Every drum machine comes with its own distinct sound palette which is the sum total of all the individual parts that go into making the machine be that analog circuits, digital code, samples or a mixture of all three.
If you hope to go way beyond a drum machine’s original sound set and explore new and unique sonic territories then you might benefit from a drum machine that can import and manipulate your own samples (or you need to invent your own drum machine!) With a drum machine that can sample the possibilities are endless and your drum machine can regularly take on a new lease of life.
The Analog RYTM MK 2, Roland MC-707, Akai MPC X and Roland Aira TR-8S are 4 powerful drum machines that can import your own samples.
1. Elektron Analog RYTM MK 2
Beginning with the most expensive drum machine on my list of recommendations is the Analog RYTM MK 2. Elektron’s flagship drum machine, the Analog RYTM is a powerful box of tricks that offers an incredible amount of sound manipulation and sequencing power.
How does the analog RYTM sound? in a word – superb! To my mind – and ears – this is one of the finest drum machines ever made. It has a sound palette that leans towards the dark, the warm, the deep and the moody meaning this isn’t the drum machine you are looking for if you’re wanting polite backing rhythms to accompany waltzes but if you dream of making the kind of pounding Techno, or other forms of dance and electronic and dance orientated music, that begs to be played through big sound systems to heaving, sweaty crowds then this machine delivers everything you need to pump out absolute bangers all night long! There is a reason why Computer Music magazine gave this machine 5 out of 5 stars!
Beyond 4/4 Techno, anyone interested in creating a mix of pounding beats, sample heavy electronica and intelligent dance music – I’m thinking of the likes of Future Sound of London here – the RYTM is more than up to the job.
At its dark and twisted heart this is a 12 track, 8-voice drum machine with a 100% analogue signal path. Each individual drum voice has its own dedicated analog multimode filter and analog overdrive circuit allowing you to twist and abuse each part. The 8 sounds (created by analog “Engines”, samples or a mixture of both) can be further manipulated with two send effects (reverb and delay send effects) and 1 LFO (per voice) plus distortion and compression master effects.
Sampling with the Analog RYTM MK 2
Unlike the original MK 1 version, the RYTM MK 2 offers the ability to sample directly from the audio inputs, as well as use imported samples (as per the original). Tap the ‘SAMPLE’ button near the top left of the unit and you can sample sounds via a dedicated page or via the Direct Sampling option which starts recording immediately.
Transfer automatically converts all audio files to 16 bit, 48 kHz, mono audio files
All your individual samples are stored in the internal 1GB +Drive Sound library which has the capacity of 4096 Sounds which are available to any of your individual projects of which the +Drive can store 128.
Individual projects use their own ‘sound pool’ which can contain up to 128 Sounds. Unlike your sounds in the main +Drive library, sounds loaded to a project’s sound pool can be sound locked.
You can load up to 64 MB of samples into your project using a maximum of 127 sample slots. This works out at 11 minutes sample time it total (per project).
Any of the RYTM’s 12 tracks can be used for sample playback and samples can be played back on their own or layered with that track’s drum sound. Samples can be transferred to the Analog RYTM MK 2 from a computer with the Elektron Transfer software.
Once you have imported your samples, any of the up to 127 user samples in the (RAM) memory may be assigned to a Sound on any of the 12 drum tracks. Your samples can be replaced, relocated and managed in the ‘SAMPLES’ manager.
You can adjust sample start and end times, reverse samples, adjust the pitch/speed of samples, and apply a bit-reduction effect. Turn on Loop mode for any individual sample to create instant glitch effects .
The icing on the cake is the chromatic play mode – in this mode the analog RYTM pads will pitch your samples up and down depending on which pad you hit – instant ‘old skool’ techno vibes!
Beyond the sampling capabilities the Analog RYTM Mk 2 has so much more to offer beat makers and producers that I don’t have the space to cover here including Electron’s famous Parameter Locks for transforming sounds on a per step basis, performance mode and scenes, a deep sequencer and the incredible Overbridge software which allows you to tweak and control every aspect of this drum machine via USB as well as transferring 8 tracks of audio from the RYTM into a suitable DAW for realtime manipulation (as long as your computer is up to the job).
Be warned – the Analog RYTM is certainly not something to pick up and play with for 5 minutes or master in half an hour. It takes time and effort to master this beast of a machine and I personally know of several people who flipped it for easier to use – and arguably less powerful – gear.
If you have a day job, and children, and hobbies outside music making then consider if you’ll have the time to do the RYTM justice! This is the kind of machine you want to lock yourself away in a room for a month to learn it inside out with regular reads of the manual and daily watching of Youtube tutorials!
The Analog RYTM is a serious piece of kit and if you can justify the price, and as long as you’re prepared to take the time to learn how to use it to its full potential, then it could become the beating heart of your set up for many years to come.
Analog RYTM FAQs:
Can the Anlaog RYTM sample in addition to importing samples? Yes.
Maximum numbers of samples: 127 samples per Project (maximum 127 projects).
Anlaog RYTM Sample Storage: 1GB internal drive.
Anlaog RYTM Sample Format: 16 bit/48kHz/mono
Anlaog RYTM Sample Transfer: Via USB & the included Transfer app or record direct into RTHM.
Is the Analog RYTM standalone? Yes.
Can the Analog RTTM run on batteries? No.
Recommended for: Techno, House, Ambient, Drum & Bass.
Pros: Significant update on the MK 1. Powerful, deep, sounds incredible. Tight intergration with computers via the Overbridge software (if your computer is powerful is enough). Can actually sample!
Cons: Expensive. Takes effort to master. The core focus is drum synthesis – not as sample and loop focused as the MPC X. Small display screen.
2. Roland MC-707
Roland have revisited the concept of the 1990s all in one groove box with their MC-707 and its smaller brother the MC-101. Part of Roland’s Aira range, the MC-707 is a complete and compact music making machine that is capable of sound synthesis, sampling and sequencing.
At first glance the MC-707 interface looks fairly overwhelming – it’s packed with buttons, sliders and knobs and, in keeping with the rest of the Aira range, more colored lights than a disco! You get 16 velocity drum pads and 8 tracks with a dedicated mixer section.
In use the MC-707 proves itself to be fairly logical and straight forward in terms of workflow and you can start exploring the basics within minutes of powering up the machine. You’ll need to put time aside to read the manual eventually though.
The MC-707 features a virtual analogue sound engine combined with PCM samples. If you are a fan of the Roland sound then you’ll find a lot to love here including the sounds the TR-808, TR-909, TB-303, JUNO-106, and SH-101. There’s plenty of bread and butter and jazz and orchestral kits – this isn’t just for the dance music producers.
Sampling with the MC-707:
All your projects, clips, and samples are accessed from an SD card which comes with the machine preloaded with more than 3,000 instrument and 80 drum kit presets.
Start a new project and you get 8 tracks to play with three types of track to choose from: Tone (synth instruments), Drums, and Looper (used for samples). You can import your one shot samples as a tone or drum kit via an SD card. You get 12 minutes in mono, 6 minutes in stereo (44.1 kHz) total sample time per project which is more than enough sampling time for all but the most ambitious tracks.
As well as sample transfer via SD card, the MC-707 has a built in sampler with on-the-fly recording that synchronizes to your project’s tempo. You can record vocals or instrument parts, or import samples from your own library, then sequence or trigger phrases, one-shots, and loops.
Looper tracks can work like tracks in Ableton’s Session view, capturing audio of a pre-defined number of bars into 16 available slots. (Live recording has a maximum length of eight bars.)
Each sample can be a maximum length of 60 seconds and you get six minutes stereo sample time in total.
The Looper track offers basic controls for sample manipulation with pitch, speed, duration and looping (forward or backwards), or one shot modes.
Two time-stretching options are available: Type 1 is optimized for melodic parts, and Type 2 is optimized for drum beats and loops.
You can capture your own samples and loops via audio input (mic/line level) and record high-quality audio up to 32-bit/96kHz. Via the USB you can sample sounds from your DAW to capture backing tracks, stems, loops or even the sound of your favorite software synths and drum machine plugins.
Once you have your samples running on a Looper track you can add independent effects for further sound manipulation. Choose from 90 different effects including chorus, delays and reverbs, Overdrive, distortion, and amp simulation.
Finally you can process your entire mix through master effects like filters, bit-crushers, and a master bus compressor to add punch and glues everything together.
In addition to importing your own samples, via the Roland website you can download Roland’s own ZEN-Core Sound Packs and projects to bring new sounds into your MC-707.
If you want something a bit cheaper than the MC-707 then you can check out its little brother the MC-101. It’s a similar proposition to the MC-707 with a few compomises as detailed below:
Differences between MC-707 AND MC-101
The MC-101 has four tracks instead of eight and there is more menu diving and shift button use. Unlike the MC-707’s useable display the 101 has just simple one-line text display which makes choosing options and browsing presets more time consuming. Step triggering and scene launching are sub-modes of the main pads.
The MC-101 is considerably smaller than the MC-707 and It can run from four AA batteries making it a very capable portable machine.
If you have the choice between the two and can you are willing to do without the MC-101’s portability then I would recommend you plump for the MC-707. Its bigger screen plus the 4 extra tracks make it more useful and easier to use, in my opinion.
Roland MC-707 FAQs:
Can the MC-707 sample in addition to importing samples? Yes.
Maximum numbers of samples: Up to 62 seconds of sample time across all tracks in a project.
MC-707 Sample Storage: 12 minutes in mono, 6 minutes in stereo (44.1 kHz).
MC-707 Sample Format: WAV 32–96 kHz/16-bit, 24-bit (mono, stereo)
MC-707 Sample Transfer: SD/SDHC card. Recording via EXT IN/Tracks.
Is MC-707 standalone? Yes.
Can the MC-707 run on batteries? No.
Recommended for: Hip Hop, Lo-Fi, House.
Pros: Packed with Roland’s high quality sounds and effects. Fairly easy to pick up. Fun and inspiring. Can actually sample!
Cons: Menu diving may not appeal to some. Less features than the MPC X.
3. Akai MPC X
There are several variants of the legendary MPC to choose from including the latest version know as the MPC One Retro launched in the Summer of 2021. They all have their own pros and cons but work in a similar way and I have decided to focus here on the flagship MPC X. Keep in mind this the most fully featured and expensive of the MPC range so if it is out your budget it worth exploring the cheaper options all of which are more than capable of importing samples and creating beats, loops and tracks.
The MPC X is a big, powerful beast of a beat and music making machine. What it is actually capable of would deserve an article in its own right so I will give an overview here before talking about the MPC X sampling capabilities.
The MPC X is a standalone MPC so you can use without a computer. It features an impressive, full color, adjustable 10.1” multi-touch screen, 16 velocity- and pressure-sensitive RGB pads, 16 touch-sensitive 360-degree assignable pots and 16 gigs of internal storage
Boot up the MPC X and you get access to the latest MPC Software which is basically a complete DAW in its own right with touch sensitive faders and adaptive channel strip, dedicated audio track editing window, resizable waveform view, Realtime Time-Stretch and Pitch-Shifting and much more.
The latest version of MPC Software now comes DrumSynth, a powerful synthesizer drum plugin. In addition to DrumSynth, MPC features MIDI Multi capability – transforming MPC into the ultimate MIDI sequencing studio centerpiece and comprehensive MIDI routing to any MIDI compatible synthesizer, drum machine, recording equipment and the like.
All of this is available to use without needing to touch a computer however when you do feel the need to hook up your MPC X to a computer it doubles as a high-powered MIDI controller and audio interface designed from the ground up to run the MPC Software from within your favorite DAW so you can further develop your sounds and tracks using the plugins on your computer.
Key to the MPC X workflow are 16 fully assignable ‘Q-Link’ knobs. Above each knob are dedicated OLED displays where you can easily see what parameter you’re tweaking and the current assigned value. The Q-Links are useful for recording automation.
Sampling with the MPC X:
The MPC X is more geared towards samples and sampling than the Analog RYTM (which is more geared to drum synthesis) and sampling/importing samples and messing around with your sounds is a quick and painless experience although you might find the touchscreen – good as it is – no substitute for a mouse when it comes to precise editing of sound files. The MPC X excels at finding the transients in any loop you care to throw at it and then swiftly mapping those parts to its 16 pads All your sounds can be instantly time stretched to fit any BPM.
Capturing audio is easy and if you want to sample a keyboard or guitar then the MPC X should be high on your list of potential purchases. Plug your instruments into the instrument inputs on the front panel and hit record and a new audio track is created, of which you can have up to 8. In effect the MPC X is aS much an eight-stereo-track hard disk recorder as it is a drum machine.
The MPC X ships with a 16GB internal drive (pre-installed with 10GB of high quality factory sounds) and 2 GB RAM. All audio and samples are loaded into the MPC X internal RAM and converted into WAV files (even if you import smaller MP3 files). You need to keep in mind this 2GB limit as it can not be upgraded. Anyone who has cut their teeth on older MPCs and samplers will tell you It is perfectly possible to create entire tracks with much less space than 2GB so the limitations here should not be a deal breaker unless you know you will absolutely need more than 2GB of sampling time for your 40 minute ambient masterpiece!
If you are an Ableton Live user then the MPC X comes pre-mapped and gives you control over Live’s clip launching, mixer and instrument macro controls.
Is the MPC X Worth it? There’s a reason the original MPC became such a prized tool for beat making by so may producers over the years and the MPC X lives up to and builds on this legacy. If you are looking to make drum beats, loops and even complete tracks and like the idea of escaping the computer and working on a standalone device then the MPC X (or its cheaper siblings) is something you have to check out.
Akai MPC X FAQs:
Can the Akai MPC X sample in addition to importing samples? Yes.
Akai MPC X Maximum numbers of samples: Approx 2GB per project.
Akai MPC X Sample Storage: 16GB internal drive.
Akai MPC X Sample Format: WAV. (Can import WAV, AIFF, MP3)
Akai MPC X Sample Transfer: SD Card Slot. 2.5″ SATA drive connector.
Is Akai MPC X standalone? Yes.
Can the Akai MPC X run on batteries? No.
RRP Price: $2299
Recommended for: Hip Hop, Lo-fi, House, R & B, Drum & Bass.
Pros: Powerful. Excellent selection of stock sounds. Tight intergration with computers and midi gear. Standalone. Can actually sample! Tight intergration with Ableton Live.
Cons: Expensive. Internal RAM can not be upgraded. Hefty. Only 8 tracks (in standalone mode).
4. Roland Aira TR-8S Rhythm Performer
Another fantastic option from Roland is the Aira TR-8S. The TR-8S is a follow up the original Aira TR-8 with the most noteworthy changes being the ability to import your own samples, the addition of six assignable outputs giving you access to eight outs in total including the main stereo out, FM synthesis features, plus enhancements to the sequencer.
The TR-8S delivers ready to use virtual analogue imitations of vintage Roland drum machines. There’s a comprehensive choice of emulated versions of the 808, 909, 606, 707 and 727 drum machines all powered by Roland’s ACB (Analogue Circuit Behaviour) technology. In addition to the standard TR based kits you get 300 preset samples onboard.
Is the TR-8S a sampler? No. The TR-8S does not have sampling capabilities however it can import samples.
Importing Samples with the TR-8S Rhytm Perfomer:
You can go beyond the stock Roland sounds by importing your own mono or stereo sounds using the SD card slot. Once the samples are loaded you can manipulate samples with the hands-on controls to quickly adjust decay and tuning, alter sample start points, sample speed and reverse samples.
Any of the TR-8S’s 11 instrument tracks can play back either an TR emulation or a sample so you can create a kit entirely from your own samples or mix and match with Roland’s drum machines. The maximum length of a single audio file that can be imported is approximately 180 seconds (in the case of 44.1 kHz/MONO).
Once imported into the TR-8S your samples will appear in a single list, ordered by categories, or custom tags. When loading samples onto the SD Card it helps to keep a logical folder directory system (BD for your bass drum samples for example).
With your samples imported you can assign them to one of the 11 available instruments. The 11 instrument parts are collectively called a “kit” and you can store up to 128 of your kits.
Once your kit is ready you can add effects via a Master FX knob and Channel CTRL knobs. Effects include reverb, delay, filter and distortion. Individual Instrument and Master Effects settings are saved with each kit ready or instant recall.
When it comes to making your beats and loops you can step record with the 16 TR-REC buttons or use the velocity-sensitive performance pad to play live into the sequencer. This is a machine designed for live performance and you can experiment on the fly with velocity levels, accents, flams and adjustable sub-steps and easily create polyrhythms and complex meters. The Motion recording captures your tweaking of all parameter dials.
Roland TR-8S FAQs:
Can the TR-8S sample in addition to importing samples? No.
TR-8S Maximum numbers of samples: up to 600 seconds total time for all samples. A single sample can be up to 180 seconds.
TR-8S Sample Format: WAV and AIFF samples.
TR-8S Sample Transfer: WAV and AIFF samples via SD/SDHC card.
Is TR-8S standalone? Yes.
Can the TR-8S run on batteries? No.
RRP Price: $649.99
Recommended for: Hip Hop, Lo-fi, House, R & B, Pop.
Pros: Excellent source of classic Roland sounds. Improves on the original Aira TR-8. Intuitive & fun to use. Great for live performances.
Cons: Not much! Geared towards ‘that’ Roland sound. Not as ‘deep’ as the Analog RYTM or MPC X. Can not sample.
Conclusion: Sampling has played a key role in music making since the earliest Hip Hop records and there’s still great fun to be hand it sampling snippets from records and movies and then mangling them beyond recognition in hardware. If you are looking for a drum machine that can sample then the four machines listed above are well worth checking out and with any one of these machines and your own samples the possibilities for creating your own unique drum kits and beats are endless.
Is there a difference between a drum machine and a sampler? The short answer is yes! However drum machines with sampling capabilities blur the lines somewhat. In general, drum machines put the focus on drum sound generation and beat sequencing while samplers focus on the capture, playback and manipulation of sounds. Devices with the power of something like the MPC X cover all bases especially when their software adds even more features, such as synths, so that they become all in one music track production boxes.
Also Consider these Portable Sample Players:
The devices below are not drum machines but they have found a home in many a studio and are useful for live performances. I include them here for those of you looking for simple ways to play back and manipulate your samples.
The Akai MPX8: Cheap and cheerful and incredibly compact, this nifty little sample player from Akai features 8 velocity sensitive pads. Load your samples into the MPX8 via SD or SDHC card and then hit the MPC style pads to trigger them.
The MPX8 ships with a built in library of samples but you’ll want to replace them with your own and you are limited only by the size of your memory card.
You can shape your sounds via tuning and choose to add reverb in the supplied sample kit editor although these operations are best carried out in your DAW of choice. Use the included editor software (PC & Mac) to drag-and-drop your finished samples onto the pads.
The MPX8 can be used as a standalone sample player with two balanced 6.35mm outputs and a 3.5mm headphone jack and it can also be used to control other gear and software with its USB and standard MIDI connectivity.
Need more pads? The Akai MPX16 gives you, as you might have guessed, 16 pads albeit for almost twice the price of MPX8. In addition to the extra pads you also get a built in stereo microphone for capturing sounds on the go and 4 knobs to tweak your samples with the inboard sound processing, tune samples, adjust ADSR envelopes and apply filter effects and reverbs.
Roland SP-404SX: In this era of all singing and dancing DAWs The Roland 404SX have something of an ‘old school’ vibe and a dedicated following thanks partly to their ease of use and the inherent limitations which force users to be creative. I’ve seen and heard some pretty impressive performances from users of these gadgets over the years. If you can cope with the limitations and embrace the dated workflow then the 404SX is certainly a capable sample playing, looping and mashing machine.
The SP-404SX are designed to be played like an instrument or DJ effect box and shine more in live performance settings than the studio although you can in theory complete tracks using one of these – assuming you have the patience to deal with its shortcomings.
You can sample anywhere, anytime using the built-in microphone or opt to import audio files from your computer using the included software and assign them to the SPX-404’s pads. Line and mic inputs let you record direct or with an external microphone. The SP-404SX’s sampling format is uncompressed wave for high-quality audio capture.
For your money you get 29 Roland DSP effects (including filter, delay, unique voice effects, subsonic, and looper), 3 control knobs, 12 trigger pads and a Sub Pad for rapid repeat triggering. Set up your beats with the pattern sequencer with quantize and shuffle features.
A 1GB SD card included and you can use cards up to 32GB which is more than enough sample storage space for complete projects.
Is the SP-404SX worth it? If you are in the market for a Roland SP-404SX then I would advise picking up one second hand. These Roland sampling machines have been around for years so there’s not much point paying top dollar for what is, in effect, gear that has not changed in years and is robust enough to function as well today as it did when it first rolled off the factory floor.
I do intend to take a more indepth look at dedicated samplers such as the Electron Digitakt in the future so watch this space!