A Guide to Grooveboxes: 7 Portable Machines to Take Your Music Out of the Studio

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we’re in the middle of a groovebox renaissance. Once the butt of the joke, the groovebox has lately emerged, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the rave-in-a-box instruments that first debuted in the late 1990s.

The latest incarnations of the groovebox have broken free from the constraints of the past (all singing, all dancing, no street cred) and been embraced by major and boutique manufacturers alike. There are a few differences between yesterday’s grooveboxes and today’s.

Roland MC 303 Promo Video (1998)

For one, the types of synthesis engines on offer now are extremely varied, with analog modeling, samples, FM, and even video synthesis making an appearance. Additionally, many are extremely portable, requiring little more than batteries or just a good charge to operate. It’s this portability that we’ll be focusing on here.

Also, while every groovebox does its thing in a slightly different way, for the purposes of this article, we’ll define groovebox as a machine that combines instrument and drum sounds with a sequencer for putting notes together.

Outside The Box

While most well-stocked music studios will already have a few synths and drum machines set up, or a number of plugins to do the same thing, working entirely this way keeps you trapped inside your studio. Yes, it’s our favorite place to be too, but even the most dedicated studio rat can benefit from the occasional trip outside.

Thanks to the portability of the groovebox, your music-making doesn’t have to happen in the studio. You’re free to take a hike through a forest, sit on the beach, relax in a meadow, or even just move over to the bedroom. Any change of scenery can have a beneficial effect on your songwriting. If working with a DAW is staying in the box, then firing up a groovebox is working, well, outside the box.

Songwriting can benefit from new workflows as well. Working with the same software and instruments day in and day out can lead to burnout. Each of the grooveboxes on offer here goes about musical composition in a different way. These unique workflows will challenge you to come up with new ways to put notes together, make beats, and possibly even finish songs.

Let’s take a look at seven grooveboxes that don’t require mains power to function and let’s get you out of the studio and into the sunshine, or at least onto the couch. Listings in order of ascending price.

Elektron Model:Cycles

The much-beloved Swedish company Elektron recently expanded its groovebox line with Model:Cycles, an affordable ($299 new) FM-based instrument.

Both Elektron gear and FM have reputations of being difficult to understand, but newbies have no fear: Model:Cycles is an approachable and user-friendly introduction to both of these worlds.

With four of the six onboard instrument types handling percussion duties, the Model:Cycle’s focus is definitely drums. But seeing that everything is FM and not samples, it’s possible to get a lot of musically useful sounds out of it too. The sequencer is robust and powerful, and audio can be routed directly into your DAW via USB audio.

That being said, Model:Cycles is largely aimed at electronic music producers, so unless you like your bass boomy and your percussion clangy and technofied, you might want to look elsewhere.

Portability Factor: Good, once Elektron releases its Power Handle BP-1 battery pack.

Novation Circuit

On first glance, Novation’s Circuit ($329 new) looks more like an Ableton Live clip launcher than a groovebox. And while it may indeed have been inspired by that genre of controllers, it is very much a box that grooves.

With two analog-modeled synth engines based on the Nova series of synths, and four drum parts, this digital instrument can also load samples through your computer. The sequencer is lauded for its ease of use and it can control external instruments as well, meaning you can use it as the hub of a DAWless studio.

Or, should you wish to work with it in tandem with a DAW, it can export audio and MIDI stems to Ableton Live.

Portability Factor: Very, thanks to batteries and an on-board speaker.

Korg Electribe Sampler 2

The original Korg Electribe series featured some of the first grooveboxes to reach market in the late ‘90s and, true to form as trailblazers, Korg beat the rest of the market to groovebox 2.0 with its new Electribes in 2015.

Updated in 2017 with new colors, the blue and largely synth-based Electribe and its red sample-focused brother Electribe Sampler are both worth a look, but we’ll be focusing on the Sampler today. (Note that people are unofficially calling the 2017 unit the Electribe Sampler 2 to differentiate it from the 2015 version.)

As you’d guess from the name, the Electribe Sampler 2 (around $400 used and $500 new) is primarily a sample-based groovebox, with a plethora of preloaded drum and instrument sounds as well as phrases. Users can load their own sounds, sample directly, or even re-sample the output, and extensively edit the result. They can even chop up loops.

Although it’s a sampler at heart, it also has an analog-modeling synth engine built-in with a variety of oscillator types. A multimode filter, effects, and Kaoss pad round things off. Sequence patterns can be chained and exported to Ableton Live for further tweaking.

Portability Factor: Can run on batteries.

Roland MC-101 Groovebox

Roland coined the term groovebox in 1996 to refer to its MC-303, and while some may dislike it, Roland have embraced it, going so far as to include it as part of the name of its new units, the MC-101 Groovebox and MC-707 Groovebox. Although the bigger (and more expensive) MC-707 is also impressive, the 101 can be run on batteries, so it makes our list.

Roland has a long and distinguished history of sounds to pull from, and the MC-101 ($499 new) is something of a greatest hits groovebox, with sounds from many of the company’s famous drum machines as well as the Juno-106 and other classic synths.

The MC-101 uses Roland’s ZEN-Core synthesis, meaning sounds can be shared with other ZEN-core compatible machines. You can also load your own samples and use them in the four tracks of sequences. Audio can be sent to your computer via USB, either fully mixed or each track separately. Lastly, it’s compact and lots of fun.

Portability Factor: Extremely—can be powered by batteries or USB power bank.

Teenage Engineering OP-Z

When is a groovebox not a groovebox? If it has a synthesizer engine, drums, and a sequencer, it must be a groovebox, right? And yet Teenage Engineering’s OP-Z ($599 new), the follow-up to the phenomenally successful OP-1, is not at all box-like. In fact, it’s barely even synth-like.

But leave it to Teenage Engineering to create one of the most unique groovebox-not-grooveboxes on the market. Billed as a "multimedia synthesizer," the OP-Z has both sample-based and synthesis engines, and users can import their own samples.

The unique step sequencer allows for each track to be independent of the other, and while the lack of screen is a little surprising, the OP-Z can be hooked up to a smartphone and edited there. And that "multimedia" part? The OP-Z is also a video synthesizer.

Portability Factor: Has a built-in lithium-ion battery.

Polyend Tracker

If anything typifies how far boutique manufacturers have taken the groovebox concept, it’s Polyend’s new Tracker ($599 new).

Cramming a music tracker—essentially an early form of computer music sequencer that positioned notes in numerical form on a vertically scrolling timeline—into a groovebox, Tracker gives users unique, retro-flavored control over samples and subtractive, granular, and wavetable synthesis.

Samples can be loaded or captured and then edited. There’s even an on-board FM radio to use as sampling fodder. Tracker has a host of performance features as well as the ability to bounce and master songs, all in one machine. It’s fairly left field but also extremely exciting.

Portability Factor: Can be powered by USB so you’re good to go with a power bank.

Akai MPC Live

Akai pioneered the idea of the sampler workstation with its original Akai MPC60. Designed by Roger Linn, it paired 16 pads with a sequencer and sampler and became a hit with hip-hop and house music producers.

Akai continued to make MPCs, and the Live iteration ($999 new), released in 2017, sees the series go portable thanks to a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. More of a DAW you can put in your backpack than a groovebox, this beat-making powerhouse comes loaded with 10GB of samples to get started with, and has 2GB of RAM for user samples.

You can even record in full lanes of audio. There’s a smartphone-style capacitive touchscreen for editing sequences. The Live interfaces nicely with DAWs too.

Portability Factor: That lithium-ion battery means six hours of on-the-go music work.

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