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See what's cooking in this in-depth look at the SR18!

The Alesis SR18

By: Gary Allen

Here’s a question for you -- "What sets a professional guitar player apart from a non-professional?" The answer is not as cut and dry as it may seem. There are actually many factors that propel one guitar player to the studio and big stage while another seems to be held back to small local clubs. The difference can range from playing technique, understanding of music theory and chord structure, and no small amount of pure luck of being in the right place at the right time. However, I believe there is one factor that is often overlooked and is extremely important to not only professional guitar players, but to all professional musicians regardless of the instrument they play. A great sense of timing is paramount, and can make all the difference between a good musician and a great instrumentalist.

I have played many clubs, and seen many other bands play. I have seen great guitar players with incredible technique and skill, but their timing was off enough to throw the entire bands sound into chaos. At the other end of the spectrum, I have heard players who lacked the finer technical skills, but their timing was tight and focused. Given the choice, I would rather listen to a less pyrotechnic musician who added to the energy of the bands overall sound, than a proficient player who can not stay with the beat.

Many teachers will tell you to practice with a metronome to hone your timing efficiency. They are absolutely correct; although I would also point out that I find metronomes to be a considerable bore. To make this process for fun, interesting, and even more realistic, I suggest the use of a drum machine. Alesis recently sent me their new SR18 drum machine for review, and I decided to approach this review from an angle that I have not seen any other reviewer consider. I chose to review the SR18 from the viewpoint of a powerful timing tool; a tool which I believe has the ability to positively impact a musician’s sense of timing greatly.

The SR18 Drum Machine by Alesis


Alesis has been a leader in drum machine technology for many years. In fact the first few drum machines that I had the opportunity to use were Alesis models including the very popular SR16 which has enjoyed an unprecedented 18 year life span, and is still available today. The SR18 is the next generation, and has some key features that make it an even more compelling practice tool.

Out of the box, the SR18 has a contemporary look with rounded side edges that break from the traditional square look of most equipment. Don’t let this compact space saving design fool you. Even though it is smaller than most past drum machines, it holds enough features to satisfy even the pickiest user. The large blue back lit screen gives you a snapshot look at your settings including patch, tempo, Drums and Bass On/off status, as well as other pertinent information. The screen is easy to read and also provides visual feedback during any editing processes you may undertake. A large scroll wheel allows you to quickly browse through patches, as well as perform quick edits of parameters and other configurable features. The wheel moves very smoothly and the finger indent makes it both precise and comfortable to use.

Below the screen and scroll wheel you will find a fairly extensive control panel. This is where all the functionality of the SR18 comes into play. This is where you will do almost all of the work from setting up to record your own rhythms, setting tempo via the “tap/tempo” button, and simply engaging the different aspects that the SR18 has available in each patch, just to name a few.

Below the control section, you will find twelve large pressure sensitive pads that work as triggers for drum and percussion sounds that you will use for recording your own rhythm patterns. These velocity sensitive pads give defined dynamic control to your sound.

The hookup section of the SR18 holds quite a few options, offering additional versatility for particular needs. The outputs can be either stereo or mono, while the “AUX L/R” output allows you to send your drum sounds and percussion sounds to separate tracks of your recording setup. Having these parts recorded on separate tracks can be extremely important when it comes time to do your mix down since it provides for independent processing of the isolated sound, (such as volume, EQ, etc.), if desired.

My favorite option on the back panel in the instrument input. Just plug in your instrument and its signal is added to the output of the SR18. This adds to the versatility of the SR18 as a practice tool. I was able to plug in my guitar and play to the patterns using nothing but a set of headphones plugged directly into the headphone output of the SR18. In this configuration, there is no need for an external amplifier, making this a great option for those who do a lot of traveling, and want to practice while on the road.

Also on the back panel you will find a volume control, power switch, MIDI in/out, and two ¼” jacks for footswitches to turn the SR18 patterns on/off, and inserting fills while playing a song. The footswitches do not come with the SR18, and must be purchased separately. Rounding out the back panel is a “Kensington Lock” slot to secure the unit to a table or desk, which will keep your drummer and bass player from stealing it!

Gear Guy Tip: The SR18 can also be used as an optimized sound module for the Alesis “USB Pro Drum Kit”. Just go to the Alesis website and download the .zip file containing the instructions and a MIDI sysex file to guide you through this process. You will find this on the SR18 product page under the Docs and Downloads tab.

Features at a glance:
• Large, 32MB sound set with percussion bank and bass synth
• Over 500 drum and percussion sounds and 50 bass sounds
• Built-in Alesis effects: reverbs, EQs, and compression
• Pattern Play Mode enables different patterns to be triggered from the pads directly
• Programmable Drum Roll function
• Mute/Solo Function: mute drums, bass, and percussion or individual pads
• Flexible wall (adapter included) and battery powering (six AA, not included)
• Backlit LCD
• 100 preset patterns, 100 user locations
• 12 velocity sensitive pads
• Tap tempo for instant beats exactly as you want them

The Sound Test

For the first part of my testing, I set up the SR18 through my Mackie Onyx mixing board. I spent about an hour just working through the different presets to get an idea of the different rhythms available. I found the variety of selections quite diverse, yet well arranged by the musical styles for which they would work best. This makes it easy for a player to find styles that fit their musical preference.

To make things really interesting, Alesis has taken each preset and basically divided it into three sections. You have the basic drum rhythm that you would expect, but also bass guitar and percussion instrument sounds. These have all been integrated together to give the feel of a full rhythm section, but there is a very welcome twist. You have the ability to turn on or off any single section within a preset with the push of a button. For example, you may like the drum and percussion pattern within a preset, but the bass groove is just not doing it for you. A simple tap on the “BASS” button mutes the bass guitar part and allows you to utilize just the drums and percussion parts within the given preset. In essence, this gives the ability for each preset to have several options for optimum versatility.

When it comes right down to it, the basic setup and features are pretty straight forward. I was selecting presets, changing tempos, turning on/off instruments within the patches, and tapping out simple drum grooves on the instrument pads without cracking the cover on the manual. I found the instrument sounds of the SR18 to be of exceptional quality. As a past drummer, I especially appreciate Alesis' exclusive “Dynamic Articulation™” which gives the SR18 a more lifelike impression and breaks from the stale mechanical feel of early drum machines. The ability to add EQ, reverb and compression is a really nice touch, and the addition of bass guitar were welcome additions, although this is where you will need to learn to do a little editing to make sure the bass is playing in the key that you will be practicing in. It is not a hard task, but you will probably need to refer to the manual for instructions until you get the hang of it. This feature makes the SR18 an even better practice tool in my opinion because you are playing to a more realistic sound. Not to get down on metronomes, but when you actually play with a band, you will not be playing to a simple clicking sound, but rather with a compliment of instruments, and I believe that your practice should reflect this whenever possible.

Speaking of practicing, I plugged my guitar into the instrument input of the SR18, and choose a preset to play to. My guitar sound came through just as if it was a part of the mix. The acoustic worked best since I like it to be very clean. For the electric I found that I needed to add effects pedals before the SR18 input to get the sound I desired. Unplugging from the mixing board, and just using the “headphone out” worked equally well for quieter practice.

Even with the many styles and patterns that come pre-programmed in the SR18, you are likely to run into a situation where none of them fit the particular song you want to practice. In this case, you can use the drum pads to build and record your own user presets. This process can go anywhere from fairly simple to in-depth and intensive. As a person who has never programmed a drum machine, I ventured into the manual to see if I could figure out how to build my own user preset.

Referring to the manual instructions, I recorded some simple patterns for a song including an intro, a verse, a chorus, and a bridge section. I stored these patterns in the “user pattern” section. The nice part is that the recording process loops so that you can overdub more drums into the pattern. I will admit that I can play a beat using a drum set without much effort, but trying to recreate that beat on small finger pads was just not something that I was capable of doing all at once - so expect to practice a little before you nail down the beat patterns you are trying to achieve. After I had recorded the first pattern, I was able to do the others without the help of the manual.

Now that I had the above elements recorded and stored, it was just a simple process of arranging them in the order of my choice using the “song step edit mode”. Each transition you make in the order of your song is a step. If you go from a verse to a fill to a chorus, it would be considered three steps. Each separate song you create allows you 254 steps, which should be more than enough for almost any application. My simple song only took 22 steps to create, including fills that I selected from the list already programmed into the SR18. Once I had the song arranged, it was a simple task of selecting the preset I had stored it in and hitting play.

Overall, I found this process to be amazingly easy, and my song turned out great even in its basic simplicity. For those more inclined to do intensive programming, the SR18 allows you to edit a single instrument, or even just a single beat. This process is much more tedious, but the results can be well worth the time spent.

Pro’s – Great sound, Added bass guitar rhythms, Great Variety of styles and beats
Con’s – No RCA outputs for connecting to an amplifier or mixing console for practice
Street Price - $264.00

Closing Thoughts

In today’s rapidly changing music scene, versatility is a vital element for any musician. The more musical styles with which a player can easily adapt, the better overall player he/she will become. Using a drum machine like the SR18 gives you the options to practice within a broad spectrum of genres while at the same time hone the important aspect of timing. It also has the definitive benefit of real drum and bass sounds, which allows you to practice in as close to real world conditions as possible without having an actual drummer and bass player present. This also serves to make your practice more interesting and less monotonous in comparison to the droning click of a metronome.

I can’t promise that the SR18 is going to make you the next stadium sellout star, but it can be a very important stepping stone in the incredible journey we all take as musicians on every level. I highly recommend the SR18 as a great practice tool not only for guitar players, but for any and all musicians looking to improve their timing. I would recommend a metronome be kept in your instrument case for times where it is more convenient than a drum machine, but given the choice. I would personally use the SR18 as often as circumstances allow. I wholeheartedly give the SR18 the exclusive “Rig Ready Award” for 2009.

Gary Allen

Copyright © 2009 Allen & Halberg Publishing, Inc.
All Rights Reserved is a Registered Trademark of Allen & Halberg Publishing, Inc.