And the beat goes on
Not so long ago, the very existence of the hardware drum machine was being called into question. Why, it was argued, when you can emulate pretty much any classic beatbox in software and then get something of its feel from a suitable MIDI controller, should you bother with a physical, standalone device?
For some people, generating all their rhythm tones in the box continues to be a satisfactory option - check out our guide to the 14 best VST plugin drum machines in the world today if you're one of them - but others have pressed for a return to old-school beatmaking, and new hardware drum machines have been released as result.
These vary enormously in terms of specs and price, but the common thread running through all of them is that each model enables you to create beats without the need for any other gear. As such, you won't find hybrid systems such as Native Instruments' Maschine and Arturia's SparkLE in this round-up; these are covered in our guide to 10 of the best MIDI pad controllers. 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 the hardware drum machines that you should be considering in 2014.
NEXT: Korg Volca Beats
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.
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. It's currently limited to models of TR-808 and TR-909 sounds (there are no samples onboard), but there's a possibility that Roland may add more of its classic drum machine sounds/models in the future.
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.
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.
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 UW mk2
Swedish company Elektron has a great reputation when it comes to making drum machines, and actually has a new one on the way in the shape of the Analog Rytm. The digital Machinedrum has been available for some time, though, and the SPS-1 UW mk2 is the most recent version.
There are four main types of MD percussion synths: TRX deals with Roland-style drum sounds (such as those found in the 808 and 909 machines); EFM is an FM-based drum synth, (great for metallic and chaotic sounds); E12 is based on samples taken from the E-MU SP-12/1200 12-bit sampler; and the PI synth deals with physically-modelled sounds (for realistic acoustic drums).
There's also the GND synth, which deals with noises, an INP machine for effecting the inputs (envelope follower plus gate) and MIDI/Control machines for controlling/sequencing external MIDI gear and internal parameters.
The percussion synths all sound punchy, realistic when appropriate, and are highly useable. The sound-shaping options are extensive, and you can sequence in real-time and step modes.
Above all, the Machinedrum SPS-1 UW mk2 has genuine character, and is an instrument that you could easily fall in love with.
The successor to Alesis's popular SR16 drum machine from the '90s, the SR18 is defiantly digital. It comes with a wide range of both acoustic-emulating and electronic kits and, unlike its forebear, also deals in percussion and bass tones.
If you've ever used a drum machine before, most of the controls here will be familiar: Step Edit, Roll, Fill, Tap Tempo, etc. Creating, editing and arranging patterns is simple, though step editing can be a little long-winded.
The sounds are generally of good quality, and free from any nasty digital noise artefacts. Sound processing, beyond the pitch, filter and envelope controls for each hit, comes in the form of 22 reverb presets (with a global send level) and 14 EQ/compression presets. Alongside the audio outputs you'll find MIDI I/O and footswitch inputs.
The SR18 is a simple and effective tool. It does look and feel very '90s, but it's a robust and portable package (you can power it from batteries or the mains) that fans of the SR16 will definitely enjoy.