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A drum machine emulates the sounds made by any and all percussion instruments. But unlike the actual instruments, a drum machine lets you go a step further in the creative process, allowing you to digitally tweak and alter your hits, beats, and breaks. You’ll be able to create completely new sounds, and ultimately, a crisp and rich-sounding track or set of your very own.
It’s not only for recording either. The best drum machines can be part of your practice, or your live line-up on stage too. Load it up with pre-recorded samples, or purely original customized sounds, and add it to the rest of the band. With the right machine, there’s no limits to genre or what you can do.
If you’re unfamiliar with drum machines, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a few terms, perks, and features to know and look for, before you starting shopping.
What Makes a Good Drum Machine?
Effects: Filters, oscillators, sequencers, tuning, gain, compressor, decay, delay, reverse… there are lots and lots of choices that allow you to bend, pitch-shift, invert, and create new sounds from pretty much any sample. The best way to learn these is simply by playing around, but if there’s a specific effect you’re going for, make sure your machine offers it.
Steps and Sub-Steps: Steps are the layers upon which you build your beats. Depending on how deep you’re looking to go, some machines even offer sub-steps to nail those intricate details on rolls, fills, and patterns.
Portability: Will you be setting this up in a stationary studio? Or bringing it to various recording sessions and live shows? A compact, portable unit can make life a whole lot easier if you’ll be on the move. Same goes for the power source – while most have USB capability, battery power is a helpful backup option, because you never know when an idea will hit you.
Pre-loaded sounds: Depending on the type of music you’ll be making, pre-loaded sounds can be anywhere from a nice bonus to a huge help. These can include samples of traditional analog drum kits and percussion instruments being tapped and slapped from various angles – it’s all a matter of personal preference on how precise you’re looking to get. They can also include lots of non-traditional sounds and samples too (even custom ones of your own), along with instruments from across the musical spectrum. It doesn’t hurt to have on hand, and is worth exploring the library if one is included.
Built-in Microphone and Speaker: If you’ll be keeping your drum machine at your home studio setup, these won’t matter as much, since you probably already have a higher quality mic and speakers at your computer. But if you’re using this primarily while away, such as touring or traveling, a microphone (either built-in or external) is a must to quickly capture vocals and voice sounds. You’ll also want a speaker or headphone output to listen to what you’ve got down when you can’t get to your laptop. If you’re starting from scratch, a set that comes with a mic and headphones is a great way to get going.
Pads: If you can’t find the beat you want, then it’s time to tap out. That’s where pads come in. These helpful big buttons allow you to use your fingers and play the rhythms you’re envisioning. You can even assign each one to a different sound, so it’s just like playing a tiny kit. If you’re going this route, be sure your machine has sensitive pads though. It can be extremely frustrating having to remember to press some pads harder than others to make them work, or missing a beat while playing live because a button didn’t pick up your hit.
LED Lights: These tiny lights are another feature that’s not a deal-breaker, but can be a huge help for those playing in a dark venue or studio. Same goes for a lit-up display screen; trying to see an unlit screen in the dark makes things more difficult than they need to be.
Ready to look for your next new drum machine? We’ve picked three below, so you can quit drumming on your desk and steering wheel, and start getting these beats down for real.
1. Korg ELECTRIBE2SRD Drum Machine
Korg has been cranking out quality electronic music gear for almost 60 years. This mighty little beatmaker is no different, and offers limitless combinations of features to play around with.
Sixteen velocity-sensitive LED pads let you tap out the rhythms you want, either in real-time or by taking your time, constructing each layer of sound from the ground up. Along with that, 16 parts per pattern are available, and multiple patterns can be strung together to create one solid song or massive set.
It also comes with a library of synth sounds to play with and make into your own, plus an AC adapter, two MIDI adapter cables, and Ableton Live 9 Lite.
PROS: The “one-level undo” is a nice safety net that’s always there. If you make a mistake, or decide you don’t like something, simply take it back by pressing a couple buttons. You can also see the original positioning of any knob on the panel too, making it easy to dial it back.
CONS: Using the device on its own to create songs can be kind of limiting, but there are workarounds the more familiar you become with it.
2. Alesis SR18 18 Bit Portable Drum Machine
The Alesis bundle comes with absolutely everything you need to start creating: studio headphones, dynamic mic with a stand, cables, batteries with a charger, and a library of over 500 drum and bass sounds to pull from and play with. You can instantly integrate effects like reverb, EQ, and compression to craft your beat, then tap out the timing on the touch-sensitive tempo and LED buttons to make it sound just like how you imagined.
It’s MIDI-compatible, which means you can use it with keyboards, computers, and other electronic drum kits. Or use it on its own, either plugged in or portably, thanks to its large and brightly backlit LCD display and battery power option.
PROS: For a beginner, this is everything you’ll need to get going, and the machine is endless fun to explore.
CONS: Can be a bit overwhelming if you’re just starting out, as the learning curve is tough, with lots of trial and error. Make sure the machine saves your beats when switching it off.
3. Alesis SR-16 Studio-Grade Standalone Drum Machine
The SR-16 is a legend in the electronic drum machine world, and has been used for years by songwriters, engineers, and producers.
This unit provides a “naturally realistic sound” from over 200 samples of drums and percussion to make your own loops from. Program them, edit them, mix them up, then save your creations with space for up to 200 unique patterns to have at your fingertips anytime.
The velocity pads along with an input for a foot pedal allow you to bust out beats just like you’re behind a real drum set, and fully customize each hit from every part of the kit.
PROS: Realistic “old school” drum sounds make this a great option for not just electronic music producers, but pianists and guitarists too. It’s easy to set up a beat and start playing along. The option to type in a tempo is incredibly convenient for playing live and needing to switch speeds fast.
CONS: The LED screen isn’t very bright, so if you’re playing live, be sure to bring a light so you can see what you’re doing. Also the “Save” button is right next to the “Erase” button, so be very, very careful.