Many in the Macintosh community still have some serious reservations about making the move to OS X. Thankfully, the folks at TC Works have come up with another compelling reason to finally ditch OS 9 for good: Spark XL 2.6. Spark is a robust, fully carbonized (read: rewritten for use with OS X) audio-editing and mastering package along the lines of Sonic Foundry Sound Forge or BIAS Peak. With the ability to create 24-bit, 96kHz recordings (across a range of file formats) and high-quality MP3s — along with support for CD burning, batch processing and an effects plug-in set that includes the well-known FXMachine — Spark is positioned to be a major player in the Mac audio arena.
SPARK IT UP
Installation is an appropriately mindless operation; simply type in your name, the serial number, and you're set. Once the software is up and running, you are presented with three principal windows: Browser View, Transport Bar and Master View. The Browser View (also known as the Work Sheet) is a logically designed window that's subdivided four ways. The File View area is for browsing all materials associated with a particular project and sits alongside the Playlist area, where you can organize all of your finished materials. Welded beneath are the Waveform Overview and the Edit View, where displays of the audio file's entire waveform and the portion being edited, respectively, are visible. Built into the bottom portion of the Edit View is the Info Line; there, detailed data such as zoom factor, sample rate and audio bit depth are displayed.
The Transport Bar comes with all of the standard function keys, as well as a handy scrubbing wheel. Not only can the scrubbing wheel be used to locate specific editing points within a waveform, two toggle switches associated with the control can be used to time-stretch or compress audio material on the fly.
The Master View, which contains the Spark FXMachine, is the second main window also launched on startup. All windows can be resized to your liking with the exception of the Transport Bar, which is only a mild inconvenience.
You can drag-and-drop a file from any folder on your computer into the file area of the Browser View as needed. Multiple files can be separated into Group folders for further sorting. Because Spark has been revised, its speed in file handling has been significantly improved. A large 10-minute audio file dragged into Spark from a CD takes just a little longer than a minute to build its waveform on a decent G4.
COMPING A FEEL
Spark uses two cursors (appearing as lines within the Edit View) to set positions within a waveform. The red line, or Playback Cursor, moves through the audio during playback until you hit Stop. The green Edit Cursor will occupy whatever position you set within the waveform and signifies the point from which playback begins. Double-clicking between the two cursors selects that area of the waveform. If you'd rather be more dependent on your ears for setting a selection (particularly useful if you are editing recorded speech), holding down the Option button and pressing your cursor down key at the appropriate moment will also set the selection.
Piecing together fragmented bits of edited audio can be performed with the powerful combination of the Playlist and Spark's Cut Editor. The Cut Editor's two-region display allows a user to edit both the start and end points of a region simultaneously, as well as the transitions between regions. As an experiment to test the Cut Editor, I loaded two different versions of children singing the alphabet song into Spark. For each tune that I dragged into the File View, I created and labeled several new regions and dropped them into the Playlist. Each audio region was of an individual letter within the song, and setting the start and end point was as simple as highlighting the region within the waveform and then correcting the start and end points with the nudge tools in the Cut Editor. The values for nudging can be changed to whatever increment is best-suited for the task. Putting all of the letters in order and using the Hard Cut setting to remove all gaps between the regions, I soon had an angelic chorus of children spelling out the word remix.
ADDING SOME COLOR
Spark's Master View window contains the FXMachine, as well as all the master controls for the application. The FXMachine comprises a routing matrix in which a seemingly infinite set of plug-in combinations (or as many as your machine can manage) can be loaded. TC or VST plug-ins are added to the grid simply by selecting an open cell and then clicking on the Add button. The signal path can then be routed in series or in parallel groupings to create completely flexible and unique racks of effects.
The FXMachine presets (referred to as Machines) are good examples of how flexible and creative you can be when processing your sounds. The FXVocoder machine, for example, generates its tones by running parallel instances of the Spark Expander, Spark CutFilter and Spark Grainalizer (applying different settings for each series) before being chained through the Spark ResFilter and two TC Native CL Master plug-ins for separate compression and limiting duties.
Altering your signal path within the FXMachine is a breeze because all of the virtual wiring between plug-ins is done automatically. Changing the position of an effect in the chain is as easy as dragging-and-dropping the plug-in into a new location. The 23 native Spark plug-ins included offer a wide selection of DSP. Particularly useful are the Sonograph and Metergraph (for visually analyzing sound) and the very entertaining TC TouchWah Plus, which appears as a virtual wah-wah pedal that can provide fun filtering effects when manipulated manually with your mouse or MIDI modulation wheel.
Furthermore, you can change the phase inversion for each plug-in effortlessly. The Phase icon (which appears as a small circle with a line through it at the bottom of the status bar) can be activated with a click. Pressing P opens the same dialog, and from there, the user can select which of the plug-in's channels are to be phase-shifted. You can also adjust the in, out and mix setting of a particular plug-in by changing the numeric values in the status bar. This is a particularly handy feature for plug-ins that were designed without input and output controls.
What's equally impressive about this method is that the FXMachine is used as a VST plug-in, so any of its preset or user-defined effect combinations can be recalled within VST-friendly software. For Digital Performer lovers, this feature is a massive draw because Spark's MAS-compliant code now puts VST plug-in power into their hands. I loaded the FXMachine into Steinberg Cubase SX as a send effect for a MIDI track and was able to replicate all the functionality of the version anchored to Spark, without any glitches. OS 9 users can also take advantage of the Spark Modular synth, whose component parts can be used together or separately to generate tones or filter your audio. OS 9 Digidesign Pro Tools users can also tack on an additional five TDM plug-ins to any combination of effects already loaded into the FXMachine.
The few issues I have with Spark are minor and in no way difficult to get around. First off, there is no integrated help file, so you have to manually copy the associated PDF versions of the manual to your computer's hard drive prior to or after installation. Spark also seems to have trouble handling overly long files names, meaning that some of the MP3s you download that have complete title info will have to be trimmed before they can be dragged into Spark. Spark also save its projects across multiple files, but hardcore audio users are used to this sort of file-management strategy, so it's hardly worth fussing about. The recent update to 2.6 compensates for these minor complaints by allowing for file sizes of as large as 16 GB and support for MPEG-4 and QuickTime 6 formats. Besides, with Spark being armed with reasonable CD-burning faculties and unlimited undos for those days when nothing is sounding quite right, this package is a well-rounded solution for anyone looking to step up to a professional-grade mastering, editing and processing platform.
SPARK XL 2.6 > $599
Pros: Easy to use. FXMachine can be used in other applications. Support for additional file formats.
Cons: No integrated help. Long file names not supported.
Mac G3; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.5 or OS X; OMS for MIDI communication