Boxes for beats
The models already on the market vary enormously in terms of specs and price, but the common thread running through all of the products included here is that each one of them enables you to create beats without the need for any other gear. You won't find hybrid systems such as Native Instruments' Maschine and Arturia's SparkLE in this round-up, and we’ve excluded dedicated drum synths (ie, ones that don't have their own sequencers), too.
Enough about what isn't here, though: let's take a look at some of the best hardware drum machines that we’ve reviewed and you can buy right now.
Teenage Engineering PO-12 Rhythm
Teenage Engineering’s PO-12, from its Pocket Operator family, is about as cheap and affordable a drum machine as you’re ever going to find.
It offers 16 sounds (each with two adjustable parameters) that are triggered by one of the 16 (16-step) patterns. Patterns can be recorded live (and are automatically quantised), or programmed in step mode, where individual steps can be turned on or off for each sound via a 4x4 grid (buttons 1 to 16).
The sounds in the PO-12 lean very heavily towards those found on drum machines of the early '80s. This was a time when both analogue synthesis and limited bit-depth sampling techniques were used. So, think of the Roland TR series mixed with a Linn LM-1 or Oberheim DMX, but altogether more gritty and lo-fi - there's a lot of digital aliasing on some sounds.
Whilst we wouldn't say this little box has class, it does certainly have character. There's no MIDI, which is to be expected, and the workflow can take a bit of getting used to, but at this price, you can’t really go wrong.
Korg Volca Beats
Taking inspiration (we suspect) from Roland's classic TR-808, the Volca Beats has an analogue and PCM sound engine but offers digital control, meaning that knob tweaks and note info can be recorded into the built-in sequencer. This is limited to 16 steps, but you can record in real or step time. The unit can hold up to eight sequences and you can flip between these instantly.
Volca Beats has six analogue and four PCM sounds. The kick can be clicky or deep, the hats cut nicely, and the snare has a woody tone that can be further bolstered by layering a PCM clap or increasing the amount of 'snap'.
As with the other Volcas, connectivity options are somewhat limited. There's just a single stereo mini-jack output (though there is also a built-in speaker), a MIDI In port and Sync In/Out so that you can use the Beats with the other devices in the range. The Beats can be battery- or mains-powered, but you don't get a power supply in the box.
Ultimately, the Volca Beats is about fun, and that's what you'll have when you use it. If you want quality analogue drum sounds on a budget, look no further.
As a side note, Korg has the Volca Kick, a new groovebox dedicated to bass drum sounds, on the way, too.
MFB Tanzmaus and Tanzbär Lite
The Tanzbär Lite features a stripped-back selection of nine analogue sounds based on those found in MFB's flagship Tanzbär drum machine. These consist of a kick, snare, rimshot, clap, tom/conga, cowbell, clave, cymbal and hi-hat.
On the whole, the sounds are of a punchy and minimal variety; there's definitely a heavy x0x influence here, but the Lite has a certain metallic, raw quality that's all its own.
The Tanzmaus packs in five analogue drums - kick, snare, rimshot, clap and tom - and a pair of sample tracks. The sound here is grittier and meatier than on the Tanzbär. Each of the two sample sections offers a range of 16 built-in samples with a decay and pitch control.
As well as sharing a visual style, both drum machines have an almost identical workflow, which is far from intuitive. Given their passing resemblance to Roland's x0x boxes, we wrongly assumed that we'd be able to work out how to step sequence a drum pattern based merely on our knowledge of other drum machines and a little guesswork. In reality, we found ourselves needing to read the accompanying manual pretty much cover to cover in order to create a beat
With its lo-fi samples and beefy kick, the Tanzmaus is our personal favourite; without the need for any effects, it sounds ready to be plugged directly into the desk at Berghain in order to unleash its inner techno fury. Both machines are worth investigating, though; despite our issues with the workflow, we like them.
BUY: Read MFB Tanzmaus and Tanzbär Lite currently available from:
Roland Aira TR-8
The TR-8 is a digital drum machine that utilises Roland's ACB modelling engine (Analogue Circuit Behaviour), which aims to faithfully recreate analogue circuits and the way they behave. Models of TR-808 and TR-909 come as standard (there are no samples onboard), and there's also an add-on pack that gives you 707, 727 and 606 sounds, too (€100).
There are step and real-time recording modes, and you can create kits that mix 808 and 909 sounds together. There are 16 user-writeable patterns, each of which has two parts (A and B) of 16 steps each. These can be chained together to create 32-step patterns.
Sonically, the ACB technology has captured the essence of the original TR-808/909 amazingly well. In fact, these are the most authentic emulations we've heard in the digital domain. The sounds aren't static and subtly change on each step.
Great for live performance, the TR-8 also integrates well with your DAW, with an audio output-per-sound being provided over USB. And, crucially, it feels like it has the potential to be a new classic in the making.
Elektron Analog RYTM
At the heart of the RYTM is an eight-voice analogue/digital sound engine (with digital noise/envelopes/LFO) mated to a 13-track sequencer (including an FX track). Each track (except the FX) has a corresponding backlit pressure-sensitive rubber pad and each pad/track can contain one of Elektron’s 'machines' - self-contained synth engines dedicated to making a particular type of drum sound.
Sound-wise, there's much to love, and it's great that each track has an audio output on the back. Plus, there's an audio input for processing external audio through the built-in compressor. The RYTM excels at dark twisted electronica and 808/909 style drums, but it can do more natural drums/percussion too, particularly when employing the factory/user samples.
Elektron's Overbridge software, which fully integrates the RYTM with your DAW, makes this box an even more appealing purchase.
The RYTM is a powerful and accomplished drum machine that will keep most folks inspired for years. It's deep and sounds superb, and we highly recommend it to anyone wanting to take beat making out of the computer.
Dave Smith Instruments and Roger Linn Design Tempest
Made by two legendary electronic instrument designers and built with live performance in mind, the Tempest is an analogue/digital synth based on tweaked Evolver/Tetra/Prophet 08 voice chips that also comes with an MPC-style sequencer.
The Tempest's six-voice polyphonic sound engine has two digitally-controlled analogue oscillators (DCOs) and two digital oscillators containing one-shot drum machine samples.
So, how does it sound and feel? Well, imagine a pimped up MPC3000 or 60 sequencer attached to a DSI Mopho/Evolver with real-time control/effects and you get the idea. Recording beats is easy - simply press record while the sequencer is playing and the beat will loop. You can then overdub/erase sounds as you want (like on an MPC). You can also enter each sound manually using the 16 steps in event mode.
As you may have gathered, this is a seriously deep machine. It may be pricey, but no other drum machine on the market is this powerful in terms of hands-on synthesis.