Arturia has a history of emulating classic analog synths as software instruments, but has only recently got into the drum machine game. Their Spark Creative Drum Machine is a hybrid, combining a hardware interface with a software instrument that has both samples and modeled kits of 20 classic drum machines. And now available without the hardware, and a fraction of the cost, is the Spark Vintage Drum Machine plugin, in standalone, RTAS, VST, and AU formats.
The Spark Vintage Drum Machine plugin is considerably full-featured. In a single instance, Spark VDM is both a 16 instrument drum machine and 64-step sequencer, with lots of effects that can be applied globally and per sound. There are three main panels to the Spark interface simply labeled Center, Top and Bottom. The Center panel is a representation of the Spark hardware interface with eight square pads across the bottom. Entire kits can be loaded or each pad can be assigned any sound from the 20 classic kits provided. Included are versions of revered and common Roland units, as well as sounds from Linn, Oberheim, Casio, Yamaha and more.
A button toggles between drum sounds 1-8 and 9-16. In this software-only version of Spark, the pads can be played with a mouse or with any MIDI controller. Immediately above each pad are three soft knobs that can be assigned to all of the sound-shaping, mixer and effects parameters for that part of the kit. When in record mode, all knob movements are recorded to Spark VDM's internal sequencer and can also be later edited. These customization and automation possibilities are huge plusses for this instrument. Centrally located is the virtual LCD screen that gives information about whatever knobs or buttons are being adjusted.
Although the Top panel is dedicated to an in-depth sequencer, the Center also has a simplified 16-step sequencer and is the place to choose which of the 64 programmed patterns are being played. Additionally, there is an X-Y pad for filter, slicer and roller effects. None of these are the most impressive I've ever heard but they could be useful for a little performance trick if you didn't want to incorporate an outside effects processor. A shuffle knob gives access to swing and by right clicking it, either 1/8, 1/16 or 1/32 note ranges can be selected which give an interesting alternative to the standard 1/16 swing available in most places.
When viewing the top panel, it's hard not to make the comparison to other multi-track step sequencers, like the program formerly known as FruityLoops. It's very straightforward and easy to use. At a glance you can see up to eight tracks with a scroll down bar for access to the rest. By hitting a plus symbol to the right of the mute and solo buttons, the sequencer track is expanded to reveal automation which is also written in a step-by-step mode. Simple pencil, line and eraser tools help draw automation for all of the sound, mixer and effects parameters per instrument. On the top, there are options for alternative time signatures, note resolutions and pattern lengths for users who want to stray from 4/4. While picking some wackier time signature/note length combinations, I did experience freezes and needed to re-launch Pro Tools. Also in the top panel is Song mode where patterns can be dragged and dropped, copied and pasted to build a song structure up to 64 patterns long. This can be helpful for composing beats in a DAW with other parts running on different instrument and audio tracks to build entire songs.
The Bottom panel has three main functions: Studio, Mixer and Library. In Studio mode, you can choose, listen to and sculpt the sounds that make up your kit. Here too are mute and solo buttons and knobs that alter the sounds, which is a nice touch. Almost anywhere you are in the three panels, you have control over the sounds. The Mixer is cleanly labeled and what you would expect it to be. There are two aux effects that each track can be sent to including reverb, delay, flange, pan, destroy, sub-harmonic generator and limiter. There are also two insert effects per track which include the above plus chorus, EQ, phase and bit crush and it is also possible to insert two different effects on the master bus from this selection. Finally, the Library tab gives even more drag and drop access to all of the kits to make building a custom mixed kit even easier.
Spark Vintage Drum Machine is a fairly easy to use instrument with a lot of sound possibilities from its included kits. I found that the 808 and 909 were the least authentic and all of the sounds benefited from extra processing, but that can be said about most hardware too. While there is no replacement for the real thing, Spark is a great collection of several classic boxes with sound shaping parameters that go beyond the original specs and a decent sequencer all under one roof. At only $129 USD or 119 Euro, Spark is worth considering as an addition to your arsenal.