With more machines appearing every month, there's no denying that it's boom-time for the beatbox. Simon Trask rocks to the rhythm of this latest offering from Alesis.
The compact dimensions of Alesis' latest drum machine belie the power lurking within - 233 16-bit drum and percussion sounds and innovative programming features make the SR16 a serious beatbox.
WHEN EF SCHUMACHER wrote his influential best-seller Small is Beautiful he undoubtedly didn't have Alesis' new drum machine in mind. Nonetheless, the SR16 is the latest in a long line of instruments from the company which have illustrated that small can indeed be beautiful - and powerful. Measuring 9" x 6.5" x 1-1.75" and weighing just 1.5lbs, the SR16 is what you could call a laptop drum machine. On appearance alone, you might be inclined to dismiss the SR16 as a toy, but plug it in and you soon realise this is far from the case. Alesis made a promising start with the HR16 and HR16B; could the SR16 be about to sweep the rug from under Japanese feet and take over the budget market?
FIRST, SOME BAD news: the SR16's LCD screen isn't backlit, and consequently in less than well-lit conditions it's difficult if not impossible to read. More positively, however, Alesis' new drum machine has a straightforward, intuitive user interface. The various Modes and Functions of the drum machine are clearly marked and readily accessible via dedicated front-panel buttons, while parameter organisation is clear and logical. I was able to get to grips with most aspects of the SR16 without recourse to the manual (which, incidentally, is friendly, helpful, concise and clear).
Running across the lower section of the SR16's front panel are 12 small rubber playing pads. They're a comfortable fingerpad size, while their proximity has performance advantages. The pads have a limited degree df velocity sensitivity (eight levels), which is better than none but doesn't exactly allow for the finer nuances of touch. In fact, the SR16 only records eight levels of velocity, whether from the pads or via MIDI input - no doubt as a means of economising on memory. Pad response can be set to Soft, Medium or Loud weighting, or to one of eight fixed response levels.
The SR16's rear panel contains the 9V AC power input (the SR16 uses an external AC adaptor, provided with the machine), power on/off button, Main L/R and Aux L/R stereo outputs, MIDI In and Out/Thru sockets, Tape In/Out mini-jack socket (for data storage only), and Start/Stop and Count/A/B/Fill footswitch inputs.
THESE DAYS, IT'S not uncommon to be able to expand the range of sounds on a drum machine using ROM sample cards. The SR16 has no provision for such expansion, but makes up for it in one sense by having an exceedingly generous 233 onboard sounds. That's more than many drum machines make available even with the addition of sample cards. Even so, what you get upfront on the SR16 is all you're going to get - there's no chance of further sounds being made available on cards at a later date.
It might be reasonable to expect, therefore, that the SR16 crams in just about every type of drum and percussion sound you could want, but that isn't quite how Alesis have played it. What they've done is provide you with just about all the bass and snare drums you could want - 49 kicks and 59 snares, to be precise. They've also been very generous with the toms (51), although, given that you get hi, mid and lo versions, the actual variety is less (though still plenty, methinks). Hi-hats do well with 19 samples, and cymbals (ride and crash) not badly with 12. That leaves a not unreasonable 42 percussion sounds, though again, because there are hi and lo versions of some sounds, the actual variety is less.
The generous provision of kicks, snares and toms puts Alesis' latest drum machine in a league of its own. The SR16 also stands out among drum machines in including 94 stereo samples among its 233 sounds. Around half the kicks, snares and toms are in stereo, as are a small number of the hi-hats and percussion instruments. Alesis have also provided a mixture of dry and reverbed sounds, with the proportion being along the lines of the mono and stereo sounds (in fact, many of the stereo sounds are also the reverbed sounds).
The SR16 also introduces what Alesis refer to as "advanced dynamic articulation techniques". These appear to be the drum machine version of "how to speak more proper", in that they're intended to reproduce the varying timbral response you get from acoustic drums when they're hit with different degrees of force (so if you use fixed velocity response you won't notice any dynamic changes). Beyond this, the SR16's manual is decidely vague - not least about which sounds use dynamic articulation. The effect is only clearly discernable on a small proportion of the 233 sounds (a few kicks, snares, congas and toms), where it does introduce a realistic responsiveness.
The SR16's samples are well-detailed, dynamic, upfront and punchy, with plenty of presence. As you might expect from the sheer number of kicks and snares provided, Alesis have included an extremely versatile selection of acoustic and electronic, effected and non-effected sounds (including the now inevitable 808 kick and snare) well suited to the sonic versatility expected in today's music. In fact, this is a very modern-sounding drum machine which works well for modern dance rhythms - which is clearly the intention. The variety of the kick and snare sounds is also very effective for tailoring your own sounds - assign a tight kick to one pad, an ambient kick to another and then record the same rhythm on each pad. Obviously this uses two voices, but the SR16's generous (for a drum machine) 16-voice polyphony means you can get away with it if the rhythm isn't overly busy.
The toms are also a versatile bunch, from deep, booming, reverberant acoustic sounds to hard, tight electronic sounds, while the hi-hats and ride and crash cymbals vary from the harsh to the delicate, and have all the top-end clarity and detail which made the HR16 such a distinctive drum machine. The SR16's percussion sounds include tambourine, shaker, congas (including slapped), timbales, agogos, claves, woodblocks, cowbells (including three differently-pitched versions of the 808 cowbell), fingersnaps, claps, cabasa, Impact (a kind of heavy industrial sound) and Sample & Hold. This last sound isn't actually a sound but several sounds which have been grouped in a software-implemented special effect. When you assign Sample & Hold to one of the SR16's pads, successive pad hits randomly play any one of four sounds (two tunings of the 808 cowbell, a woodblock and an agogo bell).
This works particularly well with a steady stream of 16th notes, where the effect is of constantly-changing cross-rhythms produced by the random interaction of the different sounds - so your pattern is never quite the same each time it's played. If you assign Sample & Hold to more than one pad, record different rhythms on each pad, and tune and pan each pad differently, you can produce even more random weirdness. Intriguing stuff - which could have been made even more intriguing if Alesis had included two or more Sample & Holds and allowed you to determine which sounds were used in each one. The more creative electronic wildness the better.
"The SR16 effectively becomes a MIDI drum expander, yet at the same time you can be using it as a drum machine."
THE SR16 HOLDS 50 Preset Patterns and 50 User-programmable Patterns. Presets encompass rock, hard rock, R&B, funk, blues, rap, techno, reggae, jazz rock, fusion, new age, country, jazz, Latin and ballad styles - or at least, that's what the names say. I'm not convinced by the supposedly funk, rap and techno rhythms (with the exception of Rap 3, a lively swingbeat rhythm). It's not only Alesis who are at fault here, however. Now that manufacturers of drum machines and home keyboards have finally woken up to more contemporary rhythms, they need to find people who can program them convincingly.
Each Preset consists of four patterns: Main A, Main B, Fill A and Fill B. These can be selected from the front-panel buttons mentioned earlier, while Fill patterns can also be selected using a footswitch plugged into the Count/A/B/Fill socket. A Fill can be selected from any position in a pattern apart from the initial downbeat (the first step of the pattern), and plays once to its end. If you release the Fill button or the footswitch before the end of the Fill, the SR16 goes on to play the alternative pattern (from A to B or from B to A), but if you hold the button or footswitch down past the end of the Fill, the drum machine goes on to play the same pattern that you dropped the Fill in on. If you're sharp with the data ± buttons or the numeric keypad, you can go from a Fill into a different Preset.
Flip the drum machine over and you'll find a list of its preset patterns printed on the bottom panel, together with the basic instructions for playing and recording a pattern and editing some of the SR16's Functions. This is one set of instructions you can't lose.
Unlike Akai's XR10 drum machine (reviewed MT, June '90), which featured a similar setup for its Preset Patterns, the SR16 carries its A/B/Fill capabilities over into its User-programmable Patterns. So for each User Pattern you can in fact program four patterns: A, B, Fill A and Fill B, and select them in the way detailed above. This gives you in effect not 50 but 200 User Patterns - though not necessarily enough memory to use them all. Each Fill pattern shares the same length, Drum Set (collection of sounds assigned to the SR16's 12 pads - see below) and eight-character name as its associated Main pattern, but otherwise Main and Fill patterns are independent. How you use them is up to you. At one extreme they could be completely different rhythms, at the other extreme they could be subtle variations of one another.
As usual on drum machines, SR16 patterns continue looping in record until you Stop them. However, Alesis' drum machine also allows you to move straight from one pattern into an associated pattern - if you press the B and Fill buttons at any time while recording A, the SR16 moves smoothly into Fill B when A next reaches the end of its length.
Just because Alesis have used the description Fill doesn't mean you have to program the traditional drummer's concept of a fill into these patterns. You can just as readily use Fill patterns to drop out selected instruments - perhaps drop out the bass and snare for a few beats or bars. All you need to do is Copy the Main pattern into its Fill pattern and erase the relevant parts in the latter. It's not quite as simple as that, though (are things ever?). Remember that Fills can't start on their first step. If you press the Fill button on the first step, the SR16 plays that first step but then carries on playing the Main pattern. This can actually be advantageous: if you program the first step of the Fill to be the same as that of its Main pattern but add in a crash cymbal, you can then effectively 'drop in' the crash cymbal on the first beat of the Main pattern at any time you want.
Similarly, when you drop in a Fill after the first step so that it plays through to its end, the first step of the next Main pattern is replaced by the first step of the Fill. The idea here is that you can have, say, a crash cymbal effectively on the first beat of the Main pattern each time you come out of the Fill, but not when the Main pattern itself repeats. Again, a neat idea from this point of view, but it does mean you have to think about what you're doing if your Fill rhythm is very different from your Main rhythm, or if you erase whole instrument parts from a Fill as a means of dropping them out.
Having patterns which are slight variations of one another is all very well, but of course it's going to eat into the SR16's memory. Alesis claim their drum machine can "typically store over 15,000 events", which turns out to be the case, but how much over seems to vary greatly. As a rough guide, I filled a minimum of 96 patterns with a rhythm of 192 pad hits until the cosmic message "Outa Mem Dude!" appeared in the LCD. But another rhythm with the same number of pad hits allowed up to 136 patterns. Unfortunately I didn't have time to pursue this any further.
One of the best features of the SR16 is the ease with which you can switch between Perform and Compose modes while a pattern is playing. If you've recorded a couple of parts while in Compose mode and you want to try out another part before recording it, just press the Perform/Compose button and you're out of record without interrupting the flow. Press the button again and you're back in record. What's more, you can edit the SR16's pad assignments, pattern-record parameters and MIDI parameters while the drum machine is running. Nicely interactive stuff. Also nice to see is the fact that the SR16 can be synced up as slave to a sequencer or drum machine while it's in Pattern mode - not something which can be said for every drum machine.
"The SR16 is a very modern-sounding drum machine which works well for modern dance rhythms - which is clearly Alesis' intention."
Patterns can be up to 128 beats long (32 bars of 4/4), though you don't actually set a time signature (and therefore the metronome is only accentuated on the very first beat of the pattern). Maximum record resolution is 96ppqn, but you can quantise during record to any resolution from a quarter note to 64th notes. You can also select Swing (54%, 58% or 62%), which affects the timing of pairs of equal-value notes and can be applied to specific instruments/pads within your rhythm. This works very well for all those jazz swing, go-go and swingbeat rhythms if you want a spot-on, tight feel.
A quick way of entering repeated notes is to hold down the relevant drum pad and then hold down the Fill button. Notes will be repeated at the current quantisation value for as long as the pad and button are held down. You can use this for anything from streams of 16th-note hi-hats to rapid-fire snare bursts.
Other pattern parameters allow you to slide a whole pattern or individual drum-pad parts forward or backward in time in individual 96ppqn steps, up to 99 steps either way; add and remove beats from the beginning and/or end of a pattern; copy, append and double patterns; and copy one drum pad's part to another drum pad in the same pattern or to any pad in another pattern, or merge the two parts. You can also erase complete individual parts while the SR16 is Stopped, and erase individual pad hits in traditional fashion while the drum machine is running in record (hold down the Erase button and press the relevant pad at the relevant time).
Last but not least, the SR16 provides step-time recording of patterns. You select your resolution (alterable at any time), use the Page Up/Down buttons to step through the pattern in either direction, and hit the relevant pads on the relevant steps. Helpfully, the SR16 plays the hits on each step as you move forward and backward through a pattern. Pad hits can be added to and erased from a step at any time, while pad-hit volumes can be changed by replaying the pad using a different velocity or by manually entering a different number (1-8).
WITH SO MANY sounds onboard the SR16, some means of organising them and making them readily available is highly desirable. Consequently, Alesis' drum machine has 50 Preset and 50 User-programmable Drum Sets. A Drum Set stores the sound assignment for each of the SR16's 12 drum pads, together with such parameters as pad volume, pan and tuning. Each Main pattern within each User Pattern can be assigned any one of these Drum Sets.
The volume of each pad can be set to a value from 0-99. Zero turns the pad off internally but doesn't prevent it from transmitting its assigned MIDI note if Drum Out is enabled. MIDI note assignments for each pad (0-127) are the same for MIDI transmit and receive and are set globally rather than per Drum Set, so you can't play different basslines via MIDI off the same pads within different patterns. The SR16 doesn't allow you to define MIDI Note On durations - whether as gate times or by holding down the pads - so it's not ideal for playing external instrumental parts anyway.
Other Drum Set parameters are pad stereo position (L3-centre-R3), pad tuning (+3/-4), pad triggering mode (single, multi, group 1, group 2 - the groups allowing any combination of instruments/pads to cut one another off as for open and closed hi-hats) and pad output assignment (each pad can be routed to either the Main or Aux stereo output pair).
With MIDI patch change reception enabled, Preset and User Drum Sets can be remotely selected via MIDI on the chosen receive channel (1-16 or Omni). Setting the SR16's Set mode parameter to Manual rather than to Pattern allows Drum Set changes to be controlled from a remote MIDI device rather than the drum machine's pattern-changes.
On the subject of Drum Sets and MIDI, if you set the Note Map parameter in the MIDI Setup to D40-49, Drum Sets 1-39 are no longer accessible via MIDI, nor can you record into the SR16 via MIDI. What you can do is play Drum Sets 40-49 via MIDI as a spread of 120 sounds preassigned to consecutive MIDI notes from note 0 to note 119 - what's more, sounds played in this way respond to all 127 MIDI volume levels. The SR16 effectively becomes a MIDI drum expander ideally suited to keyboard performance, yet at the same time you can be using it as a drum machine.
"Alesis have provided you with just about all the bass and snare drums you could want - 49 kicks and 59 snares, to be precise."
YOU CAN CREATE up to 100 songs on the SR16, each of which can consist of up to 254 steps - a step consisting of either a Main or a Fill pattern. You can piece together a Song by scrolling through the steps and manually tapping in which pattern you want for each step, and in the case of a Fill specify the exact position (to 96ppqn resolution) that you want it to come in at. Individual Song steps can be added, inserted, replaced and deleted, and you can copy a Song to itself (doubling its length), make a copy of a Song or add a Song on to the end of another Song. Each Song can be given its own tempo (20-255bpm), but you can't have any tempo changes within a Song - not that this need be a problem if you're slaving the SR16 off a sequencer with a tempo track.
Nothing too unusual so far. But where the SR16 strikes out ahead of the pack and wins many Mars bars is in its inclusion of real-time Song recording. Select your initial pattern, set the SR16 to Compose mode, press Play and off you go: the drum machine starts playing in realtime and automatically records all pattern selections you make, compiling them into a Song chain for you. Needless to say, this is not only more fun than manually compiling Song steps, it also allows you to be more spontaneous about selecting patterns - and in particular is a far more desirable way of selecting Fills. Songs can be recorded in this way when the SR16 is slaved to a sequencer or another drum machine, so you can record your Song chain interactively with whatever someone else is recording into the sequencer. Full marks, Alesis.
Another example of how to be spontaneous with programmed rhythms comes in Song Play mode. Hold down the Count/A/B/Fill footswitch during a Song step and the SR16 will repeatedly play the pattern at that step until you release the footswitch - allowing you to spontaneously 'stretch out' a particular pattern for an instrumental soloist or a vocalist/rapper.
THE SR16 ALLOWS you to store its Pattern, Song and Drum Set data to tape or to a remote MIDI SysEx storage device (such as Alesis' own DataDisk) or another SR16. Tape transfer allows you to save and load all data, one Pattern or one Song, plus of course there's the inevitable Verify function. SysEx transfer additionally allows you to save and load individual Drum Sets and even a single drum pad's part from within a Pattern.
THE SR16 GETS full marks for its thoughtful and flexible implementation, user-friendly operation, innovative features and generous complement of quality sounds. The fact that you get all this for £299 makes the SR16 excellent value for money.
In particular, Alesis are to be congratulated for giving the musician on a tight budget access to the sort of kick, snare and tom library normally only available with a sampler, and access to a large number of sounds without the need to spend further money on sample cards. Not that the SR16 can substitute for a sampler, nor can its 233 onboard sounds make up for the flexibility provided (potentially) by sample cards. One consequence of slanting the SR16 so heavily towards kicks, snares and toms is that you don't get the range of drum and percussion sounds available via, say, the Roland R-series card library. If Alesis were to augment the SR16 with an SR16B offering a similar number of sounds but this time covering all manner of world percussion sounds and off-beat percussive effects, they'd have an impressively versatile - and still reasonably priced - double act on their hands.
A wider tuning range for the SR16's sounds wouldn't have gone amiss, while a hardware update offering LCD backlighting would be welcome. However, there's precious little to find fault with on Alesis' new drum machine, while the company deserve praise for trying to be a little original. By majoring in spontaneity with its A/B/Fill pattern selections, interactive programming and real-time Song chaining, the SR16 shows that there's life yet in the dedicated drum machine. To continue in this spirit, I'd like to suggest that any software update for the SR16 - and Alesis have already shown themselves willing in this area with the Quadraverb Plus and Datadisk SQ - include Solo and Mute modes which allow you to solo any instrument or to mute any combination of instruments within a rhythm by pressing the relevant pad(s) during Pattern and Song play. Not only would this be useful creatively, it would also be helpful for transcription purposes.
Update or not, the SR16 looks set to rule the budget drum machine market with its particular combination of sounds and features. Whether or not it ends up doing so is going to depend on Cheetah's MD16 drum machine, finally available and retailing for the same price as the SR16 - and scheduled for review in next month's MT.
Price £299 including VAT.
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Review by Simon Trask
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