I make no secret of the fact that my tastes in drums leans more towards the electronic, synthetic and dance music end of the music spectrum however I do make all sorts of music (both as a hobby and for my day job) and acoustic drums tracks do regularly crop up in my work.
These days it more likely than not that I will reach for an acoustic drum plugin when composing music in my DAW but I thought that for today’s article I’d forget the software and dust off and round up the best hardware drum machines for acoustic drum tracks.
If you’re here looking for a drum machine that can provide ready to go beats and backing tracks to accompany your voice, guitar or other instrument playing then I recommend the Alesis SR18 and the Korg KR-55 Pro.
An update of the 1990s SR16, the Alesis SR18 is itself getting on a bit but remains a popular choice for musicians seeking a programmable, easy to use drum machine with acoustic sounds.
Power up the SR18 and you’ll get access to 571 (32MB) of drum, percussion and bass samples, 175 preset rhythms, 100 preset kits (with space for 100 more of your own), 16 velocity sensitive pads and reverb, EQ and compression effects.
In terms of ease of use the SR18 is so simple that even a bass player should have no problems getting to grip with it! A large backlit LCD means here’s no need to squint at tiny displays or try to work out what cryptic 3 letter messages might mean. Fire up a preset then adjust to taste, albeit with significantly less freedom than you would get from a computer and DAW based drum plugin setup, of course.
The SR18’s sample are of the kind of quality we might hope for from a machine of this age and price. Perfectly usable when all you need is a backing beat but unlikely to bring the house down nor win you an Oscar if you’re scoring movies (not without a load of post processing of your drum tracks in your computer, anyway). There’s really not much you can do with the samples to make them your own beyond adjusting pitch, filter and envelope and dialing in one of the preset reverb and EQ and compression presets (all of which are adequate in an early 2000s freebie VST plugin kind of way).
This lack of advanced sound sculpting could be perfect for your needs, however – if you’re happy with presets and minimal tweaking you can have your drum kit set up in seconds and there’s none of the mindless tweaking us producers might indulge in when faced with a drum plugin offering a near unlimited amount of choice about every aspect of its virtual drum kit, virtual microphones and virtual studio set up.
As well as drum kits, the Alesis SR18 lets you program a basic percussion kit and a bass instrument and you can choose which parts to mute (so you can mute the drums and just play the percussion and bass instrument parts, for example). You can program in your bass parts using the pads or you can connect a MIDI keyboard.
The SR18 can be powered by AC or batteries and can be controlled via footswitch (two inputs – start/stop, count/A/B and fill).
In terms of drum sounds, effects and features the SR18 can not hope to compete with a modern computer setup, gigabyte sample libraries and plugins but if you are needing an affordable, standalone device for basic drum track duties then the SR18 should be high on your list of possibilities.
Such well established stalwarts are the SR16 and SR18 that you’ll find either or both lurking in about 98% of the world’s musicians homes (OK I made that up!). Joking aside, the SR18 remains a viable option for musicians seeking ready to use acoustic drum sounds.
While Behringer are seemingly on a quest to drop a new drum machine every few days, the boffins at Alesis only like to drop one every 20 years or so, so maybe we are due an update to the SR18 sometime soon? the SR18 is clearly starting to show – and sound – its age so it would be great to see Alesis launch a more powerful drum machine.
Korg KR-55 Pro
The Korg KR-55 is a featured packed rhythm machine with recorder and four-channel mixer. This has more individual features than the SR18 although it is not suitable for programming your own beats. Used as an acoustic drum backing track machine and recorder, however, it performs admirably.
Power up a Korg KR-55 Pro and you get 24 built-in drum/percussion styles, all of which sound really good. These sounds were recorded live using something Korg call “Real Groove Technology.” Korg state that is a completely different technology to that found in conventional rhythm machines. In practice, sounds, grooves, and phrases play back at pristine quality even when you change the tempo, similar to audio warping in DAWs.
Each style includes a variety of patterns: two variations, basic, fill-in 1, fill-in 2, and ending and you can use the chain function to create a rhythm structure for an entire song.
The Korg KR-55 can be powered by six AA batteries for up to seven hours, making this a portable machine and you can control the KR-55 via an optional foot switch.
The KR-55 Pro has an audio player function that you can use to play back your own audio files from an SD card – useful if you have complete backing tracks you need to play during a gig or jam. When you perform alongside rhythm track you can record the combined result as a WAV audio file.
There’s a useful playlist function that lets you manage the file playback order of up to 24 songs, so you can play back songs in a desired order during your performance.
There’s a lot to like about the Korg KR-55 Pro in terms of both features and sound. It’s a well built, professional device and not a cheap toy so it’s a shame Korg have not taken it that bit further. Possibly in an effort to keep costs down, a few annoying niggles and undeveloped features let the side down and a (much) bigger selection of grooves would have been welcome as well.
When researching my list of recommended acoustic drum machines I rejected a number of possible options for one reason or another. These gadgets might still be of interest to you, and maybe just what you are looking for, even though they did not make my list:
BeatBuddy MINI 2 Drummer Pedal:
Pros: Affordable. Good sounds. Over 200 styles and samples of professional drummers in a pedal sized device you can operate with your foot.
Cons: Less features than its older (and more expensive) brother, the BeatBuddy.
DR-01S Rhythm Partner:
Pros: Great for organic and groovy percussion style backing tracks. Onboard speaker. Easy to use. Affordable and portable. 50 programmable presets.
Cons: The DR-01S does feature a full acoustic drum kit but the focus here is on percussion sounds (shakers, maracas, tambourines, congas, bongos, cajon etc) rhythms. If you’re hoping to lay down your next Grammy winning heavy metal or hip hop track then forget it!
Mooer Micro Drummer:
Pros: Pedal sized preset machine with 11 Genres of drum rhythms, each with 11 drum patterns.
Cons: Cheap and cheerful but as simple as they come in terms of features.
Korg Rhythm KR Mini:
Pros: Cheap, small and portable. Can be operated via footswitch. Integrated speakers.
Cons: Cheap enough that it shows in the quality and the limitations. A neat little gadget to accompany kids (or yourself) on guitar in the garage or spare bedroom but you’ll want something more capable if you’re making any kind of “serious” music (unless you are Aphex Twin in which case you snap one up right now and use it on your next album!)
DR-3 Dr. Rhythm:
Pros: Easy to use, affordable (pick up a second hand unit), 100 Preset Styles, footswitch input.
Cons: Can adjust effects (reverb, EQ) but sound shaping is limited despite the promise of “Total Sound Control”.
Why opt for a hardware drum machine instead of software drums?
As I mentioned in my intro, I do create most of my acoustic drum tracks in software these days – I need to write about software based drum kits sometime – however for many people, and in many cases, a hardware drum machine is a better option. For many musicians performing live, and musicians with little or no experience of computer setups and plugins, a machine that can simply sit in the corner of a room and spit out drum beats and backing rhythms at the press of a button (or tap of the foot) is sometimes all that is needed.
Summary: My research has led me to conclude that the perfect standalone acoustic drum machine does not yet exist. While electronic beat makers are well catered for, there’s a big gap in the market for an easy to use, portable and fully programmable drum machine with realistic drum sounds and grooves. I guess I am dreaming of something like the Toon Track EZdrummer software plugin in a box!