Once an uncomplicated classification used to describe a very particular type of instrument, in today’s diverse and software-dominated music technology industry, the term ’drum machine’ has taken on broader meaning, encompassing everything from emulations of vintage beatboxes and new devices inspired by them, to full-on multi-channel groove production systems with in-depth editing and programming tools, mixing functionality and high-quality effects.
Here, then, we’ve brought together what we consider to be the best dozen plugins and standalone applications currently available ‘for the creation of beats’ - surely a universally acceptable definition in 2020.
Some generate their sounds using synthesis, others are founded on sample playback, and a few combine both techniques. The vast majority feature built-in sequencers - indeed some would argue that a drum machine isn’t really a drum machine without one - enabling them to ‘play themselves’ upon receipt of a single triggering note from the host DAW, or even entirely under their own auspices, with no MIDI input whatsoever.
However, those who would rather stick with the regular DAW piano roll will be relieved to learn that in all cases, these internal playback engines can be switched off, effectively turning the plugin into a static sound module that simply maps each drum sound to its own MIDI note(s).
Finally, it should be pointed out that we’ve deliberately not included any dedicated acoustic drum kit sims or ‘virtual drummer’ packages in this round-up, as those represent a very different proposition, both conceptually and in practical terms. As drum machines, our contenders are primarily geared up for electronic and dance music production, rather than blasting out realistic ‘live’ drum parts - although some of them can turn their hands to that at a pinch.
Inclusion criteria clarified, let’s get our groove on with the 12 finest software drum machines on the market.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $199/£179/€199
One of the original cell-based software drum machines, NI’s 17-year-old workhorse has been languishing at version 4 since 2013, but nonetheless still stands as an exemplar of instrument design.
With up to 128 layered cells providing more than enough space for even the most elaborate of kits, deep sound editing, envelope and LFO modulation, a well-judged array of insert and send effects, and four group busses, it could easily serve as any producer’s go-to percussion source.
Also a factor in Battery’s continuing success is the vast repository of genre-spanning add-on kits available through NI’s extensive range of Expansions.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €180
XO’s innovative ‘Space’ sample browsing interface never gets old. Presenting an unlimited number of drum and percussion samples (over 8000 are included, and your own library is easily added) as sonically grouped and colour-coded dots in a smoothly zooming and panning constellation, it allows you to fluidly audition them by dragging the mouse pointer around at whatever speed you like.
Once you’ve found a sound you like, it can be instantly added to an eight-channel kit for sequencing, processing and mixing; and the groovy Playground lets you tool around non-destructively with randomisation and similarity-guided extrapolation.
Unique and amazing.
Mac/PC | VST/AU | €99
Following up its TR-909 emulation, Nepheton saw D16 turning its Roland-aping hand to arguably the most legendary drum machine of them all: the Roland TR-808.
Nailing the essential sound and step sequencing functionality of the real thing, this stellar remake adds to the experience with the new ‘Laser Gun’ tone, extra sound-shaping controls, simultaneous toms and congas, and a Shuffle knob. There’s nothing in the way of effects, of course, but multiple outputs to the host mixer make it easy to insert your own.
There are a few virtual 808s out there today, including Roland’s own official version, but Nepheton still remains our favourite.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $199
Steve Duda’s software development house might be best known for the all-conquering Serum, but before said synth was a twinkle in his eye, there was Nerve.
Despite its curiously old-school interface, the feature list is comprehensive: each of the 16 pads plays host to a one-shot or loop, the latter sliced or timestretched depending on the source file type; 22 ‘precalc’ DSP processes bring transformative resynthesis and other techniques into play; the polyrhythmic sequencer can be programmed manually or by rhythmically clicking the mouse; and all the expected effects and modulation options are in place.
Walking its own creative path, this is a Nerve that’s well worth touching.
Mac/PC | VST/AU | $99
Magnus Lidström’s venerable all-synthesised drum machine is known for its ease of use and stunning sound. Each of the eight engines generates its tone using a single pitch-modulated oscillator and a filtered noise generator, while the frill-free 16-step sequencer makes pattern and song construction a breeze.
An electronic music production essential.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX/RTAS | €179
This characterful hybrid beatbox houses two morphing analogue-style oscillators and a sampler/noise generator on each of its ten sound channels, as well as filtering, modulation, distortion and send effects.
The step sequencer features lanes for programming per-channel timing offset, gating and more, and the Polystep XY pad automates up to four parameters via the movement or sequential stepping through of its eight ‘balls’.
An impressive library of preset kits, sounds and patterns is onboard, too, and while It is a shame there’s no sample editing, that’s certainly not a show-stopping issue.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £159
More a self-contained ‘groove DAW’ than a drum machine in the literal sense, FXpansion’s ambitious plugin/app is capable of powering not just your drum tracks but potentially the whole rhythm section.
Eight self-contained engines each contain 64 eight-layer sample pads and a polyrhythmic step sequencer, while effects are available to every layer and pad, and the master output. The brilliant TransMod modulation system, meanwhile, enables assignment of an embarrassment of modulation sources to any number of target parameters across all engines.
Live sampling and automatic loop slicing are further highlights, giving Geist2 an additional live performance angle that sets it even further apart from the pack.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $149/€149
So new we’ve not even had a chance to get it on our test bench yet (the link below is to our review of v1), the second version of Rob Papen’s sampling-n-synthesis powerhouse is a massive step up from the glorious original, adding loop import and slicing, a new 24-pad Main page for quick kit building, String and Additive synth engines, Master FX and more.
We were already big fans of Punch’s incredible sound, liberating technical spec and enormous preset library, and from our limited time with it so far, the even more hard-hitting sequel only ups the appeal further.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €139
One of only two drum machines in our round-up that doesn’t include any form of sequencing, Heartbeat makes up for the architectural omission with a fabulous synthesis engine (plus a few sampled elements) that really gets the pulse racing.
Inspired - aren’t they all? - by Roland’s TR beatboxes, but not directly emulating any of them, it comprises eight sound-specific drum synth channels (two kicks, two snares, hi-hats, cymbals and two percs), top-notch effects, and a MIDI input processor for layering sounds and triggering (Auto Layer Machine).
Heartbeat’s main strengths are its detailed editing and the flawless analogue authenticity for which Softube is known.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | From £199
Although becoming increasingly DAW-like with every update, NI’s ubiquitous hybrid production platform - affording hands-on access to the vast majority of the software’s
functionality from a dedicated hardware controller - started life with MPC-style beat construction, processing and mixing at the top of the agenda, and for many users, that fundamental remit is still the main draw.
Sure, Maschine’s elaborate ‘DAW within a DAW’ plugin implementation has always been a bit of a faff, but its joyously ‘live’ workflow, and the exceptional quality and playability of the Mk3 controllers (and, for that matter, the still-wholly-viable earlier models) are more than good enough to make that tolerable.
A bona fide music technology classic.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €95
If Roland’s classic x0x-box drum machines float your percussive boat, AudioRealism Drum Machine absolutely needs to be pinging your radar.
Combining emulations of the TR-808, TR-909 and TR-606 in a single instrument, its 34 legendary sounds - most synthesized, the rest sampled, just like the original hardware - can be freely mixed and matched to build your own bespoke TR mashup. A 32-step sequencer handles playback, and the Pattern Controlled FX system facilitates rhythmic automation of all parameters, as well as a filter and a distortion effect.
Whether or not ADM’s 808 sounds as authentic as Nepheton’s is up for debate, but there’s clearly no argument as to which of the two is the more versatile.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €149
This expansive virtual groovebox from the Grenoble-based music tech giant integrates sampling and synthesis, and breaks the mould with its awesome Modular page, in which custom drum synths can be pieced together using a sizable range of oscillators, filters, envelopes and more.
Beyond that, Spark 2 features over 180 preset kits including 30 superb vintage drum machine emulations (with 14 add-on packs available to buy separately), step sequencing and song chaining, tons of effects and intuitive mixing.
It’s a great beatmaking plugin/app by any standards, but for the full hands-on experience, you’ll want to budget for the optional SparkLE hardware controller as well.