The 8 Best Drum Machines to Buy in 2018

Find your rhythm

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Whether you’re an EDM producer, an electronic musician, or just looking for an alternative to a live kit, drum machines are a great option to consider because they can really help give your music and beats some extra (and maybe much needed) oomph. But searching for the right machine for your needs can seem like a complicated and intimidating process. Whether you’re looking for something compact and affordable, something to use with your digital audio workspace (DAW) software, or the absolute “money is no object” workhorse, we’ve put together a handy guide that breaks down the best drum machines out there, category by category. Read on for our top picks from Korg, Alesis, Roland and more.

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Alesis SR-18

Alesis SR-18 Drum Machine
Courtesy of Guitar Center

Factoring in industry popularity, history, and features, the Alesis SR-18 rises to the top of our list as the all-around best option. It has 500 of the best percussion sounds and 50 of the best bass patches built right into the device, which amounts to about 32GB of internalized sounds. There are also built-in effects, including reverb and compression, plus a pattern-play mode that lets you kick off standalone beats with the single push of a button. You can even mute and solo parts of these patterns just like you would on a DAW. The backlit LCD is clear and bright, giving you great access and control. There are even outboard footswitch jacks for an added level of control in live performances. And, at a moderate price point, this is the meat-and-potatoes drum machine for most situations.

Runner-Up, Best Overall: Korg Volca Analog

Korg Volca Beats Analog Drum Machine
Courtesy of Guitar Center

For our runner-up pick, we turn to Korg, one of the most prominent brands in the space. What really caught our attention was the quality of sound you get out of the Korg Volca series. This machine is a true-analog synth, getting its beats and percussion sounds from analog oscillators and incorporating classic sounds from the monotron, monotribe and MS-20 Mini synths in a single package. There are six editable sounds that you can cue up, and Korg has streamlined the editing down to one knob to take the guesswork out of live sound-shaping. The Volca Analog also has an Electribe-inspired 16-step sequencer built right in, with eight memory patches to cue in whatever beats you want. The built-in step jump function also does exactly what it sounds like — it’ll kick off the beat only at the step you’re pressing, which is great for pickup measures and more complicated cues. All in all, the Korg Volca Analog amounts to a powerful tool for any EDM DJ.

Best Budget: Alesis SR-16

Alesis SR-16
Courtesy of Guitar Center

When it comes to finding the best features at the best price, the Alesis SR-16 is a fantastic deal. Its four audio outputs are bundled into stereo pairs and feed your beats out to a system or into your DAW for studio work. The 12 velocity-sensitive pads — assisted by Alesis’s Dynamic Articulation technology — let you play your beats as close to real drums as possible. There are 200 preset grooves and songs with 200 user-programmable options, as well as 50 preset drum kits with the ability to program an additional 50. You can also expand on the SR-16's 120-sound catalog by hooking it up to your DAW and accessing your program's sounds. The DAC here is pretty impressive, too, offering a high-quality sound depth of 24 bits. So while it might not look too flashy, what it lacks in style it makes up for in capability.

Best Splurge: Dave Smith Tempest

Dave Smith Tempest
Courtesy of Guitar Center

Housed in a vintage-inspired wooden casing, the Dave Smith Tempest looks every bit like a classic drum machine. Built with 16 velocity-sensitive pads for organic playability and tons of versatility, it also delivers an amazing combination of classic sounds and modern tech. The built-in OS comes with an impressive set of sounds and textures, as well as six analog voices (provided by two analog and two digital oscillators). The OLED screen is a bit small but very clear and bright — the small size will actually work to your advantage as it allows plenty of room for other knobs and controls. Speaking of controls, the Tempest has 90 panel controls available for a seamless workflow in a live setting. Along the left side, there are two pressure sensitive Note FX sliders that let you bend pitches, extend vibrato, and create seamless, smooth slides. The whole thing comes loaded with 928 new factory sounds, 64 new beats and 16 new projects, all to get the creativity rolling right out of the box. This piece of gear definitely has a higher price tag, but you're paying for the true cream of the crop.

Best New Release: Korg KR-55

Korg KR-55 Pro Rhythm Machine
Courtesy of Guitar Center

One of the most anticipated pieces of gear from the 2018 NAMM show was the Korg KR-55. Korg is already a giant in the production space, turning out everything from high-quality tuners to keyboard synths. And the KR-55 pro drum machine gives you a lot of capability for the price. First, the built-in presets: There are 24 rhythm styles, each with two variations, and within each of those variations, three different beat patterns. If you do the math, that’s quite a few percussion options in such a small package — in fact, the chassis is only 244 x 220 x 68mm and weighs 3.09 pounds. There are 30 banks of programmable beats and you can record up to three hours of material, saving that sound material in CD quality at 44.1, 16-bit WAV files. The KR-55 can run on a power cord or batteries, giving you seven hours of battery life if you opt for the latter.

Best Stick Pads: Roland Octapad

Roland Octapad
Courtesy of Guitar Center

We can't overlook the drum machines and drum pads meant for actual live drummers, meant to be played with actual drumsticks. The Roland Octapad is a great option both for standalone play and as an additional trigger pad for an acoustic drum kit. As the name implies, there are eight velocity-sensitive drum pads, with 50 different kits built into the software. The voice of each kit can be fine-tuned further with EQ, effects and general gain, so you’ll be able to play everything from classic R&B beats (808 players rejoice!) to quirky acoustic drumsets.

There are external trigger inputs, hi-hat footswitch options and even a USB out, so you can use it as an outboard controller for your DAW. The super-bright LCD screen is visible in almost any live setting, and the construction is substantial and rugged enough to take on the road without fear of it breaking. It’s a great option for traveling drummers, in-studio producers, and everyone in between.

Best MIDI-Based Controller: Roli Lightpad Block M

ROLI Lightpad Block M
Courtesy of Guitar Center

Strictly speaking, the Roli Lightpad isn’t a drum machine so much as an innovative, drum-machine-based control surface. But if you're looking for organic-sounding rhythm and aren't in the market for a bunch of built-in drum machine capabilities, this control surface may be the right piece of equipment for you. The Lightpad Block is part of Roli’s module controller system (a strict sequencer controller and mini Seaboard keyboard block are also available) and it connects via proprietary software to your iOS device or computer.

The Lightpad feels like a squishy, gel-filled pad not dissimilar from those ergonomic mousepads. The 225 microsensors across its surface let you tap out beats and press/hold down for a natural, warble-y vibrato sound that gives some unique vibes to your production. It connects wirelessly to the Roli app, but you can also hook it up via USB-C to Ableton or other programs and use it much like you’d use a Launchpad. 

Best Virtual: EZDrummer 2

Toontrack EZdrummer 2 Software Download
Courtesy of Guitar Center

Toontrack’s EZDrummer 2 is one of the best drum software options in the business — so many DJs these days are working right in Ableton, Pro-Tools, or Logic that going digital can make your studio workflow all the more powerful. Like a standard drum machine, EZDrummer2 lets you use a MIDI controller to tap out a beat. Then you can use the “tap to find” feature and the software will list a bunch of built-in grooves that are closely matched to what you played. You can even drop the completed groove directly into your song and the program will give you a list of related grooves and fills, allowing you to easily create a unique and full-sounding drum pattern. The virtual interface is pretty cool, too — it displays a digital drum set that matches the beats you're making.