- Alesis SR16 Drum Machine: Review and Guide - December 28, 2021
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The SR-16 by Alesis is a portable drum machine, ideal for studio and live musicians, composers, etc. The SR-16 is ideal as a source of drum/percussion sounds in musicians’ studios, as it has a MIDI interface to be triggered from keyboards or other controllers.
This little drum machine was first released back in the ’90s and is still sold on Thomann for under 150€. Many have had it for over 20 years, and even though its programming and execution are a bit archaic and hard to wrap your head around, still stick to it for its reliability.
Despite its sometimes basic and uninspiring samples, the SR16 has ended up being one of Alesis’s “legacy products”, one of the most popular drum machines ever produced.
In this article, I will go through its specs, nuances, and other affordable options and see if it’s still a good option and worth buying today.
Drum machines are electronic musical instruments designed to imitate analogue drum kits and reproduce sound samples. Some incorporate a sequencer capable of playing combinations of typical drum patterns (repetitive sequences of usually 4 or 8 bars, programmed the way a drummer would play a particular style of music) or others that we are able to compose.
It all started in 1958 when the Wurlitzer company created a drum machine which they called Sideman. By all accounts, this may have been the first drum machine capable of generating its own sounds using electronic circuits instead of using pre-recorded percussion sounds.
Later on, the flagship drum machine that was the first programmable drum machine was the CR-78 by Roland, a Japanese company that today is one of the top-tier percussion brands in the world.
How Do They Work?
The operation of the drum machine is very simple. We can register the sound or rhythm we want in the grid of pads and activate or deactivate the pads to get the desired sound. The duration and speed of each sequence of rhythms registered in a grid pad can be regulated with the values of bpm (beats per minute).
The operation of the pads is very intuitive. Clicking on a pad in the grid activates the sequence recorded on that pad, and it will continue to play until it is deactivated. This way, you can create instrumentals simply and intuitively, and you can even continue recording sounds in other points of the grid while you have several sequences playing.
That is to say; you can create an instrumental from scratch and keep adding and removing elements. Here is a video demonstration of what you can do with this wonderful instrument.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Drum Machine
A drum machine is definitely an interesting piece of machinery to add to your arsenal of composing instruments. It is usually something producers, and people who are curious about songwriting in tech and pop genres look out for. It is guaranteed to keep you busy and inspired for a long time.
It is also important that you manage to understand its capabilities to the fullest, to be able to use it in the best manner possible. It’s a bit like learning to play the guitar to the best of your abilities to be able to get the best sounds from it.
The bright side is it’s probably a bit easier to learn how to use a drum machine to its fullest than become a Jimmy Hendrix. Some important things to consider are:
- Are you after an analogue or digital machine? Most of you should probably go with a digital drum machine, being much more accessible, unless you are a bit of a purist.
- The performance abilities of the machine are a crucial topic- arrays of features may include adding a live randomiser, managing a beat repeat, global filters, EQ and more, like in the video above.
- Obviously sounds, amount of and quality. This is the biggest part of the price tag. On the other hand, if you intend on filtering most of them and being more experimental, you might not be that worried that the acoustic drum sounds don’t sound that realistic.
- There are drum machines more oriented towards studio use, and others more oriented towards live use. More often than not, the simpler, the better for live use.
Alesis SR16 Drum Machine
Despite its simple design, the SR16 packs quite a lot of features for its price. Many studio musicians and producers rate this little drum machine very highly, especially highlighting its versatility and sound precision. The quantising option is a must for live scenarios, and this machine has it down.
Considering drum machines nowadays, I cant say it’s the easiest to program, but it’s definitely not a Rubik’s cube. You can connect footswitches for starting loops and triggering other FX, and the sounds come with quite packed with quite a punch.
From good 808’s to decent snare sounds, it has you covered for nearly all genres. This is where its 24-bit sound engine shines and can produce crystal clear-sounding drum sounds.
Upon setting up the SR16, you have access to different prebuilt patterns, so as to not have to start from scratch. It includes 50 patterns that are preinstalled, and loaded with two A and B variations with their own different fills.
The buttons are velocity-sensitive with 12 steps of dynamic range, which will feel familiar if you are used to other drum machines. Nowadays, I will say that most drum machines do have bigger pads for drumming in beats live, which may result more comfortable especially if you have bigger hands.
The interface system does remind us that it wasn’t made recently; it is a bit clunky and slow to use compared to other drum machines on the market. It has all the necessary inputs and outputs, including MIDI for controlling its samples with other triggers, say an electronic drumkit or keyboard, if you so wanted to.
It is lightweight and compact enough to throw in a bag and sturdy enough to last gigging nights and rough use. The fact people still own these devices after nearly 20 years speaks louder and than anything I could say!
- 16-voice polyphony
- 233 natural, realistic drum sounds
- 50 Drum presets, 50 user-created sets
- Adjustable tempo up to 255 bpm
- 4 Outputs and 2 Footswitch inputs
- LCD Display
- Midi clock Sync and Song position pointer
- 12 Velocity sensitive drum pads
- 235 x 38 x 165 mm
- Simplicity and decent sounds for live performances
- Sturdiness and portable size
- Velocity-sensitive drum pads
- It has the “archaic legendary piece” vibe to it.
- Drum sounds may sound a bit outdated coming around 2022.
- Pattern handling is limited
- No backlit LCD
- The manual doesn’t get you through everything this machine can do, so often, users rely on forums.
Other Options on the Market
There are plenty of other options nowadays that rival the sr16 if not surpass it in terms of modern functionality and improved sounds. If you are not willing to gamble on a more classic piece of equipment, take a look at these options:
Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm Machine (125€)
This analogue rhythm machine has 6 analogue and 4 PCM drum-based parts. It allows instant editing through its intuitive interface for easy cutting, mixing and slicing of loops for a great analogue rhythm experience. It also features a speed control for quick and drastic pitch changes. It has a 16-step sequencer and eight memory locations.
It includes sync-in and sync-out functions that allow for clock synchronisations of multiple instruments. It features an Electribe’s step sequencer to facilitate editing, allowing you to add and remove parts in an improvisational manner. It has a basic set of parameters that let you quickly create the drum sound you want.
Its PCM sound engine delivers sounds where an analogue synthesiser would not be suitable. This drum machine is compact, battery-powered and has a built-in speaker. This quirky and cool little machine is probably the main competitor to the SR16.
Arturia DrumBrute Analogue Drum Machine
The DrumBrute Analog Drum Machine is simply one of the best drum machines on the market, offering a plethora of controls. It is firmly rooted in the classic drum machines with superior audio specifications and a lower noise level than the rhythm composers who paved the way.
It depends on where you look for it, but it goes for over the 200€ mark depending on what store or site. The Arturia DrumBrute analogue drum machine has a great sense of quality, offering far greater versatility in both sound generation and programming options than classic machines ever had.
It offers seventeen analogue sounds, a modern step sequencer, tremendous ease of use, unique performance effects, and state-of-the-art connectivity that you may not find in other inferior drum machines on the market. It blends the old world and the new, leaving a largely vast palette of sound generation, synchronisations, and parameter-level programming options.
Akai Professional MPD218 (85€)
Here’s another offering from one of the best electronic device manufacturers out there, the MPD218 MIDI drum pad controller with a software download package. This drum machine made it to the top ten best drum machines in the world in 2017. You may also want to check out the VST plug-in software.
The MPD218 MIDI drum pad controller is the result of over six years of detailed customer research and user feedback. The MPD218 comes in the form of a small package with three pad banks, classic note repetition with full level control, and a control set of six knobs and three banks. Plus, you can plug it in and play with just one cable.
This means that you only need a single USB connection to power the device and send information to the computer. So you can see and feel the big differences compared to other drum machines on the market. Its thick and chunky MPC pads are soft, comfortable and easy to use, giving you a very responsive MPD user experience.
This Akai drum machine is a very popular option for those entering this world and are not sure how much they want to spend.
Alesis SR18 (222€)
This would be the natural, modern “upgrade” from the classic SR16. In many ways, being around the same price point, it is very much worth the investment if you’re not a nostalgic drum machine user.
The platinum bundle comes fully equipped with a dynamic microphone as well as essential accessories, semi-open listening headphones, cables, cleaning cloth, and rechargeable batteries and charger so that users never run out of batteries and sound quality is improved. The SR-18 offers full MIDI implementation, allowing the user to use keyboards, computers as well as electronic drum kits.
It features a large backlit LCD display and twelve velocity-sensitive keys with dynamic articulation that also modifies sample sounds and changes them as you play. It also features programmable panning that allows users to make more specific sound placements in the stereo field and a mute, solo function that gives them complete control over performance.
In personal preference, the sounds make it more worthwhile than the SR16, though it may be a bit less reliable. It is reasonably priced, and the fact it can run on 6x AA batteries is a great feature for live performances.
Answer: The Alesis drum machines have a very good overall opinion over the internet- not just because we are specifically reviewing the SR16, but Alesis have managed to position themselves as a brand that delivers very well at nearly whatever price point.
Answer: He uses, amongst other things, an Ensoniq ASR-10 Keyboard to an Akai MPC2000
Answer: This would probably belong to Korg’s Volca Beats, listed above. Its layout and syncing options make it a very intuitive drum machine to use if you’re not used to programming drum fills.
Answer: This specific question would better be phrased: “What does it replace?”. Of course, you can program drums into your DAW of choice, but having an independent drum machine makes it easier for live performances and also takes the way the need of having a computer at hand or knowing how to play the drums for a live performance.
It is very common amongst techno users or rappers, who just need a simple base and rhythm to sing to.
Answer: It can be a great upgrade from a simple metronome to a great accompanying instrument to play along to. Even most pedals, like the Boss RC-30 loop pedal, include a simple form of a drum machine to jam along to. With a separate drum machine, you can make these tracks much more appealing, adding time-signature flips, bar-breaks, basic rhythms, etc.
An artist I very much admire who uses drum machines along with his live performances is Chet Faker, who has that perfect balance between jazz-neo soul guitar lines, with repetitive drum machine beats and good vocal lines.
It’s not that it’s not a good piece of machinery. It’s just I can’t justify buying the Alesis SR16 in 2021/2022 when you’ve got the SR18, which is a more updated version with 32 voice polyphony and is very useful for pro recordings and live shows. Or, if, on the other hand, you want to spend quite a deal less, you can go with the Akai Professional MPD218.
Either way, you will have excellent sounding patches, and coming around to it once again, I always insist that the musician makes more of a difference than the machine. Once you’ve got the hang of it at home, make sure to buy some pedals and add them to the set as I did, it will extend the SR16 or SR18’s possibilities and give you a more rounded experience when you play live gigs.