Beat Maker Boxes

Boxes for Beat Makers

We all need more beats. We need more loops, more groove, more movement, more rhythm in our lives. But where’s the best place to start banging out these beats? Which piece of hardware is going to inspire and feel fabulous beneath your fingertips? Beat making machines are more advanced and cheaper than ever before. In this roundup, we’ll take in the complex and the easy, the production tools and the beat making toys to showcase a variety of options to best suit your demands.

Our 2017 Picks

Elektron Digitakt

Street Price: $649 (at time of writing)

We’re kicking off with the hottest piece of hardware, the recently released Elektron Digitakt. It’s a formidable drum machine and sampler. It’s chunky and yet compact, built like a tank and ready for some serious beat thumping.

Digitakt houses an 8-voice digital drum machine with 23 electronic kits and 5 acoustic kits all ready to go. But that’s only half the story. The Digitakt is also a hands-on sampler, with comprehensive editing controls right on the screen, right at your fingertips. You can sample in anything you want and break it up into hits and loops for the drum machine. Or you can record audio directly onto the 8 internal audio tracks. Each one has its own filter and assignable LFO for modulation and can be routed through the onboard reverb and delay effects engine. And if you have other gear you can sequence that too from the internal 8 track MIDI sequencer.

The Digitakt is a complete production studio in a box, with real-time performance, sequencing and sampling capability. But if you want to run it with your DAW then Elektron’s Overbridge software ensures complete integrating with your computer. It’s the real deal.

Key features:

  • 8 voice digital drum computer and sampler
  • 8 audio and 8 MIDI tracks
  • Filter, overdrive and LFO per track
  • Instant sampling with 64 MB memory
  • 1GB drive storage

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Novation Circuit

Street Price: $329 (at time of writing)

The Circuit has become the groove box of choice for the slightly more hipster, electronic music crowd. You’ll usually find it wired to an Apple MacBook running Ableton Live, combining the joy of beat making with the versatility of an Ableton based live set. But it’s also very happy to run by itself.

Circuit’s feature set is quite simple. It contains two synthesizer engines and a 4-part drum machine. The synths are from the Novation Nova range and deliver monophonic and polyphonic patches with loads of character. The 8 knobs on the front come alive with each patch giving you control over all the important parameters. The drum tracks can run all manner of different percussive sounds, but typically you’ll find the kicks, snares, and hi-hats filling most of the space.

The 32 RGB velocity-sensitive pads give you a full step sequencing and beat making experience. You can run two drum parts simultaneous on 16 pads each, making it dead easy to line up your beats. Use the knobs to tweak the sounds and tuning and it can all be recorded into the pattern. In FX mode you can instantly drop tracks into and out of effects at the touch of the pad. The synths even have dedicated side chains to pump the kick drum through the mix. And that one big knob on the right is a master filter for sweeping in those drops and rises.

The Circuit has recently had its insides opened up so you can now drop in your own samples and fully edit the synth and drum sounds. It can also run on batteries and with the built-in speaker (and headphone socket) you can get beat making in the park or on the bus. It’s been around a while but it just keeps on getting better.

Key features

  • Compact and battery powered with internal speaker
  • 2 synth parts and a 4 part drum machine
  • 4×8 RGB grid sequencer
  • 8 encoders for sound tweaking
  • Delays and reverbs
  • Master filter

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The MPC Live and MPC X are the standalone music production centers we’ve been waiting for, the natural evolutions of the MPC heritage. For me, the MPC Live really nails the elusive combination of a modern approach with a fun and creative workflow that brings back the magic of beat making in an Akai box.

Toraiz SP-16

Street Price: $1499 (at time of writing)

An unexpected collaboration from Pioneer DJ and Dave Smith Instruments has given birth to the award-winning Toraiz SP-16. It’s a performance sampler with 16 trigger pads, step sequencer, larger screen for editing and a superb Dave Smith filter from their Prophet-6 synthesizer.

It’s designed to be simple. You load samples, get busy on the pads and generate patterns and grooves. The 7″ touch-screen is full color and gives you access to all the info you need. Finding samples and getting into editing is a breeze. The knobs beneath the screen making grabbing and tweaking parameters so easy and performance friendly.

Inside is a powerful processing engine for time stretching, pitch bending and modulating your samples. There are 8GB of internal flash storage so there’s no need to be tied to a computer.

The Dave Smith filter is legendary and will give you the power to sculpt your sound in absolute confidence, bringing a quality of warmth and presence not often found in a groove box. It’s at the pricier end of the scale but this level of quality hardware does not come cheap.

Key features:

  • Sampler and step sequencer
  • Dave Smith Instruments filter from the Prophet 6
  • Full color touch-screen
  • 16 performance pads
  • 8GB flash memory

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Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators PO-32

Street Price: $85 (at time of writing)

If pocket-sized beat making is your thing then Teenage Engineering has you covered. These little boxes of beats are about the size of your phone and look a lot like pocket calculators (if anyone can remember what they look like). There’s a whole range of these little machines that house a load of features in a small space. Depending on your style the best one for beat making is probably the PO-32 Tonic. It’s a drum synth and sequencer with parameter locks, punch-in effects and unlimited sounds via a handy VST plug-in.

Tonic comes with 16 sounds ready to go. But with the Microtonic VST plug-in, you can craft your own sounds and transfer them to the PO-32 via the built-in microphone. The microphone is for data transfer rather than sampling (if that’s what you’re thinking), but it means the Tonic can be upgraded and altered in ways the other Pocket Operators can not.

Pocket Operators are simple, cheap, battery powered, fun to play with and have a hilarious character to them. You can jam with other models via their jam sync socket and built-in speaker and run a whole load of them on your lap on the way to work. And as a bonus, they also tell the time and can wake you up in the morning.

Key features:

  • Pocket sized beat machines
  • Various styles and functions
  • Real drum synthesis engine
  • Sequencer with punch-in effects
  • Jam sync for connecting more than one
  • Battery powered and built-in speaker

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The DrumBrute is not just a machine for making beats, it’s an instrument of creative, percussive song building and live performance. Even the Roland Boutique reinventions of their vintage drum machines or the future looking Aira TR-8 can’t compete with the power of the DrumBrute.

Arturia DrumBrute

Street Price: $449 (at time of writing)

If you’re looking for a 21st-century analog drum machine then you should check out the DrumBrute from Arturia. It takes the form factor of the classic Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines and brings in a level of creative control and connectivity that can’t be beaten in a purely drum focused beat making box. For DrumBrute the first consideration is the sound. It’s completely analog. The sounds are built with the synthesis engine from the Brute synth family. So, if you are looking to fire off samples then this is not the box for you. This is for crafting and tuning percussion sounds to electrify your beats and make your sounds personal.

It can be soft and bubbling, harsh and penetrating, it can be 808 and 909, but you can drive it into so much more. And then at the end of the chain is a 2 mode 12dB Steiner-Parker filter for twisting and breaking the sound.

There are 17 drum instruments coupled to an advanced 64-step drum sequencer with a song mode, polyrhythmic glitch machine and a sequence looper for live performance. There are individual outputs on all the drum tracks and you can sync up to other machines, route out MIDI or USB and step outside the box.

The DrumBrute is not just a machine for making beats, it’s an instrument of creative, percussive song building and live performance. Even the Roland Boutique reinventions of their vintage drum machines or the future looking Aira TR-8 can’t compete with the power of the DrumBrute.

Key features:

  • Analog drum machine
  • 17 drum instruments
  • Steiner Parker filter
  • 64 note Step sequencer
  • 12 individual outputs
  • Pattern effects – swing, random, looper

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Akai MPC Live

Street Price: $1199 (at time of writing)

Of course, the words Akai and MPC will always come up when talking about beat making. The MPC performance sampler was the box that brought beats and remixing to the fingers of the artist without a drum kit. Since the glory days of decades past Akai has struggled to navigate their way through the magic of computer production, through the hardware and software combinations of Native Instrument Maschine, Ableton Live and Push, Launchpads and software sampling.

But recently they may have found their feet again. The MPC Live and MPC X are the standalone music production centers we’ve been waiting for, the natural evolutions of the MPC heritage. For me, the MPC Live really nails the elusive combination of a modern approach with a fun and creative workflow that brings back the magic of beat making in an Akai box.

Straight out of the box it’s compact, light and versatile. It doesn’t have to dominate a large chunk of desktop, it can be right on your lap. The 7″ multi-touch screen offers up all the functions and parameters you need to see, and then the 4 encoders give you proper hands-on control over what’s going on. The 16 super-responsive RGB pads are both velocity and pressure sensitive giving you deep control over your performance and workflow.

In the studio, you can tether it up to the MPC 2.0 software for sound expansion and deeper editing, but that’s not where the action has to happen. It has 16GB of onboard storage and comes with 10GB of exclusively curated sound content. You can expand this further by adding an internal drive, or with SD and USB drives. Or if you just want to sample straight in then check out the back for line level and phono inputs. The two sets of MIDI ports can make the MPC Live the center of your setup.

Sure, you can do more with the beast that is the MPC X, but sometimes being lighter on the feet can be an advantage to capturing creativity on the move and in the flow of your beat making.

Key features:

  • Standalone beat making sampler and sequencer
  • 7″ full color touch screen
  • Turntable inputs with ground peg
  • 16 velocity and pressure sensitive pads
  • 4 encoders
  • 2GB memory
  • 16GB onboard storage
  • Control surface for MPC 2.0 software

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There are always more

It’s an extraordinarily innovative and creative time in hardware beat making boxes. There are loads more possibilities that I haven’t included. Where are all the Korgs, the Electribes and Volcas? And how can Roland not be included? Well honestly, they are on the short list but in trying to keep this to a sensibly sized and diverse round-up I was looking for something with a bit more sparkle. The best beat machine is always the one you’re making beats on. But if you are looking for some new creative directions to slap your fingers on then these are the beat making weapons of choice.

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