capsule review

Spark XL 2.5

At a Glance
  • TC Works Spark XL 2.5

    Macworld Rating

What image-editing software is to a graphic artist, an audio-editing program is to audio and video producers and musicians: an essential tool for fixing flaws, refining raw material, creating special effects, and much more.

Audio pros who use Macs have two stand-alone audio editors from which to choose: Bias's Peak 3 and, now, TC Works' Spark 2.5. We liked Peak 3's potent mix of features and its Mac OS X support, but we lamented its crude user interface, lack of printed documentation, occasional crashes, and that many of its effects plug-ins are not yet OS X native (see Reviews, July 2002).

Spark 2.5 is an appealing alternative. Like Peak, Spark is a two-track audio editor, and as with Peak, not all of its plug-ins work in OS X. But Spark is a much more polished program that has the edge when it comes to interface design, speed, and stability.

Many Uses

Spark can handle any two-track audio-editing task, whether for video soundtracks or audio alone. Video producers can use it to fine-tune QuickTime movie soundtracks--like other audio editors, Spark can open a QuickTime movie and display its video as the soundtrack plays back. And musicians can use Spark to prepare sound loops and transfer them to music-sampling instruments. If the majority of your work consists of fine-tuning music loops, however, Peak's slick LoopSurfer technology will serve you better: Spark has no equivalent feature.

Audio pros and musicians can use Spark to assemble audio files and portions of files into playlists for subsequent CD mastering. Indeed, Spark excels at this, thanks to its clever three-pane window.

A Master at Mastering

Spark is available in two versions. We tested the $749 Spark XL 2.5, which includes 21 audio-processing plug-ins in the popular VST format, as well as audio-restoration plug-ins and the superb TC Works' TC Native Bundle, a collection of plug-ins that handle equalization, reverb, and audio compression. (Unfortunately for OS X users, TC Native Bundle runs in OS 9 only. TC Works is developing an OS X version, however, and it will be a free upgrade for registered Spark XL users.) The $499 Spark 2.5 is essentially the same product, but does not include the TC Native Bundle or the audio-restoration features. If you're only dabbling in audio-editing for now, also check out the limited and free versions of Spark (LE and ME, respectively).

Spark XL also works with Digidesign's Pro Tools audio hardware, and can make use of plug-ins written in Digidesign's TDM format. Digidesign has yet to update its Pro Tools systems for OS X, so for now at least, this is another OS 9-specific capability.

Plugging In

Spark XL includes two audio-restoration plug-ins: DeClick removes clicks and pops, while DeNoise removes continuous background noise, such as the low rumble of a turntable or the hiss of old shellac records. We applied these plug-ins to a digitized version of a used and abused vinyl album, and the results were astonishing. DeClick deftly removed the clicks and pops without affecting the music, while DeNoise made turntable rumble a distant memory.

Spark and Spark XL even let you apply up to two plug-ins at recording time: you can clean up an old record as you digitize it, or turn your Mac into a real-time effects unit that modifies a vocal or musical instrument as you sing or play. This is a huge time-saver and a lot of fun.

With Spark's FX Machine window, you can combine plug-ins in myriad ways, routing the output of one effect into another to create exactly the sound you want. Peak 3 has a similar feature, but we found Spark's more versatile. For example, FX Machine has 20 preset "machines"--collections of plug-in routings and settings--that produce special effects, sweeten vocal tracks, and more.

Spark's batch-processing features enable you to apply its audio-manipulation talents to a series of files. The Batch Converter feature works well, though it doesn't offer as much flexibility as its counterpart in Peak does.

Spark Sparkles

Spark's uncluttered and thoughtfully designed interface is one of its key strengths. The main window lets you see audio files and regions, playlists, and the current waveform for easy organization of the many files that constitute a CD project, for example. Spark also includes thorough printed documentation; Peak includes electronic documentation only.

Previous versions of Spark often ran slowly, but Spark 2.5 felt spry. Indeed, it was faster than Peak in some of our tests.

In a particularly surprising case, normalizing a lengthy audio file took about eight minutes in Peak 3.01 and less than a second in Spark XL 2.5. The differences weren't nearly so dramatic in other areas, but the bottom line is that Spark's sluggishness is a thing of the past.

Peak does have the edge in some areas. As mentioned previously, its sample-looping features are superior to Spark's. Peak also has a wider range of audio-processing features, although many are geared toward creating special effects and may be of limited practical value for some users.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Elegantly designed and responsive, Spark 2.5 and Spark XL 2.5 have claimed the top spot among Mac audio editors. If you don't need audio-restoration features or TDM support, you're best bet is Spark 2.5. If you're on a tight budget, investigate the Spark LE family, which costs just $20 to $50. And if you want to test the sparkling waters, download the free Spark ME and give it a spin before taking the plunge.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Fast
    • Elegant design
    • Superb audio-processing plug-ins

    Cons

    • Some plug-ins and features work only in Mac OS 9
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