Friday, May 25, 2012

Arturia SPARK Vintage Drum Machines Review

Arturia, the softsynth giant who has recently captured the hearts of producers everywhere with the MiniBrute, has also pushed into the territory of drum machines recently with the Spark drum plugin and hardware combination.  They've just come out with a different Spark called Vintage Drum Machines, and I felt it was my duty to check this out for all of you, seeing as how drum machines, especially those of the 80s, are so essential to many producers out there.  If you checked out the press release, you'll know they've got all the classics included-- the Roland 707, 808, 909, the LinnDrum, and lots of other kits.  Now the package of the software comes in at about $99 USD as a download, and $129 as a boxed product.  It's certainly more expensive than samples (which can be found of varying prices and qualities on the net), but is it worth it?  Let's find out.

So the Spark VDM (I'll call it Spark from here on out) comes as a standalone app and a plugin for your DAW.  I'm using it for Logic, but it should work for your regular VST programs as well.  Also worth noting is that I do not own the controller that is included in the original Spark package, so I can't tell you what that full experience is like, sadly, but it looks pretty cool-- basically a hardware version of the plugin right in front of you to control.

The user interface is pretty easy to figure out.  It starts on a page of 8 drum pads, some knobs, the drum name you're using, and the standard drum machine kind of controls-- the step sequencer, play, pause, record.  There's also a small XY pad to play around with sounds live.  This is particularly cool because this can be assigned to a bunch of different functions.  There's the basic "cutoff and resonance", but you can also use it for drum rolls, or a whole slew of cool effects.  My favorite is one that makes the beat slow down like a vinyl, which you can do at varying speeds.  There's also an array of glitchy effects and the like.  Definitely an immediately gratifying part of the experience.  What I really like about the main UI screen is there are a ton of hands on controls that you can use for individual drum hits straight away.  Each drum sound has three affects you can always control, and you can select a specific drum to get access to some other effects as well.  Typically, the effects are pitch shifting, decay, cutoff, or EQ.  Some of the extra effects are reverb and delay, so it's nice to have so many sounds at your disposal that you can get to easily.  There's also a circular set of buttons that's used to select different patterns.  I'm not really the type to sequence in the app itself, but it's pretty easy to figure out how it all works.  You can click arrows above and below to gain access to two additional screens.  The screen above is mainly dedicated to actual step sequencing of all the drums, as you can see each individual drum part.  Again, I'm not really one to sequence in-app, but it's easy to figure out.  The screen below is where you can swap in specific sounds for others, to create your own custom 80s drum machine.  Again, a few editable parameters can be found here, as well as a mixer.

What's really important to know about this plugin is what is editable and what isn't.  You're not able to upload your own sounds into Spark because it's not sample based in that way-- you're not able to edit it.  Spark is a combination of a sampler, synth, and hybrid of the two, so much of what it does is being generated in real time (the Arturia website lists exactly which sounds are sampled or synthesized).  This is what makes it so great for all the drums-- for example, the 808 has a classic boomy kick, and you can get just that sound out of Spark.  There's a beauty to it in that there's no worry that you've got a bad sample or anything, it's all right there.

In fact, the most important part of Spark to me is not the user interface or sequencing aspect-- I really would just do it all in Logic instead.  The best part of Spark is that the drum sounds are fantastic, and it's really the heart of the plugin.  These sounds all sound like the classic the pros of the 80s used, and it's delightful to have so many great kits in one plugin.  It's reassuring to know that you won't have to dig through your sample libraries-- it's all here, and it just works at a fraction of the price that buying all the machines would take.  Spark is even cheap enough where if you are considering getting into those old expensive machines, you could test run a bunch of them and see which are your favorites.  I do immediately feel at home when I hear how good the LinnDrum or Roland CR-78 sound-- it's just such a pleasure to have all of these contained so well in a neat package.

So Spark is a great sounding set of drum sounds that you can put great effects on-- what are the downsides?  Well, the main one for me is CPU.  Like other Arturia plugins, Spark is not easy on the old computer.  Loading it up in Logic, even without playing, Spark makes my CPU bar light up like a Christmas tree (I'm running OSX Lion on a 2008 MacBook with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 4 GB of RAM.)  So what does this mean?  Well, fortunately, because they are drums, you can easily bounce them in place, and this takes a huge chunk of the problem out of the way-- it's a bit easier to get away with bouncing drums in place over synths.  You could take the mentality of getting the sounds you want, bouncing them, resampling them in a less CPU intensive sampler, and just playing through that-- and it would probably be fine.  It's just a shame that I need a more intense computer if I want to edit Spark in a more intense project.

Aside from that, there's little to complain about Spark.  I'm not sure what exactly people expect out of a drum machine plugin, but this has amazing sounding drums, and plenty of effects and ways to tinker with these sounds to make them unique for your tracks.  I highly recommend it!

You can get Arturia Spark Vintage Drum Machines here.

  • Fantastic Collection of Drum Machines Represented
  • Sounds Great
  • Lots of Effects

  • Hard on non-pro CPU
If your computer can handle it (try the demo!) and you like 80s drums, I wouldn't miss it.


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