BATTLE OF THE BEAT MAKERS
Future Music|April 2021
There's never been a better time to dive into hardware beat-making. This issue, we put eight of the finest drum machines and percussion synths head-to-head to crown the king of the beat

The evolution of hardware drum machines has played a vital role in shaping electronic music as we know it today. They’ve provided the literal pulse of numerous genres, forming the robotic beats behind Kraftwerk’s early electronic pop experiments, driving the synthesised funk of classic house and techno, and providing the bass-heavy kicks and metallic hi-hat trills that define the sound of modern rap.

Various styles of drum machine have come in and out of fashion over the years. The earliest designs were simplistic and limited, often designed to replace a real drummer in a backing track but misused to wonderful effect by early electronic pioneers. In the ’80s and ’90s, advances in sampling and digital technology led those early designs to fall out of fashion in favour of workstations, samplers and – eventually – software.

It would be a misnomer to say those early drum machines ever really went away though; the sound of Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909, in particular, have remained at the heart of club music and hip-hop over the near four decades since they were released. Even as the original machines started to generate eye-watering prices on the second-hand market, their sounds have made their way into modern studios through sample packs, emulations and modern hardware recreations.

As with hardware synths, things have come full circle somewhat. Hardware drum machines have become more affordable and common once again over the past decade, from budget analogue, through sample players up to complex top-end percussion synths.

Why buy a hardware drum machine in 2021?

As with almost all forms of music-making hardware, die-hard in-the-box musicians might tell you there’s nothing you can do with hardware that you can’t do more easily with a plugin. There’s some truth to that argument; through sampling, synthesis and emulation software, drum machines can do anything their real-world counterparts can, and often offer a multitude of conveniences, such as flexible save/recall, adaptable routing and simple sample upload.

There remains, however, something special about creating with hardware. In part, that comes down to interaction – punching beats into a sequencer, finger-drumming pads and tweaking hardware knobs still offers a feeling of raw, hands-on creativity that can be difficult to replicate in software.

Dyed in the wool hardware heads will tell you there’s something distinctive and special about the sound too. You could get lost in an endless debate about the sonic qualities of an original 808 against any of its many emulations, or the various merits of vintage analogue versus modern digital, but the process of sequencing and recording a real-world instrument creates subtle, but distinctive effects. In part, this comes down to noise – even the most hi-fi recording setup will impart subtle touch of noise or character absent when working entirely in the digital realm. Timing plays a role too – although modern USB and MIDI sync is tighter than the all-analogue setups of the past, subtle variations in timing and swing can still lend an overall looser feel to hardware-created grooves.

But why is now a good time to pick up a hardware drum machine? Like in the synth realm, the past decade has seen a boom in new – largely affordable – hardware. From top-end machines to compact instruments that barely break the £100 barrier, there’s more choice now than ever. Whether you want something to replicate vintage hardware or something more contemporary or unique, it’s a buyer’s market right now.

Selecting our contenders

This issue, we’re putting a crop of our favourite beatmakers head-to-head, in an effort to find the best of the best. Given the broad wealth of instruments out there to choose from, we’ve put some restriction on ourselves. We’re only including gear that is currently widely available first hand, so no vintage or discontinued machines. We’ve limited ourselves to one drum machine from each brand too, meaning some excellent instruments have been muscled out in favour of their stronger siblings – Elektron’s Model:Cycles/Samples are absent, for example, in favour of the flagship Analog Rytm. We’ve tried to stick fairly strictly to pure drum machines too, passing over samplers such as Digitakt, multi-function grooveboxes like Novation Circuit, standalone gear such as the MPCs or Maschine+ as well as the entire realm of Eurorack beatmakers.

We’ve picked gear from every part of the price spectrum – from £1000+ hardware to wallet-friendly instruments, setting a lower limit of £100, meaning we’ve left out Teenage Engineering’s fun, but slightly limited Pocket Operators. Since it wouldn’t be fair to compare every drum machine directly – obviously the £1300 Rytm is going to be better equipped than the £150 UNO Drum – we’ll judge each on its own merits, how it performs for its price, and how well it fits its brief. Let the battle of the beatmakers commence!

Our eight contenders… Let’s meet our line-up of percussive personalities

Arturia

DrumBrute Impact £265

RELEASED 2018

1 The DrumBrute Impact is a cheaper and more compact follow-up to the original DrumBrute, Arturia’s first analogue drum machine. This is more than just a cutdown follow up though – the Impact refines the sounds of its bigger sibling, adding extra punch and added flexibility through each sound’s Color variation. The Impact features 11 analogue sounds including an FM percussion channel with tunable carrier and modulator generators. Control comes from a 64-step sequencer with randomiser and per-track swing. A meaty global distortion is the only onboard effect. arturia.com

Behringer

RD-8 £280

RELEASED 2019

2 Possibly the most prominent of Behringer’s glut of analogue ‘tributes’, the RD-8 is heavily influenced by Roland’s iconic TR-808. All the sounds and sequencing tools you’d expect from an 808 are here, from the long, bass-heavy kick to the punchy toms and cowbell. There’s enough innovation to make the RD-8 feel like more than a straight copy though, with features including selector buttons for each sound, probability and step repeat. There’s also a bi-directional analogue filter and wave designer effect buss. behringer.com

Elektron

Analog Rytm MkII £1,299

RELEASED 2017

3 The Rytm is Elektron’s top-end drum machine and, like all high-end Elektron gear there’s a lot of depth here. The sound engine combines analogue percussion synthesis with sampling, letting users layer both approaches in each track, which amounts to serious drum-design power. Per Elektron’s USP, the real depth comes from the sequencer, stocked with an abundance of chance, probability and conditional tools, along with full parameter sequencing, letting you create the most complex, varied sequences possible outside Eurorack.

IK Multimedia

UNO Drum £150

RELEASED 2019

4 The UNO drum is only IK’s second hardware instrument, following 2019’s UNO Synth, and sporting a near-identical hardware design. The price is cheap and the lightweight, plastic build reflects that, but as with its synth counterpart there’s surprising power under the hood. The engine here makes use of both analogue percussion synthesis and PCM sampling, offering a fair breadth of sounds across its 12 tracks. There are analogue drive and compressor effects onboard too, along with a stutter effect-equipped sequencer. ikmultimedia.com

Korg

Volca Drum £119

RELEASED 2019

5 While we await the promised Drumlogue, Korg’s current line-up of beatmakers is split between the budget-friendly Volcas and the mid-range Electribes. We’ve plumped for the Volca Drum for our head-to-head. While it might not be as fully featured as either of the current-gen Electribes, with its esoteric digital sound engine and waveguide resonator it’s undoubtedly the most unique of Korg’s current drum machines. As for its siblings, it outstrips the Volca Beats and Sample on the originality front, and packs more flexibility than the impressive but single-voice Volca Kick. korg.com

Moog

DFAM £539

RELEASED 2018

6 The wildcard of our round-up. Should we really call DFAM a drum machine or a semi-modular synthesiser? The fact that the D in its name stands for ‘Drummer’ makes a pretty convincing argument for the former, as do its snappy, percussive envelope generators and noisy sound engine. Based around a pair of hard sync and FM-equipped analogue oscillators, a noise generator and resonant Moog filter, it’s fair to say though that DFAM doesn’t quite fit the mold of being either a beatmaker or a standard monosynth. moogmusic.com

Roland

TR-8S £559

RELEASED 2018

7 Roland have put out a fair few drum machines in recent years, mostly with their vintage-styled Boutique range. While the Boutiques do a decent job of recreating the feel of classic gear, the Aira-branded TR range remains the high point of the company’s current drum machines. The TR-8S is the second generation iteration, which keeps the circuit-modeled emulation engine found in the original TR-8 (and the Boutiques) but adds flexible sampling and basic FM synthesis, along with expanded effects and sequencing tools. roland.com

SOMA

Pulsar-23 £1,729

RELEASED 2020

8 The most expensive and ‘boutique’ entry here, Soma’s Pulsar-23 is described as an ‘organismic drum machine’. At its most basic level, this is a four-channel beatmaker with bass drum, bass/perc, snare and cymbal channels. As you’d expect given the price though, there’s far more to it than that. As well as flexible CV control, there are also multiple loopers, a DSP effects processor and a fantastic pseudo-random generator. It comes in a choice of three colours too, more modest white and black designs and the eye-catching orange on display here. somasynths.com

Know your beatmakers

Our competing drum machines use a variety of sound engines. But what’s the difference?

The real answer here is sound engines – ie the approach each uses to create audio. Broadly these can be divided into a few categories – analogue, sample and FM. Drum machines often combine several of these approaches, using samples for some sounds and analogue synthesis for others or, as with the Analog Rytm, letting users layer them together. What’s the benefits to each? Let’s see...

Analogue

Analogue drum machines generally use a form of basic subtractive synthesis, treating simple oscillators or noise generators with filters and punchy pitch or amp envelopes to replicate the sound of real-world drums. Analogue drum machines tend to be warm, punchy and full-bodied, but often lack the complexity or versatility of digital counterparts. Virtual analogue is simply a digital emulation of this.

Sample

Sample-based machines recreate sounds by playing back recorded samples, which can usually be shaped using some form of pitch control and/or envelopes. Naturally, sample drum machines are only as good as their source audio, but generally sampled drums can be more characterful and realistic than their synthesised counterparts.

FM

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