The Arturia Spark LE – or Sparkle has been around for quite some time, but I only came across it when I needed drum sounds for a clip I made a few weeks ago. I was scouring the web for good drum plugin with plenty of sounds, downloaded a demo of this and was impressed with how good it sounded. And when I saw you could get the hardware controller for Spark used on Reverb for around $100 and new for around $200, I decided to check it out.
Now first – when looking at the pros and cons of this – obviously, it’s not a standalone drum machine. This is a hardware-software combo – sort of like Maschine from Native Instruments, but focused on making beats rather than an entire production environment.
Now, I get the allure of a standalone digital or analog drum machine, but being standalone is only one factor when considering a drum machine – price, sound and user interface are other important things to consider, and that’s where Sparkle does quite an impressive job.
In this review I focus on Sparkle or Spark LE. It should be noted the Sparkle has a bigger brother version called Spark – which I’m not sure Arturia is selling anymore but you can probably find used. Spark is bigger and less portable but does have dedicated control knobs for each of the drum pads, whereas in Sparkle you need to share one set of parameter knobs for all your instruments. The large Spark also has an LCD screen which gives you more insight into various effect modes and instrument names.
In this review I first cover things you can do with the hardware alone (it’s still connected to a computer though), and then move on to the extra perks you get if you move on to the computer interface.
Each Sparkle project can hold up to 16 instruments – these can be either samples, synthesized virtual analog sounds or special sounds based on physical modelling. Sparkle has 8 velocity and pressure sensitive pads for playing the instruments, and there’s a toggle button to swap groups of 8 sounds.
The pads are very responsive and suitable for quick finger-drumming.
Sparkle gives you multiple ways to sculpt your sound. Three endless encoders give you immediate control over parameter such as pitch and decay. These encoders can be configured to control the parameters you choose. On top of that, and XY pad with three instrument modes lets you control the filter (cutoff and resonance), effects sends (two of many options) and level/pan control.
Per project, Sparkle can store 64 patterns of up to 64 steps each. They’re easily accessible in four banks of 16 patterns, and pattern swapping fairly quick and easy using the 16 sequencer pads. The on board hardware controls let you set the pattern length to anything between 1 and 4 bars of 16 steps. More granular control is available via the software.
You can also record your patterns live using the record button, and you can choose either quantized or non quantized recording.
An interesting Loop function lets you loop small bits of your sequence – either for artistic effect or to focus your work on a subset of a sequence.
Mute and Solo buttons are available to quickly mute or solo multiple instruments. The XY pad has global controls with a multimode and multi type filter, various slicing options and note repeats. Sparkle also has a song mode that lets you trigger sequences of pattern chains either manually or just have them play in succession.
Sparkle comes with plenty of on board content with additional project packs available for free or paid download. The hardware jog dial lets you select projects or kits quite easily, though looking at the computer screen is a must to know what you’re loading. Loading individual instruments is also an option through the hardware, though there are so many of them, that in practical terms you’ll want to use the mouse to filter through the various sound types and genres.
If you’re willing to part with the Sparkle hardware controller and use a mouse, there are plenty more features you can access on screen. A Studio tab gives you granular control over all the available sound parameters, including sample trimming functions and multi-sample REX file support. The Modula” tab literally has a built in modular synthesizer, with drag and drop modules such as oscillators, VCAs, envelopes and filters and patch cable to connect them. The interface is a little hard to use but is there if you want it, and certainly has a learning curve.
The Mixer tab gives lets you fine tune the mix and effect sends of all your instruments, and when the Spark software is used in a DAW, each instrument can be sent to its own channel for further processing.
If don’t mind a hardware-software hybrid instrument, despite its age, it’s hard to beat the price/performance value of Arturia’s Sparkle. Sparkle is rich in content, sounds, features and performance, and the interface that lets you access it all is very easy to learn and use. Sparkle doesn’t use up much CPU resources, so if you have an old laptop or computer around the house, you can put together a drum machine with features and control that will make standalone drum machines jealous, at any price range.