Drum Machine Plugins are now a staple of computer based music production and today I am going to look at 5 of the very best VST plugins on the market today.
Note that I am specifically looking at synthesiszer based drum machines only here – there are no sample based romplers or multi-sampled acoustic drum kits. Similar to hardware drum machines, all the drum machines below rely on various synthesis techniques to generate their sounds as well as offering multiple sound sculpting options for taking your drum sounds into new directions.
My top 5 drum machine plugins for 2021 are: Sonic Charge Microtonic, Sugar Bytes DrumComputer, Image line Drumaxx, Arturia Spark 2 & XLIS Labs Stix.
Read on below for an indepth look at my top 5 drum machine plugins. All of the drum machines featured below will work in any suitable VST host including FL Studio and Logic.
1. Sonic Charge Microtonic 3.
An oldie but an ever popular goldie, firing up Microtonic 3, from developer Sonic Charge, is always an inspirational step into a world of sonic possibilities.
At its heart the Microtonic 3 drum synth is an eight part drum and percussion synthesizer with a 16 step pattern sequencer. At first glance the Microtonic interface can look a bit daunting with its array of buttons, sliders and buttons but dive in and play around and you should be generating sounds and beats in no time at all!
The 8 drum parts are all identical in terms of noise generation and sound sculpting features (you could, if you wished, have 8 different kick drums or 8 snare drums, for example). In effect you get 8 mini-synths geared towards creating short percussive type sounds as well as zaps and bleeps.
All sounds are generated by mixing a single oscillator (choose from either sine, triangle or saw wave) with an advanced noise generator and modulation options (LFO, envelope or random) giving you a near infinite amount of electronic sound creation possibilities. You can use the syhtns to create convincing emulations of classic drum machines or have fun and explore a world of never before heard sounds to create unique drum kits.
To create your own sounds simply mix the oscillator and noise generator to taste and then further tweak with the built in EQ and distortion effects. Microtonic excels at clean and crisp electronic sounds that can really punch through a mix but it can also do more gritty and dirty sounds too.
In terms of sound quality Microtonic 3 stands up well against any other drum machine synth plugin you might care to compare it against and more than holds its own against hardware drum machines too.
Microtonic 3 has a cool morph feature allowing you to set up and then morph between two different states via a slider at the top of the drum machine – a great way to evolve your sounds and beats over time.
Microtonic 3 comes with hundreds of useful preset sounds and beats and there are thousands of computer generated presets available in the online Microtonic Patternarium for copying and then pasting directly into your Microtonic plugin – it’s a super fast and easy way of getting new sounds and loops into your DAW! There are enough presets installed and online to keep sound designers and producers occupied for years.
The Microtonic 3 sequencer is a 16 step affair and you can also call up a matrix drum editor which lets you lay out and edit your patterns across all eight drum tracks in one single and easy to use window
In the piano roll of your DAW you can trigger individual patterns and start and stop the sequencer. If you have a suitable host you can drag and drop drum patterns from the Microtonic interface directly into your DAW’s piano roll.
If you are making any kind of electronic or dance music then Microtonic is a must try. It’s $99 price represents excellent value for money given that it could be providing your beats for many years and you can download a fully functional trial version for 30 days.
Microtonic 3 Overview:
Manufactuer: Sonic Charge
Formats: PC/Mac. VST/AU.
Synthesis: 100% Synthesis. 8 Individual Oscillators + Noise generators.
Drum Parts: 8
Effects: EQ & Distortion
Indvidual Outs: No
Ease of Use: 5/5
Value for Money: 5/5
2. Sugar Bytes DrumComputer
DrumComputer from French developer Sugar Bytes is the new kid on the block having made its debut in 2020. Sugar Bytes bring their own quirky French style to the table with this powerful and eye catching drum machine plugin.
DrumComputer combines multiple synthesis types, sample import and resonators across 8 individual parts or ‘sound engines’ allowing you to sculpt a huge range of sounds.
Sugar Bytes unique style – found across all their plugins – means the interface of DrumComputer isn’t quite as clear as it could be and there a lot of options you can tweak for each sound which can make for some head scratching moments. Luckily there are a comprehensive – and quite long – set of video tutorials on the Sugar Bytes website that cover all aspects of using DrumMachine and it is well worth watching these to get the most out of this deep drum machine.
To give you an idea of how deep you can go with this drum plugin, if you click on one of the 8 sound engine edit tabs the view switches to focus on your selected engine. In this new view you get what is in effect a synth in its own right comprised of three units (or layers) consisting of, in left to right order: The Resonator, the Wave Table and the Reysnth unitS. Each of these three units affects and shapes your sound in different ways and in practice it can take a bit of experimentation to find out exactly how (again, the instruction videos are helpful).
In simple terms the Resonator layer, inspired by the 808 drum machine, represents the transient – or initial strike – of your sound, the Wave Table layer is where you shape the body of your sound and the Reysnth unit shapes the tail of your sound and adds character, flavor and “metal”. You can also opt to switch the Reysnth engine to Sampler mode to play back your own samples.
In practice, there are no hard and fast rules though (which is where things can get confusing) and each unit has a mute button so you can opt to create your sound with one, two or all three units.
I am only human and not a computer so in practice I find that when I am in the flow and creating beats it sometimes proves to be difficult to work out exactly which unit of which sound engine I might want to tweak next. This is especially true when I have not used DrumComputer in a while!
DrumComputer, then, is a drum machine plugin that requires a bit of time and effort to explore and experiment with ( unless you are content to just rely on presets). Speaking of presets, DrumComputer ships with more than 400 global presets and 450 individual sound engine presets which should keep you busy for quite some time. The presets are of a high quality and cover multiple genres including House, Techno as well as recreations of vintage drum machine sounds.
DrumComputer boasts an intelligent Sound Randomizer (randomizer kick drums will always sound like useable kick drums, for example) and I confess I have come to lean on the sound randomizers a lot – maybe just laziness on my part but I found it a quick way to generate a new sound then tweak to taste.
With the randomizer you can opt to create individual drum sounds or entire kits so with a few clicks of the mouse you can create tens or even hundreds of kits in a short space of time. Such randomizer features raises an interesting philosophical dilemma for us producers and beat makers perhaps! If it is quicker for the computer to create new sounds and kits for us than we create ourselves, at what point do we make ourselves redundant?
Philosphical musings aside, once you have a kit set up to your liking you can tweak your sounds even further with a Multimode filter, Compressor, Distortion, EQ plus, via the mixer page, you can choose from 2 types of Send Reverbs plus panning and levels. All of the effects ofa high quality.
Should you have any energy left over after all this tweaking there are even more options for further shaping and modulating your sounds via envelopes, LFOs and a modulation matrix – this really is a deep and capable plugin.
DrumComputer comes with a 16-step/16-pattern sequencer. As with the drum synth part of the equation, the sequencer is feature packed, a tad quirky and requires a bit of time and practice to get your head around. The sequencer offers deep control and modulation of individual hits including options for probability, rolls, step delay and more.
When you are happy with your patterns you can export MIDI files that contains all the information ready for importing back into your DAW piano roll to trigger the DrumComputer playback.
I feel like I have only skimmed the surface of DrumComputer here – this really is a deep drum machine and something that would no doubt be super expensive if you wanted a hardware equivalent. In some ways DrumMachine reminds me of the kind of sound design depth and omplexity you get from a hardware drum machine from Elektron, only at a fraction of the price.
If you are the kind of producer who shuns complexity and likes your synths to be unfussy, single screen affairs then DrumComputer might be too much for you to deal with. If, on the other hand, you love the idea exploring and shaping a near infinite world of electronic percussive hits, clangs, thumps, bang, bleeps and zaps then DrumComputer is a must try. A demo version of DrumComputer is available on the Sugar Byes website.
Manufactuer: Sugar Bytes
Synthesis: Resonator, Wavetable/Analogue Oscillator and Resynth/Sampler
Drum Parts: 8
Indvidual Outs: Yes
Ease of Use: 3/5
Value for Money: 5/5
3. Image Line Drumaxx
Third in my list of top drum machine plugins is Drumaxx. Drumaxx is a drum machine from Image Line, the developers behind the phenomenally successful FL Studio DAW (originally known as Fruity Loops). Many people who have never used FL Studio may actually not have heard of Drumaxx which is a shame as this drum synth certainly has a lot to offer.
Drumaxx relies on physical modelling to generate a large range of drum sounds. Using clever maths that I do not even pretend to understand, Drumaxx models a drum membrane that vibrates when struck by a mallet. Via the Drumaxx interface you can tweak parameters to change the drum head, the mallet and the striking action and thus create your different tones.
Fire up a new instance of Drumaxx in your DAW and you get 16 physically modeled drum parts to create your drum kit with. A full range of ready to go sounds can be imported into any of the 16 drum parts including bass drums, snares, bongos, congas, hats and cymbals as well as more unusual percussive hits.
Some of the parameters you can tweak to adjust your sounds are a bit esoteric sounding so you can either read the manual to discover what the likes of “Tension” and “Membrane Material” actually mean or you can listen to the results as you play around and get an idea for what effect the different parameters have on your sound.
In my experience you need to play with Drumaxx for a bit to really explore all the parameters on offer. Devote some time to exploring Drumaxx and you will be rewarded with a great source of interesting percussive sounds.
Like a lot of Image Line products Drumaxx ships with a big library of presets. You can get stared with a choice of 130 different drum kits, 900 individual drum patches and 200 step sequencers drum patterns.
Be warned – some of the presets sound weak or tepid, in my opinion, and may bring back memories of the kind of preset beats you get on cheap keyboards (especially those presets that lean towards the acoustic and rock end of the spectrums). You may not be overly impressed at first – but do not let that put you off because with a bit of tweaking Drumaxx is more than capable of delivering brutal hits, snappy snares, banging bongos and crispy claps that can find a home in any cutting edge electronic music track.
Its core area of competence is electronic sounds but Drumaxx has been designed to emulate – or ‘model – real drum sounds don’t forget so acoustic drum sounds are a possibility albeit nothing that would fool a real drummer.
A lot of drum synth plugins brag that that faithfully emulate classic drum machines such as the Roland TR-909 and the like but this kind of authentic analog emulation is not Drumaxx’s remit. If all you want from a drum machine is bread and butter 1980s Roland type sounds then maybe avoid this. If, however, you are a musician or producer who likes to plough your own unique furrow and blaze new trails with fresh sounds then Drumaxx is well worth checking out.
I find Drumaxx works especially well when creating softer and more gentle percussive parts for things like ambient music, tribal and ethnic percussion loops and mellow music beds. If your current drum machine plugin is proving to be just a bit too powerful, too punchy or too brutal for your latest project then it could be Drumaxx can come to the rescue.
Drumaxx also does a nice line in lo-fi or 8 bit chip tune type drum sounds so it is a very useful tool for creating beats that hark back to 80s and 90s video games and could find a home in your next Synthwave, Chillwave or lofi track.
Drumaxx is packed with features including the ability for each of the 16 drum pads to be routed to its own output in your DAW mixer for further processing, an integrated Step sequencer, built inlimiter and EQ, and modulation matrix for for detailed expressiveness.
If you are using FL Studio then you also get access to the more compact and much simpler ‘Drumpad’ plugin which is free and gives you one individual drum unit to play with instead of 16, and no step sequencer. You can run as many instances of Drumpad as your computer can handle. You might wonder why you would want a cut down or ‘mini’ version of Drumaxx if you have the complete plugin in your plugins folder but this is actually a very useful way of quickly adding a couple of hi hats sounds, for example, to a project.
There is a demo version of Drumaxx to download and install on the Image Line website or you can download the entire FL Studio DAW demo and try out the included Drumaxx plugin that way.
Manufactuer: Image Line
Price: £49.00 / $79.00
Formats: PC/MAC 64 bit/32 bit
Synthesis: Physical modelling
Drum Parts: 16
Effects: Limiter and EQ.
Indvidual Outs: Yes
Ease of Use: 4/5
Value for Money: 5/5
4. Arturia Spark 2
Number four in my list is Spark 2 from French soft synth and hardware developer Arturia.
Spark 2 lets you create drum kits using 3 different types of sound generation for each of the 16 available drum parts. Choose from Analog Synthesis, Physical Modeling and Samples/REX Loop playback. For each of the 16 drum parts you can access a “Studio” tab where you get access to multiple options to shape your sound plus add effects including a compressor, reverb, bit crusher, multiband EQ, chorus, delay, distortion, limiter and more. Thanks to Arturia’s expertise in this field, the effects are all of a high standard.
Each of the 16 drum part signals is sent to a 16 channel master mixer. On this mixer tab you can access your 16 pan seting and levels and up to two master send effects of your choice.
Spark 2 comes with a comprehensive selection of genre specific presets and high quality emulations of vintage drum machines including the TR-808 and TR-909, Linn Drum and many more. For the asking price you get a stellar selection of ready to use sounds suitable for any genre of modern music you might care to name including Hip Hop, R & B, House, Techno, EDM, pop and Drum & Bass.
There is also a good selection of acoustic drum kits which mix physical modeling and samples too. While these preset acoustic kits are lacking the depth and range of a multi-gigabyte dedicated drum plugin, they are a good way to quickly get simple acoustic backing tracks and drum loops into your projects.
Load up one of the included library kits and, as a general rule, the sounds tend towards the loud, punchy, clean and crisp. Extra dirt, grit and distortion can be added to individual drum parts or entire kits in the mixer section.
For sound designers keen to get their hand dirty crafting new and unique sounds, each of Spark 2’s drum parts can be act as a modular synth in its own right. Open up a drum part’s modular window and you can create and tweak kick drums, snares, hats and cymbals and even play around with more traditional synth sounds to build the electronic drum kit of your dreams! If you have ever used something like Reaktor before then you will be familar with the concept of building modular synth parts by linking individual components together although the Spark 2 modular synth section is not as complex or comprehensive.
The modular synth section gives you access to 9 variable-shape virtual analog oscillators, multimode filters, envelopes, LFOs, mixers, ring modulators and more with which to create your drum parts.
I must be honest and admit I rarely tinker with the modular section simply because I find the huge selection of preset sounds are good enough for my needs and most of my sound design is done on the “Studio” tab when required. If you are the kind of producer or musician who likes to go deep with your sound design though then the modular section is there, ready and waiting.
When you have your individual sounds set up how you like you can dive into Spark 2’s 64-step sequencer and quickly start creating patterns. Add and remove hits in the main grid, change time signatures, resolution and control up to 15 different automation parameters per instrument. Once your individual patterns are created you can chain them together in Spark 2’s song mode.
Spark 2 software can be used as a stand-alone application or as a plug-in within Digital Audio Workstations.
There is a huge amount of possibilities to explore with Spark 2 and it can acts like a DAW within a DAW (in a similar way to Geist 2 and Maschine). You can also use it stand alone which means that in theory you could create entire tracks just with Spark 2 and no additional software although in practice I have always found it more practical to use it within a DAW environment.
Spark 2 Overview:
Price: 149.00 €
Formats: Mac/PC VST/AAX/AU. 32/64Bit
Synthesis: Analog synthesis, physical modelling, multi-layered samples
Drum Parts: 16
Indvidual Outs: Yes
Ease of Use: 3/5
Value for Money: 4/5
5. XILS Labs Stix
When we think of the French do we associate them with drum machine plugins first and foremost? Probably not but maybe we should because StiX is actually the third drum machine developed in France to make it into my top 5 list of VST drum machines!
As with DrumComputer, above, StiX is a complex affair with a comprehensive selection of options starting with ten drum parts each of which can be any type of drum sound so you can, if you choose, have multiple kick drum variations, multiple snare variations etc.
Each drum part is generated by a drum synth made up of three oscillators: two virtual analogue oscillators supplemented by a sampler/noise generator. In effect you get 10 individual synths to muck around with. If you are new to sound synthesis – or merely in a rush – then you can opt to use the easy Synthesis Page where a set of Macro controls allow for fast manipulation of a drum parts main parameters including Stretch and Pitch (with three different pitch algorithms), Filter Cutoff and Resonance.
When you are ready to dive deep into sound synthesis then hit the advance tab button to be presented with a much more comprehensive selection of sound shaping tools including the ASDR envelopes and oscillators. The first two virtual analogue oscillators use sine, triangle or pulse waveforms while the third oscillator can be used to add noise or play samples of up to two seconds in length. Further sound shaping can then be done via two LFOs and a Modulation Matrix.
The best feature of StiX for me are the excellent presets including a treasure trove of genre specific starting points and a set of 15 high quality drum kits from Wave Alchemy featuring sample based kits covering classic drum machines including Roland TR boxes, the EMU SP12 and the Linndrum.
As with DrumComputer you might find that the presets and AI Assisted automatic drum kit creation functions are the fastest way to gets things going. With so many presets do you even need to spend time creating your own sounds kits? That’s up to you of course and possibly depends on how important you think it is to create your own sounds rather than using the sounds of others.
StiX has a built in mixer you can access via the bottom left of the interface. Here you can set channel mutes, solos, panning and levels.
In the effects section you will find various global efects including reverb, delay, and phaser while a crusher/distortion effect can be applied to individual parts. Finally you get a Compressor effect on the Stereo Bus output. Individual drum parts can be routed to their own outputs for further processing in your DAW of choice.
StiX boasts an easy to use step sequencer capable of going beyond basic 4/4 into complicated poly-rhythmic pattern territory. You can have variable number of steps per beat up to 64 steps per bar. On each step you can enter custom P.Lock parameters, Step-time Divisions, Gate Time, Micro Position, velocity and modulations for synth parameters. When you are happy with your patterns you can use the song mode to organize them.
Manufactuer: XILS Labs StiX
Price: 179.00 €
Formats: PC/MAC VST. AU. AAX. RTS. 64 bit/32bit.
Synthesis: 2x Virtual Analogue Oscillators + 1 Samples/Noise Generator per drum part
Drum Parts: 10
Indvidual Outs: Yes
Ease of Use: 4/5
Value for Money: 4/5