Poor drummers. With the arrival of electronic drum machines on the scene in the 1980s, so much music turned to programmed beats. Drummers are still great, don’t get me wrong. There’s just less work for them now.
Or is there?
After all, drummers make beats, so turning from a live drummer to a beat producer is a logical step. But to do that, you need a great drum machine.
These electronic gadgets can be used to invent and sequence beats in the studio or to play live. They’re even great accompaniment for live acoustic drums too. So let’s check out the best drum machines currently on the market and find the perfect one for you…
Top 8 Best Drum Machines for All Budgets in 2021 Reviews
1 Teenage Engineering PO-12 Pocket Operator Rhythm Drum Machine – Best Budget Drum Machine
To me, it only makes sense to start with the most affordable drum machine and work our way up to the most expensive. You know your needs best, and if you’re already sure you’re going to need a powerful studio-quality drum machine, go on and skip ahead a bit.
But on the other hand, if you’re just starting in beat production, the ultra-affordable PO-12 Pocket Operator Rhythm might be the best first drum machine for you to try. At a little more than $50, this machine is a tiny investment which makes it a great gift for a first-time producer, even if that producer is yourself.
What can you do with it?
This machine is tiny at just 4 by 2.5 inches. But it still has some great features to make it a whole lot of fun. There are 16 built-in patches (individual sounds) to make beats from. Each sound can be edited according to 16 different effects, like vibrato, delay, distortion, stutter, and more. In other words, you can make each beat sound way different from the last.
Since the magic number here is 16, this machine allows you to create 16-step patterns that you can then sequence up to a 16-pattern chain to create a song. You can listen to your beats in real-time via the small built-in speaker on the back of the machine, or by playing out to a speaker or headphones via its 1/8” (3.5mm) jack.
On the negative side…
This machine is fragile. You’re essentially playing with some buttons stuck on a circuit board. So it’s a good idea to be a bit careful with your big sausage fingers.
- Ultra-cheap and ultra-portable.
- Lots of versatility in sound editing functions.
- Very small and delicate – may be tricky to use for the ham-handed producer.
- Limited functions and connectivity.
2 Akai Professional MPD218 – Best Compact Drum Machine
Look at this hulking great beast of a machine. At 9” by 8”, the Akai MPD218 is like a giant next to the Teenage Engineering PO-12. However, it’s still small and makes for a great portable drum machine in the grand scheme of things.
But at double the price of the PO-12, what does it do that’s better?
For starters, it has 16 velocity-sensitive thick rubber pads for playing out your beats with or triggering melodic samples or effects. And it has a set of six 360-degree knobs split into three banks (A, B, and C) for controlling effects and instrument parameters.
This machine connects to your computer’s DAW using MIDI via USB, so you don’t need any special cables or connections. From your DAW, it’s easy to assign up to 48 patches. So, you can play the pads to produce drum and percussion sounds, pitched melodic samples like bass tones, or even straight-up crazy electronic noises. The choice is yours.
A big software bundle…
You get Ableton Live Lite, as well as Sonivox Big Bang Cinematic Percussion and Universal Drums. So you get started with a great sequencing program and some fantastic drum, percussion, and instrument sounds.
Now, some people aren’t happy with how this drum machine handles. I think it does a good job of picking up velocity differences to a point. But when you hit the pads really hard, they can sometimes double-trigger.
The solution, short of cracking it open and fine-tuning the pads, is to keep calm and not smash the buttons so hard. I know that’s hard to do in a live performance, but it’s necessary here to prevent goofs.
- Good sensitivity with big, easy-to-play pads.
- Software bundle gives you a great start on production.
- Cheap price and compact design.
- Pads can double-trigger if played really hard.
- Only USB connectivity with no standard 5-pin MIDI in/out.
3 Alesis SR-16 Drum Machine – Best Selling Drum Machine
If you haven’t had a chance to play on an Alesis SR-16 yet, you don’t know what you’re missing. Alesis dropped this drum machine in 1990 and produced it consistently for 20 years. Although they’re out of production, you can still find new ones easily enough. Alesis might have over-produced a bit.
This was a breakthrough machine because of the compact size and especially the price. As a result, it is still one of the most popular drum machines on the market.
The machine comes with 50 preset drum kits assigned to the 12 labeled pads, plus space for another 50 user-designed kits. These are constructed out of 233 preloaded sounds. Most of these sounds are more electronic sounding than realistic, but they work great for pop, hip-hop, and electronic music.
Along with the onboard sounds…
You get 50 pre-programmed patterns made by real studio drummers. You can record and store about 100 songs, each about 12,000 notes in size. Of course, you can always export your beats to your DAW for clean-up, editing, and after-effects. You’ve got MIDI out and four ¼” jacks for stereo out as well.
As far as playing this machine live, the pads are velocity-sensitive, but they’re also small and close together. It’s not the easiest for live performance, but it is doable. Much better to build up your sequences and trigger them live. You can even attach outboard footswitches (sold separately) to control start/stop or to trigger A and B sections of songs.
Needs some illumination…
If you are thinking of playing this machine live, make sure you have enough light, though. The buttons are hard to see, and the LED display is quite dim. That said, this continues to rank among the best drum machines you can buy.
- Legendary machine still selling for around $150.
- Lots of output, memory, and pre-programmed sounds.
- Patches can sound a bit old and cheesy.
- The LED display is very dim.
- Pads are hard to play live.
4 Korg Volca Drum – Best Drum Machine for Producing Unique Sounds
Korg is renowned for its crunchy synths and great drum machines. For about $150, you can pick up one of them – the Korg Volca Drum digital percussion synthesizer.
Just what is this machine?
As a digital percussion synthesizer, the Volca Drum doesn’t use PCM samples like most other drum machines. Instead, it uses virtual analog resonators, modulators, and oscillators to allow you to create your own sounds. This means you can end up with sounds that are way weird and way out there.
You can assign sixteen 6-part drum kits here, or use one of the ten pre-programmed kits already on board. The sounds that you assign can be manipulated in many ways, including pitch levels, decay, wave modulation, attack, and release.
For composing beats, you’ve got a 16-step sequencer controlled by a touch strip across the bottom of the machine. You can add rolls to your beats using a Slice function, and also add accents at 16 different strength levels. For live play, you can program your sequences and then use the Active Step feature to drop out some steps from your patterns on the fly.
A different type of machine to play…
One that probably requires a deep analysis of the user’s manual to find out all the functionality available. At the same time, you can produce some unique sounds and sequences here for deep, complex, or just plain weird beats. Unfortunately, there’s only one way out of this machine – a ¼” audio jack, and that’s pretty restrictive for recording.
- Great for producing unique sounds.
- Deep, layered drum synthesizer for a very affordable price.
- Playing live is not so easy without strikeable pads.
- Very involved and difficult to master all the functionality of this machine.
- Single audio output.
5 Elektron Model:Cycles – Best Sequencer Synth Drum Machine Combo
Moving up from the Volca Drum, we get to the Elektron Model:Cycles. By moving up, I mean doubling the price to about $300.
So what does that get you?
This is a small, less than two pounds machine, but it does an awful lot of work. It’s a polyphonic FM (frequency modulation) drum synth paired with a 64-step sequencer. As a synth, this is six machines in one. Generating Kick, Snare, Perc, Metal, Tone, and Chord sounds, respectively.
The machine is very knob-heavy. You get 12 individual control knobs for features like pitch, decay, sweep, color, contour, etc. These knobs help you to control the preset synth sounds of this groovebox to make some really sick voices.
There’s no access to full FM tinkering, like algorithm and operator settings. Instead, you use the parameters to manipulate the voices to get a really wide variety of sounds.
The sounds themselves don’t tend to approach realistic drum sounds. You can definitely hear that this is a synth, and that’s the idea. But with the mono tones and polyphonic chords, you can produce full, complicated tracks. Too bad a basic arpeggiator wasn’t included here, though.
Model:Cycles connects through included MIDI 5-pin to 3.5mm jack adapters or through class compliant USB-2. There’s only one pair of Stereo Out jacks, though, which is a bit of a disappointment for sending your grooves out to a DAW.
The workflow here may take some getting used to. But it’s not all that complicated and has a logic to it that you’ll come to appreciate. And it comes with a 3-year warranty. Not bad.
- Good price for a drum machine/sequencer/polyphonic tone synth machine.
- Powerful 64-step sequencing.
- A simple arpeggiator should have been included.
- A limited number of outputs.
6 Roland TR-6S Rhythm Performer – Best Value for the Money Drum Machine
Like many, you might think of electric pianos and expensive electronic drum sets when you think of Roland. But the truth is, this high-end electronic instrument brand has been in the drum machine game for decades and has put out some well-known devices. The TR-808, TR-909, TR-606, and TR-707 are all some of the best classic beat machines.
And guess what?
They’re all included here in the TR-6S as detailed circuit models. Actually, the TR-6S is a scaled-down and more affordable version of the already well-known TR-8S. But while the 8S retails for about $700, this smaller version gets the job done for only about $400.
This is a 6-track drum machine that is totally mobile, running on four AA batteries or powered via USB. Therefore, it’s one of the best travel drum machines that can go with you wherever you need to drop a beat.
What can you do with it?
You have six voices in a track (bass, snare, low tom, handclaps, open and closed hi-hats) played with six velocity-sensitive pads. You also get two roll pads for 16th and 32nd note rolls. Each voice also has an individual accent button.
Then you have eight variation pads, A-H. So, you can write 16-step sequences and then eight different variations of each sequence which you can trigger live.
Variety and versatility…
Of course, there are tons of onboard drum kits to choose from. With all the classic sounds from the legendary 808 and others, plus more modern, clean drum sounds. There’s a very hip-hop direction to most of the out-of-the-box sounds, but that’s where your effects come in.
You can modify the pitch, modulation, attack, and much more for each sound. Then move on to track-wide effects like delay, reverb, and modulation, and apply filters to push your sounds to the max.
In short, this is one of the most versatile drum machines on the market. A tight package with a tight price.
- A more affordable version of the TR-8S with the same workflow.
- You can import your own samples via SD-card and export individual tracks as audio via USB.
- Controls can be tricky.
- Menus are difficult to navigate through.
7 Native Instruments Maschine MK3 – Best Drum Machine for Live Performances
We’ve moved up to an over $600 price tag now. But is the Maschine MK3 by Native Instruments even a drum machine? It hardly seems fair to call it just that.
Let’s start with the pads. This is probably the easiest drum machine to play by hand that I’ve looked at so far. It has 16 light-up, large rubber pads that can be toggled quickly using the mode buttons right above.
With these, you can play your percussion voices, synth tones, parts, or steps. You can also throw in quick rolls using the note repeat button. You can turn on and off velocity sensitivity as needed, whether you’re playing live or programming.
The Smart Strip…
This is a different type of control interface that lets you strum chords like you would on a guitar, as well as control parameters like the pitch and modulation wheels on keyboards. The Maschine also has eight touch-sensitive knobs that can do just about anything. One great way to use them is to set macros to them and then control the knobs in live performance.
But it does a lot more…
You can mix on this machine without even having to use an external DAW. It has two bright color screens that help you bring up samples, sequence parts, and control parameters quickly and easily.
You can use the Maschine to collect your own samples and slice and dice them to fit with your jams. That’s if the 25GB Komplete 11 Select library hasn’t got enough sounds for you to use already.
For connections, we’re looking at Stereo In and Out, MIDI In and Out, and USB. Plus a headphone jack as well. So you can play live and compose on this machine, or play out to a DAW to edit all your sounds perfectly.
- Robust machine with great playability.
- Huge library of sounds on-board.
- A steep learning curve to learn all the machine’s functionality.
8 Ableton Push 2 Controller – Best Premium Drum Machine
The last “drum machine” on my list is way more than that as well. The Ableton Push 2 Controller allows you to integrate seamlessly with Ableton Live, the most comprehensive and widely used production software package out there.
This machine is an instrument, a mixer, a sample launch pad, a drum machine, a sampler, and a step sequencer all in one. It is based around a huge array of 64 pads that can be used in all of the machine’s functions, from playing to triggering.
When playing in instrument mode, you can set up the pads as a full chromatic or in-key keyboard to block out notes that don’t work. Like the Maschine, there’s also a touch strip, vertical in this case, that can be set to control different parameters like pitch and modulation.
A whole lot to like…
The full-color screen gives easy access to your sound and sample libraries. For samples, you see the waveforms laid out for you to easily slice and manipulate. Also, when you incorporate your samples, you can play using warp mode to tune your samples to the notes you choose on your keyboard, automatically adjusting the entire pitch of the waveform.
When it’s time to edit, you can directly control parameters and edit on this machine without even having to go to a computer. Volume, pan, fade, you can control everything from this console without having to even turn to your computer screen.
Quality comes at a cost…
However, by connecting to your computer via USB, everything you do on the controller is pulled right into Ableton Live in real-time. True, it’s quite expensive, but that’s to be expected for one of the best all in one drum machines you can buy.
- A versatile and powerful piece of equipment that can do it all.
- Easy to play with great response and a huge array of sound possibilities.
- Designed to be used exclusively with Ableton Live, which might not be your preferred production program.
- Expensive – we’re up to around $800 for this machine.
How to Buy the Best Drum Machines
Step 1 – consult my list.
No, just kidding. The list above is a selection of some of the best drum machines across different price points, so it depends on what you need to use your machine for and what your budget is. Here are some of the other factors you probably really need to think about before you pick out your new toy.
To some, this might seem like a major consideration. After all, drum machines aren’t huge and bulky, so even the biggest is still portable. But what are you going to use yours for? If you want a permanent studio device, getting something bigger and bulkier is fine. It’s not going anywhere.
But if you’re going to be using this machine live, gigging around town, you might need something small and light. Likewise, your playing space might be taken up by keyboards or other synths.
Finally, some people want a battery-powered creative tool to allow them to compose on the toilet or riding the bus to work. A smaller machine with easy battery power is probably the way to go.
When you’re working with a DAW, it’s great to have a few audio outputs so you can record different sounds so that you can edit them individually later. If you only have one output, that’ll mean a whole lot of passes to lay down each sound as an individual track.
These days, most drum machines use USB for audio out as well as standard ¼” stereo jacks. MIDI In/Thru and Out is a must if you’re syncing up multiple devices.
Again, it depends on how you want to use your machine. Are you simply going to use it to trigger samples and individual sounds? Are you replacing a drummer by playing live beats by hand? Are you writing sequences on your own time? Pretty much any type of interface from firm pads to simple buttons works for sequencing.
For live play, fat rubbery/silicone pads are great. Bigger pads take up more space but allow you to play two-handed for a more natural feel. And the pads should have great sensitivity and trigger at each touch, of course.
On more basic machines, your choice of sounds will be limited to a few pre-programmed drum racks and some user-programmed sets. The more parameters you have to manipulate these sounds, the better. Choose a machine with set sounds that match the general style(s) that you want to work in.
For more powerful machines with lots of memory, this is less of a worry. Some sound banks are so big you’ll probably never even hear all the sounds in them, let alone use them in your compositions!
Is Making Beats in Your Blood?
We can help you find the perfect piece of percussion. Check out our in-depth Roland SPD-SX Review, our 2BOX D5 Drum It Five Electronic Drum Module Review, our Roland Octapad SPD-30 Review, our Roland Aira TR-8 Rhythm Performer Review, and our Arturia MicroFreak Review for awesome items currently available.
Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Beat Machines for Hip Hop, the Best Hardware Sequencers, the Best Portable Drum Kits, the Best Snare Drums, the Best Drumsticks, and the Best Drum Thrones you can buy in 2021.
What are the Best Drum Machines?
This was in no way an easy choice to make. From the hundreds of different models out there, I tried to pick the best machines at different price points to show you here. But if I have to take into consideration function, playability, and price, I’ll have to go with the…
This is a mid-priced machine with a whole lot of power. It lets you create and sequence great drum tracks, or play and manipulate your beats live with a straightforward interface. The machine gives you lots of sounds to choose from, from classic 808 sounds to modern and realistic drum sounds, to just plain weird.
Even though this is my fav, another machine might be the best fit for you. Get yourself a new toy and start producing. I’ll look forward to hearing your jams.
Until next time, let the beat go on.