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Best Drum Machine

As much as it might hurt the drummers of you out there to hear, there are new ways to imitate the sound that drummers can provide, without having to feed and pay a real drummer. This new method of keeping a beat also comes with some interesting capabilities, things like being able to control the beat with precision that most people are not capable, as well as some interesting sound effects.
So, if you’re looking to pick up a drum machine for your own uses, what should you be looking for? What machine may be the best for you and for your uses? This is something that is the topic for plenty of debate, and believe it or not, there are no definite answers, but what I can do is to illuminate the differences between the better models that are available and help to equip you to better make the decision concerning your drum machine choices.

Best Drum Machine – Comparison Table

Before we get into too in-depth a look at the drum machines in question, let us first take a moment to take a look at the broader picture, and get a nice overview of the products we will be reviewing. Here are just a few things that we ought to know about the drum machines reviewed in order to make an informed decision early on concerning the best drum machine for live performance or for studio uses.
Often, musicians and other consumers just want a nice and clean table to look at to compare their options. So without any further ado, here’s a list of the best drum machines of 2018.

NameEffect Pads/ButtonsOther FunctionalityPower Source
Akai Professional MPD218 MIDI Drum Pad Controller16 backlit MPC pads (48 assignable pads via 3 banks)6 control knobs (18 assignable knobs via 3 banks)USB
Alesis SR16 24-Bit Stereo Electronic Drum Machine12 velocity-sensitive padsStereo sample system with 50 preset and 50 user generated drum kits and 233 sounds assignablePower Cord
Teenage Engineering TE010AS012 PO 12 Rhythm Drum Machine And Sequencer16 buttons for effectsOnboard Knowles speaker2x AAA batteries
Korg Vola Beats Analog Rhythm Machine16 effects buttonsBasic drum sequencing controlsPower Cord
Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Mk2 Groove Production Studio16 multi-colored padsSequencer controlsUSB
Akai Professional Rhythm Wolf True Analog Drum Machine And Bass Synthesizer6 effect pads32 step sequencerPower Cord
Akai Professional Tom Cat True Analog Drum Machine With Built-In Percussion Voices6 effect pads32 step sequencer with drum machine workflowPower Cord
Akai Professional MPC Studio Black With 9+ GB Sound Library Download16 MPC drum padsSame functionality as classic MPC line from Akai ProfessionalPower Cord

Now that you have an overview of the best drum machines available, let’s take a closer look at what the market has to offer your beat-making desires.
1

Akai Professional MPD218 MIDI Drum Pad Controller - The Budget Professional Model

Akai makes an early entry to the list with the MPD218 MIDI drum pad controller, a decently priced drum pad that offers a lot of functionality for the price that you’re going to pay. The Akai Professional line is a series of formidable devices that can do a lot for you and your music work, and if you’re looking for something to lay down a beat and replace your drummer, this is the kind of device that may be just the ticket. Akai has been making artist-quality and studio-quality MIDI and beat production equipment since 1984, and there’s a reason that, in a market with so much movement, so much money, and so many competitors, they have managed to hold to a top spot and decent reputation for about 33 years. They make a quality product, and when they make that product, it works well, and it works for a long time.

The Akai Professional MPD218 may well be the best drum machine 2018 has to offer you, or at the very least, it is one of the best drum machines available at this point (and as I said before, it does it all at a budget point that is very fair on the wallet). It features sixteen very visible pads for sound effects or drum beats or pretty much whatever you care to assign to them, and that means a lot of noise with little distraction. If you look at the picture above, to the left of the drum pads, right below the two columns of knobs, you see two black buttons, and they control the ‘bank’.

The bank is basically a stored selection of sounds you set that you can switch through with a push of a button, which means that you can, with the simple push of the appropriate button, switch between 48 effects for the MPD218’s drum pads. Those six knobs are controlled by a second bank button, so really you have 18 effects assignable to the knobs, and 48 that you can assign to the pads, meaning that this is a real beast of a machine for anyone to run through an appropriate MIDI interface, with a lot of selections that can be made on the fly to get the right sounds and effects for whatever task you’ve set yourself to, and making it one of the best drum machines 2018 has to offer you.

It is usable with some of the very best drum machine software available to us at this time, and basically, if you have a computer that was made in the last decade, it will be just fine to run this drum machine with. It even works with Windows XP, which is an operating system that I used a decade ago in college, so you’re going to be fine with this drum machine even if you’ve not updated your computer or its operating system in quite some time. If you’re looking for a good (and somewhat low priced) drum machine that has all the bells and whistles, Akai’s Professional line has delivered a good option to you.

PROS
  • 48 assignable pads and 18 knob effects, thanks to the three bank system that it comes with. Truly, a great thing for anyone performing live or in a studio
  • The drum pads are huge. This may not seem like a big deal, but hitting the wrong button or pad by accident can screw up a show or recording session
  • Wide range of compatibility, especially with Windows OS systems, means you don’t have to worry that your computer can’t hack it
CONS
  • I really have nothing bad to say about this drum machine, no matter how cynical I try to be
2

Alesis SR16 24-Bit Stereo Electronic Drum Machine – The Old-Fashioned Solution

Alesis, like Akai, is a name that has been in the music industry for a long time, and they’ve stuck around because they turn out good products that people are willing to pay money for. They’re a name that you can trust, and they make devices that people use and have used for a long time, and they’re likely to continue to do so in the future. A lot of people don’t know this about the music industry, but as with cars, firearms, and aircraft, sometimes old can be good, or even better than new.

For example, people will spend a quarter of a million dollars on Gibson Les Pauls from the first few years of their production, and there are plenty of aircraft flying right now that were built in the decade after the Korean War. This Alesis model isn’t that old, but it does go back to the early 1990s, and it proves it can still be relevant. The Alesis SR18 is actually a continuation of the model and its early designs. So what makes the Alesis SR16 a contender for best drum machine that 2018 has to offer you, a full quarter century after it was first designed? Well, in a word, it is timeless. It’s a simple machine, with 12 velocity sensitive pads. Combine those 12 velocity sensitive pads with its stereo sample system (which comes with 50 preset drum kits as well as 50 user designated drum kits, and with 233 sounds), and you’ve got a machine that still has a place in any recording studio in the world.

Now, there is some downside. It isn’t really designed to work with computers at all, outside of a MIDI interface kind of thing, but that’s good for a simple design. It derives its power via an adaptor that you run to a wall outlet, and if you’re looking for an old-fashioned way to get the sound you want, or if you just want an old-fashioned sound for your music (which is all the rage these days, apparently), then this somewhat cheap drum machine will not lead you astray.

PROS
  • 12 velocity sensitive pads
  • Simple design
  • Great preset bank listing
CONS
  • No computer interface or software
  • Kind of bulky and clunky compared to things made in the 21st century
3

Teenage Engineering TE010AS012 PO 12 Rhythm Drum Machine And Sequencer – The Stripped-Down Option

This is a very interesting model, and honestly, it’s the reason that I included it. Sure, if you’re looking for something extremely top of the line or professional, it probably isn’t the drum machine for you. If you’re just starting out, or if you’re making the kind of music where oddities are considered a plus, then this has all the quirkiness that you could ever hope to have.

This thing looks like it comes from the same train of thought that brought us DIY projects like the Raspberry Pi (incidentally, with a bit of knowledge and some patience, you can actually make a Raspberry Pi into a great drum machine). Teenage Engineering actually produces a few similar products to this, and they’re all worth taking a look at. The 12 Rhythm drum machine from Teenage Engineering, although odd to look at, and capable of fitting pretty easily in the pocket of any shirt, comes with a Knowles speaker system that can provide surprisingly decent sound for a small jam session.

Of course, if you’re looking to play where a crowd can hear, you may want to run a line from the 3.5mm audio jack to an actual speaker system or PA system. It comes with real synthesized drum sounds pre-loaded. It contains 16 punch-in effects, and also boasts a 16-step chaining step multiplier.

It does all this while managing to be small enough that you can fit it into your pocket. Now, if you’re looking for something that you can do a lot of customizing to, that you can load your own sounds into and all that? This may not be the option for you. And honestly, as cool as this thing is, if you’re looking for something to take into a studio, this probably isn’t the drum machine that you should be looking at. However, it may well be the best cheap drum machine on this list, and if you’re shopping for something for, say, a younger teen who is looking to produce some beats? This is the perfect option for you, in that case.

PROS
  • Run off of 2x AAA batteries
  • Cheap and simple
  • A great introductory drum machine that can be taken literally anywhere
CONS
  • No customizability to speak of
  • Only a 3.5mm jack for running to speakers
4

Korg Vola Beats Analog Rhythm Machine – The Big Name Brand

Korg is a name that is also known for making electronics for musicians, making pretty much anything that you could need for synthesizing music, providing some fresh beats, and even jamming on a keyboard or a more classic-looking piano. Korg is a company that has a lot of history in the music effects world, and it should be no surprise to anyone that one of their products would end up on this list. In fact, I would suggest it would be more of a surprise if something that they made didn’t end up in the running for best analog drum machine.

The Korg Vola Beats Analog Rhythm Machine has 16 effects that can be brought to bear for whatever musical needs that you may have. It also has basic drum controls, which you would probably expect from a drum machine. The pads on the bottom there, the ones that are lit up, are what you press to provide whatever beat it is that you would like to get out of it. It is a good rhythm machine for the studio, in particular, and it is designed to be used with a MIDI program of some sort.

It doesn’t have any sort of USB functionality to speak of, but a talented producer or musician can use the Korg Vola Beats machine to make some fresh track. It also comes pre-loaded with all sorts of sound effects to choose from, and with various ‘voices’ that you may want.

This is another piece of equipment that is good for anyone who is just getting started and learning what you can do with a drum machine or a rhythm machine, but if you’re looking for something that comes with a high degree of customizability and maybe with some sort of software that you can hook into a computer, then this is not the drum machine for you. But it may be on the short list of ‘best beat machine for hip hop’, especially if you’re looking for a basic hip hop sound or a more classic one.

PROS
  • A name that you can trust, with all the quality that implies
  • MIDI compatibility makes it useful in the studio in particular
  • A very sturdy machine
CONS
  • Not much customizability to speak of
  • No USB interface
5

Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Mk2 Groove Production Studio – The Colorful Professional Option

When I was a child, my dad used to take me to look at MARS music stores when he was looking at guitars, and inevitably I wandered off to find brightly colored devices like this one. I have to say that, before we even get into the functionality of the Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Mk2, it just looks amazing, and I can fully imagine that this would be pretty cool to see in a dark room where a DJ or hip hop group are laying down beats and rhythms. The way that this thing looks is impressive, and I’m a big fan of the multicolored interface that can make it a lot simpler to find the buttons that you need and a lot harder to hit the wrong pad (and the pads are big enough that they’re hard to miss, too).
Now, to the brass tacks. The Maschine Mikro Mk2 comes loaded with functionality, and the first thing that bears mentioning is the 16 drum pads. They’re backlit, they’re huge, they’re a good standard for the actual ‘drum pad’ part of any drum machine. Then, of course, there’s the sequencer that they come with, which is to be expected in a ‘groove production’ device, which is a great help to keeping the beats fresh and the music flowing organically. You can switch the sounds and effects of the pads with an included program, and there are also presets and even a library of pre-designed sounds that you can utilize in your work, if you feel the need.
Obviously, since this thing is designed to be updateable and customized to your liking, that means that you can hook it into a computer, and indeed, it has a USB port for just such a purpose. It is also powered by that USB port, which is a USB 2.0 port. When it comes to what computer systems it is compatible with, the list is expansive; it will work with Windows 10, Windows 8, and Windows 7, which means that most computers bought in the last couple of years are going to be fine to work with this device, and it also works with Mac OS X 10.11 or later, meaning that it works with a decent percentage of the recently released Macintosh computers, if you decided to spend a ton of money on an Apple logo.
I cannot stress enough that this thing belongs out in the world being played in public. I think that this would be the perfect drum machine for anyone who is going to a rave or anything similar, and it looks professional. Of course, it is also professionally priced, but you do have to pay for quality. This is definitely a good option for anyone look for professional grade drum machines, and it can be the best drum machine for rock music as well, especially if you bring it into a professional grade studio.

PROS
  • This thing just looks impressive. I know that looks don’t always matter, but this thing is beautiful, no two ways about it
  • The customizability options are a good touch
  • USB ports make for more customization options and make it easy to use it to record or produce music
CONS
  • It’s a little complicated, and the learning curve is steep for someone who doesn’t know how to use a drum machine already
6

Akai Professional Rhythm Wolf True Analog Drum Machine And Bass Synthesizer – The Beat Master

If you’ve ever played in a band anywhere, you know that while the rhythm guitar helps to provide the rhythm and the sound (and even the tone) of the song, it is really the bass and drum line that keep the beat and provide the rhythm most of all. In the Akai Professional Rhythm Wolf analog drum machine, you are getting something that can, if needed, replace the entire rhythm section of most bands, aside from the rhythm guitar (and depending on the music, you may even be able to replace that rhythm guitar with this beast). It’s a true beats beast (I apologize for the puns).

The Rhythm Wolf comes with 6 effects pads. I know that this may seem like it isn’t enough, but depending on the music that you’re playing and the songs you’re using, it may be more than you need, really. However, I have to admit that the low count of pads may mean that if you are looking to find a good range of effects that you can use during a live show, this drum machine may not be the one for you. However, I don’t think you can argue that it doesn’t deserve a place of reverence in the studio, for sure.

The Rhythm Wolfe also boasts a 32 step sequencer, and just in general has all the things that you would expect to find on a quality drum machine. As I’ve said before, I like when the effect pads are of a decent size; it makes them easier to hit, and it makes it a lot less likely that during a live show when the juices are flowing and the hands are getting sweaty, you’re going to miss your target when you go to interject an effect. I find a lot to like about this thing, honestly, and the fact that it is compatible with Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP, as well as with Mac OS X 10.11 and later, means that most of the people with computers can run this through their computers. It is just another great Akai drum machine, for sure.

PROS
  • Sturdy design and a quality name
  • Plenty of customizability options
  • Good software and good compatibility
CONS
  • It could benefit from a few more drum pad buttons, in my opinion
7

Akai Professional Tom Cat True Analog Drum Machine With Built-In Percussion Voices – The Modest Drum Machine

Before we get too far into this review, yes, I’m aware that the Tom Cat looks very similar to the Wolf that I reviewed up above. But the truth is that there are some differences that are worth mentioning. The big difference, though, is that the Tom Cat is a straight drum machine, while the Wolf was both a drum machine and a bass synthesizer. To put that into simpler terms, the Wolf can replace both a drummer and a bassist, the deeper rhythm section of a band, while the Tom Cat can replace just the drummer. The Akai Professional Tom Cat comes with 6 effect pads, and as with the Wolf, they’re big enough and easy enough to see that you are not likely going to be worrying about missing the buttons (and honestly, if you miss the buttons, you either need to work on your hand-eye coordination, or you need to work on your eyesight, because these are big enough to see and easy enough to hit that this should not be a problem.

The great thing about the Tom Cat is that it comes with quite a few pre-loaded voices. A voice, for those of you who are not aware, is basically a sound effect that is designed to imitate a real instrument. In this case, that means that we’re talking about impersonating a real drums and real cymbals and the like, and in some cases, this will even allow you to imitate high end drum kits or the sound of drum kits of the famous musicians of our time. The Akai Tom Cat also comes with a 32-step sequencer, so that you can get a bit more control of the sound and the sequence of your effects, as well as the usual drum machine workflow that you can expect of most drum machines.

It feeds off the power of an adaptor, but the most important thing here is that the USB outlet will allow you to hook up to your computer, and the Tom Cat works with a wide variety of computers. It works with Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP, as well as with Mac OS X 10.11 or later, meaning that it basically works with any computer that you can read this on, more likely or not. If you’re looking for a more dedicated drum machine, but you are wanting to keep in the Akai Professional family, then I would highly recommend that you take a look at the Tom Cat for fulfilling your drum machine needs.

PROS
  • A fantastic dedicated drum machine that will provide all the beats that you could possibly need
  • Drum machine workflow is fantastically well designed
  • Wide variety of compatible computers
CONS
  • Could do with a few more effects buttons or pads
8

Akai Professional MPC Studio Black With 9+ GB Sound Library Download – The Consummate Professional

Yes, I do realize that Akai Professional devices make up half of the devices on this list. However, they are putting out fantastic devices, and they have a reputation for being a great producer of drum machines, and because of that, they get a lot of air time. It is what it is, and their spots on this list are entirely deserved and earned through literally decades of hard work at making good electronics for musicians.

To begin with, when you get the Akai Professional MPC Studio Black, you get access to a 9 GB download for a sound library. That makes for a lot of sound files. That’s the size of a lot of modern video games, even, and those things are a lot more complex than sound files and their formats. You can use this sound library to customize your own sound effects for the pads, which takes a lot of the work out of making your own cool effects for music, believe me. It comes with 16 MPC drum pads, which means that during a song, you can get a large variety of sound effects in there, without having to worry about switching the database around or anything like that.

I have to say, really, for something that you’re going to use in a live setting, like, say, during a concert, there are few setups that make more sense to me than the 16 drum pad setup. There’s another great thing about the way that these buttons or pads are designed, too; they’re big enough that you really cannot miss them unless you are outright trying to miss them. Seriously, the pad design of this thing is just fantastic. It comes with the same controls as the classic MPC line, which is a fairly prestigious line, and being able to get that functionality while also enjoying the 16 drum pads? That just makes it as close to the perfect professional drum machine that you are going to be able to get access to for a reasonable price. 

Of course, the USB plug means that you can plug your Akai Professional MPC Studio into a computer, and it is compatible with Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP, as well as being able to work along with the Mac OS X 10.11 or later. All of this combines to make the Akai Professional MPC Studio a real contender for the title of ‘best drum machine’.

PROS
  • 16 programmable pads along with the controls that the classic MPC lines have? That’s a great combination that anyone will be happy to work with
  • A long list of compatible devices means that if you own a somewhat modern computer, you will be just fine hooking up to it
  • A free included 9+ GB sound library download helps immensely with getting off to a good start in the music game
CONS
  • The price is a bit steep
  • The pads would be better, in my opinion, if they were colored or backlit, but you can’t always get what you want

Best Drum Machine - Buyer's Guide

If you’re looking to buy a drum machine, and you find you need one for whatever musical needs you may have, here are just a few bits of advice for picking the right one for you.

Do The Drum Machines Make Noise On Their Own?

Most of the drum machines that we reviewed do not, no, actually produce a sound. Believe it or not, most drum machines, audio synthesizers, and other such devices do not produce their own sound, but need to be run through something else to create the noises you will hear. For most of these, that means you need to hook up to a computer or a MIDI interface with DAW (Digital Audio WaveForm) technology, or to a speaker system, in order to produce a sound.

There is one that does have a fairly good on-board speaker, though. I’m talking about the Teenage Engineering 12 Rhythm Drum Machine. It’s actually kind of weird that one of the lowest-priced options on here is also the only one that is capable of independently producing its own sounds. The Knowles speakers that are built into it are fairly powerful, and they are capable of providing sound to your surrounding area, making it great for if you’re, say, sitting in a hotel room or a car while practicing your beats.

How Many Pads/Buttons For Effects Are Enough?

Honestly, this all depends on what you are going to be doing with the drum machine. If you are looking for something that you can take out and perform live with, then the more assignable buttons that you are able to have, the better off you will be. In that sort of instance, the best drum machine for you is the Akai Professional MPD218, which not only has sixteen assignable buttons and six assignable knobs, but also has three banks for each, meaning that you really have forty-eight assignable buttons and eighteen assignable knobs at your disposal with the click of a button to switch between banks A, B, and C.
On the other hand, in the studio, more realistically, it doesn’t matter one whit how many pads you have. You are going to be able to take your time in programming effects, and you don’t have to switch between them on the fly.

Why Is Computer Compatibility Important?

For the vast majority of drum machines, they will be run through a computer, either to be used on a MIDI system of some sort, or to be run through included software and then into a speaker system. Either way, that means that you need to be able to run the software and to handle the hardware, and if the machine isn’t compatible with most computers, and wants some strange or uncommon OS in order to work, you’re going to be having a much harder time utilizing the drum machine that you’ve spent money on.

Conclusion


So, now that we have taken a look at just a few of the great drum machines that are available to you, I hope that when you go out to purchase your very own, you’re somewhat informed. This list contains some great drum machines, to be sure.
Now, for the real winners in the list. First off, the best budget option is the Teenage Engineering drum machine. It’s great for a starter drum machine, too, and one that you can buy for a child without breaking the bank. Next, the best professional model, the Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Mk2. It has literally all the features that you might need to rock or rap, be it in a studio or live. And finally, the best drum machine reviewed, the Akai Professional MPD218. It has the ability to assign forty eight effects to the pads and eighteen effects to the knobs with the use of three banks. Any of these drum machines will be a great addition to your studio setup.