64 Spark The Review Fuse

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Spark Vintage Drum Machines

Arturia sent us a copy of Spark Vintage Drum Machines, or just Spark Vintage as it’s known in their Next Generation Software collection, for review. link

Artutia currently have two products under the SPARK name: the Spark Creative Drum Machine which is a hardware controller with its own software system that now includes all the features of the Spark Vintage software which is available separately. The two share a single user manual with clear markers to show which features of the bigger system do not pertain to Spark Vintage.

Spark Vintage can run as a stand alone application or as a plugin with a DAW host. I’ve mostly been playing with the standalone version but have also tried it out as a vst instrument in Cubase AI 5.

As the makers say on the product page:

SPARK Vintage brings 30 legendary drum machines to the musician.

Features Overview

The middle of three sections is seen when the software is started, and this mirrors the layout of the hardware controller: eight pads along the lower edge to trigger or select instruments of which there are 16 in a kit, so there’s a toggle to swap between viewing 1-8 and 9-16. Above each pad are three dials which can be assigned to any of 12 (or more if fx are in use) parameters.
Visually striking is the circular arrangement of buttons around the big dial; the buttons are for the 16 patterns per bank and bank selection A, B, C, or D. The dial itself can be used to select instruments or kits; “turn” it to make a selection,then click to confirm – behaviour that would make perfect sense on the physical controller, but on didn’t feel quite right on screen – there are other menu based ways to do these things which I found to make more sense for mouse based interaction.
Along the top of this “Center” view are the 16 step sequencing buttons, which can be switched to show 1-6, 17-32, 33-48, or 49-64 with the “<<” and “>>” buttons. All of this is perfectly intuitive and easy to use, if a little frustrating for not having the matching (or indeed any at hand) hardware controller. Although I didn’t have any hardware around this week, I did set midi in and out of Spark Vintage to and from Max which was easy, just as it should be!

But the software begins to go beyond what one might expect of a hardware drum machine in the “Top” and “Bottom” sections of its interface.
The Top unfolds to offer a choice of three views; Preferences, Song, and Pattern. In Song view the circle of 16 patterns (and bank selects) is again represented and here the patterns can be arranged using drag-and-drop, one nice feature here is that the info display tells not only the number of patterns in the song arrangement, but also how many bars that amounts and the duration of that in minutes:seconds at the songs tempo. In the Pattern view is a sequencer with a track for each of the 16 instruments. These tacks can expand to see the ‘motion’ control for the parameters of the instrument, by default the velocity is shown (and you can only view one at a time), but each and every dial parameter can be have motion sequenced at a resolution of 4 motion-steps per pattern-steps (these might not the the technical terms that Arturia use!).
The Bottom unfolds to again offer a number of different views. The Library view is split horizontally so that all available projects (Project is their term for “all data needed for a Song: a 16 instrument kit and up to 64 Patterns with their settings, automations and FX.” – manual §4.3.1) are browseable below the currently active project. You can click and drag individual instruments, patterns or banks of patterns from the lower to upper area to create your own projects from existing parts. If you are using Spark as a plugin then you can drag patterns out of this Library view and into the tracks of the DAW host – I did this as MIDI parts into Cubase AI 5, but they say it’s possible as audio too. Moving on to the Mixer view, this is also inintuitive and easy use – the volume slider here giving access to the same parameter that can be accessed via the dials of the Center/hardware-mapped area. On each instrument channel strip there are two Aux sends (which can send at between -90 and +24dB), pan pot, mute, solo, and two FX insert points. The effects on offer, to my surprise, are pretty good and open the sound design possibilities considerably, especially as the parameters of any effects you add become exposed to control from the Center area dials and motion sequencer. Finally for this overview, the Studio view is where the instruments can be tweaked – the option to layer up sounds is missing from SPARK Vintage compared to the other version, so the are of the interface that would hold controls for those activities is filled with an image of a TR-808 which I found a bit annoying, not least because its a picture that includes images of dials and buttons so i could feel the mental process of say ‘no not those ones, they’re not real’ every time my eye glanced passed it toward the less ‘real’ looking but actually interactive dials of the instruments.

General Impressions

Working with Spark Vintage is much more like working with a piece of hardware than is most any other piece of software I know, and this gives the system the feel of a ‘proper instrument’ that I can well imagine as the basis to a live performance rig. This seems perhaps a credit to the True Analog Emulation technology for which Arturia is known, but I mean this here not on the basis of the sound – I’ll get to that shortly – there is a down side, for me, to this hardware-ness of the system, mainly that it’s not actually hardware and that even with the full SPARK controller thing I’d still be tied to the laptop to use it; if I’m going to be tied to the screen (which I’m used to happy with) then perhaps I’d rather have a more twenty-first century experience in the work flow? Or maybe I’d just get used to it with more time and not feel the same….

Finally, the real reason I jumped at the chance to review this product: Casio. Should I feel guilty about this? maybe, maybe not, either way, it’s true; I was excited about the prospect of access to some casiotone beats where the patterns and tones themselves are editable – and I wasn’t disappointed: after 20 years of wishing I could just turn down those hi-hats a bit not only was I able to do that but thanks to the TAE stuff going on I was able to, for example shorten the decay of them.

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