iSpark review – Arturia bring a super-slick take on the virtual drum machine

Download from iTunes App Storeispark logo 1If you are an iPad- or iPhone-owning musician, and you have been hanging around the App Store for any length of time, then I suspect you will be well aware of just how many excellent virtual drum, groove and rhythm instruments there now are available in a very modestly priced app format.

These do, of course, come in a range of flavours, whether that’s virtual acoustic drummers (for example DrumPerfect Pro or Luis Martinez’s various ‘drummer’ apps), recreations of classic drum machine hardware (for example, DM1, Funkbox, iMPC Pro), drum synths (for example, Elastic Drums or Attack Drums), groove stations (yep, iMPC Pro again but also BeatHawk and iMaschine 2) and things that defy categorization just because they are so brilliant (that would be Patterning and Sector then). And that’s just a start… there are plenty of excellent apps I’ve not mentioned here.

iSpark - slick in looks and sounds, an iOS drum machine app from Arturia.

iSpark – slick in looks and sounds, an iOS drum machine app from Arturia.

There is also a further category that takes the concept of the hardware drum machine but perhaps doesn’t try quite so hard to do it in a ‘classic’ way; you get a modern spin on the concept. Diode-108 is one example of that but, as I mentioned a few days ago, Arturia have just provided us with a further contender that perhaps fits best into this category; iSpark. And, given that Arturia already have a reputation for making excellent software-based synths on the desktop and for iOS, and have some very interesting hardware devices within their catalogue, iSpark is clearly an app that deserves a serious look.

So, if your iOS music app collection still has room for one more virtual drum machine, is iSpark something that will spark (doh!) your drum creativity?

Light the fire

iSpark is, of course, based around Aurturia’s hardware drum machine Spark. This unit has been around for a few years and received some excellent press when released. It also came with a UK£449 price tag (that’s an ‘ouch’ compared to App Store pricing I guess) and was actually a hybrid of hardware and software. More recently, Arturia have delivered the SparkLE (€199 I think) based on the same underlying technology but the Spark concept has also been fully ported to a software-only environment with Spark 2 – priced at €169 – available in a range of plugin formats, plus a standalone version, for both OSX and Windows.

iSpark offers a comprehensive collection of classic drum machine features but wrapped within a modern, touchscreen, user interface.

iSpark offers a comprehensive collection of classic drum machine features but wrapped within a modern, touchscreen, user interface.

With a launch price of just UK£7.99 (this is 50% off what will be the eventual UK£14.99/US$19.99 price), iSpark brings much of that same design, sound and workflow to the iPad. And, if you trawl through the specification of the desktop version and the iOS version…. well, let’s just say this is yet another example of just how much value iOS music apps can provide whether they are UK£7.99 or UK£14.99.

So just what does iSpark offer in terms of features? In many respects, this is a classic, sample-based, drum machine recreated in software. You can build a drum kit containing 16 sounds (there are 640 instruments/40 kits included, more available via IAP and you can also import your own samples) and, while these might be predominantly drum sounds, there are also a smattering of synth and FX sounds included. And given the pattern/sequencing tools offered, you could use iSpark to provide (for example) bass lines to your patterns alongside your drums.

The included kits cover classic drum machines, a range of contemporary electronic drum sounds and some acoustic drum samples. I’m sure I’ve not auditioned them all but this is a pretty impressive collection of sounds and, through a decent monitoring system, iSpark undoubtedly delivers quite a sonic punch.

iSpark ships with a good collection of example projects and sounds....

iSpark ships with a good collection of example projects and sounds….

Like most drum/groove workstations, you get a powerful set of pattern creation options, parameter automation within patterns, basic mixing, some very good effects (with real-time control) that can be applied both to individual drum sounds and at a ‘master’ level, a song construction section where patterns can be placed into ‘chains’ (think of a chain as a song section) and then chains triggered in sequence to build a full song-based arrangement.

The pattern creation includes a range of step/pattern length options and, while each pattern is a fixed step length (all drums within a pattern have the same number of steps), you can use patterns of different lengths within a single project. Options for adjusting the ‘shuffle’ are provided to add some groove and, if recording patterns ‘live’, there are also quantize options available. There is also a rather nice ‘roller’ option for easily adding dance-track-friendly drum rolls with a single finger J

At a technical level, the app is iPad-only, a 265MB download, and requires iOS8.0 or later. Newer iPad hardware is going to produce a better performance and the App Store description suggests iPad Air/iPad mini 2 or newer are required. Audiobus support is included and the app also runs as either an audio source or MIDI instrument via IAA (it worked smoothly in both modes for me using Cubasis as my IAA host). I also had no problem running it via IAA within AUM (other than finding it in the IAA app list; Arturia have their own dedicated section in that list). And you also get Ableton Link support from the off; iSpark had no problems finding my other usual Ableton Link suspect (for example, Patterning) and locking to tempo/transport with those. Oh, and add in MIDI support for external control, triggering and MIDI Clock.

Pattern creation options include a grid-based editing environment.

Pattern creation options include a grid-based editing environment.

So far then, so drum machine…. and while the above description suggests a very flexible and well-thought out feature set, it doesn’t actually suggest much by way of wheels being reinvented. However, I think this simple ‘list of key features’ is a bit deceiving and, while iSpark is undoubtedly going to have many elements that will be instantly familiar if you have used a pattern-based drum machine previously (hardware or software), there are elements here that do help iSpark nudge out from the drum machine crowd.

The first is perhaps a superficial one; iSpark is rather beautiful to look at. OK, so this is a matter of personal taste but, to me at least, the design is modern and very easy on the eye. On my iPad Pro, iSpark most certainly looks the real deal and the controls are generally well laid out and nothing feels too cramped.

Second, I really like the ‘chain’ option as a means of sequencing patterns into song sections and then using song sections to create my full arrangement. For me, this approach is much easier to follow than a single long list of patterns when constructing a structured song layout.

Third, I like the included sounds. They cover a broad musical palette and, with one exception, I think Arturia have made a great job of demonstrating what the app’s sound engine is capable of.

The song creation options are very good indeed....

The song creation options are very good indeed with the ‘chain’ concept being a great touch….

That ‘one exception’ brings me to my fourth selling point; while iSpark is sample-based, for each of your 16 instruments within a full kit, you can specify up to 6 sample layers. These six layers can be used in various ways but the obvious option is to use them as velocity-based layers so that you can trigger a different layer for a specific velocity range. This would be great for constructing more ‘real’ sounding kits – acoustic or electronic – where, with appropriate samples, you can make the timbre of the sound change as you strike the drum harder (that is, you trigger a higher MIDI velocity) as well as the sound getting louder.

OK, so six velocity layers might not match what Superior Drummer of BFD can do on the desktop, but it is a significant step up from most iOS drum machine apps. And the ‘one exception’ I’d make above is that Arturia really could have rung more out of this multi-sample layer format with the included sounds.

Yes, there are some examples amongst the 40 included kits that exploit this feature well (for example, the Groove Drums kit), but I’m perhaps just a little surprised they have not made more of a song and dance about this feature within the supplied kits. Maybe this is something that could be easily dealt with in a future update? I could imagine that for some folk a few additional acoustic kits suitable for different musical genres would make iSpark quite an interesting choice as a live drum module used with an e-kit.

iSpark offers multiple sample layers for each of your sounds and these can be velocity selected.

iSpark offers multiple sample layers for each of your sounds and these can be velocity selected.

That said, you can always load in your own samples and build that multi-layered kit and this brings me to a further stand-out feature as I think the options provided for manipulating your drum samples – all of which is done via the Studio screen – are also very good indeed.

Screen dreams

While you also get Arturia’s standard Connect panel (for dealing with MIDI and other background settings), the majority of iSpark’s features are spread across the five tabbed main screens; Main, Mixer, Studio, Seq and Song. No surprises that the Main screen is where the bulk of the action takes place and this is divided into a number of different elements.

Top-left you get the transport section while, by default, the bottom third of the display contains 16, velocity sensitive (well, sort of…. tap at the bottom for low velocity and towards the top for higher velocities), trigger pads. Top-centre is an XY pad that can be used to apply any one of four different DJ-style effects in real-time to the overall output. In fact, the four available effects can be selected from a longer list if you tap and hold on both one of the four buttons and the XY-pad at the same time.

The overall design of the app is really very good.... and it looks brilliant on a full-size iPad Pro.

The overall design of the app is really very good…. and it looks brilliant on a full-size iPad Pro.

The two other sections of the Main screen are volatile in that their contents change to reflect the settings for the selected drum sound (and you select a drum sound by tapping on one of the trigger pads; it becomes highlighted in grey when selected). Top-right you can then adjust a number of different parameters for that drum sound and, again, this is multi-tabbed, so you can actually tweak quite a lot of things about the sound from just this panel.

By default, along the central horizontal strip you can see the step length of the current pattern (highlighted in blue; and if you swipe on it you can adjust the length) and any steps where the currently selected drum is triggered (highlighted in light blue). You also get access to the Erase, Copy, Roller and Looper buttons. The latter two are useful for triggering further performance effects. The Looper applies at a full-kit, pattern, level while if you engage the Roller switch you can then hold down an individual drum trigger pad to create a ‘roll’ effect.

This central strip also contains the Pads, Patrns, Seq and Tune buttons; tap any of these and the control set in the bottom third of the screen changes. Pads is the default but Patrns gives you smaller drum trigger pads plus access to the four banks of 16 patterns that can be housed in a single project.

iSpark includes options for building automation data into your drum patterns.

iSpark includes options for building automation data into your drum patterns.

Tap the Seq button and you get a step-based gird into which you can program hits for the currently selected drum; change drum and you can easily knock out a basic beat from this screen without going anywhere near the main Seq screen available from the tabs at the top of the screen.

As mentioned earlier, you are not confined to just drum sounds and the Tune button brings up a small virtual piano keyboard-style set of triggers. This allows you to program in – or play in if you engage the main Record button in the transport section – pitch data for any of your samples. If you are, for example, wanting to add a simple bass line, then this makes it a fairly straightforward task.

Mixed sparks

iSpark’s Mixer screen is a fairly conventional experience. Your 16 instruments are presented in two banks of 8 faders (toggle between them using the two buttons located top-right) and, in addition to the 8 individual faders/channels, you also get two FX return faders and a master fader. All the standard channels include fader, mute, solo and pan plus two Aux knobs to control send levels to the two global effects.

The iSpark mixer is fairly conventional and easy to use.

The iSpark mixer is fairly conventional and easy to use.

However, each channel also includes an FX button and you can insert two effects (from a selection of about 15) into each instrument. All the usual ground is covered here although there is a rather interesting Sub Generator that, if monitoring on a system with plenty of low-end response, is great for adding additional beef to your kick…. watch those cones flap J All the effects also feature a preset system and, on the whole, they sound great and offer a good number of user-tweakable parameters to explore. The Delay effect is particularly impressive and, amongst more conventional treatments, offers some very trippy ping-pong effects.

The app includes a range of effects options that add some great creative possibilities.

The app includes a range of effects options that add some great creative possibilities.

In the studio

The Studio screen is you can configure the samples used within your drum kit. There are plenty of options here even if you are just dealing with a single sample per drum/instrument. However, this is also where you get access to those six different sample layers if you want to make use of them. How the different layers operate can be controlled via the Layer Mode setting and the choices are Random, Circular, Stacked (all the samples are played together; great for creating some ‘big’ sounds), Velocity and Threshold.

The Studio screen is where you can get busy with your sample editing....

The Studio screen is where you can get busy with your sample editing….

Velocity is perhaps the most obvious choice if building a kit from acoustic drum samples and you can simply load samples into the six layers as required (although you don’t have to fill all six). It’s great to see this feature but, as far as I can see, at this stage, you don’t get an option to set the MIDI velocities for each layer (I assume they are just evenly divided between the number of layers used) nor to overlap layer velocities (so two samples are blended together at some velocities). Both of these options would be great additions but, even so, this is an excellent feature within iSpark. Incidentally, if I understand correctly, Threshold also provides velocity-based selection from multiple samples but always plays each sample at full volume. This could be useful if you just want to change sounds based upon velocity switching.

As well as the samples included within iSpark, there are also IAPs available (four at present and priced at UK£2.99 each) that offer additional sounds and projects based upon them and the option to import your own samples. This can be done via the pasteboard, AudioCopy or via iTunes. I had a pop at this processes with some multi-layer acoustic drum samples via the iTunes route and, while it does take a bit of time to actually build the kit within iSpark, with the right samples, the results really are pretty impressive. If you like to work with your own samples, I can see folks having a lot of fun with this feature.

Fully sequenced

Unlike on the Main page where you can only see one lane of the sequencer at any one time, the full Seq screen allows you to see multiple lanes (six at any one time but just swipe up/down to see the other instruments in your 16 instrument kit). This is all pretty conventional stuff so needs little by way of introduction; just tap on a grid square within the pattern to trigger a hit.

No matter where you look, iSpark's UI is beautifully designed....

No matter where you look, iSpark’s UI is beautifully designed….

In the top-most section of the screen, the Bank/Pattern button allows you to specify which pattern slot you are creating data for. The section of this screen that did have me scratching my head a little is the relationship between the time signature bar steps and resolution settings. However, the manual (available via the Info button located top-right) does a decent job of explaining what’s going on here and, while I’m not sure this is super-intuitive (or maybe I’m just drum challenged!) you can create patterns that are up to 64 steps in length however you chose to divide those up into bars :-)

The other key feature in this screen is the option for adding multiple automation lanes for each instrument. If you tap the Automation button (on the left) for any of the 16 instruments, an automation panel appears with various tools for drawing in automation data. Down the left edge you can select which parameter you wish to add automation data for. The list includes pretty much all the parameters available for an individual instrument including velocity, pan and lots of effects parameters. This is a powerful and flexible system.

Going for a song

The final screen is the Song page. This really is quite well designed and, as mentioned earlier, features a pattern ‘chain’ system. Note that the screen has two tabs; Edit and Perform.

Edit mode is used to built your chains and, essentially, you can build up to 16 ‘chains’ (sequences) of patterns simply by dragging and dropping patterns from the upper portion of the display into the chain areas in the lower half of the screen. A chain can include up to eight individual patterns. This process is really very easy and it is both simple and intuitive process to add patterns, delete them, re-order or replace them within a chain.

The song editing features provide plenty of flexibility for building full performance arrangements from your patterns.

The song editing features provide plenty of flexibility for building full performance arrangements from your patterns.

Once you have your chains created, engaging Song mode (this button appears in the transport panel on the Song screen) and then hitting Play with simply trigger the first ‘chain’ and, when that completes, the next chain will follow…. Used in this way, iSpark’s song mode is perhaps no different from the very ‘linear’ single chain of patterns found in many drum machines. However, you can also use the two rows of buttons at the base of the screen to control the playback sequence and to switch between the different chains. In this way, you can use each chain as a different song section and simply trigger each chain using the buttons as you move through your song performance.

The Perform screen takes this one step further as it replaces the chain editing features with an enlarged version of the real-time effects options found on the main screen. From a single screen, therefore, you can both trigger your chains and apply effects. This is a lot of fun once you have your patterns and chain configured and super-easy to use.

A bright spark?

As mentioned earlier, I had no particular issues when using iSpark via Audiobus, IAA or within AUM. The Ableton Link support also seemed very solid. I did experience a very occasional audio glitch during my testing period and the app has already had its first update to address some minor issues. I suspect there might be a further update generated fairly promptly as Arturia deal with any remaining technical tweaks required.

iSpark worked well within AUM via IAA....

iSpark worked well within AUM via IAA….

However, I would stress that is was just an occasional – and very minor – gremlin on my particular test system and my overall impression of iSpark is hugely positive. Yes, in many respects, this is a drum machine that doesn’t reinvent the underlying wheel but there are elements of the app – the beautiful interface design, multiple sample layers and the chain-based song construction in particular – that are very impressive.

I also think the range of bundled sounds is pretty good although, that said, I think Arturia could have done more to blow their own trumpet (bang their own drum?) in this regard and really hammered home the possibilities offered by the multiple sample layers. Adding a few really nice acoustic drum kits – funk, pop, rock and metal, for example – would be a great touch to show off just what the sample engine is capable of.

The Song Performance screen adds some additional options for using the app to 'jam' your drum tracks.

The Song Performance screen adds some additional options for using the app to ‘jam’ your drum tracks.

Perhaps the only surprise from a technical perspective (although perhaps not a big surprise at this stage) is that the app doesn’t come with AU support. Arturia’s iSEM shows that the company have the necessary expertise to turn a complex virtual instrument into an iOS AU plugin…. here’s hoping that their other apps – iSpark included – follow suit soon.

In summary

The bottom line here, however, is that iSpark is very good indeed. It manages to do what all good iOS music apps do and strikes just the right balance between features (and hence power) and usability (great interface that fits the iPad format). At the launch price of just UK£7.99, this is an absolute steal and a pleasure to use. It will still be a bargain when it eventually moves up to its full price though…

Of course, you don’t buy a bargain just because it’s a bargain if you don’t need the product. I was, for example, very tempted by a new Les Paul I saw a few weeks ago that was in a sale but I already own a perfectly good Les Paul so couldn’t really justify buying another one. And, if your iPad is already stuffed with some of the very good iOS drum and groove apps mentioned at the start of this review, then you might feel that you already have what iSpark has to offer well and truly covered.

That will not, I suspect, stop iSpark selling by the bucket load. Confirmed iOS music app addicts will pick it up anyway. Drum machine heads will just want to own it because they like to keep up with what’s out there and to have as many creative options available as possible. Newbie iOS musicians who are looking for a brilliant introduction to virtual drum machines will also find it very tempting (oh, and it should be noted that Arturia have already generated a series of tutorial videos for the app that new users will find very helpful).

Yes, a few of the more pragmatic iOS music makers (those that actually make music rather than just being distracted by every new app that appears!) will undoubtedly resist the temptation but, in one very significant respect, my Les Paul analogy breaks down completely. If I could have picked up that second Les Paul for just UK£7.99, I’d have bought it in a flash. Heck, I’d probably have bought several in different finishes despite the fact that I own a number of very good electric guitars already.

At the UK£7.99 launch price, iSpark will be in the casual purchase price bracket to many iPad owners. And, if that’s you, don’t fret too much about giving in to temptation and buying (yet) another drum machine app; iSpark really is very good  – and will remain so even at the full UK£14.99/US$19.99 asking price – and, whether you have more drum apps than you can shake a (drum) stick at, Arturia’s latest offering is most certainly well worth exploring.


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