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Hey, there's a modular inside my drum machine. Images courtesy Arturia.

Hey, there’s a modular inside my drum machine. Images courtesy Arturia.

For all the wonders of the hardware drum machine, there’s nothing quite like the flexibility of the software drum machine. More than mere groove-makers, beneath the conventional and familiar drum machine paradigm lies some real potential for sample manipulation and sound design. Native Instruments won over users by demonstrating the hybrid hardware/software workflow in Maschine, and various software instruments (FXpansion, anyone?) have put pressure on hardware with the sheer range of what they can do.

But somewhere in the shadow of Maschine and Akai’s MPC Renaissance, Arturia’s Spark has been a little-known, compact, inexpensive challenger.

And that’s why Spark 2 is interesting. By tuning the way it handles loops and patterns, and unleashing a whole modular environment beneath, Arturia is building a case to set Spark apart from other players.

Spark 2 is now available, with a stellar US$129 deal for May and June (or even better, $199 with the hardware), and a raft of new tutorial videos to check out (plus the intro video below).

New in Spark 2:

Improved UI. In its first outing, Spark lacked some UI organization, particularly for mixing. Now, the UI is tabbed, there’s better editing of patterns, and a new mixer, among other improvements.

Modular drum synthesis. “Oh, wait, I’m suddenly interested in this drum machine.” Yes, you can now patch together your own drum sounds with modules for envelopes, LFOs, mixers, effects (ring modulator, frequency shifter, spring mass), and the like. This seems worthy of another story on its own.

Construct songs. Song editing has been generally enhanced, in terms of UI and capabilities. There are now 16 song segments, and the ability to trigger from hardware, so you could use Spark for backing tracks or hardware-triggered live sets.

They want you to add your loops. So, these days, oddly, there are sample-focused tools (and DAWs) that handle big loops, and drum machines that tend … not to. Arturia has added lots of support for the REX loop format so you get both in one tool, with per-pad REX file playback and the ability to work with REX slices. If you’re someone with libraries of samples, this is, of course, relevant news. And generally speaking, Spark 2 seems set up so you can work with big loops – useful even if you don’t use REX, but do want to load audio content for live sets (particularly with that new song pattern business).

The competition is still intense. But at this price, even if you just use Spark as an extra drum synth, it could be worth it. Stay tuned for a review.

And if you are a Spark user, the update is free. In fact, if you are, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know what you like, what you don’t, what music you’re making (SoundCloud us, even), and what you’re doing with Spark 2.

Spark's UI tends to a faux-hardware look, with a compact layout that seems especially suited to running on smaller screens or as a plug-in.

Spark’s UI tends to a faux-hardware look, with a compact layout that seems especially suited to running on smaller screens or as a plug-in.

Song pattern editing is finally beefed up here, making it more usable for live sets.

Song pattern editing is finally beefed up here, making it more usable for live sets.

All the Spark 2 tutorials:

http://www.arturia.com/evolution/en/products/Spark2/intro.html

And the intro promotion:

http://www.arturia.com/evolution/en/buy/spark2introductorypromotion.html

US$129 / 129€ buys you just the Spark 2 software – so, if you have some other controller you want to use, or if you just want this as a plug-in.

More likely, the US$199 / 199€ SparkLE, though, is what you want. It includes the integrated hardware for only slightly more.