Technology

TC Works Spark: REAL-TIME DIGITAL AuDIO EDITOR FOR MAC

Spark, the newest software from TC Works, is a 2-track digital audio editor unlike any other, with integration of real-time effects and a unique user 2/01/2000 7:00 AM Eastern

Spark, the newest software from TC Works, is a 2-track digital audio editor unlike any other, with integration of real-time effects and a unique user interface that set it apart from the mastering and playlist software of yore. I reviewed Version 1.01 (the current release at the time of this writing), which is solid but by no means perfect-no surprise considering it's only Version 1. Despite this early release's faults, Spark breaks significant new ground in power and flexibility, laying down the framework for a program that's sure to be a hit. The updated Spark Version 1.5 should be out by the time you read this, and I'll talk a bit about this major upgrade as well.

The Macintosh-based application has minimum system requirements of a 604 processor running at least 132 MHz, MacOS 8.1 or higher, and no less than 64 MB of RAM. I ran Spark on a G3 desktop, 266 MHz, with 192MB RAM. Though most operations went smoothly (e.g., editing and playlisting) with this configuration, I was surprised to find that the system ran out of DSP when too many real-time effects were active. This ranged from five to eight plug-ins, depending on the effect and routing configuration, and resulted in some nasty-sounding audio dropouts. I later learned from TC that this DSP issue (and others noted below) could be traced back to the Digidesign Direct I/O drivers; TC supplies ASIO drivers that are much more efficient and remedy most of the DSP problems I experienced. Spark is built to handle up to 20 simultaneous real-time effects; my G3 was only able to access a fraction of this palette. The program is best suited for a G4, but if you don't need tons of real-time effects, a less robust system should suffice.

For audio in and out, TC recommends an ASIO-compatible sound card (e.g., Lucid's PCI 24 or MOTu's 2408). Digidesign Direct I/O also works. I have Digidesign's MIX 24 system installed and was able to monitor and record with no major problems. Mac's Sound Manager operates for monitoring but cannot be used for recording. Direct recording from the computer's CD player into Spark's audio file pool makes sampling from audio CDs a breeze. As many as two VST plug-ins can be used during recording, great for tracking with effects like compression. Recording can be set to stereo or mono.

The program reads and writes AIFF, .WAV, SDII and any formats supported by QuickTime 4. Sample rates range from 8 to 96 kHz, and bit depths are 8, 16 and 24. Spark converts any file to match the current project's sample rate and bit depth in real time. If you need to convert quantities of audio files, a built-in batch processor does the job. It's very straightforward, handling all the sample rates, bit resolutions and file formats just mentioned. In addition, DC removal, dither and normalize are available. There are better batch processors, but this one's really convenient because it's built right into the editor.

TO START A FIREAlmost all operations are centered around a main editing window, an effects matrix window and a floating transport bar. Navigation within the program is simple, as the work environment is well-organized and clutter-free. Most actions are drag-and-drop, from opening files to creating and rearranging playlists.

The main editing window, called the Browser View, comprises three sections: a waveform editor, a file pool and a playlist area. Each section can be sized to taste. use the waveform editor to slice, dice, loop and create regions. It's very clear-cut. Markers and loop points are easy to create and drag around. A waveform overview helps you keep track of your location within the waveform, handy when zoomed all the way in.

A file pool called File View gives an overview of all the audio files in your current project. This pool is a list, organized in folders that contain audio files and their associated regions. Each folder can have multiple master regions, or parent sound files. The copies, loops and sub-regions derived from each parent file are indented and listed beneath that parent file. Folders and offspring files are nameable, but the master parent file's name is locked. To add a new sound bite to your project, just select a folder and drag a new audio file from your desktop into the folder. I was surprised to find that files cannot be dragged between folders.

In the playlist area, you can organize files and regions in any desired order. It's as easy as dragging a region from the file pool in the playlist area. Once a region is in the playlist, it becomes a playlist file. Playlist files can be arranged and rearranged into different sequences by, you guessed it, dragging and dropping.

Each playlist file has crossfade, gain and pause parameters, with all values accessed by double clicking. Gain is from -12 to +6 dB. Pause times range from 0 to 29 hours. (Now that's a pregnant pause.) There's a selection of preset crossfades: hard cut, linear, equal, overlapping, slow out/slow in, fast out/slow in, slow out/fast in. Crossfade times are fully adjustable up to the length of the audio file, but there's no way to customize curves or draw your own crossfades. This window also provides a space for comments and selecting copy protect on/off and emphasis on/off.

A playlist can be directly exported to Adaptec's Toast or Jam. The latest version of Toast (Version 3.5.6) comes bundled with Spark. unfortunately, this version can't handle crossfades; you'll need Jam for this (or possibly Toast 4.0, which is about to be released). Toast 3.5.6 is very rudimentary; fine for burning one-offs, but for custom pause times, complex crossfades and a disc-at-once burn (essential for making commercial duplication masters), the $299 Jam is the software of choice.

The Master View effects matrix window should be familiar to anyone who's worked with TC Electronic's FireworX. A grid four rows long by five columns wide lets you insert and route plug-ins in a variety of ways, from parallel to cascades and mults. This matrix flexibility yields an incredibly powerful processing tool. Plug-ins are easily added, removed, mixed, muted and bypassed via controls located at the bottom of the window. Sets of multiple plug-ins, complete with routing configurations, can be saved or loaded. About a dozen presets come with the program and range from simple mastering to bizarre synthesized effects, requiring more DSP than my computer could muster (e.g., the far-out preset Synthesized, which sounded killer when I could hear it between my system's audio dropouts-again, using the ASIO drivers in lieu of the Digi Drivers cleared this problem up). Meters for master L/R output (+6 to -96 dB), L/R phase (for checking mono compatibility) and CPu usage (displayed as a percentage with a clip LED) are located here. Dithering is an option, from 8 to 24 bits. A Create button lets you write the current Master View effects to a selected sound file (I'll explain more about this feature later).

Spark comes packaged with a great complement of native plug-ins, including: Expander, Reverb, Delay, CutFilter, BandPass, OneBandEQ, 3-Band EQ, ResFilter, FuzzStat, Grainalizer and MaxIt (V.1.5). VST based, they can be used with any compatible program, such as Emagic's Logic Audio, or Steinberg's Cubase VST. The plug-ins all sound terrific, ranging from subtle EQ and smooth reverb to radical filters. The Grainalizer plug-in is an underground remixer's dream, combining weird distortion and sick aliasing for an out-of-this-world effect. TC Electronic's long-standing reputation as a manufacturer of great signal processing is continued by its software division. And, if these effects aren't enough, Spark's VST architecture simplifies connecting third- party plug-ins. Assign as many as four VST folders, or shells, in the program's Preferences menu, reboot the program, and the new effects appear in the matrix's plug-in menu. I hooked up all my Steinberg and Waves plug-ins and had a blast concocting unusual ambient sounds and phat masters.

A floating transport bar has all the controls you'd expect and more. There's stop, play, record and pause; fast-forward and rewind are accessed by a playbar with forward and back arrows at each of its ends; a dedicated loop button turns looping on or off; input, output and sample-rate information are displayed next to a large, easy-to-read clock (hrs:min:sec:ms) located in the middle of the transport bar.

A virtual jog shuttle wheel on the transport bar is a nice addition and works well, though scrubbing with a mouse can be annoying. Scrubbing operates with or without varispeed. With varispeed on, the wheel is sticky, letting you audition different speeds and pitches; with it off, the wheel always springs back to its default of zero. A real-time timestretch feature is also part of the scrub wheel. With the wheel in timestretch mode, you can change the speed of your recording, as much as 25%, without affecting pitch. I had little luck getting this feature to work smoothly (I didn't have time to try this, but again, the ASIO drivers supposedly fix this). However, an offline timestretch function found in the menu bar works fine and even has a BPM parameter.

MIDI (via OMS) is implemented as a way of importing and exporting files from samplers. Supported machines include: Akai S1000/S1100/S2000/S3000 Series, E-mu ESI and E4 Series, Roland S760, Yamaha A3000 and just about any sampler using SMDI. Akai CD-ROMs can be read directly by Spark. Keymaps and loops are not supported. Sampler communication is a nice feature, but there are more comprehensive programs out there for this task. However, with MIDI as part of its spec, Spark's future in MIDI peripherals is wide open (perhaps a MIDI jog shuttle wheel could be addressed); including MIDI was a sound decision.

SPARKS FLYVersion 1.01 has a few major problems (actually, one major one and a couple of minor ones). These are not bugs (the program never actually crashed on me) so much as they are poor design decisions on the part of Spark's development team. But before I start critiquing, I should say that these issues are being addressed by the folks at TC Works, and many will be remedied in the Version 1.5 release.

The biggest problem I encountered is the way Spark handles processed files. Spark's default setting overwrites the original file (e.g., "snare"), instead of generating a new file under a different name (e.g., "snare-001 efx"). It's far too easy to erase your original file and have it replaced with a processed file, without so much as even a prompt, when saving your session. (TC says they've fixed this in the 1.5 release.)

The file overwrite problem rears its ugly head again when dealing with regions. The program allows deriving multiple copies and regions from a single parent sound file without the need to write new, discrete, files to disk. This is perfect for simple, nondestructive, playlisting, sans effects. unfortunately, as soon as you apply processing to a region, there's a chance that that region in the original sound file will be overwritten.

In short, an editing program should never write over an original file without adequate prompting and plenty of options to "save as" built into the prompts. A mastering program should never, ever, overwrite an original file, period. The program should automatically write processed files to a different name, preferably to a dedicated project folder created by the software on your hard drive. The programmers at TC Works are working on remedying this issue.

until then, here are some simple workarounds, aside from making sure your files are always backed up. First, stay away from the Command-S keyboard shortcut; stick with the save actions listed on the menu bar. TC says that in 1.5 there are individual prompts to save audio files separately and that Command S will save a session. Working this way, you must always look before you save, making sure to save the project vs. the sound file, as appropriate. So if you Save As after processing a sound, you can select a new name and save the file before getting trapped in the overwrite snare. And lastly, don't count on Spark's one level of undo to come to the rescue-it can't undo a Save Audio File command.

Spark's other problems aren't nearly as serious. Folders and files in the file overview window are too easily deleted. Simply highlight them, hit delete, and they're gone-no prompt, no warning, no undo. There is no way to retrieve this information. One of those "are you sure you want to do this?" prompts would be nice. (TC says this has also been fixed in 1.5.)

When using the Create function in the Master View, a mono file run through a batch of stereo effects does not save as a stereo file. Though the effects are stereo, the output file remains mono. This is unfortunate, because Spark's stereo effects are awesome. The solution is to use a program like BIAS Peak to convert the mono file to stereo before working with it in Spark.

Finally, two of the three different options for turning looping on or off are quirky and appear to cause conflicts within the program. I found it's best to turn the looping off for master regions in the file pool. Also, don't bother with the loop action in the menu bar-leave it off. But if you stick with the loop on/off button in the transport window, everything seems to run smoothly.

BURNING UPAs we went to press, TC Works was set to release Spark Version 1.5. New features in this update include greatly improved project load times, MP3 file support, added crossfade options and more native plug-ins. The matrix will function as a VST or MAS (MOTu's real-time audio system) plug-in. This is important, as it allows the matrix to be plugged directly into programs such as MOTu's Digital Performer, Steinberg's Cubase VST or Emagic's Logic Audio. All the signal routing power and configurable processing offered by the matrix can now be used within your favorite multitrack audio application. Very impressive.

Despite some implementation problems, Spark is a truly unique and powerful application with a lot to offer. Spark's real-time processing and drag- and-drop user interface are excellent. The effects sound incredible. It didn't crash. And retail is only $499. With all that it does, along with the native plug-ins and Toast, it could have easily sold for twice as much. Without a doubt, this program is worth keeping an eye on-especially if you own a G4. Watch out for Version 1.5.

TC Works, distributed by TC Electronic, 742-A Hampshire Road, Westlake Village, CA 91361; 805/373-1828; fax 805/379-2648; www.tcworks.de.