Drum Machines have come a long way since the heady days of the 808. We take a shuffle through history and check out some exemplary models available now...

Whether you’re looking to spice up your bedroom jamming sessions, build a fully functional home studio or kill time making a bunch of weird and wonderful percussive noises, you need to invest in a drum machine. Not sure where to start? Don’t worry; we’re here to help.

There has never been a better time to buy studio equipment – and drum machines are no exception. Why? Well, because the choices are plentiful, and the prices are a fraction what they were even five years ago.

What is a drum machine?

Before we delve any deeper into nuts, bolts, pads and percussion, let’s look at what a drum machine is, exactly.

A drum machine is musical hardware built to imitate the sound of electronic drums and other percussive instruments. Drum machines are usually box-shaped and feature a keypad similar to that of a computer.

Any modern drum machine worth its salt allows musician or bedroom virtuoso to create, mix and program drum sounds. This eliminates the need for a live drummer while offering a wide variety of sounds.

What is a drum machine used for?

Modern drum machines are popular across a multitude of genres from dance to psychedelic folk and used for many reasons.

For musical styles that lean more to the electronic end of the spectrum, a drum machine is generally more central to the foundations of a song or arrangement as there’s more scope for sonic experimentation. But, with more traditional styles like rock, drum machines are often used to record quick yet polished sounding demos without having to set up a full kit. Of course, with anything musical, you can be as straight or experimental as you wish – there are no rules.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On

Drum machines became commercially available in the mid-twentieth century but were extremely primitive in their abilities. In fact, they were only used for rehearsal or live improvisation when a drummer wasn’t present. By the 1970s however, the drum machine had come on leaps and bounds, with lots more built-in sounds available to use. Musicians took note and began to see the potential of what they could do to a track.

Sly and The Family Stone propelled the popularity of the drum machine in the mainstream with the album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The LP is packed full of synthesised drum machine beats, mixed seamlessly with live drum tracks and we recommend checking it out.

Since then, the drum machine has evolved, with more powerful, affordable and user-friendly models available than ever before.

Perhaps one of the best modern drum machine pioneers is Aphex Twin. One of the world’s most innovative dance acts, this guy knows a thing or two about drum sequencing. Not only this, but his use of drum machines pushed boundaries. ‘Come to Daddy’ is a good starting point.

On a more popular note, Moby has one of the world’s most prolific drum machine collections. Most of his songs employ the use of drum machines. ‘Why Does My Heart’ shows how soulful a drum machine can be in the right hands…

The key features of a modern drum machine

Pressure-sensitive pads: These pads make different sounds when you strike them with your fingers. Depending on which sounds you assign to each pad, whether it be a traditional snare sound or a space aged maraca, you can tap out a drum sequence that you can store and use within your music.

Built-in effects: Any decent modern drum machine will come complete with a range of weird and wonderful built-in effects. You can experiment with these to your heart’s content.

Programming and editing features: These features allow a user to record their own sounds and mix them with the drum machine’s presets. Depending on the quality of the drum machine, preset patterns can range from around 10 to over a thousand.

Our Top Picks

When you’re a drum machine novice, choosing the right piece of kit for you can prove daunting. If you’re a budding home recording engineer or someone starting to experiment with percussive sounds, this drum machine – our beginner’s top pick – will offer you endless amounts of fun and practical value…

1. Korg Volca Drum

Alesis SR 16

The Korg Volca Drum is a relatively new edition to the Volca family. Thanks to the cannily developed 6-part DSP synth engine, the Drum tones out of this little ripper sound absolute huge! The 16-step sequencer offers the same imperious tactile control we’ve come to expect from a Volca, but it’s in the sound department that it excels. Thanks to the proprietary Active Step function, you can create intricate polyrhythms by utilising a plethora of settings across short loops and irregular rhythms for expressive and realistic control.

2. Alesis SR-16 Drum Machine

Alesis SR 16

With four audio outputs, the Alesis SR-16 fits in with almost any recording setup. It’s also ideal for both studio and live use. Like the Korg, this drum machine is intuitive, simple and very portable. The SR-13 offers great value. It has an eclectic range of 233 sounds and is produced by a name you can trust. An excellent beginner buy.

3. Arturia DrumBrute

Arturia DrumBrute Analogue Drum Machine

The Arturia DrumBrute offers up delicious analogue beats across a highly intuitive interface that plays well with a wide range of gear. Thanks to USB, MIDI, and CV connectivity you can make it the centre of your performance and/or production workspace. With the ability to record a whopping 64 patterns, each with up to 64 steps, you can rest assured that your imagination can run wild on this beauty. As with everything Arturia they’ve thrown all but the kitchen sink at the DrumBrute to ensure that not only does it sound immaculate, but it performs seamlessly and is built to last.

4. Arturia DrumBrute Impact

Arturia DrumBrute Impact Analogue Drum Machine

Following on from its predecessor, the Arturia DrumBrute Impact features many of the bells and whistles that came before: extensive connectivity, individual outputs for each drum, huge scope for creating patterns (64-patterns x 64-steps), and delightfully easy sync options. However, Arturia add to the mix an aggressive output distortion for creating truly filthy beats, as well as making it compact, lightweight and brightly lit so that touring artists can readily identify controls on dimly lit stages.

5. Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer

Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer Drum Machine

Even if you’re unfamiliar with drum machines, chances are you will have heard the Roland TR-808 (outstanding examples are “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force). Well, those absolute dons over at Roland released the TR-8S Rhythm Performer marries incredible replications of not only the 808, but also Roland’s 606, 909, 707, 272 and much more. Featuring a sleek and easy to navigate control layout with bright and shiny buttons aplenty, the TR-8S is a dream machine for purveyors of both old- and new-school beats. Whether you’re producing in the studio or hitting it hard on the festival circuit, you’ll never tire of the making magic on this magnificent beast.

For those who’d prefer a more compact rendition of the legendary TR-808 drum machine, look no further than the excellent Roland TR-08 Rhythm Composer.

Get in touch

Feeling inspired? You can see what else we have to offer by browsing our full range of drum machines over at the Dawsons website. Alternatively, head to your local Dawsons Music Store, where our in-store specialists will be more than happy to help you out of steer your inspiration along the correct path.