Review: Best Drum Machines
Since the first "rhythm machine" (the "Rhythmicon") was invented in 1932, people have sought out a way to overlay their music with loop-based percussion parts. While the first machines could only play a limited number of rhythms, such as mambo or tango, the modern day drum machine is loaded with thousands of preset rhythms, as well as specialized sounds to help the producer or DJ realize a finished track. Some drum machines are also samplers, allowing the user to create their own sounds and trigger them from the pads. The things to look out for in drum machines are the quality of the sound, of course, but also how easy and fun it is to use in practice. When shopping for a drum machine, questions arise such as, how responsive are the pads themselves, how intuitive is the screen interface, and what are the connectivity options in terms of a larger rig? All of the best drum machines in 2021 below satisfy the core requirements of a functional drum machine, but they differentiate themselves because of the answer to those questions, as well as the quality of sound.
Boss Rhythm Drum Machine
Akai Professional MPC One – Drum Machine
Akai Production System Drum Machine
Alesis Standalone Drum Machine
Zoom RhythmTrak RT-223 Drum Machine
Comparing the Best Drum Machine for 2021
The Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-880 drum machine has been the machine of choice lately for many bands on the road, when a drummer isn't available. The sounds themselves are a little dated, but remain a draw for the product. Also, users have praised it for the sheer number of drum and percussion sounds and the decent built-in effects. Borrowing sounds from Roland's decent SRX library, the DR-880 sounds just fine. A key selling point is that Boss has included 3 EZ Compose buttons to create original patterns without having to go through the painstaking process of note-by-note programming, which is slightly cumbersome on this drum machine. Sometimes the result is not ideal, but the randomness of rhythm provided often sparks creativity in the user and leads to interesting and effective percussion parts. The DR-880 also has a Groove Modify feature that allows discrimination between groove and triplet feels. A guitar/bass input jack is also provided, and those instruments can benefit from the built-in COSM Drive/amp models and multi-effects.
Taking the best parts of Akai's wildly popular MPC line, and then pre-loading over 700 sound and integrated effects, the XR20 is one of the finest drum machines on the market. There are twelve pads that Akai calls "MPC-esque", and the backlit LCD screen is large and organized clearly and intuitively. Also, the pads themselves are backlit and follow the beat while the device is playing. In Pattern Play mode, different patterns can be triggered by a single pad strike, a very useful tool when performing live. Lastly, a drum roll/note repeat function is included, a feature desired but not available in some other items on this list. For sound, MPC-like workflow, portability, and overall value, the XR20 is the drum machine to have if you can afford the price tag.
As the device of choice amongst pro hip-hop producers and DJs alike, Akai has made its name and spawned one of the most popular sample formats (.aka) because of their flagship MPC line. Part drum machine, part sequencer, part sampler, the MPC line, of which the MPC500 is the least expensive option, allow the user to load MPC files of 16 MB built-in, and is expandable up to 128 MB using the EXM128 memory expansion slots. There are no built-in sounds, that's true, but there are lots of .akai sound files available for relatively little expense. Also, the 48 tracks are available in the sequencer, plus the USB connection provided to be able to drag-and drop samples and sequences to and from your computer, Mac or PC, make it a killer package. More than anything else, the design and execution of the MPC500 workflow, as well as plethora of great sounding .aka files available, makes it the choice of pros when it comes to groove production, and in turn makes it the best drum machine for your dollar.
One of the most popular and beloved line of drum machines, and arguably a classic, the SR16 has been in production since 1991. The fact that it's thrived for all those years while undergoing nominal changes from year to year is a testament to its value. The user has 233 natural drum sounds to choose from of varying audio quality, both in dry form and with reverb. The Dynamic Articulation feature analyzes the velocity of the pad strike, and then chooses a version of the sample in question to trigger based on that velocity. In this drum machine there are 50 preset patterns that were programmed by drummers, which would seem to partly explain its popularity over the years. Lastly, the SR16 HAS MIDI In/Out functionality, and is capable of 16-voice polyphony.
The ZOOM RT-223 is a good basic drum machine with 500 sounds, 70 built-in drum kits, 13 pads, and 440 rhythmic patterns. The layout of the pads is a little unorthodox, favoring a two-row approach, as opposed to the traditional square pads in a squarish pattern. The pads themselves are a little small and closely spaced, but even those with big hands should be able to operate it without too much trouble. The sounds are actually good, yet don't compare so favorably up against some competitors on this list. Groove Play Mode, which allows for DJ-style pattern triggering, is a welcome addition, so for the price the RT-223 does present a good value.
The importance of a good drum machine cannot be understated. With its versatility and reliability, a drum machine is a vital companion to any music producer. It is thus imperative that you know how to choose the right drum machine for yourself.
So, we decided to write this detailed buyer's guide to help you understand everything there is to know about drum machines along with some insightful buying tips.
What to Look for When Buying Drum Machines?
Drum Machines come in all shapes, sizes, and most importantly, prices. It is thus crucial that you know exactly what to look for in one. As a rule of thumb, we assess a drum machine by looking at the following factors and the ones that excel the most get the honor of being our top picks.
A drum machine, at the end of the day, is a musical instrument. So, the most important factor that makes or breaks one is the sound quality. While qualitative measures are subjective, our top picked drum machines boast sound qualities that outshine those of other offerings in the market, at least in our humble opinion.
Nonetheless, we recommend that you take out time to personally listen to each one before ultimately pulling the trigger on the purchase. This can easily be done by Youtubing your top picks and listening to their sound quality.
Controls and Responsiveness
Control layouts are a matter of personal preference; some producers prefer in-depth control options while others like drum machines with simple ones. Nonetheless, it is crucial that the interface is performance and user friendly.
The best drum machines, like the ones mentioned in our article, boast responsive and sensitive controls as it enhances the dynamics and realism of the sound.
Different drum machines cater to different genres and preferences. A drum machine might be made for hip hop or be equipped with features like advanced sequencing and voice shaping for producers who prefer really complex patterns.
When we pick a drum machine, we look for one that is versatile across many different genres and handles most preferences.
Tips for Buying Your Drum Machine
We’ve already explained how to buy a drum machine. Furthermore, we bring you these buying tips with hopes that it will help you make an even more educated decision when choosing one for yourself.
Set a Clear Budget
It is imperative that you set a clear budget while keeping in mind that the more you pay, the more features the drum machine is going to boast. The most premium models won't necessarily be better and the extra features and specifications that they boast might even be useless to you.
There is a small middle ground between overspending and under-spending. So, we recommend that you stay within it by allocating a budget according to the respective specifications that you require.
Drop the Memory If You Don't Need It
Pattern memory is one of the most important specs that inflate the price of a drum machine. In easier words, more memory equals more patterns stored. But the question is: do you really need all that memory?
Solo performers usually require this function since their hands are occupied with other things like triggering sequencers and taking synths. However, using a drum machine in the studio doesn't require large pattern memory. In fact, we recommend that you drop the memory all together by building your patterns in software and then running them on your machine via the MIDI port.
How we Chose the Best Drum Machines
When shortlisting products for this review, there’s a lot that we looked at. However, the following points stood out in our shortlisting process for the best drum machines.
A drum machine's ability to be integrated with different production setups sets it apart. Ample HDMI ports are required if you expect it to play alongside other instruments. MIDI ports enable you to control one device using another and are thus essential for drum machines to work. To us, it’s a mystery why some devices omit it. We recommend that you always ensure the presence of MIDI input and output ports when in the market for a drum machine.
The best drum machines, like our top picks, provide a great degree of connectivity and compatibility. Along with convenience, this also ensures that each sound can be sent to its respective channel and treated with its own effects.
Portability and Reliability
When it comes to drum machines, portability and reliability are somewhat mutually exclusive. The most durable drum machines are made up of metal chassis and are thus pretty heavy to move around. The plastic composition of portable drum machines makes them lightweight but also relatively fragile.
If you travel a lot or just need one for casual jamming sessions with friends, then a smaller and thinner drum machine should be the way to go. But if you find yourself performing live, we recommend going for larger-sized machines that have bigger knobs since they are generally more reliable.
Ability to Upload Samples
The best drum machines, like the Akai Production System (reviewed above), do not limit the musician to the sounds that the unit gets shipped with. In fact, they allow the user to add their own samples to induce a bit of character and creativity into the mix.
Price Range for Drum Machines
It’s no secret: drum machines come in a wide range of prices. You can get your hands at an ultra-cheap machine for $100 while the most premium models can cost upwards of $3000!
Higher price tags naturally come with better features. However, most mid-priced models are excellent alternatives. We do recommend that you shell out at least $200-400 as anything below that would be sub-par and not allow you to make your own drum samples from scratch. That’s also the price range that we kept in mind when choosing products for this article.
Best Drum Machine FAQ
What is the best drum machine to buy?
Our top picked drum machine, the Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-880, might just be the best drum machine currently on the market. The sheer number of drum and percussion sounds alone are noteworthy. The DR-880 boasts decent built-in effects and has 3 EZ Compose buttons to create original patterns effortlessly.
The machine also has a Groove Modify feature, a guitar/bass input jack, and built in COSM Drive/amp models and multi-effects for enhanced sound.
How do I choose a drum machine?
Before you head out to buy a drum machine, we would like to reiterate that price, even though the most significant, shouldn't be the only consideration. Patterns, voices, flexibility, and sound quality should also be considered when buying a drum machine.
Furthermore, you also need to decide upon the level of portability that you desire and the level of connectivity that the machine boasts. For more information and buying tips, check out our detailed buyer's guide!
Should I buy an analog or digital drum machine?
There is a general belief that analog drum machines sound “warmer” than their digital counterparts. Their analog circuits can't, however, recreate real-world sounds as accurately and thus if realism is what you want, we recommend going for a digital drum machine instead.