Looking to create complex beats in the modern era?
You’ll be happy to know that it’s a breeze when you've got the right plug-ins and samples in your DAW.
Of course, I also can’t deny the fact that there's something quite special about the tangible aspect of a drum machine that can instantly ignite your inspiration and creativity. The best part is that these beat-making machines aren't breaking the bank like they used to, and the demand for that classic drum machine sound has pushed manufacturers to resurrect those old favorites.
Even the newer drum machines come with their own charming quirks that make them stand out.
Whether you want to bring a touch of vintage nostalgia to your beat or create modern beats with an innovative piece of equipment, I did the research and put together a list of the top drum machines on the market. Let’s dig in.
A Brief History of Drum Machines
The Rhythmicon , which was the work of Henry Cowell and Leon Theremin, is often considered the world's first drum machine.
It was born in 1930, and though it had “rhythm” in the name, it was actually played more like a regular music keyboard. Every note triggered sets of notes, creating polyrhythmic patterns.
By 1949, the Chamberlin Rhythmate hit the scene, using the magic of tape loops under the hood, just like the Mellotron. It became heavily used for cha-cha and bossanova rhythms, and looked just as unique as it sounded.
Fast forward a whole decade, and the Wurlitzer Sideman would become the first drum machine to use electronic sounds rather than relying on recordings. The secret weapon was a circuit board with a rotating arm that created drum sounds when brushed against contacts.
The early '70s were when things really began taking off, as we saw a bunch of beatbox machines hit the market, including the analog ComputeRhythm from the Eko Corporation. It became the first programmable machine, offering six instruments across a 16-step sequencer framework.
This drum machine set the stage for Roland’s legendary CR-78 , which was released in 1978 and featured chip-based pattern programmability. Bands like Culture Club, Blondie, and Phil Collins were just some of the famous users of the CR-78.
However, it wasn’t until 1980 that Roland's drum machine mastery culminated in the iconic TR-808 Rhythm Composer , which was uniquely all analog. Ironically enough, though it is fawned over today, it was somewhat of a flop when it was released.
The Linn LM1 settled the score upon its arrival in '81 as the first drum machine solely using samples. Roger Linn and his machine quickly gathered a massive fan base, and you can hear the sounds in action on the Human League’s 1981 hit single, "Don't You Want Me."
In the late '80s, the rise of computer sequencing led to a decline in drum machine demand. But a couple of decades later, the hardware resurgence, partly driven by Eurorack systems, gave drum machines a new life.
Elektron, a Swedish manufacturer, would gain traction with the Machinedrum in the early 2000s, offering reproductions of classic sounds, while Korg would eventually launch a small, predominantly analog drum machine in their Korg Volca range to rival pricier secondhand gear.
Today, we have a wide range of VST drum machines, as well as a number of hybrid hardware options, which we’ll explore now.
Korg Volca Beats - Best Analog Drum Machine on a Budget
The Korg Volca Beats drum machine seems to have taken some serious sound cues from Roland's iconic TR-808. It's a cool mix of PCM and analog sound engines. However, there’s also a twist – it offers a digital level of control.
This means you can record all of your automation, from knob-twisting to note changes, right into its built-in step-sequencer. In terms of sounds, you've got six analog elements to choose from (kicks, snare, toms, and hats), as well as four PCM elements (clap, agogo, claves, and crash).
You can tweak the kick to go from deep to clicky, the hats slice through even the densest of mixes quite well, and the snare boasts a recognizable woody tone, which you can kick up a notch by pushing the ‘snap’ a little bit or layering it up with a clap.
One of the few downsides of this particular drum machine is that the connectivity options aren’t super versatile. However, in the grand scheme of things, the Korg Volca Beats drum machine doesn’t take itself too seriously and is really more about having fun and getting creative.
If you're after top-notch analog drum sounds without breaking the bank, this little beast has got your back.
- Very portable design
- Feels very sturdy for how lightweight it is
- Plenty of quality analog sounds
- The step-sequencer and connectivity options are a bit limited
Korg Volca Drum - Best for Creative Drumming
Now, when you check out the Korg Volca Drum amidst its fellow Volca beatmakers like Volca Kick and Volca Beats, you'll notice the distinctive approach it takes.
While the others crammed analog drum synths into compact hardware, and the Volca Sample lets you add your own beats, the Drum takes a different route. It ditches PCM samples, a staple in many digital drum machines, and opts for a system of modulators, resonators, and virtual analog oscillators to craft its unique percussive sounds.
Here's the kicker: The sound engine in the Korg Volca Drum is divided into six identical parts, and each of these parts has two matching layers.
This multi-layer engine brings a whole new level of depth and excitement to sound design, making it a notable departure from the typical '80s drum box emulation. It's a real treat to get your hands on something that explores uncharted territory, and if you’re a dance music producer, it’s an absolute must-try.
- Unique palette of percussion sounds
- Surprisingly multi-layered sound engine
- Resonator effect is very cool
- I wish there was more than one audio output
Arturia DrumBrute Impact - Best Sequencer
Much like its big brother, the standard Arturia DrumBrute, the Impact marries a step-sequencer with a completely analog drum synth engine and boasts some impressive song mode and pattern-saving capabilities.
At first glance, the Arturia DrumBrute Impact shares a striking visual similarity with its predecessor, especially with the robust blue chassis that's characteristic of Arturia's 'Brute range.
However, it's worth noting that the Impact doesn't simply feel like a scaled-down iteration of its older brother. In fact, a significant portion of its sound engine underwent a total revamp, and the DrumBrute's Parker/Steiner filter was swapped out for what might just be one of the most powerful distortion effects on the market.
I love the velocity and pressure-sensitive pads, as they're are a nice little addition to the hardware. On top of that, the sequencer's Beat Repeat and Roller elements offer convenient options for chopping up transitions and fills.
With a generous selection of 64 slots for your patterns, you have plenty of room to save your grooves and recall them at a later time. Beyond that, the unique Song mode simplifies the process of stitching these patterns to one another to create complex arrangements.
Though the Arturia DrumBrute Impact definitely has its limitations in terms of tonal flexibility and isn't without its imperfections, it’s still one of the most inspiring and appealing drum machines out there, especially considering how budget-friendly of a synth it is.
- A very powerful sequencer for creating intricate drum patterns
- Solid and aesthetically appealing blue chassis
- Warm and authentic analog sound engine
- Only ten instruments compared to the 17 on the Arturia DrumBrute, which might feel a bit limiting
Roland TR-6S - Best Budget-Friendly Drum Machine
If you've laid eyes on Roland's TR-8S, which is a modern take or hybridization of the TR-808 and TR-909, the design of the TR-6S will ring a bell. This pint-sized drum machine packs a punch with its six channels and sticks to the classic TR step sequencer format, complete with volume faders for each voice.
However, there's more than meets the eye with this drum machine, as it offers advanced features like motion recording, flam, sub-steps, step-loop, and then some.
Though it seems to be the word around town, the TR-6S isn't just a contemporary 606. It goes a step further, armed with circuit models of the 606, 707, 808, and 909, giving you plenty of sounds to play around with. Beyond the fact that it even lets you load your own samples, it also rocks an FM sound engine for even more tonal possibilities.
The Roland TR-6S comes with built-in effects that you can use not only internally, but also with other gear, thanks to the fact that it doubles as a MIDI and USB audio interface. What's cool is you can power it via USB or make it completely portable with four AA batteries. It’s the perfect choice for those on-the-go music-making sessions.
- Portable and compact design
- Comes with a classic TR Step Sequencer
- Offers plenty of advanced functions
- The six-channel design might feel a bit limiting
IK Multimedia UNO Drum - Best Portable Drum Machine
IK Multimedia's UNO Drum marks the developer’s first venture into the analog realm.
It's a unique hybrid drum machine that combines analog sounds and sample playback, boasting an impressive synth engine tucked inside a lightweight plastic casing. While the plastic build might raise questions about its durability compared to sturdier devices, I’m glad to say that it holds its own.
Here's the deal: UNO Drum dishes out six genuine analog sounds for kicks, snares, claps, and hats, delivering that rich and warm authenticity that we’ve all come to know and love.
On top of that, you've got 54 PCM sounds sourced from IK's SampleTank library. Putting together kits is a breeze, and you can start with one of the 100 preset kits that are at your disposal. Beyond that, the UNO Drum sports a highly versatile sequencer sporting a 100-pattern memory. Some of the nifty extras on this thing include the Roll and Stutter buttons, which you can use to add a bit of finesse to your patterns. All in all, the UNO Drum is a seriously fun piece of gear to jam with, and I’d highly recommend it for a producer who needs something slightly more portable than your average drum machine.
- Hybrid analog and sample playback engine
- Very lightweight and portable design
- 100 pre-programmed kits to use as jumping-off points
- The digital display is a bit small
- In terms of build quality, I think they could have done better
Roland TR-08 - Best 808 Emulation
The TR-08 is one of the fine drum machines in the Roland 'Boutique' lineup, which Roland launched a few years back to bring vintage hardware into the digital age. The TR-08 doesn't just offer authenticity, it provides a truly modern workflow that goes beyond replicating the original TR-808.
Thanks to the DSP-driven sound engine, it captures that iconic vibe of the original with finesse.
However, there's a bit more to it once you start digging in.
While the programming system stays true to the original, there are a couple of modern twists, such as the ability to add swing, create random patterns, and add sub-step beats, all of which are handy features for the contemporary beatmaker.
You also get some flexibility with an individual compressor for the Kick and Snare, as well as the ability to tweak the Decay and Tuning settings for certain sounds. I love the fact that they decided to add a long decay version of the Kick, which is perfect for those who are into that deep Miami bass sound.
Overall, it's a cost-effective, solid-sounding option (compared to the original) for those looking to resurrect the classic beatbox. The only downside is that I wish they had multiple analog outputs and a few editing options, as I think that would have been a nice touch.
- One of the most sonically authentic 808 remakes
- USB and battery power
- Extended control over the various sound elements
- Comes with a bit of a learning curve
- You have to stop or mute playback to copy patterns
Behringer RD-8 - Most Budget-Friendly 808 Emulation
While it's certainly not a carbon copy of the original 808 design, the Behringer RD-8 gets the crucial bits just right. The analog sound engine delivers that rich, hearty warmth, while the kick, snares, toms, and rim sounds are as close to the originals as you can get. If you A/B these sounds with the real 808 drum machine, you’ll notice that the hats, cymbals, and cowbell have a few subtle differences in pitch and tone, though that doesn’t mean that they sound worse.
One thing to note is that the RD-8's hardware is a bit on the chunky side, which might seem a tad annoying, though it adds that authentic weightiness that we wish was in Roland's TR-8S or in the Boutiques series. The larger size comes with full-sized jack outputs, which run from each of the 11 tracks and the return input for hooking up external effects.
They've made some smart sequencing upgrades too, such as the track selector buttons, which replaced the original dial. They also brought in solo and mute, introduced note repeat, and tuned the kick.
The revamped probability step, song system, flams, and fills are also nice touches, although I don’t think they seamlessly executed them as well as they did on some competing drum machines.
Putting my minor nitpicks aside, when you consider the sound and overall workflow of this drum machine, it might just be the closest you'll get to an original Roland 808 available right now, and if we can get that level of emulation for the price, I truly have nothing to complain about.
Just keep in mind that the level of authenticity comes with some trade-offs. In terms of versatility, it might not be the most flexible drum machine out there.
- One of the best 808 emulations around right now
- Offers a return input and 11 individual outs
- Comes with an updated sequencer
- The design might be a bit clunky for some users
- Not a very versatile drum
Elektron Model: Cycles - Best FM Drum Machine
In 2019, Elektron introduced the Model series, starting with the Model:Samples. This was a unique groovebox powered by samples, which borrowed its engine from Elektron's Digitakt sampler.
At this point, the developers have expanded the lineup with a new addition, this time drawing inspiration from the Digitone, a sibling of the Digitakt.
Much like the Digitone, the Model:Cycles centers around a polyphonic FM (frequency modulation) synth engine, which they’ve joined with a 64-step sequencer. But here's the thing, contrary to what many believe, it's not just a scaled-down iteration of the Digitone. Although the two share the same four-operator engine under the hood, the way you shape and edit sounds sets them apart in a noticeable way.
The star of the show? For me, it has to be the sequencer.
Each track gets its own 64-step sequencer lane, and you can tweak the rate and length for each one separately. Elektron's Parameter Locks feature lets you automate every control on the front panel for each step. You can even switch between different sound settings mid-sequence, making it possible for one track to handle multiple sounds.
However, I think the real magic comes from the Conditional Locks and the Chance Parameter.
These give you a ton of control over the conditions and probability for when a hit plays on any sequencer step. It's kind of the secret weapon for the Model:Cycles drum machine, adding that little bit of much-needed spice to your grooves.
The best part is that Elektron has made it super user-friendly with dedicated front panel control. It's a game-changer, for sure.
- Versatile FM synthesis engine
- The Parameter Locks control offers more dynamic sound shaping capabilities
- Very versatile 64-step sequencer
- Does not have any individual outputs
Teenage Engineering PO-32 - Best Pocket-Sized Drum Machine
Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators don't exactly scream "drum machine.” In fact, they look more like something that would have been released by Texas Instruments half a century ago.
However, trust me when I say that these little guys are a ton of fun and way more versatile than they appear. Even better yet, they won't break the bank. It’s worth noting that the PO-32 is just one of the many options you can procure from Teenage Engineering.
In the PO Series range, you've got three drum and percussion options:
- PO-32 tonic
- PO-24 office for noise percussion
- PO-12 rhythm
But it doesn't stop there! If you're into customizing your beats, there are other models like the PO-133 Street Fighter and the PO-33 K.O! with sampling capabilities, allowing you to bring in your own unique sounds.
However, for the purpose of this article, we’ll keep the star of the show here, the PO-32 tonic. The reason I love this little pocket operator so much is that it lets you import sounds from Sonic Charge's MicroTonic drum synth plugin. This basically gives you full agency to completely revamp and remix its stock sound.
With 64 onboard patterns and pattern-chaining capabilities, you can put together a whole track with these little gadgets. They also sync up with one another, as well as other types of gear, if you’re looking to expand your setup.
Admittedly, they might take a bit of getting used to, but when all is said and done, they're super enjoyable, sound awesome, and, best of all, won't empty your wallet.
- One of the most affordable drum machines around
- Very portable
- Can hook up to other Pocket Operators for more flexibility
- Not the best level of connectivity
Novation Circuit Tracks - Best Drum Machine for Modern Hardware Lovers
In 2015, Novation dropped the OG Circuit on us, and it left quite an impression. This battery-powered digital drum machine was a real gem, packing a punch with a four-track sample-style drum machine, two independent polyphonic synths, creative send effects, and one of the best step-sequencing workflows around.
However, Novation has continued to push forward over the past few years, continuously improving the Circuit through numerous updates to the firmware to make it better than before.
The Circuit Tracks is the sequel to the original groovebox, and despite the name change (meant to set it apart from the Circuit Rhythm and Circuit Mono Station), it's essentially a direct follow-up.
In all, it carries over most of the functionality of the first Circuit. This means that the sampling and synthesis capabilities are pretty similar. The real upgrades are in the actual hardware.
Circuit Tracks now packs a rechargeable battery, drawing power via the USB input. They've bid farewell to the built-in speaker but welcomed some extra connectivity, including a set of MIDI ports and audio input jacks.
On top of that, they've thrown in a MicroSD card, a few more presets, some step-sequencer enhancements, and a couple of deep features like probability sequencing and the synth editor.
All in all, Circuit Tracks offer musicians at every level quite a bit. Whether you need a compact synth and drum workstation, a handy and portable drum machine to sequence your live setup, or a full-fledged studio workhorse, it has got you covered.
- Portable, battery-powered design
- Added step-sequencer improvements from the first iteration
- MicroSD card support
- No built-in speaker like the original version
Elektron Digitakt Drum Machine - Best Digital Drum Machine
Digitakt takes a uniquely digital approach with its hardware and software, offering a total of 16 channels split into eight MIDI channels and eight audio channels for sampling. As you’d expect with a digital architecture, you have the flexibility to load samples directly into its internal memory. However, what truly makes this drum machine a winner is the ability to sample sounds from external sources using Digitakt's audio inputs.
The sampling process is impressively seamless and quick. Best of all, you can do it without interrupting the step-sequencer, which helps keep your creative flow intact. I would say that hardware pegged as 'digital' sometimes gets an undeserved reputation for lacking depth or sounding cheap. Digitakt, however, has proved that stereotype wrong in many ways.
It packs quite a punch with its top-of-the-line sound engine. The overdrive and bit reduction features, in particular, are fantastic for adding grit and character to your sounds. Plus, the looping and sample manipulation tools take Digitakt into a uniquely experimental territory.
At first glance, it might appear like an average sampler. However, when you start to factor in its ample connectivity options and its powerful sequencing capabilities, Digitakt has what it takes to be a crucial piece of any studio or live performance rig.
- Solid MIDI sequencing capabilities
- Offers real-time performance and variation
- One of the best sampling engines for creative sound manipulation
- The file management aspect can be a bit confusing
- There aren't any velocity-sensitive pads or buttons onboard
Korg Drumlogue - Best Hybrid Drum Machine
Korg's Drumlogue, which the team put out back in 2022, joined the ranks of their Monologue and Minilogue synths as one of the most affordable and powerful additions to the Korg family. They market it as a “hybrid” drum machine, meaning that it combines sample playback and digital oscillators with analog drum synthesis. This makes it a solid choice for those who want a wide range of production techniques and sonic possibilities.
At first glance, the Drumlogue's presets reveal just how versatile this little machine is. It's capable of adapting to various genres, whether you're looking to produce glitchy IDM or heavy-htitting pounding hardstyle to new-age drum and bass.
What makes this versatility possible is the machine's diverse sound creation approach. It employs four highly customizable analog synth engines (for kick, snare, high toms, and low toms), as well as a digital module for hats), claps, and rim shots.
These elements work in harmony alongside the Multi-Engine, which is a multi-mode synth module based on noise generation and VPM. This module can even use custom sound generators created using the Drumlogue's open-source software.
On top of all this, Drumlogue has the ability to handle completely custom user samples, allowing you to layer them over the included synth engines.
The sounds in this drum machine can be processed and shaped with a variety of onboard digital effects, from reverb and delay sends to the diverse range of master effects, included a simple EQ, a compressor, a filter, and saturation.
If you're feeling creative, you can expand this selection by designing your own effects with the open-source software.
Connectivity is one of the other strong suits of Drumlogue, as it boasts six individual outputs, all of which can be routed how you like, and a dedicated headphone output. You'll also find two USB ports, analog sync in and out, an audio input, and MIDI in and out.
Essentially, this little drum machine plays nicely with just about any external hardware.
Overall, there's a lot to like about Drumlogue. We'd highly recommend it for beginner beatmakers in search of a versatile and functional middle-of-the-road drum machine.
- One of the most highly-customizable drum machines out there
- Very versatile sound engine that blends digital synthesis, samples, and analog drums
- Great randomization features
- The menus can be a pain to navigate
JoMox Alpha Base Drum Machine - Best Premium Drum Machine
JoMox's Alpha Base is a top-tier drum machine if there ever was one. The developers gave this drum machine a complete ground-up redesign compared to their earlier models like the 888, 999, and XBASE 09.
In fact, the entire thing is built on genuine analog architecture and packs a total of eleven instruments. Among these instruments, one is a 4-operator FM synth, two (the kick and the membrane) are purely analog, and eight are sample-based. However, even the sample-based instruments get the analog treatment, so you can still expect that fat warmth.
Overall, the Alpha Base delivers a massive sound and couples it with a comprehensive step-sequencer. As the cherry on top, it throws in some handy features like eight balanced individual outputs, an SD card slot for sample transfers, and sampling inputs. Though it might be incredibly expensive compared to some of the more budget-friendly drum machines on this list, it's a smart choice for professional beatmakers who want top-notch quality.
- Very easy to use
- One of the best drum machines on the market in terms of sound
- Very powerful group of outputs for live performance and complex electronic music production
Drum Machine Buying Guide
While your budget should undoubtedly be a big consideration when picking out a drum machine, it shouldn't be your sole focus.
There are many things that matter, from sound quality to portability and beyond. Let’s take a look at a few of the most important things to consider.
If you're planning to take your drum machine on stage for a live performance, you'll need one with a smooth performance workflow and a user-friendly interface. The last thing you want is to get bogged down in endless menu diving when you’re trying to get into the flow. Plus, you'll definitely appreciate decent-sized pads for easy navigation and live performance, rather than tiny, fiddly buttons, especially if you’re playing on a dark stage.
Being able to chain different patterns together to create full songs is essential. You’ll want to be able to program your machine to handle the entire track while you play your instruments over it or even quickly switch between different patterns while you’re performing.
When working with a drum machine, it's important to think about how you'll handle individual drum sounds. Depending on your setup, you might want to process them through a multi-channel audio interface or a mixing desk/console, so you’ll need to look at how many outputs your drum machine offers.
In an ideal world, you get a separate output for each sound. This way, you can send each sound to its own channel and apply unique processing and effects as you see fit. On the other hand, if the drum machine you have only provides a single stereo output, for example, it's workable, but you'll have to get a bit creative with how you process.
You also might end up having to do multiple passes with individual sounds in solo mode when you’re recording, transferring each element in your groove one by one to your DAW for further processing. The annoying thing about this is that it can severely disrupt your workflow.
Ease of Use
If you’ve never played around with a drum machine before, then some of the options on this list can look a bit overwhelming. There are many different buttons, switches, pads, faders, and menus you can easily get lost in if you’re not careful.
Of course, practice makes perfect, and the longer you use a specific unit, the more comfortable you’ll feel with it. However, for some producers and musicians, the ease of use aspect is a priority. You might want to be able to hit the ‘on’ switch and start jamming right away
If you plan on simply using your drum machine in the studio and you have time to make your beats, you might not mind having to surf through an endless array of menu windows to get the sounds you hear in your head. However, if you’re playing live, you might want something that is more intuitive so you can stay in the flow state as you’re performing.
The important thing is to find something that feels intuitive to you, as you’ll have a ton more fun playing it.
Drum machines have shed their '80s bulk, but in many ways, size still matters. Smaller ones can be a bit fiddly to program and not ideal for live performances, especially if they have tiny knobs and buttons.
On the other hand, bigger units are better for performances but demand more studio real estate.
If you're a casual musician or enjoy jamming with friends, a compact, battery-powered option might be your best bet.
Different Types of Drum Machines
Hardware drum machines rely on different sound engines. The question that most beginner buyers wonder is what's the deal with these engines?
In general, you can group drum machine sound engines into a handful of categories:
- Analog (or virtual analog)
- FM (frequency modulation)
Many drum machines often play mix and match with these approaches, such as using analog synthesis for certain sounds and samples for others. Some of them even allow you to blend everything together.
To help you determine which one of these sound engines might best gel with your style and workflow, let’s take a look at what you can expect from each.
Analog drum machines often use basic subtractive synthesis, taking noise generators and oscillators and jazzing them up with filters, amplitude envelopes, and pitch envelopes to mimic the vibes of real-world drums.
The result is the warm, punchy, and full-bodied sound of analog that we all know and love. The major downside of an analog drum machine is that it doesn’t always come with the bells and whistles of their digital cousins.
If you want the best of both worlds, it can be a good idea to look for virtual analog drum machines, as these are basically digital clones of analog.
FM synthesis uses two or more oscillators to work, all of which are set up for audio-rate modulation. The beauty of FM is that you get some seriously complex, mind-bending sounds.
Historically, FM hasn't been the go-to choice for crafting percussion sounds, though as of late, it has had a bit of a comeback. You'll find it driving the engine of gear like Roland's TR-6S, Elektron's Model:Cycles, and Arturia’s DrumBrute Impact, to name a few.
While FM synthesis drum machines are often linked to those bell-like, metallic tones, it also has the ability to deliver hefty, bass-driven kick sounds too.
Sample-based drum machines do their thing using recorded samples. You can usually tweak these sounds using pitch control and envelopes to add your own flavor.
The magic here is that sample drum machines ride on the quality of their source audio. So, if you feed your sample-based drum machine high-quality samples, you can bring a load of realism and personality to the table compared to synthesized drum machines.
When you're in the market for a drum machine, keep your budget in mind and make sure to explore the different features of each to see what best aligns with your needs.
While I love all of the best drum machines on this list for their own reasons, there are so many more out there to explore. Find one that fits your style and you’ll no doubt enjoy that added tangible dimension it brings to your music.