Electronic musicians have a myriad of options to build beats, but using a drum machine is one of the most satisfying and inspirational.
While you can do your sampling in software, getting hands-on with a dedicated hardware box can take you down hitherto unexplored creative avenues. We bhighly recommend it.
talking of recommendations, when you were voting for the best new music tech gear of 2020, drum machines and samplers had to come into the equation. Here's what the hive mind concluded...
1. Polyend Tracker
A refreshingly different kind of standalone, portable music-making device, Polyend's Tracker offers a sampler and wavetable/granular synthesis (plus an FM radio to grab sounds from), a step sequencer and song arranger so that you can put together complete tracks, plus a performance mode that enables you to take your Tracker productions to the stage.
Tracker doesn’t have to work in isolation, though; bi-directional MIDI means that you can use it with the other software and hardware in your studio, too, while a large screen, mechanical keyboard and big knob control are designed to make operation and navigation fast and easy.
Read the full Polyend Tracker review.
2. Akai MPC One
The past decade has seen a few twists and turns for Akai’s iconic MPC line. In 2012, the range morphed from its traditional ‘all-in-one-box’ format to become a hybrid controller-software system more akin to NI Maschine. In 2017, however, the MPC returned to its standalone roots with the impressive MPC Live and its behemoth sibling the MPC X.
And in 2020, the One joined the range as a more compact and wallet-friendly counterpart to the MPC Live. Much of what impressed us about the MPC Live remains intact here. As you’d expect with any MPC, the main focal point of the control panel is a grid of backlit, velocity-sensitive performance pads.
As with the Live and X, these are joined by a high-def 7” touchscreen – here placed above, rather than next to the pads – along with four touch-sensitive rotaries for quick, hands-on manipulation of parameters.
3. Native Instruments Maschine+
A standalone version of NI’s Maschine beatmaking platform has long been rumoured - particularly in light of Akai’s decision to take the MPC range back out of the box - and now it’s here. Maschine+, as it's known, is a pad-based groovebox that can be used with or without a computer.
This is a Maschine that’s been a long time coming. NI tells us that it had a proof-of-concept prototype as long ago as 2014, but only now has it created a product that it’s happy to release.
Read the full Native Instruments Maschine+ review.
4. Roland TR-6S
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.
5. Elektron Model:Cycles
Following a brief teaser period, Elektron has dropped Model:Cycles, a new six-track FM-based groovebox and a sibling for the Model:Samples.
The FM engine inside here contains six ‘Machines’ that cover both percussive and melodic synths, enabling you to produce complete tracks on the device. These are known as Kick, Snare, Metal, Perc, Tone and Chord.
Sound-sculpting starts with four core Synth Controls, and each Machine also has dedicated knobs for more “wild and unexpected” tone-shaping. The Control All feature, meanwhile, lets you adjust a single parameter across all tracks simultaneously.
Naturally, there are sequencing features in here, too: you can record everything in real-time or one step at a time.
Read the full Elektron Model:Cycles review
6. Akai MPC Live II
As we suspected the MPC Live II was very much an evolution of its predecessor. Like its predecessor, it can be used with or without a computer, and comes with a 7-inch multi-gesture touchscreen. It promises all the features that you need to create a piece of music from start to finish.
A truly go-anywhere music production experience – and now better equipped than ever, The Live II remained the high point of the current MPC range.
Read the full Akai MPC Live II review.
7. Roland TR-06
The TR-06 Drumatix, meanwhile, is the latest addition to Roland’s Boutique range, and replicates the company’s Roland TR-606 machine from the ‘80s. Unlike the TR-6S, classic visuals are the order of the day here - Roland has captured both the tone and look of the original, while also expanding the sound-shaping capabilities.
You can control the tuning, decay and pan for each voice, and there’s also the option to crank up the internal gain of each ‘circuit’ to add overdrive or distortion. You can further beef things up with the onboard compressor, and there’s also a delay.
Again, there’s a TR step sequencer, but now with new features such as sub-steps, for ratcheted parts, and step-loop for instant pattern slicing. Five trigger outputs and a trigger input are included for integration with modular gear, and there’s also USB audio interfacing, battery operation and a built-in speaker.
8. Korg Volca Sample 2
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, this year, 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.
9. Behringer RD-6
Designed as a companion for the company’s TD-3, which emulates Roland’s TB-303 bassline synth, the RD-6 has a similar form factor and styling and contains all seven analogue 606 sounds plus the excellent clap from Boss’s DR-110 drum machine. There’s also a 64-step sequencer.
Physical connections include MIDI I/O, USB, Mix Out, 3.5mm outputs for each voice and a Start/Stop trigger input. Up top there are some additional patch points for interfacing with other gear (the TD-3, for example).