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ARTURIA SPARK - INTRODUCTION
I am just about to take a look at 480 instruments and 30 Kits from both vintage drum machines and acoustic kits, all in one drum solution, made of a software application and a dedicated hardware controller. It is the new Arturia Spark creative drum machine, announced at NAMM this year, which combines multi-layered drum samples from all the vintage greats and adds power with Arturia's TAE Analog Synthesis and physical modelling.
As I take it out of the box, the first thing that I notice is that it is heavy! It feels like a solid hardware drum machine. There is no Mains cable to plug in as it gets all its power from a USB cable. However, I did notice an AC connection on the back, which seems to take a standard 9v 800ma adaptor.
The Arturia Spark certainly looks different to any drum machine I have seen in the past. Its light blue and grey on a white background, and the way the controls are designed makes it look very futuristic! The top row of 16 pads is for the 16-step sequencer, just like on classic drum machines, and you also have the master volume and shuffle controls. To the right, surrounding a jog dial (for you to quickly load your favourite kits and instruments) is a circle of 16 buttons for you to select your patterns and follow the drum pattern as it plays. To the left is the FX Pad, which is a touch pad for filter effects, creating fills and for 'live' chopping of beats.
In the centre you have 6 main control knobs and at the bottom you have eight MPC-style pads. Above each of these eight pads are three knobs for tweaking the key parameters for each instrument. On the sides of the Spark are two sturdy angled stands, giving the working surface a comfortable angle to work with. The connections are simply USB, MIDI In, MIDI Out and an A/C Power Input (with a power switch).
Loading the Arturia Spark Software and activating it was a breeze! I immediately got the software on screen and was able to play it! However, the hardware did not work straight away, but worked on re-boot. Not only does the Spark sound awesome, but as soon as you start moving the real-time knobs you realise the enormous potential here.
1) What is the first thing I need to press to create a new pattern? There is no 'New' or 'Create' button, and pressing the record button and pressing play seems to play the selected pattern.
2) How do I make a 64 step pattern?
3) Can I change different parts within a kit, for example if I do not like the Ride Cymbal can I select a different one?
4) Can I add my own Drum Samples?
5) How do you link patterns together?
One of the first things that the manual tells you is to load the latest version of software from the homedownloadsupdate part of Arturia's website:- http://www.arturia.com/evolution/. At the time of writing, the current version for both Windows and Mac OS X is 1.1.1. It is always a sensible idea to do this so you have the most up-to-date software. There is also an expansion pack available from this site, which allows you to add two famous Roland drum machines to the Arturia Spark - the Roland DR606 and the DR707, so it is definitely worth a visit.
ARTURIA SPARK - THE SPARK MANUAL
OK, so I probably need to concentrate on pages 21 to 65 in the first instance of the Spark Manual. I am sure there are many questions to be answered, ranging from how to use it as a plug-in in your DAW, to how to use it as a hardware MIDI controller with other MIDI kits, but for now let us see if these pages answer the first six questions I had. It seems that to create a new pattern, the manual (pages 28-29 4.5.6) advises that you first erase pattern A1 by switching the Spark on, pressing the erase button and then click on pattern 1. That seems simple enough and I now have a clear pattern. If I highlight the Bass Drum for example, I can now start programming in some bass beats and away I go! OK, so that's 16 steps, but what about 64?
Well, the look of the software mimics the look of the hardware, but on the software you have three buttons, 'Top', 'Middle' and 'Bottom'. The 'Top' view opens up another screen to display a pattern sequencer. It is here that you will find the option to change to a 64-step pattern... in fact, as you click on the 'steps' button, a drop-down menu is displayed for you to select anything from 1 to 64.
The Bottom panel features the Studio, the Mixer and the Library. The Studio displays all 16 Instruments assigned to the pads (eight at a time). If you click on the name of an instrument e.g. 909 Bass Drum, you can change it to any instrument, including Bass synths. It is here that I noticed that as you make your selection you can select from three categories:- Analog, Physical Mode and Sample. So this also partly answers my Sampling question as this must be the area to select my imported samples.
Although the Manual mentions the importing of Samples, it doesn't really say how. I have tried to work it out whilst compiling this review and it seems that whilst you are in the Studio section at the bottom, if you select 'sample' for your instrument and then click on the 'plus' sign to the right of the name, up will pop a middle section, which shows sample layers and an option to add a sample.
OK, the last question is covered nicely in the manual under 'The Song Panel 5.4.6', pages 63 to 65, and will show you how to link patterns easily together in this Song Mode.
ARTURIA SPARK - JOG DIAL
Apparently the Jog Dial allows you to load Kits or load Instruments when working on a project. I did not find this easy to start with, but to load a kit you need to click on 'Kit' under the Jog Dial and then Click on the Jog dial, and whilst you are maintaining your click you need to move your mouse up or down to make a selection (the kit's name will appear in the centre display window). Finally, you need to click on the Jog dial again to load a new kit. Loading a new Instrument is the same, except that you firstly need to select the instrument pad you want the instrument to be assigned to before you click on 'Instrument' above the Jog dial. I found this all unnecessarily complicated and decided there must be an easier way.
One think that I did like however, was that once you have created a New Project and created your first new pattern, you can easily copy this pattern (e.g. A1) to another pattern (e.g. A2) so that you can create a slight variation to pattern A1 but retain all the main elements. This is simply done by holding the Control key down and dragging A1 to A2 until a message box appears that asks you to confirm the copy.
ARTURIA SPARK - LIVE FX PAD
The FX live pad is a great addition and I wish all drum machines had one. It doesn't matter if you are playing live or recording; you can use its touch sensitive screen and apply live effects in real time to your song or patterns. I had great fun with this and started recording my drum kit with a distant and filtered sound, morphing through the effects until the full weighty drum sound came in as my song began. I then shaped my song in the middle, coming out of the full drum sound to provide even greater dynamics. The Spark gives you three main effect buttons to play with: - Filter, Slicer and Roller. I accidently discovered that by right-mouse-clicking on any of them, it allows you to select either 'Latch' or 'Touch'. With 'Latch' selected I found that it will not cut off the effect when you release your click, whereas when 'Touch' is selected the effect cuts out as you release your click.
Probably, like most people I tend to head straight to the Filter which has a Low pass, a Band pass and a High pass filter with cutoff and resonance. I enjoyed messing around with the modulation, experimenting with different movements like 'S' shapes or figure of eights. The manual will tell you that the resonance is modulated vertically from the bottom of the pad to the top and Cutoff is modulated horizontally, from right to the left.
The Slicer will repeat the value of the note selected while applying an effect and you can choose between the following effects: Bit Crusher, Repeat Mix, Repeat, Tape, Reverse, Strobe and Pan. I wasn't sure how to change these effects until I accidently did it; by clicking on the Slicer button again. I had expected a right-mouse click menu selection! I decided to go with the Bit Crusher - 2 bit, which really gave some grittiness to my pattern. I think the best thing to do here is experiment and see what you like - I think you will be pleasantly surprised!
This leaves the Roller button, which Arturia say could be described as a "Drum roll" tool. It has two rows of note values for 'Swing On' or 'Swing Off'. This is probably best used with any instrument pad. I would make a roller button selection and then press and hold the pad for the duration that you want the roll.
ARTURIA SPARK EFFECTS
Ok we haven't finished with effects yet; in fact we haven't started, because in the mixer section at the bottom you will see that for each channel you have an AUX 1, AUX 2 and Pan Control knob. Here you can choose from Bit Crusher, Compressor, Chorus, Delay, Distortion, EQ and Phaser. As you select one, an image appears of the selected effect, allowing you to edit a number of parameters for that effect. You can even apply different effects to different instruments in your kit and this can give some great results, but I would say don't overdo it. This is another area to experiment with, perhaps in conjunction with the Volume and Pan controls.
ARTURIA SPARK - MIDI CONTROLLER
You will find that the Spark comes with MIDI Control Centre software so that you can customise the functions of the Pads, Knobs and Buttons according to your needs, and easily control any third-party software or hardware. To use your Spark Controller as a MIDI controller, press 'Filter' + 'Slicer' + 'Roller' and then open 'public MIDI port' or connect a MIDI cable to MIDI Out.
ARTURIA SPARK - SUMMARY
I think that with any new product today, companies need to reach the largest audience possible, especially with something like a drum machine that has a very niche market. With the Spark, I found that whilst the hardware makes life much easier, I was still able to do nearly everything without it (except play a pattern with two hands). I think Arturia could market two products - this hybrid hardware / software option and a much cheaper software only option. However, I can't ignore the fact that I loved this product and it certainly provokes you to get creative with so many sonic possibilities. The sound and results are superb with 480 Instruments, 30 Kits, a 64-step Sequencer, 16-track Mixer and 8 really great responding pads. The user-friendliness, yes, could be better, but the Manual does the job, so it's just a little matter of a bit of a learning curve and you will soon be having rhythmic fun! On top of this you have a great MIDI hardware controller for a great hands-on experience, be it with the Spark or other MIDI equipment, or as an awesome plug-in for drums and other sounds for you to make killer grooves in your DAW. I have just touched the surface here with this machine and there is plenty more to keep your creative juices flowing for a long time, such as 'Advanced Loop mode with divide and move functions' and 'Real-time automation'. I am also sure that Arturia will provide you with some great updates to compete with its rivals.