Drum machines are standalone pieces of production equipment that let you program rhythms. We tend to think of these machines as modern bits of music gear, but they have been around since the 1950s (yes, the 50s! – 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 omit the need for a live percussionist, giving you a lot more autonomy and creativity. 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.
Experimentation is another attractive thing about them. 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.
Ok, heard enough? Want to get your hands on one of these? Let’s take a look.
Best Drum Machine Product Guide
Roland AIRA Rhythm Performer
If you know anything about drum machines, you’ll know about the legendary TR-8. Just listen to Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, and you’ll instantly recognize the sound. Much of the ’80s music scene was dominated by it.
The Roland AIRA Rhythm Performer (TR-8S) is a modern reimagining of this old-school powerhouse with a modern twist. It basically combines the best of Roland’s rich drum machine heritage with modern production techniques and professional sound design.
It has the eight analog outputs from the original and contains the latest circuit modeling technology Roland uses on many of their drum machines (808, 909, 606, 707, 727).
You can build and design your own kits using iconic TR drums too, or add samples from the huge library of custom TR-8 samples (or import your own).
It includes plenty of hardware improvements on the TR-8, such as sturdier casing, improved ergonomics, and nice little touches like customizable colored faders so you can visually group your instruments.
- Modern reimagining of the classic TR-8.
- Design kits with authentic TR drums, sampled sounds, and effects
- Huge selection of samples from Roland’s vast library
- Tap, tune, and tweak with hands-on controls and production tools
- Combines the best of Roland’s heritage with modern production techniques and professional sound design
Swedish outfit Elektron are known in the industry for making high quality gear. The Digitakt is no exception – an 8-voice compact sampling drum machine for a computer-based rig.
It’s 100% digital architecture (non-analog) and has 16 channels divided into eight audio (i.e. sampling) channels and eight MIDI channels.
One of its standout features is its deep sequencing capabilities at a (comparatively) affordable price you’d normally pay a lot more for (while the Digitakt is pricey compared to the other drum machines we review here, it’s one of Elektron’s more affordable products – their Analog Rytm costs twice the price).
- 16 channels divided into eight audio (i.e. sampling) channels and eight MIDI channels
- Flexible, powerful sound engine and deep sequencing capabilities
- Fully integrated with DAW environments
- 400+ factory samples, including 5 acoustic drum kits and 23 electronic drum kits
- Loaded with the performance features
- Ultra-crisp OLED screen
- Rugged build made for the road
Behringer Classic Analog Drum Machine (RD-8)
If you just want to get your hands on the classic TR-808 but don’t want to splash out on an original, the Behringer RD-8 is definitely worth considering, as it harnesses the phenomenal sound of the 808 and taps into some new features as well.
They have faithfully recreated the TR-808: 16 original drum sounds (from colossal bass drums to sizzling hi-hats), a 64-step drum sequencer (step repeat, note repeat, real-time triggering, and live step-overdubbing) plus a wave designer and dual-mode filter with individual attack and sustain controls.
- Authentic recreation of the classic TR-808
- 16 analog drum sounds (from colossal bass drums to sizzling hi-hats)
- a 64-step sequencer
- Wave designer and dual-mode filter with individual attack and sustain controls
- Storage for up to 256 patterns and 16 songs
- Budget price
Korg Volca Beats
The Korg Volca Beats is an analog 16-step sequencer that 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.
The Korg Volca is an advanced piece of hardware that 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.
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.’
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
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.
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
Novation Circuit Groove Box
The Novation Circuit Groove Box is a digital machine that 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.
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.
Mooer Micro Drummer
As ‘Micro’ in the name suggests, this one is an extremely compact little stompbox. It works just like a looper and can be fitted into your pedal chain, which is ideal for guitarists who need a quick beat on a loop.
It has digitally recorded grooves built into it and despite its size is capable of a staggering 121 different beats. There’s a dial to flick between different styles, a tap tempo, and tone, volume and speed controls.
This pedal is perfect for the guitarist who is a solo artist and wants to add a little as accompaniment, or for the songwriter who will find it good for penning songs with.
It isn’t in the same class as some of the other more complicated machines in this roundup, but it’s a lot less expensive too. It’s ideal if you want to keep things simple.
- Compact and easy to use, fits on a pedalboard.
- It can fit into a guitarist’s pedal chain.
- Capable of 121 different beats.
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 it 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.
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
Buyer’s 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 that 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 that 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 going to be 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.
Our top pick goes the TR-08S, a modern reimagining of the classic TR-8 that combines the best of Roland’s rich drum machine heritage with modern production techniques and professional sound design.
Our top budget pick is the RD-8 from Behringer, an authentic recreation of Roland’s classic TR-808 with some new features thrown in for good measure. At the price, it’s hard to beat.
If you want to go high end, go with the magnificent Digikakt from Swedish manufacturer Elektron. With a flexible, powerful sound engine and deep sequencing capabilities, it simply oozes class.
Whatever you finally choose, good luck!