Arturia Spark Review

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I''ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the drum machines of the early ''80s. The advent of these beat-making monsters from companies like Linn, Oberheim, and E-Mu pitted drummers against technology, and scared the music scene forever as unforgiving, rock-solid tempos entered the mainstream. While drum machines were very approachable, non-drummers found out quickly that making their own drum patterns required actual skill. Unfortunately, much like a dinosaur in a tar pit, many drummers were horrified by these machines that seemed to spell their extinction. I was one of the few drummers who embraced, rather than disliked, this technology—and many checks followed.

Over subsequent decades, there was little innovation until the Beat Box era brought back the love of these programmable wonders, which took on new life in the techno world. Today, software-based instruments dominate the market, with a few hardware-only holdouts like Korg, Roland, Alesis, and several boutique companies. However, the landscape is changing with Native Instruments Maschine, and Tempest, the co-development project by Roger Linn and Dave Smith (of Sequential Circuits).

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Fig. 1: Spark is all about hardware/software synergy.

Software-based instruments'' lack of tactile response never appealed to me, but then Arturia decided to do something about it and introduced Spark (Fig. 1), a very powerful software-based drum machine with an incredible hardware controller—all for a very reasonable price.

As we get more into virtual instruments and away from hardware, mouse-driven performances sometimes lead to far more static grooves. Arturia''s Spark provides a comprehensive software-based set of sounds with a surprisingly rich feature set, coupled with a hardware layout that is not only exceptionally well-designed, but brings serious usability and intuitive control right out of the box. And remember . . . this is a drummer speaking!

Realtime, hands-on control of preassigned controls like pitch, decay, and frequency shift is always available, and a fast assign mode provides the ability to tweak more in-depth parameters for aux sends, cut off, resonance, panning, and volume on an individual drum basis. On-the-fly pattern-select and sound-swapping is fast and simple. Every time you tweak a knob, the LCD quickly shows you the parameter and value so there''s virtually no guesswork, particularly regarding the three assignable controls for each sound that can be changed and saved with each kit.

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Fig. 2: In addition to the plethora of pads and controls, note the X-Y controller toward the upper left.

I''ve been a fan of the Korg Kaoss pad for a long time; Spark''s built in X-Y touchpad on the Spark controller (Fig. 2) recalls that, giving quick access to Filter, Roll, and Slicer. You can swap out other effects for these (including Tape Slow Down, Echo, and Reverse), and all this makes Spark a very dynamic and playable instrument with highly creative options.

The hardware controller is beefy, rugged, and feels great. As a drummer, the way a pad plays is very critical for me and the Spark hardware controller does not disappoint. The eight soft, illuminated, silicon-like pads toward the front are large enough for two-finger playing, and the responsiveness allows for quick rolls, intricate patterns, and very predictable playing—a feature rarely found in most dedicated controllers and keyboard pads. The controller itself is relatively heavy, which helps keep it in place regardless of any real-time beating; the many illuminated controls make Spark easy to use in low-level environments.

Another cool feature is the pattern loop section. A simple button push jumps you into Loop Divide mode where you can cut your pattern in 1/2, 1/4, 18th, 16th, or 32nd and the knob lets you move that selection all around the pattern. This makes the pattern dance around, creating all kinds of wild permutations of a pattern without ever switching away from that groove.

Spark ships with a great array of sounds; Version 1.3.3 features over 480 instruments in 30 unique kits, with sounds ranging from classic drum machines to funk, industrial, jazz, pop, and more. You can also add your own sounds. To top it all off, the realtime automation and visual editing makes integration with your DAW of choice simple and fast.

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Fig. 3: You can even use Spark under low-light conditions.

Arturia has hit a home run with Spark. The company''s software/hardware pairings over the past few years represent a clever approach, particularly in this instance where a generic controller would not do the software justice. What''s surprising is the high quality of these hardware controllers—I find them quite a bit better than average, and the reasonable price makes them attractive controllers even without the software. In fact Spark''s controller rivals just about anything I''ve seen with respect to build quality, responsiveness, and of course, fun factor. How Arturia manages to bring this hardware/software package in for under $600 retail is nothing short of incredible.

With all the realtime controls, logical layout, readily accessible controls for tweaking patterns and sounds, and useful assortment of onboard effects, Spark is as cool live as it is in the studio. I quickly found improvisation on Spark to be engaging and rewarding, opening the door to some very fun grooves and (at least in my hands) demented percussive assaults.

I can sit and play with Spark for hours—it excels in bringing back the tactile feel of a drum machine that''s been missing from my arsenal for so long, while adding intelligent, accessible features. Overall this is a great buy, and a fine addition to just about any setup that involves beats.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Arturia Spark product page.