A drum machine is a device for creating electronically generated rhythms. It got popular in the 1980s and to this present day is still used in many forms of electronic music and pop.
In this article, we review the best drum machines on the market and guide you through how to make the right purchase.
If you’re in a rush, here’s a quick peek at the products we review:
At a Glance – Our Pick of the Best Drum Machines
- Korg Volca Beats
- Arturia Drumbrute
- Teenage Engineering PO-12
- Novation Circuit Groove Box
- Mooer Micro Drummer
- Alesis SR-16
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Ok, let’s get started. Here’s what we cover.
- What is a Drum Machine?
- Buying Guide – Key Considerations
- Product Round-up & Reviews – Best Drum Machine
- So, Which Should I Choose?
What is a Drum Machine?
The drum machine is a standalone piece of production equipment that lets you program rhythms. We tend to think of these machines as modern bits of music gear – they have been around since the 1950s (they were initially made for accompanying organ players). Since then they’ve evolved into full-on production machines and have been hugely influential in electronic music and hip-hop.
One major advantage is they bring to production and live performance the ease of not requiring a live percussionist. Ok, maybe it’s easy enough to find someone to play a percussion instrument like the Cajon, but trying to find and keep a decent drummer is hard work. If you can replace the percussionist in your band, that gives you a lot more autonomy as a band. Depending on the song, you may only require a stripped back beat anyway, which one of these machines can easily give you. The popularity of them isn’t just about convenience though: they are an instrument in their own right. They have a distinctive sound of their own which isn’t achievable even with a set of real acoustic drums.
The huge advantage, along with sound and convenience, is experimentation. With a drum machine, you’re only limited by your imagination. With a bit of practice, you’re able to create some epic sonic landscapes. It’s also a superb tool for songwriters as they help capture ideas on the fly.
Buying Guide – Key Considerations
Analog or Digital
You’re either looking at an analog machine, a digital one, or a hybrid of the two. Many people, such as producer Moby, are fanatical about the former. He said “analog will always sound better and more interesting. If you open an analog drum machine there’s a circuit path; there’s electricity going this machine begin modified by filters. There’s something real, something physical there”. There is no right or wrong answer – it depends on what sound you’re going after.
Standalone or Connected
Another key consideration is whether you want a standalone machine or not. The benefits of standalone machines are obvious: you can hook it right up to a speaker or PA and start making beats, you don’t need to hook it up to a computer. This gives you a lot more freedom, but then again, if you’re really into your tech and you already use a DAW, you’ll probably want to use your computer. If this is you, it’s worth considering midi drum pad units, which offer a lot of the same functionality as drum machines but are solely made for this purpose.
Even the Wurlitzer Sideman had a few presets, so it’s no surprise you’ll find presets on most of these machines (in case you’re wondering, a pre-set is a preloaded arrangement). The thing to look out for is where these presets are editable or not. Editable pre-sets are ideal if you want to start with a template and tweak it (rather than starting from scratch).
Sampling is the term used for when you reuse a portion or ‘sample’ from another recording. You could sample a real drum sound – a hi-hat or a snare you like from an acoustic kit – or even a random noise, such as a bird tweeting – and use that in your recording. Having an onboard sampler is a massive bonus if you’re into hip-hop. If that’s your thing, check out the best Akai MPC machines, which double up as drum machines and samplers in one unit.
Back in the day, drum machines wouldn’t let you ‘tap out’ a rhythm. You had to ‘program it in’. These days most units have pads which respond to pressure and gives a more ‘human’ feel to your beats. The higher end machines have velocity and pressure responsive pads which give you much better control. Being able to ‘feel the beat’ is invaluable for live performances and helps you to create powerful spontaneous rhythms intuitively.
Step sequencing is the standard way to make a beat, letting you assign notes or rhythms in a step-wise fashion over (usually) 16 beats. What is in effect a loop, this is really at the heart of how drum machines work and why they’re so popular (i.e., it’s relatively easy to get a decent sounding ‘loop’ that you stack sounds to).
If you’re a live performer, getting a drum machine with a decent amount of onboard memory (so you can store as many patterns as possible) is a must-have. A song mode which chains these patterns together for quick and easy recall is going to be important too so that you can put together seamless live sets. If you’re mainly using your machine in a home studio, large pattern memory isn’t quite as important. So long as it’s MIDI-enabled, you can build patterns in your DAW software which makes onboard memory a non-issue.
If you’re looking for a model that’s purely going to used for live performance, ‘travel-friendliness’ is an important consideration. Many newer drum machines can fit into a laptop bag thanks to their slim profile, but they’re also susceptible to damage from rough treatment. You want something that is portable and durable.
Product Round-up & Reviews – Best Drum Machine
Korg Volca Beats
The Korg Volca Beats is an analog 16-step sequencer which gives the sound a realness that will delight the analog purists out there. The analog sounds are created with reference to classic drum sounds and can be edited on the fly. This machine also has EQ settings to give you control over the tone of the output, and decay settings to give you control over the length of your drum sounds. It comes with a built-in speaker and the option of battery power, making it a highly portable device.
Who is it for?
The Korg Volca is an advanced piece of hardware which has very few limits and will suit those into electronic music, especially dance and techno. It won’t satisfy those looking for a natural sounding drum beat,
- Can hold up to 8 16-step sequences at once which can be easily swapped.
- Small and well built with sturdy materials make it safe to take to venues without wrapping it in bubble wrap before setting off.
- Very affordable price for versatility and quality.
- The built-in speaker means you don’t need to rely on additional devices to create beats.
- Individual pitch and decay controls for the bass, snare and tom and separate decay controls for open and closed hi-hat.
- No USB jacks and connections are limited to MIDI in and a single stereo output.
- The sampling is best suited to EDM and Dance genres, although it can work with other styles it doesn’t have the flexibility to meet the needs of genres that are wildly different from the electronic scene.
- Programming can take some getting used to.
The Drumbrute or ‘Brute’ has a lot going for it. For a start, it’s a truly standalone box, unlike some of Asturia’s controller-based solutions. Secondly, in direct competition with the Roland TR-8, fully analog with seventeen analog drum & percussion instruments. The two kicks have distinct sounds, reminiscent of Roland classics. The first kick is a punchy, aggressive 909-style kick with a strong attack. The second kick is similar to that of an 808 with a softer, rounder feel.
One unique aspect of the DrumBrute is that it lets you change the pattern length of each instrument, allowing you to create ‘polyrhythms.’ This is great for mixing up the percussive structure. Another feature we liked was the randomness feature which allows you to add a human feel, so your rhythms don’t sound ‘overly-programmed.’
Who is this for?
While there’s a definite nod to the Roland machines of the past, the Drumbrute has its unique sound and is ideal for producers working in the techno genre.
- Seventeen analog & percussion instruments
- Ability to create polyrhythms
- Large and responsive pads
- Won’t suit every genre of electronic music (but ideal for techno)
- Faux-wood paneling on the sides won’t be to everyone’s taste
Teenage Engineering PO-12
If you want to pay the absolute minimum, the PO-12 (‘Pocket Operator’) could be for you. Made by Teenage Engineering, it’s like a cross between an old skool calculator and a classic LCD video game machine. For the size, it packs in a lot. Sixteen drum sounds, a 16-step sequencer, and 16 chainable patterns. You also have two dials to change the parameter on any of those sounds.
It’s made to be portable thanks to its size and power comes from 2 x AAA batteries. There’s no on and off switch (you press any button to turn on) and according to the manufacturers, its standby time ‘is measured in years.’ The PO-12 is a quirky stick-in-your-pocket beats machine.
Who is it for?
It’s the ideal choice if you want to make glitchy, ‘processed’ beats – you won’t get anything out this machine that resembles an acoustic kit, but for electronic music, it’s great. The range of onboard effects such as beat-chopping, distortion, and delay make this fun too. It doesn’t have analog sound like the Volca Beats, but it’s a lot less expensive.
- Bags of fun and super easy to use
- Great for digital/electronic music
- Won’t burn a hole in your pocket
- Small keys make it fiddly to operate
- Limited in sounds, but for the price, you can’t expect more
- No built-in metronome
Novation Circuit Groove Box
The Novation Circuit Groove Box is a digital machine which doubles up as a synth and a sample trigger. This device works by itself and even has a built-in speaker and a battery power option, making it extremely portable and giving you the option of making music on the move, at festivals, or wherever you may roam. There are reverb, delay and filters included and you can save up to 32 sessions, to enjoy listening to again or for use in your performances.
Who is this for?
This hardware will be well suited to fun-loving electro artists who don’t want to pair a drum machine up with a laptop. It will be less suited to tech-geeks who demand superior controllability and complex patterns.
- Doubles up as a synth and sample trigger.
- Colorful, highly sensitive pads.
- Reverb, delay, filters and side chain included.
- It’s more suited to simple beats, so anything intricate will be more difficult to achieve than on other machines.
- Patterns cannot be exported.
Mooer Micro Drummer
As it ‘Micro’ in the name suggests, the Mooer Micro Drummer is an extremely compact machine. It works just like a looper and can be fitted into your pedal chain. It has digitally recorded grooves built into it and despite its size is capable of 121 different options. There’s a dial to flick between different styles, a tap tempo, and tone, volume and speed controls.
Who is it for?
This pedal is perfect for the guitarist who is a solo artist and needs to give a little oomph to their act, or for the songwriter who will benefit from the sound of a beat. It’s less suited to those who require programmability and complex grooves.
- Compact and easy to use.
- Can fit into a guitarist’s pedal chain.
- Capable of 121 different beats.
- Lacks the programming features of more advanced items in this round-up.
- There are no options to add fills.
- There’s a slight delay after pressing start, which can throw you out of time.
The Alesis SR-16 is a compact old school drum machine that comes equipped with 200 pre-set drum patterns (50 of which were performed by top studio drummers) plus you can create your own custom patterns and save them directly to the box.
There are 12 pads, which are velocity-sensitive and natural-sounding, as well as tempo controls and built-in digital effects including reverb. Pads use variable dynamic articulation too, which means the harder you hit a pad, the more volume and tone you get.
It’s also footswitch compatible, making it stage friendly, and the device is 100% compatible with MIDI, so can be used in combination with MIDI keyboards or similar. The buttons don’t light up, so it might be quite difficult to see what you’re doing on stage, but if you’re in a stably lit place, the large buttons on the machine make it easy to use. There’s a built-in speaker too, which makes this truly portable.
Who is it for?
This is suited to people who want to re-create acoustic kit sounds with relative ease. It won’t cut it for those who wish to produce electro music.
- Velocity-sensitive pads with dynamic articulation enable a natural sound.
- Footswitch-compatible, with two different footswitches, so it’s well suited to stage performances.
- Sounds can be accessed both dry and with added digital reverbs.
- Relatively inexpensive compared to more recent models
- The samples used are natural sounding and have a nice variety
- Buttons are black and don’t light up, so it won’t be easy to use in the dark.
- The screen is also small and not easy to read in all lights.
- It lacks the features of some more modern machines.
- Patterns cannot be exported for editing
So, Which Should I Choose?
Let’s summarise things.
If you’re into your EDM (electronic dance music) and want an analog machine, consider the popular Korg’s Volca Beats. If you’re looking for Roland sounds that you find on the TR808 or 909, the Arturia Drumbrute is superb (especially for techno). For a pocket-sized machine, try Teenage Engineering’s PO-12.
If rock music is more your thing and you want to make real drum sounds, try the Alesis SR-16. For guitarists who want to add a simple drum machine to their pedalboard, check out the Mooer Micro Drummer.
For something a bit different check out the Novation Circuit Groove Box – with a built-in speaker and battery power option, it’s incredibly portable and lets you make beats wherever you be.
That’s your lot! There are plenty more machines out there, but these are the best we’ve come across. Good luck!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.