The common wisdom is that drum machines are dead, and that all hardware has totally been replaced by software. Well, not so fast, boys and girls. There have always been certain units that stay in style due to a great price-to-performance ratio, a unique sound set, a comfortable human interface, or some other aspect that makes them totally unique. Alesis has been making drum machines since its HR16 hit the market in 1987, and they are as desirable now as they were back then.
The second-generation Alesis SR16, introduced back in 1990, was one of the most successful drum machines ever placed in production. In fact, it’s still in production. At first glance, it seems that the 16 and the newer SR18 were cut from the same cloth. There is the big jog-wheel in the upper-right corner, and 12 trigger buttons along the bottom. And when you’re looking at the display, you’ll find familiar values in familiar areas.
But the company’s latest SR18 doubles the polyphony (now 32 voices instead of 16), the sounds (more than 500 vs. 233), the number of drum kits (200 rather than 100), and uses a better 16/24 sample/DAC bit resolution than the older unit’s 16/18. While these improvements are internal, a closer inspection will reveal some external structural changes too. The SR18 sports a new tap/tempo button, and a completely new row of buttons to select drum, percussion, bass, pattern play and roll. Even with the new features, if you’ve been comfortable with the SR16’s front panel, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory when working with the SR18.
The back panel contains all the standard inputs and outputs necessary to make the machine the centerpiece of a drum programming system. There’s a MIDI-In and MIDI-Out that doubles as a MIDI-Thru, and instrument input that can be used to blend outside sounds with the SR18. Audio outputs include both a main Left and main Right output along with an Aux L/R that can be used as an individual out. To complete the outputs, you’ll find a 1/4" headphone jack. Many users of the SR16 enjoyed the way the unit could be used in live performance with a pair of footswitches to control start and stop, along with pattern selection. The SR18 keeps these inputs, allowing more flexible operation by guitarists, keyboard players, and even drummers who might want to add a drum machine to their live-performance rig.
Normally, the pads on a drum machine trigger drum sounds. That’s why they’re there. But, the 12 performance pads on the SR18 can be used in two different modes. In Pad Play mode, the buttons operate like any other drum machine, with each pad firing a different sound. But, in Pattern Play mode, each of the pads can be programmed to trigger a pattern rather than a sound. While not every user will need this feature, it could come in handy under certain circumstances.
Another feature that sets the SR18 apart is its equal emphasis on drums, percussion, and bass. Since bass and drums are “joined at the hip,” this is a great feature. By selecting one of the three instrument layers, the 12 pads will fire sounds from a drum kit, sounds from the percussion sound library, or bass sounds. In reality, you can assign percussion sounds to the drum bank, and visa versa, but the bass sounds are available only when the pads are in bass layer mode. You can think of the SR18 as 3-track recorder, and a convenient mute button allows you to toggle any or all of the three tracks on and off – a great practice tool!