The newest version of Spark by TC|Works, Spark XL, packs more than enough improvements and features to warrant the “extra-large” label in its name.
I first tested Spark Version 1.01 a little over a year ago (Mix February 2000), and though I was impressed by its concept and overall design, the application was still in its infancy. Since then, the software team at TC|Works has fixed the bugs I ran across and added several important new features. The program's basic operating principles have not changed, and because these were covered in the previous field test, I'll focus on the latest improvements, features and differences between the software's native and TDM bundles.
This time out, I tested Spark XL on a Mac G4 400 MHz with Digidesign's 24 MIXplus system running Pro Tools Version 5.1.1. At the time of this field test, Spark was at Version 2.02 — version numbers are the same for both the native and TDM versions because both depend on the same core program.
The differences between the two programs are not only that Spark XL is TDM-compatible, but it is also bundled with a bunch of extra plug-ins. Along with the standard complement of Spark plug-ins (see table), Spark XL adds the entire TC|Native Bundle and two high-end restoration plug-ins, DeClick and DeNoise. Spark XL retails for $749; the native-only bundle goes for $599.
One of the biggest enhancements to the user interface is the addition of a dedicated crossfade editing window, the Cut Editor (see Fig. 1). With files listed in the Playlist window, the Cut Editor becomes available for fine-tuning crossfades. It is ingeniously organized to allow working on both the head and tail segues of a track. Waveforms are displayed complete with crossfade envelopes (all the standard types) and you can nudge crossfade positions by milliseconds or samples with gross and fine controls; track start and stop times are fully adjustable, as are crossfade lengths. Auditioning crossfades is a breeze with Over, From and To options. The audition pre-/post-roll times are tweakable right in the Cut Editor (no need to visit the Preferences menu).
The Next, Previous and Jump To controls let you scroll anywhere in your playlist directly from the Cut Editor. This means that all your pause times and crossfade work can be done directly in the Cut Editor with no need to return to the Playlist window. Very cool. That said, the fact that the Cut Editor window is a set size is a hair annoying. On more than one occasion, I found myself wishing it was resizable; the ability to expand the Cut Editor to full screen size would be especially nice.
Spark's core audio engine is new and improved and dubbed the Virtual File engine. TC|Works reports greatly increased processing times for cut-and-paste-type duties. Compared with previous versions, I did notice faster processing times — not an extreme difference, but enough to feel like I spent less time twiddling my thumbs while the computer crunched numbers. And after processing a few files, if you suddenly realize you made a mistake some moves back, then the Virtual File engine allows for up to 99 levels of undo/redo. There are no Preference settings available for this function (how many levels of undo you want), but the Undo/Redo main menu items sport a brief description of your last move, along with a clear-the-undo/redo-memory buffer command.
The Master FXMachine (Spark's built-in effect matrix, not its plug-in counterpart) can now wield up to 99×99 effects slots. (Grid size is set in the Preferences, and the program's default is 5×4.) This new feature alone equals more processing power than most of us will ever need (to say nothing of the fact that a fully loaded 99×99 effect matrix — that's 9,801 native plug-ins running simultaneously — would obviously choke today's computers). The power and flexibility of the Spark FXMachine are shear genius. And its twin VST effect plug-in (Spark FXMachine) now comes in the MAS format too. (An RTAS version would also be really nice, but TC|Works says there are no plans to support this format.) However, the plug-in effect matrix remains fixed at a 5×4 grid, and the Spark FXMachine Instrument plug-in is still just for VST. (Incidentally, for those of you who just want the FXMachine plug-in, it's currently available online at the TC|Works Website for $29.95.)
New plug-ins released with Version 2.0 include TouchWah, Metergraph and Sonograph (see Fig. 2). TouchWah is a software emulation of a vintage wah pedal that doesn't sound half bad. You can move the pedal with your mouse (or via a keyboard's Mod wheel) to adjust the envelope follow amount, or you can set it to autopilot. Because Spark is not a digital audio sequencer, there is no way to automate the pedal action directly in this program, but it can be automated in an appropriate host application (Cubase VST/32 for example). Metergraph is a 30-band, ⅓-octave, spectral analyzer, and Sonograph displays audio over time as well as by frequency and level. Whereas before you had to find third-party analyzer plug-ins to augment Spark, these essential mastering tools are now part of the standard bundle — very handy additions. Metergraph and Sonograph only work in Spark; they are not stand-alone VST plug-ins, though they will instantiate in the FXMachine plug-in.
Those of you who have been using Spark know that Spark Modular (the very cool set of synth building block proprietary plug-ins) isn't new. While it was an add-on to the core application previously, it now comes standard. Marker management has been improved, making them a breeze to work with. They can be named, freely scooted about, locked down and are very easy to see against the waveform. However, it would be nice if clicking somewhere on the marker moved the playbar to that location. CD audio can now be imported directly into Spark via the QuickTime audio format, a much appreciated convenience.
Spark XL is bundled with two restoration plug-ins, DeClick and DeNoise (see Fig. 3). These plug-ins are native (not TDM) and work only in the FXMachine (within Spark or in the FXMachine plug-in). Use DeClick for extracting pops and scratches and DeNoise for removing unwanted broadband noise. Both plug-ins are a piece of cake to use because they feature simple but effective controls. I tried cleaning up some old, scratchy drum recordings off vinyl. This was a real acid test, because the records were in pretty bad condition. After fiddling with the plug-in parameters for a spell, I managed to cook up some pretty pleasing results — I was impressed.
However, I was not impressed by Spark XL's TDM implementation. I was unable to route audio through the dedicated TDM plug-in portion of the program. The TDM Master will take up to five TDM plug-ins run sequentially and falls post the native FXMachine. DirectConnect is supposed to be the key linking the FXMachine to the TDM Master. I was able to get Spark to output audio through DirectConnect and into the Pro Tools' mixer itself (which is cool for playing VST plug-in instruments through Pro Tools), but no such connection seemed possible within the program itself. Indeed, when TDM mode was launched, I couldn't even get Spark XL to play at all — though DAE did seem to launch successfully and the TDM Master did output sound from Signal Generator.
To make matters worse, Spark's communication with Digidesign's Direct I/O was also less than satisfactory. Sound would output; however, there was a noticeable delay before hearing playback, perhaps as much as half a second, which made trimming the beginning of a track extremely frustrating. As a result, I was forced to monitor Spark XL's audio through my Mac's 16-bit mini-jacks — pretty sad.
Maybe DirectConnect and Direct I/O Versions 5.1.1 threw Spark XL for a loop. Thinking this might be the case, I swapped DirectConnect 5.1.1 with the previous version, 5.1. (I didn't try this with Direct I/O.) Still no luck. After several days of trying to figure out what was going on, I gave up. Very frustrating. Also, when TC|Works gets the TDM aspect of Spark XL functioning, I suggest spicing up the TDM package a bit more. How about bundling a few of those excellent TC|Works TDM plug-ins with Spark XL? And is it possible to create a TDM master that looks more like the FXMachine, with parallel effects and a TDM plug-in counterpart?
GET THIS SPARK GOING
In my previous field test, I was unhappy with the program's propensity to overwrite original files without proper prompting. Happily, this problem has been remedied. There are now plenty of prompts and opportunities to cancel an overwrite. Loop playback works flawlessly, and there doesn't seem to be any conflicting loop playback command structures as in the past. And mono files processed with a stereo effect now save as a stereo file.
Additionally, Spark drops what are called Overview Files (.OVW) all over your hard drive. These files enable Spark to show a file's waveform instantaneously without having to calculate the waveform's overview each time it's loaded. Okay, I understand the object, but is it necessary to drop these files right next to every audio file that Spark has accessed? All the extra files in my neatly organized sound library folders are a real eyesore. (And I hate to think about what might be happening to my computer's file hierarchy with so many extra files being generated.) How about keeping .OVW files hidden or caching them all in a single folder within Spark's application folder?
Despite the TDM-compatibility flop and annoying .OVW files, I had a lot of fun with this program. Exporting the playlist with all its associated pauses and crossfades to Jam 2.5 (Adaptec) worked great. The great-sounding Fraunhöffer MP3 codec in combination with the program's batch processor is an excellent way to convert audio to this format. Transferring files between Spark and my Akai S2000 sampler was a blast and really came in handy for sound design. Spark will even translate Akai CD-ROM sounds into .AIFF files, so I had plenty of material to draw from for my late-night beat-mangling sessions.
Obviously, I can't recommend the TDM version of Spark at this time. Once it is stable and they sweeten the bundle a bit, for those running TDM systems, it will certainly be worth having a look at. In the meantime, the native application of Spark is wonderful, and I do recommend checking it out, especially if you are a hardcore sound designer and in need of a really good playsuits creation program. It is sad that DeClick and DeNoise are exclusive to Spark XL, because they are great restoration plug-ins, and having them available as add-ons for Spark native would be nice. But for an extra $150, if audio restoration is your thing, even if you aren't TDM-based, then Spark XL might be your meal ticket.
TC|Works Soft & Hardware GmbH, Flughafenstrasse 52B, Hamburg, Germany D22335; +49 (40) 531-0803; fax +49 (40) 531-0831; www.tcworks.de.
Erik Hawkins just wrote a book, Studio-in-a-Box (ArtistPro/EMBooks & Hal Leonard), a guide to wholly integrated, personal computer-based recording systems. Check it out while visiting his little indie label atwww.muzicali.com.