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TC WORKS SPARK XL 2.6 (MAC)

May 1, 2003
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TC Works Spark XL 2.6 is a multipurpose sample-management tool. Like its high-end Macintosh competitors, BIAS Peak and Prosoniq's SonicWorx Studio, Spark XL performs a wide range of sample-editing tasks, emphasizing some areas over others. Version 2.6 represents a significant update in several respects: a new state-of-the-art noise-shaped dithering algorithm called Megabitmax has been added, the price has been significantly reduced, and there is now only one version of the program. In addition, OS X features have been upgraded, including Direct I/O support, MP3 recording, and CD burning with iTunes. According to TC Works, XL 2.6 will be the last version supporting systems earlier than OS X.

Spark's design emphasis is on mastering and effects processing, but it does include several waveform-editing tools that were not available when Spark was last reviewed in EM in November 1999. One of Spark's strongest features is still its expandable VST-effects matrix, which allows you to build arbitrarily complex effects combinations. In a unique twist, Spark lets you combine effects and VST instrument plug-ins, and the program even comes with a basic complement of modular-synth components for building your own synth plug-ins.

For this review, I used a Titanium PowerBook/800 MHz with an RME MultiFace/CardBus audio interface running both OS 9.2.2 and 10.2.2. The overall performance was good, but I did find that I had to use a large ASIO-buffer setting to avoid audio dropout warnings. That's no problem for most sample-editing tasks, but it does result in significant latency when using MIDI and plug-in instruments. I was able to use low buffer sizes by turning off the warnings, and the dropouts, if they occurred, did not cause audible problems, although the program also seemed less stable.

BROWSE AND EDIT

Spark's main window is the Browser View (see Fig. 1). It is divided into three parts: File View (top left), Play List (top right), and Wave Editor (bottom). The Browser View is where all recording, playback, editing, and file management takes place. Understanding how to get around in the Browser View is the key to understanding how Spark works.

Spark is optimized for working with multiple audio files simultaneously. The File View is for organizing the audio files in the current Project by dividing them into groups and then by creating regions within each audio file. Groups are indicated in the File View by folder icons, and they are at the top of the three-level File View hierarchy. Audio files are at the next level, and regions are at the lowest level.

How many groups you have and how you divide the audio files among them is completely up to you. The only rule — and the most annoying aspect of the File View — is that you can't move things around. Once you add an audio file to a group, you can't move it to a different group, and if you create several regions in an audio file, you can't reorder them in the File View to reflect some new logic or naming. Those handicaps aside, however, the File View is a great way to organize Projects.

Spark has menu entries and buttons for loading and saving audio files, but it also supports full drag-and-drop capability from the Finder, and that is by far the easiest way to get files into and out of a Project. You simply drag audio files or folders containing audio files directly into and out of the File View. You can also import WAV, AIFF, SDII, MP3, and any format supported by QuickTime. (When you drag in a QuickTime movie, you get a movie viewer that is automatically synchronized to Spark; you can then instantly begin to edit the movie's soundtrack.) You can export audio in the same formats, with the proviso that QuickTime Pro is needed to export some QuickTime formats. TC Works has licensed the original Fraunhofer MP3 Codec, which is the real deal for MP3 import and export.

In addition to the audio-file formats just mentioned, you can drag CD tracks directly into the File View. That provides the fastest and most convenient way I've seen for extracting data from CD-Audio-format sample libraries. Just pop the CD in and drag some tracks or the whole CD into the File View. After Spark has digested the tracks (which can take a while for a whole CD), you can create regions for the samples you want, add processing as desired (more on that later), and drag the samples to the Desktop or to a folder of your choice. That works equally well for loops, clips, and instrument samples. Spark currently supports SCSI and MIDI transfer to and from a number of popular hardware samplers, although OS X support for some SCSI devices is not necessarily assured.

The Play List is for arranging regions from the File View. A region can occur more than once in the Play List and can be separated from the regions before and after it or crossfaded into them. A sophisticated Cut Editor (see Fig. 2), reminiscent of the crossfade editor in Sound Designer II, is provided for fine-tuning the transition between regions. The Play List serves two purposes: creating CDs and creating new audio files from diverse regions. If you wanted to do the latter, you could, for example, splice two loops together or cut in a few notes from an alternate take as is illustrated in the MP3 example GuitSplice. Spark supports Roxio's Toast and Jam as well as Apple's iTunes for CD burning, and it will transfer the Play List directly to those CD burners.

MAKING WAVES

The remaining Browser View part is the Wave Editor, which always displays the audio file or region chosen in the File View. If a region is chosen, its parent audio file is displayed, with the parts outside the region grayed out. You can make selections outside the region, and in fact, if you want to control where in the File View hierarchy a new region is placed, that's the only way to do it — when you create a new region, it always appears below the currently selected region in the File View.

Spark's Wave Editor (see Fig. 3) definitely takes a little getting used to, but once I learned my way around, I found it both convenient and quite powerful. The first thing to get used to is Spark's two-cursor system: The program employs a green Edit Cursor and a red Playback Cursor. You position the Edit Cursor with the mouse or with various key commands for moving it to specific locations such as the beginning or end of a region, selection, or audio file. As its name indicates, the Playback Cursor always shows the current playback position, and conveniently, the Return key returns the Playback Cursor to the Edit Cursor position. (Option + Return moves the Edit Cursor to the Playback Cursor position.)

Aside from clicking and dragging, Spark provides several ways to select areas within the Wave Editor. Double-clicking between the cursors selects the area between them, and key commands move the cursors in handy increments. The same key commands when used with the Shift key let you extend or shrink a selection. You can also click and drag to extend or shrink a selection from either end. Once you've selected the desired area, Command + R turns it into a new region that automatically shows up in the File View.

One thing that is often confusing in Spark when it comes to playback is the relationship between the File View regions, the Wave Editor selections (which are remembered on a per-region basis), and an optional loop. (You can define one for each audio file.) Three playback options affect what you hear when you choose a region or audio file in the File View: Play Selection, Cycle Mode, and Loop Mode. With Play Selection turned on, you always hear the Wave Editor selection, unless there is none, in which case you hear the region if a region is chosen. You hear the whole audio file if that is chosen, unless Loop Mode is turned on, in which case you hear the loop. As you might imagine, things can quickly degenerate into a “Who's on first?” situation, and I frequently found myself listening to something other than what I had intended to audition.

In addition to its Pencil and Eraser tools, the Wave Editor offers a basic complement of destructive signal-processing algorithms, including normalization, gain change, fade in and out (on a per-channel basis with variable fade curves), reverse, inverse, channel swapping, mix to mono, DC removal, sampling-rate conversion (with three quality levels), and independent pitch shifting and time stretching. You can also destructively apply any VST plug-in, although the FX Machine (which I'll discuss in a moment) offers much more extensive plug-in processing.

Although the Wave Editor DSP is destructive, Spark uses temporary files and prompts you before making changes permanent. You can drag or save from the File View to get a copy of the changed file, leaving the original unchanged.

Spark lets you place loop markers (one per audio file), but offers no special loop-editing tools similar to the Cut Editor previously described, nor is there any provision for tempo matching. Loop management is the one area in which Spark in general, and the Wave Editor in particular, could use some juicing up.

JUST FOR EFFECT

Spark's FX Machine (see Fig. 4) and its consequent effects-processing capabilities are among the program's most powerful features. The FX Machine is a plug-in matrix that by default offers four parallel rows of five effects each. (The matrix can be expanded to 99 by 99, but given that effects tend to be CPU intensive, four by five is probably a reasonable limit.) Spark comes with a basic collection of VST effects as well as five modular-synth modules, including a little step sequencer. Of course, you can apply the power of the FX Machine's flexible routing to any of your own VST effects or Instruments as well. Moreover, the FX Machine itself is a VST plug-in and can be used in any compatible host.

Mastering effects include a versatile compressor-limiter, a maximizer, a de-noiser, a de-clicker, and a junior version of the TC Native Reverb. The processing effects include five filter variations, an expander, a saturation-distortion unit, a stereo feedback-delay with tape emulation (quality deteriorates for later echoes), and a wah-wah effect with built-in envelope follower. There are also two monitor plug-ins: a 30-band, ⅓-octave Metergraph spectral analyzer and a Sonograph display.

The synthesizer modules (formerly marketed separately as Spark Modular), although basic, can be combined in the FX Machine matrix to produce an intriguing synth. But it's really the modules' use in effects configurations that is the most interesting. Combined with the 16-step pattern-sequencer, the modules can be used to build complex gating and enveloped-filter effects. The MP3 example droneFX was created using the sequencer to process a drone sample.

Entire FX Machine setups can be saved individually or in banks of eight, so you don't have to re-create your favorite matrix every time you run Spark. Once you have your FX Machine set up, processing an individual region or the complete playlist is simply a matter of clicking the Create File button in the Master window. The pop-up menu below the button is for selecting among several Megabitmax noise-shaping and dithering options.

NEW REGIONS

In developing and refining Spark XL, TC Works has clearly set out to cover a lot of territory, and it does so remarkably well. XL would definitely be the tool I'd grab for extracting regions from large sample collections, for cutting and splicing diverse samples, and for complex processing tasks. Built-in MP3 and QuickTime support are also a big plus. For the minutia of wave editing, XL wouldn't be my first choice, but the tools are there to get the job done. At $599, XL is at the high end of the price range for comparable products, but if you spend a lot of time doing sample management and DSP sound design, Spark XL 2.6 is worth considering.


Len Sasso can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

Minimum System Requirements

Spark XL 2.6

G3/300; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.5 (OS X supported)

PRODUCT SUMMARY

TC Works

Spark XL 2.6
audio-editing software
$599

FEATURES 4.0
EASE OF USE 3.5
DOCUMENTATION 3.5
VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Complete kit of sample management tools. Sophisticated effects processing. Supports multiple sample formats including MP3 and QuickTime. High-end noise-shaped dithering.

CONS: Navigation can get confusing. Limited complement of included effects. Wave Editor takes some getting used to.

Manufacturer

TC Works/TC Electronic (distributor)
tel. (805) 373-1828
e-mail info@tcworks.de
Web www.tcworks.de

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