After the electronic music revolution of the mid-80s, drum machines have become a fundamental part of music production, and these top 6 in 2022 ensure outstanding performance.
While software music production is undoubtedly at its all-time high, hardware gadgets still see their share of use in live performance and production. Combining hardware gear with your computer or even making music without a DAW can be an inspiring experience.
Moreover, among such gear, some of the most famous are grooveboxes and drum machines. For decades, these have played an essential part in electronic dance music performance and production.
6 Best Drum Machines For Studio & Live Performance 2022
1. Arturia – DrumBrute Impact
DrumBrute Impact is Arturia’s second analog drum machine after the bigger sibling DrumBrute, although “sibling” is a pretty generalized term to use.
It has fewer voices and separate outputs, a smaller size, and a lower price, but the sound palette is also quite different with a fiery vibe. So, you could call DrumBrute Impact the younger, carefree sibling who enjoys wild parties.
DrumBrute Impact is a ten-voice analog drum synth with eight analog track strips and one FM strip. Furthermore, it features a pattern memory of four banks, where each bank contains sixteen 64-step sequences. So, you’re fairly equipped well for most studio production and live performance use.
- Synth Engine
As I mentioned, DrumBrute Impact features eight control strips for the analog voices, where the high and low toms share controls alongside the cymbal and cowbell, a new addition over the original DrumBrute. However, the shared controls don’t affect the polyphony, meaning you can play the two voices separately and simultaneously without issue. Furthermore, the FM synth engine allows you to create a wide variety of silvery percussion sounds. You can control the modulator’s pitch, the carrier’s pitch, FM amount, and decay. So, it serves as a nice, twangy contrast to the analog engine’s gritty, grounded sound.
The drum machine features a master distortion knob that adds an analog-style distortion to the entire drum mix. However, the most exciting feature in DrumBrute Impact is “Color.” The Color mode generates a variant of the original sound, which is generally either a drive boost or a different filter, decay, and pitch setting(s), depending on which sound you’re changing. Furthermore, you can modulate the Color button per step, resulting in an intricate sequence when used right.
DrumBrute Impact has individual outputs for the kick, snares, hi-hats, and FM drum. So, you could add outboard effects or connect the machine to a mixer or audio interface to get creative with the sounds. Try adding some delay and reverb on the drums to bring them to life instantly.
As you’d expect, you can step-record and record playing live, which quantizes based on the current grid. Furthermore, the hardware allows you to play at two levels using a velocity threshold: accented and non-accented. Similarly, you can add ratcheting rhythms using “step repeats” that repeat a step up to four times. This feature is excellent for sequencing hi-hats and snare or tom fills. Other cool features are swing and polyrhythm.
I’ve already mentioned that the drum machine has four banks with sixteen patterns per bank. A Song mode allows you to create a pattern chain and loop multiple patterns to create a drum arrangement easily.
Although they share a single volume control, the drum machine features a headphone output and a mix output. Similarly, you’ll find 3.5mm MIDI clock in and out ports that allow you to sync multiple instruments. And 5-pin MIDI in and out ports allow you to control the drum using a keyboard or program another instrument using DrumBrute Impact’s sequencer. Furthermore, a USB port lets you connect the device to your computer for a MIDI connection.
Character & Sound:
DrumBrute Impact is a very classic-sounding drum machine that provides a fairly simple workflow. Thanks to the analog engine, it sounds rather warm and soft, regardless of the settings. However, the vintage style makes it excellent for hip-hop and similar music. Although, adding some outboard gear opens the sound up for other genres. Furthermore, sequencing the Color mode helps bring another dimension to the drum patterns.
DrumBrute Impact is a straightforward drum machine with a distinctly analog sound, from the sound generators to the distortion stage . So, if you like the sound of the classic Roland and Korg machines, you might like this portable drum machine too. Furthermore, the Color mode allows you to add intricacy that wasn’t possible in vintage gear.
While the drum machine is quite good for what it does, versatility isn’t DrumBrute Impact’s strongest suit. So, you might find the sound gets old pretty quick, despite rigorous programming and patching. Furthermore, it doesn’t allow parameter modulation or automation, particularly on the FM synth engine.
2. Elektron Analog Rytm Mk2
The Swedish manufacturer, Elektron, unveiled the Analog Rhythm in 2014, quickly finding its way to the electronic music community where hardware instruments were thriving.
And less than four years later, the MKII of the instrument appeared. The most apparent changes are in its appearance with its light grey/black aluminum body, tilted for convenience and featuring a white-on-black OLED display.
Similarly, the new version replaces the stiff pads of the original machine with large, soft pressure pads.
- Dedicated Engines
Analog Rytm MK2 features twelve pads or tracks, each producing a different drum/percussion sound. However, it has eight analog synth engines, each dedicated to a specific type of drum sound. For example, the BD (bass drum) pad has an internal synth dedicated to producing kick sounds only, whereas the snare pad’s synth only produces snare sounds.
This “limitation” ensures that you don’t have anything too complex to program for sound design. Instead, you can focus on the type of sound you want, dial in a few parameters, and you’re good to go! When editing, the OLED display shows all the parameters available, and you can use the rotary pots at the top right of the panel to dial in the corresponding values. Furthermore, you can even edit parameters per step to create creative and intricate patterns.
Analog Rytm MK2 allows you to record custom sample files for each pad via a pair of balanced inputs. It also comes with a factory sample library that you can use to add variety to your sounds in the Sample menu. Furthermore, you can either use only a sample, only the built-in synth or blend both the sample and synth to create a unique sound per pad.
- Onboard Effects
The drum machine provides a true analog saturation drive, multi-mode filter with an envelope, an amp envelope, effect sends, and an LFO for each drum pad. Furthermore, it features a versatile digital reverb and a delay effect for the sends. And if you need more control, you can record and mix each pad sound separately using the multiple outputs on the back edge of the hardware. This feature is handy if you have an audio interface with multiple inputs or a mixer. Combining it with the DAW link features takes this drum machine to a whole new level.
- Chromatic Mode
Modern electronic music rarely has drums without pitch changes. Hence, Analog Rytm MK2 lets you play any drum pad chromatically by enabling the chromatic mode. It’s also useful for playing melodies or basslines using the dual-VCO synth engine built into the drum machine. Furthermore, it allows you to color-code the pads for easy identification.
Character & Sound:
The most impressive feature of this drum machine is its analog modeling synth engine. However, the most unique must be the per-pad parameter modulation. It allows you to create everything from the classic TR-808-style beats to modern DnB madness.
Similarly, the factory sound library and a gigabyte of storage space for custom samples allow you to tailor the drum machine for any genre and style you want. Furthermore, if the built-in reverb and saturate delay aren’t enough, the multi-out feature lets you get creative while mixing.
Analog Rytm MK2 is undoubtedly one of the best drum machines ever made. It features a built-in drum synth that generates many types of sound alongside a sampler that can load and record samples.
Furthermore, the 16-step sequencer can modulate the parameters, play chromatic notes, and even introduce probability or “trigger conditions.” Likewise, the pattern and song options allow you to load multiple patterns per session to help you perform live.
Although the drum machine is filled to the brim with features, a few of them are tedious to use. For example, if you want to quantize a live recording, you have to turn the quantize percentage all the way up by dialing in a knob. I’d have loved to see a quicker way to perform such tasks.
However, it does ease up many complex or impossible tasks to its credit. Still, you might consider the machine too complicated if you aren’t after so much flexibility. Similarly, the steep price may keep the instrument out of reach for most starting musicians.
3. Korg Volca Drum (Best On Budget)
Hailing from the affordable yet ultra-powerful Volca range of hardware is Volca Drum by Korg.
If you’ve been following the Volca series, you probably noticed the Volca Kick and Volca Beats, the first drum-oriented Volca instruments. With Volca Drum, Korg goes fully digital with six voices, each with two layers. Furthermore, as with the rest in the series, Volca Drum functions with six AA batteries or a 9V power supply, which, surprisingly, isn’t included with the drum machine.
- The Parts
Volca Drum features six dual-layered synth parts that generate sounds using DSP-powered analog modeling. You can find the following oscillator waveforms: sine, sawtooth, and noise. Similarly, you can blend the two layers per part with adjustable volume controls. Furthermore, the synth sounds pass through a “waveguide resonator,” a physical modeling technology providing two modes: tubes and strings.
The two sound highly different, with the tubes sounding somewhat metallic but hollow and the strings twangy and tight. Each synth part allows you to send the generated sound into the resonator, and you can adjust how much you want to send. Other controls for the part include modulation, pitch, and envelope controls.
Volca Drum provides exciting features in its sequencer. You can have up to sixteen patterns, each with sixteen steps. However, the fun parts are the slice, accent, and randomizing features. The slice feature lets you create sub-steps per step. This feature is excellent for creating ratcheting and shaker-like rhythms on your hi-hats. Similarly, it could also be handy for creating fills.
You can accent any step you want to add a dynamic feel to the patterns. However, Volca Drum goes one step further and allows you to change the amount of accent you want per step. So, you could get highly creative with your patterns, creating crescendos or diminuendos.
And last but not least, you can randomize both the pattern per part and the part itself. It results in a completely different sound and pattern, helping you get the spark of creativity going. Of course, if you find something you like, you should save it and use a new pattern/part preset before continuing the randomizing.
Surprisingly, Volca Drum has taken a page out of Elektron’s book – you can assign parameter locks per step. You can modulate using parameter locking by holding a step and moving one of the clear knobs. Of course, you can also record a pattern and twist the knobs to use the proprietary Motion Sequencing for automating the parameters smoothly.
Korg Volca Drum provides a 3.5mm headphone port as the only audio output. And you’ll find 3.5mm Sync in and Sync out ports to play the drum machine with other MIDI instruments. And you can also play the Volca Drum using the 5-pin MIDI input on the main panel of the instrument.
Character & Sound:
Korg Volca Drum has a surprisingly robust sound despite the modest size and price. It doesn’t merely sound soft or warm like an analog drum machine. Instead, it sounds pristine, precise, and adventurous when you dial the parameters right.
The high frequencies can sound harsh in some settings, but a little EQing, compression, and reverb using outboard gear should fix the creases. The crucial aspect is that you’ll have a lot of fun working with this excellent piece of gear. It’s ideal for many types of genres like hip-hop, techno, house, trance, RnB, pop, etc.
Of course, the most significant advantage is its price. Fortunately, it’s not the only one. Volca Drum provides novel sounds using digital subtractive synthesis with a physical modeling resonator, resulting in unusual and creative sounds. Furthermore, the excellent sequencer lets you create sliced rhythms and add a custom amount of accent per step.
It’s difficult to find a valid criticism for this powerful device at this price range. However, if I’m being picky, I’d have loved to see Korg provide a power supply adaptor with the drum machine instead of selling it separately.
Yet, it’s appreciable that they preferred to keep the price low by making the tradeoff.
4. Behringer RD-9
Behringer has been manufacturing affordable music gear for a long time, and the RD-9 drum machine continues the trend.
Based on the Roland RT-909 drum machine, Behringer’s RD-9 Rhythm Designer is a genuine analog drum machine employing eleven drum parts. It offers an Authentic and Enhanced mode, where the former merely emulates the original hardware, whereas the latter offers additional features.
The Enhanced mode includes adjustable pitch/pitch depth for the bass drums and tuning for the hi-hats.
Behringer RD-9 is a complete recreation of the Roland TR-909 drum synth. So, you will receive complete control over the sound with no limitations or quirks, unlike sampled or modeled software plugins. Furthermore, it provides innovative features for live performance like note repeat, step repeat (ratcheting), real-time triggering, and live step-overdubbing.
The drum machine provides pattern storage of up to sixteen songs with 256 patterns each. Each pattern can have up to sixty-four steps. Furthermore, you can export and import these songs/patterns even while the drum machine is playing. So, even if your live set has more than sixteen songs, RD-9 has you covered for seamless performance with Song Mode’s chaining feature.
Behringer RD-9 features a Wave Designer transient processor that affects any voice you’ve sent into it. You can use it to make the transient of a voice sound punchier or increase the decay by dialing in the sustain knob. Similarly, the drum machine features a multi-mode analog filter that can function as high-pass or low-pass filters.
The hardware features ten audio outputs for each drum element (with the open/closed hi-hat merged into one output). Furthermore, three trigger outputs send +5V 2ms pulse to trigger external devices. The triggers include rim shot, clap, and bass drum/assignable. Likewise, there are MIDI clock ports, a headphone out, a mono mix output, a return, MIDI in/out/thru, and a USB connection for computers.
Character & Sound:
Behringer RD-9 sounds uncannily like the original Roland TR-909. Sure, if you attempt to compare each other super deeply, you might discover some minor differences. However, that doesn’t make the RD-9 any less of an analog drum machine in its own right.
The multiple outputs allow you to mix the drum sounds using outboard gear. Overall, it’s an excellent instrument for the analog enthusiast looking for a catalyst for creativity.
The RD-9 drum machine provides the sound and feel of the original Roland TR-909 drum machine at an insanely low cost. Furthermore, it adds a few additional features like pitch/pitch depth adjustments for the bass drum and tuning for the hi-hat.
These allow you to venture outside of the classical sound. Likewise, its comprehensive pattern sequencer allows you to use the hardware for live performance and studio production.
For what it is, RD-9 is outstanding. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the instrument uses a thirty-year-old technology. So, you might find the sound fairly limiting if you’re looking for variety. That’s about the only limitation.
5. SOMA Pulsar-23 Black
Get inspired by the experimental nature of this eccentric but creative drum machine.
Soma Pulsar-23 is a four-voice semi-modular drum synth that supports a non-linear workflow. Hence, the company describes it as an “organismic” drum machine that replicates how a living organism function internally.
You’ll find four generators labeled bass drum, bass, snare, and hi-hat. In total, there are twenty-three independent modules that you can patch between to create percussion instruments, rhythm, and even bass, melody, and sound effects.
As mentioned, Pulsar-23 employs four drum sound generators. The bass drum and bass generators are more tonal and allow you to play them melodically using a MIDI keyboard or CV from a groovebox. Conversely, the snare drum is noise-based, blending pink and spectral noises. And the hi-hat is a synth hat with a metallic twang.
Likewise, the bass generator is a monophonic synthesizer with two operation modes: classic monophonic synthesis and percussion synthesis. It features a digitally controlled oscillator followed by an analog low-pass filter with saturation, a VCA, and an envelope generator. Furthermore, the bass drum module provides some unusual controls with the “WTF?” and “OMG!” pins. They add circuit bending for the pitch modulator and the triangle waveform generator of the bass drum synth.
The drum synth features four envelope generators that can act as an amp envelope for the drum generators. So, you could create sustained drum sounds instead of percussive hits. The result is a strange drone/noise synthesis.
- Pins & Pins
One of the most noticeable design quirks is the number of pins you can find on the user interface. These are the patch points for various modules for routing. Hence, you are provided with plenty of crocodile clip cables. Another cool way to create temporary routings is by touching the pins with your fingers; it creates a resistive connection with erratic results. Furthermore, as with modular synths, you can use any generator (audio or CV) to modulate anything. In fact, you could route the LFO, which can go from 0.1 Hz to 5 kHz, as a sound source too.
You’ll find eight 3.5mm patch points on the front edge of the hardware. You can assign them as both input or output for both audio and CV. For example, you could use the various CV generators in this drum machine as a controller for other modular synths or similar machines. These generators include two VCAs, pulse shapers, invertors, envelopes, MIDI to CV converters, clock utility, etc. Conversely, you could also use the patch point to mix the drum sounds individually and create exciting stereo routings.
Character & Sound:
Pulsar-23 is a vast experimental sonic engine that happens to act like a drum machine. For example, take its Shaos tool, an almost random generator that you could use to generate unpredictable rhythmic patterns.
Similarly, the sound itself is analog, but extensive patching and routing can take it far from where it started. For instance, try using the LFO’s high-speed modulation to modulate the bass drum’s “OMG!” patch point, and it suddenly sounds nothing like an analog synth!
If you like experimenting with synths and hardware, Pulsar-23 is essentially a near-infinite playground. On top of generating drum sounds, you could use it to create soundscapes, drones, noise, etc.
Furthermore, all of the modules are protected from voltage overloads. So, in case you input more than the tolerable -20 to +20V, the modules automatically avoid overloads. This feature opens up a whole new range of experiments.
Being a highly flexible machine also introduces complexity. So, you could find the Pulsar-23 drum machine way more complex and unpredictable than you’d expect. Furthermore, it doesn’t feature a built-in sequencer, which feels sorely lacking for a drum machine.
And lastly, the steep price makes it a difficult purchase, especially for a device that doesn’t provide modules for more than merely four drum sounds.
6. Elektron Model:Cycles
Second in the Model lineup by Elektron, Cycles is an affordable yet highly capable FM drum synth with six voices, each with four predefined controls, similar to their Digitone synth. This Digitone synth technology makes Cycles stand out among the plethora of analog synthesis and PCM engines available on the market.
The lightweight hardware is made of plastic, although it feels quite sturdy. The drum machine is powered by a small power supply.
Furthermore, while there is a port for connecting a battery power supply called a Power Handle BP-1, the brand has asked users to stop using the Power Handle, return it, and get a refund. And there has been no announcement regarding whether we’ll see another battery power supply for this drum machine yet.
Model:Cycles has six sound machines labeled kick, snare, metal (hi-hat/ride), percussion, tone, and chord. Each features a dedicated algorithm with a four-voice FM synth engine offering four macro knobs: color, shape, sweep, and contour. These affect the voices slightly differently depending on which voice you’re editing. However, they all provide the proper parameters appropriate for the selected instrument.
Beyond the FM modulations, you can dial in each track/voice into a delay and reverb send. You can change the reverb size and tone, whereas the delay offers delay time and feedback controls. Furthermore, there is a volume + distortion knob that adds soft saturation. And you’ll find a boxing glove icon (no, it’s not a coffee mug) depicting Punch, a harder distortion. You can use this effect to make the instrument sound scruffier.
As with many Elektron drum machines, you can modulate most of the parameters on this device per step using parameter locking. For instance, you can use the trigger pads as a makeshift keyboard or connect a MIDI keyboard to play the voices melodically. Now, had there been a glide feature, the kick voice with a longer decay would’ve been the perfect 808. Similarly, you could change the contour per step to make intricate patterns. Try turning some knobs and having fun!
- Powerful Sequencer
Model:Cycles features a full-on Elektron 64-step sequencer. You can record live or step-record. Similarly, each voice can have a different length of patterns. So, you could cycle a short eight-step hi-hat and kick groove while recording complex fills and patterns on the snare. Similarly, you could use the Chance function to apply a probability setting for the various parameter locking modulations.
However, note that this drum machine has no dedicated undo function. Instead, you can create a Temp Save of the current pattern and reload it when required. So, make sure you do that before jumping into a spontaneous jamming session.
Character & Sound:
Model:Cycles sounds inherently digital thanks to its FM synth engine and intricate modulation features. However, the built-in distortion and soft saturation add some warmth to the overall sound.
Furthermore, it features a reverb and a delay effect, which help bring the instrument to life. Overall, it provides a very fresh style of sound that is seldom found in hardware drum machines.
Most FM synths are notorious for being incredibly complex and difficult. Fortunately, Model:Cycles doesn’t attempt to provide a world of knobs and faders. Instead, it prioritizes simplicity, making it perfect for musicians who don’t want to spend too much time experimenting but still use experimental sounds.
Furthermore, it provides some onboard effects to polish your sounds without outboard gear. And the sequencer is one of the best.
Despite the moderately low price tag, the lack of individual output per voice feels sorely lacking. Furthermore, you might find the trigger pads require too much force to get enough velocity response.
Unfortunately, you cannot change their sensitivity either. Similarly, it doesn’t provide any significant integration with DAWs or a MIDI clock.
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K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica.