10 Best Drum Machines | May 2017

10 Best Drum Machines
Best Mid-Range
★★★
Best High-End
★★★★★
Best Inexpensive
★★★★★
We spent 38 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top choices for this wiki. Whether you're a gigging DJ or electronic musician, or you spend your days toiling away in your studio, a good drum machine will prove to be one of your most important pieces of hardware. We've included models on our list that range from the inexpensive and surprisingly articulate to some immaculate machines with price tags to match their capabilities. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best drum machine on Amazon.
10
The Akai Professional Rhythm Wolf is an analog model that doubles as a bass synthesizer, offering selectable waveforms that allow you to create growling lines perfect for brutal dubstep mixes. It also has a 32-step sequencer.
  • six custom-calibrated mpc-style pads
  • custom howl control
  • not professional sound quality
Brand Akai Professional
Model Rhythm Wolf
Weight 5.9 pounds
Rating 3.9 / 5.0
9
The Alesis SR18 touts a backlit LCD, MIDI in and out, stereo main and auxiliary outputs, a drum roll function, and a pair of foot switch jacks. Surprisingly, for all of its great features, it still comes in at a reasonable price.
  • runs on battery or ac power
  • has a percussion bank and bass synth
  • confusing instruction manual
Brand Alesis
Model SR18
Weight 4.1 pounds
Rating 4.0 / 5.0
8
Designed with the mobile performer in mind, the Akai Professional MPC Studio Black is exceedingly portable. Its USB-powered body is a mere 1.5-inches thick, and it weighs in at under 2 lbs. With more than 7GB of preinstalled sounds, it's ready to go right out of the box.
  • traditional aluminum dial
  • large lcd screen
  • occasionally buggy software
Brand Akai Professional
Model MPC Studio Black
Weight 4.7 pounds
Rating 3.9 / 5.0
7
The Korg Electribe Production Station is designed for portability. It's compact and lightweight, and it runs on batteries only if you don't buy the separate AC adapter. With 409 waveforms and an infrastructure based on the classic KingKorg synth, it sounds great.
  • excellent analog modeling
  • up to 24 polyphony voices
  • limited outputs
Brand Korg
Model ELECTRIBE
Weight 5.6 pounds
Rating 3.7 / 5.0
6
With 511 rhythm patterns, 127 drum kits, and 12 bass programs, the Zoom RT223 Rhythm Trak offers you a plethora of audio options. It also stores up to 100 patterns, so you can keep a backlog of your favorite works for later adjustment and use.
  • compact unit travels easily
  • comp eq and reverb effects
  • takes time to learn
Brand Zoom
Model RT-223
Weight 2.1 pounds
Rating 4.1 / 5.0
5
The Roland Aira TR-8 Rhythm Performer serves as a modern take on the company's famous 808 and 909 units that revolutionized electronic music in the 1980s. It has dedicated knobs for reverb and delay effects to hone in the sound of the room you wish to create.
  • accent function adjusts intensity
  • large tempo knob
  • can't record modulations
Brand Roland
Model TR-8
Weight 6.8 pounds
Rating 4.3 / 5.0
4
The Boss DR-880 Dr. Rhythm has an EZ compose feature for no-hassle programming, as well as four assignable foot switch and expression pedal inputs. It also has 20 velocity-sensitive pads, so you can keep a few extra sounds at your fingertips, too.
  • 3-band tsc equalizer
  • capable of 440 drum tones
  • overdue for an upgrade
Brand BOSS
Model DR-880
Weight 5.9 pounds
Rating 4.3 / 5.0
3
The Novation Circuit has an intuitive, grid-based sequencer, two polysynths, and a four-part drum machine, as well as brightly colored pads. The overall sound package is based on the Nova heritage circuit, with years of engineering behind it.
  • powerful built-in speaker
  • shows steps and notes simultaneously
  • 6-voice polyphony
Brand Novation
Model Circuit
Weight pending
Rating 4.7 / 5.0
2
For musicians with a thirst for analog sounds who may not have the coin they often require, the Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm gives you a hefty bank of old-school tones with just enough customization options to keep you from ever tiring of them.
  • clock syncs multiple instruments
  • electribe-style 16-step sequencer
  • midi input for note entry
Brand Korg
Model VOLCABEATS
Weight 1.8 pounds
Rating 4.7 / 5.0
1
While the look, feel, and sound of the Dave Smith Instruments Tempest screams analog perfection, the unit hides a delightful array of options brought about through the digital age, including an OLED display and an intuitive operating system for easy edits.
  • six-voice polyphonic sound engine
  • vca with feedback
  • low- and high-pass filtration
Brand Dave Smith Instruments
Model DSI-3000
Weight 9.4 pounds
Rating 4.7 / 5.0

Buyer's Guide

The Kit In The Machine

Not everybody has the space or the neighbors that would allow them to own their dream drum kit. I once had a roommate who was determined to teach himself the drums, usually at all hours of the night. We didn't stay roommates for long. Your case might also be like his, that there is a deficiency in whatever internal human metronome allows a person to keep time. You could be beat-deaf the way some people are tone-deaf.

Each of these dilemmas find its solution waiting patiently in the drum machine. No space for a kit? The drum machine is probably smaller than your computer. Roommates or neighbors with ears? You can plug in some headphones. Got no sense of rhythm? A drum machine will quantize even your live input to keep it in time with a selected beats per minute (BPM).

My biggest concern with drum machines has always been with the inhuman element, that sound of a computer doing the drumming. You could say that the computer simply drums too well, with too much consistency and uniformity from hit to hit. Fortunately, the best among our recommended drum machines can reduce their own perfection, quantize a little more loosely, and even alter the intensity and placement of hits by degrees of common human error.

This kind of humanization effort in computer-based musical performance comes along with an increase in memory and in the nuanced sensitivity of a drum machine's pads. You can assign a specific drum sound–either pre-programmed, tweaked, or built from scratch via waveform–to each of these pads, all of which are pressure-sensitive. The harder you hit the pad, the harder your computer drummer hits the drum intended.

Once you know what beat you want, you can sequence the pattern up to a given number of steps, layer patterns on top of one another, and even sequence the sequences to provide you with a whole song's worth of back beats, breakdowns, and fills.

Bang The Drum Machine Slowly

The next time you get a chance, walk into the drum section of your local music store. If it's busy, you'll see a few drummers painstakingly tapping on a dozen different snares, getting the feel for sets far too big for their needs, and drooling over kits they can't afford. It's a strange scene, but that level of curiosity and specificity is vital to finding a drum set with which you can commune, and it's not a bad idea to approach picking a drum machine in a similar fashion.

It helps first to know your skill level. If you don't have the most dexterity or limb independence, you want to make sure you get a drum machine that can patiently layer your sequences one piece at a time and do so in a way that won't drive you crazy. For example, a drum machine that can modulate the BPM of a sequence after you lay it down at a slower, more manageable speed would suit you nicely.

More advanced beat designers should look into machines that simply have more pads to them, as you can assign more sounds to layer a complex and original experience.

The other important distinction between drum machines is whether to go analogue or digital. A modern digital drum machine may have plenty of analogue drum samples, but their flexibility as you tweak them is limited by the quality of digital electronics. Analogue drum machines, on the other hand, take an analogue sample and push and pull it in ways that sound much more organic and natural than their digital cousins would.

The downside to analogue, however, is that it's usually a lot more expensive. You're also liable to spend a lot of time fussing with the drum sounds on an analogue machine, only to filter it through a dozen digital interfaces before the track itself is complete.

Two Beats Forward, One Beat Back

Unlike a great many musical inventions that seem to maintain a forward trajectory from their introduction on through the long process of development and refinement, the drum machine came into being with far more advanced capabilities than its descendants would touch for years.

That machine, D-Rail's Rhythmicon, allowed users in the early 1930s to create complex and layered drum patterns on a device about the size of a copy machine. Despite interest in the unit from the music industry, the Rhythmicon faded away, and it would be another twenty years before the drum machine took hold.

That later generation of machines only allowed users to make minor adjustments to pre-selected beats. It took until the early 70s for programmable drum machines to come along, and they operated on simple patterning interfaces and punch card inputs.

Most famous among drum machines, Roland's TR-808 and 909 drum machines, showed up in the 80s and changed the face of modern dance music and hip hop as we know it. The 808's predecessor, Linn's LM-1 doesn't get a lot of credit here, but any major pop album recorded in the few years before the 808 was available is covered in samples from the LM-1.

Today, the excitement of those drum machine innovations has largely died down, and the sense of forward digital progress has been replaced by a desire to reintegrate analogue components into the digital experience. The result is a wide variety of drum machines, the best of which lie here before you.



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Last updated on May 23, 2017 by Daniel Imperiale

Daniel is a writer, actor, and director living in Los Angeles, CA. He spent a large portion of his 20s roaming the country in search of new experiences, taking on odd jobs in the strangest places, studying at incredible schools, and making art with empathy and curiosity.


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