The Best Drum Machine

Alesis SR18 Drum Machine with Effects Engine

Our Top Pick for 2016: Alesis SR18 Drum Machine with Effects Engine
Read our full review.

See it on Amazon for $236.46*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.
Too expensive? See our budget pick.

Musically, nothing beats the satisfyingly bombastic percussion-laden sound of a good set of drums. Unfortunately, today’s prospective musicians don’t always have a great drummer with a good sounding set to work with. In these situations, a great drum machine can really make the difference between a sound with a righteous beat and boring music without a percussive soul. Whether you are a live performer who wants a backing beat, a songwriter who can use a little percussion for the creation of new music, or a producer who wants to add the sound of drum timbres to a recording session, a drum machine can really help you achieve your musical goals. We’ve taken three of the best drum machines out there today as well as a great budget unit and compared them in this guide.

Table of contents

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511 Rhythm Patterns
12 Velocity Sensitive Pads
Over 700 Sounds
127 Drum Kits
Dynamic Articulation
99 Preset Patterns
12 Bass Programs
Backlit LCD, MIDI I/O, Stereo Main and Aux Outputs
Backlit LCD and Pads
Comp EQ / Reverb Effects At Once
Built-in Effects- Reverb, EQ and Compression
Drum Roll / Note Repeat Feature
User Programmable
Battery powered (6xAA – not included)
Microphone Input And Headphone Output

*Price at time of publishing and may not reflect current pricing.

#1 Gold pick (Winner): Alesis SR18 Drum Machine with Effects Engine

Alesis SR18 Drum Machine with Effects Engine Gold Pick

View it on Amazon for $236.46*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-gold-winnerKeith Bar founded Alesis in 1984. Within a few years, Alesis became one of the top producers of electronic drums and synthesizers in the world. The Alesis primary business strategy is to create quality electronic instruments that push the state of the art to new levels. Having branched from electronic drum sets to drum machines many years ago, Alesis is currently one of the predominant drum machine manufacturers in the world as well. Our Gold Pick unit is the Alesis SR18 and it is certainly one peach of a drum machine that will appeal to the neophyte or the expert.

As with many drum machines of its type, the SR18 sacrifices aesthetic embellishments for a clean, functional design. It’s exceedingly portable; in fact, you can even run the device on battery power when you need a beat on the go. Its measurements are 9.2 inches in depth, 13 inches in width, and less than an inch in height. This is also a very light machine; it only weighs approximately one pound.

Drum emulation is accomplished perfectly with this drum machine by giving the user a myriad of great drum sounds to choose from. Positioned along the base of the unit’s main console, is a multi-instrument panel that would compete with any electronic or even acoustic drum set. Your choices are: three selections of tom pads, crash and ride cymbal pads, a pad that emulates a bell, a kick pedal pad, two sets of snares, and since there are multiple positions that you can play utilizing a hi hat cymbal, there are three different hi hat pads for different levels of simulated hi hat openness. Each of these pads is velocity sensitive and includes dynamic articulation, when you alter your velocity, the drums will change in timbre, and this will ensure that your beats come out exactly as you want them.

The remaining buttons that are on the drum machine control your beat recording, your quantizing, tempo adjustment, and tap tempo functionality. To save a beat, simply hit the red colored ‘rec’ button. When the recording begins, you can establish a drum beat with any of the aforementioned drum buttons. The machine can establish a tempo based on your inputs, and you can then proceed to add different attributes to the piece of music you are creating. These elements can include extra percussion, an automated drum beat, a bass, or an additional percussive roll.

Do you like to vary your tempo in the music that you create? Tempo is managed quite effectively with this Alesis drum machine. To slow and speed up the tempo of the beat, there is a large dial set along the top of the console that has an indentation for your finger. Very importantly, this dial can also be used to navigate through the menu options on the LCD screen. Like many high end guitar amps, this Alesis unit also has a tap button for you to establish your own unique tempo delays. Simply tap this button I order to establish the tempo that you want to use. If a beat is misplaced, you can even delete individual tones by utilizing the ‘erase’ button.

Along the rear of the drum machine is a series of connections, controls, and power options. The rightmost control for this section is the volume rocker, which is self-explanatory. Second from the right is a suite of output connectors. The first three are dedicated to speaker outputs; one is for left and right and the other two are for individual left and right speaker outputs. The fourth jack in this connection set is when you don’t want to make a ruckus by using headphones. After this set is a single input jack for an electric guitar, bass, or keyboard. This will allow you to add additional sounds to your recorded music. The next set of connectors is for MIDI creation and pass-through. The final section of connectors is for the connection of foot switches, which will allow you to make some of the settings of the drum machine hands-free. After these connections are the power cable connector and the on and off switch.

Internally, there are over 500 drum and unique percussion sounds to choose from with this device. For the sake of storing your digital percussive creations, this drum machine employs 32 megabytes of internal storage; a more than adequate amount of storage for these types of files. Alesis also didn’t skimp when it comes to effects; they were sure to include settings that alter reverb, EQ, and even compression.

This is our Gold Pick, and when we grant a product this rating, you know that it’s a critical and consumer favorite. 86 percent of the 86 reviewers on Amazon felt that this drum machine is at least a four star rated product. Of the 64 percent who thought it was worthy of five stars, the testimonials are particularly positive. Here is one example: “This is just a huge sounding drum machine. Forget what they used to sound like years ago – this sounds like a real drummer – and a very good one at that. With the bass lines added this machine can be used to back a singer / guitarist / keys player and you could go on the road solo (what I plan to do).”

#2 Silver pick (Runner-up): Zoom RT223 Rhythm Trak Drum Machine

Zoom RT223 Rhythm Trak Drum Machine

View it on Amazon for $189.00*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-silver-winnerOur Silver Pick is produced by the Japanese brand Zoom; it’s just the latest in the popular instrument brand’s extensive list of musical devices, which have included among others recorders, effects pedals, and multi-effect processors. Zoom has been delivering these types of quality devices for more than thirty years and their RT223, which is our runner up drum machine, features a rich set of tools for nearly any musician.

To start, this drum machine will fit anywhere. It’s small, light, and very portable. From a design point of view, there is a minimalist design to this drum machine; seemingly Zoom wanted a more functional design for this model. Despite this attention to function, Zoom did manufacture this machine out of a semi-transparent black plastic that allows you to see some of the inner workings of the device itself. When it comes to measurements, the full dimensions of this unit are: a width of 8.6 inches, a depth of 7.2 inches, and a 1.4 inch height. The entire drum machine also only weighs 1.5 pounds in its entirety. Also in the name of portability, you can employ the Zoom AD-0016 AC adaptor to power this unit, or you can simply utilize four AA batteries that will give you approximately eight hours of use.

The RT223 has several pads for your drum emulation; each is very responsive and will provide full articulation and responsiveness to your set striking velocities. The drum emulating pads include three toms, three cymbal effects, including crash, ride, and two hi hat cymbal pads; open and closed hat, a kick drum pad, and finally, a snare drum pad. In addition to these pads, which are located on the bottom of the device’s face, you also have three additional ‘extra’ pads which will change based on the drum machine’s mode selection. An example of the sounds that you’d get from a drum kit setting would be: an extra cymbal for extra 3, tambourine emulation for the extra 4 pad, a cowbell effect for extra 2, and a rim shot for the extra 1 pad. There is also a repeat button for adding repetition to your music.

A great aspect of this drum kit is the fact that each of the pads will light up a red color when in use. There are several drum and bass kits available; Zoom has included 70 drum sounds and 12 lifelike bass sounds. Also, included in this model is a built-in metronome, which is perfect for establishing timing in your music. For those who want to build on pre-established rhythms, there are 440 preset patterns in a plethora of musical styles for your own rhythmic explorations. All settings are accessible from the small 128-segment custom backlit LCD that is positioned above the pads on the face of the device.

Insofar as connectivity, Zoom employs a great system in the rear of this unit. These include a headphone jack for quiet drum emulation that only you can hear, two line outs for left and right speaker setups, a standard MIDI connector, a FS-01 input for if you employ a footswitch, and a line in for a microphone.

70 percent of all the 51 reviews on Amazon have granted this drum machine a rating of at least four stars. This is a review from one five star reviewer: “I read all kinds of reviews. I am retired and played a kit of Slingerland 1954 . I study jazz guitar. I can’t believe how good this sounds. I was surprised to find a piano and an organ to back me on tunes. This unit can cover your backside in spades with really good sound. I bought this and did not expect a lot for the money. Was I ever wrong.”

#3 Bronze pick (3rd place): Akai Professional XR20 Beat Production Station Drum Machine

Akai Professional XR20 Beat Production Station Drum Machine

View it on Amazon for $299.00*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-bronze-awardNamed after the Japanese word for red, Akai electronics has been in operation since the 1920s. Focusing primarily on consumer electronics, the company nevertheless has an impressive selection of guitar pedals, keyboards, DJ controllers, and, as you might expect, drum machines. The Professional XR20 is an excellent option for the beginner or professional musician. As a matter of fact, if you specialize in making music in the genres of hip hop or R&B, then you might want to consider this drum machine as it has several features that can really be of use to you when making these types of music.

Unlike our gold and silver picks, our third place entry utilizes a design that is also aesthetically pleasing and not just functional. The XR20 has angles and rounded curves that make it look somewhat sporty as well as at home with a set of turntables or DJ equipment. This unit is also slightly larger than the other devices that we’ve reviewed thus far; it measures in at 13.4 in width, 12.6 inches in depth, and stands at about an inch and a half in height. The entire unit weighs 3.9 pounds; though you shouldn’t have any issue carrying the drum machine from gig to gig. You can also rely on this drum machine’s portability from a powered perspective; it can use standard AA batteries as well as an included AC adapter to ensure that you never lack a power source when producing bombastic beats.

Another thing that you might notice when comparing this drum machine to the others that we’ve reviewed so far is that this machine doesn’t employ traditional drum types in its on-board pad. The velocity sensitive pads are simply labeled pad 1 through pad 12. One of the coolest features of this is the fact that the borders of each of these pads glows a luminescent blue when the drum machine is in use. When you play back a pre-recorded beat, each pad will light up when it’s part in the overall rhythm plays. This looks awesome but also helps you keep track of the specific sequence that you pre-programmed into your beat.

One thing that is virtually identical between our Gold Pick and our Bronze Pick is the LCD on each of these units. This is so because Alesis and Akai both have the same parent company InMusic, though outside of this similarity, each of these units is starkly different from the other.

This unit features 700 sounds sampled by chronic music, 99 preset patterns and another 99 user patterns, a pattern play mode that allows you to trigger different beat patterns from various pads, and has a drum roll and note repeat feature that will allow you to customize your sound within the confines of your creativity.

The rear edge, which houses all of the connections possess plenty of options for any musician to stretch his/her creative wings with. Outside of the standard volume rocker and power on and off switches, you’ll find a dedicated section for outputs. Here you’ll find AUX L/R, main right and main left speaker jacks, and a connector for a set of headphones. Next, there is a dedicated jack for a microphone that will allow you to add vocals to your beats. Positioned next to this, is a section for MIDI connectivity. Finally, the final connections set along the rear of this device are for footswitches; either a start/stop style or one that allows you to set the tempo with foot taps.

71 percent of the reviewers on Amazon felt that this device was of a four star quality or above. One five star reviewer had this to say about this drum machine: “If you’re looking to do electronic music this drum machine could possibly keep you occupied by itself for a very long time. With so many presets, so many samples and a fairly simple interface the beats seem to roll out of this drum machine in no time. You can add bass lines and synth lines in a matter of seconds.”

#4 Budget pick (Best cheap): Korg KR mini Rhythm Machine

Korg KR mini Rhythm Machine

View it on Amazon for $79.00*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-cheap-budget-pickDrum emulation can get expensive if you want all of the tones, kits, voices and connections that some of the more premium models of drum machines offer. This isn’t to say that you can’t get excellent drum emulation if you are operating under budget constraints. Our ballin on a budget pick has been produced by famous Japanese instrument company Korg, and it is the perfect machine for musicians who are trying to save a bit of money.

The first thing you’ll notice with this drum machine is the three prominent dials on its face. One is colored a bright mustard yellow and the other two are shaded a metallic white. The yellow dial lets you select from seven different preset musical styles: rock, metal, pop, R&B, jazz, Latin, and dance. In addition to these, you can also select from an additional four presets: eight beat, 16 beat, a user created preset, and the songs/chain preset that lets you arrange rhythm patters to create full length songs.

The two metallic dials will help you manage tempo as well as volume level. In addition to these dials, the KR mini of course also features a bevy of finger pads that you can use to add a beat to your music. The first row controls the rhythm patterns that you can generate, the second row has all of the drum tones you need in order to have a full rhythmic beat.

As the name might suggest, portability is central to the design of the KR mini. It can either utilize an AC adapter for power or it can rely on three AA batteries for several hours of powered drum beats. This is also the smallest machine on our list; it has such a small form factor (seven inches in width, six in depth, and about an inch in height) that you can fit it easily in a guitar or keyboard case and take it along with you to a gig. For those situations where you can’t find sound output source, this drum machine has a built in two watt speaker that will play the 60 built in drum rhythms and 120 fills with ease. This speaker functionality is definitely one of the key features of this unit; you can simply plug in, set the device up to play some beats, and strum along with your acoustic guitar and it’ll sound great to everyone in attendance.

65 percent of the reviewing audience on Amazon has granted this drum machine a four star or better rating. One reviewer who granted it a five star rating had this to say about the product: “Just got my Korg KR mini Rhythm Machine. It’s the PERFECT little box to sit on your amp and jam along with. The unit is small and self-contained . It is battery operated with a built-speaker. This little box can easily keep up with a loud acoustic or even electric guitars at practice levels.”


Pre-purchase considerations

Effects

A great feature of the majority of electronic instruments is the ability to play multiple tones and voices and fortunately, drum machines are no exception. Some drum machines have a veritable myriad of tone and voice options and some have a more modest set. If you are a musician who wants to explore hip-hop, electronic, or R&B and want a backing beat machine that has a ton of selectable drum beats to back your music, then a model that has a plethora of available percussive sounds may be for you. If, on the other hand, you are a prospective musician who will only need one, maybe two different drum beats, then you don’t necessarily need a drum machine with more than just a rudimentary drum sound. Effectively, when you are considering buying a new drum machine, be sure to know what you’ll be using it for; if you’re not sure and want to leave your avenues open, then pick one that has a variety of drum effects and voices.

Pad Sensitivity

Your drum pads on your new drum machine should be sensitive enough that you don’t have to wail on them when you need to utilize the ride cymbal pad for an extensive beat. Machines that employ pressure and velocity sensitive pads are designed so that you can use your fingers to do all of the drumming. When looking for a new drum machine, be sure that the model you select has pads that will allow you to express yourself without needing to have to apply too much pressure.

Editing Functionality

Almost all of the drum machines that are available on the market today have at least some sort of editing functionality. You simply set the rhythmic pattern you desire, and you can add effects to the beat, delete individual drum strikes, adjust the tempo in the composition, or even add a bass line or other musical accompaniment. Dependent on what genre of music that you are looking to create, be sure that the drum machine that you are looking into has all of the editing functionality for the music that you will be composing.

Portability

For the most part, drum machines are very portable instruments; they aren’t incredibly large and tend to not weigh a whole lot, but what if you plan on taking your beat-making to a venue that doesn’t have a easy outlet to power your machine? One aspect of portability as it relates to a good drum machine is how you power your device in a on-the-go basis. Many models on the market today have feature a plug and play power system that doesn’t necessarily work for every gig. If you find that you play impromptu shows from time to time, then maybe you should considering purchasing a drum machine that has the option to be powered using batteries. These models can last for a while on a set of D batteries so you won’t have to worry about going powerless in the middle of your set.

Conclusion (Wrapping it up)

Adding a smooth percussive rhythm to your performances or establishing a bombastic accompaniment to your freestyle lyrics is made much easier by employing a drum machine. With so many options available on the market today from brands like Akai, Yamaha, Alesis, and Korg it can be hard to find a rhythm solution that will work well for your sound. We’ve created this list so that, hopefully, your drum machine search will be made much easier. Take a look at the top rated models on our list, take into account our pre-purchase considerations, and most importantly, shop around and you’ll find a machine that will fit your personal beat preferences in no time at all.

Discussion and comments

We want to know what you think. Do you own any of the products we discussed? Which did you buy and how did it work out for you?

Do you know of an even better product?

Comment below and help your fellow consumers make the right choice. Over to you!

Resources

  1. Pottersdrummer, Alesis SR 18 Drum Machine. Pros and cons, Youtube, Sep 27, 2012
  2. wawuf images, Alesis SR 18, Youtube, Sep 20, 2008
  3. Mike Senior, Alesis SR18 Drum Machine, Sound On Sound, January 2009
  4. Alesis SR18 Review, Top Ten Reviews, March, 2013
  5. Rating and Reviews: Zoom RT-223 Rhythm Trak, ZZounds.com, September 18, 2009
  6. LeoDrums, Zoom RT223, Youtube, Jul 23, 2014
  7. Best Drum Machine Reviews 2015/2016, Barking Drum
  8. Simon Price, Akai XR20 Drum Machine, Sound On Sound, January 2009
  9. Drum Machine Buying Guide, Ebay, March 3, 2016
  • I absolutely love that you included pre-purchase considerations. Drum machines are something I am just getting into to try and add a little more vibrancy to my songwriting so I don’t really know as much about what makes one great as I probably should. Effects are cool, but I think editing, portability, and sensitivity are the biggest points to consider for me. I don’t see myself needing a million different voices and sounds since I mostly just do folk.

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