Alesis HR-16 Drum Machine
A CD standard 16-bit drum machine? Things have progressed a little from those 8-bit Linn Drum days, passing through 12-bit standards on the way, and now reaching the ultimate level in consumer digital fidelity. Whether excellence or overkill, Alesis have gone the whole way with the HR-16. David Mellor gives it the long-awaited ear test.
'Come on my right, for this ear is deaf.' A quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar which reveals that the great Roman emperor must have been a bass guitarist in his younger days. My bass playing days have left me with a distinct auditory imbalance due to standing next to the drummer night after night!
Whichever way you stand, it's difficult to judge drum and cymbal sounds. A real live drummer has the hardest task because he sits right on top of the kit, where the sounds are nothing like those that the audience hears, either through several cubic metres of free air or through a megawatt PA system. It's the same situation with a drum machine to a certain extent, because if you listen to the samples in isolation then all the 'Ooh's and 'Wow's in the world are not going to give any indication of what it will sound like in the mix. The funny thing about those old Linn drum machines was that, although they are primitive by today's standards, they did - and still do - sound damn good grooving away behind many a chart song.
It should go without saying that progress is a wonderful thing, but you can't necessarily tell from the specification how good a drum machine is going to be in use - you have to use it to find out.
Before I comment further on the sounds themselves, let me give you a rundown of the HR-16's facilities: There are 16 touch-sensitive drum pads, each of which can have allocated to it any of the 49 available drum and percussion samples. Each pad can be individually tuned and adjusted for volume, and its output directed to one of two stereo outputs on the rear. In other words, there are four jack sockets. Each pair is a stereo output and the sounds from the pads can be panned as desired. Thus, it would be possible to use these as four individual outputs by appropriate panning.
100 drum patterns can be recorded, either from the pads or via MIDI, which can be chained into 100 songs. A pattern can have up to 682 beats, a song up to 255 steps. There are the usual MIDI In and Out sockets (no dedicated MIDI Thru), tape sync/dump and footswitch start/stop socket. Not bad for a kick-off, let's probe more deeply...
Alesis describe the HR-16 as having 16 'voices'. This means that you can have a maximum of 16 sounds up and running simultaneously, one per pad. Any pad can have any sound assigned to it, so there should be no real problem in arranging the 'kit' as you want it. The pads have printed below them their default assignments, which you can return to at any time by following the reset procedure. These are as follows: Tom 1, 2, 3, 4, Ride, Crash, Perc 1, Perc 2, Kick, Snare, Closed Hat, Mid Hat, Open Hat, Claps, Perc 3, Perc 4.
So far, so good. In the past, with other assignable pad machines, I have found it difficult to remember on which pad I put which sound. Alesis have found the brilliant - and obvious - solution of putting a white 'scribble strip' above each row of pads, which you can write on with a Chinagraph pencil or erasable felt pen, as you might on a mixer. Other manufacturers please copy! Let's look at the variations available: When the VOICE button is pressed, you are presented with the option of choosing which sound you want as the guide click (metronome); I'm not altogether sure that many people would go for the '24" Power Kick', but the facility is there! Next, by pressing a pad, any of the 49 samples can be assigned to that pad using the data slider or increment/decrement buttons to scroll through the sounds. Pressing the TUNE button takes this a stage further and allows the pitch to be varied up or down. Similarly, the MIX button calls up a range of options from which you can set the volume level for that pad, which of the two stereo outputs it will go to, and where it will be panned in the stereo image.
The good thing about all this is that each of the 100 possible patterns can have a set-up (VOICE, TUNE, MIX) all of its own and whenever that pattern is played, either by itself or as part of a song, that set-up will be recalled. Let me recap: in pattern 01, for instance, you could assign the tambourine to pad 1 at a tuning of +3, a volume of 75, panned centre. In pattern 02, this could be changed to a cowbell with a tuning of -5, volume 40, panned hard left. Changes can be made to all the pad assignments in a similar way.
OK - that's what the pad assignment system will do, let me mention what it will not do. I don't expect a drum machine to do everything, but certain products have the feature I am about to describe and I wouldn't want anyone to assume that the Alesis has it also.
Two machines I have reviewed in the recent past, the Yamaha RX5 and Emu SP1200, allow you to programme a pad assignment, record part of a pattern, then change the assignment and add further parts to the pattern. The old assignment is kept. This means that you can have any number of the machine's sounds, at any tuning, in one pattern. The Alesis HR-16 will not allow this. If you record a pattern and then change the voice assignment, when you play the pattern again it will play with the new assignment, the old one being lost. You can only have 16 sounds in a pattern. To be fair, the Yamaha and Emu machines are a good deal more expensive than the HR-16, but I think this needs to be pointed out.
On the HR-16 a pattern can consist of anything up to 682 beats, the default being 8 beats which gives two bars of 4/4 time. As on most machines, the pattern loops automatically when recording. A metronome click, which as I said earlier can be any instrument, is provided and can be set to 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, 24, 32, 48 or 64 clicks per bar. An 'off' setting is also available for when you have enough going on in the pattern to be able to do without it. Quantisation is performed, while recording takes place, to any metrical value between quarter notes and sixty-fourth notes, or off. Erasing badly timed beats is simply performed by holding the ERASE button and pressing the appropriate pad at the correct time while the pattern is running. Either that, or doing the same when the pattern is stopped, which erases all the beats for that pad for the whole pattern in one fell swoop.
"Step-time programming is particularly good on the HR-16 because the display shows not only the current beat number, but also the sub-beat as a fraction of 96ths of a beat."
Patterns can be copied, either onto themselves - thus lengthening the pattern - or into another pattern location. They can be shortened or lengthened, even after recording, by any number of beats up to the maximum allowed (1 - 682). I'm glad Alesis remembered that some awkward users will want to add extra beats at the beginning of a pattern, and made arrangements for this to be possible.
As well as copying pattern to pattern, it is also possible to copy the rhythm of one pad onto another, within the same pattern. For instance, you might decide that it would be a good idea to have the cabasa play the same rhythm as the agogo. A couple of key presses and it's done. You could then always go back and edit out a few beats if the pattern is getting over-fussy.
Step-time recording is also available for those, including myself, who just cannot get those hi-hats to quantise into precise sixteenth notes. Step-time programming is particularly good on the HR-16 because the display shows not only the current beat number, but also the sub-beat as a fraction of 96ths of a beat. For instance, if the quantisation is set to sixteenths, then you will be invited to enter a note at 00/96, 24/96, 48/96 etc, etc. The only problem is that you can only step forward through a pattern. It's easy to make a wrong press, and a nuisance to have to 'go the long way round' to correct your mistake.
Other features of pattern mode include SWING, which can make your patterns sound more 'jazzy' if you are clever with it, and FILL, which inserts beats - one per quantise interval - for as long as you hold the drum pad down. The OFFSET function, which was not implemented on the review model, will allow you to move single drum events in time relative to all the others. For example, if you feel that the snare would sound better if it came in a fraction ahead of the beat, then it can be shifted in 1/384th note steps as far forward as you wish, up to a maximum of 99/384ths - that's just over a quarter note. Should be enough for most purposes! Similarly, an entire pattern can be offset in time, although I can't see what earthly use this could be. Any ideas?
Something I've been holding back is the fact that the HR-16 pads are touch-sensitive (velocity-sensitive). Not as sensitive as a MIDI keyboard perhaps, because they only claim to offer eight distinct levels of resolution. Never mind, it sounds good. You can, in fact, set three different velocity scales - Soft response, Medium response and Loud response - as well as turn off the sensitivity, if you so wish. When recording a pattern, if you have velocity sensitivity switched on, the loudness of each of your strikes will be recorded. This works in step-time too, if you need it.
As is usually the case with drum machines (where would we be if it wasn't?), patterns can be chained to form a song. Up to 100 different ones if you like, which is certainly more songs than I know! Different machines vary in the level of ease with which this can be done. Fortunately, Alesis make it easy. The backlit display gives you song number, step number, pattern number and even counts the beats of the pattern for you - which would certainly be useful if you are into 682 beat patterns! Editing a pattern is also easy, with simple INSERT, DELETE and REPLACE functions available.
TEMPO CHANGE was, unfortunately, another function which was not implemented on the review model. Hopefully, when it gets into the shops, it will be possible to set a tempo (in beats per minute), for each step of the song if necessary. This will be stored as part of the song. Most of the time, it will just be necessary to set the tempo as part of the first step of the song, but it's good to know that the option to speed up or slow down will be available. The only problem will be, so far as I can anticipate, that it will not be possible to vary the tempo on a beat-to-beat basis, only at the start of each new step - each pattern - in the song. This means that gradual accelerandi or ritardandi will not be available, just sudden lurches. Pity. I'm glad, however, that tempi are always entered as BPM values, not as changes in BPM (such as +4 or —6) or, worse still, percentages. This is another feature that other drum machine manufacturers might care to look at.
As well as being programmable from its own front panel pads, the Alesis HR-16 can be programmed into its own memory from a MIDI keyboard or sequencer. It's useful to remember that not all drum machines have this facility. I particularly like it because I am getting well practiced at playing drums from the keyboard - you should hear my paradiddles - and I want to be able to use this skill on my own keyboard, rather than adapt to the peculiarities of every drum machine that comes my way. I must admit that I was rather hoping that I would be able to access all of the HR-16's 49 onboard sounds simultaneously via MIDI, as you can with the Yamaha RX5 or Kawai R50. Unfortunately, you can't. There are always only 16 different sounds available, one for each drum pad. You can set the MIDI note numbers for them yourself, if you like. This is good because if you have more than one drum machine, or use a sampler as well, you can always assign the bass drum, say, to the same note on the keyboard - and so on for all the other drums and percussion. On the HR-16, you can allocate any sound anywhere between notes C—2 and G8, any of the possible 128 MIDI notes in fact. Is this a wide enough choice?
I have to quibble about the lack of a dedicated MIDI Thru socket, which means that the HR-16 can only come at the end of a MIDI chain. It's easy to see why this is so - there isn't enough room for the extra socket! Alesis go some way towards remedying this by providing a merge function, where incoming MIDI data is passed on to the MIDI Out socket, along with any data that the HR-16 is generating itself. This is not quite the same as having a separate Thru because, although MIDI delays caused by daisy-chaining Thru connections are largely illusory, delays caused by MIDI merge operations are not, as Sound On Sound readers will be aware, and can put a couple of unwanted milliseconds delay in the data stream.
"I was rather hoping that i would be able to access all of the HR-16's 49 onboard sounds simultaneously via MIDI, as you can with the Yamaha RX5 or Kawai R50. Unfortunately, you can't."
MIDI program changes are interpreted by the HR-16 as pattern numbers, so you could record a selection of patterns and then control them externally. I liked this idea, but it should be extended so that pattern change is possible while the machine is actually running. Also, it should be made possible to change from song to song - while in song mode - in the same manner.
The MIDI CLOCK SELECT function on the HR-16 is rather unusual, although not worryingly so, because you have the choice of MIDI AND INTERNAL, INTERNAL ONLY, or TAPE SYNC. Wait a minute... MIDI and INTERNAL??? That's what it says on the display. In fact, what happens is that if the HR-16 sees a MIDI clock signal at its MIDI In socket, then it will take its tempo from that after receiving a Start or Continue message. If there is no clock, or the HR-16 is started from its own control panel, then it will run at the internally set tempo. Simple. One drawback is that if you are running the machine from a sequencer, then it will play its own drum pattern data as well as responding to what is coming in. This is confusing but easily remedied by selecting an empty pattern.
This is where I try to give a literary interpretation of things that are impossible to put into words. Nevertheless, that's what I'm paid for, so here goes...
Needless to say, with a claimed sampling rate of 47kHz, an audio bandwidth of 20kHz, and 16-bit samples, there is pretty well no noise whatsoever. If you find it troublesome, then I suggest you return to your cave and hibernate a bit longer 'cos you must be a bat! The metallic sounds in particular are wonderfully bright and delicate. The trouble is that so are the bass drum sounds - especially the 'delicate' bit. Take the '24" Power Kick' sample, for instance. Who are they trying to kid? You could get a more powerful bass drum sound kicking a melon. The same goes for the toms - weak and weedy. The snares are somewhat better, indeed very usable if not very powerful. By the way, I hope Alesis fix their spelling of 'snare' and find out why two different sounds are labelled '13" Brass Piccolo'.
Maybe I'm looking at it from the wrong angle? OK - put it like this: the last paragraph was written from the point of view of someone who likes beefy drum sounds. Styles change and maybe 'delicate' will be the next big thing. Who knows? In fact, I could say that if you buy the Alesis HR-16, then it will not let you copy all those tired old Linn and Roland sounds that boring people like me are still using. You will be in on the start of a new trend in drum sounds. Look at it like that and things seem more promising. Personally, I couldn't see the HR-16 as my only drum machine but it is such a subjective matter that I cannot really pass any sort of definitive judgement. I'll put in a plug for your local dealer and suggest that you go along and hear it. Make sure that he plays it through some decent speakers that can do it justice.
The Alesis HR-16 is not one of your run-of-the-mill beatboxes and does not deserve to be judged as such. If you already own a Roland TR707 then I suggest you give the HR-16 a try, because the two together will make for a great variety of sounds. If you currently own a Yamaha drum machine, then you should either keep it or go for a part-exchange. There would not be enough difference in the sounds to make it worthwhile having both. If you haven't got a drum machine at all yet, then you have to examine this one because it is a serious contender. Don't be swayed by the spec, because '16-bit' is not necessarily a synonym for 'seriously wonderful'. Bear in mind the points I have made here, especially the one about trends in drum sounds, and examine the possibilities. This could be one.
Price £449 inc VAT.
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Review by David Mellor
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