Best Drum Machine
Since the first "rhythm machine" (the "Rhythmicon") was invented in 1932, people have sought out a way to overlay their music with loop-based percussion parts. While the first machines could only play a limited number of rhythms, such as mambo or tango, the modern day drum machine is loaded with thousands of preset rhythms, as well as specialized sounds to help the producer or DJ realize a finished track. Some drum machines are also samplers, allowing the user to create their own sounds and trigger them from the pads. The things to look out for in drum machines are the quality of the sound, of course, but also how easy and fun it is to use in practice. When shopping for a drum machine, questions arise such as, how responsive are the pads themselves, how intuitive is the screen interface, and what are the connectivity options in terms of a larger rig? All of the below options satisfy the core requirements of a functional drum machine, but they differentiate themselves because of the answer to those questions, as well as the quality of sound.
Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-880 Rhythm Machine
Akai XR20 Beat Production Station Drum Machine
Akai MPC500 MIDI Production System
Alesis SR16 Drum Machine
Zoom RhythmTrak RT-223 Drum Machine
The Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-880 drum machine has been the machine of choice lately for many bands on the road, when a drummer isn't available. The sounds themselves are a little dated, but remain a draw for the product. Also, users have praised it for the sheer number of drum and percussion sounds and the decent built-in effects. Borrowing sounds from Roland's decent SRX library, the DR-880 sounds just fine. A key selling point is that Boss has included 3 EZ Compose buttons to create original patterns without having to go through the painstaking process of note-by-note programming, which is slightly cumbersome on this drum machine. Sometimes the result is not ideal, but the randomness of rhythm provided often sparks creativity in the user and leads to interesting and effective percussion parts. The DR-880 also has a Groove Modify feature that allows discrimination between groove and triplet feels. A guitar/bass input jack is also provided, and those instruments can benefit from the built-in COSM Drive/amp models and multi-effects.
Taking the best parts of Akai's wildly popular MPC line, and then pre-loading over 700 sound and integrated effects, the XR20 is one of the finest drum machines on the market. There are twelve pads that Akai calls "MPC-esque", and the backlit LCD screen is large and organized clearly and intuitively. Also, the pads themselves are backlit and follow the beat while the device is playing. In Pattern Play mode, different patterns can be triggered by a single pad strike, a very useful tool when performing live. Lastly, a drum roll/note repeat function is included, a feature desired but not available in some other items on this list. For sound, MPC-like workflow, portability, and overall value, the XR20 is the drum machine to have if you can afford the price tag.
As the device of choice amongst pro hip-hop producers and DJs alike, Akai has made its name and spawned one of the most popular sample formats (.aka) because of their flagship MPC line. Part drum machine, part sequencer, part sampler, the MPC line, of which the MPC500 is the least expensive option, allow the user to load MPC files of 16 MB built-in, and is expandable up to 128 MB using the EXM128 memory expansion slots. There are no built-in sounds, that's true, but there are lots of .akai sound files available for relatively little expense. Also, the 48 tracks are available in the sequencer, plus the USB connection provided to be able to drag-and drop samples and sequences to and from your computer, Mac or PC, make it a killer package. More than anything else, the design and execution of the MPC500 workflow, as well as plethora of great sounding .aka files available, makes it the choice of pros when it comes to groove production, and in turn makes it the best drum machine for your dollar.
One of the most popular and beloved line of drum machines, and arguably a classic, the SR16 has been in production since 1991. The fact that it's thrived for all those years while undergoing nominal changes from year to year is a testament to its value. The user has 233 natural drum sounds to choose from of varying audio quality, both in dry form and with reverb. The Dynamic Articulation feature analyzes the velocity of the pad strike, and then chooses a version of the sample in question to trigger based on that velocity. In this drum machine there are 50 preset patterns that were programmed by drummers, which would seem to partly explain its popularity over the years. Lastly, the SR16 HAS MIDI In/Out functionality, and is capable of 16-voice polyphony.
The ZOOM RT-223 is a good basic drum machine with 500 sounds, 70 built-in drum kits, 13 pads, and 440 rhythmic patterns. The layout of the pads is a little unorthodox, favoring a two-row approach, as opposed to the traditional square pads in a squarish pattern. The pads themselves are a little small and closely spaced, but even those with big hands should be able to operate it without too much trouble. The sounds are actually good, yet don't compare so favorably up against some competitors on this list. Groove Play Mode, which allows for DJ-style pattern triggering, is a welcome addition, so for the price the RT-223 does present a good value.