Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Remembering the Alesis HR-16 Drum Machine

The thought of paying £450 for something with the capability of the Alesis HR-16 drum machine today would, I’m sure, raise a wry smile among the free downloaders who assemble entire home studios on their computers without paying a penny. But what a different world it was in the 1980s, when computers were still the preserve of boffins (and were in any case near useless when it came to audio functionality). If you wanted a home studio back then, you had to pay for each component in hardware form, and none of it was easy on the pocket.


Above: Original 1987 UK ad for the Alesis HR-16 drum machine, its companion the MMT-8 MIDI sequencer, and three Micro FX units.

The middle of the ‘80s was the point at which tech gear manufacturers in general suddenly seemed to get that there was a vast market out there, which would, if the price was right, consume keyboards and drum machines in previously unthinkable quantity. The reason kids had continued to buy guitars rather than tech gear through the first real synth-pop era in the early ‘80s, was that they could afford the guitars. They couldn’t afford the tech gear. The result was quite bizarre. The pop charts were heavy with synths, triggers and mechanical beats, but the local, amateur live scenes, which one would expect to reflect popular culture, still primarily comprised guitar bands. As Yamaha in particular showed in the mid ‘80s, though, if you priced a truly of-the-moment synth in electric guitar territory, it would sell like an electric guitar – or even better.

In the world of drum machines, it was Roland/Boss who did most to dismantle the barrier which had previously stood between the amateur musician on a budget and a decent, programmable beatbox. By mid 1986 their TR-505 (priced at £249) was still the top UK seller, but was finally facing a real challenge from Yamaha’s RX21 (£229), which was biting at the TR’s balls, so to speak, in second place. The Roland TR-707 came in third, followed by the Casio RZ-1, and then, in fifth place, the Korg DDM-110. The Casio was probably only placing because of its sampling capability, and the Korg, with its ageing technology, probably only because it was cheap. But Roland/Boss still felt enough pressure on the TR-505 to introduce an even cheaper option, in the shape of the DR-220. Well into sub-£200 territory, the DR-220 was the one that really connected with the younger, more financially-challenged musician.

So any talk of the later (1987) Alesis HR-16 bringing some sort of budget watershed to the world of beatboxes would be ridiculous. At £449, the HR-16 was actually priced well above much of its keenest competition. So what was the HR-16 really all about, and why did it gain such an illustrious reputation?

Well, the first thing to take into account is that the HR-16 certainly didn’t blow the reviewers away upon introduction. Some reviewers were decidedly unexcited, and plenty was found to complain about in the light of perceived value from competing products' facilities and ease of programming. Sometimes, though, there’s an ‘elephant in the room’, which the pro reviewers fail to award due importance, but which the musician on the street recognises straight away. The HR-16’s ‘elephant in the room’, was its sound.

This unit wasn’t full of 12-bit samples like earlier digital drum boxes. It had full, 16-bit resolution, and the difference that made was very noticeable. Not only that, but the samples were well-recorded, and exactly what the market was after at the time. Alesis did not mess about when it came to nailing the Zeitgeist. They were known for revolutionising price points in the FX market, but they wouldn’t just say: “Here’s the cheapest thing in the world!”, they’d say: “Here’s the thing everyone wants. Oh, and by the way – you can now afford it.” That was the HR-16 in a nutshell.

The Alesis HR-16 was more expensive than the contemporary Roland TR-626, the Kawai R50 or the Yamaha RX17, but it wiped the floor with the lot of them in sonic terms, and arguably, its sound wiped the floor with much more pricey machines too. Notably, whilst dealers offered significant discounts on the retail prices of most competing machines, even in 1988 after some time on the market, the HR-16 continued to sell at its full recommended retail price. That does not happen unless the market loves the product.

Of course, technology marches on, and it now seems forever ago that we all finally got the wherewithal to compile our own sample sets into drum kits and play/edit our beats with more ease than any ‘80s beatbox could have dreamed of. But putting those high quality drum sounds into the hands of home recordists in 1987 was a big, big thing. True, the HR-16 wasn’t really a budget product. £450 was at least a full month’s wages for the majority of under-25s back then, so you had to be serious to consider such a purchase. But given the mechanical, no frills nature of even live drumming on late ‘80s records, that £450 would basically buy you not a drum machine, but a drummer. That made a lot of sense to a lot of people. Why pay for a session drummer and a load of studio time to lay down a set of straight beats, when you could get pretty much exactly the same result, at home, with an HR-16? And then use it again, and again, and again... Why indeed.