As with anyhing in life you tend to get what you pay for but never fear – you don’t need to spend big bucks to get your hands on a quality drum machine these days. If you’re looking for a cheap drum machine under $250 then check out my 5 cheap – but good – drum machines below, listed in ascending price order.
1. Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators
Prices: $49 – $89
Swedish company Teenage Engineering certainly like to do things in their own unique way and their dinky Pocket Operator synths and drum machines are no exception. The Pocket Operators are a series of small, affordable, ultra portable gadgets designed for anyone to pick and play and music on the go.
Pocket Operator Key Feature List
There are Pocket Operators designed for melody making, bass lines and even vocoded vocals but I’ll focus on the drum focused operators below. It can be a tad confusing trying to work out what core features each Operator has so let me see if I can knock up a handy table covering the things likely to be most relevant to beat makers.
|Pocket Operator||Number of Voices/Parts||Sampling Capibilities||Mic.||Effects||Pattern Chaining||Notes:|
|PO-12 rhythm||16 Drum Parts||No||No||16||16||Step Multiplier|
|PO-16 factory||31 (16 Micro Drum Parts)||No||No||16||16||Lead synth with Micro Drums|
|PO-20 arcade||16 (8 Drum Parts)||No||No||16||128||Step Multiplier|
|PO-24 office||16 Drum Parts||No||No||16||128||Step Multiplier|
|PO-28 robot||16 (1 Micro Drum Kit)||No||No||16||128||Step Multiplier|
|PO-32 tonic||16 Drum Parts||No||Yes||16||64||Compatible with Microtonic VST Plugin|
|PO-33 K.O!||16 (8 Drum Parts)||40 Seconds||Yes||15||128|
|PO-35 Speak!||16 (8 Drum Parts)||120 Seconds||Yes||8||64||Compatible with Microtonic VST Plugin|
Of the Pocket Operators listed above PO-12 Rythm, PO-25 Office and PO-32 Tonic are the best Pocket Operators for creating drum beats and loops.
The PO-12 rhythm is a 16 sound drum machine with 16 step sequencer with genuine synthesised drum sounds, parameter locks and 16 punch-in effects.
PO-24 Office is a noise percussion focused drum machine with 16 step sequencer, parameter locks, solo functionality and 16 punch-in effects. 8 sounds are vintage hardware sample and 8 are sythensised drum sounds.
The PO-32 Tonic is a 16 part drum and percussion focused synthesizer with 16 step sequencer, 16 parameter locks, 16 punch-in effects and the ability to transfer sounds from the Microtonic drum plugin vst (via built in Mic. data transfer).
PO-35 Speak! is a vocal focused synthesizer and sequencer with 8 parts for drums and 8 parts for voice character sampling, 16 parameter locks, punch-in effects and the ability to transfer sounds from the Microtonic drum plugin vst (via built in Mic. data transfer).
The exact Pocket Operator you should buy really comes down to your needs and personal preference. Personally I mostly use the PO-32 Tonic (but you’ll really want the Microtonic drum plugin to get the most of that).
If you really want to import your own samples then the PO-33 KO! or PO-35 Speak! are the Pocket Opertors to plump for.
The Pocket Operators are certainly fun, capable machines. They make excellent “toys” for the younger beat makers in your family to cut their teeth on but they are also useful tools for us more “mature” producers too!
At these “pocket money” prices, starting from $49, and pocket sizes you wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – really expect the Pocket Operators to be world’s most powerful, all singing and all dancing drum machines. That said, I would advise going for something bigger and more powerful if your budget can stretch to it so let me introduce you to the wonderful Volca Drum…
2. Behringher RD-6
In recent years Behringer have certainly made a name for themselves bringing innovative gear to the market such as the wonderful Deepmind 6 and Deepmind 12 synthesizers and their experience in making cheap(ish) clones of classic analog gear has fed directly to the development of their drum machine range the RD-6 and RD-8 (clones of the TR-606 and TR-808 respectively).
Of the two machines I’m focusing on the the cheaper RD-6 here. The RD-6 comes in no less than 9 eye-catching colors including a rather fetching Acid House Yellow (complete with iconic smiley face logo!).
If you have ever used a TR-606 before , or anything remotely similar, you’ll be able to get the hang of the RD-6 in minutes.
To start with you get 8 analog drum sounds spread across 5 knobs: Bass Drum, Snare, Low/Hi Toms, Cymbal/Clap and Closed/Open Hi Hats.
Sounds are usable – basically pretty much what you might expect from an out and proud cheap TR-606 clone (or knock off). If anything, I’m a little surprised Roland’s lawyers tolerate such machines which are in direct competition with their own groove boxes and plugins, most noticebly the more expensive (and more vesatile) TR-06.
Mix the 8 individual drum sounds by adjusting their dedicated level knobs and then toggle on the global distortion and adjust its amount and tone to taste to glue your drum mix parts together and add some warmth or dirt.
3. Korg Volca Drum
The Korg Volca Drum is a small, afforable and innovative digital percussion synth with a 6-part x 2-layer structure. The Volca Drum generates each of its 6 drum sounds by DSP-powered analog modelling (it is kind of like a VST drum machine plugin in a box).
Similar to a software drum or synth plugin, by applying various changes to selected Oscillator waveforms such as a sine wave, sawtooth wave, and noise waves, a wide variety of interesing percussion sounds can be conjured up ranging from bread and butter drum machine sounds and percussive one shots to very un-drum like weird and wonderful synth sounds.
Your six drum parts each have two layers with no rules or restrictions such as specifying which parts must be used for the bass drum or the snare; all parts have the same parameters and you can freely assign new sounds to any part without being limited (so you could have 6 different kick drum sounds, for example).
Layer parameters can be edited either individually or simultaneously, and you can use the two layers to produce the exact same sound for additional thickness. You can further customize a drum part by applying bit reduction, adjusting the wave folder depth to add complex overtones, and adjust distortion.
For further manipulation of your sounds you get a global effect in the form of the ‘Wave Guide’ resonator. The resonator is capable of interesting and strange reverb and delay type effects – perfect for electronica, sound track and moody ambient vibes. Each layer is affected by the resonator by an independently controllable amount.
The Wave Guide resonator has three controls you can tweak for altering the pitch, the decay (or length) of the effect and the overall timbral characteristics of the resonator. At any time you can switch between a Tube type resonator or a String type resonator.
When you are happy with your 6 parts the can be saved as a complete kit and 16 such kits can be stored in the Volca Drum’s internal memory.
Once you have mastered the basics – which shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes and a quick glance of the user guide – the Volca Drum is an incredibly fun sound design tool so be warned: each time you fire up your Volca Drum and start playing around, you are probably going to lose yourself in an enjoyable sound design session creating new kits and loops. This is a fun machine that encourages you to create “just one more kit” before you even get down to any of the serious music production work you might have vowed to do.
If you are into sound design, electronic music and synthesis then at this price point the Korg Drum should be high on your list of potential buys. If, on the other hand, you have little time for noodling around exploring new sonic territorities and are just looking for ready to use, classic drum machine sounds and patterns then the Volca Beats might be more to your liking.
4. Korg Volca Beats
I have previously covered the Korg Volca Beats in my best portable drum machine article so I will just sum up the basics here.
The Korg Volca Beats gives you 10 individual drum parts. You get 6 analog drum parts (bass kick and snare drum, hi tom and low toms, closed hat and open hats) and 4 PCM sample base part percussion (Clave, agogo, clap and cymbal.)
The Volca Beats is a geat sounding, useful, affordable analog drum machine with a single internal speaker that is ideal for making classic Roland TR style drum machine beats wheverever you are.
The Korg Vola Beats is a great choice for producers who want to be able to quickly program useable electronic drum loops and get them into a DAW project with a minimum of fuss and without breaking the bank.
5. IK Multimedia UNO Drum
Based on their popular portable ‘UNO’ synth, IK Multimedia’s UNO Drum machine combines analog sounds with PCM samples (54 samples in total, taken from IK’s Sampletank 4).
At first glance you might be forgiven for mistaking the UNO Drum for a tablet with an app running on it. Rest assured the UNO Drum is a real hardware drum machine with 6 analog parts. Lightweight and with a tasteful white and orange design, the UNO drum machine has a very modern, sleek look with a rather busy looking interface. Luckily It doesn’t take long to get to grips with the basics
In total you get 6 real analog drum sounds including 2 different kick drums, snares, claps, and hi-hats – everything you need to lay down a solid foundation to your beats. To compliment the analog drums, PCM parts deliver the percussive sounds in the form of sampled Toms, rims, cowbells, rides, and crash cymbals. UNO Drum lets you use up to 12 elements in total between analog and digital sounds.
At the very heart of the machine, in the center, sit 2 rows of 6 touch sensitive drum pads, each of which is divided into two velocity zones for expressive playing.
At the top of left of the UNO Drum is the Matrix sound editing section. Here you’ll find are 4 rotary encoder dials allowing you access to the various parameters that shape each sound (Level, Tune, Snap and Decay) adjust effects settings and make changes to various sequencer settings including swing to shape your groove.
Over on the top right is the transport section with play and record buttons, mute button and tap tempo plus the main section for storing and loading pattens and kits.
At the bottom UNO Drum sits the 16 step sequencer which can create a looping sequencer over 4 pages so 64 beats in total. Taking inspiration from classic drum machines, the Uno Drum’s sequencer lets you record steps in real-time or opt to program in your hits step by step. In total there are 64 steps per pattern and you can store up to 100 patterns and 100 kit presets. It’s a quick and easy to start with a great sounding preset kit and tweak it to fit your taste then save it in a new user slot ready for instant recall at anytime.
Step programming consists of selecting a drum element and inserting a trigger event on one of the steps of the sequencer. Repeat the process until you have entered all your individual hits to make your looping beat.
Realtime recording is provided for the more adventurous Hold REC and press PLAY to enable this function and use the pads to play a rhythm. It is possible to record parameter automation in real-time: Hold REC and press PLAY to enter real-time recording, then move the desired parameter(s).
A song mode lets you chain up to 64 patterns together to create extended sequences. In this mode, each of the 16 steps step will trigger one of your 64 patterns depending on which of the 4 pages you are currently on.
The UNO Drum has an excellent per-step automation system similar to the kind you can find on much more expensive drum machines from the likes of Elektron. In total you can automate up to 8 parameters per step.
UNO Drum has built 3 master effects: analog drive and compressor to make your drums more punchy and aggressive and a stutter effect. The Stutter effect is a delay type effect with a few adjustable parameters to create different grooves. Master effects settings are saved with your kit for instant recall.
You also get what IK MultiMEDIA refer to as performance effects: Roll, Fill, Random, Swing and Humanize for switching up your performances on the fly. Tap the Roll button to get a drum roll in 8th notes, 8-note triplets, 16th notes, and 32nd notes. Useful for creating epic build ups. You can instantly select from 4 different fills. Tap the RANDOM button to generate a pattern for the element currently selected.
IK Multimedia are famous for their software samplers and plugin emulations of music hardware so it no suprise to see the UNO Drum integrates nicely with computers, iOS devices and MIDI gear. Best of all you also get a genuinely useful UNO Drum Editor plugin and stand-alone app . Fire up the editor and you can instantly change any of the UNO Drum parameters, adjust sounds ad creating patterns on your computer of iPad.
You can easily load and edit presets created and build new kits and patterns from scratch and transfer to UNO for instant use.
The UNO Drum synth can be powered by USB cable directly from a computer or battery pack, or it can powered by 4 AA batteries so you have the ability to take the UNO Drum out of the studio and create beats anywhere.
*All prices correct at time of writing (June 2021).