Generally, depicted as odd and peculiar toolboxes, drum machines can be defined as electronic musical instruments which are used to emulate the sound of electronic drums and percussion instruments. Today drum machines are often used by producers and performers in all sorts of music genres and are appreciated for their versatile qualities. The best drum machine models are at the same time simple and functional as well as accessible and inspirational. In sum, with a drum machine, the process of musical creation becomes instantly much more intuitive. Nonetheless, it is important to notice that critics disregard drum machines by saying that you don’t need a drum machine. Others believe that it can confuse producers by making things look more complex than they are. While both of these statements might be true to some extent, it is very unlikely you’ll regret buying a drum machine.
However, before you throw yourself onto the latest drum machine on today’s market, we think it is essential that you know the specificities you are looking for. A new drum machine, should definitely be a justified addition to your home studio setup and not something that will drag you down in your work routine. We will first put drum machines into context before focusing on their main components. To conclude, this article will give you a list of the best drum machines on today’s market.
Table of content
Review: Best Drum Machines | Top 4
Elegant neoprene case
Great feeling MPC pads
Difficult to use at first/requires time of adaptation
VST effects and instruments are not top notch
First of all, the user will appreciate a dark, sleek with a brushed-aluminum body design. Accessible, this device fully integrates portable production and allows a great workflow for any musician. We believe it offers the possibility for musicians to use it at the same time as a live performance companion but also as a music production aid. A sufficiently large and clear (monochromatic) backlit LCD display enables an intuitive accessibility. 16 velocity and pressure-sensitive pads were copied from its glorious predecessor. The buttons (52) on this machine are resistant and solidly built. A selection of knobs (7) is present to facilitate selection and navigation, to configure columns and to select columns. Connectivity is versatile and offers a 1/8” MIDI input, a 1/8” MIDI output and a USB port (Mac and PC compatible).
Moreover, the possibility to implement effects in your productions with this machine are extensive, since you can set up program effects, track effects, master effects and link your MPC studio with external VST (MAC/PC) or AU (MAC) plugins. Truly astonishing, the sequencer of this device offers 128 sequences and 127 tracks per sequence which offers an unlimited amount of creative possibilities (especially with the 7 gb sound library). Finally, the software of this machine allows a polyphony of 64 voices. It also includes Low Pass, Band Pass, High Pass, Band Boost, Band Stop, Analog Modeling, Vocal Formant filters. It is also worth mentioning that this device is system dependent (2 GB minimum, 4GB recommended).
Great learning tool for beginners
Extremely portable (lightweight and small sized)
Cheap construction (plastic box)
Features of this machine are not unique (less expensive devices can do the same)
Along the other products of the Volca series, the Volca beats is specifically high-achieving at providing quality beats as its name suggests. Notwithstanding, It should certainly not be compared to the Akai MPC Studio or other upper range products. Nonetheless, the 6 analogue and 4 PCM-based drum parts suggest the versatility of the product, as it perfectly reproduces the iconic lo-fi sound of the 1980s. The featured kick, snare, Hi Tom, Lo Tom, closed Hi Hat, and Open Hi Hat sounds are essential to any music producer. The attractiveness of this machine is supported by the intuitive user interface (increasing workflow). Other features include the possibility to cut/mix/slice loops. Furthermore the six analogue parts are editable and have a dedicated knob which is associated with a particular function.On the other hand, the 4 PCM* parts deliver speed control for radical modifications in pitch.
Intuitive is also the word we would use to describe the 16 step sequencer which was inspired by the Electribe product of the same brand. It offers 8 memory patches and is easily editable. With the clock sync function of multiple instruments, you are able to link external devices to your Volca Beats. Moreover, the user will also appreciate a powerful stutter effect. Besides, a built-in speaker and a compact size makes this device really portable allowing you to take it everywhere. To sum it all up, the „Volca beats“ is an overall accessible device, with limited parameters which lets you quickly focus on the recording of your drum patterns.
Unprecedented step sequencer with groove function
Pattern chaining allows you to chain sounds without limitation
Only one master effect.
Bass drum sounds are pure
If the Korg’s Electribe is at the same time a sampler and a drum machine, we must say that this is one of the best drum machines on our list. Coming in an appealing red color and simple but convincing design, this complete tool will awaken your creative forces without any doubt. Featuring 16 velocity-sensitive multi-LED pads and indisputably ergonomic knobs, sound selection and tweaking of sounds are straightforward processes. The synth engine is one of the most detailed and exhaustive when it comes to analog modeling. More specifically, it provides 55 types of analog modeling offering great flexibility and facilitating the creation of original sounds. Its synth engine features the traditional Saw, Pulse, Triangle, and Sine waves but also includes more complex waveforms such as Sync, Ring Mod, Cross Mod, and VPM (Voice Processing Module).
The power of this drum machine comes from the fact that it combines powerful analog modeling and a PCM engine which provides up to 24 voices of polyphony, 16 insert effects, and a master effect. With the Electribe sequencer, you can input up to 64 steps (16 steps x 4) for each sound. Intricate and complex beats are easy to form with the combination of up to 16 sequence patterns. The groove function allows the user to choose from a total of 25 groove patterns that reproduce the playing technique and rhythmic feel of percussion instruments such as congas and bongos. Finally, if you don’t like what you just recorded, a combination of buttons will allow you to undo your ongoing recording.
Unlimited creative possibilities
No MIDI connectivity
Not very resistant
Only 2 adjustable sound parameters
To wrap up our list of drum machines, we decided to add a device which a lot of professionals would describe as a gadget. Nonetheless, behind the seemingly limited façade of the PO-12 lies a very creative approach to construct drum patterns. In fact, this is probably the best drum machine for a beginner. This drum machine is complete and offers all the necessary sounds for a satisfactory jam session. Alongside the 16 drum sounds, you get 16 quality effects amongst which bit crush, stutter or delay. Actually, this machine is so capable that it allows you to create an entire song using only a 16-step sequencer, the 16 preloaded sounds in 16 patterns and pattern chaining. The PO-12 also offers an integrated folding stand and onboard Knowles speaker offer convenient standalone use.
You have to be extremely careful when using this device. The sequencer doesn’t have any protection, it’s buttons are exposed. Furthermore, the one thing we must criticize is the fact that you have to pay for an additional case and screen protector. If the latter are well fabricated, it is a shame that when you purchase this product you basically only get the internal components. Another disadvantage of this machine is that it is very one dimensional. However, don’t be fooled to imagine that this drum machine is as capable as higher end drum machines (less complete than the others on the list). You should also think about buying an additional synthesizer if you want to compose melodies, since it is not the first function of this drum oriented machine.
Guide & Recommendation | Best Drum Machines
What are the criteria when choosing a drum machine?
In short, what should matter when choosing the best drum machine is the quality of sound. You have to be informed about the circuitry characteristics or even compare drum machines in real life if you get the chance to.
Compatibility & Portability
In addition, it is important to keep in mind is the compatibility with your home studio setup (DAW). Besides, the degree of portability of the device is also important if you plan to take the drum machine with you for live performances.
Number of built-in sounds
Finally, your budget should also be considered. After all, drum machines are not necessary tools in the process of music making. More than a caprice, a real incentive to buy a drum machine would be if you are certain that it is an essential asset for your musical creations. If not, it would be wise to save your money for more noteworthy investments (i.e: studio monitors, headphones, audio interface etc…). Without anymore bantering, here is our list of the best midi keyboards on today’s market.
Furthermore, if you want certain sounds to instantly start fiddling with, it would be great to get a drum machine with a basic amount of built-in sounds. As a result, it would be recommended to get a drum machine which can also sample, because in the long term your sound library will be limited.
What are the features of drum machines?
The physical appearance of all drum machines is rather similar. Most of the time, functionalities and features will play a differentiating role. That being said, a drum machine is often a box which features instruments and sounds. In fact, it has a very similar design to that of a computer. Accordingly, the internal components are the ones that really matter. Sounds which are provided can be recorded into the machine and mixed into unique motifs. Drum machines are recognizable through their timbre. A lot of drum machines are capable of reproducing real and true sounding instruments.
Are the dimensions of the drum machine a criteria to consider?
In the 1980’s, drum machines were much bigger and it was hard to use them anywhere else besides in the studio. Today, this has evolved, and artists can pretty much take all drum machines with them. This can be handy for live performances or producing and creating beats on the road. Nonetheless, some drum machines are still bigger than others and, therefore, size remains an important consideration. Larger models often offer more creative possibilities, but the downside is that you can’t take them anywhere. On the other hand, if smaller drum machines have more limited features, they will suit the needs of the ordinary music producer (for a session or jam). More specifically, the battery powered ones might be the best option.
Should you choose an analog or a digital drum machine?
Audiophiles will you tell you that an analog circuit sounds “warmer” than a digital one. Others will tell you that there’s no difference. For drum machines, there is a clear difference between analog and digital. As an example, Roland’s iconic TR-909 is only partly analog. It uses 6-bit samples for the hi-hats and cymbals. If you want realism, a digital (or hybrid) drum machine is the way to go. Simply put, analog circuits can’t recreate real-world sounds accurately.
Do drum machines allow you to use your own samples?
The majority of drum machines come with sounds that are shipped with the unit. This means that you often cannot add supplementary sounds. Nonetheless, some drum machines allow you to upload your own samples, making them more complete. It is also important to mention that a sampling drum machine is a completely different device than a sampler. While the sampling drum machine is known for playing short phrases, the sampler (Akai MPC or Native Instruments’ Maschine) is capable of playing longer phrases, making it a more adapted device to the produce entire tracks.
Is the memory size of a drum machine important?
It depends on the use you make of the drum machine. When it comes to drum machines, pattern memory is one of the most important features to look out for. For solo artists (during live performances), this function is important. This is what will allow you to be focused on other processes of your performance: triggering sequences, playing with synths.
Before purchasing your drum machine, you should make sure that it can store an extensive amount of patterns. Conversely, if the only use you make of your drum machine is during your studio sessions, pattern memory isn’t the first feature to look out for. Moreover, if you use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and your drum machine is MIDI-enabled (most of them are), you can use your music production software to build patterns and let it allow you to synchronize these with your drum machine.
To conclude this list, we must mention that it was very difficult to establish a balanced list with products that could satisfy every producer. We spent days analyzing features, parameters and components to determine what would be the best drum machine options.
That being said, you won’t make any mistake if you go for any of the listed devices. It is worth mentioning the that the selection of this category of products was very blurry because of their cross-range features. Our article’s introduction and first part were meant to give the user the idea about what a drum machine really is. After having read the content of this article, we believe that it will be much easier for you to make a choice among the very diverse and rich world of drum machines.