Whether you’re looking to get into music production or you simply can’t find a drummer in your area, a drum machine is an essential bit of gear that can take your sonic creativity to untold heights. Unfortunately for beginners, they’re incredibly complex instruments.
Packed with esoteric workflows unique to each manufacturer, complex midi sequencing protocols, and varying degrees of sound design, you’ll be lucky if you can decipher which is right for, let alone learn how to use it.
Don’t worry, though, friend. I’ll be your guide through this tough time. When we’re through here, you’ll have a much stronger grasp of drum machine functionality and what it is specifically that you’re searching for.
OUR TOP PICK
The MC-707 is an all-singing-all-dancing production mega-machine. It honestly feels criminal to categorize it as just a drum machine, because you could write entire albums and do full live sets with this thing alone.
Your fundamental compositional canvas is the 8-track, 64-step midi and audio sequencer that you can load up with your choice of samples from the vast library of factory presets.
16 color coded, velocity-sensitive pads are ideal for laying down bass lines or drum beats, bringing a tactile, performative edge to what can be a very clinical instrument class.
If you’re looking for something with as much onboard mixing and sound design potential as possible, reducing post-production time in your DAW, the Groovebox is definitely for you.
- Huge Sound Library - You’ll never run out of sounds to work with.
- 16 Pads - Play rather than program.
- 64-Step Sequencer - Build sonically dense, evolving sequences.
- Price - It’s by no means a cheap device.
The Digitakt needs no introduction at this point, but as you’re likely new to the game, I’ll run through the core features.
A drum machine with a strong sampling side hustle, the interface of the Digitakt is split 16 ways - 8 channels allotted to audio, and 8 for midi sequencing.
With tons of onboard effects and deep sound design features, this entirely digital masterpiece is designed to enhance dawless writing and performance — no computer necessary.
My personal favorite thing about the Digitakt is the trigger conditioning. By setting the percentage chance of a sample triggering with each pass, you can create constantly evolving beats in a single pattern.
A lot of people dislike the Elektron workflow as it has such a steep learning curve, but once you’ve nailed it, you won’t find a better-sounding drum machine.
- Sampling - Upload and use your own found sounds.
- Sound Profile - Best digital sound on the market.
- Sound Design - It’s a knob tweakers dream.
- 8-Voice - Creating intricate and exciting drum beats is a breeze.
- Esoteric Workflow - You’ll either love it or hate it.
- Firmware - Updating firmware can be tricky.
The Volca Beats is by far the most fun drum machine on the market and has been for a while.
If you sat down with one, knowing nothing about drum machines, you’ll have a solid grasp on it within the hour. That’s how intuitive it is. Considering how complex a lot of drum machines are, this is a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Featuring a 16-step sequencer, midi in for chromatic note entry, and just enough onboard effects and parameters to keep you twiddling for hours on end, It’s the perfect entry-level drum machine.
If you’re interested in drum sequencing, but unsure if you’ll ultimately stick with it, this affordable little fella is a great way to test the rhythmic waters.
- Intuitive Workflow - You’ll rarely need the user manual.
- 16-Step Sequencer - Impressive for a small drum machine.
- Price - It’s an absolute steal.
- Analog - Cracking sounds.
- Connectivity - Not many options on this front.
Looking more like a miniature mixer than a drum machine, the Roland RC takes the classic sounds, interface, and character of the infamous TR-808 and distills them into this much smaller form factor.
Allowing you to create hybrid kits, you can get really experimental with this thing, especially as every instrument has dedicated tuning and decay parameters.
Everyone loves the tonal aspect of the 808, but my favorite thing about the RC is the build quality. The robust metal top is primed for years of beat-making bruises, and the sliders and knobs have a great tactility to them.
The chances are the original 808 was used on a bunch of your favorite records, so the RC is a chance to truly work your influences into your own personal sound.
Having dominated the monophonic synth market with their MatrixBrute, Arturia has turned their hand to drum machines, and they’ve done it again!
The DrumBrute has a 64-step pattern sequencer - impressive for a device with such a small footprint, and 10 highly customizable drum sounds.
They’re not particularly natural-sounding samples, so versatility is a bit of an issue, but Song Mode sweetens the deal, allowing you to create full, meandering arrangements.
The touchpads really bring something to a live performance, but they only have a full force or accent response, rather than total velocity sensitivity.
- Brute Distortion - Beautiful analog break-up.
- Small Footprint - You won’t need much desk space for the Impact.
- 64-Step Sequencer - Create long, varied patterns.
- Versatility - Not many sound options.
By far the most popular drum machine I’m going to talk about today, the Akai Pro MPD218 is a continuation of the groundbreaking work Akai started in the 80s with their original MPCs.
Performance-oriented, the MPD218 features 16 exquisitely sensitive pads for recording rhythmic and melodic beats into your DAW. Three pad banks can accommodate a total of 48 sounds, allowing you to integrate your signature sonic aesthetic into the MPC workflow.
I wouldn’t recommend this for dawless setups, as a lot of its functionality is based around the included software, but if you’re looking for a fantastic, hardware, finger-drumming machine, well then you’ve found it, buddy!
- Sensitive Pads - Allow for a natural dynamic drum sound.
- Special Functions - Note repeat is a cool compositional tool.
- Price - Amazing considering the quality.
- Footprint - Nice and compact.
- Double Triggers - Some are experiencing double triggers after one touch of the pad.
- No Sequencer - You’ll need a computer to record the sounds.
For a stripped-back, super budget solution to your beat needs, why not try the inimitable PO-32 from Teenage Engineering. Literally calculator-sized, you can shove it in your pocket and take it wherever you feel may need a beat to spice things up.
Fill the 16-step sequencer with the 16 patch presets, or better yet, switch them out for your own custom sounds via VST data transfer, and have yourself a little dance party.
If you know someone with a birthday coming up who’s into sequencing, the PO-32 is a thoughtful, inexpensive way to show them you care.
- Footprint - What footprint. This thing lives in your pocket.
- Customizable Samples - Load it up with your own twisted beats.
- One of a Family - Syncs with other Pocket Operators.
- Price - Gift-level pricing.
- Connectivity - Can’t connect many devices.
Well, it’s not much of a looker, and in fact, is sort of reminiscent of an old wireless phone hub, but this SR-16 is a serious instrument.
Packed with over 200 awesome drum samples and velocity-sensitive drum pads, you’ll be able to create hauntingly real drum breaks, making it perfect for a guitarist or singer who can’t for the life of them find a drummer.
Featuring solid midi implementation, onboard sound design, and flawless sample production, this unassuming little device could be exactly what you need to reinvigorate your musical creativity.
- Sample Production - Samples straight-up sound like real drums.
- Sound Library - Over 200 sounds to play with.
- Sensitive Pads - Facilitates a more nuanced performance.
- Price - Crazy good value for money.
- Aesthetics - Not inspiring to look at in the slightest.
- Instructions - They’re not much help.
Things to Consider When Buying a Drum Machine
Hardware vs DAW
Some drum machines are hardware-oriented, meaning they’re more of an instrument for performing and recording, while others are designed to work in or be physical renditions of your digital audio workstation.
Drum machines come in at a variety of price points, so deciding on a budget is a great way to hone in on your options.
Analog vs Digital
Generally speaking, analog machines are thought to have a much warmer sound (think vinyl records and the like), and truth be told, historically, that is true. These days, however, digital has come a long way, and I bet 99% of listeners couldn’t tell the difference between an analog and digital sound.
I personally prefer digital drum machines as they often give you way more onboard sound design options, and ultimately, more bang for your buck.
How Does it Sound?
You need to learn to shop with your ears. Put flashy gimmicks and aesthetics to the back of your mind, close your eyes, and listen to your prospective drum machines.
Do it in-store if possible, as anything on the internet will be colored by the initial recording device and your computer speakers.
What Do Your Favorite Artists Use?
Drum machines are infuriatingly complex, but what helped me when I was starting out is researching what my favorite electronic artists were using.
I discovered that film composer, Bobby Krlic (Hereditary, Midsommar), used a Digitakt for his early dark ambient recordings, so that’s what I got, and I had a blast with it.
Some drum machines are designed to be used in conjunction with certain DAWs, so it makes sense to choose one that flows with your chosen recording software.
To Sample or Not to Sample? That is the Question
While any drum machine worth its salt will arrive positively overflowing with factory sounds, you may also like the ability to record your own sounds and feed them into the machine to use in the beat-making process.
Are you looking for a studio mainstay, or something you can toss in a backpack and hit the road with?
Midi is essentially a line of communication between separate bits of gear, allowing you to keep them in time, or use one to control the other.
Solving Your ConunDRUMS - A Drum Machine FAQ
Why Do Musicians Use Machines Instead of Real Drummers?
I used to ponder this too, but the truth is, drum machines open up whole new avenues in music creation whether you can play the drums or not.
They’re more versatile, quieter, easier to record, more portable, give the individual more power, and for the most part, they’re cheaper too.
What is the Easiest Drum machine to Use?
I think the Korg Volca Beats is the easiest drum machine to use by a country mile, and if you’re looking to have some fun while you create, I can’t recommend it enough.
Should I Buy a Drum Machine?
Does the music in your head have anything other than a traditional drum sound? If your answer is yes, then you should absolutely buy a drum machine.
Can You Release Songs with Factory Presets or Bought Samples?
Normally you can release any track you make with samples made by someone else, and there won’t be any licensing issues, but it can’t hurt to double-check before you buy a sample library.
Did any of the drum machines I suggested sound good to you? They’re all vastly different instruments, so as long as you think carefully about the sounds you wish to make and how you’d like to make them, you’ll be led straight to the perfect one for you.