 3 vertical user assignable encoders, to adjust the selected drum sound. Again very much in the style of Roland TR machines.
  • Jog dial and Proj., Kit, and Instr. buttons, to quickly browse through the instrument library and to load instruments.
  • Editing section – buttons to copy, erase, and set lengths of patterns.
  • Loop Section – add spontaneous and stunning live effects to sequences.
  • Velocity and pressure-sensitive pads
  • Mini USB port

Spark LE is fully compatible with the iPad. Arturia have in fact also released a specific iPad app called iSpark, based on the look and functionality of the Spark 2.0 software. It is pre-configured to work instantly with Spark LE.

It also excels as a universal USB MIDI controller, capable of controlling any other MIDI compatible software or hardware. Arturia have provided MIDI Control Centre software, with this standalone program you can configure the MIDI information to be sent from each of Spark LE’s pads, encoders and buttons. They can be allocated tasks such as: the transmission of MIDI CCs and NRPNs, the generation of notes, pitch-bend and MMC (MIDI Machine Control) commands.

The Software

The Spark 2.0 software has 7 pages:

  • Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine softwareSpark 2.0 MAIN pageThe MAIN page – shows the buttons, dials and pads as layed out on the controller. The sequencer section of the MAIN page, and therefore the controller, show you the sequencer positions for the sound that is currently selected.

 

  • The SEQUENCER page gives you the sequencing for all sounds at once. You can interact with this sequencer using the the controller, and can get a visually indication of the effects and automation assigned to each sound. SEQUENCER page Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine softwareSpark 2.0A sequence pattern can be made up of 16 to 64 steps, and is stored in one of 4 banks. You can choose between follow mode  – follows the position of the step when playing, or static (fixed 16-step zone). The arrow buttons on the controller allow you to switch the display between the 16-step zones of the pattern. Like on classic drum machines, accents can be placed on each step using the Accent button.

 

  • The SONG page – shows the 16 patterns in each bank. Patterns can be dragged-and-dropped, from any of the 4 banks, into a continuous ‘song’. As one pattern in the song finishes playing, the next pattern will start.

SONG page. Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine softwareSpark 2.0

Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.com

The STUDIO page with Effects loaded. Click to zoom.

  • The STUDIO page – lets you choose and configure the engine that generates a sound, with up to six layers of sound forming the foundation for each instrument. In addition to Spark’s comprehensive internal sound libraries, you can also load external WAV, AIFF or REX files. You can edit, tune and add effects such as compressors and filters to the sounds, as well as altering volume, pan, pitch and filter settings. The output of each sound can be sent to 2 auxiliary effects.  To edit a sound, you simply click on its icon (with instruments 1-8 on the left and 9-16 on the right) and begin tweaking parameters. Clicking its icon on the STUDIO page will let you hear and compare the sound.

 

  • TPhysical Modeling - MODULAR page Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine softwareSpark 2he MODULAR page – will appeal hugely to sound designers, as you can create sounds from scratch here. It provides the opportunity to configure, connect and combine Spark 2’s modules: oscillators, filter, envelopes, effects — however you like. Each module can be dragged up from a list into the modular window. Inputs for each are listed on the left, and outputs on the right. Each pad, for example, could have its main trigger output connected to the input of a sampler, while its velocity output could be sent to a filter module to control the tone of the sound. This window will initially seem complex to those who aren’t used to modular systems, but it’s hugely powerful, flexible and interesting to work with.

 

  • Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.comNext we have the MIXER page –  with the interface of a professional 16-channel mixing board (1 channel per pad). Each channel has pan, auxiliary send and insert FX controls. There are 2 insert effects slots available per channel, with a choice of seven effects for each, these include Sub Generator (to give bassdrums some extra boom!), bitcrusher, distortion, chorus, phasing, compression, 2 types of EQ, delay and more. Set volume levels, add effects and sends, you can also hear the sounds by clicking their icons. In plugin mode, when loaded as a virtual instrument in a Digital Audio Workstation and set to multi-output mode, each of the 16 instruments in a Spark kit has its own output, so additional processing can be added outside of the Spark software.

 

  • Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.comYou can load kits and projects, and change the sounds in a kit from the LIBRARY page. This can also be done from the controller using the Proj., Kit and Instr. buttons, and browsing through the library using the big dial.

 

  • Finally is the PREFS page where some of the parameters of the software can be set.Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.com PREFS page

 

 

 

It is possible to scroll through the onscreen pages from the controller, by pressing any of the 1-7 buttons in the Step Sequencer section at the same time as the Select button.

 

The Spark 2.0 software has 3 audio creation engines:

  1. Analog Synthesis – Arturia’s proprietary TAE (True Analog Emulation) technology, provides accurate reproductions of the tone, waveshape, tuning and other detailed characteristics of hardware drum machines; emulating their circuitry with software algorithms. Using Digital Signal Processing techniques, instruments are modeled in detail, starting from mathematical models, physical models, and simulations of their circuitry components. Arturia’s sound engineers sit next to the instrument they are modeling and listen to every little nuance of the sound it produces. The response of the filter cutoff knob, a small artifact in the waveform of an oscillator, subtle variations in tone, noise that is generated by the circuit, are all studied to reproduce those behaviors in the digital domain, and make their emulations as true to the originals as possible. The software also uses techniques to synthesize the properties of natural instruments, when they are struck or plucked.
  2. Playback of Sample files (WAV, AIFF or REX audio files) – allowing you to import any drum kits or sound effects that have been recorded or downloaded. Multiple samples can be layered together to play simultaneously, or for added realism, layers can be set to split across velocity, or you can cycle through the samples or set them to trigger randomly. Spark’s library includes multi-layered acoustic drums, deep dance and trance hits, and numerous sound effects and instrument stabs. It lets you drag and drop your own samples onto pads as well, and then chop, layer and edit them within the digital sound engine.
  3. Physical Modelling – Spark’s built-in oscillators allow you to build sounds from scratch. This gives a whole new method of sound creation that few other drum machine currently offer.

Among the emulations are 180+ drum kits comprised of 1900+ instruments, including:

Vintage drum machines: analog emulations of Roland’s TR-808, TR-909, TR-606 and TR-707; Simmons SDS-V, Linn Drum, Korg KPR 77, DDM-110, DDM-220; Sequential Circuits Drumtraks; Oberheim DMX, Drumulator,  Roland CR-78, Mini Pops 7, Ace Tone FR-2L, Yamaha MR 10, Maestro Rhythm King MRK2, Boss DR-55, E-mu-SP-12, Roland DR-727, Roland R-8, Casio VL-Tone Yamaha RX5; Casio RZ1;  and Linn 9000.
Electronic kits covering practically all popular modern music styles : EDM, Techno, House, Electro, Industrial, Hip Hop, Trip Hop, R&B, Pop, Trap, Trance,
Modern Rock, Funk, Vintage Rock, Latin percussion.

Features

Two banks of 8 velocity and pressure sensitive pads

3 user assignable encoder dials

41 buttons on the controller

Touch sensitive X/Y effects pad with repeat, tape, reverse, strobe, pan, mix, bit crusher, 3 mode filter and roller

Advanced loop mode with divide and move functions

Real-time automation on all parameters

16 track mixer with 14 high quality effects: multiband compressor, bit crusher, multiband EQ, chorus, delay, reverb, distortion, phaser, plate reverb, destroyer, flanger, space pan, limiter, sub generatorReview Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.com IMG_2269

Tuning mode available from the 16 pads and step buttons

MIDI clock output to synchronize to other software or hardware instruments

MIDI and automation drag & drop export to your Digital Audio Workstation

User-mapable MIDI controller mode

Kensington Lock

Neoprene case included in the box

USB Bus-Powered

Smaller than a book of A4 paper

Dimensions : 28.4 cm x 17.1 cm x 1.7 cm / 13.4 x 8.8 x 2.4 inches

Net weight : 1 Kg / 3.3 pounds

Aluminum and hard plastic enclosure

Conclusion

Spark is a revolution in drum controllers. The hardware is intuitive, compact and well built. It’s easy to use, to navigate, and it sounds great. The best elements from analog drum machines, sample based beatboxes like the Akai MPC and acoustic drum sets, are combined in a modern beat station offering creative synthesis and expressive control. With Roland TR-808 style input for sequencing and MPC pads, it’s a terrific tool for writing and for improvising, giving lots of inspiration and fun.

Arturia did a really good job on this device: it feels sturdy, solid and very portable. The software has tons of great samples and sound generation possibilities. The inclusion of its realtime editing functions does a lot to enhance the experience.

Review Arturia SparkLE controller, Spark 2 virtual drum machine software_usbmidicontrollers.comIt is ideal for composers, producers, DJs and performers who want a small and low-priced powerful drum machine. It’ll slot easily into laptop bags and into studios where desk space is limited. For added flexibility, the software can be used independently from the controller, if you’re not able to carry it your bag.

Spark is a unique instrument with some big time features; it’s approach to building drum kits and making beats is very straightforward. The way the software and controller integrate brings back the tactile feel of a drum machine, but it also adds features that are cleverly implemented and easy to understand.

Spark is a great system, in many ways. Arturia have concentrated on the feel of conventional drum machines, to produce a powerful beat-making tool with functionality and sound quality way beyond its low price. It will get you started making beats in new and interesting ways.

 

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