When drum machines burst onto the scene in the 1970s, it marked an enormous shift in popular music at large—not only because of the cutting-edge sound and functionality they introduced but because of the new world of possibilities they made available to artists. At their core, most of these devices are simply equal parts synthesizer and sequencer, meaning that in one step individual drum sounds are synthesized, and in another, they are given a place in a repeating rhythmic sequence. A fantastic tool for creativity and thinking outside the box, a drum machine is a great choice for beatmakers, producers, and musicians of every caliber. What can’t you do with a good drum beat?
Here are a few of our favorite drum machines available now.
The Volca from Korg is a physical modeling drum synthesizer offering up to six editable, dual-layered sounds and a 16-step sequencer where you can line up your sounds and slice them to your liking. Customize your drum samples from the ground up by choosing one of five different waveforms and adjusting the pitch and amplifier envelope to create sounds that are truly unique to your vision. It even includes a bit reduction function so you can get that very desirable vintage Game Boy-style distortion everyone’s looking for. With its small form factor and easy-to-read display, the Volca is both capable enough for professional use and a great place to start for beginners.
The Roland TR-808 was a hugely influential drum synthesizer first introduced in 1980, and its sounds are now instantly recognizable and truly signature to the Roland name. The TR-08 is Roland’s fresh take on their beloved drum machine from way back when, sporting classic design elements including sturdy plastic knobs and colorful buttons. It also stays true to its predecessor in both sound and user functionality. Modern touches include the addition of a compressor, gain adjustment, tuning, and panning for select onboard instruments. And, crucially, the bulky form of the original 808 is traded in here for a miniature footprint.
Teenage Engineering is known for its inventive musical electronics and unique product design, and its PO-12 drum machine is a shining example in a tiny package. This super small synth packs 16 high-quality synthesized drum samples, a 16-step sequencer, and 16 different effects including distortion, vibrato, delay, and filter sweeps. The LCD display at the top is reminiscent of a classic Game & Watch screen and it features fun and informative visuals that correspond directly to your patterns, samples, and tempo. If you’re into collecting or just trying to expand your palette, you can link the PO-12 up to other products in the Pocket Operator series and get them all to work in glorious harmony.
If there ever were a one-stop drum machine that can do it all and then some, the Roland TR-8S is a top contender. Built by a company that pioneered drum machine technology, this unit includes models authentic samples in the exact style of each of Roland’s iconic machines including the 808, 606, and 909. Create beats by mixing and matching sounds to your liking, and if the 300 onboard tones aren’t enough for you, bring even more of your own to the party using an SD card. Sequence patterns at up to 32 steps in length, and create new patterns on the fly while you’re performing. For a drum machine that pairs the ease of old-school functionality and form with the wide-open flexibility that modern production demands, you’d be hard-pressed to find better.
Four drum machines for hands-on beat making