At Winter NAMM in January of 2013 Arturia announced and unveiled the Arturia SparkLE. Billed as the “ultimate beat creating powerhouse” the SparLE’s hybrid drum machine prowess was displayed in its full glory at Arturia’s NAMM booth.
Funny enough I hadn’t made my way over to the booth yet when I ran into Saint Joe of SoundsandGear.com. Saint Joe asked “Yo have you checked out the Arturia SparkLE?” I hadn’t so we headed over together. Once we arrived at the booth I could see why there was such excitement. The SparkLE seems to captured mobility and creative flexibility in one nice neat little package. According to Arturia the SparkLE combines “the amazing sounds, work flow and creative tools of the Spark Engine software, with the high quality SparkLE controller, Arturia has created the ultimate beat creating powerhouse.”
Fast forward to a few months later and there it was on my door step, the Arturia SparkLE. Unpacked, the Arturia SparkLE was as nicely designed as I remembered. A cool white base touched with accents of silver and blue, the SparkLE is less than a 1/2 inch thick, approximately 11 inches wide and a mere 6 inches deep. As a point of size comparison, imagine an iPad in one of those cool Targus 360 cases and you have a bit of kit that is about as big as the SparkLE. Along with its dark grey Arturia logo bearing neoprene zipper clad carrying case, this little guy is prime for mobile beat-making. Now if only we could sub the laptop for an iPad to run the brains of the operation. Hmmmm!?! (hint hint)
So, being that there is no time to waist, I took the first opportunity I had (days later – schedule permitting) to get started on the installation. Word to the wise, prepare for a bit of a ride after the nearly 2gb installation completes. The classic Arturia registration process requires that you login into your Arturia.com account to add registration for the Arturia SparkLE. You’ll need to enter your serial number and unlock code before you’ll have access to the Activation code. Once entered into the Spark Authorization window you’ll have the option to choose “Authorize” or “Run Demo.” If you run the demo mode all of the saving and exporting features will be disabled. Also, once installed and ready to go, be sure to connect your SparkLE prior to opening the software.
The SparkLE software is divided into 3 parts (Top, Middle, Bottom). Only one part of the software is visible at any given time. With the use of the keyboard arrows of by clicking on the navigation arrows in the software the screens can be switched instantaneously. Its really pretty intuitive.
The Top portion of the software is dedicated to the pattern and song features. It allows you to toggle between each feature via the dedicated software buttons on the bottom of the screen.
For those familiar with a step sequencer set up from the Roland x0x days, you’ll feel right at home with the pattern windows familiar stepped tracks per instrument / pad sort of pattern set up. Using the pattern screen, you’ll also have access to the usual suspects
- timing signatures, ranging from 1|1 to 16|16
- resolution, set by default to the typical 1/16 and ranging anywhere from 1/2 to 1/64
- bars (1 to 16) and steps (1 to 64)
The song screen is the place where it all comes together. Here is where you string together up to 64 patterns in any array and order you want to achieve a complete song. The interface is a bit unique to Arturia with their circular pattern banks A thru D each containing up to 16 patterns. overall it seems to be pretty conducive to live performance and easy song set up.
The Bottom section is home to the Studio, Mixer and Library screens.
The Studio (hold your heads sound design enthusiasts) is probably the most feature rich screen of the 3. It is where most of the sound sculpting potential lies. on the left and right sides each instrument can be individually selected for further manipulation and fine tuning. Once an instrument is selected the middle portion of the Studio screen allows you access to a host of features. Change the filter type (Low Pass, High Pass, Band Pass) or adjust the cutoff and resonance. Want to create a monster kick or snare? No problem. Stack those layers. Up to 6 layers total per instrument. Each layer allows for access to pan, gain control, reverse or link which “links layers together so that gain, reverse, start and end points are the same on all layers.” Additionally, the parameters sub section is home to controls for pitch, attack, decay, freq-shift, shift-rate and shift range.
One feature that I was happy to see, once I realized that it’s so easy to load your own samples (drag and drop) in SparkLE, is the ‘Choke Group’ (also known as mute groups in certain circles) which “lets you specify instruments that will cut each other off when triggered.” You’ll find this feature in the master section of the studio screen next to solo and mute.
Moving along, the Mixer screen is the 16 channel mixer. Not too shabby at all. Each channel has two effects inserts plus two aux sends, solo and mute. The master channel allows for access to insert effects as well. You can easily mix a solid beat with as much or as little ummph as you can imagine with this set up. The included effects are crush, chorus, comp, delay, distortion and a gang of other options.
The Library section is where you manage your (what else?) sound library. This set up is reminiscent of iTunes album artwork “glide by” sort of presentation. The included kits all have their own artwork with project title and credit to the author of the kit. Here you can import kits to library, create new projects, delete projects and switch between user or factory presets.
Where this is cool is that it speaks to a shift in the game of betaking where sound design and packaging of one’s own sound kits has taken center stage along with beat making. A quick peep on the “Arturia forums presets zone” shows the community fully immersed in making and sharing kits. Friend to the site @MPC60Champ, for instance, created and shared a kit called “Drumstation 808” where he “ran the 60 with high boost and recorded the sounds” of the 808. I’m certain there will be much many more of these sort of community created kits to come. @MPC60Champ certainly plans to deliver more kits in the near future.
The final section is where all the work is done. The Middle section is a mirror image of the SparkLE controller, with the exception of the separate shuffle knob which does not live in physical form on the controller it self. Perhaps most immediately striking about this creative drum machine is the X/Y pad for controlling a myriad of parameters both Global and per Instrument. The software representation of the SparkLE is flexible in the fact that it allows you to work with or without the controller. This is great for those that may be more x0x style programmers that can steal moments between work and busy moments to program or design sounds / kits. Simply tap the Spark controller toggle near the cpu / audio meter to tell the Spark engine that you want or don’t want the controller connected and it either connects or disconnects the controller. Nice touch.
So what about the controller it self? Well, to reiterate what I mentioned earlier one. The controller is nicely made. Its slick and functional. For as much as it does with it’s compact form factor, I have to say it’s really well laid out. The transport buttons are not in the typical place (usually bottom right – pardon my MPCisms) but their location in the upper left hand corner feels comfortable and natural. Just beneath the transport buttons there are the pad controls (mute, solo, select and toggle between pads 1-8 or 9-16). The select button is used as a sort of “shift” button to move between pads and functions. Say if you want to change the sound of a pad on the fly, hit select and the desired pad. This would enable the selected pad to be edited with a filter or instrument parameter knobs etc.
Speaking of which, moving to the right most side of the controller you’ll find the instrument parameter knobs. Here you can tweak the pitch, attack and decay of an instrument. Going deeper each of these knobs can be changed to effect a number of parameters from pitch to detune to from cutoff to volume and even effects. Even better still, Spark keeps in line with there live music momentum, tweak and capture theme by allowing your tweaks to be endlessly fun but instantly recorded and played back just as you recording them. Still while your sequence plays you can tweak the knobs to add to the flavor but the recording will always roll back into the tweaks you recorded.
Next to these knobs is the push button (with a click) ‘big knob’ as I like to call it but its official name is the jog wheel. From the jog wheel section you can navigate between projects, kits and instruments which each have their own buttons beneath the jog wheel.
In the center of the hardware is the “FX Live pad and FX Selection buttons.” The FX Live pad is essentially an x/y pad divided into 1/4’s and 1/8’s depending on the selected FX Selection button. The FX Selection buttons are divided into 2 types, Global and Instrument. On the global side there are Filter, Slicer & Roller. On the instrument side there are Filter, Send 1/2 & Pan Level. I have to mentioned that the shear amount of filters, effects and stutter tricks included make for an endless amount of tricky live combinations. As stated by Arturia “The Filter button offers proprietary Low pass, Band pass and High pass filters, plus Oberheim-style Low, High, Band pass and Multi-mode filters, each with cutoff and resonance.” This section (FX Live pad and FX Selection) is the live musicians best weapon in a small kit like this. Already so many Beat-maker / DJ oriented musicians use effects pads like Korg’s line of Kaos pads to effect, slice and mangle beats, sounds, instruments and samples. This integrates a similar solution into the mix without having to carry additional gear. Not to mention the fun factor is terrific. I lost a few hours in this section alone. Making beats and destroying them over and over and over and over and… well the possibilities are just stupid fresh. Special mention for the filters and tape / strob effects. Good stuff.
Beyond that there is the Sequencer zone where the obvious happens… sequencing. Here you’ll find all of the nuts and bolts of the sequencing portion of the SparkLE. There is the Bank, Pattern, Sequence, Tune buttons. The Bank button allows for switching between “four different banks of 16 patterns.” The pattern button allows for the selection of various patterns. Here is also where you will see the familiar step sequencing running lights of x0x fame. There are pattern length arrows and a loop manipulation sub section where the divide and move knobs can be used to muck up the sequence in a really musical and usable way. Lastly, the Tune button unveils a feature familiar to MPC heads similar to “16 levels,” which will allow for a sample to be spread chromatically across 16 pads.
The hardware itself has a cool look and feel. As mentioned earlier on, its a perfect compact fit in front of a MacBook pro and is as slim too. The pads feel nice. They aren’t exactly MPC pads but they don’t need to be. They have a feel of their own. The pads feel right when in the midst of banging out beats. If I had to compare the pads for point of reference I’d say they are more akin to Maschine pads than MPC pads.
One thing I wish more companies would do is include an on/off switch. Arturia does not do so, still they made good with including a dedicated volume knob. It’s the little things that matters. For instance, the ability to layer multiple samples assigned to velocity so depending on how hard or soft you hit the pad, or where on the pad your tap, you’ll get a different sound triggered at different velocity. Brilliant.
Another of the things I wish SparkLE had is some sort of chopping facility for chopping samples within the software. As it stands you have to have already chopped your samples before dropping them onto pads. Or load the sample multiple times and several pads and trim the sample down accordingly. I tried this method and ok, it works. But nothing is nice about loading a sample multiple times this way.
However, to it’s benefit and according to Arturia “You can import REX files and they will slice across the pads and across velocity.” This is pretty cool. I imagine most computer musicians are used to doing some chopping and sample editing in external programs and then importing into their beat-making program of choice. So the lack of a sample editing facility is not a deal breaker but it would be a really addition.
If I could suggest anything at all I would suggest that Arturia license a really nice sample editing facility / algorithm and add an Editing button in the bottom screen of the Spark software next to the Studio, mixer and Library buttons. In my humble opinion, that would be much more awesomer (if I may create my own word for a moment).
Another suggestion would be to add a shuffle knob similar to what is in the Spark software interface. Also, a good addition would be a screen maybe somewhere near the jog wheel. This would be very helpful in not having to look at the computer screen when loading kits, projects and samples instruments.
The SparkLE is a good piece of work. The build is solid but lightweight. Beat makers can rest assured that the pads can take a good banging. With the tight integration of software and dedicated hardware, you can literally control dozens and dozens of parameters from the control surface. The ability to tap into either of the 3 sound engines (sample engine, virtual analog and physical modeling), import REX files, record live tweaks and automation and mangle sequences and sounds with the FX Live pads/buttons makes the SparkLE a little power house. I actually had so much fun making and stringing together patterns then mangling, filtering, effecting and stuttering them that I literally lost hours of sleep messing around with it. Make no mistake, this is no MPC but in all fairness it’s not meant to be an MPC. But this doesn’t mean you cant get it in and bang out some ill boom-bap on it.
Although I’ve reviewed other portable beat-making devices the Sparkle wins for over all creativity and portability. For a sample head, like myself, it falls far short on sample editing capabilities. Still in all, for the beat-maker looking for a good drum machine and sound design tool with tons of kits readily available, the SparkLE is a winner.
Pros / Cons
- PROS – Fast workflow
- PROS – Light weight and portable (in an iPad sort of way)
- PROS – Damn handsome piece of kit
- PROS – very “live performance” friendly
- PROS – REX file compatible
- PROS – great for sound designer
- PROS – Drag n Drop samples
- PROS – volume control knob
- CONS – no sample editing facility
- CONS – no screen
- CONS – no on/off button
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