Originally intended as a practice tool for musicians, drum machines have evolved into a key element of electronic music production. Even now, when electronic music has increasingly moved into the laptop, nothing can quite replace the sound and feel of a real drum machine.
Generally, drum machines are considered to be of two types - those that are sample-based and the analogue or analogue modelling type.
Analogue and analogue modelling versions, like the TR-808, generate their sounds from basic waveforms. These machines are defined entirely by their sound.
Sample-based drum machines use recordings of individual percussion hits and sound effects, and generally include sampling capabilities. While they may come pre-loaded with samples designed for a certain sound, new samples can be loaded, so they are more defined by their feel and features than their sound.
Features that are Common to Drum Machines
Dual Power Supply
Multiple Input and Output Jacks
Flexible Programming and Editing Features
Points to think on
Some drum machines are merely beat generators, whilst others include powerful sequencers, which allow them to control the rest of your rig.
The best drum machines come with software that allows you to edit and mix on your computer. Simply make sure your machine is compatible with the software.
When looking for drum machines, check out brands like Akai, Roland and Native Instruments.
What to know about buying a new Drum Machine
When looking for a new drum machine, the things to consider are the quality of the samples provided, the sampling capabilities, triggers, audio I/O and MIDI implementation.
Since the 90s, drum machines have often included velocity sensitive triggers for maximum expressiveness. Often these pads also light up, so they are easier to use in dimly lit clubs.
Many sample-based drum machines that are for sale also include audio in lines to record samples directly on the deck.
More recent drum machines allow you to transfer audio samples seamlessly via USB, while with older versions you need to load new samples and sample banks using SD cards.
Modern machines may have either 5-pin MIDI I/O or USB MIDI implementation, though often they include both.
What to know about buying a pre-ownedDrum Machine
For many classic drum machines, like the legendary TR-808 and TR-909, buying used is the only way to go.
With older or cheap drum machines there is the risk that certain features may be incompatible with newer gear. However, there is a wide variety of 3rd party tools to allow you to sync older devices.
In the end, it all comes down to sounds and feel. Pick a machine that has a feel that is natural and responsive and has the sound you want.