The Best Portable Drum Machine: Small but Cool!

Korg Volca Beats Portable Drum Machine

While we might all dream of working in large, fully equipped music studios, most people who dabble in music production – either as a hobby or a profession – will sooner or later find themselves constrained by space and/or budgets.

While compromises might need to be made by most of us – never fear! Portable music making devices – be it drum machines and groove boxes, samplers or synthesizers – are more capable and more affordable than ever before!

Small and affordable, the Korg Volca Beats is a best in class portable drum machine. Korg’s battery powered mini-marvel delivers genuine analog sounds inspired by classic drum machines plus built in speaker and step sequencer at a price that won’t break the bank.

Why the Korg Volca Beats Rocks!

They say small is beautiful and drum machines don’t come much smaller than the Volca Beats Analogue Rhythm Machine (to give this little beauty its full title). Constructed from light but strong plastics, the Volca Beats weighs in at a mere 372g and measures just 193W × 115D × 45H (mm) making it easy to pick up with one hand and carry around. This is the kind of drum machine you can sit in bed with and play or even use on public transport – headphones optional!

In terms of sound generation, the Korg Volca Beats gives you 10 individual sounds or “parts”. At the heart of The Korg Volca Beats are 6 analog drum parts, arranged left to right: Bass kick and snare drum, hi tom and low toms, closed hat and open hats. These 6 analog parts are complimented by an additional 4 PCM sample based parts to provide the percussion: Clave, agogo, clap and a cymbal.

For sound manipulation and tweaking you get access to pitch and decay knobs for each of the 6 analog parts. In addition you get a dedicated click level knob for the kick (allowing you to morph The drum from deep and boomy to short and clicky), a Snap level knob for the snare drum, grain knob (coarseness) for the hats and an overall pitch for the sampled sounds.

At the beating heart of the Volca Beats sits the the bass kick drum the pitch of which can be adjusted within a limited range of between 40hz to 70 Hz. No timid weakling in the sound department, the kick is weighty and deep enough to form the backbone of your grooves.

The Snare and Tom drum sounds are perfectly usable and what I would expect from a drum machine in this price range while the hi-hats have an appealing (to me at least) classic drum machine vibe that cut through the mix nicely without overpowering the lower frequencies.

The 4 PCM parts have a pleasing Lo-Fi sound without sounding cheap or nasty and it is possible to adjust their pitch, speed and volume. I particularly enjoy using extreme pitches to take the samples into new terrorities.

To hear your sounds you can connect headphones via the stereo mini-plug at the top right of the unit. When no headphones are plugged in the sound is automatically output via the Volca Beat’s single internal speaker. No doubt you are going to want to hook up the Volca Beats to a pair of decent studio speakers at some point but for instant gratification and hassle free beat making with no extra gear or wires required, the built in speaker is perfectly adequate.

Is The Korg Volca Beats Battery Powered?

If portability is important to you then you’ll be pleased to know the Korg Volca Beats is small enough to be powered by batteries. You can power the Volca Beats with 6 AA alkaline batteries, 6 AA nickel-metal hydride batteries or the Korg AC adapter “KA-350” (not supplied). Expect to get around 10 hours of use per battery charge.

The Korg Vocal Beats Sequencer:

Taking inspiration from Korg’s older and bigger Electribe series of groove boxes, the Korg Vocal Beats features a useful and easy to use 16-step sequencer with 8 memory patches allowing for the creation of 8 distinct beats which you can switch between at any time to create live performances and jams.

There are multiple ways to create your beats including including realtime recording and step recording.

Individual quantized drum hits can be entered simply by hitting any of the 16 individual triggers which make up the touch sensitive ribbon at the bottom of the unit.

A motion recording mode lets you record any twiddling of the PCM pitch knob and the Stutter function Time and Depth effect knobs (more on those below) on the fly. Mute function allows you to switch each part on and of individually (tip: hit the Func + Mute buttons to solo parts instead of muting).

Don’t ignore the cool Step Jump feature! When this is activated playback instantly jumps to any step you press and will continue from that point on once the step is released – handy for quickly creating quick variations and fills.

Overall the sequencer is incredibly easy to use and within minutes of getting the Volca Beats out of the box even complete beginners will be able to have beats running and looping after only a quick glance of the manual.

What Type of Music is Volca Beats Best Suited For?

With its auhentic analog sounds the Korg Vocal Beats is a great choice for anyone working in the House, Techno and Electronica genres in general. While it is no Roland TR type knock off, fans of Roland’s famous drum machines – in particular the TR-606 – will find much to like here.

By now you should be aware that the Volca Beats is a dance and electronic music orientated drum machine. If you’re looking for acoustic drum sounds to provide backing tracks for your soft rock or country music ballards then look away now! (Or check out the Alesis SR-16 mentioned below.)

Does The Volca Beats Have Built in Effects?

The Volca Beats does not feature any advanced effects such as reverbs, phasers or filters that you might find on a more expensive drum machine. At the top left of the unit you will find the Stutter section featuring two knobs offering control of the “Time” and “Depth” rhythmic effects. These two knobs let you apply delay type effect to individual sounds or even the whole beat to create rapid repeats and echo like effects. These effects prove to be suprisingly versatile but it would have been fantastic to have at least one more effect such as distortion or reverb.

Does The Volca Beats Have Multiple Outs?

For an analog drum machine in this price range it’s too much to hope for multi-outputs. In terms of inputs and outputs you do get a MIDI IN jack for connecting external MIDI devices such as keyboards to control the sound generator of the Volca Beats. SYNC IN/OUT jacks can be used to connect the Volca Beats to external gear such as a Korg Monotribe or other compatible equipment including other Korg Volca series instruments – or even your DAW – to bypass the step sequencer and trigger the drum parts with pulses.

Is the Volca Beats Worth The Asking Price?

The short answer is: absolutely! While the Korg Volca Beats lacks some of the more advanced features and effects that you can find on bigger (and invariably more expensive) drum machines, its small form factor and low price plus genuine analog sound help ensure the Volca Beats punches above its weight. Despite its small size, this is no cheap toy or novelty.

Retailing at less than $150 dollars, and readily available for less on the second hand market, the Volca Beats makes a great impulse purchase for any producer or musician looking to treat themselves to a new gadet and it is more than capable of forming the backbone of your music tracks, especially if you are producing music in any of the dance or electronica orientated genres.

Best Alternatives to the Korg Volca Beats:

Roland MC-101: Launched to positive reviews in 2019, the Roland MC-101 is the baby brother of the bigger and more capable MC-707. If size and portability is your main consideration the MC-101 has an edge over the MC-707 plus it’s cheaper too.

More than just a drum machine, The MC-101 is a multitrack groove box of the kind that were hugely popular in the 1990s. This powerful box of tricks is capable of creating beats, bass lines and melodies – everything you need to put together a complete track in fact.

In terms of sounds the MC-101 is, in typical Roland fashion, geared towards recreating the classic Roland drum machine sounds made famous by the likes of the TR-909 and TR-808. However you are not limited to the stock sounds as each of the MC 101 four tracks can be used import your own custom samples.

The MC-101 is solidly built but light enough to carry around without breaking into a sweat. It can run for about five hours on four AA batteries and is a sound choice for anyone looking to make beats and even complete tracks while sitting outside.

At the heart of the MC-101 are 16 colored drum pads on which you can tap out your beats as well as bass, and synthesizer patterns.

All your drum and synth tracks can be manipulated with an arsenal of high quality effects in a way that simply can not be done on Volca Beats. Chorus, delays, reverbs, overdrive and more can be applied to individual parts while master effects including filters, bit-crushers and a compressor can be used to glue your individual tracks together to make a polished whole.

One important thing to note is that unlike the Korg Volca Beats the MC-101 does not have a built in speaker so you will need to either connect the MC-101 to your computer, monitors or use headphones. Having many more features than the Volca Beats does mean the MC-101 is a step up in terms of difficulty and menu diving so the Korg Vocal Beats remains my number one choice in terms of immediacy and ease of use.

Alesis SR-16: It seems like the Alesis SR-16 has been around forever! In production since the early 1990s the Alesis SR-16 is one of the most widely used drum machines having found a home in countless studios and bedrooms.

The Alesis SR-16 is a viable alternative to the Korg Volca Beats if you are a songwriter or live performer looking for a small and easy to use drum machine that is as not as dance music focused as the Korg or Roland drum machines.

There’s a certain vintage charm to this drum machine (the manual boasts that the samples were recorded using 16bit resolution!) which you may or not find suitable for the type of music you are making.

Unlike the Korg Vocal Beats there is nothing analog about this drum machine – it’s all sample based – and your ability to tweak sounds is non-existent with the exception of velocity levels (volume), panning and tuning. All sounds are generated by the inbuilt one shot samples which come in dry form or with added digital reverb.

Some friendly advice: If you are tempted to buy the Alesis SR-16 drum machine then I would actually recommend you opt for a second hand one to save yourself some bucks. As long as the the unit is in good condition you won’t notice any practical difference between your second hand drum machine and a brand new one.

Also be aware that unlike the Volca Beats, the Alesis SR-16 does not have a built in speaker.

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