The drums are the soul of rhythm. They keep bands on time and listener’s feet tapping. A drum machine is like having a drum set in your backpack. Drum machines are a great way to create the sound of a full band with only one person. Instead of lugging around all the shells and hardware that come with a drum set, you can have the versatility of hundreds of different drums and sounds in one compact unit.
In the 1980s, drum machines were used simply to program drum sounds into recordings. If you wanted perform live, you had to have a full band or have a DJ with you. Today, drum machines can be used for a multitude of different things. Some people use them for sampling, and some people use them for live performance. You can even use a drum machine to create entire songs with one piece of hardware. Some machines have only a few of these capabilities while others can do it all. The Beat Thangz Mobile MPC, the Dave Smith Instruments Tempest and the Boss DR-880 are nothing short of a beat maker masterpieces. For additional information, make sure to check out our learning center for articles on drum machines and other electronics.
Drum Machines: What to Look For
We've reviewed a diverse group of drum machines. Some of these beat machines are very basic and designed for live performance. Others offer a wide variety of sounds and the capabilities to create full songs. The music style that you want to produce or perform should also factor into your selection. It is important to know what you want out of your rhythm machine so you can pick the right one for you. Below is a list of categories on which we rated each drum machine.
The best drum machines today offer an array of sounds and the ability to be used in a studio setting as well as in live performance. Preset patterns are drum loops that are already preprogrammed into your drum machine for you to use. These should be easy to use and can demonstrate what your drum machine is capable of. User preset patterns allow you can make your own drum loops and save them. The more user presets you have, the more memory you have to save your drum loops.
Some drum machine have sounds that are specifically programmed for the hip-hop and R&B genres, while others have a multitude of live acoustic drum sounds that give you the chance to rock out with your drum machine regardless of the genre you prefer. A drum machine that includes multiple effects will give you more control over your sounds. Knowing what style of music, you want to use your machine for will help you select the unit that is right for you.
MIDI inputs are common among digital sound equipment now. The drum machines that stand apart from the rest are the ones with computer connections such as USB 2.0 ports and multiple input and outputs. Inputs are important because they allow you to plug instruments into your drum machine. When you are able to do this, you can jam along with your drum machine without the use of an instrument amplifier. Drum machines that have sampling abilities can record the instrument that is plugged in, then that recording can be edited, saved and used on your machine later.
Footswitch outputs are especially important for live performance because they allow you to control your drum machine without having to use your hands when you may need them for playing another instrument. Expression pedals allow you to control the volume and intensity of without the use of your hands. The availability of both features is crucial if you plan to use your drum machine in live applications.
Being able to plug headphones into your drum machine helps you practice and lets you play without needing external speakers. When all you need is your drum machine and headphones, the whole setup is much more portable.
Some drum machines have the ability to run on battery power. This is a great way to maximize portability. You want to make sure that your drum machine has a battery life of at least three hours, since the last thing you want is for your beat maker to turn off in the middle of a live performance. You also want to make sure that your display has some sort of backlighting. If not, you may have a hard time seeing what is being displayed.
Any drum machine under 6 pounds is considered a portable machine. The units that are compact and light (under 3 pounds) are especially portable because they are easy to carry around and don’t take up much room. A lightweight, compact drum machine that can be battery powered will be amazingly portable.
Help & Support
Having multiple avenues for manufacturer support can be a great help if questions arise with your drum machine. The availability of online manuals, email addresses and telephone support can help ease your mind if you ever have any questions. Any time a manufacturer offers at least a one-year warranty on a product, you can be assured that the manufacturer is confident in the product's durability and performance.
When you find a light and portable drum machine with plenty of connection options and an array of features, you have found yourself a beat creating super machine.
There isn’t a drum machine that makes song writing easier than the Beat Thang. This drum machine is so much more than the title Drum Machine entails. The Beat Thang has sampling and sequencing capabilities that make it easy to create songs. Loaded with over 3,000 different samples and battery powered so you can take your beat maker anywhere you need.
The Beat Thang’s musical capabilities surpass any average drum machine. This machine offers over 3,000 original samples. It is going to take you a long time before you start repeating samples. This wide variety of sounds will help spark your creativity in no time. Many drum machines only offer effects such as EQ and compression to mix into your sounds. The Beat Thang offers filters, reverbs, phasers, flangers and more. You can manipulate the presets to sound any way you like. If you are looking for a sound or tone that is not on this beat maker (which is unlikely), you can sample your own sounds onto this mobile drum machine.
Sequencing is a good tool to have on your beat maker. Real-time sequencers allow you to record musical notes in real time and play back musical notes with designated tempos and pitches. The Beat Thang has an onboard real-time 16-track sequencer that will help you layer your samples with ease and create heavy-hitting songs.
The Beat Thang’s memory storage and connect ability are unmatched. This drum machine offers two separate SD card ports that enable you to upgrade your drum machine's memory by up to 32GB per SD card. With the memory capability of the Beat Thang, you will never have to worry about running out of memory for new ideas and songs.
MIDI ports are an industry standard in connect ability. That’s why this beat machine has two USB ports to make it as easy as possible to connect to any computer or instrument that you need.
The most versatile and best drum machines have the ability to be used for live performance. This beat maker is not a product that only belongs in the studio; it excels in live performance capabilities. You have the option to plug in a footswitch to help start and stop your rhythms when your hands are tied with other instruments. You can also use an expression pedal in case you want the option to tweak the volume and intensity of your beats and sound. Dual headphone jacks also allow you and a partner to listen in on the groove simultaneously.
Whenever inspiration strikes, you can be ready no matter where you are because the Beat Thang was made for maximum portability. It has a rechargeable ion lithium battery so you don’t need to be bound down a power cord connection. It weighs only 6 pounds and is about a foot long, which makes it easy to fit into any backpack or laptop bag.
The Beat Thang has a very sleek, modern look. The all-black chassis is made of metal for durability, and all of the pads on this drum machine light up bright blue for easy visibility. The blue pads light up with the beat during playback, which helps you while you are editing and building your beats.
The display is a color LCD screen, making it easier to navigate than most black and white LCD displays. The color makes it easy to find your way around this drum machine's options and sound libraries.
There isn’t a style of music that eludes this beat machine. The Beat Thang’s massive sound library has all of the tools that you will need to cover everything from dubstep to rock and roll. The sound library is neatly organized into style categories making the Beat Thang one of the easiest drum machines to use.
On the Beat Thang’s manufacturer’s website, you'll find a downloadable online manual, and there are also video tutorials that walk you through the beat making processes and guide you to fully understand all the capabilities of this incredible drum machine. The creators of the Beat Thang want you to have the most enjoyable and easy experience possible with their product.
If you have any problems with your drum machine, you can contact the manufacturer by telephone or email.
The Beat Thang is nothing short of a modern drum machine monster. With thousands of original samples, a real-time sequencer and a small footprint, no other drum machine has as many features and is as portable as the Beat Thang. This drum machine is perfect for studio music production as well as live performance. The Beat Thang is more than just a drum machine; it truly is a mobile music production center.
Dave Smith teamed up with Roger Linn, the creator of the world’s first sampled drum machine, to bring you the Tempest. This is a new-age analog drum machine that brings back the sound, feel and look of the some of the great drum machines of the past such as the MPC 60 and the Linn9000. This beat machine has everything you need to play live and to connect to a computer for some studio work.
The sounds of the Tempest really do embody the sounds of classic drum machines of the past. This drum machine features 452 different sounds to choose from and a 16-track sequencer to help layer your beats with precision and ease. The Tempest does not have sampling capabilities so you can’t add your own samples from a computer or keyboard.
The Tempest has 90 panel controls on board to give you complete control over your drum machine sounds. There are two pressure- and position-sensitive Note FX slide controllers that allow you to manipulate your sounds during the recording of a beat or during a live performance. With the Tempest you can apply effects such as filters, EQ and more.
This drum machine has both footswitch and expression pedal inputs that let you start and stop your beats and control the overall volume and intensity of your beat machine without using your hands.
This drum machine has two main outs along with six voicing outs giving you the versatility to plug your machine into a variety of different types of hardware and interfaces. You can also keep your beat making to yourself by plugging into the Tempest headphone jack.
The Tempest has a very classic look to it. With wood panels on each end of the drum machine and the neon green lighting and labeling it looks and feels like an analog drum machine. This beat maker is without a doubt a beautiful work of art. It is a bit longer than most drum machines and weighs about 6 pounds, which makes it less portable than other drum machines.
The Tempest has 16 pressure-sensitive pads that light up upon pressing them and during playback. The pads are set up in a 2 x 8 configuration to maximize the playability of the drum machine with your fingers.
The Tempest covers all genres of music with its unique sound library. The 452 sounds can be used for just about any style of music you can think of. One of the most popular styles of music today is dubstep. The Tempest is one of the few drum machines that has the ability to create the heavy-hitting drum sounds and deep wobble necessary for dubstep tracks.
If dubstep isn’t your flavor, the Tempest has warm acoustic drum sounds to cover country and classic rock genres along with those fat kick and snare drums to produce hip-hop bangers.
Dave Smith Instruments want you to be as familiar as possible with the Tempest. On the manufacture’s website you can watch video tutorials that feature creators Dave Smith and Roger Linn as they show you some ways to use the Tempest. Online manuals are also available on the manufacture’s website.
Dave Smith Instruments also offer you email and telephone support if needed. If a problem ever occurs with your Tempest Dave Smith Instruments backs up their product with a 1-year warranty.
The Dave Smith Tempest analog drum machine is a modern creation of old-school look, feel and sound. This gorgeous drum machine has 452 analog sounds that bring back the warmth and punch of vintage drum machines and has the versatility to produce any style of music you desire. The Tempest is suited well for live performance with inputs for a footswitch and expression pedal along with the ability to layer beats into songs with 16-track sequencing. With a strong emphasis on analog sounds, the Tempest is missing digital features and effects like delay, reverb and sampling.
If a modern drum machine with classic analog look and feel is what you are looking for, your search stops with the Dave Smith Tempest.
Imagine having 400 different drum kits available to you in a 3-pound box. The Boss DR-880 is like having your own personal drummer in your backpack. This drum machine is small, portable and loaded with drum and percussion sounds.
The Boss DR-880 is packed full of percussion. This beat machine has 440 different drum kits programmed into it. If you're looking for a product with a monster percussion library, this is it. Even though you cannot sample on this drum machine, you can add EQs and reverb to any of your drum sounds and save them to one of the 500 user presets that are readily available to you. This beats maker also offers 40 different types of bass sounds that you can adjust and jam along with.
The Boss DR-880 is geared to be any musician’s performance companion. This drum machine offers total hands-free control of your machine with three footswitch jacks for starting and stopping your beats along with adding fills when needed. You also have the option to use an expression pedal with the Boss DR-880 to control the volume and intensity of your sounds.
If you are using the Boss DR-880 as a MIDI controller, there are 20 different pads to give you maximum control over your software or instruments without you ever having to touch the mouse or keyboard. This drum machine gives you the ability to connect a number of different types of hardware. With a USB 2.0 connection and a Digital I/O, it is especially easy to connect it to any computer or mixing board.
If you like to use your drum machine to help you practice, you can simply plug your guitar and headphones into the front of your Boss DR-880 and jam along with your beat maker without making any external noise.
The Boss DR-880 is small and light, making it an exceptionally portable drum machine. This beat machine cannot be operated on battery power, but it can fit into any backpack or laptop bag with ease. On board is a custom LCD display to help you easily navigate through all of the different percussion options that the Boss DR-880 has to offer.
You will easily be able to find the right drum sounds for your rock ballads and funky grooves with this drum machine. The DR-880 is exceptional for genres like rock, country and hip-hop because of its stunning percussion library, but it lacks the digital sounds for dubstep and electronica production.
The Boss DR-880 is backed by a warranty that covers parts for one year and labor for 90 days. On the manufacture’s website, you will find links to the online version of the manual for this drum machine and video tutorials to show you some of the capabilities of the Boss DR-880. If you need to contact the manufacture for any reason, you have the option to call or email them. Boss has great customer service, and they are speedy to answer your product questions.
Don’t let the size of this drum machine fool you, the Boss DR-880 is packed full of drum and percussion sounds to fulfill all of your drum and percussion needs. It can connect to just about any interface or computer, and it is portable, so you can be assured that this drum machine will be your sidekick for all your musical needs. If anything happens to go wrong with your DR-880, Boss has your back with a one-year warranty. While it doesn't offer as many sound effects as other machines, the Boss DR-880 has all the drum and percussion sounds you'll need.
In the 100 different drum kits and 700 preset sounds of the Akai XR20, you won’t find anything you can use for a rock ballad. This drum is tailored specifically for the R&B and hip-hop genres. With this beats maker, there is less emphasis on drum sounds and more on overall sounds such as synthesizers and bass tones. The XR20 was built to spark your inner composer to write full hip-hop beats, not just drum loops.
The Akai XR20 does not have sampling capabilities, but you can use effects like reverb, EQ and compression to adjust your sounds and save them to one of the 99 user presets that are available to you. The preset patterns that are already programmed on the XR20 are not cheesy, simple patterns to ignore. They are complex beats that demonstrate the hip-hop prowess of this beats maker.
For live applications this beat maker has two footswitch inputs, a Start/Stop input and a Tap/A/B/ Fill input which are great features for live performance. This gives you the ability to start and stop your beats and add drum fills whenever you need to without the use of your hands. You also have the option to plug a microphone into your Akai XR20 through the quarter-inch mic input.
The Akai XR20 is one of the most portable drum machines available. It is small in size and only weighs about 4 pounds making it easier than ever to take your drum machine wherever you need. This beats maker can operate on battery power for up to 5 hours. For maximum battery life, we recommend turning off the backlight on the display and lighting on the pads. You can do this by following the instructions in the manual.
You can find online manuals for the Akai XR20 on the manufacture’s website along with video tutorials that will help you learn how to use your beat maker. If you ever have any questions about your drum machine, you can contact the manufacturer via telephone or email.
The Akai XR20 is an ultra-portable drum machine geared to dominate the hip-hop world. With over 700 sounds and 99 user presets, you can add effects to your sounds and save them to your drum machine. This beat maker is so small in size and weight and has such a big library of sounds, you can take the Akai XR20 anywhere and bang out monster hip-hop jams in no time.
The Alesis SR18 is an ultra-portable drum machine that is best suited for practice and live performance. Due to the lack of sampling and sequencing capabilities, this machine is not suited for studio use. Though the SR18 has 500 different drum sounds, there aren’t any synthesizer or keyboard sounds on this drum machine, which limits your song production capabilities.
You can add reverb, EQ and compression to any of your drum sounds and save them to one of the 100 user presets. The instrument input makes it convenient to plug your guitar straight into your drum machine, so you can immediately start jamming along with your Alesis SR18. You can also plug in your headphones and have a personal jam session without the use of an amp or external speakers.
Built especially to assist you when performing live, this beat machine has two footswitches, one to start and stop your drum loops and another to add drum fills to your patterns when desired. The footswitch feature is one that is desired by most performing musicians because it gives you the ability to operate your drum machine hands free.
By using the MIDI ports, you can use your SR18 as a MIDI controller when needed. You also have the freedom to take the SR18 wherever you want because this rhythm machine can operate on battery power. The Alesis SR18 only weights a pound, which makes this drum machine one of the lightest and most portable ones around.
Alesis has many avenues you can choose from to contact the company if you have a question or concern about your product. Alesis offers online manuals for this drum machine and gives you the option to contact representatives by phone or email.
The Alesis SR18 is a great drum machine for practice and performance. You get a wide range of drum sounds to choose from and a handful of effects to play with. Because there aren’t any sounds outside of drums and bass on this machine, this drum machine is less useful with song production than other units. However, this beats maker is hard to beat for portability.
The Boss DR-3 is a basic drum machine with a limited amount of sounds to choose from. This beats maker has 132 total sounds with 120 of them being drum kits. This leaves you with only 12 bass sounds to play around with. The DR-3 has a feature called TSC (Total Sound Control), which is simply a 3three-band EQ – a feature which is standard on most drum machines today.
This small drum machine can work well for practicing and performing live. There isn’t a separate headphone jack, but the left main out can be used as one if desired. It is very compact and weights a little less than 2 pounds. You can set preset patterns with the DR-3, so your songs can have an intro, verse, bridge and ending. If you choose to use a footswitch with your DR-3, you can have hands-free control over your drum machine. You can take this unit just about anywhere, particularly with its ability to run off of battery power. Unfortunately, this rhythm machine does not come with an AC power adapter.
The screen is a little small, making it hard to navigate through the DR-3’s menus. The drum pads on this drum machine are difficult to hit because of the small-sized pads.
While the DR-3 beat machine feels a little lackluster compared to higher-ranked units, Boss excels in customer service. The company offers a one-year parts and a 90-day labor warranty on all of its drum machines. On the manufacture’s website you will find video tutorials to walk you through getting started with your DR-3. Boss is available to help you with any questions that you may have with your drum machine via email and telephone.
The Boss DR-3 is like a metronome that plays drums. With this drum machine you will have a limited amount of sounds and drums to choose from. The TSC feature sounds like something impressive but be aware that Boss has simply relabeled a pretty standard three-band EQ and compression effects. Though it is a very portable drum machine, the DR-3 should be considered an entry level product and a good practicing tool, rather than a robust or semi-professional beat machine.
The Alesis SR16 is among one of the most basic machines you will find. This drum machine went into product in the early 1990s, and nothing has changed since its initial release. There are 50 preset patterns and 233 different drum sounds. Running out of memory can be an issue with the SR16 because there are only 50 user presets.
Like most of these older drum machines, the main purpose of this beat maker is to simply replace a drummer in a live performance situation. The SR16 has two inputs for foot pedals, so you can have hands-free control over starting and stopping your drum loops as well as adding fills when you desire.
Make sure you are extremely happy with the preset sounds before you purchase this beat machine. Don’t plan on being able to tweak the sounds with effects and EQs to your likeness because the only effect onboard this drum machine is reverb. What you hear initially is what you get.
The display is not backlit, so if you are not in optimal lighting conditions it can be a hassle to see what is being displayed on the screen. The drum machine’s casing is made entirely of plastic, so we recommend handling this drum machine with extra care.
This is one of the few small and compact drum machines that isn’t able to run off of battery power. The SR16 is still a very portable machine. It only weighs two and a half pounds and is 9 inches in length.
Alesis is quick to answer any question via email and telephone that you may have about the Alesis SR16. You should be able to use your drum machine with ease right out of the box due to the sheer simplicity of the SR16, but if you have any questions, you can always review the online videos that are posted on Alesis’ website to help you with your rhythm machine.
The Alesis SR16 is a classic drum machine. In 1991 this machine was a prime product in the drum machine world. Well, it is no longer 1991, and the SR16 has fallen behind in the world of beats makers. Many other drum machine products have much more to offer you than the Alesis SR16, but if you are looking for a simple piece of equipment that keeps time and plays nice and simple drum loops for you, the Alesis SR16 will do just that.