Best Drum Machine – For Studio, Home or Live Performance

We tend to think of drum machines as modern bits of music gear. They have in fact been around since the 1950s (they were originally made for accompanying organ players). Drum machines have come a long way since then, and as we’ll see here, have revolutionised music in the process.

There are, as you’d imagine, loads more options available these days when it comes to drum machines. Some standalone ‘hardware’ machines, many hybrid machines that offer connectivity with computers, and others which aren’t drum machines at all in the traditional sense (called midi controllers).

For the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on the first type: analog hardware drum machines which don’t require connectivity with computers to work.

Korg Volca Beats

In this article, we’re also focusing on buying new machines rather than picking up second hand ones. But we will cover the history of drum machines so if you want to track down a classic such as the TR-808, you’ll know a bit about them by the time you’re done reading this. We’ll cover all the considerations you need to make when buying a machine and steer you through the decisions you’ll need to make. As the brilliant beat maker Moby (himself a drum machine aficionado) said “drum machines are inherently the nerdiest things piece of equipment ever made”. Warning: we’re going to get nerdy!

If you’re in a rush, here’s a quick peek at the products we review:

At a Glance – Our Pick of the Best Analog and Digital Hardware Drum Machines

PREVIEW PRODUCT FEATURES

Korg 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS)

Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm Machine
  • Popular entry level model
  • Small and well built
  • Very affordable price
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Arturia DrumBrute Analog Drum Machine, Black

Arturia Drumbrute Analog Drum Sequencer
  • 17 analog instruments
  • Ability to create polyrhythms
  • Large and responsive pads
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Teenage Engineering PO-12 Rhythm Drum Machine, Sequencer and Synthesizer - INCLUDES - Two Blucoil AAA Batteries AND 6 Foot Extender​

Teenage Engineering PO-12 Rhythm Drum Machine
  • Bags of fun
  • Good for glitchy, processed beats
  • Fits in your pocket
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Novation Circuit Groove Box w/ Sample Import: 2-Part Synth, 4-Part Drum Machine and Sequencer

Novation Circuit Groove Box
  • Includes synth and sample trigger
  • Built-in speaker
  • Good for travel
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Mooer Audio Micro Drummer Digital Drum Machine Pedal

Mooer Micro Drummer
  • Fits on a pedalboard
  • Has tap tempo
  • Decent array of sounds
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Alesis SR16 | Classic 24-bit Stereo Electronic Drum Machine with Dynamic Articulation

Alesis SR-16
  • 200 pre-set drum patterns
  • Built in speaker
  • Footswitch compatible, so stage friendly
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

Ok, let’s get started. Here’s what we cover:

Where It All Began: A Short History of the Drum Machine

To truly appreciate the modern drum machine, you have to know the origin story. Let’s take a look.

One of the first drum machines was the now legendary Wurlitzer Sideman (shown below) was released in the 1959. Weighing 80Ib and presented in a solid wooden box, it was powered by tubes (valves) and came with a built in speaker (it didn’t have an output) as it was intended to accompany an organ or piano.

sidemanBillboard16May1960

 

Some years later, in the late seventies came the PAiA’s Programmable Drum Set – the first affordable programmable drum machine, as heard on Peter Gabriel’s 1980 track ‘Games Without Frontiers’.

It was a Japanese inventor that would bring the programmable drum machine to its full potential. Founder of Roland, Kakehashi was fascinated by the Wurlitzer Sideman. After years of ups and downs, his big breakthrough was with the Roland CR-78 ‘Compu- Rhythm’ with its combination of programmability and familiar preset rhythms made it popular with both home users and artists – like on Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ and Blondie on numerous chart topping tracks.

The Roland CR-78 was also used to great effect on Vienna by 80’s new romantics Ultravox. John Foxx said of it “In reality, it was a non-dancing Japanese programmer’s idea of strange Western generic rhythm patterns, so inevitably eccentric and electronic sounding – which endeared it to me immediately,” 

From there, Roland released a myriad of different models and to this day are still market leaders. The two standout machines released in the 1980 are now the stuff of drum machine folklore: the TR-808 and the TR-909.

Roland TR-808 and TR-909

The Roland TR-808, the most infamous of all beat makers, was a classic drum machine that used analog synthesis to create its sounds. The sounds had a very thin and pure quality. The 808 became the signature beatbox used in most R&B and hip-hop as well as a lot of dance and techno music. Booming bass kicks, crispy snares and a distinctive cowbell made famous during the 80’s are all part of the 808 and its famous sound. The list of musicians who used the TR-808 is like looking at the 1980s hall of fame: 808 state (who got their name from it), Orbital, Überzone, Aphex Twin, Bomb The Bass, The Prodigy, Faithless, Skinny Puppy, Bushflange, Jimi Tenor, A Guy Called Gerald, Dr. Dre, Jimmy Edgar, Richie Hawtin, Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre, Cocteau Twins, Marvin Gaye, Luke Vibert, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, the Beastie Boys, and Puff Daddy.

Roland TR-808

The successor to the TR808, the TR-909, was an altogether much grungier affair. it was a part analog, part sample-based drum machine that took advantage of the new MIDI technology and featured a 16-step sequencer based on its predecessor. The TR-909 first found notoriety in the Chicago nightlife, when DJ Frankie Knuckles used it to great aplomb on the now club classic ‘Your love’ with Jamie Principle. Knuckles had set the template for almost all house music that would follow. The TR-909 was also credited as defining (even starting) the Acid house scene of the late 80s.

The Linn LM-1

Much of drum machine history is taken up with Roland epic beatboxes, but in fact many other players in the space contributed to the evolution in sound. One such person was Roger Linn, a music engineer and entrepreneur who invented the first drum machine to use digital samples, the Linn LM-1. Fed up with tacky sounding drum presets, he “wanted a drum machine that did more than play preset samba patterns and didn’t sound like crickets.” Toto guitarist Steve Pocaro gave him the idea of recording real drums digitally, which is exactly what he did to great effect. As influential as the TR-808, throughout the 80s the LM-1’s sound was also inescapable: artists such as Prince, ABC, Devo, Michael Jackson, even movie soundtracks (John Carpenter was a big fan) used the LM-1 to create epic beats. Prince took the use of the LM-1 into an art form who used it on ‘When Doves Cry’ to create that ‘knocking sound’.

Oberheim DMX

A less talked about drum machine, the Oberhelm DMX, was also hugely influential in the 1980s. It found particular fame in pop music, used on Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ and ‘Into The Groove’ and on New Orders seminal track, ‘Blue Monday’. The DMX also found popularity with the hip hop crowd too, finding itself on Run-D.M.C.’s 1983’s classic ‘It’s Like That’.

Run DMC Its like That:

The Akai MPC-60

The drum machine most linked to hip hop however was the Akai, particular the MPC 60. In fact, the MPC 60 might be the single most important piece of technology in the evolution of hip-hop. Why was the MPC-60 such a hit? Roger Linn (see above) was brought over to Japan by Akai to make the MPC-60. During the making of his LM-1, he’d proved that drum machines could have some of the soul of a human percussionist. With the MPC-60, he introduced the concept of ‘swing’ on the 16th note beats, to simulate the inherent timing errors made by humans. This swing lent itself to hip-hop which rejected the straight, synthetic rhythms of previous drum machines and preferred the loose drum.

Drum Machine Evolution – The MPC

The MPC in the Akai MPC-60 stands for Music Production Center, and was a significant departure from the drum machine because the MPC was a drum machine and sampler. The MPC also introduced a performance aspect with the real-time feedback of the pads making it more of an instrument than a simple drum machine. Playing the MPC live has become an art-form in and of itself.

Enter the Midi Controllers

Before the advent of computers and laptops, you either had a drum machine or a drum machine / sampler as we just discussed called the MPC. These days with the advancement of technology, many producers favour using a MIDI controller and a DAW (Digital Audio Workspace i.e. software) to make their beats. Many still prefer the standalone MPC and maintain the sounds are far superior to ‘computerised’ beats.

Hopefully that short history gives you a bit more knowledge when it comes to choosing which machine to go for. Now we’re going to consider what you need to consider when buying a new machine.

Benefits of Hardware Drum Machines

By now it should be blatently clear why drum machines are so cool. But if you needed any more convincing, here are some of the key benefits of drum machines.

Greater Autonomy

One major advantage of a drum machine is that they bring to production and live performance the ease of not requiring live drums and a drummer. Yup, sack your drummer! Let’s face it, trying to herd band members is sometimes like trying to herd cats. Often, the fewer members the better. If you can replace a drummer with a drum machine, that gives you way more autonomy as a band. A drum machine is a good bit cheaper than a full size drum kit too.

Distinct Electro Sound

The popularity of drum machines isn’t just about convenience though: drum machines are an instrument in their own right. The distinctive, hypnotic electro beat you get from drum machines isn’t achievable any other way, even with ‘real’ drums and a ‘real’ drummer.

The drum machine has earned a place, along with the electric guitar, as a key ingredient in modern pop music. These little groove boxes has spawned entire genres of music too: hip hop, electronic, dance, techno and many of the pop anthems of the 1980s to present day (e.g. Prince’s When Doves Cry) wouldn’t exist without the drum machine.

Experimentation

The huge advantage, along with sound and convenience, is experimentation. With drum machines, you’re really only limited by your imagination (and technical skills). With a bit of practice, you’re able to create some totally amazing sonic landscapes (did I just say ‘sonic landscapes’?!). Interestingly, drum machines are also a tool for songwriters as they’re superb for capturing ideas. They allow those who don’t physically play the drums to access the sounds that are in their head, and to record them onto the tracks they’re working on. They’re also great for jamming along to.

Buying Guide – What You Need to Consider When Buying One

Ok, ready to purchase one? Here are some of the key considerations:

Needs Analysis

To narrow down which type of drum machine you want, the first question to ask is what do you want it for? Depending on how you’ll use it will inform which one you go for. Some machines are particularly well suited to certain activities. Ask yourself these three questions:

  • Which style of music do you to play?
  • Live Performance: Are you planning to play it live?
  • Connectivity: Do you have a computer you can hook it up to?

We’ll be referring to them as we go through our product reviews below.

Types of Drum Machine

Hardware drum machines are standalone machines that don’t require a computer to work and come in analog or digital variety.

According to producer Moby who’s a massive fan of analog drum machines, “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”. Midi Drum Controllers on the other hand require a computer and DAW (production software such as Logic or Cubase) to work. We cover these here.

Features You’ll Find on Most Drum Machines

Each drum machine has its own idiosyncrasies, but there’s a few things you’ll find on most drum machines.

Pre-set Patterns

Even the Wurlitzer Sideman had a few presets, so it’s no surprise you’ll find presets on most drum machine (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

Sampling (the term used for when you reuse a portion or ‘sample’ from another recording) is used everywhere in pop music. Many of the drum machines we review let you record samples. You could sample a real drum sound – a hi-hat or snare you like from an acoustic drum set – or a random noise, such as a bird tweeting (think the Beatles song Blackbird where they sampled birdsong) and then reproduce it via the drum machine.

Velocity and Pressure Responsive Pads

Earlier drum machines were drum sequencers and wouldn’t let you ‘tap out’ a rhythm. These days most drum machines have pads which are responsive to velocity, to give a more ‘human’ feel to your beats. The higher end machines have velocity and pressure responsive pads which give you much better control.

Step sequencing

Step sequencing is the common way to make a beat on a drum machine, allowing you to assign notes or rhythms in a step wise fashion over 16 beats (16 beats tends to be the norm). 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).

Extra Features You May Need That Are Worth Considering

Memory

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 you can put together seamless live sets.

If you’re mainly using your machine in a studio, large pattern memory isn’t quite as important. So long as your drum machine is MIDI-enabled then you can build patterns in your DAW software which makes onboard memory a non-issue.

Batteries

Another plus for the live performer is the option of being off grid. Many units these days come with a rechargeable battery built in.

Best Drum Machines for Live Performance

If you’re looking for a model that’s purely going to used for live performance, here are some considerations:

  • Do the pads respond to pressure (i.e. are they velocity and pressure responsive pads – see above)? Being able to ‘feel the beat’ is an invaluable tool for live performances, and drum machines that can respond in this way can help you to intuitively create powerful spontaneous rhythms.
  • Is it easy to program? Hardware based drum machines can be more complicated to operate than newer software based devices, and the easier it is to make a mistake and ruin everything in the middle of a live performance, the less useful a drum machine will be for gigging.
  • How travel friendly is it? Many newer drum machines can fit into a laptop bag due to being so slim, but they’re also susceptible to damage from rough treatment. You want something that is portable and durable.
  • How deep is the library of sounds? The more you have to work with, the more creative you can be and the more genres you can effectively work in.

Product Round up & Reviews – Our Selection of the Best Analog & Digital Drum Machines

For each product, we’ll summarise what we think, the pros and cons, and the specifically who the ideal user is.

Best Analog Drum Machines

Analog is where drum machines started, and today there’s some great options available that take the best of the past and serve them up afresh for the 21st century.

Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm Machine

Korg 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS)

The Korg Volca-Beats Machine is an analog Electribe-style 16-step sequencer drum machine 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. Like the PO-12 (above), 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 suit those looking for a natural sounding drum beat,

PROS:

  • Can hold up to 8 16-step sequences at once which can be easily swapped.
  • Small and well built with tough materials makes it safe to take to venues without wrapping it in bubble wrap before setting off.
  • Very affordable price for the 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.

CONS:

  • 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.

CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

 

Arturia Drumbrute Analog Drum Sequencer

Arturia DrumBrute Analog Drum Machine, Black

French company Asturia mid priced drum machine the Drumbrute or ‘Brute’ has a lot going for it. For a start, it’s a truly standalone box, unlike some of Asturia controller-based drum solutions from their Spark range (which require a computer and DAW). Secondly, in direct competition with the Roland TR-8, it’s a fully analog drum machine with seventeen analog drum & percussion instruments – two kicks, snare, clap, open & closed hats, high & low toms and conga, maracas, rimshot, clave, tambourine, zap, cymbal, and a reverse cymbal (a first in the world of drum machines), and every instrument has multiple adjustable parameters. 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’s polyphonic. This means you can change the pattern length of each instrument, allowing you to create polyrhythms. So you can have a kick part that’s 16 steps long, while you have a 12-step snare pattern playing alongside it. This is great for creating a varied percussion structure.

Another feature we liked was the randomness knob which, depending on how far you crank it, allows you to move percussive hits forward or backwards, either globally or individually. This allows you add a human feel to programmed grooves that can sound, well, programmed or can be used to create spontaneous percussion parts.

Who is this for?

While there’s a definite nod to the Roland machines of the past, the Drumbrute has its own unique sound and is ideal for producers working in the techno genre.

PROS: 

  • Seventeen analog drum & percussion instruments
  • Ability to create polyrhythms
  • Large and responsive pads

CONS:

  • Won’t suit every genre of electronic music (but ideal for techno)
  • Faux-wood panelling on the sides won’t be to everyone’s taste

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Best Digital Drum Machines

Teenage Engineering PO-12 Rhythm Drum Machine

Teenage Engineering PO-12 Rhythm Drum Machine, Sequencer and Synthesizer - INCLUDES - Two Blucoil AAA Batteries AND 6 Foot Extender​

If you want to pay the absolute minimum for drums, the PO-12 (the PO stands for ‘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 does quite a lot too. Coming with 16 drum sounds, a 16-step sequencer and 16 chainable patterns, the drum sounds include a punchy analog sounding bass drum, closed & open hat, synthesised snare, sticks, cymbal, noise, hand clap, click, low & high tom, cowbell and blip. You also have two dials to change parameter on any of those sounds: dial A (pitch) and dial B (envelope / transient enhancer).

It’s made to be portable thanks to it’s size and power comes from 2 x AAA batteries. There’s no on and off switch (you just press any button to turn on) and according to the manufacturers sales blurb its standby time ‘is measured in years’. I’m not so sure about that, regardless the PO-12 is a quirky, stick in your pocket drum machine that is great for electro music.

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 drum set, but for electronic music, it’s great. The range of on-board effects such as beat-chopping, distortion and delay really make this fun too. It doesn’t have analog sound like the Volca Beats (below), but it’s a lot less expensive.

PROS

  • Bags of fun and super easy to use
  • Great for digital / electronic music
  • Won’t burn a hole in your pocket

CONS

  • Small keys make it fiddly to operate
  • Limited in sounds, but for the price you can’t expect more
  • No built in metronome

CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

 

Novation Circuit Groove Box

Novation Circuit Groove Box w/ Sample Import: 2-Part Synth, 4-Part Drum Machine and Sequencer

The Novation Circuit Groove Box is another 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.

PROS:

  • Doubles up as a synth and sample trigger.
  • Colourful, highly sensitive pads.
  • Reverb, delay, filters and side chain included.

CONS:

  • It’s more suited to simple drum beats, so anything intricate will be more difficult to achieve than on other machines.
  • Patterns cannot be exported.

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Mooer Micro Drummer

Mooer Audio Micro Drummer Digital Drum Machine Pedal

As it ‘Micro’ in the name suggests, the Mooer Micro Drummer is an extremely compact machine. It works as a pedal – 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.

PROS:

  • Compact and easy to use.
  • Can fit into a guitarist’s pedal chain.
  • Is capable of 121 different drum beats.

CONS:

  • Lacks the programming features of more advanced drum machines.
  • There are no options to add fills.
  • There’s a slight delay after pressing start, which can throw you out of time.

CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

 

Alesis SR-16

Alesis SR16 | Classic 24-bit Stereo Electronic Drum Machine with Dynamic Articulation

The Alesis SR-16 is one of the most popular drum machines ever made. It’s a compact drum machine that comes equipped with 200 pre-set drum patterns, 50 of which were performed by top studio drummers so they’re going to sound great. You can create your own custom patterns and save them direct to the box.

There are 12 drum 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 well labelled buttons on the machine make it easy to use.

There’s a built in speaker – making this truly portable and a perfect ‘toy’, and the real, analog sounds included offer an authenticity in this machine’s performance.

Who is it for?

This is suited to musicians and songwriters who like classic gear and want to achieve reliable drum kit sounds without needing a PhD in music technology. It’s for people who just want a simple drum beat and aren’t bothered about sampling their own beats. They need some drums to add to a recording and want a decent choice of drum patterns to choice from. It will be less appropriate to electronic musicians who are looking for something to perform live with.

PROS:

  • 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

CONS:

  • 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

CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

 

Final Verdict

Ok, that’s your lot! Hopefully that’s inspired you to get a drum machine, or at the very least you feel a bit more educated about them.

Any Qs, drop them in the comments below.

 

Featured image: TheIntrovert / CC By-SA 2.0
Roland TR-808 image / CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

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