Alesis HR16 Drum Machine
A drum machine that sounds more like a drum kit than anything Ludwig ever made? True or not, Alesis' beat box is going to find its way into a lot of recording studios. Nicholas Rowland returns to his roots.
A drum machine that sounds like a drum kit - no, really it does... And it costs under five hundred quid, honest... The trouble is, when you give folks what folks want they don't believe you.
THE SPIRIT OF the Alesis HR16 has been with us for such a long time now, it still seems something of a miracle to encounter one "in the flesh". Yet almost because of the delays (something to do with a ship mined in the Gulf war, I believe) this drum machine seems to have already earned itself Significant Musical Product status - the sort of thing that most instruments only achieve after they've been around for several years.
And it's not surprising given a spec sheet which has been public property for nigh on a year: 49 high quality, 16-bit sampled voices with programmable tuning and panning, each assignable to 16 dynamically sensitive pads, two pairs of stereo outs, sync to tape and a comprehensive MIDI spec. All this for a mere £449. In theory at least, that's gotta be worth waiting for.
But let's explore less familiar territory to start with: the HR16's appearance. Personally, I think its distinctive wedge shape cuts quite a dash. More importantly, the front panel is laid out in a clear and logical fashion, with functionally-related buttons grouped together and an informative 32-character LCD. There is a lid at the back of the machine which opens up to reveal a shallow compartment containing a set of instructions (albeit difficult for any myopics to read). I also found the compartment handy for other things too, like storing recording notes and preventing my gobstoppers rolling about.
So, nice to look at, but in fact not so lovely to hold. Up close, there are some less pleasing aspects. Like squidgy rubber programming buttons which occasionally tend to stick. The volume and data select sliders are also a little flimsy. More worrying though are the voice buttons which, while made of a hard plastic, really don't feel as though they would survive prolonged bashing. In fact the crash cymbal button on the review model (a production job) had already been damaged, with the result that you needed to hit it harder than any of the others to get the loudest dynamic. I foresee long-term problems here, especially in the hands of the "I just hit 'em" school of rhythm programmers (believe me, there are plenty of them about).
Any slight disappointment felt at the rather, shall we say, fissile nature of the packaging quickly disappears when we plug the 9V AC adapter (supplied) into the appropriate socket and begin to explore the HR16 from the inside out
We'll start with the meat of the pre-launch publicity, all 49 of those 16-bit drum voices. Deep breath: 10 bass drums; seven snares; five toms; two open, two closed and one half-closed hi-hat; three cymbals; timbale; high and low congas; two wood blocks; two maracas; two cow bells; claves; cabasa; shaker; agogo; triangle; tambourine; handclaps; finger snap and drum sticks. The bass and snare samples include a couple of the electronic variety, so while there's nothing outrageous, there's certainly plenty of choice. This is important because it gives the HR16 the flexibility to fit in with various styles of music, from rock and pop to hip hop and electro - not always the case with drum machines.
It's a pity Alesis didn't see fit to include some more interesting percussion sounds: talking drums, tablas, perhaps even a bass sample. And I can't understand why there are two types of maracas and no muted conga or alternative timbale sound.
But, this whinge aside, with the possible exception of the claps, every single one of the voices is absolutely excellent. And while it may be a review cliche, you really do have to hear these voices for yourself to appreciate the quality of recording.
Though everyone will have their favourite, what you'll immediately notice about most of the sounds is how "live" and "natural'' they are. In other words, the HR16 sounds more like a set of real instruments close-miked than a collection of triggered sounds squashed into a tiny black box. It's most noticeable on the high frequency sounds - the cymbals and more "tinkly" percussion - which, due to the 47kHz sample rate giving a bandwidth of 20kHz, retain all the clarity and sparkle which they normally lose in drum machines. On the double-headed kicks and toms the sample quality is so good that you can practically hear the drum heads flapping about.
Strangely enough, though, this "realism" can have its disadvantages and lead you to believe that some of the voices are weaker than they actually are. For example, a couple of the acoustic bass drum samples have captured the boominess and slightly soft attack of the real thing rather too well. Hence, if you're trying to imitate Carl Palmer shaking the foundations of Hammersmith Odeon with a double kick roll in "Tarka the Otter", all well and good. But like the real thing, if you want to translate this into a tight and punchy kick-in-the-gut then you'll have to do a fair bit of tweaking - just as you would if you really had miked up Mr Palmer's kit. Either that or choose one of the more suitable bass drum sounds of course.
This may sound a little unlikely, but once you have actually heard the machine, you'll realise exactly what I'm talking about.
THOUGH BOTH THE manual and the LCD always refer to the 16 pads by their default voice assignments (as printed on the machine itself), any voice can be assigned to any pad or number of pads. You can even assign any one of the voices to the click function too.
Note though, that the pad labelled Crash initially has two identical crash samples assigned to it which are triggered alternately. This is so that crash strikes will not cut off as they do when only one sample is used. Conversely, the three hi-hat pads (closed, mid and open) ore designed to cut each other off. In both cases, the intention is to make the machine sound much more realistic (and it works) but it also means that any other voices assigned to those particular pads will work in the same way too.
Having made your selection, voices may be tuned independently, over a range of +15 or -16 semitones. Next comes the Mix function which allows you to set the volume (0-99) for each voice, then assign it to either one of the two pairs of stereo outs and determine which one of seven pan positions it occupies (dead centre or three steps to right or left).
Using these edit functions you can create a wide variety of "Kits" and some interesting special effects too. More melodic rhythms can be created by assigning different tunings of the same voice across several pads. Using voices like triangle, agogo and claves, you can create a "stereo" bell tree, wind chimes, castanets and even a Trimphone effect. And, of course, the panning facilities will allow you to send anything up to four voices through separate outputs for individual EQ and effect treatments.
Having created a Kit it's a simple matter of saving the results with a bit of button pushing. You can store a completely different Kit for each pattern which means, as there are 100 patterns, you can store ... er, you work it out. And as pattern numbers (and hence different Kits) an be realled by MIDI program change information, it means that the HR16 makes an excellent sound source for electronic drummers looking for something to plug into the other end of their trigger-to-MIDI conveners. In fact, though the HR16 plays and records eight levels of dynamics internally, it can respond to 32 levels of dynamics when triggered over MIDI.
THOSE 100 PATTERNS an be built up in both real and step time and when building up a pattern, you can swap quickly and easily between both methods. In the case of real time, it's a simple matter of pressing the green Play and red Record simultaneously; in step time, you have to hold the Patt key down first. Another key press and a touch on the data entry slider sets the tempo anywhere between 20 and 255bpm.
Pattern length is, not unreasonably, defined in terms of numbers of beats. The default length is eight beats though this is easily reset to a value between one and 682. The HR16 thoughtfully allows you to shorten or lengthen a pattern even if you've already recorded something into it. And if the new pattern is to be longer, you can add a period of "silence" onto either the beginning or the end of the original.
Quantisation resolutions are variable from 1/4 through 1/6, 1/8, 1/12, 1/16, 1/24, 1/32, 1/48, 1/64 to Off (in other words 1/384 which is equivalent to the MIDI clock rate). Again, flexibility is the key since quantisation can be constantly altered for each new overdub: handy for quickly and accurately punching in a four-on-the-floor kick, then adding, say, triplet hi-hats. The click can also be quantised over the same range (only this time Off does mean no sound at all).
Pad dynamics come into play where both programming methods are concerned. There are 11 settings of dynamics available: Loud, Medium, Soft and Fixed 1 through to Fixed 8. As their names suggest, the first three represent different loudness curves, while the fixed settings mean that the dynamics are always the same no matter how hard the buttons are hit. On the whole, the system works quite well, although when set to Medium and Soft, the buttons really have to be whacked quite hard to get the loudest dynamic. However, bearing in mind my earlier comments I'm really not sure the machine will stand up to it.
When programming in step time, the LCD shows the dynamic at which the voice has been entered. If this isn't what you want, or you want to edit it at a later stage, you're allowed to enter new values using the number keys just below the LCD. Or if you're descended from Robert the Bruce, you can keep hitting the pad until you get it right.
"The HR16 has the flexibility to fit in with various styles of music, from rock and pop to hip hop and electro - not always the case with drum machines."
I'm sure it goes without saying (or does it?) that the dynamics of different voices are completely independent of one another.
Erasing erroneous beats is extremely simple, as is eradicating a single voice from the whole pattern. However, beware when erasing complete patterns. Not only does the entire rhythm disappear, but, unless you've activated a function called Manual Voice/Tune/Mix, so does any voice editing you've done. This can lead to some colourful language if you've just spent an hour or so carefully building up a Kit. The way round it is just to erase the voices individually which also leaves you with your original pattern length and quantise values.
You also have to be careful of this when copying patterns (which as in all drum machines actually means tacking one pattern on to the end of another) since the Kit of the "destination" pattern replaces the Kit of the pattern that's being copied. If you're not careful, you could end up with the right pattern and the wrong voices playing it.
THAT COVERS THE basic mechanics of pattern programming: logical, easily understandable and flexible enough to allow you to do just about anything you want. But the HR16 has a few more tricks - aces, I should say - up its sleeve.
First of these is the truly wonderful Offset function, normally only to be found on considerably more expensive machines. This allows you to advance or retard a voice - any voice you choose - by up to 99 clock pulses (384th notes remember) to shift it slightly before or after the beat.
This allows you to simulate an effect which you may have heard described by grown-up drummers as "playing behind or in front of the beat". It's an often subconscious technique where a drummer can either push a track along, or drag it back slightly and make it more relaxed. It's often what people really mean when they talk about drummers having more "feel" than drum machines.
Used sparingly, the offset function really does make the HR16 groove, enhancing the natural feel of the drum sounds themselves. Overdone it sounds like a novice drummer with a greased drum stool. But even if you want strict time programs, offset comes in useful to lock in the rhythm more tightly to bass guitar or synth voices with too soft an attack. You'll also find it pretty necessary when using some of the HR16's own voices, like the cabasa or claps, both of which have such slow attacks that they tend to make things drag a little.
As well as offsetting individual drums you can also offset a whole pattern. In either case, if events are offset beyond the end of the pattern, they are then put at the beginning and vice versa.
The Swing function also helps to inject a degree of flow into the programs and is essential when creating shuffles.
Another feature which seems initially more of a convenience than anything is the Fill button. When this is held down and any voice button is pressed, the voice is retriggered at the current quantise rate and whatever dynamic level has been set. Useful for quickly setting up hi-hat patterns or military snare rolls, it's also great for some offbeat effects too, like soft bass drum "stabs" or chirruping crickets.
THE HR16 CAN store a total of 100 Songs, each of which can contain up to 255 steps, a step being defined as any one of the 100 Patterns. Given the comprehensive features available for creating Patterns, the HR16's song editing features are surprisingly elementary. They include the usual insertion and deletion of patterns (Replace does both of these at once) and tempo changes can be programmed between, but not during, patterns. Whole songs can be looped, but it's not possible to loop parts of them, which is one method that many manufacturers use to save both memory and programming time.
In case you're ever worried about running out of memory, pressing Record and Length together displays the remainder as a percentage. If things are getting desperate then you can always save all patterns and songs to tape. You can also save and load song and pattern information via MIDI.
AS WE'VE MENTIONED the four-letter word a couple of times, we might as well see what other MIDI options the HR16 offers.
The MIDI/Util button allows you to determine which of the 16 channels the HR16 will both transmit and receive on. The other option is Omni, which means transmitting on channel 1, but receiving on all channels.
MIDI notes are assigned to each pad rather than to each voice, so that incoming MIDI information will trigger whatever your Kit setup has assigned to that pad (the display shows both the MIDI note number and the corresponding keyboard note). First though, you'll have to toggle the Receive MIDI Drums function on. And if you want information to go out, you'll have to do the same for Transmit function.
The HR16 also accepts and transmits MIDI clock information, plus Auto Start messages. (It can also be started with a remote footswitch plugged into the rear-panel socket.) It will sync to tape through its own FSK code. As I said above, different patterns can be accessed with MIDI program change numbers. Unfortunately you can't actually access the different patterns while the machine is running because in that state it won't accept program changes. Hence, if you were thinking of using a keyboard or sequencer to dial up the various patterns as you went along, forget it.
THE HR16 IS a remarkable piece of equipment. The sounds are excellent and the programming system is extremely user-friendly, yet it's comprehensive enough to give plenty of scope to the dedicated rhythm fiend. Electro-drummers will also find it the ideal box to trigger from pads.
Admittedly, it's not perfect. The casing really isn't up to scratch, some of the voice types are duplicated unnecessarily and the song editing facilities really are too simplistic.
In spite of these criticisms I would highly recommend it, mainly because it has a very particular character which, strangely enough, stems from the fact that it doesn't sound or behave like a drum machine at all.
Price £449 including VAT