Review: Arturia SparkLE drum machine

Arturia SparkLE

A few years ago Arturia released the Spark drum machine. Recently Arturia released the SparkLE, a compact version of this drum machine which is very intuitive to use and well designed. With the included Spark software you will be creating some electronic beats very quickly with the SparkLE.

SparkLE includes a MIDI controller and the Spark drum software. The drum software is the same as that of the big brother and works stand alone or as a plug-in in your favorite digital audio workstation (DAW). You can easily play, control and sequence the software with the controller.

The controller is equipped with a step sequencer (up to 64 steps) and velocity-sensitive drum pads with aftertouch. A touchpad is included to control effects, a slicer and roller. It also has a looper and a number of controls to change the parameters of one of the 16 drum instruments.

The drum pads are nicely playable. The aftertouch lets you create both hard and soft drum rolls. The looper can repeat parts of a pattern live, which gives nice effects during performances. With the large central knob drum kits and instruments are selected and loaded. This seems especially useful for changing instruments and drumkits during live performances. While auditioning one of the 120 drumkits you will more quickly make a choice with your mouse in the Spark software.

The step sequencer can be used to manually enter beats, but also to play melodies. For example, you can load a bas sample for a bass line or change the pitch of a percussion instrument while sequencing.

Firm design
The Sparkle has a remarkably firm design. It weighs still one kilogram, despite the compactness of the unit. Because of this surprisingly high weight, it doesn’t move off the table very quickly. Four rubber feet are on the bottom of the device. The controller is equipped with a Kensington lock, so you can anchor the unit in order to protect against theft.

Smaller than A4 sheet
The size of the MIDI controller is slightly smaller than an A4 sheet (284 mm x 171mm x 17 mm). So you can very easily carry it in a small backpack to a gig or while travelling. A sturdy protective neoprene sleef is included by Arturia, which is very neat. An additional advantage of the compact size of the unit is that it does not take much space on the desk in the (home) studio. So it is easy to fit the SparkLE alongside the other MIDI devices and hardware.

The SparkLE has obviously less room for knobs than the Spark. Also the information display is missing, so you’ll have to look more to the computer screen in order to know what’s going on. The SparkLE can operate up to three parameters of one instrument simultaneously, while the larger controller of Spark can control the parameters of up to eight instruments simultaneously.

Sequencing of other instruments
The SparkLE can both sequence the Spark software and other instruments via the included MIDI output. For example, an external hardware drum machine or another drum VST. You can not operate the rotary knobs of other VST’s with the controller. In order to do this, SparkLE would need to be a VST host like Native Instruments Machine. Arturia has no plans at the moment for hosting VSTs with the Spark software, so sequencing other drum machines will be the only option.

MIDI
The MIDI output can be set to Custom, Spark or General MIDI. If this is set to Spark then the first drum pad will trigger C3 in Ableton Live, the second C#3, and so on. With Custom you can assign the drum pads with Cmd + click in Mac OS (or Ctrl + click in Windows). Unfortunately these custom settings could not be saved in my new project via the Spark software or Ableton Live itself. Thus, I had to assign it every time again. It was easier to make the necessary MIDI adjustments in Ableton Live or the hardware itself. In my case, I sequenced my Vermona DRM1 MKIII drum synthesizer succesfully with the SparkLE controller by changing the MIDI in the Vermona.

To apply the custom settings I had to read the manual. Yet, the SparkLE is remarkably easy to use. You will quickly make your first beats after installing the software and hardware. Arturia has posted the following introductory video on its website, which shows the possibilities of the SparkLE in 20 minutes. You’ll discover that many underlying functions are accessible via the Select button. After watching the video you will quickly make your first beats without consulting the manual much.

120 drum kits
The Spark drum software comes with 120 drum kits in different styles like house and hip hop. Arturia says that the SparkLE is also suitable for rock music, but personally I would use other tools for that. Traditional rock musicians would be better off to purchase software like BFD drums, Kitcore or Steven Slate Drums. Optionally, you can also purchase some expansions in various musical styles, but the factory kits will be enough to keep you busy for a while.

SparkLE can play 16 instruments simultaneously. The instruments (bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, bass, etc.) consist of both samples and drum synthesizers that are modeled after popular vintage drum machines like the TR-909 and TR-808 by Roland and about twenty other drum synthesizers. You can also load your own samples in up to six layers for some more variety.

The instruments are mixed together in the Mixer section. Each instrument in the mixer can have up to two effects like a compressor and a distortion. In addition, effects can be added via the two Returns (reverb, delay) and the Master.

Excellent sound
The included drum kits sound excellent, and are especially useful for electronic musicians. Arturia must have worked hard to get the sounds right. From pounding beats to subtle rhythms, it is all possible with the Spark software. The included internal effects help to create the excellent sound. You can clearly hear that while routing the instruments to individual tracks in your DAW. Most of the time Spark’s Master includes some effects like a compressor and equalizer for some extra punch.

Patterns
The drum kits contain a lot of different patterns and often an entire song composed out of up to 64 patterns. So you get an immediate impression of the possibilities and style of the drum kit. This is very well done and very inspiring to make some music. You can edit the supplied patterns to your own taste. Up to 64 patterns can be stored in a project. You can record the patterns or export them to a MIDI track in your DAW. The export works via drag and drop to the desired MIDI track. In case that the drumpads are set to Custom, the right notes are not included in the MIDI export. Fortunately there is a work around for this by recording the pattern in a new MIDI track of your DAW.

Modern PC
You need a modern PC in order to run SparkLE. The Spark software requires a lot of CPU. The CPU meter in Ableton Live 9 shows a little more than 30 percent on my Windows 8 test system with 3.4 gigahertz Intel i7 quadcore CPU, which is fine. But on my five year old laptop with Windows 8 and a 2 gigahertz dualcore Intel processor, Ableton Live 8′s CPU meter often shows more than 60 percent.

Conclusion
The SparkLE is a well thought out nicely playable drum machine. It is relatively easy and intuitive to use, without spending hours and hours with the user manual. The placement of the buttons and drum pads is logical and you can even play some melodies with the sequencer. The sound of the included drum kits will especially appeal to the electronic musician, but you can also load your own samples. It’s a big plus that can also sequence other drum software or hardware with SparkLE, but the MIDI-allocation of the drum pads could be improved and made easier. The price of the SparkLE is set at 249 euros, but I’ve already seen it in a Dutch webshop for 232 euros.

Rating: 9/10 | Website: Arturia.com

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