Best Drum Machines

Here’s a list of most of the drum machines I have used and where you can download them from: I will certainly cover a few of these in the forthcoming videos, so you will get to hear what they sound like and see how to program them. If you don’t want to wait that long, why not click on the links below, download them and have a go yourself?

Having spent a long time messing around with these beasties, I have formed my own opinions as to which drum machines are the best…
If you are short of time, I’ll cut right to the chase here:


Best Software Drum Machine:

Drumcore 3 Free

A great sounding Ludwig kit, a bunch of midi loops and audio clips you can instantly drag and drop into your DAW. Go and grab it now!


Best Hardware Drum Machine:

Boss BR-1180CD Rhythm Arranger

That’s the best sounds and patterns, not the easiest to use!


Other honourable mentions, principally for ease of use:

Acoustica Beatcraft (Standalone software program – non midi)

and…

Tick Tick Step Sequencer Rack Extension (RE) for Reason 7.0 (Needs Reason too!)

If you want more meat on the bones, feel free to dig in and read the rest of this post!

Software versus Hardware

The Software versions are programs you can run inside your computer. They break down into “standalone” programs and VST (Virtual Instrument) plug-ins. VST plug-ins need a “host” program in order to run, such as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like Cockos Reaper, Cakewalk Sonar or Acoustica Mixcraft. You can also run them in SAVIhost or VSThost.

Propellerhead Software’s Reason 6.0 has its own specialist drum and percussion instruments, Redrum, Dr Octo Rex and Kong. They all behave a little bit like a VST instrument, but you can’t use them directly in another DAW or as a standalone program. You can use Reason in conjunction with another DAW, using a utility called Rewire, (which synchronises the output of Reason and another DAW), but that’s a discussion for another time.

The Hardware versions are self contained entities that exist outside of your computer. They may be a dedicated drum machine (e.g. The Yamaha RX-17 or DD-5) , or part of a digital studio (e.g. the Boss BR-1180CD) or even part of an arranger Keyboard such as a Yamaha PSR-2000. They can be connected to your computer via audio cables or midi cables. If you use a Midi/Audio Interface such as the Focusrite Saffire USB 6, it connects to your computer via a USB cable. You would connect your hardware to the Saffire using the same kind of cables you would use for an electric guitar, with a quarter inch jackplug. You may also be able to connect your hardware directly using midi cables or a midi interface such as the Yamaha UX-16 (32-bit Windows only), depending on whether the hardware device has midi inputs (“MIDI IN”) and outputs (“MIDI OUT”) and what kind of input sockets your computer has.

Software Drum Machines

Acoustica Beatcraft – Download the FREE 7 day trial version here

Buy Beatcraft

Beatcraft is a standalone sample based drum machine which you can use to create beats for your music with any samples that you choose. Having tried out a few drum machines in order to make instructional videos on drum programming, I opted to purchase Acoustica Beatcraft and use it in my videos as a teaching tool simply because it displays all the drum programming steps and all the individual instruments you need on screen all at once.

You can also create individual beats and sequence whole songs quickly with Beatcraft, and render them as audio files for use with any Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Note there is no midi capability – you cannot import into Beatcraft or export midi files from Beatcraft, but you can put drum loops you create straight into Mixcraft. You can also slice those loops up using Recycle (or Recycle Lite) and use them in the Doctor Octo Rex Loop Player in Propellerhead’s Reason. Beatcraft comes with a broad selection of drum samples and you can create your own kits too. A good, flexible and inexpensive introduction to drum programming.

Incidentally, you can buy Beatcraft right here for $39.95 USD:

Buy Beatcraft

Note: The above link and other links to Acoustica products on this page are affiliate links. If you purchase Beatcraft by clicking on one of these links, I will receive a commission payment.

Addictive Drums (FREE DEMO version)

The demo version is limited to BD, SD and Hi-Hats but there are some great sounds and a whole bunch of extra kits to choose from. Definately worth a download. It is VST only, so you would need to launch it in a host program (such as Reaper or Savihost).

Addictive Drums (VST)

Dr Octo Rex (Propellerhead Reason 5.0 & 6.0 – Get FREE Reason DEMO Here:)

Doctor Octo Rex was introduced with Reason 5.0 (as the replacement for Doctor Rex in Reason 4.0) and allows you to play up to 8 pre-made drum loops or Rex files. You can slice them, filter them, speed them up and slow them down, make them play backwards and do a whole load of other funky stuff with them. You can use drum loops and percussion loops together with several instances of Doctor Octo Rex to create amazing synchronised drum tracks. It’s a very quick way to create a drum backing track. There’s a lot of loops out there, so be prepared to trawl for a while to find ones which are just right. You could also make your own loops, although you will need Propellerhead’s separate Recycle program (as well as Reason) to do so. It also plays loops for other instruments, such as Bass Guitar, Saxophone, etc. A whole backing band at your fingertips. If you really can’t be bothered to program your own beats, then look no further. Doctor Octo Rex is your man for the job.

Dr Octo Rex – Propellerhead Reason

Dr Rex (Propellerhead Reason 4.0) Now superceded by Dr Octo Rex

Drumcore Free [FREE DEMO version - VST only]

I had never heard of Drumcore until I read the 2010 Computer Music Special #44 (which is an absolute gem by the way). You get a ton of free content with Drumcore FREE including midi patterns and loops which you can drag and drop into a DAW like Reaper. You can make it sound less like a robot and more like a drummer using the “Gabrielise” feature. It only has two kits, a Ludwig rock kit (which sounds amazing) and a Garage kit. I am very impressed with it. Again, it is very quick to create a backing track with this one. There’s even more content in the commercial version, but this is an outstanding freebie which can be extremely useful. You don’t get the variety of kit sounds as with Addictive Drums, but you do get a lot of patterns. If you prefer programmed patterns to loops, you may even prefer Drumcore to Doctor Octo Rex. I have never tried to “program” this kit. I literally drag and drop the ready made patterns and loops, and voila, there’s your drum track. Easy! Alternatively, you can grab you own midi drum files (or maybe one from, say, Oddgrooves), stick it on a track in Reaper and assign Drumcore’s Ludwig kit to it. It’s quite a big download, so grab the version off of the Computer Music Special DVD if you can find it.

Drumcore FREE – VST only

Hammerhead Rhythm Station (“Run as administrator” in Vista) [FREE]

This is a FREE fun little 6 channel drum machine which shares some of the characteristics of the commercial drum machines like Redrum and the TR-808 (i.e. 16 buttons) and it brings its own “dirt” and quirkiness for electronica productions. You will find Roland TR606, 808 and 909 samples, and you are theoretically able to use your own samples with it, although I didn’t.

It is, however, let down by a couple of niggles. The first one is that if you do not “Run as administrator” in Windows, a little window with “Groovy” pops up which you cannot get rid of until you restart your machine! Also, the rendering feature, to create an audio file of your finished masterpiece, does not appear to work in Windows Vista or Windows 7. You can get around  this by rendering the pattern with other software, but it’s a bit annoying. I would like to see a Version 2 that addresses these issues, and also the capability to be opened as a VST or dare I say, even, a Reason Rack Extension? Thirdly, There’s no obvious midi capability.

The bottom line is, that it’s fun and really easy to program and it can sound great. You can use distortion, feedback and shuffle and play samples backwards and I like the sounds and most of the dozen or so patterns it comes bundled with. It just misses my top choice for best drum machine because it only shows one channel at a time, whereas the winning program shows them all at once. It is still probably the best free drum machine you can start playing around with though, in spite of its limitations.

Hammerhead (Standalone)

Hydrogen 0.9.6 [FREE Standalone]

To be honest, I haven’t used this drum machine all that much, but it seems to do a good job. It comes with 4 kits, A GMkit, a Kawai XD-5, Ratmilk_1.0.4 and a TR808 Emulation which you can change by right-clicking and selecting load. You can also export midi patterns from it to an external midi file player like Cakewalk Express. My reservation would be how you would synchronise it to other gear as it is a standalone program? If you can synchronise using Midi then fine, but I am not sure how that would work (yet). I would therefore tend to use Redrum or a VST drum machine instead if working on a complete song. It’s strength is that you can program it quickly and easily and have the facility to create midi files for use in other programs. You could also just press play, and jam along with another instrument such as a guitar if you want. I am not sure at this point if you can render audio or import your own midi patterns. It warrants further investigation.

Hydrogen (Standalone)

Kong (Propellerhead Reason 5.0 & 6.0)

Kong (Introduced in Reason 5.0) is a beast of a sample based drum machine with 16 channels. Think Redrum on steroids! It is highly configurable, with velocity sensitivity built in, although there is no built in sequencer. This is no great tragedy, however, as you can combine it with other Reason instruments such as Redrum or use Reason’s built in sequencer instead. You can tweak away to your heart’s content here, heavily customised and almost infinately configurable drum kits using samples and slices of loops are the order of the day. It could easily take up a whole page by itself, there are so many features. You have to buy Reason to use this, or try the demo version on the Propellerhead website.

Kong – Propellerhead Reason

Get FREE Reason DEMO Here:)

Linplug CM-505 (VST *With Computer Music Magazine – on the cover DVD)

This is a great sounding little 12 channel FREEBIE midi file player with Computer Music Magazine, as part of the CM Studio on the monthly cover DVD. It’s a highly electronic, analog sounding VST plug-in, with 64 preset kits which sound like a Simmons or any other Eighties electronic drum set and would not be out of place on a Human League or Depeche Mode album. It is very easy to set up and use. You can also use it at the same time as another more conventional kit to broaden the overall sound, and it adds a quite distinctive flavour – with fantastic sounding syn drums. It’s not for everyone, but well worth a listen if you like synthesiser music. It is probably my favourite electronic analog drum machine. I should definately use it more often!

Linplug CM-505 VST (Free with Computer Music)

Mdrummer Small [FREE DEMO - VST and Standalone]

Another discovery courtesy of the 2010 Computer Music Special #44, MDrummer Small is the FREE version of the much larger commercial MDrummer program available from Melda Productions, who also make a substantial bundle of excellent FREE plug-in effects, such as MCompressor and MLimiter. The acoustic kits sound good and snappy and you can use it as a VST plugin to play your own and third party midi files. There is also an electronic “synth” kit available, and a DEMO version of the larger program too. They have separate variations for Verse 1, Verse 2 and Chorus patterns, as well as Intro and Beat functions. Well worth a download and a worthy alternative to Drumcore FREE to give you an extra bit of variety in your drum sounds.

MDrummer Small – VST and Standalone

 

Muon Software SR202 (*FREE With Computer Music Magazine – on the cover DVD – Part of the CM Studio)

This is like a mono version of Redrum. I found it tricky to set up and load the preset kits to start with, but found that it was worth persevering with. The drum sounds it comes with are not the most realistic you will find out there, but it does have its own distinctive sound and character. If you can’t afford Reason or one of the other commercial DAWs, then you may find this does the job for you when partnered up with a DAW like Reaper. Bear in mind that most samples on the internet are stereo and will not work with this plug-in without being converted to mono first. Try it out and see what you think. It is FREE after all.

Muon Software SR-202 VST (Free with Computer Music)

Ordrumbox [FREE]

It’s not working as my Java installation isn’t working as of yesterday. I’ll report back when it’s working again.

PC Drummer

Rebirth.One – You might still be able to get this on Amazon

I have fond memories back in August 2002, seeing and buying a copy of this from PC World for £19.49 It is the first commerical version of Rebirth, created by the guys behind Propellerhead Software, distributed at the time by DataBecker and Steinberg. It is an emulation of the Roland TR-808 (drum machine), but it is not just a drum machine, it comes with not one but two emulations of the legendary Roland TB-303 Bassline (Bass Synth) as well. I created a few drum patterns with it, but really struggled with programming the bass emulators. Maybe that’s just me. My son picked it up pretty quick. It was replaced by Rebirth RB-338 which you can download FREE as a CD image from the Rebirth Museum. Recently the RB-338 was reborn as a commercial iPhone and iPad Application.

Rebirth One (Standalone)

Rebirth RB-338 [Available FREE from the Rebirth Museum]

I eventually got around to grabbing the Free CD image of this upgraded version of Rebirth, the RB-338 from the Rebirth Museum in September 2008 and I am glad I did. The guys at Propellerhead have created an interface in Reason so that you can use Rebirth RB-338 with it. They added a TR-909 drum machine emulator in this upgraded edition and it spawned a substantial fan base and modding community, people who were keen to redesign the interface and substitute different sounds into it with sometimes quirky and sometimes spectacular results. I found it does not work with 64-bit versions of Windows, but still works with 32-bit Vista. To be honest, I never really got the hang of programming the basslines – it’s much easier to do it with a midi keyboard. I found that the rendering function (creating a .wav file of the finished song) doesn’t work in Windows Vista. It is still fun to play around with, to listen to the songs that come with it and maybe look out for that new commercial iPhone/iPad application too. There’s even a utility called Remaker that converts PC based Rebirth songs (.rbs files) to midi and vice versa. If you tried to collect the original analog hardware via eBay, a Roland TR-808, a TR-909 and two TB-303′s – you would probably not get much change out of £5,000 / $8,000. The RB-338 is FREE to download from The Rebirth Museum. So what are you waiting for? Note that the iPad/iPhone app is NOT Free. Check the website for more details.

Rebirth RB-338 (Standalone & works with Reason)

Redrum (Included in Propellerhead Reason 4.0, 5.0 & 6.0 – Get FREE Reason DEMO Here:)

After using Rebirth on and off for a few years, it was pretty easy to convert to programming in Redrum. This is probably my go to software drum machine of choice for music composition. It has 10 channels, and 32 banks to put your patterns in, so you can load it up with any of the multitude of different drum kits that come with Reason or create your own from samples or “refills”* available elsewhere. It doesn’t have all the latest bells and whistles of Kong and you can only program one voice at a time, but it gets the job done in style. It has some nice randomising features too, for creating variations of your beats. It will play standard midi files and you can send patterns you program into it to Reason’s sequencer. You can’t really go wrong with Redrum. *You can download tons of free “Refills” (i.e. Propellerhead’s equivalent of a musical .Zip file) donated by the Reason user community, once you are a licenced and logged in user, from the Propellerhead website. They sell commercial refills there too.

Redrum – Propellerhead Reason

Other Links: If none of these tickle your fancy, or if you want to explore some other drum machines on your own which I haven’t mentioned above, check out the following: Type “Free Drum Machine” into Google and you will get a load more!

http://freemusicsoftware.org/category/free-vst/drum-machine

 

Hardware Drum Machines

Boss BR-1180 CD (Digital Recording Studio with built in drum machine)

Boss still make variants of these – I picked one up off of eBay in 2002. I was definately not keen on using computers to create music at this point, so an all-in-one hardware solution seemed to be a logical step. It is an 8 track digital studio with a hard drive and built in CD player for creating finished masters of your recordings. The built in drum machine has some great Roland drum sounds and some interesting patterns. I did find it the unit bit fiddly to use to start with, and the manual isn’t that easy to read and use. Hence a search on eBay for a DVD Manual. Fortunately, David Wills of ProAudio DVDs.com delivers with an excellent video manual, which makes using the unit a lot easier.

Boss BR-1180CD

Boss Dr Rhythm Dr-110 (Standalone drum machine)

The first drum machine that I acquired in the mid eighties and Roland/Boss’s last fully analog drum machine. The sounds won’t be to everyone’s taste, although they would work with electronica as opposed to heavy metal. It has no midi output so it can’t be easily synchronised with other equipment (although you can get them converted at circuitbenders.co.uk). I sold mine (I have since regretted doing so) and eventually upgraded to a Yamha RX-17, which sounded a lot more realistic at the time. They have become quite expensive and a perhaps getting a little harder to come by on eBay, at least compared to Yamaha drum machines made around the same time. The DR-110 manual has some interesting patterns in, so it’s worth having a look around for.

Yamaha DD-5 (Standalone drum Machine with drum pads)

Yamaha drum machines have never really been revered in the same way as Roland TR-808 & TR-909 drum machines and this means you can pick them up a lot more cheaply than a Roland made around the same time. My brother bought one of these a few years ago at a boot fair. It has 30 preset patterns on it and several multi function pads you can hit with drumsticks. It also has speakers which give it a very lo-fi sound. You can pick these up cheaply off of eBay and they can be used as a midi controller with your computer and other equipment. I have started to capture the sounds and creating drum loops of these patterns so they could be used with Reason. I have also used this successfully with Reason using the patch from Robbneu’s excellent “patch a day” blog. There are some great videos on Youtube showing these as midi controllers or “circuit bent”, so quite a useful gadget if you can get one.

You can download all 30 of the pre-programmed patterns from the Yamaha DD-5 in wav format at the link below:

https://soundcloud.com/neilpaddock/yamaha-dd-5-demo-patterns

Yamaha DD-5 Digital Drums

Yamaha PSR 2000 (Digital Keyboard with built in drum machine)

Yes, I am a self confessed Yamaha Fan. Another 2002 acquisition. An arranger keyboard with a quite presentable built in drum machine. The sounds seem more realistic than the RX-17 and you get 4 grouped patterns per song type which can be ‘stepped up’ during a song, so you can start with a quiet section and build up to a busier or louder pattern, as well as swap between them. There is an option to have “autofills” between drum pattern changes which works well. The keyboard makes it relatively simple to create midi files of your compositions which can be saved via a floppy disc drive (no USB unfortunately) although you can also record the midi direct to your computer using a midi interface, such as a UX-16. This allows you to save the midi drum performance and allows you to assign your favorite drum kit sounds to that performance, so you could for example use any drum kit patch from Redrum or Kong in Reason or even a VST Instrument such as Drumcore FREE to replay these patterns. There are loads of Yamaha PSR keyboards out there on eBay and it may be worth considering getting a cheap, second hand midi compatible one to become your main midi controller and help you with your musical quest.

Yamaha PSR-2000

Yamaha RX-17 (Standalone drum machine)

A drum machine from the mid eighties which sounded pretty realistic to me at the time. You would save patterns back to cassette tape back then, but the good news is that this will work right now as an excellent midi controller with a computer. Check out Robbneu’s patch a day article for more details on how to set it up. You can record your built in patterns into a DAW like Reason, and also play along by pressing the pads. For some reason I find pressing the little pads with with my fingers more fun and more engaging than bashing out drum sounds on a keyboard.

You can’t really fault Yamaha’s reliability and build quality. I have had mine for 25 years and it still works like a dream. There are a few available on eBay although I notice that the US ones are quite expensive! You can also ‘cheat’ and create your own software RX-17 by grabbing the samples from the internet and using them in a drum machine like Redrum, or even the SR202 (as long as you have converted and saved them into mono format first).

FREE DOWNLOAD AVAILABLE: Reason 6.0 users can now download my software emulation of the RX-17 (two combinators containing all the original factory programmed patterns 50-99) in the form of a song file containing all the samples and re-programmed factory patterns from the Free Downloads Page.

You can also download the 50 original factory patterns as a single .wav file from here:

https://soundcloud.com/neilpaddock/yamaha-rx-17-factory-patterns

Yamaha RX-17 Digital Rhythm Programmer

Simmons SDS-1000 & Simmons MTM

The SDS-1000 is the “Brain” unit for the old hexagonal Simmons drum pads, popular in the mid eighties. The unit I had did not have midi compatibility, so I tried to get around this by getting hold of the Midi To Midi interface (MTM) around 1989. You plug all of your individual pad sounds from the SDS-1000 into the back of the MTM, and take a Midi cable out to your other equipment. I created a Simmons / Yamaha Hybrid drum machine by rigging the MTM up with the RX-17 via a midi cable and assigned the specific snare drum, bass drum and tom tom sounds to the same midi notes as the Yamaha pads. I muted the Yamaha sounds, so it played back the Yamaha built in drum patterns and Yamaha cymbals and Hi-Hat sounds but triggered the electronic Simmons drum sounds instead. Pretty cool. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to grab the samples and throw them into Redrum.

Akai MPK49

The most recent hardware addition, the MPK49 is not a drum machine in its own right but it will play any drum sound triggered via midi either from its 12 drum pads, or from the keyboard. With 49 keys (four octaves) it is large enough to play with two hands but small enough to be reasonably portable and sit on the desk without taking up too much space. It works with all of Reason’s drum gadgets (Redrum, Kong, Dr Octo Rex) and its built in samplers (NN-19 & NN-XT), as well as any enabled VST plug-ins such as Sampletank, Drumcore FREE and so on. The drum pads have been criticised by some, who say they are not as responsive as those on the classic Akai MPC series of devices. Admittedly they are a bit hard to press and I tend to use the keyboard instead, or just drag in a midi or audio file rather that sit there bashing on the pads. I could live without them, truth be known. I prefer my little buttons on the RX-17, which are more fun to play!

The keyboard is quite highly sprung (a little stiff?) compared to the Yamaha PSR-2000 and Ensoniq ESQ-1, but for convenience, you can’t really beat it. It stays permanently plugged into my computer via USB (which also handles all the midi traffic, incidentally) and it is instantly available. No additional cables to plug in and fiddle about with. It’s right there when I need it. It also has play, stop, fast forward, rewind and record buttons that work with Reason and other DAWs, so you don’t have to use the mouse to stab at buttons on your monitor when recording if you don’t want to. An excellent addition and compliment to Reason 6.0 and Reaper 4.22 and a real boon to my workflow. You can also use its knobs and sliders to reconfigure your VST synths using the midi learn function. As midi compatible keyboards go, I have yet to find a better one.

Akai MPK49

 

Legendary Hardware/Analog Drum Machines (Links below are for photographs)

I have never owned a hardware version of the devices below but it is relatively straightforward to put a kit together for each of them in a software drum machine using sample, using Redrum in Reason 6.0 or Acoustica Beatcraft. You could also use the Muon SR-202 but you would need to save individual stereo samples as mono first using something like Goldwave to open the files and individually resave them.

Linn Drum (As used by Prince)

Roland CR-78 (As used by Phil Collins of Genesis)

Roland TR-808 (Emulated in Rebirth.One and Rebirth RB-338)

Roland TR-909 (Emulated in Rebirth RB-338)

Buy Beatcraft

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