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10 Best Drum Machines: Don’t Buy Until You Read This

Author: Robin Vincent

Date: February 13, 2019

Reads: 11,204

Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website Gearnews.com.

You can make a whole track with just beats these days and there are plenty of machines that will help you do that.

From bass ripping analog kicks to thundering samples, weird noises and percussive blips, beats of all flavors and persuasions are possible and encouraged.

Hardware drum machines are better and more versatile than ever, giving you a solid foundation for your tracks or simply something to groove to. In this roundup of the best drum machines for beat makers I’ve included some devices that can do a whole lot more than beats and some that keep it pure.

The best drum machines available are:

  • Behringer RD-808 Rhythm Designer
  • Korg Volca Drum
  • Elektron Model:Samples
  • Moog DFAM
  • Akai Pro Force
  • Teenage Engineering OP-Z
  • Arturia DrumBrute Impact
  • Roland TR-8s

1. Behringer RD-808 Rhythm Designer

We’ll kick off with the most influential drum machine in the history of music, or rather a tribute to that machine. 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 is 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 the 808 is much easier to get started with.

Behringer has produced exactly what everyone has been asking for while giving it a modern spin and a ridiculously low price of $299. The original was $1195 and second-hand examples can go for much more than that.

Street Price: $389

2. 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.

Street Price: $149
Korg Volca Drum

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3. Elektron Model:Samples

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
Elektron Model:Samples

4. Moog DFAM

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

5. 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 $1499 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: $1,499
Akai Pro Force


Here are a couple more options that are floating just outside my top 5.

6. Teenage Engineering OP-Z

Another complete beat and music-making solution that is perhaps the complete opposite of the Akai Pro Force: that’s the tiny OP-Z. About the size of a TV remote, there’s a huge amount of creativity in this little grey box. It’s an advanced and fully portable 16-track sequencer, drum machine and synthesizer.

Sounds come from both sample-based and synthesis-based sources and are accessed via the mini button keyboard and sequencer. Don’t let the size fool you; this thing packs quite a punch.

Street Price: $599
Teenage Engineering OP-Z

7. Arturia DrumBrute Impact

An awesome little drum machine that brings analog tone into a performance-orientated box with a vintage vibe. It has 8 tracks and 10 analog drum sounds, including the unusual FM track. It can hold 64 patterns of 64 steps and chain them together into songs. There are plenty of dynamic controls, loops, repeats, rolls, randomization, swing and accents that you can drop in on-the-fly. And the distortion effect keeps things nice and crunchy.

Street Price: $299
Arturia DrumBrute Impact

8. Roland TR-8s

Arguably the true evolution of the 808, the TR-8S Rhythm Performer combines Roland’s Analog Circuit Modelling technology with samples to give you a hybrid drum machine with some serious punch and addictive grooves. You can completely customize the kits, making the sounds your own or pick and choose from the included 808 and 909 models. Every pattern has two automatable fill sections and the ability to generate instant variations. It’s a very cool machine.

Street Price: $699
Roland TR-8s

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