Alesis HR–16: The Great Forgotten Drum Machine of the '80s

The year was 1980. Punk imploded. Mullets exploded. And California guitarist Roger Linn forever changed electronic percussion with his Linn LM–1 Drum Computer.

It was a breakthrough instrument — a programmable drum machine based on samples. Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Peter Gabriel prized their units. But it also broke the bank at $5,000, which is more than $17,000 today. And, for that matter, the LM–1’s limited array of 12 samples running at a lowly 8–bit resolution left plenty of room for improvement. That’s where new drum machines could step in and dominate.

The ‘80s were populated with Linn’s next drum machine, the LM–2 Linn Drum and Roland’s TR–808, TR–606, and TR–909. They sounded great, but they were all relatively premium products. In that context, it’s easy to see why the Alesis HR-16 made such a splash when it was introduced in 1988.

Casio, Yamaha, Kawai, and Korg certainly made thriftier machines, with Roland’s 1986 “Linn lite,” the TR–505, a worldwide top seller at $300 ($670 today). The HR–16, by comparison, fetched roughly $700 in some markets, or $1,450 in 2017 dollars.

And sure, the HR–16 today looks like a not–so–stylish “doorstop,” as one cheeky circuit–bending website has pegged it. Likewise, it had a few sounds that were real clunkers, including the boxy–sounding “60’s Snare [sic],” hokey kick drums, and the obligatory triangle and handclaps.

But flaws aside, the HR–16 was a genuinely high–quality drum machine at a great price back in the day, and it has aged like so.

Raising the Barr

The HR–16 stormed the drum machine world just as Alesis’s digital XT Reverb had done with outboard gear a few years earlier.

Alesis HR-16:B

This is all thanks to Alesis founder, Keith Barr, who was determined to carve out a niche making expensive–sounding products in no–frills packages. For those keeping score at home, this is the same Keith Barr who co–founded MXR.

Barr would accomplish his goal of getting great gear to musicians at affordable prices over and over with Alesis. As one of Barr’s early stabs at greatness on a budget, the HR–16 pulled off the deft trick of delivering 16–bit drum and percussion samples in an 8–bit world.

For the everyday musicians who didn’t want their machines to sound so machine–like, the HR–16 was magic. And for musicians who needed a little magician’s assistant, the machine’s lid flipped up to reveal a cheat sheet.

A year later, the HR–16B joined the lineup, with “B” referring to the box’s black housing. It had a tasty set of sounds, including a “Techno Snare” and “Rap Kick,” which many preferred for their sense of adventure. Run in tandem, the HR–16 and –16B cover a comprehensive sonic spectrum.

A Truly Intuitive Drum Machine

Sixteen was the lucky number with these drum machines. They had 16 touch–sensitive pads, 16–bit audio resolution, and could be tuned intervals below the standard sample pitch (and, well, 15 intervals above).

Alesis HR-16

What’s more, these gizmos looked cool for their time. The HR–16 was shaped like sleek, stretched diamond with a decorative faux–vented top, making it look like an implement from Mr. Spock’s bridge station on the Starship Enterprise.

But most importantly, the HR–16s were intuitive. You didn’t have to read any manual to jump right into crafting loops, composing songs, and quantizing.

The HR–16 and –16B also allowed for some neat tricks. If you cut a track live, you could work the “select” sliders to change a sample’s tuning as the pattern progressed. That pitch manipulation could be especially amusing when you used the 16B’s sample number 40: a Seinfeld–style lip pop. Right next door at sample 41? “Ambient Puh,” which sounds like a lip pop married to a deflated tire.

Layering samples on both contraptions was also a snap. This makes for a lot of fun experimentation, like running a detuned floor tom under a up–tuned kick drum to create a wholly original sound. The 16s also interfaced cleanly with their cosmetic cousin, the Alesis MMT–8 MIDI recorder.

Being Timely

Among high–profile musicians, you wouldn’t find anyone crowing about the Alesis machines the way they did Roger Linn’s creations. Still, they managed to find their way onto some pretty impressive songs.

Arrested Development’s 1992 smash hit “Mr. Wendal” is built on a HR–16. Today, the video boasts almost 4 million views on YouTube, but maybe only four viewers (if that many) have any inkling as to the box behind the beat.

Arrested Development - "Mr. Wendal"

Additionally, OMD (Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark) utilized HR–16 machines in 1991 for the Sugar Tax album, and They Might Be Giants built their 1988 Lincoln album around the original 16. A lesser–known group — the hard–rocking Shadow Gallery — credited the drums on its 1992 debut to “Ben Timely.” That was just a clever pseudonym for the good old HR–16.

The HR–186 in the 21st Century

While I still have both machines and love them, they don’t get much use anymore. Just as the Ramones paved the way for the likes of Green Day, the HR–16 and –16B soon gave way to less expensive, more powerful machines. Even Alesis moved on with its smaller, 200–sample SR–16 in 1990.

Circuit Bent Alesis HR-16

Recently, however, the HR–16 machines have enjoyed something of a comeback, becoming favorites of the circuit–bending crowd. Various Reverb vendors offer these hot–rodded machines for sale, and the British company Circuitbenders mods them £90, or just below $120. You can hear the results of the Circuitbender craziness here.

And many indie purveyors make chips for the machines that turn them into faithful emulations of the mighty Roland TR–808, and yes, the Linn LM–1.

Otherwise largely forgotten, the HR–16 and HR–16B should at least be saluted. In an ’80s world of Linn knockoffs and cheese machines, they gave talented musicians the chance to jam to the beat of their own separate drum machine.

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