After a lengthy period spent languishing in the shadow of computer-based DAWs, hardware drum machines have enjoyed a big comeback in recent years.
What is often used as the backbone to many a live rig, there are so many different models on the market that will vary enormously in terms of specs and price. You won't be surprised to hear there are plenty of cheap and high-end drum models around, but the common thread running through all of the products listed here is that each one of them works as a standalone product.
In other words, the best drum machines enable you to create beats without the need for any other gear and in some cases are classed as full-blown grooveboxes with bass and synth capabilities built-in.
You won't find hybrid MIDI pad controller 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 like the Vermona DRM1 MkIII).
Best drum machines: The MusicRadar choice
Like most things, there’s a spectrum when it comes to drum machines, from budget-friendly and fun units up to the wallet-kicking professional machines with all the bells and whistles you could ever want. Despite its unorthodox looks, the Teenage Engineering PO 32 is a seriously useful piece of kit for the money.
If you’re after something a little more conventional, we’d recommend the Korg Volca Beats. At the other end of the scale, the Elektron Analog Rytm MkII drum machine leads the field in terms of all-round value and versatility.
How to choose the best drum machine for you
Obviously, price is going to be a significant factor when you choose a drum machine, but it's not the only consideration. You need to decide whether you want a portable model or something that's more likely to stay in a fixed spot your studio, and also what kind of sound generation features you need.
Many drum machines use proper analogue synth circuitry to generate their tones, others offer a more flexible combination of both analogue synthesis and digital samples, while some will also let you load in your own samples by means of an SD card or similar.
Let's look at some other factors you'll need to consider when choosing the best drum machine for you...
- Audio outputs: if you want to process your drum sounds individually through a mixing desk or multi-channel audio interface, consider the number of audio outputs provided. In a studio environment it’s useful to have a separate outputs for each sound so that each sound can be sent to its own channel and treated with its own effects. If a unit only has a single stereo output, you’ll need to make multiple passes with individual sounds running in solo to transfer multi-track stems into a DAW, for instance.
- Performance credentials: if you want to take your drum machine on stage, ensure it has a performance-friendly interface. A fiddly workflow with a lot of menu diving won't cut it in the live arena, so you'll want something with decent-sized pads rather than just buttons. The ability to chain individual patterns together into full songs is important, especially if you’re considering your new machine as a sidekick for live performances.
- MIDI / Sync: you would think that MIDI would be a no brainer on a drum machine these days, but double-check as it can be a surprising omission from some machines. Even though our focus is on standalone machines, any degree of connectivity is going to be useful at some point, so ensure your chosen machine will integrate fully with your existing gear. It’s likely that you’ll eventually want to hook it up to record into a DAW, for instance, so the ability to sync to an external clock source will be essential here.
Ready to get to work? Then let's take a look at the best drum machines you can buy right now, all based on products we have expertly reviewed...
The best drum machines to buy now
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
While the other Volca beatmakers, Volca Beats and Kick, both condensed analogue drum synths into the range’s compact hardware format, 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
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
You’d expect a drum machine that was the result of a collaboration between two of the biggest names in studio gear history – Sequential’s Dave Smith and Roger Linn of Linn Drum fame – to be exceptional. And true to form, the only area in which the Tempest disappoints is that you might need to sell something precious and/or vital to be able to afford one.
Feature-rich and loaded with great sounds courtesy of a hybrid analogue / PCM sound engine, the Tempest goes way beyond the standard drum machine remit and can be considered a powerful synth in its own right.
The sequencer has that classic Linn/MPC60/3000 feel, with a front panel containing 16 of those famous pads and a multitude of extremely tweakable real time controls perfect for studio and live performance.
Read our full Dave Smith Instruments Tempest review
Circuit is a standalone, digital instrument featuring a four-part sampler, two six-note polyphonic synths and a deceptively deep sequencer. In the words of Novation, Circuit is "designed to inspire", with a heavy emphasis on immediacy, intuitiveness and experimentation.
At launch its sample channels functioned as a pretty basic drum machine – restricted to simply playing back pre-loaded sounds – but Novation’s browser-based Components app now gives users an easy way to stock Circuit with samples from their own library.
As well as its sample capabilities, Circuit boasts two excellent digital synths engines, an inspiring workflow and a sequencer that bests instruments four times its price. For those reasons it comes highly recommended, particularly if you want more than just a drum machine in a single box.
Read our full Novation Circuit review
JoMox’s latest 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.