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You can paint beats with your mouse in a DAW, you can arrange loops on a screen into tracks and tunes, but many people find that you can’t beat the magic of banging out beats on a box.

There’s some connection between us and the beats, rhythm, and groove that we can tease out of a physical box that’s difficult to find in a purely software environment. Why fight it? Why try to do everything in your computer when there is so much awesome hardware out there for you to get your fingers onto?

In this roundup of the Best Drum Machines, I’m looking for innovation, ease-of-use and a magical workflow that’ll bring your internal rhythms into reality. And because this kind of hardware tends to stick around, check out this list for some additional possibilities that are still very much available.

Here is our quick list of the best beat maker machines:

  • Roland TR-8S
  • Synthstrom Audible Deluge
  • Elektron Analog Rytm MKII
  • Arturia DrumBrute Impact
  • Native Instruments Maschine MK3
  • SOMA Laboratory PULSAR-23

Roland TR-8S

This is possibly the drum machine that we’ve been waiting for Roland to build for quite some time. The Boutique recreations of the TR-808 and TR-909 have been pretty awesome but have felt more like an homage than an innovative move forward in beat making. The TR-8 Rhythm Performer introduced in 2014 was a bit more like it but we’ve had to wait until 2018 for something really special.

The Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer takes everything that was great about the TR-8 and refines it, evolves it and opens the whole thing up to new possibilities. Along with the 808 and 909 sounds it brings in all the other drum machines too — 606, 707 and 727. These are all “ACB” (Analog Circuit Behavior) models of analog circuitry, replicating their exact behavior for the most authentically Roland groove making experience.

You’d think that was plenty to play with, but Roland has also incorporated a comprehensive sampling section. It ships with a large collection of presets but you can start crafting your own signature beats with your own samples fed in via SD card. You can build an entire kit from samples or mix and match from the classic ACB modeled drum machines. Feed them into the 11 instrument parts ready for sequencing.

The classic 16-step button sequencer is just as intuitive and easy to use as it has always been. But now you can record in velocity changes, accents, sub-steps, rolls and ratchets for each step. Drop in effects like Reverb and Delay or insert drive and crushing onto the track of your choice.

You can create fill patterns to trigger manually or let the TR-8S drop them in at a predefined measure, keeping your hands free for tweaking or waving at the crowd. You can automate everything and save up to 128 patterns in the internal memory.

This is really Roland at the top of their beat-making game. It has the sounds everyone wants, with the interface that everyone knows, with the versatility that everyone needs to make it their own.

Street Price: $699

Synthstrom Audible Deluge

The Deluge is far more than a beat machine. It’s a powerful and robust synthesizer, sampler and sequencer in a very finger friendly package. Beatmakers also like a bit of melody and Deluge gives you the power to build entire tracks in the one box. It’s not all about the rhythm but the possibilities in this machine are enough to make any beat monster smile.

The internal synthesizer engine features FM, analog modeling and subtractive synthesis with a load of modulation, filters, and effects to get you designing your own sounds. You can even load your own waveforms and make that the basis of your synthesizer. The sampler engine lets you stream samples off an SD card. You can resample, slice and time-stretch before running them through the modulation and filtering engine of the synthesizer.

But where this all gets interesting is in the power of the sequencing matrix. There are 128 light-up RGB pads to play with, arranged in 8 rows of 16. This is great for seeing what’s going on with multiple tracks all at once, but it also morphs into a playable keyboard, or more importantly, it becomes a drum pattern editor. With an 8-instrument drum kit loaded, each row can control a separate drum sound. It’s just like a drum grid in a DAW but in hardware.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before in a hardware device. You usually have to select the sound and then do the sequence on the single row of buttons — like the TR-8S. That functionality alone makes this an awesome beat making box.

The interface controls take it even further. You can zoom out to view multiple bars and then zoom back in to edit the detail. You can scroll from side to side and up and down to reveal more tracks or more steps. It even has a function where if you edit one bar it will mirror the edit in the other bars.

Arrangement and Song modes let you build tracks, chain up patterns and fire loops, patterns and samples on the fly. You can sample directly in from a microphone or line level source. Along with the usual MIDI and USB connections, there are also two CV outputs and 4 gate outputs to offer some integration with modular and Eurorack.

The front end adapts brilliantly to every sequencing situation, moving from overviews to individual tracks, notes, and automation with speed and fluidity. It’s remarkably compact, has an internal speaker and can run on batteries, making it ideal for people on the move, or jamming in the park.

Deluge is a versatile and complex machine that offers a huge amount of depth and playability for the ambitious beat producer.

Street Price: $899

Elektron Analog Rytm MKII

A cross between a step-sequenced drum machine and an MPC style sampling beat maker, the Elektron Analog Rytm is a handsome and sophisticated groovebox. It looks superb, the grey seriousness of it making it seem more professional and elegant than the original black and busy MKI. The screen has been mightily improved, as have the encoders and controls, and they’ve introduced a sampling engine to bring this beat machine to the top of the heap.

Analog Rytm MKII is an eight-voice analog drum machine with digital sampling. It has the famous Elektron analog drum sounds with all the depth and bite that we’ve come to know. Each voice is built on a fully analog signal path and can use either the analog percussion sound generator or the sample playback engine. It then has its own filter, overdrive, LFO and 2 effect sends. They also added a classic sounding synthesis engine perfect for basslines and leads.

Through either step entry or real-time playing of the 12 velocity and pressure sensitive pads, you can sequence up to 12 tracks and 1 FX track. Each pattern can run up to 64 steps and each track can have its own length. There are controls over mute, swing, slide and accent, you can change sounds or samples on every step and you have full real-time control over everything.

You can save 128 projects, with 128 kits, 128 patterns and 16 songs per project. You can store over 4,000 sounds on the internal drive. The OLED screen gives you deep access to the workings of the box, accessing the effects, the modulation, the routing, and song creation. Eight encoders give you control over the key performance parameters.

There are a lot of connections on the box including individual outputs, inputs for sampling and expression pedal and CV inputs. The number of buttons and knobs can seem a little overwhelming but the Elektron workflow has been refined over many similar boxes and it’s designed to place a lot of power at your fingertips.

Street Price: $1,549

Arturia DrumBrute Impact

Last year’s list featured the Arturia DrumBrute analog drum machine. This year they’ve followed it up with a more compact, neater and funkier version called DrumBrute Impact. It’s smaller in size, loses some of the sounds and outputs, and reduces the track count down to 8. But they’ve added a few things to spice it up and set it apart from its bigger brother.

Eight tracks of drums and percussion are probably enough for most people, made up of a kick, 2 snares, hi-hats, toms, and a new FM Drum sound. All the sounds are tweakable and automatable through the sequencer. The sequencer gives you a row of 16 buttons which can handle up to 64 steps. You can program your patterns in step by step or simply play the pads to perform your pattern into the machine. You also don’t have to quantize, making it totally freeform.

Tonally the excitement comes in the shape of a “Color” button which switches in alternative tones and the Distortion circuit which can push each sound into obliteration. Performance controls such as swing, accents, ratcheting and the roll strip make for some fun maneuvers on-the-fly.
All in all, it’s a cool little beat box with bags of character and at $299 is by far the cheapest on our list.

Street Price: $299

Native Instruments Maschine MK3

This is not strictly speaking an all-in-one beat making box. Maschine is a hybrid MPC style controller and groove station that works in conjunction with software running on your PC or Mac.

However, because of the close integration, the screens that reduce the computer to simply a sound source, and the fact that it’s completely awesome I thought it was worth making an exception.

The hardware feels like proper hardware. This is no flimsy controller, it’s stable, solid on your desk with responsive backlit velocity and pressure sensitive pads for banging out your beats. The twin hi-res screens let you browse through your library, samples and drum kits with ease keeping your focus on the hardware, not the computer.

The role of the buttons and knobs around the screen change depending on the context, what’s loaded and what you want to do. And this is not just MIDI, Maschine is a fully functional audio interface with inputs for sampling and outputs for high quality, low latency monitoring.

You can build patterns and beats using the pads. Add new tracks, new control options, modulations, and effects all from the hardware. There’s even a performance “Smart Strip” to add the perfect amount of feel to your manipulations. You can play the pads like a piano, use them to step-sequence, automate modulation, pitch, volume, and accents.

The Maschine software supports whatever VST/AU virtual instruments you want to use but those with NKS support get full thumbnail browsing, sounds auditioning and automatic encoder mapping. There has never been an easier way to access software sounds in hardware.

The software features comprehensive songwriting tools for arranging patterns, routing and inserting effects and producing a professionally finished product. If you just want to stay with the beats then you don’t ever need to glance up at your laptop.

The software/hardware combination on offer with Maschine gives you an enormous library of sounds, precise editing and arranging and a robust, enjoyable interface for serious beat mashing.

Street Price: $599

SOMA Laboratory PULSAR-23

The PULSAR-23, at the time of writing, is not actually available yet. All we’ve seen is a video of the prototype in action, but it was so incredible, so unusual that it’s likely to be the best beat making thing to come out in 2018. As there’s no finished product we don’t know all the details.

But we do know that at the moment it has just 4 channels of sound; kick, percussion, snare, and cymbals. The sounds are generated via 23 synthesis and effects modules. There’s no sequencer, instead, there are 4 loop recorders for triggering events. There’s a lot of crazy going on, a huge amount of creative thinking and design and it’s probably the device I’m looking forward to the most.

The video is amazing. If you are into clean, ordered, pristine percussion and tidy beats then you will not enjoy this at all. For the rest of us who like a bit of noise, glitch and grime in our beats then this thing is a blast.

Street Price: Estimated at $1,200 to $1,500

In Conclusion

So many boxes with which to craft that perfect beat and they are all capable of so much more. The TR8-S is probably the purest drum machine on the list but even that can now play samples of whatever sound you can find.

The Deluge is over the top for just percussion but the beat making facilities are some of the best out there. You can’t go wrong with an Elektron machine for giddy groove making, although if you’re happy to stay attached to your computer then Maschine can give you an entire production studio of rhythm. Or for plain crazy, hang on for the Pulsar-23.

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