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8 Best Drum Machines For Live Performances – Our Top Picks

Whether you’re running a solo project or you just can’t track down the elusive being that is a drummer, a drum machine can give your gigs the kick they need. However, not all drum machines are well suited to this purpose.

In order to make sure you’re packing the right kind of equipment, we’ve put together a list of the eight best drum machines for live performances so that you can stop worrying about taking your music out on stage.

PREVIEW

PRODUCT

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

great all-rounder green

Alesis SR-16
Solid beats machine that's a great all rounder and offers good value for money.

IK Multimedia iRig Pads MIDI groove controller for iPhone, iPad and Mac/PC

IK Multimedia iRig PADS
Super slim drum machine that works in conjunction with a phone, tablet or laptop.


Korg 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS)

Best for Analog Sound Badge

Korg Volca-Beats Machine
This drum machine holds fast to the analog powered drum-machines of the past.


Akai Professional XR20 | Beat Production Station Drum Machine with 12 Trigger Pads, Note Repeat, and 700 Sounds

Best for Hip Hop Badge

AKAI XR20
This is a beast when it comes to producing hip hop beats.


Akai Professional MPC Studio Black Music Production Controller with 7+GB Sound Library Download

AKAI MPC Studio 
Another great entry from Akai, comes in sturdy case.

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

​Novation Circuit Groove Box
A colourful piece of kit which has a remarkable sense of fun.

Arturia SparkLE 420101 Hardware Controller and Software Drum Machine

​Arturia SparkLE 420101 Hardware Controller
This works in conjunction with software to create beats on the spot.

Mooer Audio Micro Drummer Digital Drum Machine Pedal

Economical Choice Badge

Mooer Audio Micro Drummer
Perfect for the guitarist who wants drum beats on stage.

Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon. If you do purchase something we get a small commission, which has absolutely no effect on the eventual price that you pay.

Buyer's Tips: What to look for when buying the best drum machine for a live performance 

  • Do the pads respond to pressure? 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.

Ok let's look at each product in more detail. To make things easier for you, we've added pros and cons for each one, as well as a video demonstration so you can see them in action. So without further ado, let’s take a look...

8 Best Drum Machines For Live Performances 

1. Alesis SR-16

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

You might be surprised to see such an old drum machine on this list, but the enduring popularity of this model speaks for itself. It may lack some of the more useful innovations and benefits of current tech, but the sampling is excellent and is a favourite among older musicians. Plus an ‘old school’ approach helps to mitigate the flak that comes from not having a real drummer going wild on stage.

The sounds that come from the SR 16 are realistic, clear and professional, and there is the added feature of 50 presets in this box that were played by real professional session musicians - rather than programmed in!

  • Relatively inexpensive compared to more recent models
  • The samples used are natural sounding and have a nice variety
  • It’s quite lightweight and compact, so is well suited for travelling purposes
  • As it’s a fairly old piece of equipment, learning the programming techniques is a little esoteric
  • Patterns cannot be exported for editing with software such as cubase
  • Mistakes are difficult to fix, so you’ll need to be very careful during gigs

Let's take a look at this product...

2. IK Multimedia iRig PADS

IK Multimedia iRig Pads MIDI groove controller for iPhone, iPad and Mac/PC

Taking the opposite approach is this super slim drum machine that works in conjunction with a phone, tablet or laptop. The overall design seems to be geared towards EDM and similar genres, so prepare for a negative reaction if you use this to replace a drummer in an Iron Maiden tribute band.

There’s an enormous palette of sounds available with this machine, and you can also launch loops and create melodic grooves on this baby.

As is obvious by the ‘i’ these are designed to work best with an Apple product.

  • Large, responsive pads for easy live rhythm creation
  • Ultra portable, making it an excellent travel companion for creating sick beats whether you’re at home, on stage or even on a bus thanks it the ease with which it can pair up with mobile devices
  • Comes with all necessary cables
  • Very flimsy, which somewhat negates its usability on-the-go
  • For the limited range of functions it’s a little overprice (although not expensive by any means)
  • Although it can be used for live performances, it’s better suited for quickly trying out ideas as they pop into your head when writing music

Let's take a look at this product...

3. Korg Volca-Beats Machine Analog Rhythm Drum Synthesizer (Editor's Choice)

Korg 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS)

The perfect drum machine for beginners and masters alike, this drum machine holds fast to the analog powered drum-machines of the past and brings the strength of those beats into a user-friendly contemporary package with digital controls.

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

  • 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
  • No USB jacks and connections are limited to MIDI in and a single stereo output
  • Output volume is quite low, so if you’re relying on this to replace a drummer then the other musicians will need to keep a sharp ear out for the timings
  • 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

Let's take a look at this product...

4. AKAI XR20

Akai Professional XR20 | Beat Production Station Drum Machine with 12 Trigger Pads, Note Repeat, and 700 Sounds

This is a beast when it comes to producing hip hop beats. It looks like an old landline phone, but don’t let that fool you. It’s loaded with 100 drum kits, 62 bass synths and can be easily programmed live or in step mode.

This is really simple to use, fun to play with and its hardware status and lack of USB jack makes it rebellious in an age of software.

  • All buttons feature backlighting which makes live use on dark stages a simple task
  • The huge range of sounds this thing is capable of producing make it one of the most flexible drum machines available
  • You have full control over each step for more in-depth beat creation
  • Lacks a USB jack
  • The dial control is a throwback to the older iPod controls, and it’s easy to accidentally overshoot what you were aiming to select which can be a pain to deal with when performing live
  • Although the large amount of kits and synths is always a good thing, the fact remains that many of these have novelty value at best

Let's take a look at this product...

5. MPC Studio Black

Akai Professional MPC Studio Black Music Production Controller with 7+GB Sound Library Download

A big step up from the XR20, it retains the emphasis on having a huge bank of sounds to draw upon whilst being more in-line with current tech trends by including USB ports for easier integration with your other tools. It’s definitely one of the best drum machines for live performances when it comes to more recent models.

It’s made of aluminium, making it extremely sturdy, and it’s slim enough to slide into most cases.

It also works well alone - laptoplessly - making it perfect for those who would rather not get their computers out at gigs.

  • An absolutely staggering amount of drum kits, synth sounds and more to experiment with gives this drum machine a life of it’s own
  • A decent sized screen is built in so you can use this live without also needing to hook it up to a laptop or tablet for a display, which serves to enhance it’s live gig usability
  • It’s a very slim piece of kit, making it perfect for travelling
  • The interface is quite cluttered
  • Being only an inch or so thick, it can be damaged quite easily if you aren’t careful
  • This might be slightly too advanced for total beginners, so if you’re hoping to grab something to quickly replace your drummer who’s not feeling very well on the night of a gig you will need to have invested the time learning the ins and outs of all of the sounds and functions available

Let's take a look at this product...

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

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

The Novation Circuit Groove Box is a colourful piece of kit which has a remarkable sense of fun along with its ease of use.

The bright lights on the pads make it easy to use on a dark stage, and the way it is set out all in one box makes it a great machine for improvising on.

You can sync it up with your laptop if you wish, or plug it in straight out of the box. Sounds are clear, versatile and professional.

  • Easy and fun to use
  • Slim and sturdy, making it perfect for taking around with you!
  • Pads are very responsive to pressure
  • People who desire more advanced drum beats will find them fiddly to achieve on this device
  • There are limitations which some people might find frustrating
  • Patterns cannot be exported

7. Arturia SparkLE 420101 Hardware Controller and Software Drum Machine

Arturia SparkLE 420101 Hardware Controller and Software Drum Machine

This SparkLE Hardware controller works in conjunction with software to create beats on the spot.

It has an extremely impressive amount of sounds available and will suit the more advanced electronic musician perfectly.

Though it may not be suited to the guitarist in a band who wants a drummer without the hassle, this product is perfect for the creative performer who isn’t afraid to take multiple devices on stage.

  • Pads are very responsive
  • It’s compact and well built enough to make it travel-friendly
  • It’s a very slim piece of kit, making it perfect for travelling
  • There are no MIDI ports
  • The hardware reliant on software alongside it, so those who would prefer to go software-free will not be suited to this model
  • This might be slightly too advanced for total beginners, so if you’re hoping to grab something to quickly replace your drummer who’s not feeling very well on the night of a gig you will need to have invested the time learning the ins and outs of all of the sounds and functions available

Let's take a look at this product...

8. Mooer Audio Micro Drummer Digital Drum Machine Pedal (Budget Choice)

Mooer Audio Micro Drummer Digital Drum Machine Pedal

Unlike the last model, this device is perfect for the guitarist who would like an easy fix to achieve drum beats on stage!

It looks like a guitar pedal, and can be fitted into your pedal chain no problem!

It’s a tiny box with a number of beats in a variety of genres available. Sure, you’re quite limited in what you can achieve here, but if you’re after a simple option to liven up your live performances, here it is!

  • A very easy to use product, designed in a guitarist-friendly way!
  • Extremely portable and durable
  • A decent selection of drum beats available
  • There’s a delay after pressing start - which can prove irritating in live situations!
  • Less creative than some of the other drum machines - this one is limited in its options
  • Those who want to program their own beats - as opposed to choosing from options - will feel frustrated by this product

Let's take a look at this product...

So Which Are The Best Drum Machines For Live Performances?

A big factor that will dictate which is the best drum machine for live performances in your book is going to be the type of music you’re playing. If you’re trying to replace a drummer, then the analog sound of the Korg Volca will be more suited to you than one of the electronic-oriented products.

If you’re looking for the ultimate ease of use and tiny, tiny product (at a budget friendly price), then the Mooer Micro Drummer may be more your thing. Though it must be said, this product will inevitably frustrate those with complex creative ideas.

If you’re an electronic musician who is looking to simply drive a nightclub wild then you can’t go far wrong with the MCP Studio. It’s also extremely sturdy, so will handle being thrown around more than most of the other models.

The more budget-friendly option for the urban vibe is the AKAI XR20.

It’s also important to consider, based on the reviews above, whether you really want to hook up to a laptop, or to use the machine like an instrument that works independently of software. If you do want to hook up, and enjoy the ease of use that often comes with this, then the IK Multimedia iRig PADS may be your choice. On the other hand, if you like a more old school approach then the Alesis SR-16 will suit you much better.

Whichever drum machine you decide is right for you, we hope that you - and your audiences - have a blast with it!

Happy Programming!  🙂

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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