Whether you’re making beats in your bedroom or performing live on a stage, a drum machine can add a whole new dimension to your production and performance. But buying the best drum machine for your needs isn’t always easy. So we put together this guide to help you figure out the best offerings on the market and find the perfect drum machine for your production style.
Drum machines aren’t essential for production anymore, what with the easy availability of top-notch samples and powerful plugins (including stock ones) built into nearly every DAW.
But there’s something to be said about the intuitiveness of using a piece of hardware to tap out your beats. The ability to create, manipulate, and tap out drum patterns with your fingers instead of the mouse makes beat making so much more natural.
Then there’s that all important angle: fun. Making beats in a MIDI editor in Ableton (or your choice of DAW) isn’t nearly as much fun as making them on a dedicated drum machine. Changing the tone of a kick with one hand while you tap a pattern with another, adding delay/echo to a snare mid-session – all these are just so much more fun than anything you can do in a DAW.
That said, drum machines are still something of a niche category. Most options on the market show this as well – replications of retro machines and classic 808 sounds dominate.
Picking the best drum machine from this category can be tough. What should you prioritize – drum sounds, sound processing capabilities, or pads/buttons? Should you go for classic sounds, or would a more modern sound palette fit your needs better?
We’ll answer all these questions below while sharing our list of the 5 best drum machines you can buy right now.[toc]
The Best Drum Machine in 2020: In-Depth Analysis
You saw our picks for the best drum machines at a glance above.
In this section, we’ll do a deep dive into our top picks, why we chose them, and what’s the right option for you.
With this note out of the way, let’s look at our picks for the best drum machines you can buy right now:
Best Overall: Roland TR-08
- Recreates the TR-808 drum machine
- Controls for tone, delay and decay
- Additional compressor, gain, tune, and pan controls
- Programmable step/tap write modes
- Ten separate outputs (via USB)
- Can be operated on battery
If you’re a beat-maker, producer, or even a general music enthusiast, you’ve likely heard of the legendary 808 sounds.
The deep thump of 808 kicks is one of the most common sounds in all of music. From ‘80s electronica to current EDM and hip-hop artists, everyone has used 808 samples for kicks, snares, and bass tracks.
The source of these legendary 808 sounds? Roland TR-808.
And this drum machine – Roland TR-08 – is an accurate replication of the TR-808. It recreates the same sounds, the same tone, and the same performance, but with a few modern twists.
To understand the TR-08, you have to first understand the TR-808 and what made it so legendary. The TR-808 was released at a time when drum machines were defined by two characteristics:
- You could only use built-in preset drum patterns
- Sounds were reproduced via sampling, not synthesis
The TR-808 changed the game completely. Not only did it allow people to program their own patterns, it also used analog synthesis to produce sounds.
While these synthesized sounds weren’t realistic, they had a very characteristic electronic sound – the 808 sound. I can’t stress the impact of this machine on music enough.
The TR-08 takes all the good parts from the TR-808 and updates them. It looks and feels like the older machine, and even has controls in exactly the same location. Sure, you can get 808 samples and load them on any drum machine, but playing loops on a machine that was used by Quincy Jones and Run DMC is an experience that’s hard to match.
As for the updates, you get USB connectivity, up to 10 MIDI outputs, a LED display, and most importantly, a 16-step sequencer. The sequencer is particularly useful for playing complex patterns that were not possible with the older TR-808.
All in all, this is a fantastic, retro sounding machine, one that conjures up memories of the ‘80s hip-hop scene with its authentic 808 sounds. Ideal for anyone who loves his/her 808s and wants an authentic experience while using them.
What we don’t like
Not everything is perfect of course. There are some connectivity issues when using the TR-08 on Windows (which Roland promises have been fixed up). It can also be powered only via USB or batteries; you can’t plug it into a wall outlet.
Additionally, we would have also preferred if it used larger 1/4” ports instead of the smaller and decidedly not studio grade 1/8” ports.
Best Budget Pick: Korg Volcabeats
- 16-step Electribe-style sequencer
- 8 memory patches
- Sync in-out to clock sync multiple instruments (only Volca series)
- Add delay/glitch effects with Stutter
- Supports MIDI for note entry
- Can be controlled via DAW
- Built-in speakers and battery power to play anywhere
Although the Korg Volcabeats is nominally an analog drum machine, it also has digital sound synthesis capabilities. The machine has 6 analog and four PCM (i.e. digital) based drum parts.
Essentially, this drum machine gives you the best of both worlds: analog sounds + digital synthesis capabilities. The analog sounds offer a sense of richness that’s often missing from digital drum machines. While the digital PCM based sounds can be controlled easily through pitch correction (something you can’t do easily with analog sounds).
The heart of this machine, however, is the step sequencer. This sequencer makes it dead easy to add/remove parts from a loop. The sequencer has built-in lights to give you a visual understanding of how different notes stack up in a loop. This makes it easy for a moderately experienced producer to create complex drum patterns and fills.
The built-in sounds on the Volcabeats are high quality with a decidedly retro flavor. The kicks, in particular, sound like acoustic drums, not something lifted from the recent EDM chart topper. This might not be for everyone, but for fans of classic drum machines and lo-fi sounds, the experience is fantastic.
Rounding up the list is a capable digital PCM-based sound engine. This is great for sounds that aren’t rendered faithfully in analog machines, or sounds that can benefit from digital manipulation such as claps and crashes. Again, the digital sounds have a lo-fi vibe – great if you’re going for that ‘80s tone.
Other features we like are the build quality and Korg’s proven brand, optional battery power, and built-in speakers for making music on the go.
What we don’t like
What we don’t like are the limited sound library. You can add your own samples, but you have to use a third party app like Voysr which makes for an awfully unintuitive experience.
A glaring flaw is the lack of built-in stereo panning, i.e. you can’t divert a sound to either left or right speakers; it’s all mono. While not a dealbreaker, it limits your creativity.
Best Budget Pick (Digital): Alesis SR 16
- Intel i5-8210Y CPU
- Retina display for greater color fidelity
- Touch log-in functionality and pressure-sensitive touchpad
As we noted earlier, drum machines either reproduce sounds through samples. Or they synthesize sounds through a digital (or in older machines, analog) sound engine.
If you’re looking for the latter, i.e. digital drum machines, you can’t really go wrong with Alesis SR16.
The Alesis SR16 is about as no-nonsense drum machines as you can get. It even looks the part. There are no fancy colors and glittering LEDs anywhere on the facade; all you get is an all-black unit with neatly arranged buttons, a large dial, and a LCD screen. It’s easy to mistake this for a VHS player circa 1990.
But beneath the simple exterior, Alesis SR16 packs quite a powerful punch. The unit comes pre-loaded with 233 drum sounds, though you can also upload your own samples. It supports up to 50 presets or drum kits, making it easy to switch from one sound to another on the fly.
The quality of the build-in samples is good if not outstanding. They’re not studio quality but great for playing around, jamming, or even lo-fi production. Though since Alesis makes it easy to upload your own studio-grade samples, we can’t find too much fault with the built-in samples.
The standout feature is Alesis’ Dynamic Articulation. This turns the Alesis SR16 into a drum pad. That is, the loudness of a sound depends on how hard you trigger the corresponding button. This adds a sense of dynamism to any performance that’s often missing from many of the best drum machines.
I should add that SR16 gives you options galore when it comes to I/O choices. There are 2x Footswitch jacks, MIDI I/O, Stereo I/O, headphone jack, and an external power supply (not USB) included.
What we don’t like
One of our biggest pet peeves is the lack of a backlight. You can barely read the screen or make out the buttons in the dark thanks to the all-black facade. If you’re performing live, you might very well have to use to flashlight to use the unit.
In addition, while Alesis’ Dynamic Articulation is nice, the buttons are still not responsive enough for intuitive finger drumming.
Apart from these, there are also some technical glitches such as the tempo randomly going up mid-performance. With self-loaded samples, some sounds can also cut out without reason. Plus, the cable it comes with is flimsy and will break if you use it too often or too aggressively.
Recommended for: This is a great entry level drum machine that’s affordable, easy to use, and boasts a clean, simple design. While nothing about it is extraordinary, nothing is offending either, making it the best drum machine for first-time and budget buyers.
Best Mid-Range: Arturia DrumBrute
- Packed with 17 different drum voices
- Steiner-Parker output filter
- 64-step pattern sequencer
- Tons of I/O options
- Swing time, randomness effects
The Arturia DrumBrute sits perfectly in the mid-range of the analog drum machine segment. You can go higher than this with some expensive [insert brand name], but for 95% of producers, the DrumBrute will be more than enough.
As an analog drum machine, the DrumBrute has a rich, warm sound. This is particularly evident in the fantastic snare and hi-hats. The hi-hats, in particular, have a metallic richness that can usually only be found in acoustic drums. There are two staple kicks that sound like 808s and 909s.
The texture of the 17 drum voices loaded on the DrumBrute is decidedly retro. A lot of lo-fi and classic sounds that fit in perfectly in any modern producer’s arsenal.
The design complements the retro sounds as well. The unit is enclosed in textured wood which adds a touch of warmth. The pads are velocity sensitive and the rotary knobs have a satisfying heft when moved.
The biggest feature is the powerful 64-step sequencer. This is substantially more complex than the 16-step sequencer commonly found on lower-tier drum machines. While I doubt you’ll ever be able to use all the 64-steps, it can help you create some awfully complex rhythmic patterns. Throw in the ability to change swing time for individual instruments and you have the makings of a powerful drum machine.
Another plus is the highly capable Steiner-Parker analog output filter. You can switch between high pass or low pass and change the resonance/cutoff on the fly. This opens up the room for a lot of experimentation with the stock sounds.
One of my favorite features is the “randomness” effect. This essentially works like swing, but instead of timing, it affects the velocity of each note randomly. The end result is much more authentic and realistic patterns.
Lastly, you get a ton of connectivity options. Hook it up to your computer, download Arturia’s MIDI Control Center, and an entirely new world of control opens up to you.
What we don’t like
Jokes aside, this is a real complaint from the DrumBrute: it has no cowbell sounds!
This glaring omission aside, you will have some complaints about the inconsistent performance of the tuning knobs. Sometimes, they change the character of the sound completely after being moved a centimeter. And sometimes, they change nothing even if you turn the knob all the way around.
Additionally, the kick sound can be a bit disappointing, especially if you’re used to the deep, bass-heavy kicks common in modern EDM. Both the kicks on the Arturia DrumBrute are lighter and thinner – think more Depeche Mode than Tiesto.
Also, this unit uses 1/8” connections. 1/4” connections would have made it a lot better in a studio setting.
Best Performance: Akai Professional MPC Renaissance
- 9 GB of built-in sounds
- Includes MPC3000 and MPC60 sounds
- 16 MPC pads
- 16 touch-sensitive Q-link controls
- Lots of I/O options
- Integrated 4-channel USB audio interface
I was reluctant to include any Akai MPC in this list, but when it comes to sheer performance, it’s hard to ignore the quality and heritage of this legendary line of instruments.
Why was I reluctant to include the Akai MPC here?
Primarily because it’s not a drum machine. Sure, it looks like one and is usually used like one, but it is primarily a sampler. That is, it samples sounds – your own or built-in – and allows you to play them as percussion.
In fact, when the first Akai MPC was developed (the legendary Akai MPK60), the primary motivation was to give producers something that combined two instruments – a sampler and a traditional drum machine.
That said, since the MPC can (and is) used as a percussion device (even if the “kick” is a vocal sample and the “snare” a guitar riff part), I felt it was appropriate to include it in this lineup of drum machines.
About the Akai MPC Renaissance: The Akai MPC line has changed drastically from the MPC60 days (which still remains a sought after classic in the aftermarket). Modern MPC machines, like the MPC Studio, act more like pad controllers than pure MPC-style samplers.
The closest product in the MPC line that replicates the MPC60 experience is the Akai MPC Renaissance. Which is precisely why we’ve picked it as our choice of the best drum machine for performance.
The MPC Renaissance combines the legendary usability and capabilities of the traditional MPC with the modern workflow of a DAW-focused production environment. You get a massive variety of built-in classic sounds, including the venerable MPC3000 and MPC60. And you can add more via the included MPC software.
Besides the top-notch classic sounds, the other standout feature of the MPC Renaissance is the quality of the pads. Boasting classif MPC pads lifted from the MPC60, these feel perfect for tapping out rhythms.
Adding to the list of features is a set of 16 touch-sensitive Q-Link controls that allow you to change the character of any sound. There’s also the ability to add Swing to your patterns for more authentic, organic beats.
What makes the MPC Renaissance a truly modern sampler, however, is its software. Old school MPCs, fantastic as they were, were standalone devices. But the Renaissance connects straight to your computer and adds a ton of new capabilities. Use it as a MIDI controller or manage samples wit the included MPC Software.
It’s an all-in-one device – use it as an instrument, a sampler, or a sequencer. It’s not a full-fledged DAW, but a skilled musician can very well make entire tracks on this little machine.
What we don’t like
The biggest complaint we have with the MPC Renaissance is its durability. Old school MPCs were legendary for their build quality, but that can’t be said for modern Akais. The buttons feel a little tacky and there have been reports of devices just giving up after a couple of years of regular use.
There are also some software bugs, especially when used with Windows. It’s difficult to pinpoint these bugs (much depends on your PC configuration and Windows version), so if you do buy this, we recommend using it extensively initially so you can spot the bugs before the 30-day return period.
Unlike a lot of our other guides, we’ve kept this roundup of the best drum machines intentionally limited to 5 choices. We’ve found from reader suggestions and experience that most of you prefer fewer but better targeted options. While there are certainly other great drum machines on the market, you can pick any one of the above five options and not be disappointed.
Just to recap, here is our list of the 9 best drum machines, sorted by category:
- Roland TR-08 (Best overall)
- Korg volcabeats (Best budget)
- Alesis SR16 (Best budget – digital)
- Arturia DrumBrute (Best mid-range)
- Akai MPC Renaissance (Best performance)
Questions, suggestions, or doubts?