Top Drum Machines
There’s never been a better time to be musician. There are a staggering amount of choices when it comes to selecting gear and how you make your music - computers keep getting faster and more inexpensive, and you can have a sophisticated digital music studio entirely on your laptop. Even tablets and smartphones have increasingly more dedicated music-making apps. Hardware like synthesizers, samplers and drum machines are having a renaissance. Manufacturers like Roland, Korg, and new up-and-coming brands are making all sorts of new toys that are more powerful, impressive-sounding, and intuitive to use than ever before. Vintage gear purists are also in luck, being a click away from hunting down older gear on eBay, Craigslist, and Reverb.
In this article, we’re gonna talk about the best drum machines, with a focus on hardware drum machines that are more contemporary and readily available online or in physical music stores. If you want to get straight to our recommendations, here's an overview:
|Image||Drum Machine||Summary||Check Price|
|Roland AIRA TR-8||Roland's TR-8 is like having the iconic TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines in one modern, attractive, easy to use package with DAW integration. It's a pattern-based machine, and limited to x0x style drum sounds, so if those aren't deal-breakers for you it's hard to find a better drum machine. Best of the Best||Amazon|
|Alesis SR-18||Not just for hip hop or electronic music, the SR-18 has realistic drum sounds for rock, blues, funk, jazz, and more. Relatively easy to use, albeit a bit limited with no USB connection. All in all it sounds fantastic, it's fun to use, and carries a very reasonable price tag.||Amazon|
|Korg Electribe ER-1||An instant classic, the Electribe ER-1 by Korg is fairly limited and is best suited for electronic music. The drum kit you get is extremely tweakable, and the sound oozes analog warmth. Compact and easy to use, perfect for on-the-go beat making.||eBay|
|Korg Volca Beats||A mini drum machine from Korg's Volca series, the Volca Beats is fantastic. It sounds like a mix of a Roland TR-808 & Korg KPR-77. You're limited to a single kit which is best suited to hip hop/R&B/techno/electronic, but it's highly tweakable. It's particularly loved for its huge kick drums. Best Bang for Your Buck||Amazon|
|Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII||The most "luxurious" drum machine on our list, with a price tag to match. The Machinedrum is a true powerhouse with unmatched flexibility and versatility. It's not as intuitive to use as the Roland TR-8 or the Korg machines, but if you're after a premium boutique drum machine, this is it.||eBay|
- Hardware Drum Machines - A VERY Brief History
- What Does a Drum Machine Do? How do I Shop for One?
- The 5 Best Drum Machines
Hardware Drum Machines - A VERY Brief History
Volumes can be written on the importance of drum machines, and their impact on music since their inception. It’s impossible to talk about the history of them without mentioning two of the most iconic pieces of gear ever created - the Roland TR-808, and its successor the Roland TR-909. Introduced in the early 1980s, Roland’s TR-808 used analog synthesis to create its drum sounds. The TR-909 which was released a couple years later was partially analog, and partially sample-based.
At the time, these drum machines were not actually considered very good due to their lack of realism in the drum sounds, due to their technical limitations. In the following decades, they became used increasingly more in hip hop, R&B, electronic, and pop music, soaring to the legendary cult status they still hold today. The 808’s booming kick drum, “tinny" clap, and cowbell, as well as the 909’s kick, snare, clap, toms and cymbals are in the sound hall of fame, appearing on more recordings than any other instrument.
Long discontinued, other manufacturers, as well as Roland themselves have come out with clones and derivatives of these two iconic drum machines, both in hardware and software form. While it’ll be hard for anything to ever come close the prestige and uniqueness of a vintage 808 or 909, they’ve blazed the trail for the drum machines of today, which have so much more to offer in terms of versatility, connectivity, and creativity. Lucky for us, every revered manufacturer from Roland, to Korg, Akai, Arturia, and everyone in between has released drum machines which are awesome in their own right... and who knows, the drum machine you buy today might become a highly sought-after future classic!
What Does a Drum Machine Do? How do I Shop for One?
A drum machine is essentially a synthesizer whose purpose in life is to create percussive (aka drum) sounds. The drum sounds can be based on samples, generated internally, or a hybrid of both. A feature included in many drum machines is a sequencer, which allows you to program a sequence of drum hits to form a musical pattern which you can then play back.
That’s pretty much it for the basic of a drum machines. They’re beat-creation machines, which you can use just as easily in the studio as you could live. Of course, a $99 one will have a vastly different feature set than a $2000 one. The amount of included drum kits and sounds, the editability of the drum hits, the effects, and connectivity are all things to consider when you make your purchase. One of the most important feature of a drum machine is its overall sound character - is it more suitable for house music? Hip hop? Does it have more realistic drum sounds best suited for rock and country?
The 5 Best Drum Machines
Let’s talk about the 5 best hardware drum machines available today.
Roland AIRA TR-8 Rhythm Performer
Best Suited For: Any type of music the 808 and 909 are renown for (electronic, hip hop, R&B, pop), studio use, live use
The best and most recommended drum machine out now is the Roland TR-8 Rhythm Performer. A reissue and hybrid of the legendary Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines from the early 1980s, it was one of the most hotly anticipated Roland releases in recent history. With the TR-8, Roland has made a drum machine that reproduces the behavior of analogue circuits, delivers a faithful recreation of the iconic 808 and 909 sounds, and is very straightforward to use in both a studio and live environment. It’s certainly not without some flaws and limitations, but Roland has definitely made something special here. Let’s dig in.
The first thing to behold is how fantastic this thing looks. It’ll easily be one of the best looking synths in your arsenal. The build quality feels great, and it’s surprisingly light, which is a plus if you intend to gig or travel with it (or just take it from the bedroom to the living room to work on some beats). In terms of the layout, it has an impressive number of faders, knobs, buttons, and pads - it’s a very hands-on machine. While at first glance this may seem intimidating, when it comes to usability you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The Roland TR-8 is just very intuitive to use. Everything you can do is on the front panel. There are no hidden menu layers that make you feel like you need a cheat-sheet to remember how to use it.
The TR-8 is a pattern-based machine. This simply means you can’t record completely free-form; the drum beats you record will adhere to the 16 step sequencer. It can store 16 patterns, all of which you can overwrite. Each pattern has an A and B part of 16 steps each. On the left side of the machine you can switch the mode. To get going with it immediately, switch it to INST PLAY mode, which lets you audition the drum sounds by pressing on the pads along the bottom, and you can perform in real-time. When you’re ready to record, if you’re comfortable with jamming out on the pads, you can either do so in real-time with INST REC, or do it more mechanically by using the step sequencer in TR-REC mode. Each of the 11 drum hits has its own fader to control the volume level, and knobs to tweak the character of the sound (things like Tune, Attack, Compressions, etc). One minor complaint from users is that some sounds seem to be rather unaffected by turning the knobs (compression on the snare, for example, doesn’t seem to do much). Still, there is enough tweakability here to significantly alter the original sounds and come up with some crazy stuff. Unfortunately, you cannot record your knob tweaks and modulations, which is frankly something we’d expect a drum machine of this caliber to do.
The effects along the top of the TR-8 are limited to Reverb and Delay, but they sound good, and you get to choose which drum hits in your patterns they are or aren’t applied to. Some bells and whistles are included, like an Accent function to let you add some dynamics to your beats, a Shuffle knob to alter the feel of your pattern, and the Scatter knob on the upper right, which applies some amount of randomness to your pattern, reminiscent of stutters and similar type effects. It’s pretty fun to play with, but not essential. You of course have a large Tempo knob on the right of the machine to adjust the BPM.
The big question is how does the Roland TR-8 actually sound? The answer is that it sounds fantastic! Roland was not concerned about making a drum machine to emulate acoustic drums. This is an emulation of the coveted, albeit limited, drum sounds from their iconic TR-808 and 909 drum machines. We unfortunately don’t have a vintage 808 or 909 handy (to be fair, most people don’t). However, plenty of videos exist comparing their sounds:
To all but the most hardcore vintage drum machine connoisseurs, Roland nailed it. The emulation is nearly indistinguishable from the original TR-808 and TR-909 sounds. They sound big, warm, quirky, spacey - everything you want and need them to be for that trademark electronic and hip hop sound. What’s cool is the ability to mix and match your kit, since every drum part has two or three sounds to choose from, depending if it’s emulating the 808 or 909. It’s truly like having both of the originals in one box (a box that’s also MUCH more easy to use and program). Another amazing thing about the TR-8 is that it’s expandable, thanks to it’s ability to connect to a computer via USB. You can enhance it with Roland’s 7X7-TR8 Drum Machine Expansion, which adds to the TR-8 the complete sound set from more vintage Roland drum machines (TR-707 and TR-727). We expect this means more expansions will be released in the future, which will keep adding to the versatility of this machine.
In terms of connectivity, music producers like the inclusion of an External Input jack to connect an external device, and the ability of the external signal to trigger a sidechain compression. It comes with a headphones jack for silent jamming, MIDI IN/OUT ports, and a USB port. The USB port allows you to integrate the TR-8 with your DAW like Ableton or Logic. We’re happy to say it syncs well with your DAW, and within the DAW you’ll have each of the TR-8's kit sounds on a different channel. The TR-8 also doubles as an audio interface. One unfortunate issue that many users complain about is not being able to change the sample rate of the audio interface part to something other than 96khz (48 or 44.1khz for instance). It’s not the end of the world, but something to be aware of if you have an older computer with less memory and processor power. This quote explains it in more detail:
Building multiple (up to 14) audio tracks from the TR-8’s streams will weigh in heavily on HD space and bus bandwidth. And frankly, sometimes an existing project is already running at a lower sampling rate, so down sampling would occur anyways.
Bottom Line: Roland pulled off this reissue of the TR-808 and TR-909 with flying colors. What’s really great is the balance and simplicity they achieved with the TR-8. It’s simply a joy to use, sounds amazing, and is not overly complex. If you produce and record music on your computer or laptop into DAW software, you’ll appreciate the easy USB connectivity (despite sample rate issues, which we hope Roland can fix in a future firmware update). It’s equally well suited to tinkering with patterns in the studio, as it is to jamming out on the pads live. It strikes a rare balance of being accessible for a beginner, while being plenty powerful to use at a professional level (as evidenced by pros producers like Disclosure, Boys Noize, Flume, Noisia, Martin Solveig, Richie Hawtin, Mathew Jonson, and many, many more). The price is certainly not inexpensive, but it’s also nowhere near the price of the most high-end drum machines. Roland’s store on Amazon tends to carry it from time to time, thought we’ve had better luck finding it on Musician’s Friend. The great thing about Musician’s Friend is they often offer 10-20% off coupons codes, so make sure to check their homepage for deals! Regardless, after spending some quality time with the TR-8 and reading everyone’s reviews and thoughts, we feel the price tag is quite justified, and this is pound for pound the most fun to use, intuitive, and great sounding drum machine out there right now. Best of the Best.
Best Suited For: Mostly recreating acoustic drum sounds, bass & drum backing tracks, practice, some electronic genres, studio use, live use
While Roland’s TR-8 is a fantastic drum machine, if might not suit you if you’re looking for something more versatile for use with non-electronic and non-hip hop genres. Enter the Alesis SR-18. Successor to the very popular Alesis SR-16, the SR-18 is a compact, portable, relatively affordable, full-featured drum machine, and most importantly it sounds fantastic.
The great thing about the Alesis SR-18 is that it’s made for every type of music, not just hip hop or house. You get numerous sounds and patterns for rock, blues, funk, jazz, and many more. Electronic musicians, fear not; electronic music and hip hop patterns are well-represented too. The best way to describe the SR-18 is to think about two categories drum machines fit in. The first category is more the world of the 808 and 909, which produce non-acoustic sounding drum hits, that are used as the percussive backbone to electronic, house, rap, pop, etc. The second realm is that of drum machines that are meant to substitute real drums through digital samples, and that’s more where the Alesis SR-18 fits in. It doesn’t sound exactly like a real drummer - no drum machine really does - but it honestly does a very nice rendition. In our research, we found many of its users to be solo rock/blues/country/jazz/metal guitarists and bassists who need the backing of drums to perform, or songwriters who need a scratch pad to build songs or record demos. Nonetheless, one of our favorite demo videos of it is actually for some electronic music:
What makes the SR-18 even more powerful as a practice or recording tool is its inclusion of bass sounds. The bass does admittedly sound a little cheesy and not nearly as good as the drum samples, but it could serve as a great start if you’re a guitarist and need a backbone for songwriting (and if not, you can just switch the bass off).
The Alesis SR-18 is well built, small, extremely portable, and can be powered with batteries so you can lay down beats on the go. Its layout is relatively intuitive, and the big bright display makes it easy to see what’s going on, especially if you’re on stage in a dark venue. There are loads of patterns and sounds to explore on this drum machine. Everything on the SR-18 feels very solid, and the drum pads have a nice tactile feel for jamming on it live (unfortunately the velocity response on them is limited). Patterns can be 4, 8, or 16 beats long, drum kits can be fully customized, and you can tweak the parameters of each individual sound. Programming and step-editing can be little challenging, and we found ourselves getting lost in the menus at a few points, but it’s nothing that can’t be be solved by spending some time with the manual.
The included effects like reverb, EQ, and Compression are nice, but one gripe users have is that they are not fully customizable. They come in the form of presets. They are still quite usable and help shape your drum sounds, but this limitation is something to be aware of. The multiple outputs of the SR-18 are nice, since they allow you to do interesting things with routing different parts of the signal to different outputs. One of the biggest complaints of this drum machine is the lack of USB port to interface with your computer. It does have MIDI IN/OUT, but the inclusion of USB would have been nice.
Bottom Line: The Alesis SR-18 is a very effective, self-contained tool. Its limitations and lack of expansion options prevent it from being the end-all, be-all drum machine. The lack of USB is peculiar, it’s almost like Alesis gave it a 90s feel by design. What you do get with the SR-18 is a variety of very nice and crisp sounding drum samples covering multiple genres, portability, ease of use, all with a very attractive price tag. The most common sentiment about the SR-18 from its owners are that it’s simply a fun machine to use. Whether you’re new to drum machines or are a fan of the older SR-16, you’ll find lots to love about the SR-18.
Korg Electribe ER-1
Best Suited For: Techno, electronic, hip hop, experimental, drum sound design, studio use, live use
When we make buying guides, we tend to shy away from items that are discontinued and thus could be hard to come by. We had to make an exception for the Korg Electribe ER-1, one of the highest recommended drum machines in all the forums we looked in. The ER-1 is one of several sound modules from Korg that are part of the Electribe family (the others are synths and samplers). Released in 1999, the Korg Electribe ER-1 is already labeled as a classic by many electronic musicians.
Rather than jump into the features, let’s talk about this drum machine’s central and most unique feature - the way it sounds. The ER-1 is definitely not a one-size-fits-all machine. It has a unique sound that is best described as electronic, analog, and synth-like. If it’s realistic, sample-based drum sounds you want, look elsewhere. We hesitate to call the ER-1 limited, because with some programming it is surprisingly versatile. Just don’t expect realistic drum sounds like the Alesis SR-18, nor a perfect out-of-the-box reproduction of Roland’s x0x drum machines like the TR-8 provides. The Electribe ER-1 is very much its own beast. Perhaps watching this quick demo video will help you decide if it’s for you or not before you read on:
On the right side of the ER-1 you’ll see ten buttons dedicated to playing each of its drum sounds. The way it works with the ER-1 is that you only get this one “kit,” which is why it has such a specific sound character, but it’s very tweakable. The four pads in the Percussion Synthesizer section are powered by a virtual analogue synth engine, and you can shape all four with the knobs atop the machine (you choose the oscillator, LFO, etc). You can create a deep kick drum, a tinny snare drum, and even some strange glitchy sounds. Unlike the Roland TR-8, you can record knob automations in your patterns, which allows you to have beats with shifting and morphing sounds. The next two pads are dedicated to the AUDIO IN jack, which lets you trigger any sound you feed into the Electribe from an external device (this can be loads of fun). The other four pads - an open hi-hat, closed hi-hat, crash, and clap - are sample-based. Many of the reviews we read say these four sample-based sounds are one of the weaker parts of the ER-1, as they are only slightly tweakable, and aren’t very punchy. You also get a 16 step sequencer along the bottom of the machine, but you can concatenate up to 4 sections of 16 steps, for a total of 64. In terms of effects, the ER-1 is rather limited. You have a delay control that gets applies to all the parts at once. Luckily, it sounds really cool, sort of digital and stuttery (you can record automations on that as well).
This drum machine is built well and it’s an ideal size. It’s compact enough to throw in your backpack, but large enough so you won’t struggle to tweak the knobs and jam out on it. Much like the TR-8, it’s a very accessible drum machine. Everything you need to start playing with it is laid out on the front panel nicely. No hidden menus to deal with here. In terms of outputs you have a mail L/R output, and a headphones jack. Unfortunately this means you cannot route certain drum sounds out to different places. Perhaps you could get around that by playing with panning, where say you pan a kick drum all the way to the left, so that it only comes out of the left output. This is not a deal-breaker by any means, just a minor nice-to-have feature. There is also no USB connection, so you’ll have to rely on old school MIDI to sync it up with other devices or your computer.
Bottom Line: If you’re not looking for realistic drum sounds, the Korg Electribe ER-1 is a drum machine you at least have to consider. Its unique angle of giving you a single, very tweakable sound set makes it very fun and immediate. You just never know what you’ll come up with each time you sit down with it. If you’re a beginner, the ease with which you can program it will teach you the basics for drum creation. If you’re a pro, by owning one you’d be joining the likes of artists like Underworld, Legowelt, and The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett. For the price, it’s an incredibly good drum machine, and has features you wouldn’t find unless you spent $500 and up. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available new. Make sure to check Amazon, as they sometimes have sellers that carry it. The most consistent place you can find it used and in good condition is eBay, so make sure to check there.
Korg Volca Beats
Best Suited For: Techno, electronic, hip hop, experimental, portable beat making, practice, studio use, live use, drum sound design
The Korg Volca Beats may be small, but it packs a big punch. This analog drum machine takes one of the top spots in just about every “best drum machine” list around, and for good reason. It’s certainly not perfect, and it’s more at home with electronic and hip hop musicians as opposed to rock, but it’s hard to ask for a better drum machine given its very budget-friendly price tag.
The Volca Beats is one of four mini analog instruments from Korg (the others being Volca Bass, Volca Keys, and Volca Sample). It features 6 voices, plus 4 additional PCM voices (clap, claves, agogo and crash). The overall tonal character of it can be described somewhere between a Roland TR-808 and a Korg KPR-77. It can do huge kick drums, glitchy snares, and spacey toms. The kick, snare, toms, and hats all have three adjustable parameters like Pitch and Decay, which allows you to radically alter them. Similar to the Korg Electribe ER-1, you get a single drum kit, so it is a bit limited in terms of sound profile. It is definitely more fitting for those wanting to make beats in the context of hip hop, R&B, techno, and many other electronic music genres (basically, anywhere you would use a Roland TR-808). What it does do, it does very well. The Volca Beats sounds really nice, particularly the kick drums you can make with it. We agree with this sentiment from this review:
The kick drum tone is worth the price of admission alone, and the snare has a gritty, complex texture that to my ears is more interesting than the snare of the 808, 909, or similar drum machines.
Take a moment to hear how it sounds:
The Korg Volca Beats is small, definitely making it one the most portable drum machines around. You can power it with an AC adapter in the studio, or six AA batteries. The batteries surprisingly last a while (note that it does include batteries, but the 9V adapter is sold separately, you can pick one up for pretty cheap). One word of caution is because of its small size, its knobs are a little cramped, which is something to be aware of if you have big fingers. In terms of connectivity you have a MIDI IN port which lets you link the Volca Beats to your DAW or any other MIDI device, a Sync IN and OUT for controlling other Korg Volca machines, and a headphones jack which serves as your main output to hook it up to headphones, your audio interface, or some speakers (hook the Volca Beats up to some good studio monitors to really be floored by its sound). It even has a small, very cheap-sounding built-in speaker in case you have no headphones handy. You get 16 step sequencer, 8 locations to store your own patterns, tempo adjustments, and a load of other fun options all easily accessible from the intuitive interface. The stutter effect is particularly fun. It’s based on the current tempo setting, and can be applied to all the voices or a single one.
A few caveats: The pads on the Volca Beats feel great, but they are lacking velocity sensitivity. Also, we noticed a slight bit of disparity between the volume levels of the voices, which means you’ll need to adjust the kit to sound more even. And finally, note that when you load a pattern you saved, the analog sounds are not recalled. The Volca Beats will play back the pattern using whatever the current front panel knobs are set to.
Bottom Line: In today’s world where everyone is using nothing but software synths and plugins, having a dedicated hardware drum machine like this one can be a game changer. Its portability means you can practice designing kick drums and snares or work on making loops and beats anywhere, anytime. All you need is your Volca Beats powered by batteries, and some decent headphones. This is what gets us really excited about the Volca Beats, there’s just something inspiring about its ease of use, simplicity, and tweakability. It’s slightly more limited than the Electribe ER-1, but it’s a bit less expensive, and readily available to be purchased brand new. The sounds that come out of it are impressive, and it’s great fun to play with. We felt our drum and beat programming skills improve every time we used it. If you’re at all serious about programming some great beats, at this price we suggest you pick one up. Best Bang for Your Buck.
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII
Best Suited For: Electronic, hip hop, R&B, pop, drum sound design, studio use, live use
If you think of the Korg Volca Beats as a really fun motorcycle or scooter, the Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII is like the Mercedes-Benz of drum machines. This boutique drum machine originally came out in 2001 and was a game changer at the time. There have been several iterations of it since, but in our research, the most recommended one is the Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII. We’ll warn you now - it’s pricey. But for those that demand the best and have the budget for it, you’d be hard-pressed to go with anything else.
The Swedish-made Elektron Machinedrum’s sound engine is based on their machine concept, where each type of machine inside this unit is a different type of percussion synth to create the kicks, snares, claps, etc. For instance, the TRX machine creates Roland TR-x0x drum sounds, the EFM is for more FM-synthesis type sounds, you’ve got E12, P1 to simulate the behavior of acoustic drums, etc. You’ll find all these groupings as you scroll through the menus. We should note that while the P1 machine is billed as recreating acoustic drums, you’ll have better results if you just approach it as yet another drum synth and sound design tool. If realistic acoustic drum sounds are what you’re after, we think you should look at the Alesis SR-18.
Everything we just said is pretty technical, and we’re mentioning it because it means the Elektron Machinedrum is a sound generating powerhouse. There is so much flexibility and versatility in what you can create. It’s extremely customizable, and will fit into your studio perfectly whether it’s your first drum machine, or you’re adding an already existing studio and synth setup.
Considering how powerful it is and how much it can do, the layout is actually fairly straightforward. The left side focuses on part and pattern selection, there’s a screen in the center, and record/play/stop buttons on the right side. On the top right are 8 knobs which can control synthesis, effects, or routing, depending what you have selected. Along the bottom, you’ve got a 16 step sequencer. Speaking of the sequencer, pattern creation is easy - you can make patterns using the traditional step sequencer mode, or changes can be made to the pattern in the real time recording mode.
The connectivity is pretty comprehensive. You get a headphones out, main L/R out, and four additional outputs for flexible routing of drums. You also have a standard MIDI IN/OUT/THRU, so you can communicate with your DAW or other MIDI devices. The build quality of the Elektron Machinedrum is fantastic, as you would expect at this price-point. It’s worth mentioning that the way it’s designed and laid out, it makes for a great tool if you have live performance and improvisation in mind.
Bottom Line: The Machinedrum is in its own class of drum machines, and has a lot more going for it than the sub-$500 machines on our list. It’s one of the most flexible drum machines available, and no plugin or VST really comes close to this quality. That said, we have to admit it’s not as fun and immediate as the Roland TR-8, Korg ER-1 or Volca Beats. You have to wrap your head around the menu system and figure out what the different sound engines mean. We recommend this one if you have prior experience with synths or drum machines, or if you have the budget for it and love boutique made instruments. It’s certainly pricey, but the price is justified considering you’re getting a modern classic, and one of the most versatile and powerful drum machines in existence.