With the compact and affordable little brother to the Spark, their "creative drum machine," Arturia seem to be continuing the practice they began with their Keylab synthesizers - bundling hardware and software in one seamless and well- designed "hybrid" package. The SparkLE is a surprisingly intuitive system; and as it turns out, it's a crazy fun way to build or record beats, as well as play beat-based music in a live context.
Software installation is straightforward, and the bus- powered controller attaches to the computer via its one and only port (a standard mini USB-to-USB A cable is provided). The controller itself is a knobs-n-pads affair, with several buttons, encoders, a large jog wheel, and a small, assignable XY touchpad for real-time manipulation of various effects and mixer parameters. The hardware is designed to aid the user in navigating the companion software without having to always look at the computer screen. Unlike big brother Spark, there is no LCD screen for instrument and edit navigation, and although this would seem to be a limitation, I found that I could use the hardware to move around the Spark plug-in or standalone application without having to mouse around (much). One exception to this was in the selection of presets or kits; whenever switching between instruments, I definitely needed the software UI as a reference point. But once I had my instrument of choice loaded, the SparkLE controller allowed me to do most everything without touching the connected computer, including transport control and sequencing. In this manner, it is among a select few of the latest pad-based controllers, like Ableton Push, in that it feels more like a unique and very playable instrument, rather than a bog-standard controller. Although engineered to work with the accompanying software, the controller can also be switched to a mode which allows for standard universal MIDI control of any plug-in or DAW.
Although it has a tiny footprint about the dimensions of, say, a Motorola Xoom tablet, the SparkLE is a sturdy worksurface and feels solidly planted even when you're beating the crap out of its eight pads or sixteen sequencer buttons. The pads are a silicone material very similar to Push's, and they have really tremendous feel and response; drum controllers live or die by the pad quality, and SparkLE does not disappoint here! The rotary encoders are smooth and also have a high-quality feel. Every single button is brightly backlit and clearly labeled. The unit comes with a protective neoprene slipcase too, so it won't get all scuffed up when you drop it in your laptop bag.
SparkLE comes with the full Spark Engine software library, with over 2 GB of instruments, sounds, and kits. Arturia also offer both free and paid expansion kits on their website. The Spark software runs as a plug-in (all major formats) or standalone application, and worked nicely in my 64-bit DAWs without high CPU load or latency. The sounds are stellar, as the Arturia TAE analog modeling engine is utilized alongside multilayered acoustic samples. There is enough variety within the library for any user, whether it's ye olde dubstep producer, exotic percussionist, Kraftwerk enthusiast, or a singer/songwriter looking for a Mick Fleetwood-in-a-box. All of the sounds are thick and rich, but owners of WAV or AIFF sample libraries have the option of creating kits from scratch. Note that the system is hot-pluggable in that you can begin recording a pattern or song, detach the hardware, continue to edit and tweak via the software, then re-attach the hardware at any point in the process.
As expected, there are endless ways to manipulate (and decimate) timbre, pitch, and other common parameters via the rotary encoders, and the XY touchpad can be assigned to any number of filter, stutter, tape stop, and other performance effects. The ability to assign the effects on either a global or per- instrument basis is a nice touch, and effects can be written to per- instrument automation within a pattern. Arturia have implemented a really cool looper feature which serves as a sort of hands-on "beat repeat"; it acts on the pattern position itself via a division encoder and another encoder which allows you to move the selected division within the pattern. The looper is an incredibly creative way to cut up or iterate any stale patterns. Between that and the effects pad, one can get pleasantly lost for hours inside a standard eight-bar loop!
The software features a mixer section with two assignable effects buses per instrument, as well as two send/returns, and a master channel. While the UI for the mixer is very familiar, I didn't really care for the method to instantiate effects in the mixer, which takes you to a sub-window covering the faders, rather than allowing for choice via inline dropdown. That may be because I'm so used to a standard DAW-like workflow, with dropdowns for selection and popups for parameter changes. Another minor grumble - I wish the standalone application would retain the window selection I had last opened (sequencer, interface, or mixer), or even remember the window size I had last set up. Just a minor detail which could be dialed in as a user preference, perhaps? It would be helpful with certain workflows.
These tiny gripes aside - folks, this little drum instrument is way too much fun to play! I seriously have not enjoyed the act of banging out patterns on a drum machine to this degree since the original MPC. Kudos to Arturia on a well thought-out performance interface - one that actually is about performance.