2019 was a year of innovation. The drum machines and samplers that came out this year were feature packed and original. Robust sequencing, impressive sample manipulation, unconventional features, and reworking of old ideas into new, more powerful ones were the hallmarks of the year.
As always, it's impossible to say what instruments are truly best...but here's a list of some of the drum machines and samplers that left us must excited this year.
The Elektron Model:Samples is Elektron's most affordable drum machine/sampler to date, taking all the most important fundamental features of the Octatrack and Digitakt and condensing them into a budget-friendly package. It features six tracks, each with their own sample and sample parameters. There are six velocity and pressure-sensitive pads that can be used to trigger samples or select that track to be edited. The 14 encoders allow for on-the-fly control of some of the most important controls including pitch, sample start/length, filter cutoff/resonance, LFO speed, as well as delay and reverb send/time. These parameters can be edited on a per-track or global basis. There are filters per-track that continuously morph between high pass and low pass modes.
As with most Elektron gear, much of this instrument's magic is in its sequencing capabilities. Model:Samples has six banks of 16 projects for a total 96 projects, which can be comprised of up to 64 sequences chained together. The length of the sequences can be up to 64 steps, but each track can have its own sequence length. Additionally, the sequences can each run at a different division of the master clock. Steps can also have their own trigger conditions. Trigger conditions are settings that dictate how an individual step in a sequence behaves. This includes the fill settings and when the sample should play, either by mathematical ratios or by a percentage chance that the step will play. All parameters settings can be automated in the sequence for sequenced parameter changes.
The Model:Samples also has an LFO per track, which can be assigned simply by holding down the LFO button and twisting a knob. This also sets the LFO depth. It comes loaded with 300 samples from Splice, or you can add your own. Samples can also be organized into directories of six samples that can be loaded at the same time. It's a very hands-on instrument and requires far less menu-diving than many of the other Elektron devices. This combined with its price makes it a great choice for beginners, or anyone who wants to just get straight to making music.
Korg Volca Drum
The Volca Drum is a new kind of compact digital drum machine. Building on the previous Volca line, the Drum is a digital percussion synthesizer with a lot of character. It uses kits, which are organized into six different sounds which can all be played at the same time. The sounds can be sequenced using the 16-step sequencer, with notes either being added into the step sequencer, or recorded live. Multiple sequences can be linked together to make longer evolving sequences. The slice function allows for ratcheting effects with up to 16 retriggered notes on a step. The sequencer also includes a re-trigger mode, where sounds can be repeated by touching the corresponding pad or pads. Additionally, samples can "choke" each other—like an open hi-hat sound that cancels out the closed hi-hat sound. With step record function, all parameters can be automated in the sequencer. Each of the tracks can be set to a different sequence length and you can mute individual tracks. There is also a randomize function, which allows you to randomly change sounds or sequences with the press of a button.
Each sound has two layers that make up the character of the sound. There are sound sources, a modulator, and an envelope. The Drum's LCD screen provides instant visual feedback of the sounds as they are being edited. The sound sources include sine, saw, or filtered noise, with the ability to be low pass, high pass, or band pass filtered. The modulator can be an envelope, LFO, or random modulation. The modulation rate goes up to audio rate and can be used for FM-like effects. The EG envelope can be linear, exponential, or double hits which works well for clap sounds. Using the modulator envelope and the EG envelope together allows for dual envelope control of your sounds. The two layers allow you to create much more complex sounds than just a single sound source.
The sound can also be sent to the waveguide—a Karplus-Strong style resonator that adds physical modeling-like effects to the sound. It has controls for pitch, decay, and body and can model either a string or a tube. There is only one waveguide per kit, but it can be parameter sequenced. There are additional sound shaping functions including bit-reduction, wave folding, overdrive, panoramic, or gain parameters that are accessible while editing the sequence. There's a lot of bang for your buck packed into this little drum machine, so don't underestimate it.
Roland MC-707 and MC-101
MC-707 and MC-101 are the next generation of Roland groove boxes. The MC-101 is the little sibling of the MC-707, with includes four tracks and many of the same features. The MC-101 is more portable and has the option to run on batteries or USB power supply.
In addition to having more channels, the MC-707 features more controls on the front panel and deeper synthesis editing. Their sounds are organized into three types: tones, drums, and loops. Drum tracks contain up to 16 different samples that can be individually sequenced. Tone tracks are polyphonic synthesis tracks. Both units come with over 3000 preset tone sounds, with the ability to load your own via SD. Audio can be loaded via SD card and turned into tone presets, or can be imported as loops. The loops are automatically time stretched and quantized to the BPM of the project. They can also be pitched up or down without affecting the playback tempo. While both share the same presets, sampling, and synthesis engines, the MC-707 has much deeper sound editing options. You can really get under the hood of your sounds on the MC-707, with a lot of control and programmability.
Both contain powerful sequencing options, with the ability to enter notes on a step-sequencer grid, or record sequences in real time. The recorded sequences can be quantized, unquantized, or semi-quantized; which is set by a percentage amount that nudges steps closer to the grid. Parameter changes can also be recorded with the motion record function. The sequencers have options for mute probability, ratcheting, play direction including random, shuffle, note division, and length, up to 128 steps. The sequences can be stored as clips, and each track can contain up to 16 clips which can be chained together for longer sequences.
The MC-707 includes three knobs per channel that can be assigned to numerous parameters. The MC-101 has four encoders and four buttons which access the different assignable modes. While the panels read filter, mod, and FX, these can be assigned to a wide variety of settings that are most appropriate to the current sound. The MC-101 has less immediate control, but most important functions can still be accessed by with a few button/encoder combos. Both have effects channels including reverb, delay, compressor, EQ, and multi-effect. The multi-effect selects between a collection of additional effects and includes filters, phasers, overdrive, and more.
In addition to those effects, both feature Scatter mode. Scatter is a glitchy collection of rhythmic effects that can mangle and reshape sounds and are activated by pressing down pads while in scatter mode. It is a really performative effect and can add flair to a live performance. The effects present in scatter mode can be customized and even sequenced using the step sequencer. Both the MC-101 and the MC-707 feature powerful options for synthesis and sequencing, and provide a lot of playability. Whether you want a full workstation of a synthesizer or a portable way to mangle samples, Roland has you covered.
1010 Music Blackbox
Blackbox from 1010 Music is a super-portable all-in-one sampling studio. The Blackbox can record, sequence, and live loop samples. The inputs and outputs are DC-coupled, so you can sample audio or CV signals. The bright and clear touch screen is the center of the Blackbox and is very responsive. When editing samples you can zoom way into the samples and see single cycles of the waveform. The Blackbox uses a MicroSD card for saving and loading samples. Audio can be loaded via the MicroSD card or recorded into the Blackbox via the stereo input. Sampling is easy: pick an empty slot, set the gain, hit record. The recording can be automated and set to only record when the input volume passes a set threshold. Recording can also be quantized to record in time with the project for live looping in time with the rest of the samples. Samples have a max size of 4 GB, which depending on the quality of the sample can last for hours.
In the pad mode you have access to 16 pads that can be a sample, clip, or sliced sample. The keys mode allow for melodic playback of samples. Notes can also be played live into the Blackbox with a MIDI controller. Sample mode is mostly focused on one-shot sample playback. In Clip mode, the looped samples are automatically time stretched to the BPM. They can also be pitch shifted without changing the tempo. The Slicer mode can slice up samples in various ways. The slicing can happen at transient points, set by a threshold, or on a grid, and can be up to 128 slices. There are a few different slice modes including playing back the slices via MIDI notes and slice sequencing. In slice sequence mode the module plays back clips when it gets a trigger, in a set order. This can be forward, backwards, random, or staggered. The Blackbox features 16-note polyphony, up to four notes per pad for samples, and two notes per pad for clips and slicers.
The Blackbox also features a robust sequencing engine. Sequences can be up to 128 steps and can be organized into sections. Sequencing can be done on a piano roll for melodic sequencing or on a step sequencer. Sections can be linked together to create songs. Each preset can feature 16 samples, 16 sequences, and 16 song sections. The Blackbox features three stereo pairs of assignable outputs, which can also act as six mono outputs, plus a headphone output. All these features are packed into a rugged case, which according to 1010 Music, is nearly indestructible. It looks great, sounds great, and is very playable.
The Behringer RD-8 is a reinterpretation of one of the world's most famous drum machines, but is updated for use in modern musical settings. It offers analog drum sounds that cut through the mix and have individual outputs for independent processing. While the sounds are analog, the sequencing is digital and provides a welcome expansion of the sequencing on the original. Patterns on the RD-8 include more than just the notes in the step sequencer: they include things like tempo, probability, sequence length of the individual tracks, and note repeat. Pattern length go up to 64 steps and in the polymeter mode tracks can have their own individual lengths. There is the ability to save up to 16 songs, which each contain up to 16 patterns. Each channel includes a level control. Certain channels like the bass drum and snare drum include other parameters including pitch and decay, called "snappy" on the snare.
Probability settings are available for individual tracks and even individual steps, which determines the likelihood that a step will play. There are both step repeat and note repeat modes. Step repeat retriggers a step when activated. Note repeat is a sort of ratcheting effect which can be dialed into individual steps and retriggers the sound two, four, or eight times. There is a swing parameter that can be edited and the repeat function responds to the swing settings.
Additional sound shaping can be achieved with the analog filter and wave designer. The wave designer is a transient shaper/compressor that adds extra character to a sound. The filter is a multi-mode filter that can be either low pass or high pass. The filter cutoff can even be automated in the sequencer.
Although is shares the visual aesthetic with a certain classic drum machine, it is not an exact recreation—it builds on the original and has become its own instrument.
SOMA's Pulsar-23 is an organismic rhythm device, capable of beats, melodies, complete chaos, and so much more. The term "organismic" refers to the fact that the Pulsar 23 has an architecture that mirrors some of the behaviors of organic organisms. Everything can be interconnected into complex feedback networks, and parts of the synthesizer can be reinterpreted differently depending on the context of the connections. It features 23 main modules units including analog sound sources, envelopes, DSP processor, LFO, VCAs, distortion, clock divider, and shift register-based pseudo-random generator. In addition to those core functions, the Pulsar-23 includes 13 auxiliary units like a MIDI to CV converter, attenuators, impulse converters, and passive electronic components for circuit bending-style patching. There are 125 patch points that use binding posts. These can be connected using alligator clips or by human contact. Eight 3.5mm jacks and six 1/4" jacks allow input from other modular gear into the binding post patching environment. Several signals connected together will be automatically mixed, allow for outputs to be stacked, a sin in most modular synthesis systems.
Patches using the Pulsar-23 start with the master clock, which feeds both the clock divider and looper to set the loop length. There is a switch which selects if the Pulsar-23 is clocked by the internal clock, by MIDI clock, or by an external clock source. The Pulsar-23 doesn't have a traditional step sequencer found on most drum machines but a looper-recorder. There is a loop channel per track and they can be clocked independently. There are four banks of loops and each contain a set of four loops, one for each audio channel.The looper/recorder acts more like a tape recorder than a step recorder, constantly recording changes to the add and delete buttons.
The Pulsar-23 features four analog sound sources: bass drum, bass/percussion, snare drum, and hi-hat/cymbal. Each channel has an A/R envelope generator, volume, FX send, and sound shaping capabilities. The Shaos is a shift register based pseudo-random voltage generator. It features manual frequency control, clock input, sample and hold, loop length, external data entry to the register, and four related but separate outputs. Pulsar contains a two-channel DSP effects processors for reverb and delay, with adjustable algorithm. In addition to standard modulation options, the clock speed of the DSP chip can be modulated, up to audio rates. There is robust four-channel MIDI to CV converter and internal wiring that allows for MIDI control of sound parameters. Any of the parameters that are MIDI-enabled have learn buttons next to them, making it easy to assign MIDI messages to specific parameters. The Pulsar-23 stores channel number, key, or CC message destination and can recall them after being powered down. The Pulsar-23 is easily the most out-there of this year's drum machines/samplers, but is not gimmicky. It's an entire modular environment, breaking out of the traditional confines of what both drum machines and modular synthesizers can do.
The Akai Force is a whole DAW in one box. It takes the Akai legacy of stand-alone production and includes 64 velocity-sensitive pads, clip sequencing matrix, and intuitive 7" touch screen. There are three main modes that the Force operates in: launch mode for clips and scenes, notes for melody, and step sequence. In launch mode, the pads correspond to clips that can be launched by the press of a pad. Each column is a track, which contains clip info. Individual tracks can be launched, or entire rows can be played at the touch of a button. The note mode allows for melodic sequencing. Pads can be quantized to scales and you can change the order in which the notes and octaves are organized. The pads can also be configured to play chords at the touch of a single pad. Progression mode is like chord mode and assigns chords to pads in the order of preset chord progressions characteristic of numerous genres. In the step sequencer mode, the pads allow you to easily lay down tracks while using the screen for other functions. Once sequences are in Force, they can be edited using either the pads or the touch screen. Sequencer tracks can be recorded audio, drums, keys group, MIDI, and CV tracks. Force includes four independent CV/gate outputs as well as MIDI in/out/through. In addition to the sequencer, the Force features an arpeggiator. That features control over direction, Akai-style note repeat, pitch range, and dozens of built-in patterns.
The eight assignable Q link controls are capacitive touch encoders and provide customizable hands on control. Knobs can also be automatically switched to reflect the parameters that are being edited at the moment on the touch screen or provide easy access to controls like track pan, filter, and volume. The crossfader available on the top of Force can also be assigned to allow for more hands on control of customized parameters and has an adjustable crossfader curve. Force has four core synth engines, a 10 GB library of samples, and a powerful sampler. The sampler can record, loop, and overdub audio on the fly and features mic/line inputs with phantom power. Record external audio or load audio via USB or SD card. Audio clips can be easily edited, chopped, time stretched, pitch shifted, and processed in diverse ways. Force automatically non-destructively time stretches clips to match the master BPM of the project. Clips can be automatically sliced into new groups of samples and loaded into a drum program. Force also includes a variety of AIR effects for processing your sounds and clips, individual samples can be sent to up to four AIR effects. In addition to the AIR effects, the XY effects add another level of performability. XY effects are effects that can be controlled by an XY grid on the touch screen. Force can wirelessly sync to Ableton Link or connect to Bluetooth enabled devices. Force is a remarkable instrument, an all-in-one music making machine that provides endless creative potential.
2019 was full of insane new devices: full production stations like the Force, new Roland Grooveboxes, and the pint-sized Blackbox, affordable instruments like the Volca Drum and Model:Samples, and the mind-bending Pulsar-23. This year saw the embrace of digital technology to create shockingly fully-featuring devices, with easy-to-approach user interfaces that make them surprisingly inviting despite their complexity. With Pulsar-23 just now starting to ship, we're excited to see what else is on the horizon—so here's looking forward to 2020!