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Review – Arturia SparkLE Instrument

October 22, 2013
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SparkLE is a diminutive controller designed for DJs and mobile beat making using Arturia’s  Spark software.
 
 
WITH SPARKLE, Arturia offers an integrated beat-production system that combines a purpose-built hardware controller with a flexible software front end. The result is a musically satisfying instrument that stands apart from à la carte controller-and-software combos.

The main difference between SparkLE and the original Spark interface lies in the smaller footprint and pared-down design of the LE controller, which, among other things, abandons its sibling’s 5-pin MIDI I/O in favor of a USB jack. The smaller hardware is better suited for mobile musicians and DJs than the larger controller. The Spark software, which hosts sample playback, physical modeling, and subtractive synthesis, is the same in both editions.

Measuring roughly 12" x 6", the SparkLE controller sat unobtrusively in front of my 17" MacBook Pro and nested comfortably atop my Novation 61SL MKII controller keyboard. The SparkLE’s build is solid, hefty, and professional feeling, with all buttons and knobs firmly attached and offering a consistent and smooth feel.

The control surface is laid out in a familiar, easy-to-navigate drum-machine style. Record, Start, and Stop buttons grace the top left of the surface, with tempo and volume knobs flanking the center. (A knob that varies the amount of shuffle appears in the plug-in, but not on the hardware.) Below these are the Select switch, a toggle button that selects pads 1–8 or 9–16, and Mute and Solo buttons. In conjunction with the Select switch, you can clear all mutes or solos at once. The eight velocity-sensitive pads suited my playing perfectly, offering just the right feel between cushiony and resistant: The dynamic response was sensitive, almost to a fault, but you can adjust the response for each pad if you need to.

Controller highlights include the touchscreen and adjacent buttons: The first column’s Filter, Slicer, and Roller handle global processing, while the second column’s Filter, Send 1/2, and Pan Level work on individual pads. For example, engaging the global Filter button allows the touchscreen to animate filter cutoff and resonance on the entire kit. Continue pressing the button to cycle through eight filter types. Using the touchscreen with the Pan Level engaged and the hi-hat pad selected lets you send your hats skittering around the soundstage. Divide and Move knobs let you whittle down a groove into shorter components and toy with rhythmic displacement, respectively.
 
 
The Spark software interface is intuitive to use and includes a dedicated Shuffle control.

The large rotary encoder handles multiple tasks gracefully. Pressing it opens a panel that lets you select an instrument, an entire kit, or a Project, which encompasses all song settings. Rotating the encoder scans the list of objects, and in the case of instruments, will optionally audition kit pieces. A second press confirms your choice and loads the object. The three knobs on the upper right can be assigned to any of 12 parameters encompassing pitch, envelope, filter, and seven effects controls, allowing you to manipulate and record changes on the fly. Parameter values appear on the Spark software screen.

Pop, dance, and hip-hop sounds dominate the Spark library, with a mixture of analog modeling, physical modeling, and sample-based sources. I was impressed by the sample-like realism of some of the physically modeled sounds, particularly the snares, which served up plenty of punch and ringy overtones. Editing the sounds from the bottom pane of the Spark plug-in is not deep, but it is flexible enough to seed new sounds. And dropping your own samples from the desktop into the plug-in couldn’t be easier.

Complications arise when you want to record MIDI events from the LE controller’s drum pads into a track on your host DAW and use them to trigger sounds from the Spark software. Currently, the LE controller remaps the notes to a different pitch while doubling them up with sounds from the lower bank of pads. Setting up tracks to respond properly is confusing, and I was never able to get it to work consistently. When I used my Novation keyboard to record events in my DAW in order to play Spark, everything worked fine. Arturia says it is working on the issue but suggests you record MIDI data into your DAW from the output of the plug-in.

In the meantime, as a standalone instrument and complete drum machine, the SparkLE package offers a streamlined and compelling system for groove creation that is worthy of your attention.

Marty Cutler likes playing drums with a five-string banjo neck and strings attached.
 
SUMMARY
STRENGTHS: Intuitive work surface. Expressive and intuitive controls. Well integrated with host as a drum-machine plug-in. Great sounds. Easy drag-and-drop.

LIMITATIONS: Controller cannot record events into host MIDI tracks. Accompanying documentation only covers installation and setup.
$299
 
 
 
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