Boxes for beats
The hardware drum machine has made a big comeback in recent years. The models 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.
4 out of 5
Teenage Engineering PO-32 Tonic
The PO-32 Tonic is the seventh addition to Teenage Engineering’s range of compact, battery-powered Pocket Operator grooveboxes.
As with previous iterations, this PO packs 16 sounds, 16 performance effects and a 16-step sequencer into an exposed-looking hardware unit slightly larger than a credit card. However, where previous POs have been limited to a pre-defined range of sounds, this one is capable of a broader sound palette via some clever cross-platform compatibility.
This flexibility is thanks to the fact that the PO-32 has been created in collaboration with Swedish developer Sonic Charge. The PO-32 takes both the ‘Tonic’ part of its name and the basis for its sound engine from Sonic Charge’s MicroTonic - a software drum synthesizer first released over a decade ago. The primary upshot of this is that, as well as coming stocked with an array of sounds created using MicroTonic, the PO-32 can be loaded with fresh sounds and patterns created using the plug-in, allowing users to completely alter and overwrite its sonic palette.
Detractors will still write this latest PO off as a ‘toy’ no doubt, but the PO-32 sounds great and, even if just as an inspirational source to sample, loop and churn out toplines, it’s worth the price of admission.
4 out of 5
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.
4.5 out of 5
Korg Volca Kick
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the latest addition to Korg’s Volca range is a touch limited.
Given that previous iterations have condensed polysynths, a drum machine and a multi-channel sampler into the familiar Volca format, an instrument that deals in just a single channel of synthesized kick drums might seem like a downgrade. Yet the Kick’s beefy analogue synth engine is capable of a broader range of sonic results than its name would suggest.
The Kick is a derivative of the MS-20 filter section. Its sound engine is based around the original low-pass filter with resonance pushed up into self-oscillation, effectively creating a tunable sine wave oscillator.
Kicks are still the big draw, though, and - even taking into account more high-end drum machines - this is probably the best hardware source of them we’ve tried. If you make club-focused music that relies on a foundation of solid kicks, this little box of bass comes highly recommended.
4 out of 5
Let's get this out of the way first - the TR-09 doesn’t sound exactly the same as a TR-909 (in fact, not even two TR-909s are sure to sound the same as each other). On some sounds, even when tweaked to be as close as possible in terms of timbre, the differences are obvious.
However, the visual and functional similarities are clear, though the TR-09 has a much-reduced footprint and can be battery powered. Unlike the original, the top panel is made of metal, which helps make it to feel more substantial than expected.
Button placement is broadly similar, so anyone familiar with the 909 will be able to create Patterns and Tracks without reading the new manual. One downside on the TR-09 is the size and feel of the knobs, making editing fiddly at times. There are some sub-functions littered throughout the interface, but these are generally indicated on the front panel.
Portable and with the flavour of a real 909, The TR-09 is capable of delivering great results.
4 out of 5
Roland Boutique TR-08
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. This is all aided somewhat by the four-character LED display, which also facilitates the selection and editing of a number of menu-based parameters.
As on the TR-09, 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 digital resurrection of a classic beatbox, though we'd still like to have seen a few more editing options and multiple analogue outs.
Cyclone Analogic TT-606 and TT-78
The TT-606 and TT-78 are emulations of Roland's TR-606 and CR-78 drum machines respectively.
Although these machines don't sound exactly like the machines they emulate - and they don't look much like them, either - they still maintain that all-important analogue vibe. More importantly, the range of tones and programming options go far beyond what the originals can do.
4.5 out of 5
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.
4 out of 5
BUY: Read MFB Tanzmaus and Tanzbär Lite currently available from:
A fully analogue machine, the the DrumBrute features 12 synth tracks offering a total of 17 drum and percussion sounds. Each of these 12 tracks is accompanied by a velocity-sensitive rubber pad for playing the associated sound, along with a range of rotary knobs for shaping the sonic character.
From left to right the DrumBrute features two kick engines, a snare, a clap, rim/clave, closed hat, open hat, high tom/conga, low tom/conga, cymbal/reverse cymbal, maracas/tambourine and a synth perc sound, which is labelled Zap.
Along the centre of the machine, a row of 16 rubber buttons enables patterns to be step-sequenced and edited either 'offline' or on the fly while the sequencer is running. The DrumBrute is capable of saving and recalling up to 64 patterns (ie, sequences of up to 64 steps) across its four memory banks. The instrument also features a song bank, which enables assortments of patterns to be chained together to create longer arrangements.
At this price point the DrumBrute is a triumph. It packs a solid assortment of quality sounds, with a sonic character distinct from its main rivals, plus a nice, smooth-sounding dual-mode Steiner Parker filter. The DrumBrute’s deep and creative sequencing capabilities are the real highlight, though, and coupled with its fluid workflow, they make it a great source of creative inspiration.
5 out of 5
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.
4.5 out of 5
Elektron Analog Rytm MkII
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 MkII version, which was released last year, offers a range of hardware improvements, including an OLED screen, backlit buttons, hi-res encoders, quick performance controls, and an increased number of buttons for a speedier workflow. There's also sampling capability and larger pads.
4.5 out of 5
Read Elektron Analog Rytm review (review is of a previous version)
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.
A word of warning, though: it was announced in 2017 that there'll be no more development on the Tempest, so don't expect any new features in the future.
4.5 out of 5