Updates for 2017
This is a great time to be in the market for a new drum machine. For 2017, we’ve added two products to our list of the best drum machines. Each one has completely unique features that’ll up your level of performance — whether you’re in the club or the studio.
The Roland DJ-808 is the first ever DJ interface with a built-in drum machine. Since it features the sounds of Roland’s most famous drum machines, you can use it to re-create iconic grooves and invent a few new retro-inspired beats of your own.
Pioneer has also entered the drum machine business with the release of the Toraiz SP-16 — a digital sampler and sequencer with authentic analog filters from the legendary Prophet synthesizer. Combining digital samples with true analog effects, the Toraiz SP-16 has the ability to produce sounds that were previously impossible for a single device.
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Best Drum Machines: A Summary
|Drum Machine||Price Point||Description|
|Roland AIRA TR-8||$675||The TR-8 may have a vintage aesthetic, but it also has plenty of features for modern musicians. Where drum machines are concerned, buying Roland is never the wrong choice|
|Alesis SR-18||$260||The SR-18 isn’t just an extremely affordable drum machine — it’s also one of the best on the market if you want a drum machine that generates a believable acoustic drum sound|
|Boss DR-880||$700||The DR-880 is an incredibly versatile drum machine. With 400 different drum kits included, you can use the DR-880 to create almost any drum sound you can imagine|
Drum machines act much like a synthesizer, except they create a variety of percussive sounds. Many drum machines include extra features, such as samples or a sequencer. Because the options and the functions of drum machines are varied, there are great differences between a $99 machine and one that costs a couple of thousand dollars. For the most sound effects, editing options and connectivity, you will spend significantly more money. Therefore, you must decide what features are most important for you. Here are some of the best drum machines currently available for a range of prices.
Korg Volca Beats
Japanese company Korg has been at the forefront of the portable musical equipment production, and the Volca series of miniature synthesizers includes built-in sequencers that allow you to create music even when you are away from your computer. The Beats option is a miniature analogue engine for most drum sounds (kick, snare, toms and hi-hats) and a PCM engine for editable sounds such as clave and cowbell. You will have the ability to warp your sequences, including the popular stutter and role options. In addition, you can sync all of your Volca units wirelessly with the iPhone SyncKontrol app.
- 16-step sequencer based on the classic Korg Electribe sequencer
- optional 9V AC adapter
- sync I/O to chain different Volca instruments
- MIDI in for use with DAW or external clocking device
- headphone mini jack port
- 16-step LED-lit sequencer
- 8 memory locations for saving patterns
- built-in speaker
The Korg Volca Beats begins just under $200.
Novation Circuit Grid Based Groovebox
By combining the technologies used in the Launchpad series of controllers and its UltraNova synthesizers, Novation created this groovebox that provides great sound and versatility. You can choose to step sequence or to play in real time with this drum machine. In addition, you can tweak your creations in real time, record those tweaks in real time and create a more interesting recording with various effects and macro controls. The groovebox provides dual polyphonic synth engines with four drum parts (kick, snare and any two percussion elements chosen from the presets 64 available). Best of all, this drum machine is completely independent of your computer, allowing you to take it anywhere with you.
- MIDI I/O and MIDI over USB options
- pair of ¼” TRS jack outputs
- mini speakers for users
- battery power
With all of the options and portability available, the groovebox starts around $400.
Roland AIRA TR-8 Rhythm Performer
Based on the triumphant drum machines from the early 1980s, Roland has returned to its successful drum machine heritage with the TR-8. This machine is best suited for both live and studio use in electronic, pop and hip hop music. Surprisingly light but well-built, this drum machine travels easily despite its impressive number of knobs, buttons and pads. Do not let these features worry you; the TR-8 is an especially intuitive machine because there are no hidden menu layers or options beyond what you can see. This pattern-based machine allows you to create and store up to 16 patterns, each of which can be overwritten, but your tweaks and modulations cannot be recorded.
- an external input jack
- headphones jack
- MIDI in/out ports
- USB port for DAW integration
- audio interface of 96khz
- scatter function
The many options for the Roland TR-8 mean that the starting price of $675 is well-worth every penny.
If you are interested in working with acoustic drum sounds and backing tracks, the Alesis SR-18 is a great option. This drum machine is popular for its fantastic sound combined with its portability and versatile features. The SR-18 does not sound like a live drummer, but it is just about the closest you can get without a human playing your percussive instruments, especially if you want bass sounds in your recordings. The big, bright display, along with the relatively intuitive use, makes this drum machine tactile and fully customizable.
- battery powered (6 AA) or AC adapter
- 12 velocity sensitive pads with dynamic articulation
- many menus for tweaking each individual sound
- effects like reverb, EQ and compression
- multiple outputs
- MIDI I/O
- Backlist LCD
- 2 footswitch jacks
- 32MB sound set
- over 500 drum and percussion sounds and 50 bass sounds
The Alesis SR-18 begins at an affordable $260.
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII
One of the most expansive drum machines available, the Machinedrum is one of the best for electronic, pop and hip hop music, as well as for drum sound design. Designed and produced by a Swedish company, the Machinedrum includes the typical percussion synth options (kicks, snares and claps) as well as acoustic drum options. It is extremely customizable, meaning that you can create a brand-new recording or add to an already existing studio setup. You have 8 knobs and a 16-step sequencer to work and create your recordings.
- headphones out as well as your main L/R out
- four additional outputs for flexibility in routing
- MIDI I/O
- 16-track sequencer
- 28 patterns and 64 step patterns
- 32 songs
Because of all the drum options and the sophisticated recording features, the Elektron Machinedrum costs more than $1500. However, the quality and additional options make this drum machine one of the best available.
Dave Smith Instruments and Roger Linn Design Tempest
With two legendary electronic instrument designers joining forces to create the Tempest, it is little wonder that this drum machine is one of the best live performance options. It is a combination analogue and digital synth, built with a six-voice polyphonic sound engine and drum samples. You cannot upload your own samples, nor can you expand the memory capabilities of the Tempest. However, the four digitally controlled oscillators make this drum machine very versatile.
- 16 tunings mode
- MIDI I/O
- amp, filter, pitch and two auxiliary envelopes
- 58 modulation destinations
- 24 dials and 49 switches
- bright turquoise OLED screen
This is not a cheap drum machine. With the two designers lending their expertise and names to this product, it starts around $2000.
BKE Beat Thang
With over 3,000 original samples and sounds available, as well as a wide variety of effects options, the Beat Thang works in studio or at live performances as a mobile music production center. The sampling and sequencing capabilities of this product make it more than your typical drum machine. Extra filters, phasers, reverbs and many other effects allow you to manipulate your tones and sounds into a wide variety of different beats and recordings. You can also sample your own sounds, sequencing them in real time to layer your recording. The Beat Thang is perfect for every type of music, from dubstep to rock and roll.
- 2 separate SD card ports
- MIDI I/O
- 2 USB ports
- 16-bit/44.1khz audio
- 16 layers per pad
- one octave pad layout with 8 banks
- 16 tracks capability
The BKE Beat Thang runs between $1200-1500 at most retailers.
The DR-880 gives you 400 different drum kits in one tiny box. It is portable and loaded with a wide variety of drum and percussion sounds that are prefect for live performances and at-home experimentation. You cannot upload your own samples to this drum machine, but you can add EQ and reverb to your recordings, as well as 40 different types of bass sounds. These options are just right for rock ballads, country and funky grooves, but the drum machine lacks electronica or dubstep digital sounds.
- 3 footswitch jacks
- optional expression pedal to control the volume and intensity
- 20 different pads
- USB 2.0 connection
- digital I/O for computers and mixing boards
- 3 independent insert effects
- Total Sound Control (TSC)
- 500 preset and 500 user patterns
The Boss DR-880 costs around $700.
Tailored specifically for hip hop and R&B music, the XR20 offers 100 different drum kits and 700 preset sounds with less emphasis on typical drum sounds. The drum machine focuses instead on synthesizers and bass tones that will allow you to write true hip hop beats rather than drum loops. With the provided footswitch and start/stop inputs, you can control the beginnings and ends of your beats, adding drum fills, without the use of your hands. This means that you will be able to control more areas of the recording than just the drum beats.
- 2 footswitch inputs
- start/stop input
- battery power lasting up to 5 hours
- 99 user presets
- backlit LCD screen
- backlit pads that follow the beat
- microphone input
- headphone output
- AC adapter option
- drum roll/note repeat feature
The $300 price tag of the Akai XR20 means that this drum machine is affordable.
Zoom RhythmTrak RT-223
The Zoom RhythmTrak is an excellent choice as a basic or training drum machine. Because it is affordable and lacks complex controls, you can learn what features are most important to you by using this machine. Unlike some of the other machines on this least, this one only offers 70 different drum kits and 82 total sounds. However, the RT-223 will teach you how to begin making and recording beats.
- battery operated
- AC power adapter must be purchased separately
- MIDI in only
- 2 footswitch inputs
This drum machine is less than $150 from most retailers.
Billed as the first ever instrument for the producer DJ, the Roland DJ-808 is a fully digital DJ mixing console with a built-in Roland TR-S drum machine. The DJ-808 has two platters along with faders and buttons for controlling external hardware, built-in effects and pitch correction for vocals.
The DJ-808 is a great choice for use with the Serato DJ software. It outputs 24-bit audio and has almost no latency when communicating with external software and devices. In addition, the built-in drum machine contains the sounds of Roland’s most legendary drum machines including the TR-808 and TR-909.
Some DJs may consider it a drawback that the DJ-808 lacks true analog turntables. However, it has the ability to work with external devices — so you can connect turntables if you like.
Pioneer Toraiz SP-16
The Pioneer Toraiz SP-16 isn’t just a drum machine — it’s a full-featured sampler and sequencer with 2 GB of pre-loaded samples. Out of the box, it’s ready for performing or recording.
The Toraiz SP-16 is incredibly easy to work with. Even if you’ve never worked with a hardware sequencer, you’ll immediately feel comfortable using the large, brightly lit control pads. The SP-16 features a bank of small pads at the bottom for quick access to stored sequences. You’ll also find a bank of larger pads for triggering samples or playing a virtual instrument in real time. On the left side, a touch-sensitive strip gives you fine control over effects such as pitch bending.
The SP-16 is fairly portable since it doesn’t require a computer. It weighs more than seven pounds, though, so it’s a little heavy compared to some other drum machines and samplers. At $1,499, it’s also one of the more expensive drum machines in the market — but it also does more than most drum machines.
Famed engineer Dave Smith — creator of the Prophet synthesizer and co-creator of the MIDI standard — contributed to the development of the Toraiz SP-16. The most unique feature of the SP-16 is the fact that has an analog section with the same low-pass and high-pass filters that you can find on Prophet synthesizers.
The Arturia DrumBrute is a true analog drum machine and sequencer with 17 sounds and memory for 64 sequences. Each sequence can have up to 64 steps. To help you create a drum tone that is truly yours, the DrumBrute includes a Steiner-Parker filter stage.
If you want a drum machine with a fully analog signal path that isn’t just the same vintage Roland or Yamaha box that everyone else uses, the Arturia DrumBrute has exactly the sound you’re looking for. Musicians have praised the DrumBrute’s “raw” and “dirty” sound that works well for anything from dance music to hip-hop.
The Arturia DrumBrute lacks a pan function, which means that it may not be perfect if you need a true stereo output. The DrumBrute has outputs for individual channels, though, so panning is possible with a mixer.
If you would like to add a more “human” element to your electronic beats, apply the “Randomness” effect. The Randomness effect can add slight variations to a sequence to make it feel less robotic and programmed.
There are drum machines with great capabilities available at a wide range of prices. You first have to decide what options you need for your recording and playing purposes and how much you are willing to spend on this piece of equipment. For example, not all of these machines have the right beats for electronic or hip hop music. Once you have an idea of what you will use the drum machine to do, you also need to have an idea of your budget. As you can see, you can spend anywhere from $150 to $2000. If you are new to drum machines, you might want to begin with an option that is a little less expensive before advancing to a more complicated piece of equipment. Before you make your final selection, be sure to try a few different drum machines and research all of the possible product features before you purchase.