In the world of music production and performance, drum machines have become an essential tool for producers, musicians, and DJs alike.
Full blown drum kits are fine of course – whether electronic or acoustic – but not everyone has the room (or the neighbors) to accomodate a drummer belting away at full tilt. Not only that, sometimes drum machines offer a particular sound that is unique to them.
I’m showing my age here, but my first electronic drum machine was the rather odd Yamaha MR10 ‘personal studio system drum machine’ which I bought in about 1982.
Complete with finger pads you could bash, it sounded like those weird rhythm patterns you used to get built into ‘home’ organs – complete with exploding potato chip packet style snare drums.
My first ‘serious’ drum machine however was the Yamaha RX21 in 1984 which I bought alongside a Tascam 244 portastudio and a Casio CZ101 mini-synth. Instant home studio!
At the time, I thought this was the dog’s dangly bits. It had 9 voices, 40 preset patterns held in ROM, 56 user programs and a newly invented thingy called MIDI. No individual outs but I didn’t care – this was a state-of-the art drum machine back in the day!
Today, standalone hardware drum machines have predictably lost ground to VST plugins like Toontrack’s EZDrummer and XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums. But let’s do a quick A/B comparison for a second.
- Standalone drum machines vs VST drum plugins
- 1. Best Overall: Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer
- 2. Elektron Analog Rytm MKII
- 3. Best Value for Money: Arturia DrumBrute Impact
- 4. Best for Beginners: Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm Machine
- 5. Alesis SR18
- 6. Best for live performance: Singular Sound BeatBuddy
- 7. IK Multimedia UNO Drum
- 8. Boss DR-01S Rhythm Partner
- The Bottom Line
Standalone drum machines vs VST drum plugins
Standalone drum machines are hardware instruments that can be used independently of a computer. They often offer tactile controls and can be used in live performances or studio settings.
VST drum plugins – like Toontrack’s EZDrummer – are software instruments that require a computer/digital audio workstation (DAW) to operate. They typically offer a wide range of sounds, extensive sound manipulation capabilities and generally more realistic drum sounds.
Standalone drum machines: Pros
Tactile controls; portability; can be used in live performances; often have a unique character or sound.
Standalone drum machines: Cons
Can be more expensive; limited sound options compared to VST plugins; may require additional hardware for full functionality.
But whether it’s nostalgia, a specific sound you’re after or just the fact that you can use them in a live environment, there’s still a place – and demand – for the humble drum machine.
But it’s important to make educated choices – and as there’s a ton of drum machines out there in the marketplace, that’s where we come in. In this best drum machine article we’ve distilled everything down to bring you our 8 top picks.
Drum machines, in essence, are no different to any other commodity we buy – we all want the best bang for our back. In this article we’ll be reviewing each product with three criteria in mind: sound quality, ease of use, and value for money.
So let’s get started!
The music equipment space is full of manufacturers revitalising their vintage equipment from a bygone age and giving them a modern facelift.
With Roland’s legendary back catalogue of drum machines, you know you’re onto a winner and that’s exactly what the TR-8S Rhythm Performer is. It bags top spot in our best drum machine shortlist.
Because with this nifty beat maker, you get faithful recreations [courtesy of Roland’s Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) technology] of every sound from the iconic TR 808, 606, 909, 707 and 727 drum machines at your fingertips.
You can also import your own custom samples (max length = 180 seconds at 44.1kHz) which is a big improvement over the previous TR-8 model.
Samples can be imported from SD card for playback in both WAV and AIFF formats. The card can also be used for backup purposes.
But that’s not all – the latest firmware updates for the TR-8S also enable FM sounds on some instruments and presets. FM synthesis can be combined with more traditional drum sounds through a process called Morphing to produce some pretty whacky tones.
Morphing is sweepable (using the CTRL knob) to vary the mix between original and full-on FM sound – and some are pretty crazy and other worldly in a good way. The sweep affects FM depth, ratio and feedback.
You can mix and match, layer, edit, combine and tweak the tones to your heart’s content via a control section (tune, decay, and assignable CTRL knob) on each instrument channel and save your creations to build custom kits.
There’s also an all-encompassing effect section that works at both instrument and master levels. This includes a ton of reverbs and delays as well compression, overdrive, fuzz, distortion, flangers, phasers, fatteners, high and low pass filters and vinyl sims.
The TR-8S can store 128 patterns – which can include the tempo, kit details and effects – each containing eight variations plus three fill types. There are more than 300 preset sample tones built into the TR-8S and 11 fader-driven assignable instrument parts (tracks) available.
- Fantastic array of sounds available from just about every legendary Roland drum machine that ever existed – plus FM synthesis to go beyond simple drum sounds and the ability to use your own samples. Excellent presets
- 6 assignable individual outputs for independent drum processing
- Good onboard sequencer with three recording options: real-time via pads; real-time using the velocity sensitive pad; and traditional TR style step sequencing
- Excellent in both live and studio settings
- There’s a lot of sound control/editing features on this drum machine, but the layout is pretty intuitive. We like the fader strips
- TR Editor software app for Windows and Mac simplifies editing
- Good connectivity: USB; MIDI in/out; trigger out; mix out (left, right) jacks; phones
- With so much functionality available, some menu diving to get to where you need to be is inevitable
- Sonically, purist vintage Roland drum machine aficionados may be a little disappointed. But that’s really not what the TR-8S is all about
- Auto fill mode can get a little predictable – easily remedied by programming your own fills
- Quite expensive
With so much heritage in the drum machine department, it would be easy for Roland to rest on its laurels and just re-badge products from its back catalog. But that simply isn’t the case with the TR-8S.
It has all the trademark sounds from the Roland beat boxes of yesteryear but with a modern twist and a wealth of enhancements. Seriously recommended and a worthy winner.
This is an 8 voice, 12 track (pad) analog drum machine and sampler – which basically means that a maximum of 8 individual drum sounds can be output at any one time.
There are 12 large, tactile, backlit, velocity sensitive pads. There’s a drum sound assigned to each pad and each voice has its own output on the rear panel for optimum control over individual drums.
The pad/voice setup might seem a bit confusing but basically any of the 12 pads can be assigned to any of the 8 drum voices.
Some of the tracks (3/4; 7/8; 9/10; and 11/12) are ‘shared/choked’ tracks (denoted by a ‘II’ symbol) which means that although you can select different drum sounds on each, only one can be played at any one time. Two voices share one pad basically.
Behind each pad (metaphorically speaking) are editable analog sound engines called machines. You get onboard analog drum sounds, plus samples, plus you can use your own samples. Central to the whole operation is a high resolution, crisp OLED 128 x 64 pixel display
Along the bottom of the unit are 16 step or trig buttons. Where you can manually input beats in true step sequencer style. Patterns can be up to 64 steps (4 x 16).
Plenty of connectivity on the rear panel. MIDI in out and thru; USB port for sending MIDI in and out plus audio. Two audio options: class compliant audio over USB where the unit acts as an audio interface, or via Overbridge.
For the record, Overbridge Is a plugin downloadable from the Elektron website which allows integration of Elektron hardware with your computer, either standalone or via your DAW. You can also use the plugin to control and edit parameters on the Rytm drum machine itself.
The sound options available are simply vast and the quality of said sounds is very impressive. Tons of sound shaping capabilities here either via the analog drums or layering with samples to create truly unique tones. You can also load your own samples.
And if that’s not enough there’s a range of fully editable analog filters and effects that can be applied either per voice or as master effects. These include reverb, delay, distortion, compression and LFO.
For assembling patterns and songs, there are three modes of sequencing: grid, live in real-time, and step recording.
- The analog synth, sampling capabilities, filters and effects offer an absolutely vast range of high quality sound shaping options
- Versatile sequencing: choose between grid, real-time and step recording
- Not just a drum machine – basic synth bass and lead samples available
- The sounds are excellent and the editing capabilities extensive. The analog sound engine offers something that arguably digital drum machines don’t – whether this is desirable of course is down to personal taste
- Again this will depend on user requirements but individual outputs are a worthwhile inclusion
- Overbridge, working in conjunction with your DAW in a recording environment really does streamline workflows
- Although there’s 1GB of storage onboard, it can’t be expanded
- Only 8 voice polyphony which users may find restricting
- The Rytm’s interface, while intuitive, may be totally daunting to some users. It is complex because of all the functionality this drum machine can offer
- It’s expensive which could put it beyond the reach of budget conscious musicians
A monster of a drum machine with some killer sounds. One of the best analog drum machines available today.
It will appeal to those musicians making electronic music where the capability for layering digital samples with analog drums along with extensive editing options, effects and filters can be put to good use.
A great drum machine, live and in the studio. Be prepared to put in a shift or two to really learn how to use this thing though. You’ll be glad you did!
The DrumBrute Impact is the younger (and cheaper) sibling of the DrumBrute from French company Arturia.
They’re both great drum machines, but in an identity parade, there are differences:
The Impact has 10 different instruments compared to the DrumBrute’s 17; the Impact has a distortion control on the master output whereas the DrumBrute has a resonance filter. And the DrumBrute has 12 individual instrument outputs where the Impact has only 4.
It’s an analog drum machine so its sounds are derived not from samples, but from dedicated analog circuits. 10 analog instruments are accessible via 8 velocity sensitive pads with controllable sound shaping parameters on each channel.
Yep we know 10 doesn’t go into 8 mathematically, but it does if some of the sounds share a single pad which is the case here. Drum wise you get a kick, two snares, hi and low toms, cymbal, cowbell, closed hat, open hat, and an FM drum – a basic FM synth.
The onboard sounds are impressive, but a couple of additional extras enhance things even further: a fully adjustable distortion circuit on the master output which varies from light crunch to distorted mayhem; and a Color feature which adds an additional tonal layer to the standard sounds.
Considering its modest price, this analog synth punches well above its weight and there’s a ton of useful bells and whistles thrown in – like a looper, roller (for drum rolls) plus Swing and Random controls.
Sequencing on the DrumBrute Impact is relatively straightforward. There are 4 banks (ABCDE) with 16 patterns in each bank. When you want to sequence a pattern, you can access 16 steps across 4 pages.
This effectively means you can sequence up to 64 steps at a time (4 x 16). Sequencing can be carried out in both real- and step-time. Songs are constructed by building up sequences of patterns – and you can chain up to 16 patterns together.
- With the different sound options like Color plus channel control knobs and effects (the distortion is excellent), you can get some really punchy drum sounds out of this little unit
- Great value for money. The price is fantastic for what you get
- Nice, simple to use sequencer. Record in real- or step-time
- The looper and roller are nice touches. Great for live performances
- This is an analog drum machine only so it’s not the most versatile. No sampling recording or playback for example
- No motion sequencing capability. You can’t automate parameters like filter cutoff, resonance and envelope settings
The Arturia DrumBrute Impact bags a landslide victory in our best bang for your buck award simply because you get a simple to use drum machine that sounds excellent.
While corners have been cut to keep costs down, these are negligible. Good job Arturia!
With such modest dimensions of just 7.6 x 4.5 x 1.8 inches (193 x 115 x 45mm) (WDH) and weighing a featherlite 0.8lbs (372g) without batteries, it would be easy to dismiss the Korg Volca Beats as a toy.
In reality however, this is a very usable drum machine. OK it’s not as feature rich as many of the products on this list, but that’s because it’s designed to be lightweight, and portable for musicians on the go.
This is reflected in the price, and it also snares our ‘best for beginners’ award because it’s simple to use, enabling you to get up and running making beats relatively quickly.
The Korg Volca Beats analog drum machine is unquestionably biased towards dance music, electronica and EDM. As its name suggests, it uses analog circuitry to produce the main drum sounds: kick, snare, hi-tom, lo-tom, closed hat and open hat.
Kick, snare, tom and hats have rotary parameter knobs for sound shaping options. Not easy to use though – the knobs are very small.
For additional tonal variety however, A PCM sound engine is included for four voices: clap, agogo and crash. The PCM samples are distinctly lo-fi, deliciously trashy and reminiscent of vintage 80s drum machines.
They complement the analog drums well – but a nice touch is that the speed and pitch of the samples can be changed – and recorded – in real-time which adds a melodic, tonal dimension to the sounds.
Another plus point is the Stutter feature which repeatedly re-triggers a particular drum sound or part to create drum rolls and delay type effects in sync with the song tempo.
It can be applied globally or per drum; you can have different settings on different drums, and these can be recorded in real-time as part of a sequence.
Portability was clearly high on the agenda when Korg designed the Volca Beats. You literally can take it anywhere as it runs on 6 x AA batteries although there is an optional AC adapter. It even has a passable built-in speaker.
The biggest downside of the Korg Volca Beats however is its measly memory capacity – just 8 memory banks (patterns) which you could use up easily in one song. There’s no way of backing up to anything external because there’s no MIDI out.
- Inexpensive, incredibly compact and portable – and fun to use
- The ability to record ‘melodic’ motion control on parameters like speed and pitch
- User-friendly interface. Nice step sequencer derived from the Korg Electribe
- Decent tones from the analog and PCM sound engines
- Limited memory. Only 8 memory banks
- Small and fiddly control knobs
- No multiple outs
- No USB connectivity to a computer/DAW. Only MIDI in
- Pads not velocity sensitive
The Korg Volca Beats is an ideal first drum machine because it’s simple to use and sounds good.
It is limited in memory, on board drum sounds and its inability to interface with your computer via USB but what it does, it does very well. Perfect for bashing out great beats with the minimum of fuss.
Alesis has been manufacturing high quality drum machines since dinosaurs roamed the earth. OK I just may be exaggerating a tad but the pedigree does reach back to 1988 when the company unveiled its HR16 drum machine.
Alesis’ most famous beatbox is arguably the SR16 hardware drum machine which emerged in 1990. The updated SR18 hit the stores in 2008.
Incredibly, both are still sold in bucket loads today – testament to the fact that VST plugins haven’t a blagged total market monopoly.
The Alesis SR18 is a high-definition, portable drum machine that offers a vast selection of drum, percussion, and bass sounds, making it ideal for various music genres and styles. There are 12 pads to access these sounds. There are 100 preset and 100 editable drum kits.
With over 500 drum and percussion sounds, 50 bass sounds, and built-in effects such as reverb, EQ and compression (note these are presets and are not editable), the SR18 provides a wide range of sonic possibilities in a portable and user-friendly package. One notable improvement over the SR16 is a LCD backlit screen
For variation, each pattern has an A&B version – and a ‘Fill’ button does what it says on the tin – inserts a fill. A really nice touch is the fact that a footswitch, like the Boss FS-6, can control these parameters in a live performance.
Note you’ll need TWO footswitches for full control. Or a dual pedal variant like the Boss.
If portability is important to you, the SR18 can run on 6 x AA batteries.
Overall, the Alesis SR18 is a powerful and flexible drum machine that offers a range of decent features at an affordable price point considering its age.
- Extensive sound library, high-definition sounds, portable design, built-in effects, and ease of use. It’s one of the few drum machines not dedicated to hip-hop/electronica so one of its clear strengths is its versatility for rock, pop, reggae and everything in between
- 500 drum sounds – plenty of choice to make up your own drum kits. This is a versatile drum machine covering just about every musical style – and it still sounds good today
- The inclusion of drums and bass, mean this is a decent practise tool
- Easy to use backlit display
- The A/B pattern choices and fills make this a great drum machine in a live setting. Get a pair of footswitches as well for on the fly improvisation
- Nostalgia may be forcing me to see the SR18 through rose tinted glasses, but to some, the sounds may sound outdated
- Dated interface
- The bass sounds are welcome – but average
- Many of the presets are heavy handed on effects. You can bypass but not edit them
In any best drum machines list, it’s becoming more difficult to recommend ROM-based drum machines against the powerful drum machine plugins that are around today – particularly for recording.
But it would be unfair to write the Alesis SR18 off because not everyone wants extensive sound design capabilities; they just need a decent sounding beat box they can use live.
In that regard, this ticks all the boxes. There are literally tons of onboard sounds to choose from – acoustic and electronic drums, one-shots, and modern percussion. And basses of course.
It’s still, after all these years, a really usable drum machine. It’s a bestseller for a reason. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s portable, runs on batteries as an option and is built like a tank.
And now for something completely different. Because what we have here is a move away from synthetic drum sounds to the real thing.
The BeatBuddy looks – and operates – just like a guitar pedal stompbox but inside this ingenious little device is a fully functioning drum machine with 24-bit sound, more than 220 styles across two dozen genres. The drum sounds are superb.
The BeatBuddy is more than just a drum machine; it’s an interactive, customizable, and highly expressive instrument that can revolutionize your live performances, practice sessions, or songwriting endeavors.
What sets it apart from other drum machines is its innovative design and user-friendly interface. Housed in a durable, pedal-style casing, this drum machine is designed for easy, hands-free operation.
With its high-quality sound samples, extensive customization options, and intuitive controls, the Beat Buddy allows musicians to create drum patterns and beats that cater to their styles and preferences.
SD cards are integral to the BeatBuddy’s operation. One is supplied with the unit and all content – beats, drum sets and settings – are stored on said card. It can also be used for backups and firmware updates.
Although you can use this in a recording environment, it’s probably best used in a live situation whether gigging, rehearsing or practising.
Foot (or hand) taps control what the pedal does: tap once and the beat starts with optional intro fill; tap again and you get an insert fill.
Tap and hold; you can seamlessly enter a transition (verse to chorus say); release, and you end the transition; double tap and you’ll end the song with an optional outro fill.
A footswitch is available – and recommended – for the BeatBuddy (LINK)
- Intuitive, hands-free operation with extensive customization options
- High-quality sound samples
- Great for live performances, practice, and songwriting
- BeatBuddy Manager software allows extensive editing capabilities. You can even import your own drum samples
- Full MIDI capability
- Quite expensive
- May not be suitable for users who require more complex sequencing capabilities
It’s up there with the best drum machines sonically even though the format isn’t exactly conventional.
The Singular Sound BeatBuddy contains a ton of awesome sounds in a neat little package. It’s ideal for solo musicians, duos, singer-songwriters and/or guitarists and bassists looking to add a drummer to their setup. And it’s all hands free.
It comes preloaded with over 200 professionally recorded drum patterns across various genres, including rock, jazz, blues, country, and more so there really is something for everyone here.
IK Multimedia’s UNO Drum is a versatile analog/PCM drum machine with 64 step sequencer designed to cater to the needs of professional musicians and producers alike.
However, with its combination of analog drums and PCM samples, the UNO Drum offers users a decent palette of sounds through its 11 voice polyphony.
Like many modern drum machines, it should come as no surprise that this is aimed squarely at electronic/hip hop/pop style genres. No acoustic kits here folks!
There are 12 pads and 6 analog voices (kick 1, kick 2, snare, clap, open hat and closed hat) and a pretty generous memory that accommodates 100 kits and 100 drum patterns.
We particularly like the kick – especially when tuned down. The hats and clap aren’t too shabby either.
The PCM library spices up the sonic smorgasbord with 54 choices to pick from covering a range of rims, cowbells, rides, crashes and toms.
This is an incredibly compact and lightweight drum machine – but its plastic chassis feels a bit toy-like and cheap.
The UNO is powered via USB or 4 x AA batteries so portability shouldn’t be an issue – but we weren’t too impressed with the battery life.
- Decent sound quality. The UNO Drum’s combination of editable (level, tune, snap and decay) analog and PCM sounds allows for a wide range of sonic possibilities
- Portability: its compact design and battery-powered option make it an excellent choice for live performances and mobile studio setups. Wish the battery life was better though
- Generous memory: 100 kits; 100 patterns
- Ease of Use: The intuitive interface and straightforward controls allow for quick and easy manipulation of drum sounds, patterns, and effects
- Good value for money
The effects are erm, effective if basic. Compression keeps things tight while Drive adds a nice helping of crunch. There’s also a Stutter effect
- Poor battery life – and there’s no power adapter option (only USB)
- Hardware feels a bit cheap and flimsy
- Top panel buttons not particularly tactile
- No individual outputs which limits flexibility
The IK Multimedia UNO Drum is a powerful, compact drum machine that offers an impressive combination of analog and PCM sounds, making it suitable for various musical styles.
Its ease of use, portability, and competitive price make it an appealing option for both beginners and experienced musicians.
However, users seeking more extensive analog sound options or the ability to import custom samples may find its limitations restrictive.
Overall, the UNO Drum is a well-rounded and capable drum machine that delivers significant value for the price. Check it out on Amazon here
With the Boss DR-01S, we’re sticking with the acoustic kit vibe.
The DR-01S is a compact, portable digital drum machine designed for acoustic musicians, offering natural-sounding percussion instruments and simple controls.
It’s ideal for musos who want a drum machine that complements their music without the complexity of more advanced drum machines.
With its release in the early 2020s, the DR-01S stood out as a compact and versatile percussion instrument. Its primary aim is to provide a rhythmic backbone for solo performers, singer-songwriters, and small ensembles.
It comes equipped with an extensive collection of built-in organic percussion sounds, including tambourines, shakers, bongos, congas, maracas, claves, cowbells and much more.
It also features an onboard speaker with impressive projection and clarity, making it suitable for a variety of settings. You can of course hook it up to a more powerful system – and there’s an aux input for connecting to a smart device.
The user interface is straightforward and designed for ease of use, allowing musicians to quickly create and customize their own rhythm patterns.
The DR-01S also includes a built-in metronome and seven simultaneous instrument parts, enabling users to layer multiple sounds to create a rich and full percussion section.
Live, you’ll almost certainly need a footswitch like the Boss FS-6. These ain’t cheap, so bear that in mind.
With a diverse range of styles and patterns to choose from, the DR-01S caters to various genres, including folk, rock, blues, country, world music and jazz.
- Natural-sounding percussion, easy to use, portable design, and tailored for acoustic musicians
- Dedicated patterns in each instrument category with the ability to layer instruments in real-time. You can save 50 of your favorite combinations for instant recall
- User friendly interface
- The onboard 7W 4” speaker is pretty good. Ideal for practise
- Battery or mains operated (power adapter included)
- Limited sound options; less versatile than other drum machines. No advanced sequencing options
- No MIDI or USB connectivity for integration with DAWs or other music production software
- For live use, you’ll need a footswitch – great but more cost
The DR-01S is somewhat unique in this best drum machines list because despite its obvious limitations, for what it does, there’s nothing else that really compares.
It’s designed for solo performers, duos and singer songwriters who need simple to use, no-frills acoustic drum accompaniment. It’ll appeal particularly to folk, country and world music aficionados.
For these people, it ticks all the right boxes. It’s called a rhythm partner for good reason!
The Bottom Line
There’s not a bad drum machine in this list but what emerges clearly is that products, very broadly, tend to be in two main camps: (1) drum machines those designed primarily for electronic and dance music and (2) those for everything else.
It’s important to realise that the horses for courses rule applies here. If you don’t like electronica, you won’t be looking at analog drum machines like the TR-8S or the Korg Volca Beats.
Similarly, if you like retro stuff you might go for something like the Alesis SR18 drum machine. If you’re a guitarist, the BeatBuddy could well appeal.
And then of course there’s the somewhat quirky Boss DR-01S which is totally unlike most drum machines around. But it’s designed to do a specific job. And it does that job supremely well.
Styles and preferences aside however, and all things considered, our overall winner is the Roland TR-8S drum machine.
But here’s a quick resume of all our top picks: