While progressing technology may have provided for an explosion of options in the world of music production, many people think a certain organic quality was lost in the rush to digitize the process. Though this may make music production more streamlined and consistent, it also makes it a robotic.
In response to this, many people have turned once again to older modes of music production--now updated with advances in technology. In that vein, the beat production niche has seen an upsurge of updated analog drum machines that can create that warm, organic feel without sacrificing too much in terms of features.
Still, figuring out which analog drum machine to choose can be confusing. That is why we have put together a list of the 5 best analog drum machines, highlighting what each is best suited for. Then we provide a helpful buyer’s guide, so you can find the best analog drum machine to suit your needs.
The primary difference between an analog and digital drum machine comes down to how they manufacture their sound in the first place. For digital, the production of a voice or sample is fairly simple. The memory in the drum machine or computer that it is connected to contains a recording of a sound or loop. When you activate that effect, the digital drum machine simply plays the pre-recorded snippet--though this can often be altered by the speed and sensitivity by which you press the pad or other control function.
With an analog drum machine, on the other hand, there is nothing pre-recorded. Every time you engage a function on the drum machine that makes a sound whether it is a single voice or a loop, the drum machine manufactures that sound on the spot. It accomplishes this by running a specific frequency through a variety of components which then use the resonant frequencies created to produce the sound.
This may be a bit simplified, but it ultimately means that the sound an analog drum machine produces may vary from instance to instance depending on the components. In fact, the famous TR-808’s iconic and unique sound is a direct result of the flawed capacitors used in its construction. While the 808 did not sell well during its first run anyway, it is unlikely that Roland would have been able to reproduce those sounds anyway without knowing exactly how the components in the 808 were flawed--not an easy task for the technology of the 1980s.
Still, when it comes to analog drum machines, the quality of their sound is ultimately dictated by the quality of their components. A poorer quality oscillator will produce an irregular sound that may vary greatly each time you activate it. While part of the draw of an analog drum machine is that organic quality, you still want to be able to predict with some accuracy what kind of sound a given action will produce.
When comparing components, there are generally three major manufacturers: China, Germany, and Japan. Of the three, China is least consistent. Due to the sheer size of their manufacturing industry, it can be hard to gauge whether Chinese components will be of a high quality or not. If the drum machine provides the information, Taiwanese components are generally considered the highest quality and most consistent out of the Chinese manufactured components.
The best component manufacturers generally come from Germany. These can be seen as a good “standard” on which to judge other components. Basically, German made components will not necessarily blow you away with their quality, but neither will they disappoint. These components are noted for their consistency and will definitely survive the lifetime of their warranty, but they may not offer anything special in the way of sound quality.
The gold standard of electronic components for pretty much every electronic device--including analog drum machines--are those made in Japan. Due to extremely precise robotic assembly, these components are generally the most consistent and long-lasting--often exceeding the warranty lifetime by years. Moreover, these components are known for producing some of the truest, warmest sound for analog drum machines.
Aside from sound and feel, one of the other big reasons to opt for an analog drum machine over a digital model is the step sequencer. While most digital drum machines will have a step sequencer, it is often tied to the DAW software that runs the digital drum machine’s sound bank. As such, the step sequencer may be unnecessarily tethered to the strict parameters of the DAW.
With an analog drum machine, the step sequencer is completely self-contained which means that the sequence responds explicitly to your touch. While this ultimately ensures that you have maximal control over the beat you create, it also means that you must be more skilled when constructing the beat. One wrong move and your beat with be out of sync without the digital software available to correct the timing.
The other aspect of the onboard step sequence you want to make note of is the capacity. Essentially, the best analog drum machines will provide a wealth of steps so that you can make the most robust and complex beats you can imagine. The bare minimum number of steps that you should accept is 16. However, a 32 beat step sequencer is probably a better option--especially if you are producing in a studio. For the professional music producer, there are analog drum machines that offer up to 64 different beats with their step sequencer.
Korg is known as a heavy hitter in the music production industry, but their products generally take one of two extreme positions on the complexity spectrum: minimal or maximal. Rarely will a Korg product fall somewhere in between. Both of those positions have their advantages and disadvantages though. The Korg Volca definitely falls on the minimal side of that spectrum.
This is most notably seen in the 16 step sequencer which offers the least number of steps out of any other product on our list. Still, the 8 memory patches do at least provide a bit of wiggle room, but they are not chainable, so it does not really improve on this function. On top of that, the individual voice volumes cannot be adjusted which makes outputting the created beat a bit difficult to master on other hardware.
Of course, this may be the best analog drum machine for live performances due to a couple qualities. First, this is a fairly portable drum machine and is much smaller than some of the others on our list. However, the best feature of the Korg Volca has to be the use of high-quality Japanese components. This ensures the sound quality is exceptional and will remain so after years of use.
If you need an analog drum machine to help you build large, complex beats, then the Arturia is arguably your best bet. With its robust 64 step sequencer and a 64 pattern bank, there is no other true analog drum machine that we reviewed which can even come close to the sequencing abilities of the Arturia. When you add the 17 different voices, you have an analog drum machine that tops the list for two of the most important qualities.
Another benefit of the Arturia’s sequencer is that it can handle polyrhythm sequencing. This means that different patterns can run along different time signatures and be adjusted in real time. Though it will take some practice for you to be able to use all of these features quickly and efficiently, but once you do, the sky’s the limit.
In terms of connectivity, the Arturia once again leads the pack with 11 different outputs--though many of them are not directly related to additional hardware. Still, with both inputs and outputs for USB, MIDI, and Clock, the fact that the Arturia also uses a high and low pass filter makes this one of the better analog drum machines to chain with other hardware.
If you are looking for an inexpensive analog drum machine that you can noodle around with or that can provide a modest accompaniment to a smaller live performance, then the Teenage Engineering is an excellent choice. However, if you are looking for a robust analog drum machine that can be used to quickly and easily produce bumping beats in a live setting, you are better served looking at one of the other products we reviewed.
This places the Teenage Engineering in a bit of a smaller niche, but it serves that niche arguably better than any other product we saw. Solo musicians or duos will be overjoyed with the surprising depth that this drum machine can provide in such a small package. The 16 different voices provide some of the better sound quality we noted, and it is by far the most portable drum machine on our list.
That said, the buttons on this drum machine are exceedingly small, and many of the functions require pressing and hold multiple buttons simultaneously to activate. On top of that, the buttons are not clearly identified and require plenty of familiarity before they can be used quickly. All combined, this makes the Teenage Engineering a poor choice for live beat making.
Akai is known for their synthesizer and drum pads. In fact, they are seen as the gold standard when you are looking for an overall great value. That said, the brand is not without its flaws, and some of those issues do make an appearance with the Tom Cat. The most notable issue with this analog drum machine is its pads.
It is important to note that the Tom Cat touchpads are not definitively poor quality. However, there are more than a few instances when the pads do not live up to the quality of the rest of the drum machine. On the plus side, the touchpads are larger than for most analog drum machines and their touch sensitivity does provide plenty of room to alter the sounds and beats. The only issue is that sometimes the sensitivity of the touchpads can be a bit hit or miss.
That said, if the pads on your Tom Cat are solid, then you should have no issues producing professional quality beats. The sounds of the Tom Cat are some of the best that we encountered, and the 32 step sequencer is good for the second best on our list. Finally, this drum machine is definitely a bit easier to use than many of the others we reviewed.
OK yes, we know we are cheating a little bit by including a digital--read: non-analog--drum machine on our list of the 5 best analog drum machines, but it is difficult not to as this is easily one of the better all-around drum machines available--period. Moreover, this drum machine was made to feel like an analog model, so you may not even notice the difference too much and will certainly appreciate some of the additional features a digital drum machine provides.
First, this drum machine offers more voices than any other we looked at with 64 voices for the synths and drums each. Granted, those are digital voices, but there are a wealth of them. Still, the synth voices do leave a bit to be desired in regards to customizing the sound, though the drum voices oddly do not share in this limitation.
When it comes to step sequencing, the Novation can actually be fairly impressive, but it takes a couple extra steps to accomplish this. Basically, you are limited to 16 step sequences. However, you can turn a 16 step sequence into a pattern and chain them together. Ultimately, this can allow for up to 32 step sequences.
If you are looking for the best analog drum machine for your buck, the Korg Volca is pretty hard to beat. While it only offers 16 step sequences, it provides some of the best sounding voices and is extremely easy to use. The use of high-quality Japanese components also provides peace of mind that you will not have to worry about this drum machine’s durability anytime soon.
If you are looking for a bit more robust of a drum machine, the Arturia offers a wide range of options that rank at or near the top of our list. The 64 step sequencer simply cannot be beaten and the 17 different voices are also best for the analog drum machines. That said, it is also the most expensive product and the voices are not the best quality.
Last update on 2018-04-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API