28th December 2014:
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Disclaimer: The following article describes what I consider to be “The Best Drum Machines Ever”, based on my own personal experience. If you have used different ones, your opinion may be different from mine. I am totally cool with that. What is best for you depends upon availability, cost, ease of use and what is most relevant to your needs. So your mileage may vary! This concentrates on hardware by Boss and Yamaha, and software primarily for Windows, not the Mac, and pretty much excludes stuff for i-Pads and i-Phones (except Rebirth). I have never owned a Hardware 808 or a 909, but I do access to their software equivalents – Rebirth RB-338 and Hammerhead Rhythm Station.
Here’s a list of almost every drum machine I have ever used, what they are like and where you can download them from. My intention is to write about these and video them in more detail, so you will get to hear more about what they sound like and see how to program them. That will be an ongoing process, so if you are itching to have a go in the meantime, just click on the links below, download them and try the software versions for yourself. Hardware is often available on eBay or Gumtree, so check in there from time to time too.
So which drum machines are the best and why?
If you are short of time (and maybe cash), I’ll cut right to the chase here:
If I had to make a recommendation for a novice drum programmer, I’d say:
1 Stick with software (and use a midi controller if you want). It’s much easier, cheaper and often free!
2 Don’t rush into anything. Take your time and try stuff out so you know what you are most comfortable with.
If you want more meat on the bones, feel free to dig in and read the rest of this post!
Software versus Hardware (Windows only)
The Software versions are programs you can run inside your computer. They break down into “Standalone” programs and Virtual Instrument (VST) 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 VSTs one at a time in a host program such as SAVIhost or VSThost. Some are available as both a standalone program and a VST version that runs in your preferred DAW. I have highlighted which are which in the screenshots below.
Reason is probably my favourite DAW for its ease of use and its flexibility. Propellerhead Software’s Reason has its own specialist drum and percussion instruments, (namely Redrum, Kong, Dr Octo Rex (The Loop player) and the NN-XT sampler) and its own self contained environment. You can’t use Reason devices like Kong or Redrum directly in another DAW or as a standalone program – you can use a utility called Rewire, (which synchronises the output of Reason to the other DAW), but that’s a discussion for another time. You can convert or render the audio output from your Reason Devices (i.e. turn your drum sounds, patterns and loops you create into wav files) and then use them in any other DAW that you like – by exporting them from Reason and importing them into your DAW of choice.
Reason’s New Midi Out feature (Reason 7)
The closed environment means that you can’t use third party VSTs (like Drumcore 3 and Mdrummer) directly with Reason i.e. without using Rewire. Actually, with the fairly recent addition of Midi Out in Reason’s armoury, there may be more scope to connect with other midi devices (i.e. VSTs) outside of Reason’s immediate environment – using an internal midi program like LoopBe1, but it is probably not worth trying this as a beginner – as it can be a bit tricky to set up! A topic best discussed in more detail elsewhere.
More recently, Rack Extensions (Propellerhead’s equivalent of VSTs) have become available to offer more rack units for the Reason User, and there are now over 200 of them. I have grabbed Tick Tick, PDT2, PCV and Euclid and they are all very useful for extending Reason’s flexibility. It was very flexible before!
Personally I found Reason far easier to use than any other DAW (although Reaper and Mixcraft are ok – once you get used to them) but you may find Reason’s price tag (at around $400) rather expensive. There is a cut down version called Reason Essentials that may be worth checking out. You can get Essentials (if you like the demo) and upgrade to the full version of Reason later.
Mixcraft comes with more gadgets than Reaper and is physically similar to Garageband on the Mac. Reaper is pretty quick to get up and running with (I learnt it with a Computer Music Plug in guide back in 2010) and not too expensive. There are plenty of others (Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Cakewalk’s Sonar X1 X2 & X3 and Cubase) but having tried a few, I have found I tend to stick with Reason (for general multitrack recording), Mixcraft (for quick and decent sounding renders of midi files) and Reaper (for using drum VSTs like Drumcore 3 with VST effects).
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
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.
Here’s a video from YouTube I created with it
Sorry. I didn’t show you how to “choke” the hi-hat. There’s a link on Acoustica’s website that explains how:
1) Create another open hi-hat on beat 13. Click the little white arrow directly underneath its green bar. Reduce the volume slider to zero and tick the box that says “Choke previous sounds”.
Beat 13 now shows as blacked out with a little red line down the left side – That’s more like it!
The Impeach The President Loop – created in Beatcraft (Amended)
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.
You can buy Beatcraft right here for $39.95 USD:
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).
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 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 at around 3gb, so grab the version off of the Computer Music Special DVD if you can find it.
What does the featured Gary Thompson Ludwig Sparkle kit sound like? Here’s a rendered version with no effects.
Impeach The President (Drumcore FREE Version) – Rendered in Reaper
And again – this time with my favourite VST drum compressor – T-RackS3 Black 76 – applying “Drum Comp 2” compression:
- Impeach The President (Drumcore FREE Version + Black 76) – Rendered in Reaper
GTG Drum Sampler II (by GTG Synths – Mikael Sybrandt)
Very easy to use Free VST plugin and Drum midi file player you can use with any DAW such as Reaper or Mixcraft. One of my favourites. I think you can add your own samples to it and make your own kits. I didn’t bother as I like the ones that come with it and used those instead. The pads light up when played – cool!
Here’s the Impeach the President midi pattern played with the GTG DSII in Reaper. ]
Impeach The President (GTG DSII – No Compression or FX Version)
With this version, I have applied the T-RackS3 Black 76 Limiting Amplifier to make it louder and punchier. Nice drum sound!
Impeach The President (GTG DSII + Black 76 Version)
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 some 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 (called “stream to disk”), to create an audio file of your finished masterpiece, does not work in Windows Vista or Windows 7 on its default setting.
I have now finally figured out that it will render mono audio files if you use the non defaults, i.e. “Current measure” or “All measures”, but the default “whole session” produces an audio file that Goldwave can’t read.
I had until recently previously got 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 but I think it’s most unlikely to happen. Thirdly, There’s no 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 – I like the sounds and most of the dozen or so patterns it comes bundled with. You can add your own or grab other users drum samples from the threechords website too.
It just misses my top choice for best drum machine because it only shows one channel at a time (and has those niggles I talked about), whereas the winning program (Beatcraft) 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.
Impeach The President (Hammerhead version) rendered in Reason 7.1
By the way, rendering the file outside of Hammerhead can be tricky. I got Reason to do it, but it took a lot longer to get a decent normalised version of the loop than I would have liked.
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.
I tried this out about 2 or 3 years ago. It’s pretty good, but I let the 10 day trial run out. If you leave it on your computer after the expiry period, every time you fire up your DAW it will ask you to authorise it (pay for it). That gets annoying after a short while, so I removed it. It is priced up at $50 USD. There’s a comprehensive set of add on kits for this here:
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.
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!
- Manic by Delamancha (Steven Brambley)
I originally got it from the 2010 Computer Music Special #44 on plugins. If you like random beats and general mayhem, Manic is for you!
It is a random sample player – where you add the samples and set the probabilities – with unique results. One version comes with a bunch of fun samples by people such as Audiofudge, although you can also use your own. My initial version was tricky to set up – I couldn’t hear anything – So I got another version from the website and that was okay. It was worth persevering with just to hear this example beat – the wacky and random “Inspecta Gadget” riff! Endless possibilities. Or is that probabilities?
Delamancha is looking to create 4 new plugins in exchange for donations to Cancer Research. If you want to know more about this and support this worthy cause, then please click here:
Manic VST by Delamancha
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. Version 5 of MDrummer is now available.
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 (using something like Goldwave) first. Try it out and see what you think. It is FREE after all.
Sep 2014 Update: : Since I originally wrote this article I have switched to using Session Drummer 2 in Reaper instead of SR-202 to create custom kits, due to its ability to use stereo samples – and the fact that it doesn’t crash – Whereas SR-202 can be a bit unstable and annoying. Also, SR-202 may not work with 64 bit installations of Windows, as it’s pretty old now.
It’s not working as my Java installation isn’t working as of yesterday. I’ll report back when it’s working again.
Rebirth.One – You might still be able to get this on Amazon
I bought my first dedicated drum software back in August 2002 from PC World – for under twenty quid! (about $30). It is the first commercial 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 (again) as a commercial iPhone and iPad Application.
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 and Windows 7.
To be honest, I never really got the hang of programming the bass lines – 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?
You will need to register and burn it onto a CD to use it. Note it may NOT work with 64 bit installations of Windows. It works with 32 bit Windows. Note also that the iPad/iPhone app is NOT Free. Check the Rebirth for iPad website for more details.
After using Rebirth on and off for a few years, it was pretty easy to convert to programming in Redrum. This used to be my go to software drum machine of choice for music composition and generating a few patterns quickly, although I tend to use Kong more nowadays. Redrum 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. A particularly good Redrum Refill is available free from Peff’s website. It’s called Peff 015 – u_gene kit. Check it out.
A versatile program that includes a good variety of samples. You need to be familiar with writing sfz scripts to create your own kits, but it’s not too difficult with the right templates and a bit of patience. There’s an article on Sound On Sound that discusses this very topic.
SI-Drums – by Cakewalk
Another Cakewalk drum machine that comes bundled with Studio Instruments (Strings, Bass and Electric Piano). It is quite good but you can’t create your own kits, and the samples are encrypted so you can’t use them with anything else either. You can use it with your own or other midis, and the graphic of the kit is quite nice – You can see the kit playing, like a ghost drummer is playing it. I prefer Session Drummer 2 for its flexibility in allowing you to create other kits for it and because you can use the samples elsewhere if you choose.
Hardware Drum Machines
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 as a standalone midi controller, 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.
Boss BR-1180CD Rhythm Arranger (Digital Recording Studio with built in drum machine)
Boss still make variants of these – I picked one up off of eBay in 2002 for around 550GBP / c. $1,000 USD. 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 at the time. 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. It will play audio loops too, such as those bundled with the BR-1180 by Discrete Drums. 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. BR-1180 has a pretty good drum machine with a selection of nice sounding kits and interesting patterns -it is limited to ten sounds (one per channel) and the unit is considerably more expensive than a standalone drum machine. I have heard some people have had trouble with getting spares (Hard drives, CD drives) if they go wrong. So the DR-660 is a better all round proposition. And Reason is easier to use, with a shallower learning curve. If you can pick one up cheap on eBay or Gumtree that still works okay, it might be worth a look.
- Boss BR-1180CD Rhythm Arranger – with Midi
Boss Dr Rhythm DR-110 (Standalone drum machine – No midi)
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 and a nice drum programming template, so it’s worth googling.
Boss Dr Rhythm DR-660
A recent acquisition and a very good one. Its breath of sounds and patterns and its 16 pad interface make it ideal as a specialised drum midi controller with Reason. Well worth looking out for. You may have to change the battery, and that wipes the memory, so back it up before the battery runs out!
Yamaha DD-5 (Standalone drum Machine with drum pads)
Yamaha drum machines have never really been lusted after 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. The drum sounds on it are lo-fi and pretty poor.
You can download all 30 of the pre-programmed patterns from the Yamaha DD-5 in wav format at the link below:
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 RX-17 (Standalone drum machine)
A drum machine from the 1987 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 over 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) or Session Drummer 2.
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:
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. Note there is no Hi Hat, electronic cymbals or midi with the SDS1000, just the hex pads and sounds for Bass/Kick Drum, Snare and 3 Tom Toms. DTXplorer by Yamaha is far superior to the Simmons as a full electronic kit. The Simmons brain unit is a good source of retro synth drum sounds.
Other Commercial Software (i.e. Virtual Synthesisers which will play drum samples) worth checking out:
Very impressive and popular software, but expensive. It loads many more samples at once than Reason without breaking a sweat. Worth trying out the trial versions. The demo versions time out, after 30 minutes I believe. Can be purchased as part of Komplete.
FXpansion’s BFD3, BFD Eco & Geist
BFD may well be the most popular drum software on the planet. I have not used it much, but it is very good. It is a bit slow on my old computer. There are several versions, BFD Eco (Entry level), BFD2 (Now replaced by BFD3) and BFD 3 (The Latest version). Look out also for Geist and Guru (now replaced by Geist), also from FXpansion. BFD3’s drums sound fantastic.
Cakewalk’s Dimension LE
Cut down version of Dimension Pro. Check Cakewalk’s store and sign up to find out about their sales – they often discount their products heavily and you can pick up a real bargain – if your timing is right!
Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro
Enhanced version of Dimension LE. 3.5gb of samples. Not just drums.
There’s an LE [Light] Version of Rapture which comes bundle with Cakewalk’s DAWs. Check with Cakewalk for more specific details.
IK Multimedia’s Sampletank 2 Free and Sampletank 2
Sampletank 2 now appears to have been superceded by Sampletank 3 as of 28th August 2014. Lots of kits, lots of samples, not just drums. Sampletank 3 Free is now available to try out. I haven’t tried it yet though. Not sure now if you can still get Sampletank 2 Free.
Legendary Hardware/Analog Drum Machines (Links below are for photographs only)
Linn Drum / Roland TR-808 / Roland TR-909 and Roland CR-78
Probably the most popular and most sought after drum machines ever made. I have never owned a hardware version of these devices but it is relatively straightforward to put a kit together for each of them in a software drum machine or sampler using samples, using Redrum in Reason or Acoustica Beatcraft. You could also use the free 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). You could also create an sfz text file and use the samples in Cakewalk’s Session Drummer 2.
If you want samples of these great old machines, the best place to start is Goldbaby’s Free Stuff Page.
Wave Alchemy also offer freebies too.
Rebirth RB-338 and Hammerhead Rhythm Station both sound like 808’s and 909’s – so you could use those to start with.
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)
If you want to use audio drum samples (one shots (individual hits), kits or loops), you will need either:
1) a standalone software drum machine or sampler OR…
2) a Virtual Instrument (VST) and a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to play it in.
If you have a sampler, and you just want a few drum samples to start you off, the links below are worth checking out:
If I needed to create a basic kit quickly, I’d probably use Reason’s Redrum. If I wanted a kit with Multiple drum samples for each drum, I’d put them in a Kong. Outside of Reason, I would use a Muon SR-202 for mono samples or Session Drummer 2 for a stereo kit in a DAW like Reaper or Mixcraft. Some drum samples are bundled up for use with specific software, for example Reason has a format called a Refill. Refills won’t work with anything else, just Reason. Whereas Wav files will work with practically anything. Figure out the best format for you before buying.
For ease of use, you probably want a device where you can drag and drop the samples right in.
Other sources worthy of mention:
The Loop Loft (Affiliate Link) – Very comprehensive source of drum loops and refills.
LoopMasters (Affiliate Link) – Massive amount of sample and loop content.
Plugin Boutique (Affiliate Link) – Plugins (Virtual instruments VSTs to play your samples)
Nucleus Soundlab – Large range of products including Free Drum refills.
‘008- Refills – Hip Hop stuff for Reason and lots of Freebies! Very Cool!
Acoustica Mixcraft – It’s a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Works with any audio sample files such as wavs, oggs and aiffs. Also works with Drumcore 3 and similar virtual drums. Also has a built in midi drum sound library.
Reaper – reliable inexpensive and intuitive DAW for loading up Virtual kits (VSTs) like Drumcore 3 and MDrummer.
Further information (External websites)
Free Acoustic Drum Samples
50 Best Acoustic Drum Kit Samples
Other (External) Website Links:
If you want to explore some other drum machines on your own which I haven’t mentioned above, check out the following:
Simply type “Free Drum Machine” into Google and see what pops up!
Click Here for some great freebies at The Loop Loft! (Affiliate link)
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Tags: acoustica beatcraft, Acoustica Mixcraft, Addictive Drums, AKAI MPK49, best drum machines, best drum machines ever, Boss BR-1180CD, Boss Dr Rhythm Dr-110, Computer Music Special, Delamancha, Doctor Octo Rex, Drumcore Free, Focusrite Saffire USB 6, GTG Drum Sampler II, Hammerhead Rhythm Station, Hydrogen, Kong, Linn Drum, Linplug CM-505, Manic, MDrummer Small, Muon Software SR-202, Ordrumbox, PC Drummer, Propellerhead Software, Reaper, Reason, Rebirth Museum, Rebirth One, Rebirth RB-338, redrum, Roland CR-78, Roland TR-808, Roland TR-909, Savihost, Simmons MTM, Simmons SDS-1000, T-RackS3 Black 76, TB303, Tick Tick Step Sequencer, TR808, Yamaha DD-5, Yamaha PSR-2000, Yamaha RX-17