One common trend we see more and more these days is electronic producers gravitating back towards hardware as opposed to working strictly in the box. Many artists find that tactile control is hugely beneficial to the overall creative process, since it gives the ability to “play” something rather than just clicking and typing your way into a song arrangement. With that in mind, standalone drum machines are the best hardware for sequencing and programming beats or grooves, whether it be for live performance or recording.
What Is a Drum Machine?
A drum machine is an electronic instrument that recreates the sound of drums and percussion. They can play back samples of real acoustic drums or contain synthesized sounds.
Many times a drum machine will come preloaded with beats, grooves, and rhythm patterns, categorized by genre or style. Those can be fun to jam out to or use as the basis of an arrangement, though in most cases, an artist will use a drum machine to program their own original beats.
How Is a Drum Machine Used?
These instruments are most frequently used in the production of electronic-based music. When they became extremely popular in the ’80s, they actually played a pivotal role in the development of modern electronic dance music and hip-hop, particularly due to Roland’s release of the famed TR-808.
- RELATED: The 7 Best Electronic Drum Sets for Your Home Studio
- RELATED: BeatBuddy Mini 2 Review
Artists may use a drum machine for live performance, where they can recall preprogrammed loops or patterns, and then perform the rest of the arrangement over the top. You could also use them in a live setting to improvise grooves or layers. In the studio, these instruments offer hands-on support and quick sequencing capabilities — load up an instrumental loop in your DAW and begin hammering out drums to it using a machine.
As is the case with any instrument, musicians are limited only their creativity and intended use.
The 8 Best Drum Machines for Creating Your Beats
The Volca Beats by Korg is a streamlined and portable machine with 16 touch-sensitive pads to trigger sounds and program into a 16-step sequencer. It gives users the ability to play 10 drum parts at once, six of which are analog while the remaining four parts are PCM (digital). Volca Beats is a great introduction to hardware drum devices, thanks to its user-friendliness as well as its price.
2. Roland TR-08
Roland’s TR-08 is dual parts a recreation of a legendary machine and a modern machine with its own unique features not found in the original. One of those newest additions is a 16 sub-step sequencer below the top layer of 16 steps, so you can program more intricate parts better suited to the demands of modern electronic production. Of course, it contains all of the original 808 sounds, including the infamous kick drum.
DrumBrute Impact is a scaled-back version of Arturia’s versatile analog drum machine. Included are 10 simultaneous drum sounds, including kick, two snares, high and low toms, open and closed hat, and percussion. You’re able to lay out a pattern with up to 64 steps, and you can even create polyrhythms because each track has its own customizable length.
4. Alesis SR-16
The SR-16 is a longstanding machine first made available in 1990. Today, it’s just as useful as it was over three decades ago. Alesis packed this tiny portable electronic instrument with 24-bit audio, 12 touch-sensitive pads, 233 organic drum sounds, and 50 presets. The interface is purely utilitarian. Everything is clearly labeled at your fingertips, with no frills or fancy design — just accessibility.
5. Roland TR-8S
This advanced drum machine by Roland uses Analog Circuit Behavior modeling to generate classic sounds and SD card compatibility for users to plug in their own samples. Comprehensive sequencing allows you to tap out patterns up to 32 steps in length. You can even run the machine direct to your DAW for seamless recording.
Drumlogue is a hybrid analog/digital drum machine that’s new to the Korg lineup. The 11-track instrument includes four analog channels, six digital ones, and a highly versatile multi-effect track that even lets you generate synthesizer sounds. There’s a lot of flexibility in this instrument despite being priced a bit high relative to competitors.
Behringer’s RD-8 clearly takes its cues from the iconic Roland machine of yesteryear. It offers up 16 analog drum sounds, 64-step sequencing, and Pattern or Song modes for arranging or piecing together entire sets for live performance. Effects include an analog filter and wave designer for further sound refinement, and the instrument is priced according to Behringer standards.
Now here’s something totally original. The Pocket Operator is likely the smallest and best sounding drum machine currently available. It contains real synth engines to generate 16 preset sounds from the hardware. If you purchase a companion VST called Microtonic, you then have virtually endless variety of sounds. The PO-32 is the tiniest, most versatile drum machine ever.
- RELATED: EZDrummer2 vs. Superior Drummer 3