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Some people love drum machines. Others don’t.
Drum machines haven’t exactly shed their image of being a novelty from the 80s. But you would be surprised to find how often they are used in new music.
The interesting part is that you don’t necessarily need to use drum machines as your entire rhythm section. You can just as easily use them to enhance your existing drumbeats.
So, with so many drum machines and so many applications, it shouldn’t come as any surprise we have a lot of ground to cover.
Let’s look at the best drum machines for live performance, guitarists, songwriters and more.
Ideal Drum Machines For Live Performance
What makes for a good live performance drum machine?
I would argue that it’s a drum machine that’s easy to use.
In a live performance situation, you want as few issues as possible. You want your drum machine just work.
This is especially so if you don’t have a designated member in your band or group to handle the drum machine.
If the beat is just playing in the background, you want it to automatically do the right things at the right time.
Another important factor would be the ability to store the beats you create.
If you’re planning to use your drum machine for an entire set, and you have 14 songs, as an example, you probably want to be able to save all 14 beats and call them up at a moment’s notice.
Audiences aren’t always as patient as you would like them to be, and if you sit there, fiddling with knobs for too long, you will lose them.
So, let’s look at the ideal drum machines for live performance.
Alesis SR16 | Classic 24-Bit Stereo Electronic Drum Machine With Dynamic Articulation
Great for both live performance and music production, the Alesis SR16 offers realistic drum sounds.
Small and powerful, the SR16 comes with four outputs and 12 pads.
It should be noted, however, that this machine does not run on batteries, and is somewhat heavy, making it less portable, and in some cases, less practical.
This drum machine can do it all, regardless of how you intend to use it. It comes with natural drum sounds and a killer digital reverb.
The Dynamic Articulation makes the machine dynamically responsive too.
And, with 50 preset patterns recorded by top studio drummers, 12 velocity sensitive pads, eight loudness level, sound tracking, step editing, stereo samples with reverb and ambiance, its versatility is formidable.
So, the Alesis is certainly worth checking out.
Arturia DrumBrute Analog Drum Machine
Sounding amazing and great for virtually every type of use, the Arturia DrumBrute analog drum machine is user-friendly and plenty of fun.
Although heavier than some of the other drum machines mentioned on this list, the DrumBrute is still relatively portable.
This machine comes with 11 outputs, drum rolls, global analog filter, 17 drum voices and percussion sounds, and it updates rapidly with firmware.
The Arturia features a vintage analog sound and is great value for the money.
It comes with two kick drums sounds as well as settings for tone and decay.
The high-quality audio of the Arturia should inspire. Check it out.
Roland Aira TR-8 Rhythm Performer
The Roland Aira TR-8 is great for live performance. It’s lightweight and portable, durable and has great sounds.
The Aira TR-8 is also intuitive and easy to use, making it a must-see. It has a variety of sounds, which allows for quite a bit of customization.
The Aira features 16 kits created from 11 instrument types. It also has custom kits created from TR 808 and 909 sounds.
The fine and shuffle adjustments allow for versatility and variation.
Check out the Roland for live performance. You won’t regret it.
Best Drum Machines For Guitarists & Songwriters
As a guitarist looking for a drum machine, you’re probably interested in a certain level of sophistication.
It can be fun to play along with simple, four on the floor rock beats, but as you continue to advance as a player, you’ll probably want the flexibility of being able to program and create more complex beats that complement your playing.
The same goes for songwriters. Even if your songs are simplistic in nature, the right beat can enhance the quality of your music in a significant way.
Ease of use is still a factor here, as you don’t necessarily want to spend hours making just one beat. You want to be able to jam along at the touch of a button.
The good news is that there are several great drum machines that sometimes also function as guitar pedals.
That means you can add suitable effects to your guitar while playing along to a sick beat.
But even if that functionality isn’t available, it doesn’t make for a bad drum machine. It just depends on how its built and what you’re going to be using it for.
So, let’s look at the best drum machines for guitarists and songwriters.
BOSS DR-880 Dr. Rhythm Drum Machine
Guitarists should be familiar with the BOSS brand, which is known for creating industry standard guitar effects pedals that have transcended time.
No doubt it could be great for other uses too, but guitarists might feel more at home with the DR-880 than others.
The DR-880 comes with an EZ Compose feature for hassle-free programming, four assignable footswitch and expression-pedal inputs, individual outputs, digital out and USB port.
It also has guitar/bass input, multi-effects, COSM amp models and 20 velocity-sensitive pads.
Shipping with 440 drum and percussion sounds, 40 bass sounds with COSM bass-amp models, three insert effects (EQ and compression), Total Sound Control (TSC) with three-band EQ, 500 preset and 500 user patterns, guitarists are sure to get hours and hours of mileage out of the DR-880.
This is the perfect songwriting tool for guitarists and bassists alike. Check out the BOSS.
DigiTech SDRUM-U Automatic Drum Machine Pedal Multi Effects Processor
The DigiTech SDRUM-U is a great combination drum machine/effects pedal for guitarists.
The first world’s intelligent drum machine, the SDRUM allows you to feed it a rudimentary beat using your guitar strings and it will automatically create its own beats and rhythms for you.
Then, you can store it to any of the available 36 song memories.
DigiTech’s BeatScratch technology is designed to recognize your strumming pattern, translating lower frequencies into bass drum hits and higher strings into snare beats.
The SDRUM then fills the gaps with cymbals, giving you a high-quality drum loop.
The beat can then be modified. You adjust the groove, feel and embellishments until it sounds right to you.
You can also make a verse, chorus and bridge section and save it for later.
The JamSync output is compatible with a JamMan pedal (looper) for syncing beats.
If you want more control, you can also connect a FS3X footswitch to change the tempo, song parts and other parameters.
And, of course, it comes with independent stereo amp outputs so you can send the pedal’s sound straight to the console without sacrificing your guitar’s sound.
The two soft-touch pads allow you to tap in the beat even if you’re not playing your guitar.
The pedal will automatically quantize beats to ensure the rhythm is tight and groovy.
The DigiTech is a cool little unit for guitarists to check out.
Zoom ARQ AR-96 Aero RhythmTrak
The unusual looking Zoom ARQ AR-96 Aero RhythmTrak is a combination drum machine, sequencer, synthesizer, looper, clip launcher and MIDI controller all-in-one device.
It includes 468 drum/instrument sounds (“one-shot” sampled waveform sounds), 70 types of synthesizer sounds, and dozens of digital effects.
The Ring Controller can be used wirelessly as a handheld instrument and to launch audio clips from your DAW software.
It has 96 velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads and 160 programmable color LEDs as well as Grip Detection to automatically prevent accidental note triggering.
This unique piece of gear isn’t just a drum machine. In a manner of speaking, it’s a full-on music production device.
But it will likely take some getting used to. And, it’s not perfect by any means.
If you’re looking for something a little different, the Zoom is worth researching.
BOSS DR-01S Rhythm Partner
The BOSS DR-01S Rhythm Partner produces great sounding beats for practicing and jamming along to.
It’s been designed specifically for acoustic musicians. It’s easy to use and comes with a built-in speaker that produces plenty of volume.
It comes with a wide variety of organic percussive sounds as well as versatile grooves and beats, making it great for practice and songwriting.
The seven instrument categories include: shaker/maracas, tambourine/claves, hand clap/bongo, conga, cajon, full drum kits and metronomes.
All instruments come with a variety of rhythmic patterns, which can be combined assuming they are in the same time signature.
That gives you access to hundreds of beats you can play with. With 50 memory slots, you can also save whatever beats you create.
The seven instruments can be played simultaneously or turned on and off as needed. You can toggle multiple instruments using an external footswitch as well.
The beat button allows you to choose from three time signatures. Changing the meter will automatically change the patterns available for the instruments.
You can set the tempo using the tap tempo or fine-tune with the tempo controls.
Check out the BOSS if you need a machine that you can jam along to on your acoustic instrument.
Best Drum Machines For Music Production
In the studio, you can spend as much time as you want making beats that fit your music and keep tweaking their sound until they sound right to you.
Overwhelmingly, today’s rap, pop and EDM style beats are on the simple side and won’t take hours to create.
But it’s still nice to have some flexibility. After all, you may be creating all kinds of beats for different styles of music, especially if your clients request it.
Sound quality is also a major factor here. There’s lots that can be done in postproduction, but as it has been said before, good recordings all start with a quality source.
If you start with a quality source, you can always degrade it, change it, add effects to it, or whatever else you want to do with it later.
If you don’t start with a quality source, you’re stuck with what you’ve got, and polishing a less-than quality beat won’t make it a whole lot shinier.
You should also look for drum machines with the right outputs and MIDI capability, as you will likely want to take advantage of that in the studio.
So, here are the best drum machines for music production.
Korg Volca Beats
The portable Korg Volca Beats delivers a big sound and acts like a unit twice its size.
It has a built-in speaker, a minimal interface and analog sounds inspired by old-school drum machines.
A trusted name in the drum machine space, Korg offers quality products for professionals and amateurs alike.
The classic uncompressed sounds are thanks to the Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) based drums parts.
The intuitive user interface allows for instant editing so you can slice, cut and mix your loops. Each of the six analog knobs has its own knob for editing.
This Korg comes with plenty of professional level features and its 16-step sequencer allows you to store up to 16 beats. It also has eight memory patches for storing parameters.
Producers will be glad to know it comes with a MIDI In. It does have some limitations in terms of the sounds it produces, however.
But you can still take the Korg wherever you like, thanks to its lightweight design, battery power features and high-quality speaker.
Akai Professional MPD218 | MIDI Drum Pad Controller
For obvious reasons, the Akai Professional MPD218 MIDI drum pad controller makes for a great studio unit. It’s small but it’s still a performance machine.
Ideal for music production and finger drumming, the MPD218 offers 16 Thick Fat backlit MPC pads with 48 assignable knobs accessible via three banks and six control knobs (18 assignable).
The Akai doesn’t require AC power and is USB-powered. It comes with free software including Ableton Live Lite, Akai Pro MPC Essentials, SONIVOX Big Bang Cinematic Percussion and Big Bang Universal Drums.
The feature-rich Akai Professional only has a couple of drawbacks. First, the sensitivity on the pads are hard to change. Second, double triggers and unwanted triggers are commonly occurring.
But overall, this is a good unit for the money.
Native Instruments Maschine Mikro MK2 Groove Production Studio
As the name suggests, the Maschine Mikro MK2 is awesome for music production.
Lightweight and portable, the Native Instruments unit delivers high-quality sound, and it’s the perfect example of hardware and software integration.
Great for creating multiple short patterns played on loop, it has a high-performance sampler, pro studio effects and instruments, drum synths and sound library.
You can also use this machine to explore your creativity, with its multitude of sounds and user-friendly interface. You can also find great tutorials on the company website.
With an 8 GB sound library, 11 instruments, 25 effects, 388 multi-sampled instruments, 445 drum kits, 1,200 patters, 8,627 samples, 38 projects and 403 sliced loops, the sky is the limit.
If you’re ready to see what you can create, check out this Native Instruments.
Dave Smith Instruments Tempest
The Dave Smith Instruments Tempest is for pro level users, plain and simple. You probably don’t have this much to spend on a drum machine unless that is the case.
This is a powerful drum machine with high-quality polyphonic analog synthesizer with eight voices.
It comes with 512 factory programs divided into four banks of 128 programs plus 512 user slots. You can expand it with an Expander Kit for eight additional voices, for a total of 16.
With a step sequencer and arpeggiator, the Tempest also allows you to modulate the pulses of waveforms (sawtooth, triangle, saw/triangle mix and pulse waves).
The analog/digital drum machine allows for a wide variety of configurations.
The Tempest is considered one of the best analog drum machines by many, and it has tons of features.
The main downside, of course, is that it’s quite expensive.
Check out the Sequential (formerly Dave Smith Instruments) if you need a powerful and versatile drum machine.
Novation Circuit Groove Box W/ Sample Import: 2-Part Synth, 4-Part Drum Machine And Sequencer
The Novation Circuit Groove Box is a MIDI controller and autonomous synth and drum machine.
The built-in speaker, synthesizer and drum sounds make this a practical product.
The 32 backlit pads can be powered from the mains, with six AA batteries or USB. That gives you immense flexibility.
The Circuit serves up a wide range of sounds, whether it’s for synth or drums. You can program up to 128 steps and you can transfer your creations to your computer using the USB port.
If you’d like to use the Circuit as a controller for your DAW, you can also do that.
It may cost a bit of money, but there are no major drawbacks to the Novation Circuit Groove Box, which is a great MIDI controller, drum machine and sequencer.
Ideal Drum Machines For Beginners
As a beginner, you don’t necessarily need a sophisticated drum machine capable for producing a variety of sounds and beats.
Sound quality is also not unimportant, but not priority.
A few preset beats would be especially useful, and ease of use would make all the difference for someone who has little to no experience with a drum machine.
The ability to hit “play” and play along is perhaps the most important quality of a beginner drum machine.
So, here are a few simple and affordable drum machines you can play around with.
Teenage Engineering TE010A2012 PO-12 Rhythm Drum Machine & Sequencer
Perfect for tabletop synth rigs, the Teenage Engineering PO-12 comes with 16 sampled and synthesized drum sounds, each with two real-time parameters.
You can choose from 16 effects, such as bit crush, stutter and delay to add some color to your beats.
With the 16-step sequencer with 16 patterns and pattern chaining, you can easily create beats for entire songs.
The integrated folding stand and onboard Knowles speaker mean you can take it wherever you go and have fun with it.
One of its best features is how small and portable it is. That’s great for beginners, because you can play with it wherever and whenever.
Note that the onboard speaker doesn’t give you much volume, so it’s better used with a headset.
So, check out the Teenage Engineering if you’re a beginner and need a simple unit to play around with.
Singular Sound BeatBuddy The Only Drum Machine That Sounds Human And Is Easy To Use
The BeatBuddy is a pedal format drum machine, which allows for hands-free control.
It includes over 200 songs in 24 genres and 10 ultra-realistic drum sets.
It holds up to 3.2 million songs or 300 drum sets. You can download new content or create your own songs and drum sets.
It comes with a visual metronome on LCD screen to improve your rhythm and to practice playing in different time signatures.
The sound quality is award-winning, and true to form, it sounds great.
When you first tap the BeatBuddy, it will start the song off with a fill before settling into a groove. Tap it again for a drum fill. When you tap it again, you’ll get another unique drum fill.
And, if you want to transition from a verse to a chorus section, all you need to do is hold the pedal down, which will initiate a transition fill. You can let go when you’re ready to move to the chorus.
When you want to go back to the verse, all you need to do is hold down the pedal again.
And, if you want to end the song, simply double tap the pedal, and the drum machine will initiate an outro fill.
A fun tool for beginners and solo artists, the Singular Sound unit is a powerful tool.
What Should I Look For In A Drum Machine?
What I’d like to say upfront is that there is no catch-all solution here.
I’m not sure what you’re going to be using the drum machine for, and even if I did, there would be a range of products to choose from.
This is largely going to come down to how you plan to use the drum machine, your budget, what sounds you like, what you find intuitive and easy to use, what features you need and so on.
Let’s look at each of these factors.
A Drum Machine Matched To Your Needs
I’ll cover this topic in more depth a little later.
But it needs to be said that you should get a drum machine that’s going to serve you well, in whatever projects you’re a part of.
Maybe you’re interested in jamming at home, in which case you don’t need the most feature-rich drum machine under the sun. Something like the BOSS DR-01S Rhythm Partner should serve you just fine.
But a unit like the Arturia DrumBrute is just begging to be used in a live situation.
Similarly, if you want to record, there are certain drum machines that will do a better job than others.
If you’re an absolute beginner, you’ll want to learn the ropes before you move onto something better.
So, be sure you know what your goals are and how a specific drum machine can help you fulfill on them.
A Product At The Right Price Point
A great drum machine doesn’t have to cost a king’s ransom, although some do.
If you’re planning to keep your drum machine in the studio with a top quality drum shield and intend to use it all the time maybe putting a little more money towards it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
That way, you’ll have a high-quality drum machine that produces quality sounds.
Of course, sound is typically a matter of taste, so the most expensive drum machines aren’t guaranteed to have the sounds you like. It’s worth putting some time into researching this.
Most drum machines are only a few hundred dollars, and that being the case, you can compare the products you’re interested in relatively easily and decide based on features.
Great Quality Sound
What exactly should a drum machine sound like?
Well, that depends on what you plan to use it for.
Classic drum machines tended to have an inauthentic quality to them. That didn’t make them any less popular mind you.
You might use a sound like that in a pop song, hip hop song or otherwise.
Other drum machines sound more authentic. They may even sound like real drums.
That might make them more usable for rock, blues, jazz or otherwise. But that can also make them less usable for pop, EDM, hip hop and the like.
See, it’s relatively clear that what you’re hearing on an EDM track isn’t real drums. There’s a beat, but it wasn’t a real drummer laying it down.
The point is that different sounds work for different situations.
For live performance, you may prefer a more authentic drum tone.
For studio use, where endless tweaking is possible, you may not mind working with drumbeats that don’t sound like real drums.
There is no right or wrong, just what’s suited to the situation.
Classic, analog sound might be great for some applications. Modern, digital sounds will be useful in other situations.
So, it depends on what you’re looking for, but you should always pay attention to the sound of a drum machine you’re considering for purchase.
Ease Of Use
Drum machines can sometimes look sophisticated and a little overwhelming.
With so many dials, faders, pads and other buttons and switches, you can easily find yourself lost.
With enough practice, you can master any unit. But for some musicians, performers and engineers, that isn’t the point.
The point is “get up and go”. Turn it on, play a beat and start jamming.
If you know you’re going to be using your drum machine in the studio, you may be more tolerant of menu surfing and endless options, because you don’t mind working for the beat.
And, that’s okay too.
So, in this regard, you should spend time finding a drum machine that feels intuitive and easy to use to you.
What someone else finds intuitive won’t always be for you, so it’s okay to spend some time exploring your options.
The Right Features
You might need a unit with all the bells and whistles. You may not.
If you’re just looking to make simple beats, you may not need the latest and greatest digital whiz bang drum machine with all the features under the sun.
A simple analog drum machine might be more than enough.
But of course, there is a time and place for more sophisticated drum machines that have synth functionality and other great features.
In general, it’s always nice to have more than you need for those occasions when you can’t get away with presets.
But if you want to save on money, you may prefer to buy a drum machine that does the bare minimum for now.
Just ensure that your drum machine can handle whatever you’re planning to put it through.
Make sure it has the right outputs for recording or live performance, if that’s how you intend to use it.
What Can I Use A Drum Machine For?
Drum machines are used in a variety of ways, and not always in the most obvious ways.
Some people just like to use them as practicing and jamming tools.
Some use them to create the backing beat for entire recordings and live performances.
Still others use them to enhance their recordings and live performances in some way.
Let’s take a closer look at how you can use your drum machine.
A Practice & Jamming Tool
Drum machines are great for practicing and jamming.
After all, most skilled instrumentalists spend plenty of time practicing with a metronome.
Practicing with a drum machine can be a lot more fun, because it can feel like playing to a real beat being performed by a live drummer.
Let’s say, for example, you’re a guitarist or keyboardist. And, your best friend is a bassist. But you don’t know any drummers.
Getting together to jam along with a drum machine can offer a sense of cohesiveness you could usually only get with the help of a real drummer.
Practicing in this way can make you tighter as a solo artist or duo. After all, you may end up performing live without drums, in which case you’ll want to tighten up the rhythm before you go on stage.
And, let’s face it – although you may spend time practicing with a metronome, you probably won’t be spending a lot of time playing to a metronome.
In most cases, you’ll be playing with other musicians or tracks.
So, practicing with a beat, in many ways, is preferable to just practicing with a metronome, although ideally you should be doing both.
A Backing Track For Recordings
Now, you might record the occasional singer-songwriter or acoustic tune that doesn’t require drums. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But most songs require a beat, especially genres that rely heavily on a rhythmic pulse – rock, jazz, hip hop, EDM and the like.
Drum machines can come in handy in a variety of situations, though they may not be suited to all. It depends largely on the unit and the types of sounds it’s capable of producing.
Even tracks that feature live drums often “get help” from electronic drums to enhance their sound.
This may be done by replacing authentic drum parts with electronic parts, or by mixing the two.
Further, drum machines with synth functionality also give you the opportunity to create an “atmospheric bed” for your tracks.
So, if you need to create a rhythmic groove for your tracks, you might want to put some money into a drum machine.
A Backing Track For Live Performance
Drum machines can also be used for live performance.
Not every band has a drummer, and in some cases, you can have your keyboardist handle a variety of responsibilities, including drum parts.
There are plenty of musical acts that got popular despite not using real drums, whether it’s The Smashing Pumpkins, Le Tigre, Big Black, The Kills, Phoenix or otherwise.
It’s just a matter of figuring out how all the other parts fit in.
And, truthfully, there isn’t always enough supply to meet the demand for drummers. You may need to turn to other solutions.
A good drum machine can certainly stand in for a live drummer and provide the rhythmic backing you need for your music.
Ideally, you should use a drum machine that allows you to create the entire structure for a song, since a drum machine pounding out the same beat from start to finish isn’t terribly interesting and is a bit amateurish.
Some performers even prefer drum machines to live drummers. That might be a little sacrilegious to say.
But the truth is that drum machines are always exact. Live performers can make mistakes.
There are a variety of situations in which a drum machine could be used for live performance.
Supplementary Beats For Recordings & Live Performance
Have you ever noticed how there are plenty of songs out there with random sounds and beats in them?
At first, these extras may not seem as though they “belong” and you may not even notice them, but the more you listen to these tracks, the more these “random sounds” become a part of the song.
Have a listen to the intro of Def Leppard’s “Work It Out”. There’s an odd sounding beat at the beginning.
Or, check out the intro to Disciple’s “Outlaws”. The intro certainly sounds like a mix of drum machine and synth.
Now, to be fair, these types of sounds or beats are created in a variety of ways and aren’t always produced using drum machines.
But drum machines can sometimes give your song that extra “oomph” you need to make it memorable.
So, you can also use drum machines to enhance the sound of your live performances or recordings.
When it comes to drum machines, there are plenty of products to choose from.
Some are analog. Some are digital.
Some are great for live performance. Others are useful in the studio.
So, when shopping for a drum machine, be prepared to do a little homework. You might not find the perfect solution right away.
But if you’re willing to do some digging, you should be able to find a product that’s well suited to your needs.