In 2020, clubs seem off the trend, while making music at home remains a thing. Time to remember where house music got its name, isn’t it? And it’s time to prepare for live performances when the clubs are open, so why not select the best drum machine for techno and master it? The devices we review now are not drumming pads for live tap-based playing; they are rather sequencers that let you adjust both the sequence and each separate sound within it, applying effects in real time.
If you are even a bit into the history of techno and hip-hop as well as into its current state, you will probably agree that Roland AIRA TR-8S is the choice that’s both modern and back-to-the-roots. Its modern features over the original voice make it a great choice in terms of sound and easy controls.
Still, there are other options, both fresher and more conservative. It depends on your style whether you’ll prefer it like in the MAARS era or in that of SpaceX. Though now even neural networks are able to do drum patterns, a drum machine introduces a human touch into digital music.
Disclaimer. Excuse us for not including AKAI MPC or Roland TR-808; they are too classical to compare with those upstart newcomers. But, not competing, they will be mentioned as classical references.
Drum Machines of the Late 2010s: Briefly Like a Snare Shot
1. Roland AIRA Rhythm Performer (TR-8S): The Top Pick
Roland was one of those manufacturers that helped create the world of today’s techno, house, and hip-hop as well. The tool the Japanese company provided to musicians back in the 1980s was drum machine sound by the legendary TR-808 and TR-909, each being the top drum machine for techno of its time and loved long after. The revival of club culture motivated Roland to release TR-9 which has all we love TR-808 and TR-909 for. The engineers restored the original circuitry to see how it worked and recreated the algorithms in the new machine.
This machine is now a highly intuitive 16-step sequencer with generators for bass drums, snares, hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals, and so on. There are effects that can be applied to the drum pattern or to certain drum sounds. For each drum, there are separate Time and Delay knobs, and special Attack, Snappy, and Comb effects for snares and bass drums.
- The TR-8S combines the best of its Roland heritage with modern production techniques and professional sound design
- Design kits with authentic TRS drums, sampled sounds, and effects
- Dimensions (L+W+H): 26.37 x 40.97 x 6.05 cm
- Weight: 907 g
- Tempo: 30-400
- Display: 7 segments, 4 characters (LED)
- Nominal input level: -10 dBu
- Nominal output level: -10/+4 dBu (Selectable)
- Roland AIRA
Roland TR-8S lets you use its enormous sound libraries or load your own sounds. It’s a perfect portable beat machine due to its size and live performance options. It lets you play live patterns, switches them on the go, edits the tempo, applies effects in real-time, and do a lot of tricks that make electronic live performances live.
- The original TR-808 and TR-909 sounds;
- Modern interface;
- Lots of effects;
- Able to load custom sounds;
- Optimized for live performances.
- Don’t expect too much from working with samples;
- Quite expensive.
2. Roland TR-08 Rhythm Composer, 10 Outputs: Runner Up – Best Drum Machine for Live Performance
Here comes another one by Roland – who would doubt that? And this time it’s rather a remake than a sequel. TR-08 is, in fact, an updated version of the original TR-808, looking and sounding as the eighties as it’s suitable in 2023.
Just like in TR-8S, here are restored sounds and effects based on the original circuitry. Innovations include USB output (with 10 single outputs for separate instruments, along with the master), a LED display, a refreshed sequencer, and MIDI inputs and outputs. It’s the perfect techno drum machine for those still into the romantic era of clubs.
- Ultra-compact recreation of the legendary TR-808 drum machine
- Retains the sound, character, and user interface of the original TR-808
- Dimensions (L+W+H): 35.56 x 17.78 x 8.89 cm
- Weight: 1.75 kg
- Tempo: 30-400
- Display: 7 segments, 4 characters (LED)
- Pads: 16 x trigger buttons
- Sounds: Bass drum, Snare, Low conga/tom, Mid conga/tom, Hi conga/tom, Claves, Rim shot, Maracas, Handclap, Cowbell, Cymbal, Hi-ht
- Patterns: 16 banks (12 x 16 patterns, 4 x 16 intro/fills)
- Sequencer: 16-steps, 16 sub-steps
- Effects: Compression
- Analog Inputs: 1 x 1/8″ (mix in)
- Analog Outputs: 1 x 1/8″ (output)
- Headphones: 1 x 1/8″
- MIDI I/O: In/Out
- Other I/O: 1 x 1/8″ (trigger out)
- USB: 1 x Type Micro-B
- Power Source: 4 x AA batteries / USB bus power
- Roland TR-08
If you have touched the original TR-808, you have held the magic. With TR-08 you have it reincarnated and ready to interact with the newest studio equipment. It lacks the modern touch of TR-8S, but if you intend to make old-school hip-hop or house-inspired club music, this is the machine for your live performances and studio nights. Traditionally used in hip-hop and house music, it can be used for techno if you do not mind some retro flavor.
- The original TR-808 sounds;
- Stylish retro looks;
- Modern interfaces incorporated;
- Advanced sequencer;
- Split outputs for drums.
- It looks too retro for some techno enthusiasts.
3. Korg VOLCA Drum Machine: Best Analog Drum Machine
It’s a completely different drum machine by one of the most famous electronic musical instrument makers (or, as KORG puts it, “digital percussion synthesizer”). The idea is the same: it generates drum sounds, lets you process and adjust them, and finally, forms a sequence that plays at a certain tempo. But the sounds themselves are completely different (though based on live drums as well).
Each sound generated by this machine can be adjusted, and oscillators and modulators applied to it. The built-in 16-step sequencer lets you also record sounds in real-time, as you play and apply effects. It can be the center of a live gig, with synthesizers and other electronic instruments connected to it, so they exchange signals with zero delays. The restriction is that, given that there’s only one audio output, you’ll have to do all the mixing on this machine.
- Digital percussion synth with a 6-part x 2-layer structure
- Distinctive sound from a newly developed DSP engine
- Dimensions (L+W+H): 19.3 x 11.5 x 3.9 cm
- Weight: 0.75 kg
- Pads: 16 x Multi-touch Keys
- Sounds: 6-parts, Dual Layered
- Polyphony: 6 Notes
- Kits: 16 (10 factories)
- Patterns: 16
- Sequencer: 16-steps, 6-parts, Realtime Recording, Motion Sequences
- Effects: Overdrive, Resonator
- Headphones: 1 x 1/8″
- MIDI I/O: In
- Other I/O: 2 x 1/8″ (sync in/out)
- Power Source: 9V DC power supply (sold separately) / 6 x AA batteries (Alkaline, NiMH)
- Korg VOLCA
Being a live-oriented rhythm machine, KORG Volva Drum is equipped with MIDI input and output, as well as with analog output and sync socket. If it’s too far from the nearest power socket, you can power it from batteries. Last but not least: it’s extremely lightweight, at just 1 lb.
- Unique sound synthesis;
- Lots of effects for each sound;
- Stylish retro look;
- Can be battery-powered;
- Very affordable.
- Takes a long to explore;
- Only one audio output.
4. Arturia DrumBrute Impact Analog Drum Machine: A Little Analog Beast
While Roland and KORG are here since the pre-digital era, Arturia was only founded in 1999 and specialized in music software first. Then, though, through collaborations with Robert Moog and other prominent persons this French newcomer has established itself as a hardware maker as well. DrumBrute Impact is a compact version of its fully analog electronic drum machine released earlier.
The impact is rather a lite version than a strictly smaller edition of the original. It only has 10 onboard drum sounds (while the original DrumBrute had 16) – a minimal set of a bass drum, two snares, two toms, a cowbell, a crash, an open hi-hat, and a closed one, and one fully shapeable modulated sound. (By the way, back in 1998, before Arturia was founded, making a good FM drum was an issue!) There are also just four audio outputs (not 12) and a simpler output circuit.
- Separate accent per drum
- Song mode for chaining patterns
- Dimensions (L+W+H): 32 x 29 x 0.9 cm
- Weight: 2.45 kg
- Pads: 8 x Performance Pads, 16 x Sequence Buttons
- Sounds: 10
- Patterns: 64 patterns, Polyrhythms
- Sequencer: 64 steps per pattern, Step Repeat, Pattern Looper, Song Mode
- Effects: Distortion
- Analog Outputs: 1 x 1/4″ (mix out), 4 x 1/8″ (kick, snare, hi-hat, FM drum)
- Headphones: 1 x 1/8″
- MIDI I/O: In/Out
- Other I/O: 2 x 1/8″ (clock in/out)
- USB: 1 x Type B
- Power Source: 12V DC power supply
- Arturia DrumBrute
Still, it’s a decent machine for gigs and techno making, while it still has a 64-step sequencer (unlike the 16-step one in previous machines), a specialized Color sound shaper, a Song mode that contains up to 64 patterns of 64 steps each. If you have no experience with drum machines but have worked in FL Studio, you’ll easily make it out.
- Compact size;
- Lots of live-action features;
- A great sequencer;
- FM synthesized sounds;
- Affordable price.
- Only 10 drum sounds;
- Only 4 outputs.
5. Elektron Analog Four MKII: a Nordic Strongman
Just like Arturia, a Swedish manufacturer Elektron entered the market in the late 1990s, when digital technologies were taking over. The developers did not choose between the old and the new: they merged them. Elektron Analog Four MKII is a drum machine combined with a 4-voice analog synth, sounding quite old-school yet very natural. The synth basses it produces are fat and juicy, and the drum section can rock when done right.
If you want the best of both worlds, this is probably the best drum machine combined with an analog synthesizer. It’s enough to say that you can make techno or hip-hop instrumentals from scratch on it, with no other instruments or computers wired. But if you connect it to a computer, you can use a special VST plugin to connect it to any DAW with VST support. And due to DIN sync and CV/Gate sockets, it can connect to external synthesizers and other devices.
The design is very Scandinavian, with lots of ordered buttons, calm colors, a monochrome display, and a premium aluminum body. It will take some time to make it out, as it bears little resemblance to other drum machines. The price can also be a stopper. But if you suddenly grok it, it will be your favorite tool for making music.
- Dimensions (L+W+H): 48.26 x 25.4 x 33.02 cm
- Weight: 3.37 kg
- Analog/Digital: Analog
- Type of Keys: 1-octave Trigger Keypads
- Polyphony: 4 Notes, 4-part Multitimbrality
- Presets: 128 x Projects, 4096 x Sounds
- Oscillators: 2 x Analog VCO, 2 x Sub-oscillators
- Waveforms: Sawtooth, Triangle, Transistor Pulse, Square Pulse
- Noise Generator: 1 x Noise Generator
- Envelope Generator: 1 x Amp Envelope, 2 x Assignable Envelope
- LFO: 2 x LFO
- Filter: 4-pole Lowpass Ladder Filter, 2-pole Multi-mode Filter
- Effects Types: Supervoid Reverb, Saturator Delay, Wideshift Chorus, Overdrive
- Arpeggiator: 6 x Arpeggiators
- Sequencer: 64-step per Pattern, 4 x Synth Tracks, 1 x CV Track, 1 x FX Track
- Analog Inputs: 2 x 1/4″ (external in)
- Analog Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ (L/R main), 4 x 1/4″ (track out)
- Headphones: 1 x 1/4″
- MIDI I/O: In/Out/Thru/USB
- Other I/O: 4 x 1/4″ (CV/Gate out)
- Pedal Inputs: 2 x 1/4″ (CV/Expression)
- USB: 1 x Type B 2.0
- Memory: Flash-EEPROM
- Software: Overbridge Software Suite
- Power Supply: 12V DC 2A power supply (included)
- Elektron Analog
Aesthetically, it’s very close to modern techno, with its long two-note sequences, sonic minimalism, and deep bass.
- Unique sound;
- Unique design;
- Compatible with DAWs and other synths;
- The sturdiest build.
- The interface is not intuitive;
- A bit expensive.
What is the best drum machine for live performance?
Any of these reviews is good if you give them enough time. Roland TR-8S is probably the best beat machine for live performance with other instruments, and Elektron Analog Four MKII is great to use as a standalone device.
What is the best drum machine for hip-hop?
While Roland TR-808 and TR-909 are the roots of all hip-hop, and total computerization is the reality nowadays, I’d recommend Roland devices for making hip-hop beats. They are easier to master, they bring the classical flavor, and they are not that expensive.
What drum machine does Kanye use?
Kanye West is a well-recognized fan of studio wizardry, and his favorite drum machines include AKAI MPC and Roland TR-808 (the ones excluded from our drum machine reviews for their crown immunity). He even named his 2008 album “808s & Heartbreak”. Despite his love for experiments, he’s all about classics.
So, Roland TR-8S is the drum machine of choice. By marketing it, the Japanese corporation returns to its roots and offers the ultimate solution for those wishing to begin or to touch the classics. But rivals stepping on its heels are also worth a look and a listen.
What drum machines have you tried recently? Do you prefer AKAI-like square drum pads or Roland’s keyboard-like step sequencers? How do you like their sound? And how did they act at live performances? Drop a comment like you drop a beat, and we’ll respond.