With the exception of ambient or orchestral genres, drums provide the backbone of basically all modern music. If you make music for clubs, good drums are essential - they’re what makes you want to dance - whereas in rock and pop they provide drive and dynamics. Capturing the right sound and rhythm is key to creating the feel of your track, so for most computer-based musicians a good drum plugin is a must-have.
In the digital realm, ‘drums’ can mean a multitude of things; it could be recording of a real drummer mic’d and captured live, a recreation of the real thing created using sampled and re-sequenced drum hits, or something more electronic and synthetic made from either samples or synthesis.
• The best free VST plugins: synths, drum machines and effects
The first of these methods is always going to be the best route to ‘authentic’ drums, but it relies on access to quality mics, a space where you can make a lot of noise and - crucially - a real drummer who can actually play. For those who want to fake their drums, either to work around these limitations or as a stylistic choice, there are a variety of different types of tool available.
Drum plugins can broadly be broken down into two categories: ROMplers, which are sample-playing instruments usually aimed at authenticity, and drum machines, which are more like their hardware namesakes and usually more sequencer-focussed.
Both styles are present in the freeware realm, although the latter variety is probably better served than the former. Recording and creating large, realistic sample libraries can be a costly process, so it’s not surprising that freeware ROMplers tend to either be considerably smaller in scope than their paid counterparts, or be designed to act as demos enticing you to buy more sounds to flesh out the library.
Whether you’re looking to create convincing acoustic drums, emulate a vintage drum machine or synthesize something unique, the free plugins below have got your needs covered.
1. AudioSpillage MiniSpillage
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MiniSpillage has been around a few years now, but remains one of the handiest freeware drum synthesizers going. The plugin is a trimmed-down version of the paid-for DrumSpillage, making use of the same impressive sound engine but paring things back to just three generators - kick, hat and wood drum.
Despite the limited sound engine, there’s more sonic scope than you might think from these three tools. The kick can do punchy hits and deeper bass sounds, hats can be noisy and complex, and the wood drum can create a nice variety of perc sounds.
Each generator is equipped with an LFO and envelopes to help add shape and movement. Filters and an onboard distortion let users sculpt the tone of each drum further, too.
One important thing to note: MiniSpillage is Mac only and, like several tools in this roundup, doesn’t seem to work with Apple’s new M1 hardware. A factor worth bearing in mind if you’re on or considering a new system.
2. Native Instruments Urban Beats
PC/Mac | VST/AU/AAX
Urban Beats is one of NI’s older Kontakt instruments, now offered free as part of the company’s Komplete Start bundle. As that slightly outdated ‘urban’ tag suggests, the sound palette here leans toward hip-hop and R&B, although its selection of staple drum machine sounds works equally well for house, techno and other club-focused genres.
The main appeal here is that the instrument lets users create grooves in one of three ways - by triggering individual sounds via MIDI, triggering pre-programmed loops or by step-sequencing patterns using the Groovebox mode.
As well as the usual mixer features, there’s a handy Master FX section with a resonant filter as well as convolution, reverb, delay and saturation. While the UI looks a touch dated and the range of kits is relatively small, this is still one of the best free drum machines out there right now.
3. Spitfire Audio Labs Drums
PC/Mac | VST/AU/AAX
Spitfire Audio launched its Labs project a few years ago, offering a variety of high-quality - and often fairly esoteric - free sampled instruments, all of which run in the company’s bespoke host plugin. Labs Drums is one the earliest entries to the series and is one of the more straightforward and conventional of Labs’ instrument range.
The sounds themselves date back to a recording session at Spitfire HQ in 2012, using top-of-the-range mics and the talents of drummer Oliver Waton and engineer Stanley Gabriel. The resulting sounds are a vibrant and characterful collection of acoustic drum hits.
The Labs interface puts slick design and ease-of-use ahead of sound design depth, but there’s still enough shaping and control here to balance sounds as needed for your project.
4. Synsonic BD-909 / BD-808 Free
PC/Mac | VST/AU
This pair of free percussion synths from German developer Synsonic focus entirely on just one drum sound: the kick. Specifically, the synthesised kicks found on Roland’s iconic TR-909 and TR-808 drum machines.
While a one-track drum plugin might not sound all that useful on paper, it’s worth bearing in mind that between them those two bass drums underpin entire genres, from house and techno to hip-hop, so having access to speciality tools dedicated to shaping the perfect emulation is nothing to scoff at.
In reality, the hardware that inspires these plugins is fairly limited - you can’t even tune a real 808 kick - but Synsonic has ramped up the flexibility significantly with a variety of parameters absent from the originals.
The BD-808 adds course and fine tuning, plus an extended Long Decay mode. RD-909, meanwhile, has individual controls to shape the tone, pitch sweep and noise of the drum, plus an added distortion effect. Both plugins can track incoming MIDI notes, too, meaning they can be put to use for percussive basslines and melodies as well as traditional drums.
5. Manda Audio MT Power Drumkit 2
PC/Mac | VST/AU/AAX
Unlike some of the more electronic or synthetic tools in this list, Power Drumkit 2 is a plugin aimed squarely at replicating the realistic sound of a real musician behind a genuine drum kit. In terms of sounds, you’re limited to just a sampled acoustic kit here, although the sounds themselves have been well recorded and pre-processed in order to cut through a mix. There’s a per-channel mixer with compressor included, to help adjust levels further.
The real highlight here is the extensive and flexible library of MIDI grooves. There are MIDI presets replicating a range of playing styles, each with its own sub-library of fills. Users can mix-and-match grooves and fills within the plugin to build their ideal beat, before dragging the MIDI composition onto their DAW’s timeline. Even if you don’t use the onboard sounds, this can be a handy tool for driving other drum samplers.
It’s probably rock and alternative styles that are best served by Power Drumkit 2. If you’re a guitarist or composer looking for a passable replacement to a real drummer to fill out your next demo, this could be ideal.
6. SampleScience 6o6 Koncept
PC/Mac | VST/AU/AAX
As you might be able to guess from the name, 6o6 Koncept is a sample-driven plugin based on the sounds of Roland’s classic TR-606 drum machine.
606 sounds are hardly uncommon these days - Roland, Behringer and others offer hardware emulations, and you can find sampled 606 kits included in many big name DAWs and paid-for beat plugins.
SampleScience’s take has a few tricks up its sleeve that helps it stand out from the crowd, though. These include additional Tape, Vinyl and Sub texture layers that can be dialed in to add extra character to the sounds. There’s also a flexible LFO section that can be used to add plenty of movement to your patterns.
Each sound also gets its own multi-pitch sum mixer, which allows users to be far more creative with the somewhat simple 606 sounds than is possible using the original hardware.
It all adds up to a fun and interesting drum plugin that offers a fresh angle on a classic set of sounds.
7. Steven Slate Drums 5.5 Free
PC/Mac | VST/AU/AAX
In a similar vein to Power Drumkit 2 above, Steven Slate Drums is designed to offer a selection of realistic sampled drum sounds that can be triggered via MIDI in your DAW. SSD 5.5 itself is an extensive and powerful plugin packed with tons of sample content and MIDI grooves, whereas the Free version is essentially a non-expiring demo.
Unsurprisingly, SSD 5.5 free drastically cuts down the amount of content featured in the paid-for version, but you still a trio of kit presets, including one of Slate’s much-touted ‘mix-ready’ snares.
Aside from the drastic reduction in content, SSD 5.5 free is fully-featured, with features to control the shape and dynamics of drums. SSD 5.5 is especially good for hooking up to a percussion pad or e-kit, too.
8. Smackos 808 Simulator / Smackos Amiga 909
PC/Mac | Ableton Live only
We’re bending our own rules slightly here, as these two tools are actually user-created Packs for Ableton Live rather than fully-fledged plugins. Their source warrants their inclusion on our list though, seeing as both emerge from the studio of Dutch producer and vintage synth connoisseur Danny Wolfers (aka Legowelt).
Anyone familiar with Legowelt’s prolific musical output will recognise the hard-hitting, lo-fi quality of the sounds here, which is what sets the instruments apart from Live’s own stock 808 and 909 kits. These aren’t simply sets of lo-fi samples, though - both instruments here load in Rack form, equipped with a carefully configured chain of Live’s stock effects, including compressors, reverbs and EQs, with Macros configured to tailor the retro-punchiness of the sounds.
The benefit of the Live Rack format is that both instruments here are easily customisable. Try loading your own samples in to run through the effect chains, or subbing Live’s effects out for your favourite third-party plugins, in order to make the kits your own.
9. Sampleson Sub
PC/Mac | VST/AU
Sub is a relatively straightforward virtual analogue drum machine heavily inspired by the TR-808. The controls are fairly limited, in most cases offering just pan and level, but also adding a few extra parameters for the kick and snare, plus tuning for the toms and congas. Sonically Sub does an excellent 808 impersonation, though (although to our ear the hats are more 606-ish).
Sub’s main USP, however, lies in the addition of sub-bass control (hence the name), that can be used to enhance and beef-up the low end coming from the kick. This lets users create and refine the distinctive long, bassy kicks often used as basslines by hip-hop and techno producers - and it’s worth a download for this alone.
10. StudioLinked Drum Pro
PC/Mac | AU/VST
Drum Pro is a drum ROMpler plugin that comes stocked with 20 free kits, with the option to add more via paid expansions. There’s little hiding the fact that Drum Pro is primarily designed as a means to tempt you into parting with your cash for said expansions, but its free sounds are still nothing to scoff at.
The primary appeal of these free sounds is that many of them comes sourced from iconic hardware – there are kits made from the 808, 909, Boss DR-55 and Novation DrumStation within the free line-up.
The plugin itself isn’t much to write home about. There’s basic shaping for the drum sounds, via an ADSR envelope and mixer section, plus an onboard reverb with level control. The simplicity of the design does make Drum Pro feel quick and approachable though. For an easy-to-use source of classic drum samples, it’s worth a download.