Choosing the Best GrooveboxBuying Guide

A Primer to Picking the Right Sampler for Your Budget and Needs

For musicians and producers looking to create outside the confines of DAWs, grooveboxes can be fun and powerful tune-making options. Much like a laptop equipped with a DAW, most grooveboxes are basically all-in-one electronic instruments. Tools on which users can make beats, craft melodies and harmonies, trigger samples, add effects, and arrange entire songs.

Grooveboxes are also very capable live music performance gear. As Akai’s iconic MPC series and, more recently, Elektron’s Octatrack](/p/elektron-octatrack-mkii-dynamic-8-track-performance-sampler) and [Digitakt machines prove, they can be the “brain” or “hub” of a live music setup, allowing musicians to leave the laptop and DAW at home.

First appearing in the 1980s with the Akai MPC and E-Mu Systems SP samplers, grooveboxes have stuck around through shifting tastes surrounding analogue and digital synthesis, as well as computer-based production. And so there are plenty of groovebox options, both past and present, for songwriting, music production, and live performance.

Excellent Entry-Level Grooveboxes on Reverb

Types of Grooveboxes

The groovebox is a fairly specific category as far as electronic instruments go. Because of its specificity, grooveboxes really don’t come in a myriad of different interfaces.

Grooveboxes are almost always desktop devices, usually with some combination of drum pads, buttons, knobs, and a small screen. Also, they tend to be either drum machines, samplers, or synthesizers. Whatever the sound source, it is the features and interface that push the machines into groovebox territory.

Sampler Grooveboxes

Sampler Grooveboxes at a glance:

  • Pioneered by Akai and E-Mu Systems
  • Onboard sampling and sequencing features
  • Powerful sound-sculpting capabilities

Modern samplers, which really began with Akai MPC and E-Mu Systems SP series, typically have groovebox functionality. Yes, these machines are great for sampling and warping those sounds, but they’re also great for sequencing and arranging songs.

For decades, hip hop and electronic music artists have built entire tracks on sampler grooveboxes. The weapons of choice in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s were the MPC and SP series samplers, but competition from Roland (the MC series grooveboxes) and Yamaha soon gave musicians and producers other options.

For years, Roland’s SP-404 series samplers have been attractive grooveboxes. J Dilla even used on his iconic posthumous record, Donuts. More recently, Elektron has been a dominant force in sampler grooveboxes, with its Octatrack and Digitakt machines.

Drum Machine Grooveboxes

Drum Machine Grooveboxes at a glance:

  • Drum machines with groovebox functionality
  • Factory sounds + sample storage
  • Analogue or Digital circuitry

Whether analogue or digital, drum machine grooveboxes are geared more for people looking to design and sequence beats. What this means is that a track’s entire percussive foundation can be built on these machines.

Some of these machines, like the Arturia Drumbrute Impact and Sequential Tempest, won’t have as many sound options as sampler and synth grooveboxes. But others, like the Elektron Analog Rytm mkII and Roland TR-8S will have sampling or synth engines, respectively.

A less critically heralded but popular drum machine is the Alesis SR-16. First introduced in 1990, Alesis produced the SR-16 for several decades. Its drum sounds aren’t great, but its song mode certainly makes it a groovebox.

Synth Grooveboxes

Synth Grooveboxes at a glance:

  • Onboard synth engine
  • Often include drum samples
  • Powerful sequencing and song arrangement functionality

This type of machine is best thought of as either an analogue or digital synthesizer with groovebox functionality. Synth grooveboxes may be built more for synth basslines, leads, and pads, but with some tinkering, they can also output percussive sounds.

One of the earliest synth grooveboxes was Roland MC-202. Released in TK, the MC-202 is a machine that basically turned the iconic SH-101 monophonic analogue synth into a groovebox. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Roland released new iterations of the MC series, with digital synth engines, giving them more dynamic sound sculpting capabilities.

Over the years, Roland has kept refining its groovebox offerings. In the last few years, Roland has released the MC-101 and MC-707 grooveboxes, both of which come with the company’s AIRA synth engine.

In the 1990s, Yamaha also released some of these machines, like its DX-200—a groovebox equipped with the company’s FM synthesis technology. They also released the AN-200, a virtual analogue synth, which took its cues from Yamaha’s ANX1 keyboard synth.

This past year, Elektron got into the synth groovebox game, first with the Digitone, then with the Model:Cycles. Like the Yamaha DX-2000, both the Digitone and Model:Cycles are grooveboxes with FM synth engines, making them incredibly flexible sound design and sequencing tools for entire tracks.

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Editorial content by DJ Pangburn

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