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9 Best Drum Machines – For Studio, Home or Live Performance

Drum machines are standalone pieces of production equipment that let you program rhythms. We tend to think of these machines as modern 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, helping shape the sound of modern music.

One major advantage is they omit the need for a live percussionist, giving you more autonomy and creativity. Their popularity 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. You’re only limited by your imagination, and you’re able to create some epic sonic landscapes.

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

Roland AIRA Rhythm Performer (TR-8S) , 128 Patterns
521 Reviews
Roland AIRA Rhythm Performer (TR-8S) , 128 Patterns
  • The TR-8S combines the best of its Roland heritage with modern production techniques and professional sound design
  • Design kits with authentic TRS drums, sampled sounds, and effects
  • The TR-8S has every sound from the most sought-after TRS drum machines, with detailed circuit-models of the 808, 606, 909, 707, 727, and even several modified versions

If you know anything about drum machines, you’ll know about the legendary TR-8. 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 to visually group your instruments.

Features:

  • Modern reimagining of the classic TR-8
  • Design kits with authentic TR drums, sampled sounds, and effects
  • A 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

Elektron Digitakt

Elektron Digitakt 8-Track Drum Computer and Sampler
148 Reviews
Elektron Digitakt 8-Track Drum Computer and Sampler
  • Digitakt is a digital and highly flexible sound engine, sampling capability, a live-friendly sequencer8-voice Drum Machine
  • Dedicated tracks for controlling external MIDI gear
  • Hi res encoders and extremely durable back-lit buttons

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. 

Its 100% digital architecture (non-analog) has 16 channels divided into eight audio 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. 

Features:

  • 16 channels divided into eight audio 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)

Behringer Rhythm Designer RD-8 Analog Drum Machine
110 Reviews
Behringer Rhythm Designer RD-8 Analog Drum Machine
  • Analog Filter Wave Designer Effects
  • 11 Individual Outputs
  • Analog Drum Machine

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 too. 

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.

Features:

  • 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

Korg, 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS),Black
2,385 Reviews
Korg, 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS),Black
  • Electribe-style 16-step sequencer with eight memory patches
  • Sync In and Out allows clock sync of multiple instruments from the Volca series
  • Stutter for glitch or delay-like effects

The Korg Volca Beats is an analog 16-step sequencer that gives the sound a realness that will delight analog purists to boot. 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 with 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.

Features:

  • 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.

Arturia Drumbrute

Arturia DrumBrute Analog Drum Machine, Black
97 Reviews
Arturia DrumBrute Analog Drum Machine, Black
  • Wide-range of controls allowing for many new and unique sounds Two flavors of kick drum Unique analog Reverse Cymbal 64 patterns with up to 64 steps each Separate accent per drum Step Repeat for creating looping glitch effects Song mode for chaining patterns Swing and randomizer can be global or per instrument Pattern looper for beat repeat functions Steiner Parker output filter with bypass (high pass & low pass) Multiple sync options (Internal, USB, MIDI, Clo
  • With the vast majority of the past few decades’ drum machine designs largely being emulations of the great machines that have gone before, Arturia’s introduction of a fully analog hardware drum machine with organic, integral sound creation is a major event
  • The DrumBrute is firmly rooted in the classic drum machines, but it builds upon these traditions in terms of superior audio specifications and lower noise floor than the rhythm composers that paved the way

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.

Features:

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

Teenage Engineering PO-12

teen age engineering Pocket Operator PO-12 Rhythm Drum Machine and Sequencer Bundle with Blucoil 3-Pack of 7' Audio AUX Cables, and 4 AAA Batteries
87 Reviews
teen age engineering Pocket Operator PO-12 Rhythm Drum Machine and Sequencer Bundle with Blucoil 3-Pack of 7″ Audio AUX Cables, and 4 AAA Batteries
  • PRODUCES 16 DIFFERENT DRUM SOUNDS – The teen age engineering PO-12 Rhythm uses real synthesized drum sounds to recreate drum and percussion sounds like cymbals, hi-hat, cowbell, and more.
  • LETS YOU CREATE A WHOLE SONG – The 16-step sequencer and step-multiplier allow you to chain up to 16 patterns together. You can also insert a re-trig in a single step.
  • FINE-TUNE THE EFFECTS IN REAL-TIME – Effortlessly edit the 16 effects with the dual real-time parameters. You can fine-tune the tempo from 60 to 240bpm.

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-school 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 of 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.

Features:

  • 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

Novation Circuit Groove Box with Sample Import: 2-Part Synth, 4-Part Drum Machine and Sequencer, Black (NOVSYNTH04)
388 Reviews
Novation Circuit Groove Box with Sample Import: 2-Part Synth, 4-Part Drum Machine and Sequencer, Black (NOVSYNTH04)
  • 2-part Nova, analog-modeled synthesizer, 4-part drum machine, 6 voice polyphony per synth; Compatibility – macOS 10.12 Sierra , Mac OSX 10.11, Mac OSX 10.10, Windows 10 , Windows 8
  • 4-part drum machine: store up to 64 drums, samples, and one-shots – combine up to 128 steps of synth and drum patterns; save up to 32 sessions, each comprised of up to 8 patterns per track
  • 4×8 grid of RGB velocity-sensitive pads, 28 RGB backlit function buttons, 8 continuous macro encoder knobs, dedicated filter and volume pots. Internal tempo range is 40 – 240

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.

Features:

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

Mooer Micro Drummer

Mooer Audio Micro Drummer Digital Drum Machine Pedal
  • 11 Genres of drum patterns
  • 3 controls,
  • 121 Drum beats in total

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.

Features:

  • Compact and easy to use, fits on a pedalboard.
  • It can fit into a guitarist’s pedal chain.
  • Capable of 121 different beats.

Alesis SR-16

Alesis SR-16 - Studio-Grade Standalone Drum Machine With On-Board Sound Library, Performance Driven I/O and In-Built Effects
1,839 Reviews
Alesis SR-16 – Studio-Grade Standalone Drum Machine With On-Board Sound Library, Performance Driven I/O and In-Built Effects
  • A Studio Icon – Legendary classic drum machine for songwriters, live performers and remix engineers
  • In Demand Sound – 233 professional sounds included, built-in digital effects for added realism and powered by Alesis exclusive Dynamic Articulation
  • Seamless MIDI Connectivity – Complete MIDI support for use with keyboards, computers, DAWs and electronic drum kits

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.

Features:

  • 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 controller units, which offer a lot of the same functionality as drum machines but are solely made for this purpose.

Pre-set Patterns

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

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.

Pads

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 give 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’ helps you to create powerful rhythms.

Step Sequencing

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).

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 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.

Live Performance

If you’re looking for a model that will 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 portable and durable.

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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