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A Beginner’s Guide To Drum Machines

A Beginner’s Guide To Drum Machines

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 Beginner’s 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…

Korg Volca Beats Analogue Rhythm Machine

The Volca Beats machine is part of Korg’s Volca series; an amazing range of entry level, fun to use gear for making electronic music. It is pocket-sized, user-friendly and affordable. A great first drum machine for novices, it’s surprisingly powerful, easy to operate, has a reliable loop sequencer and boasts an incredible selection of real analogue sounds. A solid investment that offers plenty of scope for experts too.

Alesis SR-16 Drum Machine

Alesis SR 16
With four audio outputs, the 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.

Feeling inspired? You can see what else we we have to offer by browsing our full range of drum machines.

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