Best Drum Machines For Live Performances In 2018 – Buyer’s Guide

Best Drum Machines For Live Performances

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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 five best drum machines for live performances so that you can stop worrying about taking your music out on stage.

If you're starting out drumming for the first time check out our choice of the best beginner drum sets here!​

At A Glance: Our 5 Best Drum Machines For Live Performances

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 will make a drum machine less useful 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.
  • 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...

5 Best Drum Machines For Live Performances 

1. Alesis SR-16

 Alesis SR 16 Drum Machine

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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.

  • 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

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2. IK Multimedia iRig PADS

IK Multimedia iRig Pads

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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.

  • 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

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3. Korg Volca-Beats Machine Analog Rhythm Drum Synthesizer

Korg Volca-Beats Machine

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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.

  • 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

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4. AKAI XR20

Akai XR20

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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.

  • 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

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5. MPC Studio Black

MPC Studio Black

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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.

  • 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

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​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 your style.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to simply drive a nightclub wild then you can’t go far wrong with the MCP Studio, and if that’s a little too expensive for you then the AKAI XR20 will have you covered if you’re going for an urban feel.

Featured image source: Scott Schiller / CC BY-SA 2.0

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