Buying a drum machine: What to consider and where to get the best deals
Whether you’re starting out or you’re an an experienced producer, a drum machine is one of the most important pieces of gear you’ll buy. Scott Wilson picks out seven of the best, ranging from pick-up-and-play boxes to fully-featured, all-in-one production tools.
If you’re starting out in production and you want to make dance music, a drum machine will likely be the first thing you buy once you’ve grown out of drawing patterns into the sequencer of your DAW. You don’t need a drum machine, but it’s unlikely you’ll regret buying one if you do; having pads to bash out rhythms rather than simply drawing them into a window on your software of choice will make production a lot more fun.
Of course, buying a drum machine is a serious investment, so how do you know what’s right for you? Right now there are drum machines to suit everybody’s ability, budget and needs, with reissued versions of classic instruments sitting on the shelves alongside advanced devices that allow you to load samples onto your hardware. Not all of them are made equal though, and it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you buy.
Drum machines now aren’t the hulking units they were in the ‘80s, but size is still a consideration. Smaller drum machines can be quite fiddly to program and generally aren’t as good for playing live, as the tiny knobs can be difficult to tweak. Larger units are better for performance but take up a lot of room – something to consider if you have limited studio space. If you’re a casual music-maker or like jamming with others, a smaller unit – especially one that’s battery-powered – might be the best option.
Analog or digital?
As is the case with synths, some people believe analog drum machines sound “warmer” than digital ones, while some folk can’t tell the difference or simply don’t care. With drum machines, the truth is more complex, especially where percussion is concerned; Roland’s iconic TR-909 is only partly analog, instead using 6-bit samples for the hi-hats and cymbals. If you want realism, a digital (or hybrid) drum machine is the way to go as analog circuits just can’t recreate real-world sounds as accurately. Think about what kind of music you want to make and choose accordingly.
Do you want to use your own samples?
Most drum machines are limited by the sounds shipped with the unit, but some will allow you to upload your own samples. A sampling drum machine shouldn’t be confused with a sampler though; a sampling drum machine will typically only play a short, punchy phrase, whereas a sampler (like an MPC or Native Instruments’ Maschine) will be capable of playing longer phrases too, making it more suitable for building whole tracks.
Being able to upload your own samples means your drum machine can be anything you want it to be. There are plenty of free sample packs including recordings of classic instruments online, and sampling everyday sounds at home is a great way of adding your own character and standing out from all the music that uses retro drum machine sounds.
How much memory do you need?
Pattern memory is one of the most important things to consider when dropping a lot of cash on a drum machine, especially if you’re a live performer. If you’re a solo artist, it’s likely you’ll be using your hands for other things like triggering sequencers or taking synths, so the drum machine should be relatively autonomous. For this, you’ll want to make sure it can store as many patterns as possible. A “song mode”, which chains these patterns together for easy recall is also a good idea, as it means you can build seamless live sets.
If you’re primarily using your drum machine in the studio, large pattern memory isn’t quite as important, especially if you use a DAW like Ableton Live. As long as your drum machine is MIDI-enabled (which pretty much every drum machine made in the past 30 years is), then you can build your patterns in software and use that to trigger your drum machine. This method makes memory a non-issue. Of course, live performers can use a laptop to trigger a drum machine on stage – it just depends whether you want a computer on stage or not.
7 of the best drum machines
Least expensive: Teenage Engineering PO-32 Tonic
Teenage Engineering’s PO-32 Tonic is the most advanced member of the Pocket Operator line, a collection of sub-$50 music-making gizmos that look like a cross between a calculator and a classic LCD video game machine. Developed in collaboration with Sonic Charge, a Swedish company responsible for a drum VST called Microtonic, it allows you to upload different kits to the device using a built-in microphone.
The PO-32 doesn’t have analog sound like the Volca Beats, but it is significantly less expensive, and the digital kits sound great in their own way. It’s the ideal choice if you want a simple tool to make glitchy, processed beats, thanks to both the simplistic quality of the audio and the range of great on-board effects such as beat-chopping, distortion and delay. The parameter lock capability also allows automation of some parameters in conjunction with the step sequencer.
However, a few things might grate: audio transfer function isn’t always reliable in noisy environments (though a wired connection solves this) and it’s quite fiddly to program, with a lot of functions accessed via the shift button. You’re not going to find a cheaper portable hardware drum machine with this much flexibility though, and most importantly, it’s a lot of fun to use.
Best for beginners: Korg Volca Beats
The affordable drum machine that kick-started a wave of analog hardware for musicians on a budget, the $150 Korg Volca Beats has a real analog sound engine, allowing its drums to cut through the mix better than most software plug-ins. It’s also got a sequencer and connects easily to Korg’s other Volca synths which, linked together, give you a complete palette of analog sounds for less than the price of most stand-alone drum machines.
While the Volca Beats is used by plenty of experienced producers, it’s definitely at the entry-level end of the spectrum. It only includes one drum kit, the single audio output limits its usefulness in the studio and there’s no way to add your own sounds – though the kit provided can modified in a number of ways with dedicated controls, allowing for boomy toms and sharp hi-hats. Also, some of the percussion sounds are based on digital samples, so it’s not fully analog. If you’re looking for a cut-price alternative to Roland’s prized TR-808 or TR-909, you might be disappointed.
Still, if you take the Volca Beats for what it is, then you’ll find it’s is a fun, easy-to-use piece of gear. It also has a built-in speaker and runs on batteries, so you can take it anywhere. It’s about as straightforward and affordable an introduction to the drum machine as you can buy right now, and if you decide to upgrade at a later date it’s likely you’ll still be using it to sketch out rhythms for a long time to come.
Most retro appeal: Roland TR-8
Roland’s tiny TR-909 and TR-808 reissues might have taken the shine off the Aira TR-8, but it’s still a fantastic instrument for live and studio use and remains extremely affordable. It uses software to recreate the sound of its Roland’s classic drum machines, but the quality is great and better than any plug-in you can buy. Ignore anyone who say it sounds bad, because that simply isn’t true. Turned up loud, the kick on this thing will bring down walls.
The TR-8’s best feature is its generous set of hands-on controls. It has dedicated knobs for tuning and decay, along with volume control for each sound. There’s also compression for the kick and snare absent from original units, allowing you to make them sound even punchier. The sequencer and pads are decidedly old-school as well (they’re not velocity-sensitive, for a start), but they’re very straightforward to use.
It’s important to note that for all its strengths, the TR-8 is limited to classic Roland sounds. It’s not a sampler, so if you want to use anything other than synthetic drums, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Getting each of the audio tracks to work over USB also requires a workaround (detailed here) if you’re using it alongside another USB interface or other Aira gear. The pattern memory is also a little stingy, and there’s no way to automate parameters either.
Despite its age, the TR-8 is showing no signs of being replaced just yet. It’s a consistent sight in DJ booths and at live performances despite its garnish green appearance, because it sounds great and it’s fun to play. Roland is still supporting the model with software updates too, the most recent of which allows it to trigger the new SP-404A sampler or other external MIDI gear.
Best value: Arturia DrumBrute
French company Arturia made its name making industry-leading software emulations of classic synthesizers like the Minimoog Model D, Jupiter-8 and ARP 2600. In recent years it’s become just as respected for its real analog hardware: synths like the affordable MiniBrute and hulking MatrixBrute. The DrumBrute is Arturia’s take on the drum machine, a real analog instrument with plenty of hands-on control and a competitive price tag.
The DrumBrute contains 17 drum sounds, each controlled by its own synth. It sounds a little crunchier than Roland’s classic drum machines, but it’s more of an all-rounder; it actually has two kicks, one with a 909-like thud and another capable of 808-style boom. The slightly thin percussion sounds are the weak point, but because the drum machine uses synths instead of samples it’s possible to create more abstract kits. Another drawback is the lack of automation, but like the TR-8, it’s a drum machine that demands to be played rather than simply programmed.
At just $449, the DrumBrute is beaten on price only by the Volca Beats. Of course, the Volca Beats isn’t full size, doesn’t have the array of knobs and velocity-sensitive pads of Arturia’s model, nor does it have individual audio outputs – something you don’t get on Roland’s more expensive TR-8 either. It’s also got space for a huge 64 patterns, a song mode with space for for 16 tracks and a polyrhythm mode for creating more complex beats. In short, you won’t get more bang for your buck than this.
If you want lots of drums at your disposal: Native Instruments Maschine
Native Instruments’ Maschine is the world’s most widely-used contemporary drum machine, but there’s one caveat: it’s not actually a drum machine at all. Maschine is a hardware controller with drum pads that connects to its own bespoke software. This has its advantages and drawbacks: for a modest price, you get access to probably all the drum sounds you’ll ever need, but in order to use it, you’ll need to plug it into a computer. It simply won’t work without one.
If you don’t mind having your laptop plugged into the Maschine controller when you make music, it’s the best beat production studio on the market. There’s an exhaustive software library that includes samples of classic drum machines (including the 808 and 909) and if you’re feeling a little more creative, drum synths for creating your own original sounds. Crucially, the Maschine software hosts synthesizer plug-ins from NI’s family, making it more of an all-in-one studio than a drum machine.
Maschine is aimed at everyone: whether you make dub techno or Southern rap, there will be sounds to suit your style (even more if you pay for the regular expansion packs), but the wealth of choice may be off-putting to anyone who just wants to lay down some basic rhythms. Think of it as more of a modern update of the classic Akai MPC sampler: you’ll have to spend some time learning how to use it properly, but once you have, you’ll be able to create entire tracks with one piece of hardware. The Maschine has just been upgraded to MK3 too, adding full color screens and a built-in audio interface. At just $599, it offers great value for anyone starting out.
Best high-end, all-analog experience: Vermona DRM1 MKIII
Vermont’s DRM1 MKIII doesn’t look anything like a drum machine at all: there are no pads, there’s no sequencer and its line up of knobs makes it look more like a boutique mixer than an 808. That’s because it’s a drum synthesizer, with a dedicated circuit for each drum sound. It’s less concerned with replicating the sounds of the past than it is with creating something unique. It’s a machine for creating atmospheric techno thuds and minimal bleeps, not in-your-face trap snares or dubstep booms.
As it doesn’t include a sequencer, the only way you can trigger the drums is via an external device over MIDI (or CV if you opt for the premium model). You can either buy a hardware sequencer such as the affordable Arturia Beatstep Pro, or simply plug it in to a DAW such as Ableton Live via a MIDI-enabled sound card, but this added expense means that the TR-8 or Volca Beats are probably better options if you want to start hammering things out straight away.
However, the DRM1 MKIII is an audiophile’s dream. As well as being able to emulate recognizable drum sounds, its analog synth engine encourages the creation of abstract bass and percussive sounds. Most importantly, each drum channel has its own dedicated audio output – a huge advantage if you want to meticulously add effects and compression to each channel independently. It’s definitely one for experienced users, especially as there’s no memory bank for saving your drum patches, but if you’re willing to invest the time in learning how to use it, it offers an experience you won’t get with a budget model.
Most versatile: Elektron Digitakt
Elektron’s Digitakt is the new kid on the block, but it’s already widely loved for its cute design, luxury feel and versatility. It’s a digital drum machine, but it’s not exactly a step down from the Swedish company’s Analog Rytm, featuring capable sampling power that allows you to upload your own sounds and make percussion out of anything you can record. It sounds incredible too.
It’s also got the kind of features you’d expect to pay a premium for. Aside from an incredibly deep onboard sequencer with the ability to chain patterns into more complex structures, it includes parameter locks, which allow you to save any tweaks of the knob per step. It means you can add delay to just a single hi-hat, or crunchy overdrive to one kick in a loop. There’s also a great random function for easily adding variety to your patterns.
The icing on the cake, however, it the ability to sequence up to eight external synths or other hardware via the Digitakt’s MIDI output. It’s a feature similar to that of the company’s popular Octatrack sampler, except the Digitakt costs $599, not $1499. The tradeoff is that the Digitakt doesn’t feature a song mode, which makes building live sets easier, but for studio jamming it offers incredible value. It’s not exactly pick-up-and-play though – expect to spend a good few days learning the menu shortcuts and different functions to get the most out it.
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