The evolution of hardware drum machines has played a vital role in shaping electronic music as we know it today. They’ve provided the literal pulse of numerous genres, forming the robotic beats behind Kraftwerk’s early electronic pop experiments, driving the synthesised funk of classic house and techno, and providing the bass-heavy kicks and metallic hi-hat trills that define the sound of modern rap.
Various styles of drum machine have come in and out of fashion over the years. The earliest designs were simplistic and limited, often designed to replace a real drummer in a backing track but misused to wonderful effect by early electronic pioneers. In the ’80s and ’90s, advances in sampling and digital technology led those early designs to fall out of fashion in favour of workstations, samplers and - eventually - software.
It would be wrong to say that those early drum machines ever really went away, though; the sound of Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909 in particular has remained at the heart of club music and hip-hop over the near four decades since they were released. Even as the original machines started to generate eye-watering prices on the second hand market, their sounds have made their way into modern studios through sample packs, emulations and modern hardware recreations.
As with hardware synths, things have come full circle somewhat. Hardware drum machines have become more affordable and common once again over the past decade, from budget analogue, through sample players up to complex top-end percussion synths. But why would you actually want to buy one?
Why buy a hardware drum machine in 2021?
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As with almost all forms of music-making hardware, die-hard in-the-box musicians might tell you there’s nothing you can do with hardware that you can’t do more easily with a plugin. There’s some truth to that argument; through sampling, synthesis and emulation, software drum machines can do anything their real world counterparts can, and often offer a multitude of conveniences, such as flexible save/recall, adaptable routing and simple sample upload.
There remains, however, something special about creating with hardware. In part, that comes down to interaction - punching beats into a sequencer, finger-drumming pads and tweaking hardware knobs still offers a feeling of raw, hands-on creativity that can be difficult to replicate in software.
Dyed in the wool hardware heads will tell you there’s something distinctive and special about the sound, too. You could get lost in an endless debate about the sonic qualities of an original 808 against any of its many emulations, or the various merits of vintage analogue versus modern digital, but the process of sequencing and recording a real-world instrument creates subtle, but distinctive effects.
In part, this comes down to noise - even the most hi-fi recording setup will impart a subtle touch of noise or character absent when working entirely in the digital realm. Timing plays a role, too - although modern USB and MIDI sync is tighter than the all-analogue setups of the past, subtle variations in timing and swing can still lend an overall looser feel to hardware-created grooves.
But why is now a good time to pick up a hardware drum machine? As in the synth realm, the past decade has seen a boom in new - largely affordable - hardware. From top-end machines to compact instruments that barely break the £100 barrier, there’s more choice now than ever.
Whether you want something to replicate vintage hardware or something more contemporary or unique, it’s a buyer’s market right now, so dive in and start exploring it.
Know your beatmakers
Hardware drum machines use a variety of sound engines, but what’s the difference? The real answer here is sound engines - ie, the approach each uses to create audio.
Broadly speaking, these can be divided into a few categories - analogue (or virtua analogue), sample and FM. Drum machines often combine several of these approaches, using samples for some sounds and analogue synthesis for others, or even letting users layer them together.
What are the benefits of each, though? Let’s see...
Analogue drum machines generally use a form of basic subtractive synthesis, treating simple oscillators or noise generators with filters and punchy pitch or amp envelopes to replicate the sound of real-world drums. Analogue drum machines tend to sound warm, punchy and full-bodied, but often lack the complexity or versatility of their digital counterparts. Virtual analogue is simply a digital emulation of this.
Sample-based machines recreate sounds by playing back recorded samples, which can usually be shaped using some form of pitch control and/or envelopes. Naturally, sample drum machines are only as good as their source audio, but generally, sampled drums can be more characterful and realistic than their synthesised counterparts.
FM synthesis involves using two or more oscillators configured for audio-rate modulation, resulting in complex timbres. Traditionally, it’s a less common approach to percussion synthesis, but it’s become increasingly popular in recent years, providing the core engine for Elektron’s Model:Cycles and cropping up in the Roland TR-8S and DrumBrute Impact, among other instruments. FM is generally associated with metallic sounds and bell tones, but it’s great for bass-heavy kicks, too.