Recording

TC Works Spark

TC Works' Spark 2.5 is truly one of the most powerful audio editing, processing and sound-design applications available today for the Macintosh platform. 12/01/2002 7:00 AM Eastern

TC Works' Spark 2.5 is truly one of the most powerful audio editing, processing and sound-design applications available today for the Macintosh platform. I find Spark to be the perfect application to put finishing touches on stereo mixdown files, as well as the perfect experimental work space for sound design.

A TALE OF TWO CURSORS

Spark's dual cursors make setting regions and creating fades both fast and intuitive. The red playback cursor starts its way across the audio file as soon as you start playback. When you reach a point where you wish to start a region, fade, edit, etc., simply click the mouse or press the Option and Return keys, and the edit cursor will instantly appear at the playback cursor position. When you reach the operation's end point, simply click the Stop button on the transport or press the spacebar again. With your edit cursor at your left boundary and your playback cursor at your right boundary, you can double-click between them to select everything inside.

At this point, you have many options. If you want to create a region, simply press Command and the R key (or select Create Region in the Edit menu) and a region with your selected boundaries appears in the file browser. You can easily zoom in right to your selection by pressing Control and + (on the numeric keypad). You can easily zoom in and manually edit drawing resolution by pressing the Option and + (on the numeric keypad) keys. For a fade out, follow the above procedure, stopping playback at the audio file's tail end, and then press Command and F to bring up the Fade dialog.

WELCOME TO THE FX MACHINE

Spark 2.5 comes with the brilliant Spark FX Machine, a matrix of up to 100×100 slots for native Spark and VST 2.0 plug-ins, which allows for nearly infinite routing and re-routing experimentation. The FX Machine also doubles as a VST plug-in itself; this is a great way to get some fantastic and unique processing in other VST hosts, but the FX Machine with Spark's Wave Editor becomes a flexible and fast, real-time sound-design application.

To create some radical effects or process a slice of audio using Spark, it's easiest to operate on a short region of your file. Using the procedure above, create your selection, and then press the “/” key to enable cycle playback and the spacebar to continuously loop playback of your selection. Press the Option and Tab keys to bring the Master view to the front. The quickest way to add effects to slots in the Matrix is to use the Contextual menu, which can be brought up by pressing the Command key and the mouse button. Better yet, right-click with a two-button mouse. This menu contains a list of all your native Spark and VST 2 plug-ins, as well as options to add a “line through” routing cable to the slot, mute/unmute and bypass/activate plug-ins.

As soon as you add a plug-in, its Edit window appears. Normally, Spark only keeps the currently selected plug-in's Edit window open, but by pressing Option when adding/selecting a plug-in, the plug-in opens in a new window. The real fun is with all of the routing options you have. As you insert plug-ins in the FX Machine matrix vertically, you create parallel effects streams. When you insert an additional plug-in horizontally, Spark will automatically route every plug-in from the different vertical levels through the new plug-in. However, you can change this by inserting a “line through” in one of the vertical levels; this keeps that vertical level parallel to the other streams, regardless of how many plug-ins you have on any number of vertical levels that are included in the chain up until that point. You can even press the P key to bring up the Phase dialog box and switch the outputs' phases! With unlimited options and Spark's unlimited undo, you are free to experiment without fear of reaching a point of no return.

UNDERRATED GEMS: MP3 AND SRC

It might seem overkill to use an audio editor to export MP3s instead of any consumer application with a quality MP3 encoder. After all, Spark uses the same Fraunhofer codec as other consumer applications, right? The difference is that Spark creates MP3 files from any bit depth and sample rate, whereas other applications do not. If you think that all MP3s are created equal, take the same source material and make a 192kbps MP3 from a 16-bit, 44.1kHz stereo .AIFF file of that source material in Audion or iTunes, and then create a 192kbps MP3 in Spark from a 24-bit, 48kHz .AIFF file of that source material. The Spark-created MP3 will sound closer to the original noncompressed source material than the MP3 exported from other applications.

Sample-rate conversion algorithms have improved over the years, but Spark has achieved a new pinnacle for resampling. The Resampling dialog, in addition to a pull-down menu to select your target sample rate, presents you with three quality options: Good, Better and Best. Spark's Better setting is competitive with the best software SRC algorithms available in any application. Spark's Best setting is in a league of its own by offering the level of conversion expected from stand-alone hardware boxes that cost thousands of dollars. Some mastering engineers prefer to change sample rates by capturing audio through high-quality converters and a second computer/recording device. But for price and convenience, Spark 2.5's Best quality mode is unmatched. [Visit www.mixonline.com for an extended version of this article, featuring additional Spark tips.
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Orren Merton is a pro audio writer, consultant and musician based in Southern California.