Drum machines have become an integral part of music production since the last decade, with the rise of electronic music genres such as house music, dubstep, etc. Their versatility and power let them adjust to any music genre with a few button presses, you can generate any sort of rhythm on them, including intense high-speed beats that cannot be produced by human hands. With today’s drum machines you will get built-in synthesizers and sequencers that allow you to mix and synchronize your tracks by using just one device.
What to look for when buying drum machine?
In order to purchase the right drum machine, you will need to keep in mind some very important things such as- what sort of work do you intend to do on the machine? Do you wish to create tracks at home for fun, or do you plan to make commercial albums and live performances? If your main purpose is fun and you wish to create beats as a hobby, any cheap sub-$300 drum machine will serve the purpose just fine. you will get a few built-in tracks which you can use to learn and create your very own beats in the future, you will get ports to attach external mp3 players and the MIDI interface will let you connect your drum machine to a PC, then you can mix and mash your tracks.
However, if your goal is to buy a drum machine so that you can learn drum programming and train yourself to be a drummer or drum machine player, then you might need a more advanced drum machine, one that has options to download and edit external music files and tracks. It should also allow you to tune and edit all the sound parameters in your drum beats and should contain some really high-quality pads with good velocity response and the option to connect additional devices such as sequencers, synthesizers, amplifiers, etc.
Professionals who need a drum machine for performing live, should get one that has really good sounds, and a lot of built in stuff such as samplers, sequencers, and mixers. Also, analog drum machines are considered to be really great for professional use due to their unique distortion properties and satisfying natural sound. Now that you know what you will need, take a look at the best drum machines in the market. There are machines for beginners, intermediate level users, as well as professionals.
Best affordable drum machines UNDER $300
Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm MachinePro: Analog sounds, loop sequencer.
Con: Limited music type.
The Korg Volca is an incredibly affordable drum machine, and on top that it is an analog-digital hybrid, meaning its drum sounds are more like the drum machines of the 80’s, with a deep and thick tone. Analog machines are costly these days due to their limited production and classic sound quality but for less than $200 this machine is the only one of its kind. A built-in loop sequencer allows you to create your tracks with minimal effort and tuning, also the stutter and active step function allow you to generate repeated triggers along with the ability to add or remove steps and play with your bass lines.
The low price tag has some downsides though as the machine is limited in the types of sounds it can produce and is mainly suited for classical rhythm and the customization options are also quite limited with the absence of any mixing or inbuilt layering. There is a MIDI connector, however, along with a jack for connecting it to your workstation computer. It is battery operated and has a built-in speaker to facilitate portability and easy practice.
Akai Professional Rhythm WolfPro: Analog sound, includes bass synthesizer.
Con: No headphone output.
Amazing analog sounds that are thick and slightly distorted, a bass synthesizer built in, and dedicated knobs for controlling amplitude and tweaking the drum sounds. The only thing they could have added was a few more drums, such as a hi-hat, and crash cymbal. But, you can tune the cymbals amplitude and resonance to get something similar to an open or closed hi-hat, and the bass synthesizer is an amazing feature at his price point. Six fingers pads made from metal feel extremely premium despite the fact that this is actually a budget drum machine.
However, the only thing budget about it is the price, since it is built to deliver bold, aggressive and unique analog sounds, with a “howl control” that lets you control the amount of analog distortion, unique only to analog drum machines. The build is really solid, only plastic components are the knobs and switches. The rest of the body is constructed from wood or metal and includes a USB port, along with a classic 5-pin connector port so that you can connect this to an old school sound module or synthesizer. If only Akai had provided a headphone jack on this beast…
Alesis SR18 Drum MachinePro: Lots of built-in drum sounds, dynamic articulation.
Con: No USB ports.
With both wired, as well as wireless operation possible this is an amazing little drum machine for solo musicians as well as production studios. It can accurately recreate the sounds of any drum, and the parameters can be tweaked to accommodate to any genre of music- electronic, metal, hip hop, anything you need. The machine has every output and input you could wish for…except for a USB port, which is really weird since not everyone has a synthesizer machine or stereo amp lying around in the house.
There are stereo I/O ports, MIDI I/O ports, 1/4″ headphone outputs, and a 1/4″ input jack for connecting sound input devices such as a microphone. It has an array of 12 velocity sensitive finger drum pads, each with its own equalizer, reverberation, and compression settings that you can easily tune or preset according to your needs. You can plug it into the socket for use at home, or put in the six AA batteries for a mobile drumming session.
Boss DR-880 Rhythm Drum MachinePro: Huge built-in sound library, lots of tuning options.
Con: Cannot import sound files and store them.
Five hundred built-in tracks, with the ability to create 500 custom tracks and store them on board the Boss DR880, 3-band equalizers and an amazing sequencer- all of this for less than $500. Also, let’s not forget the 20 velocity-sensitive finger pads and the option to add ghost notes and fill. Yes, it cannot download external music files and save them for practice, but at least it gives you enough customization options to compensate for that shortcoming.
You can tweak every single parameter of your music to create authentic sounding drum beats from your bedroom, and you can even tune it to suit any style of music or genre that you prefer. Solid build quality, high octane performance, along with limitless connectivity options(no wireless, please) allow the Boss DR880 to be the most awesome drum machine under $500.
Roland Aira TR-8 Rhythm PerformerPro: Amazing sound quality, well-built.
Con: Takes quite a bit of time to learn how to setup and use all functions.
If you are an old school drum machine programmer and electronic music artist, you probably know about the legendary Roland 808 and 909 drum machines, revered for their natural and heavy kick sounds. This machine here is capable of faithfully emulating the very same, distinctive 808 and 909 sounds, with a really nice personal touch to it. Despite being digital, it’s sounds feel incredibly well balanced and the tones are not too hollow.
For experienced users, it is very easy to setup and program, although new drum programmers will have to go through the manuals and some online videos to get a hang of it. Packing several tuning and customization options, with MIDI, USB, headphone, microphone, and 5-pin connectivity it has everything you need to set it up at home, or in a studio. Beginners will enjoy it, professionals will love it.
Native Instruments Maschine MK2 Groove Production StudioPro: Very intuitive and easy to use, versatile.
Con: Requires to be connected with a computer to take full advantage of its features.
It is not just a drum machine, rather it is a miniature percussion studio backed into a little box. With the ability to create awesome sounding tracks right out of your bedroom, thanks to the downloadable plugins, effects, and tweaks, you can instantly turn your simplistic sounding drum beat into a groovy dance number. Or you could turn it into a jazz piece, rock anthem, whatever you like as long you can fiddle with the presets and audio parameters. It features unique color-coded surfaces for the finger drum pads, really cool looking and all are programmable.
Besides, you can assign different function to each pad, turn your cymbal into a bass drum, or give it a custom sound. Anything that you can think of, the software suite provided along with the Maschine MK2 will do for you. However, they really need to work on their software to make it more responsive and less buggy. Make sure you always have a portable DAW with you if you are going to be moving around with this miniature studio since it relies on the proprietary software suite to function at max potential.
Best PROFESSIONAL GRADE drum machines
Elektron Analog Rytm -8-Voice Drum ComputerPro: Analog sound generator, wonderful step sequencer.
Con: Limited built in library.
While it lags behind competitors in terms of built-in sound samples, the Rytm-8 more than makes up for that weakness with its incredible sound and mixing abilities. It combines the sound quality of an authentic analog drum machine with the ability to modify that sound and mix it with digital samples. This drum machine can produce eight unique analog drum sounds, and you can modify the pitch, resonance, reverb, distortion, etc on each of those 8 sounds to create a new sound, then you can program that sound into any of the 12 high-quality finger drum pads. In case that is not enough, you can take digital samples with the machines built in sampler and mix it with your analog audio to create distinct, inspiring notes that will wow your audience.
Dave Smiths Instrument TempestPro: Best analog sound, extreme customization.
Con: Not for casual users.
Simply put, this is the best drum machine that your money can buy. That’s because the next entry in the list, the MPC5000, is not exactly a drum machine, rather it is a music production center with multiple instruments inside. However, if you are a professional who is looking for a no-gimmicks drum machine with nice finger pads and authentic analog sound, then the Tempest is what you need. If you need to sculpt amazing “analog-digital” drum sounds, then the 6 unique analog voices of the Tempest, coupled with twin analog oscillators and twin digital oscillators for each voice combine to provide you a melody of percussive perfection that no other drum machine, past or present can even dream of competing with.
The incredibly powerful digital sequencer mixes and layers the tracks to give you high quality, custom sounds that are unique to the Tempest. If you wish to connect your Tempest with the rest of your studio machines, you have 6 voice inputs, stereo mix outputs, 2 phone outputs, 5-pin ports, MIDI, and USB ports, along with inputs for foot switches or pedals. On the deck, you will find 90-panel control knob and switches along with 32 backlit finger pads that are pressure and velocity sensitive.