Hardware drum machines have come back into fashion over recent years thanks to a general revival in the fortunes of electronic music production hardware, and because falling prices mean it can be almost as cost-effective to buy a cheap drum machine as it is a software plugin! Like synthesizer, people also love the hardware drum machine's tactile approach to music production. Yes you can make beats in software, but it's far better to hit pads, punch beats into a sequencer and tweak the sound with a hands-on dial.
Drum machines are therefore in demand for everything from live performances to adding that elusive analogue clout to a computer-based mix. Each one of the best drum machines in our round-up works as a standalone unit without the need for any other gear. They come in all shapes and sizes: from cheaper beat makers that provide great, workhorse sounds for many genres, right up to full-blown grooveboxes that will add bass and lead synth and sample parts to those beats.
You can get a measure of just how popular the drum machine market is by how many new machines are available or set to be released over coming months. We're including no less than 15 current models in our round up and there are plenty of new machines set to hit the market including Behringer's long-awaited RD-9, Korg’s Drumlogue, Modor’s DR-2 and Koka’s Pocket Beatbox, a portable multisampling drum machine that looks very interesting indeed.
We are not including bigger music production workstations like the Native Instruments Maschine+, Polyend Tracker, Roland Verselab MV-1 and Akai MPC Live II. While they do beats, their focus is more as hardware DAWs for complete song production. We are also not covering drum machines which are more at the synth end of production like Moog's DFAM and Soma Laboratory's Pulsar-23.
If you want to learn a little more about buying a drum machine before you decide which one is for you, click the 'buying advice' link above. Here you can read about the main features you should consider when buying a drum machine. If you'd rather find out which we think are the best drum machine picks, keep scrolling down!
We've listed our choice drum machines in price order to make it easier for you to find the right one for your budget. Our handy price widgets also display the latest and best prices from our trusted retailers.
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- The best MIDI pad controllers for beatmaking and sequencing
Best drum machines: Our top picks
As you'll see in our full list, you can spend anything from less than three figures to well into four for a drum machine, such is their diversity and range of applications. Our recommendations are just as varied. We have budget-friendly depth in the form of the Teenage Engineering PO 32, which certainly offers a lot more than its looks might suggest, and Korg's Volca Beats is also still a great buy at the lower end of the price range. At the top-end of the scale we'd also still heartily recommend the Elektron Analog Rytm MkII, although the company's much cheaper Elektron Model:Cycles gets you some of the Elektron magic for far less.
In terms of getting classic sounds, the Behringer RD-8 will give you 808s almost as good as the real thing, while Roland's own TR-6S gives you all the XOX kits and more, for not a lot more than the Behringer.
Finally for the full groovebox experience, Novation's Circuit Tracks is a fantastic sequel to the original Circuit with excellent sequencing, synth and drum sounds.
Best drum machines: Product guide
Looking more like barebones calculators than drum machines, Teenage Engineering's Pocket Operators are fun and surprisingly flexible sound makers that can be had for a low price. There are three drum/percussion products in the range: the PO-12 rhythm; the PO-24 office, which deals in noise percussion; and the PO-32 tonic. Other models like the PO-33 K.O! and PO-133 Street Fighter include sampling so you can add your own custom beats.
This last model is the pick of the bunch as it enables you to import sounds from Sonic Charge's MicroTonic drum synth plugin, allowing users to completely alter and overwrite its sonic palette.
You can create a whole full song with the onboard 64 patterns and pattern chaining, and also sync the Pocket Operators with each other and to other gear. While they can be slightly fiddly to use, these machines are great fun, sound great and come at a very affordable price.
Read our full Teenage Engineering PO-32 review
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Korg's Volca range took a turn in a new direction back in 2014 with the launch of the Volca Sample, proving that the 'people's synth' range could be more than just analogue revivalist instruments.
When we first reviewed the diminutive sampler, however, there were a few niggles that we felt hampered the instrument, with the most notable caveat being that lack of digital connectivity.
Thankfully Korg took it upon itself to right this particular wrong by updating the sampler with a micro USB port, greater memory, plus sequencer and MIDI improvements.
The inclusion of the USB port is the most welcome addition, with the original's over-reliance on iOS connectivity not one of its strong points. Users of the original may also be casting envious glances at the increased memory which now tops out at 200 slots, double that of the original.
In all then, it’s a subtle, but very well-targeted upgrade to the original design. The extra memory, convenience and sequencing scope combine to make this a significant step up. Given the still very reasonable price point, this Volca is easier to use, more flexible and packed with more sound so a more tempting buy than ever.
Read the full Korg Volca Sample 2 review
While the other Volca beatmakers, Volca Beats and Kick, both condensed analogue drum synths into the range’s compact hardware format (and the company's Volca Sample lets you add your own beats), the Drum uses digital synthesis to create a percussive palette that’s broader, and weirder, than its predecessors.
Rather than use PCM samples, as many digital drum machines do, the Volca Drum’s sound engine uses a system of virtual analogue oscillators, modulators and resonators to create its percussive sounds. The sound engine has six parts, each of which is identical, and each part has two identical layers.
For designing sounds, this multi-layer engine is considerably deeper and more interesting than anything we’ve seen on a Volca beatmaker before, but above all else, it’s just nice to play with a drum machine that goes beyond aping the same old ’80s drum boxes. For dance music producers, this is a must-try.
Read our full Korg Volca Drum review
Taking sonic 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. Volca Beats has six analogue sounds (kicks, snare, hi-hats, and toms) and four PCM sounds (claves, agogo, clap, and crash cymbal).
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, but 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.
Read our full Korg Volca Beats review
Representing IK Multimedia’s first foray into the world of analogue gear, UNO Drum is a hybrid analogue / sample playback machine with an impressive-sounding synth engine housed in a lightweight plastic casing. This makes it feel a little on the fragile side, raising the query of whether or not it could withstand the typical battering that more substantial devices are built to deal with.
That said, its six true analogue kick, snare clap and hi-hat sounds are authentically warm and rich-sounding, and are partnered with a choice of 54 PCM sounds lifted from IK’s SampleTank sample library. There’s 100 preset kits to explore, an extremely versatile and powerful sequencer with a 100-pattern memory, and some nice touches like the Stutter and Roll buttons to polish up your patterns, making the UNO Drum a fun piece of kit to play.
Read our full IK Multimedia UNO Drum review
Like its bigger DrumBrute sibling, the Impact couples its sequencer with an all-analogue drum synthesis engine and very flexible pattern saving/song mode capabilities. Visually, the Impact looks pretty similar to its predecessor, housed in a solid, navy blue chassis familiar from the rest of Arturia’s ‘Brute range.
Although there are fewer different instruments – 10 instead of the DrumBrute’s 17 – the Impact is not simply a cutdown version of the larger machine. Much of the sound engine has been overhauled here, and the DrumBrute’s Parker and Steiner filter has been switched out for a beefy distortion effect. The pressure and velocity-sensitive pads are a bonus, and the sequencer Roller and Beat Repeat tools are a couple of handy options for spicing up fills and turnarounds.
The ample crop of 64 pattern slots means there are plenty of space to save and recall grooves, and the Song mode means these can easily be stitched together into full arrangements. While the Impact lacks a little sonic flexibility and isn’t all-round perfect, it is an inspiring and enticing drum machine at a very good price.
Read our full Arturia DrumBrute Impact review
Elektron’s Model series made its debut with 2019’s Model:Samples - a sample-powered groovebox based around the engine from the brand’s Digitakt sampler. The Swedish firm has expanded the range with a second instrument, this time based around the sound engine of the Digitakt’s sibling instrument Digitone.
As with Digitone, Model:Cycles is based around a polyphonic FM (frequency modulation) synth engine paired with a 64-step sequencer. Unlike Model:Samples, which could be described as essentially the same as Digitakt with a few features removed, Model:Cycles isn’t simply a trimmed-down version of the Digitone. Despite using the same underlying four-operator engine, the way sound editing is presented means that the two are noticeably different in use.
The real highlight here is the sequencer. Each track has its own 64-step sequencer lane, the length and rate of which can be set individually. Elektron’s Parameter Locks feature allows for full per-step automation of all front-panel controls. This can even be used to change Machines mid-sequence, meaning a single track can be used to sequence multiple sounds.
Best of all is the inclusion of the Chance Parameter and Conditional Locks. These allow for deep control over the probability and conditions that dictate whether a hit will play on any sequencer step. It’s a wonderfully handy tool for adding variety and interest to otherwise static grooves and, with a dedicated front panel control, it’s at its most useable and intuitive here.
Read our full Elektron Model:Cycles review
Roland has made it clear it has no intention of relaunching an analogue 808 so that leaves Behringer to give it a go with the RD-8. This does differ from the design of the 808, but where it matters, it’s bang on. The analogue sound engine is meaty and warm, and the kick, toms, rim and snares sound near enough indistinguishable from the original. There are slight differences in the tone and pitch of the cymbals, hats and cowbell, but we wouldn’t say they necessarily sound worse.
The RD-8 hardware is chunky too, which could be seen as impractical, but it lends it an authentic feeling of heft that’s missing from Roland’s Boutiques or, to an extent, the TR-8S. Its size leaves room for full jack outputs for every one of the 11 tracks, plus – one of our favourite features – a return input allowing for an external effects loop.
Updates to the sequencing side of things are generally pretty solid. Some changes are no-brainers, such as adding track selector buttons instead of the original’s dial, tuning for the kick, note repeat and introducing mute and solo features. Other areas, such as the revamped song system, probability steps, fills and flams, are welcome but aren’t quite as well implemented as on some rival drum machines.
Any slight misgivings aside, when taking into account sound, feel and workflow, this is the closest thing you’ll find to an original 808 on the market right now, which is remarkable given the price. That authenticity does come at a cost in some ways though – sonically, this is certainly one of the less versatile drum machines in our test.
Best thought of as a more compact and affordable version of the TR-8S, the TR-6S Rhythm Performer is a six-track drum machine that can run on batteries. As well as the 808, 909, 707 and 606 kits that come included, there’s also an FM engine in here, and you can import your own samples via SD card. As such, there’s plenty of scope for creating hybrid kits.
The traditional TR step sequencer is included, but there’s also real-time recording and various other enhancements. You’ll find built-in effects, and the TR-6S can be used as a USB audio/MIDI interface.
While there are arguably more unique-sounding and characterful budget drum machines out there – Korg’s Volca Drum and Elektron’s Model:Cycles spring to mind – we can’t think of anything that offers this sort of versatility and flexibility this side of the $/£400 mark. As a first drum machine or a portable, convenient source of staple drum sounds, the TR-6S is very hard to beat.
Read the full Roland TR-6S review
Back in 2015 when Novation released the original Circuit, we were immediately impressed. For a battery-powered instrument priced at just £250, this digital groovebox was remarkably well-equipped, boasting two independent polysynths, a four-track sampled drum machine, send effects and a nifty step-sequencing workflow. It’s a credit to Novation that, even given this strong starting point, Circuit has only improved since through a steady stream of firmware updates.
Now Novation has released Circuit Tracks, that despite the new name – which is intended to differentiate it from the underrated Circuit Mono Station and Circuit Rhythm – is a straight sequel to that original groovebox.
For the most part, the functionality of the original Circuit is carried over, meaning the synths and sampling capabilities are broadly similar to those on the original. The most significant additions are to the hardware. Tracks now features a built-in rechargeable battery and draws power using its USB input, while the onboard speaker has been removed. Extra connectivity includes a pair of audio input jacks and you get full-sized MIDI ports.
Add some sequencer improvements, extra presets, a new MicroSD card and deeper features like a synth editor and probability sequencing and Circuit Tracks has plenty to offer music makers at all levels. Whether as a convenient and portable tool to sequence a live setup, a portable synth and drum sketchpad or an all-round studio workhorse, Circuit Tracks has a lot going for it.
Read the full Novation Circuit Tracks review
Part of Roland’s ‘Boutique’ range of digitally reimagined legacy hardware, it would be easy to focus on the ‘authenticity’ aspects of the TR-08, but it is much more of a 21st century machine than the original TR-808 in quite a few ways beyond its DSP-driven sound engine. Although the programming system follows broadly similar lines to the original, you now have the ability to add sub-step beats, create random patterns and dial in some swing - all useful features.
Compression can be applied individually to the Kick and Snare, whilst Tuning and Decay is available for some sounds (with the ability to select a long decay version of the Kick for those Miami bass lovers out there). This is a decent-sounding and affordable (relative to the original) digital resurrection of a classic beatbox, though we'd still like to have seen a few more editing options and multiple analogue outs.
Read our full Roland TR-08 review
Part of the AIRA product family, Roland’s original TR-8 was built entirely around their Analogue Circuit Behaviour (ACB) tech, which emulates the circuitry of the original hardware units on a component-by-component basis. That same technology is still at the heart of the TR-8S, providing models of the 808, 909, 707, 727 and 606. This time around, though, these emulated instruments are joined by sample tracks.
Any of the TR-8S’s 11 instrument tracks can be assigned to either an emulation or a sample, meaning that, alongside the expected pure emulation kits, this drum machine comes equipped with plenty of interesting hybrid kits, with lots of scope for mixing and matching the two sound sources. Those core ACB tracks once again offer high-quality, largely convincing recreations of the original boxes they’re based on.
On the whole, the TR-8S is excellent. It builds on the potential of the original in all the right ways: it's a machine that’s far more flexible but still intuitive and, most importantly, a lot of fun to use.
Read our full Roland TR-8S review
Offering a completely digital architecture, Digitakt features 16 channels divided into eight audio – ie, sampling – channels and eight MIDI channels. Samples can either be loaded via the internal memory or sampled from Digitakt’s audio inputs.
The process of sampling is fast and fluid, and can be done without the need to pause the sequencer. While ‘digital’ is often, unfairly, seen as synonymous with cheaper or less ‘full’ sounds, there’s certainly plenty of heft to Digitakt’s sound engine. The bit reduction and overdrive are particularly good at adding extra body and grit to sounds, and the sample manipulation and looping tools mean Digitakt can take things into esoteric territory.
It might look like a humble sampler, but with great sequencing and a decent amount of connectivity, the Digitakt could easily become the centrepiece of your studio or live rig.
Read our full Elektron Digitakt review
At the heart of the Rytm MkII you’ll find the same excellent eight-voice analogue/digital sound engine as found on the MKI, mated to the familiar 13-track sequencer. Each track is selected by pressing the track button and corresponding pad. The most obvious difference on the MKII’s front panel is that the old backlit pressure-sensitive rubber pads have been replaced by larger, softer versions so you can finally enjoy finger drumming on the Rytm (a huge improvement over the MKI).
As before, each pad/track can contain one of nine ‘machines’, which are self-contained synth engines dedicated to making a particular type of drum sound. The MKII sounds just like the MKI, which is no bad thing. There’s plenty of low-end extension, punch in the mids and rounded, classy high end. The Rytm has been improved in all the right places: it's one of the very best drum machines and will keep you inspired for years.
Read our full Elektron Analog Rytm MkII review
JoMox’s flagship drum machine, the Alpha Base marks a complete redesign from the ground up over the company’s previous XBASE 09, 999 and 888 models. Based on a true analogue architecture, the Alpha Base sports a total of eleven instruments, two of which (kick drum and membrane) are true analogue, eight are sample-based with analogue processing and one of which is a 4-operator FM synth.
With a huge sound mated to a comprehensive sequencer, and offering features like sampling inputs, an SD card slot for sample transfer and 8 balanced individual outputs, the Alpha Base is a worthy choice for professional beatmakers.
Best drum machines: Buying advice
Price is always going to be a significant factor when you choose a drum machine, but it should not be the only consideration. The sound you are after should also be a top priority as this can vary enormously between models, from proper analogue synth circuitry to generate drum tones, through a more flexible combination of both analogue synthesis and digital samples, to totally customisable models that let you load in your own samples by means of an SD card or similar. You also need to decide whether you need portability or are happy with a heavier, more static model that will stay in your studio.
Other factors worth considering include…
- Audio outputs: you might need to process individual drum sounds through a mixing desk or multi-channel audio interface, so consider how many outputs your drum machine has. Ideally you'll need a separate output for each sound which can be sent to its own channel and treated with its own effects. If a unit only has a single stereo output, you can get by but you’ll need to use a work around, perhaps making multiple passes with individual sounds running in solo, transferring each sound, one by one to a DAW.
- Performance workflow: if you want to use a drum machine to perform with on stage, you'll want it to have a user-friendly interface and easy performance workflow. You won't want to be fiddling with too much menu diving and you'll also require decent-sized pads to navigate to and perform with, rather than fiddly buttons. Chaining individual patterns together into full tunes is a must if you want to program your machine to handle complete song duties while you play over the top, or even to create different patterns while playing live.
- MIDI / Sync: our focus here is on standalone machines, but any degree of connectivity is going to be useful at some point – you will want to integrate your beats with other hardware and/or your DAW – so ensure your chosen machine has MIDI at least, and the ability to sync to an external clock source.