If you’re new to the worlds of drum machines, beat making, electronic music making and track production one thing you might be confused about is what role computers have to play in all this. Is it actually necessary to have a computer with your drum machine or can drum machines provide you with everything you need to create finished beats and tracks?
It is entirely possible to use drum machines to make beats without a computer. Many music producers and beat makers do, however, enjoy the best of both worlds and will opt to connect a drum machine to their computer.
So it is certainly possible to use drum machines without a computer but do be mindful of the fact there might come a time when you want to hook up your drum machine to a computer for recording purposes and processing the sounds further.
If you are looking for a drum machine that can be used without a computer then there are plenty of options to choose from and below I recommend 4 of my favorite stand alone drum machines. I will also tell you what a computer can bring to the table for each drum machine. (The drum machines are listed in order of most expensive to least expensive.)
4 Stand Alone Drum Machines – No Computer Required!
1.Teenage Engineering PO-32 Tonic
Pros: Cheap but not nasty. Great fun. Sounds good and capable of importing new sounds (when teamed with a computer). Easy to carry around.
Cons: Slightly confusing for beginners (be sure to read the manual. Twice!). Not for acoustic drum sounds. Due to its deliberately small form factor the pocket sized PO-32 suffers from the same fiddly interface issues and toy like feel of the other Pocket Operators. If you have big hands and or you are the kind of person who dislikes like using small phones and dainty gadgets then avoid!
Best for: Having fun creating electronic beats on the go. Recommended for fans of the Microtonic VST drum machine.
Use with a computer for: Transferring additional sounds via the Microtonic VST plugin.
2. Korg Volca Beats
Overview: The Korg Volca Beats is an affordable and easy to use stand alone drum machine. This little box of tricks is capable of generating a pleasingly “phat” sound and begs to be played with. More than a cheap toy or novelty gadget, the Volca Beats is a genuinely useful drum machine.
Real analog sounds (6 in total) are complimented by a functional – if somewhat rudimentary – PCM Sound engine for the percussion parts (of which you get 2). For your money you also get a decent step sequencer, and delay type stutter effects.
Pros: Small but powerful. Portable and easy to use. Built in Speaker. One of the cheapest ways to dip a toe into the world of analog sound. Can be connected to other Volca devices.
Cons: The speaker isn’t the greatest. The sound palette can not be expanded. Not supplied with a power adaptor as standard.
Best For: Creating vintage sounding and genuinely analog beats without needing a to break the bank.
Use with a computer for: The Korg Volcas can connect to a computer via MIDI. You can sequence your drum beats on the Volca Beats and record the audio output directly into any suitable DAW including Ableton Live, Logic Pro and FL Studio.
3. Roland MC-101
Overview: You get a lot for your money with the MC-101. More than just a drum machine, the Roland MC-101 (and its big brother the MC-707) has everything you need to make drum beats and even complete tracks wherever you are – no computer necessary!
Sounds come courtesy of Roland’s ZEN-Core Synthesis System which means each of the MC-101’s 4 individual parts are capable of emulating classic Roland sounds including the TR-808, TR-909 drum machines and the JUNO-106, and SH-101 synths.
Pros: Complete stand alone, portable studio in a box. Those classic Roland sounds. Import your own sounds. Excellent value for money.
Cons: No built in speakers. Lacks some of the features of it’s – more expensive – sibling the MC-707. Small display. Learning curve. Geared towards that classic Roland sound. Battery life.
Best For: Creating “pro” sounding drum beats and loops – with that Roland sound – and complete tracks on the go. Dance and Hip Hop orientated producers in particular will find this a viable music making machine.
Use With a Computer For: When you’re ready to further develop your tracks, connect the MC-101 to your computer with a USB cable. The built in advanced USB audio interface make it easy to record an entire mix or route all four parts to individual tracks in your DAW. You can sample sounds directly into the MC-101 from your DAW and download Roland’s tasty ZEN-Core Sound Packs whenever you’re ready for more sounds.
In or Out of The Box?
Do you want to use a drum machine without having to ever touch a computer? Are you looking to make beats “out of the box”? Are you unsure what that even means or even if it is a viable option? First things first, let us explore the terms “in the box” and “out of the box” and weigh up the pros and cons of each.
While computers – perhaps most famously the Atari ST – had been used in music production since the mid 80s it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s, as home computing power became cheap and powerful enough, and with the rise of dedicated sound cards such as the Creative Labs Soundblaster that professional producers began to make complete tracks using only a computer and software. This so-called “in the box” production method, where every aspect of a track is created in the digital realm, eventually went on to become the dominant method of music production especially in the dance music genres.
Many successful producers and musicians work exclusively “in the box” nowadays, and it is not unusual to find producers whose only equipment consists of a laptop or desktop computer, headphones and speakers.
While producing, mixing and even mastering tracks went from strength to strength, thanks to rapid advances in computer processing power, making music “out of the box” with real hardware such as drum machines, synthesizers and mixing desks never completely vanished and in recent years has made a strong resurgence.
Today, many musicians and producers have learnt to enjoy the best of both worlds – what is known as the “hybrid” method. Often music makers want the sounds and “mojo” of real hardware combined with all of the advantages of having a full studio’s worth of high quality virtual gear on a laptop or desktop PC.
6 Reasons To Work Outside the Box and Avoid the Computer:
- Hardware Drum Machines and the like tend to be less buggy and less prone to crashing than their software equivalents.
- Genuine Analog hardware sounds “better” than software. This is entirely subjective but the general consensus is that hardware has a certain “magic” or “mojo” that most software struggles to emulate.
- Real hardware is more “hands on” and immediate than software.
- You don’t need to deal with software updates or PC boot up times just turn on your hardware and start making music.
- Less distractions: With no internet access, spreadsheets, word processors or games on your hardware, the theory goes that you can spend more time actually creating music and learning your tools.
- Less screen time and therefore a better vibe. Perhaps the biggest advantage of them all, especially for those of us whose work involves looking at computer screens all day long. Staring at a Plugin or DAW or your compuer screen at 1 am can often seem like yet more time in an office (when everyone else has gone home), whereas jamming with real hardware and working up a sweat can make you remember why you wanted to be a musician, producer or DJ in the first place!
6 Reasons to Embrace the Computer in Your Workflow and get ‘In the Box’.
Before you think about ditching your computer entirely, however, here are a 5 reasons why the modern PC or Mac is the beating heart of most professional producers’ set ups:
- You can store all your data. Drum presets, kits, tracks, even entire libraries of sounds can be stored on a drive and recalled almost instantly.
- You can share your projects and files with other musicians at the click of the button.
- Easy – and relatively cheap – access to more music gear and emulations of classic hardware than even the wealthiest musicians and producers could only dream of just a few years back.
- Internet access always available – while it can be beneficial to get away from the computer when creating music there is no denying the fact that the internet itself can be an essential tool whether you are hunting for samples, communicating with other producers, browsing forums or watching tutorials.
- Bigger screens. Screens are expensive things to manufacture and most music gear scrimps in this area to keep costs down. Small screens on music hardware can you have you peering at indecipherable messages and struggling to read and navigate tiny menus.
- No more messing around with recording equipment. If you’re working entirely in the box then your computer in effect becomes a multi-track recording studio as soon as you fire up your DAW of choice.
Closing thoughts: Hopefully I’ve managed to give you some food for thought. Yes it is certainly possible to use drum machines without a computer and there’s a wide selection of such machines for you to choose from (far too many to list here, in fact).
However hooking up drum machines to your computer often brings real advantages in terms of sound manipulation, ease of use, increasing your pool of sounds, saving presets etc as well as breathing new life and creative possibilities into your drum machine so don’t be afraid (or too lazy) to plug it into your computer.