Unfortunately for us analog lovers, real drum machines are slowly becoming a rarity. It’s disappointing in general that we have to say “real drum machine” to open this article because we still remember the days we would make simple two-loop beats on our MPC 1000 in our apartment studio back in college. In our opinion however, these pieces of music gear are still alive and well. Although VST software, MIDI keyboards and Digital Audio Workstations have taken the market by storm (rightfully so with technology and music equipment in full-effect nowadays), there are still some solid drum machines in the market today. We found a mixture of both new-age as well as vintage drum machines to take a look at (that are still in production or at least relatively available, aside from the few used over-priced models on eBay).
How to choose your drum machine
- Budget – Always listed first in our guides for music production equipment, how much money you’re able to spend will really deter you in a certain drum machine direction. Some go for a grand or more, while others are relatively affordable in the middle price point that will still provide you with those beloved drum machine qualities.
- Digital compatibility – We know you’re looking for a drum machine here, but some may want a model that does both — acting as a standalone drum machine to make music by itself, or having the ability to connect to a computer or other digital devices if you’re in the mood. Some are relatively old school and vintage that don’t know what the word MIDI means, while others come with not only compatibility but provide the ability to edit MIDI within the machine. What are you looking for?
- Portability? Although most are technically portable, we recommend grabbing a slimmer, lighter weight model if you’re intending to travel frequently. Albeit, it’s your choice.
- Sounds needed? Some of these come with a few sounds to help you get going, others with more than a few GB of sound packs, while others need you to upload your own or use MIDI to use them. We use both.
- Overall sound of the machine – This is a bit subjective so we’ve listed it last. However, those of us who are aware of “the sound” of certain pieces of music gear may be able to relate. Certain types of machines sound “warm”, “thick”, or merely any type of adjective people choose to label to how a machine outputs the sound. This is definitely geared more towards older drum machines (like the SP1200’s warmth and grittiness as an example), but a few in here are more old-school sounding (such as the 808 sounds from the TR-8). If this isn’t a concern, please ignore.
The top 10 best drum machines today
Akai MPC Studio
To start off our list, we wanted to include a drum machine that brought forth both that vintage and traditional feel as well as a model that is relatively up-to-date by giving us some modern features as well. If you’re looking for more vintage drum machines, feel free to continue scrolling through our list. However, in our opinion, the Akai MPC Studio is the best drum machine in the market today. To highlight a few (and we mean few, there are way too many to name) key features, you’re a solid yet very sleek build coming in at 1″ thin and low-profile controls for those who like traveling or being able to fit it snugly in your work space. A large LCD screen helps with navigation, 128-track sequencing capabilities, and it is USB-powered. The most important part of this (and most of MPCs) are their beloved drum pads — this one comes with 16 of them (backlit), as well as 4 touch-sensitive knobs, swing function and more. Lastly, it comes with some software if you’re ever in the mood to go digital. The Akai MPC Studio is listed first because it blends both new and old school features of a drum machine, not to mention it’s pretty cheap in price compared to others out there. Here’s a video demo.
Now we’re talking a bit more old school here. It’s considered one of the top-selling drum machines ever. This thing is definitely pretty vintage (not quite SP 1200 but it’s up there), considering it has dedicated pads to certain drum sounds (this brings me back to the days I’d play with my dad’s Alesis SR16 in the early 90’s). Some other highlights of Alesis‘ gem include stock sounds of drum sets, electronic drums and one-shot hits, some reverb, EQ and compression for your effects needs, as well as having the ability to plug-in instruments or MIDI controllers. It’s powered via AC or batteries so it can be traveled with quite conveniently as well. The Alesis SR18 is a bit cheaper than the previously listed MPC Studio so if you want to save some money and want a more simpler, old-school feeling drum machine, take a look at this one for sure. Sound on Sound’s Alesis SR18 review spoke highly of it.
Korg Volca Beats
Here’s a nifty little machine to take a look at. If you were looking for a model that was very analog in every way, here’s one of the top picks at the moment. With Korg’s drum machine, you have an easy-to-use sequencer, analog sounding drums (warm and fat), active step and step jump function, a MIDI IN for kicks, and a battery-powered, small but sturdy overall construction. Here’s a cool video of the volca beats for some more info and visualization of the machine. We recommend grabbing the Korg Volca Beats if you want a smaller, more affordable (falls just above a hundred bucks, double-check to make sure) drum machine that provides you with some classical analog sounds. This also made Attack’s best hardware drum machines article.
Akai MPC Touch
Yes, we probably could have created an entire article based off of strictly MPC drum machines (actually, we did!), but here’s their second appearance and for good reason. This is their newest MPC model yet, blurring the lines of analog and digital, considering it has a touch screen to start. It’s been quite criticized among music heads, but that’s what they like to do when something different enters the market. To highlight the Touch, this one brings us basically a computer built-in to your entire drum machine. The screen allows you to configure your sequences (yes, it has a step sequencer in it), adjust RPM, mess with the velocity, names of the tracks and more. Browse through sounds, load and edit samples and VST’s, and even mess with the MIDI notes — it’s like a DAW built-in to the machine. Don’t forget it also has MPC pads (backlit of course, RGB), a Q-Link, and other buttons to add to your choices of usability. Although a bit expensive, if you want the newest thing out, take a look at the Akai MPC Touch.
Roland Aira TR-8
Roland‘s TR-8 is highly rated among users in the music world. You’re getting a modern version of their classic TR-808 and TR-909 machines (when it comes to the overall sound feel of it). It also gives the user a 16-step sequencer, A and B pattern variations, 16 kits of 11 instrument types, an LED display, reverb and delay effects, rec/play modes and more. Since the 808’s are so popular (still, even in this year) in mostly (but not limited to) hip hop music, it may be what you’re looking for. With the Roland Aira TR-8, you also get some USB and MIDI compatibility as a plus in case you’re looking to incorporate some digital pieces into your workflow. Looks like it made the ranks of Juno’s best drum machine list, too.
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII
Here’s a drum machine that has quite the vintage feel to it. It’s a high up there in price but worth it if it’s what you’re looking for and have the budget: a built-in sequencer (64-step), ability to shape and tweak sounds on the machine itself, real-time parameter changing, and 16 LFOs. You also get some nice effects, all synthesis, track effect, and global effect parameter control on the unit. It’s one of the most old-school types of drum machines in this article (although it still provides MIDI in\out on the back). You lastly have six audio outputs and two audio inputs for whatever you feel you’ll need to pair this thing up with. The Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII is geared towards those who know what they’re looking for and are a bit more experienced when it comes to drum machines in general, but even if you’re a beginner and want to start with something complex, be our guest.
Dave Smith Instruments Tempest
Dave Smith Instruments is known for their top-of-the-line analog music gear. They made it into our best synthesizer article a few times. It’s the highest priced model in this article, but hear us out first: it offers 16 pressure and velocity-sensitive drum pads, six analog synthesis voices, an advanced operating system built-in (lets you create, arrange, edit and manipulate tunes real-time), as well as a nice OLED display for some easy navigation. You get some step programming if course, ability to tweak analog effects or drum mix, and drumbeat switching. When it comes to some smaller, additive features, there are nice effects: lowpass filter with audio-rate modulation, highpass filter, VCA with feedback, 2 LFOs, and 5 envelopes. It basically provides the most features an analog drum machine can give you, and more. The Dave Smith Tempest isn’t for a beginner at all, but if you grab this thing, you’ve got one of the best hardware, analog drum machines out there (and will be for quite some time). It was mentioned in Music Radar’s hardware drum machines article for a reason.
Everyone knows that Boss name when it comes to some old school music equipment and drum machines, right? Well, the DR-880 is a little gem. Standing for “Dr. Rhythm“, Boss’s famous old-school and gritty, techy sounding machines hit home for many reminiscent musicians. If you’re more new-school, this is definitely one to grab if you like a more vintage feel and sound. With this model (and they have many out there, mind you), you’re getting a nice collection of waveforms, drum, percussion and bass sounds, as well as some note-by-note programming abilities. It has something called a “Groove Modify” feature, which allows you to implement some grooves or “triplet feels” to your tracks. It has some inputs for guitar and bass players, and LCD is pretty simplistic (obviously not as fancy as some MPC’s, but you’re at least able to navigate through it — we like the old-school green and black look). a few other highlights to help your decision include 1,000 patterns with fills and chord progressions, 20 velocity-sensitive pads, and overall 440 sounds built-in. There’s some MIDI in/out and expression pedal hookups to add. The Boss DR-880 is around the middle price-point as compared to others.
Here’s Korg‘s second appearance in our article. The Electribe is very popular among users in the music gear world. It’s priced around the middle tier and offers 16 nice quality drum pads, a knob for adjusting oscillation, filter, modulation, AMP/EG and insert FX, and a built-in step sequencer. You also have support for polyphonic playback (best for complex chord progressions), a “motion sequence” function (record knob and button operations), and some decent FX on-board. The synth engine is pretty advanced and that’s what hikes that price up, for a reason of course: It has 409 oscillator waveforms with analog modeling and PCM. You can get super creative with the waveforms, ranging from simple combinations to more complex (dual, unison, sync, ring and cross modulation). The Korg Electribe is just another spin on drum machines but it’s more known for the synth-style customization and implementation.
Akai MPC Renaissance
To top off our list, we have yet another Akai MPC model, but this one is way too popular not to include here (albeit last, but not necessarily for a reason). We’re big followers of the MPC community in general, and have heard many times over and over of individuals praising the Renaissance as the best drum machine in the market. A plus-side of the Renaissance is that it’s still pretty popular and offers a lot of support and tutorials around the internet. You have a classic drum machine layout — MPC note repeat, swing, transport controls and more. Their beloved pads as seen in the photo are on the unit of course, and they also include their new “MPC Software” in the package if you want to integrate this one with a digital setup as well. Another additive is the 7 gigabytes of sounds with 300 instruments included, so if you were looking for some sounds to come alongside your machine, here’s a great one to keep in mind. It also has those nifty nobs and switches as well as a relatively simplistic LCD screen for navigation help. The 128-track sequencing with eight pad banks help your workflow and possibilities, and the DAW integration with this should work smoothly. It’s definitely a classic drum machine that also includes some help in terms of the digital realm. A bit up there in price but you’re getting what you pay for — the Akai MPC Renaissance is a complete drum machine that includes great sounds, some software (if you even need it), and a whole culture behind it for some backup.