How to Choose Your First Drum Machine

How can you take your budding home studio to the next level? Perhaps a drum machine is just what you need. There's nothing wrong with dragging audio files directly onto the timeline of your DAW (we all do it) but sometimes you want to get away from the DAW and just jam. Or maybe you'd like to complement your live setup with some additional rhythm. No matter your starting point, a drum machine can be an exciting and vital addition to any musical arsenal.

In this article we'll walk you through everything you need to know to make an informed decision on what kind of drum machine to buy. We'll talk about the basics of drum machines, the different kinds available, applications, compare vintage and modern machines, and get into how to sync and record them.

It's a lot to cover, so let's jump right in.

Our Picks for First Drum Machines

Basic Functions and Programming

Today's high-tech drum machines are the end result of decades of evolution. They started as humble solid-state analog rhythm accompaniment for home organs. They were large, unwieldy, and offered only preset rhythms like the foxtrot and cha cha. Programmability (the Roland CR-78 CompuRhythm) , microprocessors, and the ability to sample and sequence user-loaded sounds (the LinnDrum and MPC60) came later. (Check out Reverb's short documentary, Electric Rhythm: The History of the Drum Machine, to learn more about this evolution.)

Whether your drum machine is analog, digital, or sampling-based, programming it will likely fall into one of two categories: real-time or step-time.

Modern, Affordable Options

When choosing a drum machine, probably the first thing to consider is whether you want an analog or digital drum machine.

Analog drum machines create their drum sounds with analog synthesis, much like a subtractive analog synthesizer. User controls are usually limited to things like release (how long the sound continues) or tuning. Some can offer quite a bit more control though, and this is attractive to musicians who like to perform and tweak their rhythms. Arturia's DrumBrute and DrumBrute Impact are good examples of analog drum machines with tweakability.

Traditionally, digital drum machines were based on one-shot samples of acoustic drums, and control over the sound was confined to panning, envelope (volume shaping), and tuning, if that. These days, digital more likely means analog modeling, and thus offers all the control of an analog machine with digital clarity. Recent drum machines like the TR-8S fit this bill.

If you want to sample drum sounds from records, sample packs, or your own recordings, you'll want a sample workstation like an Akai MPC Touch, Pioneer Toraiz SP-16, or a Korg Volca Sample.

Vintage vs Modern

This takes us to the elephant in the room. Should you buy modern or vintage gear? Aside from the differences laid out so far, a big thing to consider is vibe. By this we mean: what inspires you.

Vintage Drum Machines

If the music you make is rooted in a specific sound from the past and you just can't get enough of watching YouTube demos of classic gear, then a vintage machine could be the inspiration that you need. There's just something so satisfying about programming an original Roland TR-606 in good condition. You can feel a part of the continuation of music making that started in the early '80s and winds its way through all your favorite records. And don't forget, you don't have to break the bank to get nice, old gear. For every 909 there's a 626 or even a 505 that may inspire you without requiring too big of a sacrifice.

However, maybe for you the important thing is not the lineage of the gear but what it can do. In that case, by all means go for something modern. The feature sets of many of today's drum machines are so vast that may be inspiration enough. Not to mention the hybrid combinations of analog, digital, and sampling. It really is an incredible time to get into gear.

The History of the Drum Machine

Learn More About Drum Machines on Reverb

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