What is a drum machine?
A drum machine is a piece of hardware designed to sequence drum sounds such as kicks, snare, toms, cymbals and more into a musical pattern. This is the base functionality of any drum machine regardless of the price or extra bells and whistles you'll find on advanced models.
After a bit of tone tinkering and sequence selection, you’ll have a drum track to use as a foundation for the rest of your music or to carry a full song. A drum machine puts complete musical direction into your hands. You get access to a wide variety of sounds without without having to learn a new instrument - absolutely anyone could do it.
Drum machines rely on sequencing to play drum patterns. These are the steps you insert each sound into to build your track. Most use a 16-step sequencer as standard. Each individual machine varies in polyphony (how many sounds it can make from one slot). Once the machine plays through all steps at a tempo of your choice, it’ll repeat the pattern from the beginning.
From there, it’s about how many sequences you want to add to build your songs and how you want each step to sound. You can even alter your beat as it plays using effects and filters.
Why you need a drum machine
A drum machine is a great way to lay down beats from scratch and get creative with sounds. You also don't need to get anyone else involved in the making of your music. Or on the contrary, a drum machine can be used to invite new sounds into a band setting.
It also allows you to be truly adventurous. As well as the onboard sounds, a few drum machines allow you to sample (edit bits of a real world sounds), opening up your musical painting palette to literally anything you hear. You could create complex rhythmical patterns using polyrhythms, or ridiculous compositions that a drummer couldn’t physically play.
For those of you into your experimental music, EDM or anything else electronic, a drum machine is an absolute essential – especially if you plan on playing live. Drum software plugins are a good alternative, but where the hardware has the upper hand is its tactile use in allowing you to change parameters on the fly. It makes the whole experience more engaging.
How do I use a drum machine?
With any kind of electronic instrument, you might think the big investment or lengthy setup could outweigh the positives. In this instance, you’d be wrong. Once you have a drum machine, you technically don’t need anything else to make music. It has all the sounds – it just depends on the model as to whether you’ll hear it play through external speakers, headphones or inbuilt speakers.
The workflow for drum machines does differ from company to company. But in essence, they all rely on the same procedure: pick a sound, edit the tone using the options provided such as swing, tempo accent and assign it to a sequence. You can build up a track as deep as the machine lets you.
Recording a drum machine is really simple. Just plug it into your audio interface, press record on your DAW (digital audio workstation) and hit play. Some models run in stereo, while others are mono. Obviously, this determines potential panning and FX.
A lot of drum machines can sequence sounds from your other electronic kit through MIDI connection. Building up melodic loops and layers with your favourite synths provides even more access to cool sounds and lets you get on with fiddling with parameters or playing another instrument.
What are the best drum machines?
We’ve picked out some of our favourite drum machines released over the past few years to give you a good sense of specs, prices and sounds knocking about on the market. The biggest defining feature you’ll find between each drum machine is whether it is digital or analogue.
Analogue drum machines use real hardware circuits for their sounds. As a result, they produce “natural”, warmer tone than their digital counterparts. But where digital technology has the upper edge is in saving presets and using samples. Plus, if you’re not a seriously dedicated audiophile, you might not hear much of a difference from the high-end digital units anyway.
This is where it all started. Roland are the unequivocal icons of the drum machine world. The Roland TR-808, first made in 1980, sparked a new wave of electronic music that went on to dominate the pop genre.
And it’s not like Roland have slowed down at all. They’re still one of the leading drum machine producers thanks to the stripped back TR-08 boutique range remake and more advanced TR-8S. Both capture the snappy sounding heritage tones, with added levels of customisation, connections and sampling.
Roland also coined the term “groovebox”, which are essentially drum machines geared towards live dance music. The MC-707 and MC-101 are great performance tools and incorporate some basic synth sounds like pads to spice up your beats with melody.
If you want analogue attitude, Arturia is where you’ll find it. The popular Brute serious delivers thick, gorgeous tones aplenty. Available in its standard and slightly smaller Impact forms, the Drumbrute is perfect for raw, sonic goodness. There’s plenty of customisation, too, across its 17 percussion instruments.
In its simplest state, the Drumbrute is super easy to chalk up some classic beats. It is fully analogue, fully polyphonic and can store 16 patterns per save. It even has some tricks up its sleeve with a random mode and crisp Steiner-Parker filter to shake up your tracks. Overall, a fine balance between power and performance.
Like the idea of owning a real retro drum machine, but don’t want to splash out big? Behringer have faithfully recreated the TR-808 for today’s audience. The RD-8 is arguably even closer in likeness to the original than anything Roland have conjured up since.
Packing a familiar selection of sizzling hi-hats and big bass drums across a 64-step sequencer, the RD-8 adds a couple of modern touches to its classic design. Editing your patterns both during the creative process and mid-performance is easier than ever, as you can now repeat notes on the fly, access real-time triggering and step-overdub. There’s even more sound sculpting to be had using the wave designer.
Elektron make truly world class digital drum machines. Their sampling capabilities are by far the strongest feature - it’s up to you how far you want to push new and exciting sounds.
They’re also well known for having a super smooth, intuitive workflow thanks to their infinity dials and LED selection screens. That means you can see exactly what you’re changing – be it diving in and out of beautiful inbuilt effects, shaping soundwaves or dropping each sample in and out for ultimate flexible performance.
Elektron drum machines might take the longest to master on this list, but they provide one of the biggest pay offs when you know what you’re doing. Starting with the Models:Samples, moving up to the Digitakt and onto the top end of things with the Rytm and Octatrack, they’ve got plenty of price points covered.
Stunning analogue sounds at seriously tempting prices. The Korg Volca, Beats and KR55 are the best picks for those of you who want to keep things simple, but don’t want to lose out on quality. Korg are another of the behemoths of the synth and tech world, so you know you’re in good hands here.
The Volca is one of the most popular beginner drum machines and for good reason. You get access to a great array of sounds at a surface level. There’s a choice of five oscillators that change the textures of each sound, such as sine waves and sawtooth waves. You can apply them freely to any of the six sound slots individually or as a track during a performance.
This means you could end up with seriously complex overtones, distortion and all kinds of rich tones beyond those of a typical drum machine. The Volca is also packing some features you’d usually see on high-end kits like a choke function on the sequencer and a step slice letting you carve out drum rolls.
Punching far above its weight, the IK Multimedia UNO is a compact machine with plenty of firepower. Based on the previous small synth format, the UNO can save and recall 100 kits across 100 potential patterns. Basically, it has a lot of things going on.
The workflow isn’t your typical analogue layout, but once you’ve got up to speed, it’s a seriously powerful drum machine capable of the classic 808 claps and snaps right up to mellow low-fi beats. IK Multimedia’s impressive SampleTank4 pack comes pre-installed, serving up 54 tom, rim, coach, ride and cowbell samples. And with its 11-voice polyphony, it lets you put all these great sounds to good use.
Pocket Operators are the easiest way to learn the ins and outs of drum machines. Teenage Engineering are at the forefront of quirky design and fun playability. You’ll never want your Pocket Operator to leave your side… It’s kind of addictive.
These cram lots of the features we’ve touched on already into a very small, handheld format. It really is as simple as pressing a few buttons and you’ll have a cute little monophonic beat.
Each model comes equipped with different sounds (relating to their names and artwork) and functions. Some are dedicated drum machines, while others include inbuilt microphone sampling, synth sounds and basslines.
Synth wizards Moog have taken a slightly different approach to the standard drum machine template. Moog are well known for semi-modular kits and they’ve implemented their signature style of customisation into the DFAM. It opens up a whole new level of sound design as you choose the signal chain from each oscillator and envelope.
A true analogue beast, the DFAM has more of an old-school, tactile feel to it than some of the compact tech we’ve already seen. If you like hearing the effects of each dial twist and flick of the switch as it happens, you’ll find the DFAM to be an exciting experience.
If you’re familiar with Moog’s other inventions and even own one or two, you’ll be happy to find you can add the DFAM to an existing Eurorack setup for an even bigger grandiose production environment.