Currently, the most amazing, most mind-expanding, beat processing, pattern battling drum machine on the planet is the Pulsar-23 from Soma Labs. It’s like nothing else on this list or anything you’re likely to encounter in hardware or software. Does that make it the best? Yes, from one point of view. But if you want something a bit more traditional and less “out there” then check out the Roland TR-8S as a fabulous all-rounder.
Best Drum Machines for Making Beats in 2020/2021
What is the best drum machine?
The best drum machines available are:
- Roland TR-8S
- Soma Labs Pulsar-23
- Behringer RD-8 Rhythm Designer
- Korg Volca Drum
- Elektron Model:Samples
- Moog DFAM
- Akai Pro Force
- Elektron Digitakt
Making beats outside of the computer is one of the most releasing and rewarding steps you can take in music production. Take away the infinite sounds and infinite patterns and focus on pulling rhythms out of a single machine–that’s where the real grooves start to emerge. Hardware drum machines can take you to all sorts of places filled with thundering kicks, sizzling snares, and wonderfully wonky percussion and we have so much choice these days.
For this roundup, we’re going to focus on machines that give us the drum sounds and the pattern making in one box. Some of them may do more but we’ll focus on groove boxes in another article.
But first some frequently asked questions:
Which drum machine is best?
Which is the easiest drum machine to use?
The Behringer RD-8 is hard to beat in terms of simplicity. The straight-forward interface is taken from the original TR-808 and simplified to make it flow easier than ever before. With the RD-8 you can get beats going in seconds and start dropping in fills and beat repeats, muting, soloing, and filtering without ever a glance in the manual.
Should I get a drum machine?
Undoubtedly yes. It’s a completely different experience to writing patterns and drum parts on a computer. It becomes an exploration of rhythm and you’ll come to understand the relationship between the tracks, sounds, and beats in a completely new and deeper way. You can’t beat the focus, the intention, and the groove you can get out of drum machines.
Best Drum Machines 2020/2021
The TR-8S brings Roland’s love of beats forward and into the future. It brings together their most slick interface, their most versatile sounds, and the ability to perform with rhythms in the best possible way. They call it a “Rhythm Performer” and it was designed to play live.
Inside you’ll find the largest and most authentic collection of TR sounds anywhere. Roland’s ACB technology models every aspect of those old sounds with every nuance, gasp, and sizzle. The TR-8S then takes things forward into the future with a huge library of custom samples, a wide range of FM sounds, and some very interesting effects.
You can bring in delays, reverbs, overdrive and drag it all through a filter tuned and specific to each sound and each kit. You can drop in fills and variations, making your beats flow and move as part of your performance. Making new patterns on the fly, swapping between 3 fills and 8 variations makes for an exciting and unexpected performance.
The interface is crying out for manipulation and you have individual outputs to mix and individual triggers if you want to take the power of the TR-8S into other gear or bring something else into the mix. It’s thoroughly modern and totally exciting.
Street Price: $399.99
Soma Labs Pulsar-23
They call it an organismic drum machine and you’d better believe this thing is alive and with a mind of its own. You don’t so much program it as join it in an adventure into rhythm and groove. It’s surprising, different, mind-boggling, and experimental. Nothing about this machine is as you’d expect, and it will probably change your life.
It’s a semi-modular device which means that it’s wired together for you, but you can break all those connections and make it work differently by patching it together. The 4-channels of bass, percussion, snare, and cymbals seem simple enough until you realize you’re not making patterns but generating looping animals that clash and affect one another. You’re not shaping sound, you’re shaping events that combine, flow, repeat, and produce sound at some other point. It’s difficult to explain–can you tell?
There is MIDI and synchronization if you want it but with the Pulsar-32 sync is less important than expression and investigation. There are 23 modules, 55 knobs, 11 switches, and over 100 inputs and outputs for patching. It’s wonderfully mad, beautifully conceived, and more fun than a drum machine is ever supposed to be.
Street Price: $2,099
Soma Labs Pulsar-23
Behringer RD-808 Rhythm Designer
The RD-8 is a tribute to the most influential drum machine ever built. Behringer has done the one thing people kept asking Roland to do–re-release a genuine 808 drum machine.
Roland attempted it with their TR-08 Boutique but it was small and fiddly and was actually a digital model of analog sound which sounded great but seemed to miss the mark. Behringer decided to do it right with a full-sized, fully analog drum machine recreating the original TR-808 sound and workflow while making a few tweaks of their own.
The RD-808 features all the same 12 tracks and 16 drums sounds as the original with the familiar layout, tuning, and level knobs. But Behringer has added a few features that bring it up to date. There’s a completely variable swing, flam per note and per voice, some randomization factors, and a dedicated tuning knob for the kick drum so you can use it as a bass line over MIDI. Of course, MIDI and USB-MIDI are implemented throughout.
The new Wave Designer section offers control over transients and the shaping of attack and sustain and a highpass/lowpass filter that each instrument can be sent to individually. On the back are individual outputs on 1/4″ jacks and 3 trigger outputs to control other modular gear.
The sequencing workflow has been improved and simplified in line with how step sequencing has evolved and now programming 808 beats is now easier than ever.
Behringer has produced exactly what everyone has been asking for while giving it a modern spin and a ridiculously low price of $398. The original was $1,195 and second-hand examples can go for much more than that.
Street Price: $398
Behringer RD-808 Rhythm Designer
Korg Volca Drum
Korg has been making these little Volca machines for a few years now and each one has been a little box of genius. They’ve made percussion-orientated ones before with the Volca Kick and the Volca Beats but the latest member of the Volca club takes it into a digital direction with some wild and distinctive sounds (because not everyone wants to sound like an 808).
Volca Drum has a 6-part DSP synth engine that can generate a wide range of unexpected sounds. Starting with a simple trigger waveform it can be folded, overdriven, overtoned and distorted in all sorts of ways before running through a waveguide resonator effect to bring the sound to life. Whatever happens, it won’t be quite what you expect.
Each of the 6 parts has 2 layers, for which you can choose 1 of 5 oscillator waveform types including sine, sawtooth, noise and 3 types of pitch modulator and envelopes. Layers can be edited together or separately, giving you fine control over the emerging sound. The Waveguide Resonator physically models either a tube or a string to give the sound a solid or sustained character.
Along with plenty of knobs to play with, there’s a 16-step sequencer with parameter recording per step in either step or real-time. Up to 16 sequences can be chained, giving you 256 steps. You can play rolls by slicing, replace active steps, add accents and set choke priority. And there are two randomization functions to mess it all about.
Volca Drum is a comprehensive little box of digital percussion adventures that sounds like nothing else out there and can run on batteries and sync up to any other Volca or modular gear for only $149.99.
Street Price: $149.99
Korg Volca Drum
Elektron produce some of the most bad-ass groove boxes and drum machines on the planet. But they can be a bit deep and complex in places. With Model:Samples, Elektron has tried to simplify their workflow and build a machine that’s fun to use, easy to access but will still blow your socks off.
Model:Samples is a 6-track groove box packed full of high-quality digital samples. There are 300 preset sounds ranging from the all too familiar kits to sounds you’ve never heard before. There’s a full set of knobs and controls to let you tweak and transform any sound into something completely your own. You can play the sounds using the 6 velocity-sensitive pads or you can step-sequence one sound at a time.
Every step in the sequencer can have its own sound, its own parameters locked in for ever-changing grooves, basslines, and melodies. Because samples can be anything, this doesn’t have to be all about the beats. There’s a “Chance” parameter which introduces probability and randomness to the sequencer steps. It’s an immensely playable and fluid groove box.
You can save 96 projects with 96 patterns per project with up to 64 steps. There are a resonant multimode filter and one LFO on every track. There are 64MB of sample memory and 1GB of storage so you can fill it with your own content.
Elektron Model:Samples is instant, accessible, and full of awesome samples for only $299.
Street Price: $299
The Moog DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother) is an unusual beat making beast. It originally came out of workshops that Moog hosts at their MoogFest convention and has developed into a really interesting pattern-generating analog percussion synthesizer.
It’s built in the same form as their Mother-32 semi-modular synthesizer. It uses a white noise generator and two wide-ranging analog oscillators as the sound source with Hard Sync and voltage-controlled FM. It has a classic high and low pass Moog ladder filter for shaping the tone, either down for more impact and dimension or up for expressive strikes and fizz. Three envelopes work dynamically with the sequencer to keep some things sharp while other things evolve.
The sequencer is one of the simplest you’ll see, with just 8 steps and pitch and velocity per step. The 24-point patch bay gives you the open opportunity to push sound in different directions and invite manipulation from multiple sources.
The result is complex, organic, exciting and unexpected. At $649 it’s awesome by itself but comes alive when paired with other analog machines like the Mother-32.
Street Price: $649
Akai Pro Force
The Pro Force is a full-on music production center. It’s a cross between the legendary MPC sampling workstation and the Ableton Live clip-launching DAW. It features a touch screen sequencer and editor, an 8×8 clip-launching matrix and although it looks a bit like a MIDI controller it runs completely standalone — it’s all in the box.
It can do a load of stuff. You can import stems, loops, and samples onto the grid and remix them all over the place. You can beat match loops, tune-up tracks, and mash it all together in sync to the master clock. You can crossfade between tracks and turn it into a DJ performance and add effects, repeats, modulation, and filters effortlessly with the touchscreen interface.
You can combine sequenced synths with MPC-Style drum tracks, audio tracks, MIDI and loops and then play and mix over the top. It’s an incredibly versatile music production machine.
Force has multiple synth engines, real-time sampling, MPC sample editing, groove sequencing, looping and resampling, clip launching, step and real-time sequencing, and mixing with effects. You can do the whole lot in this box without ever having to turn on a computer. (Although it has Ableton Link and will integrate perfectly into a computer-based studio if that’s what you want.)
At $999 the Akai Pro Force may be overkill for someone who just wants to make beats but if you want your beats to lead you somewhere, then this is the machine that can take you all the way.
Street Price: $999
Akai Pro Force
Digitakt is a formidable machine that makes beats and samples sounds. It has 8 voices or 8 tracks where you can build your layers of rhythms and explore the percussive possibilities. It’s a rugged box, well made and ready for heavy gigging and running your other gear. It’s probably the box you’ll find most often in the studios and homes of professional Producers.
You can run 8 tracks of audio inside the box and take another 8 tracks out to run external synthesizers and other modules. Each track has its own filter, its own overdrive, and an LFO for modulation. You then have some reverb and delay to route things out to.
For sampling, you have a large internal drive for storage and a compact 64MB memory for loading your custom sounds. And it comes with over 400 high-end samples featuring 5 acoustic kits, 23 electronic kits, 42 one-shot synth sounds, 44 stabs and pads, and 83 single cycle oscillators and noise loops.
Digitakt is not for the faint-hearted or those new to making beats or crafting samples. It’s a serious box for people who want to take it to the next level and know exactly what they want to achieve.
Street Price: $799