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While there's really no replacing a good drummer, the convenience, versatility and reliability that drum machines provide make them very practical and useful.
The drum machine has come a long way since it was first introduced commercially back in 1959. It is now a standard feature in many keyboards and has made its way inside other gear including effects pedals, amplifiers and music production apps. Although this widespread availability has caused the demand for stand-alone hardware drum machines to drop, there are still a number of great options available on the market today, and this is where we come in to help you narrow down your choice by presenting you with the top rated few which are worth recommending.
Like our other Gear Guides, we looked at all the drum machines that are widely available from major music equipment dealers to ensure that you can actually buy the ones that appeal to you. The only other criteria that we used is that drum machines should work as a stand alone unit without the need for a computer, this differentiates them from newer "groove production" units that require laptops to craft beats and music. Those that met the basic criteria were processed by our Gearank Algorithm, which then gave us a better understanding of how the market views them, and whether they are worth the recommendation. For more information about this process please read How Gearank Works.
Things to Consider When Buying a Drum Machines
The drum machines listed here range from $149 to as high as $2000. Most of the units are priced below $500, and there's a big jump to over $1000 for the two premium ones. In an ideal world, we'd all get the most expensive and top rated one, but in the real world, you have to contend with budget issues so stick to the price range that you can actually afford, and don't underspend either so you don't end up disappointed or worse, spending more by having to buy another unit.
Voices, Patterns and Flexibility
The more the merrier usually applies, that is until the added features end up sucking up creative energy that you ought to be spending on making music. The drum machines listed here have most of the essential tones and patterns, which are usually enough to cover the basics of virtually any type of musical style. Still there are drum machines that specialize in specific genres like hip-hop and electronic dance music, so you'll need to consider those that match your style of music well. If you want to further personalize your percussion sounds and create complex patterns, then you'll want ones with voice shaping synth capabilities and advanced sequencing features.
Intuitive Controls and Responsiveness
We all have different levels of control tolerance, some want it as simple as possible, while others want in-depth customization. There's no point in getting the most expensive drum machines if you'll just be using presets and basic patterns, so take your control preference into consideration. The responsiveness of the controls is also an important factor to consider, those with velocity sensitive pads are recommended if you are after realism and dynamics.
Reliability and Portability
Reliability is important but some of the more portable ones utilize lighter and less sturdier materials like plastic, so keep that in mind Also it is expected that the lower the price, the more careful you have to be in handling the unit. It would be nice to have one with a metal chassis, but you should expect plastic for the lower priced ones.
The Best Drum Machines
Here we present you the best drum machine hardware on the market, covering everything from premium to budget ones.
Dave Smith Tempest
This premium drum machine is a full featured analog synthesizer/sequencer that's especially built to make beats. It combines quality analog synthesis with modern digital sound processing and sampling for a broad spectrum of sound possibilities. This melding of analog and digital is the result of Dave Smith's collaboration with Roger Linn, who is credited with making the first drum machine that utilized digital samples. With its 16 velocity and pressure sensitive pads, 6 analog voices, multiple analog/digital oscillators, various filters, built-in effects and its massive bank of samples - there are so many sounds, beats and music that can be made.
- Built-in Analog and Digital Oscillators
- Classic Curtis low-pass filter
- Analog high-pass filter
- Analog VCA
- Five envelope generators per voice
- 2 LFOs per voice
- 8x8 Modulation matrix
- 16 pressure and velocity sensitive lit pads
- Pressure and position sensitive touch sliders
- OLED 256 x 64 display
- Analog compressor and distortion effects
- 650 Sound Program locations
- Built-in Sequencer
While other drum machines tend to sound stale and similar to each other, the Dave Smith Tempest is regarded by many experienced users and professionals as one of the most unique sounding beat making machines on the market today. The general consensus is that it sounds really good and that it allows for incredible customization, so much so that many find this beat machine to be an inspiring and necessary piece of hardware for their music. Paul Nagle in his Sound on Sound review said, "As a live, organic sequencer for electronic percussion and synthesis, there's nothing else quite like it."
There are no notable concerns with the Tempest, but I can venture a guess that it may have had higher rating if the price was a bit lower. Still many users, including expert reviewers find the Dave Smith Tempest to be well worth the investment.
If money is not an issue, and you're looking for a beat making instrument that you can call your own, then this top rated drum machine should be your first choice.
Korg Electribe 2
The Korg Electribe is a sampler and sequencer that lets you craft classic to modern electronica grooves, with 409 analog modeled drums, percussion, bass, synths and other instrument sounds. Combine all these sounds with its 36 built-in effects and you get a very versatile drum machine unit that goes beyond the usual. More than merely crafting drum parts, you can actually build tracks if not entire songs with all the instruments available. Still, Electribe is well known for its drum sounds, and to be specific - modern drum sounds that work great for electronic dance music.
- 16 backlit pads
- 409 analog modeled/PCM sounds (Drums, Percussion, Bass, Synths and Multi-sampled Instruments)
- Power Options: 6 AA Batteries | AC Adapter
- 38 effect types
- Up to 250 patterns can be stored
- Kaoss style X-Y pad for realtime effects manipulation
- Dedicated knobs
- Multiple filter models
- Inputs: 1/8" Audio In, 1/8" Sync in
- Outputs: 2 x TRS Audio Out, 1/8" Headphones, 1/8" Sync Out
- SD/SDHC Card slot for additional media storage
- MIDI In/Out
The most common positive comment that the Korg Electribe gets is regarding its intuitive controls, with many reiterating how easy the controls are to master, and how fun it is to use. Experts are impressed at the quality and the number of sounds you can get from it for the price, and that the sounds are relevant to today's boom of EDM. Other users found its portability, long battery life, and sturdy build to be satisfactory.
There were some bugs that were raised by users and experts when it was initially released, but many of these have been fixed with the last firmware update. There are still some bugs left but they are not as detrimental to regular use as before.
If you're looking for a fun and easy to use drum machine that crosses over to modern music production, then you definitely need to take a closer look at the Korg Electribe v2.
Akai Professional XR20 Beat Production Station
The XR20 is a portable beat production tool that comes loaded with 700 pre-loaded sound samples of drums and percussion instruments, as well as synths and bass. All of these samples are triggered by the unit's 12 backlit pads, which allow for realtime creation of beats and groove. There are also a number of essential effects available, including EQ, compression and reverb. With its focus on portability, the XR20 comes in a compact form factor and it can run on batteries. But for its size, this drum machine comes with a wealth of connectivity options, including a microphone input in case you want to add vocals to your beats.
- 700+ Drums/Percussion Sounds
- 12 glowing backlit pads
- Power Options: Batteries | AC Adapter
- 100 factory and 100 user "kit" presets
- 100 factory and 100 user "patterns"
- Backlit LCD
- Drum roll / note repeat feature
- Inputs: 3 x TRS (including mic input)
- Outputs: 4 x TRS (including headphone output)
- MIDI In/Out
Pleasing and impressive are but a few of the many positive comments that this unit continues to receive in customer reviews. The overall sentiment is that the XR20 gives you way more than what you pay for, and the quality of the sound and controls were top notch. Many users specifically mention hip-hop style of music to be a perfect match for this compact drum machine. Others rated it highly for its MPC like pad feel, reporting that it is very easy and fun to use.
Some complained on the XR20's lack of certain features, including its inability to sample sound (especially since it already have a mic input), no flash memory for storing songs and drum sets you edited, and lack of filters. Also there are some who commented that the drum samples lean towards hip-hop too much, and that it would be nice if it had more traditional drum sounds.
This affordable and compact drum machine is an easy recommendation for those into hip-hop, dance, ambient and other modern electronic music. Even if you already have a music production tool, the XR20 can be a reliable backup and a fun travel alternative in case you're tired of lugging around your main gear for smaller gigs.
Alesis' founder and MXR co-founder Keith Barr entered into the realm of drum machines with the help of Marcus Ryle, who later founded his own company called Line 6. And decades after, the brand is still sought after when it comes to drum machines, with the SR-16 being one of their most popular. This compact and affordable drum machine was first released in the early '90s, and as a testament to its quality, it is still in production today, with only minor updates to its features and sounds! It has 233 drum samples to choose from, 100 preset patterns and another has extra space for another 100 for your own drum patterns and fills. It will also let you edit the sound, voice, panning and tuning of each sample in detail, including changing the tonality of the sound when played at different volumes. These features add up to give this humble drum machine incredibly realistic sounding percussion sounds, especially when considering the price.
- 233 sound samples
- Digital Effects
- Customizable song patterns
- 12 velocity sensitive pads
- 16 voice polyphony
- Tempo range: 20 to 255 BPM
- 200 User / 200 factory presets
- Kits: 50 user / 50 preset
- 2 Stereo pair outputs
- 2 Footswitch Jacks
From live performance to home recording, many report the Alesis SR-16 has done them all, and did so well enough to merit top ratings and long winding reviews. It's ease of use is almost always mentioned in a positive light, and many also praise the quality of its drum samples, which is very impressive for a drum machine that's over two decades old now. Unlike other drum machines that focus on modern hip-hop and dance music, the SR-16 has been reported to work very well for recording ballads, rock tunes and even country music. Finally, its value for money got a lot of thumbs up.
The most common concern with the SR-16 is its fragile plastic exterior, and while it is not too fragile, reviewers still recommend careful handling. There are some users who were not happy with the learning curve, while others mention not being too enthusiastic about the pads. As expected, a number of users pointed to some of the drum samples being of low quality, but at the same time, they admit that majority of the sounds are nice.
With its longevity, legacy and affordability, the Alesis SR-16 is highly recommended, especially for those who want to test the waters so to speak.
Boss DR-880 Dr. Rhythm
While they are more popularly known for their guitar effects pedals, Boss also has a number of drum machines in their production line. The highest rated one that they offer is the DR-880 DR. Rhythm, which combines traditional drum machine features with modern sequencing. What's interesting about this drum machine is its easy to use interface, the velocity sensitive pads are prominently placed and well spaced for convenient manual drumming, or you can simply trigger any of the 1000 patterns that are pre-loaded into the unit. With over 440 drums and percussion sounds, and 40 bass sounds with modeled bass amps, the DR-880 gives you a lot pieces to use for building your rhythm. The layout of the pads for using bass are setup to mimic the fretboard of a bass guitar, which makes playing bass through the DR-880 very guitarist-friendly.
- 440 drums and percussion sounds
- 40 bass sounds with COSM amp models
- Guitar/bass input, COSM multi-effects and amp models
- EZ compose feature
- 3 Insert Effects
- 1000 patterns, 500 user and 500 preset
- 20 velocity sensitive pads
- 4 assignable expression and footswitch pedal inputs.
- USB port
- Digital out and Independent output ports.
The overall sentiment that users have with the Boss DR-880 is that it has Incredible sound quality, to the point that some users had to polish the sound of their other instruments more, just to match the sound of the drum machine in recordings. Other positive points raised is its durability and reliability, as well as the responsiveness of the controls in live situations.
The most common concern that users raise about the DR-880 is its lack of memory, a number of users who were creating patterns found themselves wanting more memory to store their songs and patterns. A few users mentioned that the price is a bit steep for what it does, but these are countered by the majority of customer reviewers who found the build and sound quality to be more than worthy of the price.
If you are a guitarist, and you are looking for a drum machine for recording and practice, the Boss DR-880 is highly recommended.
Roland TR-8 Rhythm Performer
The Roland TR-8 is a modern recreation of the iconic Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines, both of which helped shape what we know today as modern house, dance, techno and hip-hop music. Marvin Gaye, Rick James, Beastie Boys and many more have put these drum machines to good use and helped fuel its popularity. Up to now, working TR808 and TR909 units are highly valued, so it is not surprising to find that TR-8 is doing well in the market. With its unique interface, built-in effects, and wealth of pads, sliders, buttons and knobs, the TR-8 allows for everything from the simplest electronic beats, to complex ambient ones. Another noteworthy feature of this unit is called "scatter", which lets you modify and twist your grooves in realtime.
- 16 backlit velocity sensitive pads
- 16 Kits and 11 instrument types
- Custom dream kits based on TR-808 and TR-909 sounds
- Large Tempo knob with Tap Tempo button and continuous Fine and Shuffle adjustment knobs
- Dedicated Accent function knob
- Per-step reverb and delay effects with dedicated knobs
- Built-in per-step Side Chain function for rhythmic ducking and gating effects
- Scatter lets you freak and tweak your grooves with real-time control and perfect sync
- 7 segment, 4 character LED display and 16 per-step pads full-color LEDs
- Real-time pattern creation up to 32 steps
- Pattern copy and pattern randomization for rapid, spontaneous creativity
- Two assignable analog outputs and full parallel outputs via USB for total mixing flexibility
The statement "Old school is back" is a spot-on summary of the general sentiment of users and experts regarding the TR-8. The majority found the sampled sounds of the TR808 and TR909 to be more than satisfactory, even experts commented that they would not be able to tell the difference in a blind test. Value for money, build quality and overall fun factor were also mentioned by reviewers.
Experts did not appreciate the relatively small number of patterns available, and they also complained about the lack of output options. There are some experienced users who found the TR808 and TR909 sounds to be lacking, or to be specific, they are not feeling the analog vibe. Still they appreciate the quality considering the price difference between the TR-8 and working vintage specimens.
If you are into '80s pop and dance music, or you want an affordable alternative to the venerable TR808 and TR909, then definitely get this one.