Best Drum Machines + Grooveboxes of 2020

Semi-Modular, DSP, Trackers, and More

Perfect Circuit · 12/23/20

As with standalone synths and Eurorack modules, 2020 brought a wide variety of drum machines and grooveboxes to the scene. From re-imaged classics like Roland's TR-06 to the novel hardware workflows of SOMA's Pulsar-23 and Polyend's Tracker, it feels safe to say that there's a drum machine out there for basically anyone and any budget. So whether you're into the sounds of classic dance music, intricate breaks, or all-out aggressive generative noise, now might be the best time to get a drum machine. Let's check out some of our favorites from this year.

An Enduring Favorite: SOMA Pulsar-23

The long-awaited Pulsar-23 finally came to dealers in 2020—and while it was also on our "Best Drum Machines" list last year, it still deserves the title. After all, it is one of the most unique instruments to come out for a long time. It shares the same "organismic" design ethos that graces many of SOMA Laboratory's other designs, meaning that its behavior mirrors some principles of how living organisms and systems behave. There is no linear structure, and because everything may interact with everything else, complex feedback loops arise. The semi-modular design makes it flexible and able to function in any number of ways. Instead of traditional 3.5mm, 1/4", or banana jack connections, it employs binding posts and alligator clips. The binding posts allow you to connect multiple signals to a single destination and even make connections with your hands.

Pulsar-23 features four voices, each suited for different applications and with its own specific character. These are BD (bass drum), bass, SD (snare/clap), and HHT (hi-hat/cymbal). Each voice has both shared and unique parameters suited to different applications. While they are labeled in such a way that corresponds to a traditional drum sound, they by no means always conform to traditional expectations. Each voice features an FX send, which routes the audio to the unique DSP section. This combination of reverb and delay features multiple modes and gives you the ability to modulation the DSP processor's clock speed, leading to unexpected results.

The master clock sets the sequencer's overall timing and features seven clock divisions, useful for both timing and modulation. Instead of a standard step sequencer, the onboard sequencer is more akin to a tape loop. Tapping the sensor associated with each voice adds notes to the sequencer, which loops continuously and records both timing and velocity. It is an excellent tool for live improvisation and building rhythms over time. Pulsar-23 also features MIDI integration, allowing you to use an external MIDI device to sequence the voices. The MIDI integration extends beyond just triggering the voices. Sync the clock divider to MIDI clock, pitch bend the bass module, or use the MIDI to CV converters to modulate other parameters.

Modulation comes in the form of a wide-ranging LFO and the Shaos circuit, a pseudo-random pattern generator that uses both shift registers and sample and hold. Shaos provides different flavors of unpredictability with several modes of operation. Select between patterns that range from 16, 63, or 217 steps long with the ability to seed new data into the pseudo-random pattern. The four outputs each have a set number of states, or voltage levels, ranging from two up to eight possible states. This limited number of possible output levels constrains the randomness in a musically interesting way. The LFO is both clock syncable and voltage controllable with a wide frequency range from 0.1Hz–5000Hz, well into the audio range.

In addition to these fun features, Pulsar-23 includes a number of surprisingly useful utilities. These sorts of handy utilities are usually found on a larger modular synthesizer but are often left off of standalone instruments. The utilities include everything from attenuators to VCAs to voltage-controlled switches and even electronic components such as capacitors and diodes. In addition, Pulsar-23 features both 3.5mm and 1/4" jacks connected to binding posts, allowing you to send or receive signals with other modular devices.

Pulsar-23 is a drum machine like no other. This unique implementation of a modular drum machine is both captivating and inspiring. Chock-full of fun functionality and sporting an interesting interface, the Pulsar-23 is a shining example of SOMA Laboratory's ability to create instruments that will stand the test of time.

DSP Drum Machine: Modor DR-2

The Modor DR-2 is an interesting mix of function and features, boasting an impressive set of performance capabilities and unique variations on the classic drum machine formula. The team behind designing the DR-2 aimed at making a forward thinking drum machine, opting to use DSP and digital sound generation in lieu of an analog engine for more flexible sound design. Each of the DR-2s six channels can host a drum synthesizer from the current pool of over 15 (more on the way), as well as a variation sound, ranging from kick drums to cowbells with extensive macro control over the generators which change the timbre and character of each sound.

The sequencer may look like standard fare, but it packs depth with an intuitive use of step-subdivision which allows you to divide your 16 steps into 32 for increased precision when programing complex rhythms. Ratcheting, tuplets, and flams are also available as quick commands, as well as break and reverse, making it a breeze to quickly come up with patterns and start playing them. Once you've worked your way into the groove with the DR-1, it provides you with an extensive amount of fun options to keep your performances fresh.

The long throw faders for controlling channel volume are performable and smooth, and the ergonomically laid out faceplate provides an easy to understand interface with big-knob-emphasis on the controls you'll most want to wail on. One of the more intriguing options on the DR-2 is the ability to use each of the individual outs as a send-return loop, allowing you to easily integrate pedal chains, outboard effects, or use other unique routing tricks like sub-mixing or feedback chains on the fly, definitely a welcome feature we’ve yet to see on another machine.   All these wonderful ingredients make for a deliciously well-rounded drum machine that we're excited to see finally arrive.

Elektron in 2020

Before the release of the Model:Samples, Elektron's powerful sequencer workflow had never been so accessible or affordable. Boiling down the instrument's functionality to nearly one knob-per-function while maintaining the ability to apply parameter locks to sequences and other powerful hallmarks of the Elektron workflow is no small feat, but that's precisely what the Model series accomplishes. With the success of their Digitone FM synthesizer, it only made sense to adapt specialized FM voices for use in a Model instrument, and so the Model:Cycles was born.

Model:Cycles offers six tracks of FM Machines, and are more focused in their parameterization sound output than most other FM synths, greatly helping to demystify FM synthesis for newcomers. Like their other instruments, the sequencer is tightly integrated with nearly every parameter, and all six tracks can be defined with different time scales and lengths up to 64 steps. If you're more into recording things in real-time, the velocity sensitive pads also support live recording of sequences. With 12 parameters per track available on dedicated knobs, assignable LFOs, and onboard delay and reverb, Model:Cycles still offers plenty of room for sonic exploration within its more focused controls.

While Model:Cycles was the hot new release from Elektron this year, 2020 also showed some love to their flagship instruments. Back in September, both the Analog Four MkII and Analog Rytm MkII received makeovers in black, and a new firmware update allows for the MkII boxes to act as class-compliant USB audio interfaces, as well as some other sequencer and functional improvements for both MkI and MkII versions. Just this month, the Octatrack celebrated 10 years of production with a black edition of the MkII and a hefty firmware update of its own (available for both MkI and MkII users), adding features like external MIDI triggering of slices, parameter randomization, and different tempos per pattern. It's refreshing to see this level of continued support and development for products that have been in production for several years, but we're still excited to see what Elektron has up their sleeves for the future.

NI Goes Standalone: Maschine+

We've noticed an increasing shift towards sophisticated standalone devices dedicated to making music, especially as embedded systems and microcontrollers are becoming more powerful. In fact, we're getting to the point where these standalone platforms can be dedicated production environments comparable to full-fledged DAWs, without the need to rely upon a computer. This bodes exciting potential for music applications heavily reliant on controllers, as we can finally put the computer inside the controller, and that's exactly what Native Instruments has done with the Maschine+.

Maschine+ adapts the same workflow of the previous Maschine controllers, but is fully operational away from a host computer. Many of the technical specs read similarly to as if you were shopping for a new computer, but this is an indication of how much effort and power NI has put into the design of Maschine+. In fact, you can think of Maschine+ as a computer, controller, and audio interface all rolled into one device, as you can directly record and sample into it through dedicated microphone and line inputs. There's also MIDI I/O for sequencing other gear, and USB ports for connecting additional controllers. And because it is basically a dedicated music computer, it has the capability to run several software instruments and plugins from the Native Instruments catalog, like MASSIVE, select KONTAKT instruments, RAUM, and more. Of course, if you do find yourself sketching out a track on Maschine+ and want to transfer everything over to your favorite DAW, Maschine+ can still connect to a standard computer for file transfer of audio and project files, and can function as a controller for Maschine software.

Native Instruments has made a bold statement with Maschine+, further affirming the viability of music production environments in a powerful standalone form. As more of us are exploring hardware-based setups for making electronic music, the timing could not be better. While some might argue Maschine+ is just as deep as any DAW you'd use on a regular computer, there is something to be said about having a focused, single-purpose device for making music. Native Instruments has promised updates to expand on the power of Maschine+ are on the way, and we're eager to see what the future holds for standalone music machines.

Affordable Options from Roland

Roland, a behemoth of electronic musical instruments, passed through the year with a swarm of fantastic releases ranging from AI-infused synthesizers to the resurrection of classic drum machines. Speaking of the latter, the brand brought the beloved sound of TR-606 back to the market with the release of TR-06 Drumatix. And of course, to speak the language of the time, TR-06 is endowed with a plethora of features expected from a modern drum machine. For vintage sound lovers there is no reason to worry, as authentic snappy TR-606 sounds are easily achievable, yet Roland implemented quite a few add-ons to make sound shaping more diverse and flexible. On TR-06, each sound's tuning, panning, and decay time can be adjusted independently, making for highly customizable performance. The unit also comes with a curated selection of effects. If you like your drums grittier, boosting the internal gain on the machine can push the sound into subtle overdrive or unapologetic distortion. Tempo-synced delay can add anything from mild stereo depth to playful rhythmic repetitions. To tighten things up and to add extra punch, TR-06 has a built in compressor.

Not only did the soundcrafting aspect on the machine get a major upgrade, but so did the sequencer too. The workflow is as intuitive as it was on the original, however now you can also enjoy advanced features like step ratcheting, looping and probability. Furthermore, the maschine is designed to easily integrate with a variety of setups. Eurorack folks will appreciate the five trigger outs and a trigger in, while those who prefer to work in software can simply record all their parts individually via a single USB connection, and if desired pair the unit with TR-606 Software Rhythm Composer. Building on the excellence of the past, TR-06 is one hell of a drum machine for a contemporary electronic music artist.

As it was mentioned earlier TR-06 is far from being the only worth-mentioning release from Roland this year. Closely listening to the desires of the community, the brand reworked their wildly popular TR-8S into a compact yet powerful TR-6S Rhythm Performer. Just like its bigger sibling, TR-6S features carefully designed circuit models of the brand's iconic machines like TR-808, TR-909, TR-606, TR-707, and much more. The already humongous sample library can be further expanded with custom user samples. TR-6S also features a mighty FM engine, opening possibilities to create ultra-futuristic tones. And if you are interested in creating more eclectic hybrid kits, TR-6S makes it easy to mix and match sounds to your liking. Yet more sound-shaping options are offered via a carefully selected set of effects ranging from utilitarian compressor and transient shaper to alien tone manglers like frequency shifter and ring modulator to speaker cone-ripping distortion to lush reverb, flavorful delays, characterful filters, and so much more.

As you would expect, TR-6S is equipped with a flexible and feature-rich sequencer built on the "TR-REC" tradition, well loved for its intuitive workflow. Albeit, the sequencer in TR-6S is enhanced with modern features like ratcheting, as well as real-time and motion recording.

While the machine is powerful enough to let you play full live sets just using it alone, TR-6S is made to easily integrate into all kinds of setups via MIDI I/O. Built with performance in mind, the device is also a great tool for the studio. TR-6S can act as a high-quality USB audio interface, and perfectly fits in hybrid software/hardware setups.

Desktop IDM: Polyend's Tracker

Perhaps one of the most peculiar methods of music production has to involve working with trackers—a software (at least originally) with a vertical timeline interface where notes and other important data regarding the given composition are entered line by line similarly to working with spreadsheets. Introduced in the late 80s with the release of Ultimate Soundtracker by EAS Computer Technik for the Commodore Amiga, trackers carved a niche of its own with a dedicated group of workflow devotees, which until recent couple of years has almost exclusively remained in the realm of computer software. Now, though, that has changed...

Polyend's release of Tracker is a truly revolutionary step in the adaptation of the concept to the demands of modern musicians. Not only does its intuitive interface and slick form factor appeal to those experienced in working with tracker sequencers, but it is surely opening up the potential and beauty of the format to intrigued newcomers. Polyend Tracker is designed with attention to detail. The large screen is easy to read, the function keys are clearly laid out, labeled and color-coded where necessary, the giant knob with haptic feedback, and a grid of silicone pads is a pleasure to work with.

Internally, Tracker continues to impress. At the core of the unit is a powerful sequencer, and song arranger which let you create your compositions entirely from start to finish. In terms of built-in instruments, Tracker includes a sampler, wavetable and granular synthesizer engines, and FM radio (great for sourcing material for the internal sampler). Although traditionally trackers were primarily used as composition tools, Polyend implemented a unique performance mode on the machine which allows you to dynamically mangle your patterns, rendering the device to be equally useful for live situations. MIDI I/O as well as Line and Mic inputs allow for easy integration with a diverse variety of setups.

Whether you are experienced with tracker sequencers or completely new to the idea, Polyend's Tracker is truly a unique instrument with a lot to offer and surprisingly easy to get into.

Peculiar and Pocket-Sized: Bastl Kastle Drum

Bastl is known for their imaginative designs, combining whimsy and functionality to create a wide range of instruments from Eurorack modules to handheld synthesizers. Following in the footsteps of their immensely popular Kastle portable patchable synth, the Kastle Drum is a compact yet fully-featured drum machine that can provide rhythms anywhere you go. It's a glitchy modular drum machine with surprisingly deep functionality. The eight algorithms each provide a unique drum sound with manual and CV control over the algorithm. These range from granular to FM to more esoteric "experimental" synthesis methods.

In lieu of a traditional step sequencer, Kastle Drum provides a clock, LFO, and pattern generator. The clock provides timing information for both the LFO and pattern generator, syncing everything together. Bastl looked to Rob Hordijk's famous shift register-based Rungler circuit when designing the pattern generator. It creates eight stepped random values and loops them depending on what signal is present at the feed input. Connecting the "-" patch point creates a repeating eight-step pattern, while connecting to the "+" patch point generates a continually shifting random pattern. Disconnecting the pattern generator from either of these inputs locks the pattern in and loops it. The clock input resets the clock oscillator's phase and may be used to sync the tempo to an external source. If the clock speed is much slower than the incoming signal, the clock becomes independent of the input, and only the pattern generator syncs to the external clock.

The unique dynamic acceleration charged envelope features three zones that it responds to. Large changes, from zone 1 to 3 or vice versa, will trigger the envelope at full intensity. Smaller changes, say from 2 to 3, will produce a low amplitude envelope with shorter decay. Using the pattern generator is a great way to create accents in the envelopes, producing more dynamic drum lines. Modulating the drum mod also affects the envelope. Sudden changes from the clock or pattern generator will cause significant changes, while smooth signals from the LFO will create gradually repeating envelopes that follow the modulation shape. The envelope features two directions of functionality; to the left, the envelope modulates the drum's pitch; to the right, it only affects the VCA.

The envelope, LFO, clock, and pattern generator provide a wealth of modulation options that help to create surprisingly intricate drum patterns. However, you can also bring external signals into the Kastle Drum or out from it using the I/O port. The stereo TRS jack is bidirectional, featuring a pair of connections that function as inputs or outputs.

The Kastle Drum packs a ton of features into its small chassis. It runs on either batteries or a USB power supply, letting you take it anywhere. It fits perfectly into electronic music systems of any size, from Volcas to full Eurorack systems. While small, it's not a toy, although users of all ages and skill levels can take full advantage of its fun interface.

2020 brought us a wide range of drum machines, with several distinct approaches to sound generation at multiple price points. All-digital drum machines like the Model:Cycles and DR-2 offer unique spins on sound design, while the Kastle Drum and Pulsar-23 promote exploratory patching as a way of mangling sounds and creating compelling patterns and interactions. No matter your budget and no matter your musical mindset, there's likely something out there for you.