Best Drum Machines in 2020



Teenage Engineering PO-14 Pocket Operator Sub Bass Synthesizer Review:


This is the most limited of all Pocket Operators, but that doesn't make it bad. Lots of fun to play with, plenty of fun to jam on, but not great for your only unit. You need to combine this with another PO, such as the PO-28 Robot which would be the lead guitar to this bass. This review will be for people already familiar with POs since it is meant to work in combination with the rest. If you're totally new to the Pocket Operator line I'd say start with either the PO-22 Arcade for 8-bit chiptunes, or the PO-12 or P0-32 which are more complete drum sequencers that work well on their own. On to the Bass...

Pros:

Thumping basslines. Other Pocket Operators have bass, but this one is specifically tuned to make really awesome bass grooves. I put on some good-quality headphones and in a few minutes with this and a PO-28 Robot hooked up I was making such rocking tunes that I was dancing in my seat. Fun fun fun. This thing will get a room full of people on the dance floor.

MSRP is $10 less than POs, so the price is in line with the reduced function as a bass-only-unit.

Like all other POs, can chain sequences and sync to other POs allowing for all sorts of play options. Also has a mini drum sequencer in place of sound 16, so you can make full-fledged tunes (or at least drums and bass) on this one unit.

Cons:

Monophonic. Other POs tend to have up to 4 voices, split between their drum machine and other functions. The sub only has one voice for its throbbing bassline, meaning that trying to do things like punch in extra bass on the fly will just cut out the current voice. This limits the live play options a little, you can't really harmonize this unit at all in live play. However, like all POs it contains plenty of options for effects and bending your notes so you can play with it- just in a specific and limited way compared to other units.

Overall:

This may be the second unit you need to have alongside any other PO. As I said, I hooked this up with the PO-28 Robot and used the Robot as a lead synth. The combination had my head bobbing and my feet tapping. I'd set the Bass to a good bassline pattern (maybe 3x rhythm patterns and 1x break) than jam out lead on the Robot. When I finish a phrase with the robot I could switch to punch in some live effects on the Bass. Back and forth a few times, and I had a killer live set going. For this price and easy of play, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything on the market that can compete. The closest is the Korg Volca line, where one Volca can cost as much as two Pocket Operators.

The Bass is the perfect unit to explain the PO line. Sure, it's limited. There are lots of things you can't do with it. Then again, the unit allows so much expression for so little investment. Pair the Bass with another cheap PO, (and look up some YouTube videos because the included manual is worthless), and you'll be making some record-worthy tunes in minutes. Professional musicians may quickly be annoyed with the limitations of a unit like the Bass, but for me, this is just SO. MUCH. FUN. Would you rather invest a lot more money and time into a unit like the Volca or beyond, or do you just want a portable Pocket Calculator you can take on the train and jam out on your tray table? That's why I love a Pocket Operator like the Bass. I can whip it out on the bus on my way to a destination, spend 5 minutes messing around with patterns, and by the time I get home I'm running to grab an audio recorder to capture my creations. Love the POs. Get one today.



Teenage Engineering PO-33 Pocket Operator KO Sampler/Sequencer Review:


The first time I saw a demo of the Pocket Operators - a YouTube video of the PO-12 Rhythm shot in some dreary, overcast field in Scandinavia - I was blown away. I assumed what I was looking at was just a prototype (nope) and they would rehouse this fragile-looking computer chip...thing in some actual protective case for sale (nope again). But still, it sounded incredible into a powered speaker, seemed legimiately fun to tweak and program, and cost only $60!

We've reached a total of nine Pocket Operator units now (as of August 2018), and while the various models have had their ups and downs, it wasn't until I saw demos of the PO-33 K.O. Sampler that I was "blown away" by this series the way in the way that I was when I first saw that YouTube demo and was introduced to the whole concept. Until now, each Pocket Operator seemed planted in its own little niche, but the K.O. Sampler seemed almost limitless. A credit card-sized sampler that can actually sample 40 seconds of audio via on-board microphone OR 3.5mm line in? Powered by 2 AAA batteries?!? For less than $100?!!?

Of course, you can't triangulate affordability, quality, and depth of features without making some compromises, and there are important limitations you should know about the PO-33. But I find it to be that rare case with music gear where an affordable piece of hardware with notable shortcomings on paper turns out to be much more powerful and enjoyable once you actually get it in your hands.

SAMPLING ENGINE & SOUND QUALITY:
There really are quite a large number of ways to get sound onto the PO-33 and then move them around and edit them once there, so I will try to keep this short. The PO-33 is an 8-bit sampler, which basically means that it has a fraction of the digital "information" contained in a note from a 12-bit sampler or a 16-bit Compact Disc, for example. While I found it to be entirely capable of clear, detailed notes, it does reveal a gritty, raw character on many sounds, particularly when you turn it up. This may come across as "bitcrushed" or even "chiptune", depending on the type of sound involved, but this is consistent with the character of the overall Pocket Operator series. In some cases, the 8-bit audio engine creates a cool, driven effect, but I do have to admit I've struggled with it trying to sample a lot of sounds with the Line In jack - particularly bassy sounds like an 808 Bass Drum, which becomes fizzy and almost unrecognizable. Crisper or higher pitched sound better, and you can work with filter/resonance control to try and improve this further.

The face of the PO-33 has 16 numbered buttons. These represent both the 16 steps of the sequencer, as well as the 16 "banks" for sampled content. Banks 1-8 are "Melodic" samples. By selecting one of these 8 banks, you get control over 16 notes, representing two octaves of a "harmonic minor plus one" scale. (The original sample/root note is located at the "5" key, and one octave lower on the "13" key, so the scales mirror each other on the upper and lower halves, which is nice). This is a bit of a strange decision by Teenage Engineering, as many of their other melodic Pocket Operators were locked in a C Major scale, presumably so those new to music could just mash in notes and play things in key with multiple devices. More on that in the "Workarounds" section later.

Sound banks 9-16 are for "Drum" samples, but here's where it gets a little weird. The default way that "Drum" banks handle samples are to listen for transients and "slice" up 16 samples of different sounds to be laid out as buttons 1-16. So if you sampled a 3-second clip of an "Amen Break", or whatever, it would (in theory) grab different kicks, snares, and hats, and lay them out as 16 triggerable samples. That's potentially very cool, and you CAN adjust the start point and length of each slice, but it isn't a very repeatable or dependable way to set up a new kit. What you can do as an alternative is to copy and paste individual hits recorded as melodic samples into the slots of a "Drum" kit, though that takes a bit of doing.

The way that you sample is to hold down the red "record" button and then either make a noise into the microphone OR play a sound through the left side 3.5mm audio jack. The quality of the resulting 8-bit audio is a mixed bag. Some of the synth notes I tried to sample into the K.O. had a noise floor going on that made them almost unusable. At the same time, I was amazed how clear and dynamic the extremely small on-board microphone picked up noises. As an example, I banged an empty soda can on the table, figured out that the note I made with that was close to a C#, and then made a whole melodic loop out of...banging a can on a table. That's an absurd example of what you could do much more effectively with your voice or an actual instrument.

One minor annoyance is that while the sample doesn't record until it senses a certain noise level, you do have to hold down two buttons at one time, which then makes it hard to produce whatever noise you are making with your one free hand.

SEQUENCER:
I won't say too much about the sequencer because if you are familiar with Pocket Operators, it is very similar to how the other units work. I also think the sequencer is the glue that holds these units together and converts them from "adorable music toy" to "surprisingly deep sub-$100 musical instrument". Although each pattern is only one bar (16 steps in 4/4 time), you can program 16 of them and then chain them to repeat in any order over 100 times. It's almost embarrassing how much more powerful the sequencer is on Pocket Operators versus some "serious" music gear costing 5 times as much. And it's full of hidden tricks, such as the ability to set up to 8 note re-triggers per step. (Start playing a sequence, program a note, and then hold the button for that step while pressing the BPM button to cycle through re-trigger options).

EFFECTS:
The effects options in the PO-33 K.O. aren't as memorable as some of the other units in this series (notably the PO-20 Arcade and especially the PO-32 Tonic), but they cover the basic needs of a sampler and get the job done. You have low- and high-pass filters and resonance control for each sample. There are 15 different effects (plus an "erase" key on "16"), though most of these are variations of stutters and loops. It's still a lot of fun for live performance, and you automate different effects and control parameters within a sequence.

LIMITATIONS & WORKAROUNDS:
In researching the PO-33, I came across a few pretty major limitations that I feared might sink the device. However, thanks to the overall depth of features, and some clever workarounds to defeat these weaknesses, I find that the K.O. Sampler overcomes them.

Probably the most major limitations is that each SAMPLE slot (of which there are 16) is monophonic, while the overall polyphony of the device is limited to four samples played per step. What this means is that if you load "Drum" Bank 9, you can't play a snare and a hi-hat from that bank on the same step. You also can't layer different pitched notes from a single "Melodic" sample on the same step to make chords. I believe the PO-33 prioritizes "Melodic" hits over "Drum" hits. However, you can play multiple "Melodic" samples from different banks at the same time, or individual drum hits from different banks, provided the total number of sounds does not exceed four. You can also copy instruments from the "Drum" banks as individual melodic samples, and the K.O. functions much more like an actual drum machine in that way.

The limitations on the scale are another annoyance, but there's an ingenious workaround I came across online that should allow you to play in any major or minor scale:

Minor scale: The note you sample becomes the root note of the scale, playable with the "13" button. The remaining notes of the Minor scale can be played in this order: 13-14-15-16-9-10-11-5

Major scale: Sample a note that is 3 half-steps or "semitones" lower than your intended root note. So, if you want a C Major scale, sample an "A" note, and then the root "C" will be on the "15" key. The remaining notes of the Major scale will be on these buttons: 15-16-9-10-11-5-6-7.

It sounds convoluted, but try it and match it up to a piano or other instrument for reference, and you'll immediately hear the notes of your scale!

SUMMARY:
I'm leaving out a ton of features, but the bottom line is that this is a very full-featured sampler that's just a lot of fun to use, and extremely affordable. By comparison, the Korg Volca Sample is nearly twice the price, holds just a bit more sample data (65 seconds vs. 40 seconds on the PO-33), and you cannot load any samples onto it without a computer data transfer. It's really the ability to sample anything, anywhere with such a small (albeit fragile) device that propels the PO-33 K.O. to new heights. Its limitations of a piece of hardware are noteworthy, but the musical possibilities with it are endless.



Teenage Engineering PO-12 Pocket Operator Rhythm Drum Machine Review:


This little guy blurs the line between being a toy and being a "real" instrument, and my time messing around with it has been the most fun I've ever had with a synthesizer.

All of its sounds are reminiscent of old school video games and arcade machines. You get an 8-bit Mario fireball "bloop" sound, chord stabs, arpeggios, simple percussive sounds, and each sound can be tweaked in its waveform and pitch. As you play with it, you essentially feel like you're creating a scene in a video game, everything moving to the beat of the music. You punch the buttons on this crazy looking computer chip thing, objects on the screen dance to the music, and you're surrounded by crunchy and crisp 8-bit sounds of nostalgia.

Its physical build quality is exceptional. All the buttons feel very solid and sturdy, and the feedback you get from each button is perfect. You know when you've pressed a button, and you know when you've turned a knob. A weird thing you have to get used to is how naked it is. It's basically a naked computer chip with buttons and a screen on it. Even the batteries underneath it are exposed. None of this is to say it looks flimsy, though. It looks like I can drop it a few times and it'll hold up just fine. Plus, this unique look adds to its personality, and is bound to turn heads.

Musically speaking, it's not the most powerful synth in the world, and it has many limitations (eg you can't do sustained notes, notes are mostly limited to the chord you set the pattern to, everything is cemented into 16 beat sequences). But in a lot of ways, these limitations allow for even more creativity in the way you use it to make music.

One unexpected thing is how small it is. I was expecting it to be small, but it's basically the size of my palm, and about the same size as an iPhone 5 (see photo).

Overall, I love this thing, and I'm sure it's going to be a coffee table piece 24/7 now, so me and anyone else can pick it up and start making some cool beats at the push of a few buttons. This synth is perfect for people who grew up with retro video games, gamers, chiptunes fans, and anyone looking to create some cool old-school video game sounds. Highly recommended!



Teenage Engineering PO-20 Pocket Operator Arcade Synthesizer Review:


This little guy blurs the line between being a toy and being a "real" instrument, and my time messing around with it has been the most fun I've ever had with a synthesizer.

All of its sounds are reminiscent of old school video games and arcade machines. You get an 8-bit Mario fireball "bloop" sound, chord stabs, arpeggios, simple percussive sounds, and each sound can be tweaked in its waveform and pitch. As you play with it, you essentially feel like you're creating a scene in a video game, everything moving to the beat of the music. You punch the buttons on this crazy looking computer chip thing, objects on the screen dance to the music, and you're surrounded by crunchy and crisp 8-bit sounds of nostalgia.

Its physical build quality is exceptional. All the buttons feel very solid and sturdy, and the feedback you get from each button is perfect. You know when you've pressed a button, and you know when you've turned a knob. A weird thing you have to get used to is how naked it is. It's basically a naked computer chip with buttons and a screen on it. Even the batteries underneath it are exposed. None of this is to say it looks flimsy, though. It looks like I can drop it a few times and it'll hold up just fine. Plus, this unique look adds to its personality, and is bound to turn heads.

Musically speaking, it's not the most powerful synth in the world, and it has many limitations (eg you can't do sustained notes, notes are mostly limited to the chord you set the pattern to, everything is cemented into 16 beat sequences). But in a lot of ways, these limitations allow for even more creativity in the way you use it to make music.

One unexpected thing is how small it is. I was expecting it to be small, but it's basically the size of my palm, and about the same size as an iPhone 5 (see photo).

Overall, I love this thing, and I'm sure it's going to be a coffee table piece 24/7 now, so me and anyone else can pick it up and start making some cool beats at the push of a few buttons. This synth is perfect for people who grew up with retro video games, gamers, chiptunes fans, and anyone looking to create some cool old-school video game sounds. Highly recommended!



Roland AIRA Rhythm Performer (TR-8S) Review:


*I had some more time with it, and just started using it as a midi controller for both Reason 10, and Ableton Live 9, and it worked great. It's an audio/midi interface, and transfers both over the USB which is awesome. Sequencing my DAW rhythm tracks is so much more fun on the TR-8S, you can program your drums just the same as if you were sequencing the on-board sounds, it works the exact same way. Or, if you prefer using the onboard sounds you can just send it in as audio. For ever application I have used the TR-8S it has exceeded my expectations big time! I have made quite a few purchases this year, the GAS is real, and this, plus the Novation Circuit, are the ones that blew me away. It's also aesthetically pleasing IMO.*

Just got this recently, and still have a lot of features to learn, and master, and there are A LOT of features! I also have the TB-3 which works very well with this, and they sound great together. Hooking all my gear up, and getting it all synced was pretty easy.

The sound quality on this is really amazing, and all the ways you have to tweak your patterns makes this a real treat to play live.

My absolute favorite part of this device is all the variations you can add to each pattern, and the either auto/manual fill you can set anywhere between 2 and 32 steps. That plus shuffle can make these really come alive, and not sound repetitive or stale.

The built in models of all the classic roland machines sound really incredible. I'm not the person to side by side compare them to the originals and say they're 100%, and I'm not looking for that anyways. I just love how amazing they sound. The presets are pretty awesome, and really help give a feel for what this can do, as well as, help you get started with your own patterns.

This device is easy to use, very easy to tweak live, easy to get tons of variations either automated or done live, and it sounds really phenomenal! It's easy to get up, and going out of the box, but there's definitely enough features here to keep me learning for a while! It even has the ability to add flams, and you can control the gap between the flam hits! As an actual drummer that to me is a really cool feature, among many others.

Don't know if this helps anyone trying to decide. But I at least wanted to let everyone know I wasn't disappointed with what I got, and actually received a bit more than I expected from it, and and I am more than happy. If that ever changes as I learn, and master the machine I will update this.



PAXCESS Electronic Drum Set, Roll Up Drum Practice Pad Midi Drum Kit with Headphone Jack Built-in Speaker Drum Pedals Drum Sticks 10 Hours Playtime, Great Holiday Birthday Gift for Kids Review:


 I've been a musician most of my life but I haven't had any real experience as a percussionist, other than the fun of banging on things which I still do today even as the adult I'm supposed to be. So when the opportunity came along to play around with a portable electronic drum kit, with all of the options that you see here, I couldn't resist.

The Rockpals Portable Electronic Roll up Drum Pad Set is a compact drum kit with several options that I'll detail below. The biggest difference in this model is that it's battery operated, powered by a 2400 mAh lithium battery, which the manufacturer claims will give you 10 hours of battery life. Even if there's a little exaggeration there, that's still a pretty impressive figure and definitely enough playing time to get in a full day's practice or a full day of driving everyone in your house crazy!

The drum pad has seven pads and two pedals. with the pads (by default) giving you the following: Crash, Tom1, Ride, Hi-Hat, Snare, Tom 2, and Tom 3. I say "by default" because the drum pad offers five different options. The default is Pop but by pressing the Timbre button, you can cycle through to Rock, Latin, Electro, and Percussion, as well, with the sounds that the pads make changing as you do so.

To put the pad through its paces, there is a Demo button and this, too, offers multiple options, with a Heavy Rock demo, plus Funk, Latin, Dance, Samba, Cha-Cha, Swing Hi-Hat, and Upbeat Rock. The pad also offers a Click (metronome) button and this was my first disappointment because while there are three Click choices, there is no way to adjust the tempo. Unless your song just happens to be at one of those tempos, you'll be out of luck.

One thing I found interesting is that there is a Special button that allows you to switch two pads around, so that you can either have your Hi-Hat on the outside, with your Snare next to it, or you can have your Snare on the outside with the Hi-Hat next to it, depending on your preferences on on the song you're playing.

The foot pedals also offer independent sounds but this was my second disappointment, as I found them to be fairly noisy in operation, with audible clicking noises in addition to the sounds they are supposed to be making. I would have also liked them to be a bit heavier, more likely to stay put. In operation, they were light enough that I occasionally found them wandering around in use and I'd have to put them back where I wanted them again.

Other controls included with the drum pad are the on/off button (of course), a start/stop button for the Demos and the Clicks, an MP3 input button, a speaker/headphone output, and a USB/Midi output button. I didn't test the latter but the manual says that it will allow you to connect to a computer to play a drum game or to hook up to a music creation program, so that you can create a drum track by actually playing the drums rather than clicking and dragging with a mouse.

The speakers were decent quality and were surprisingly loud, all things considered. Not loud enough that you could use them in a crowded party situation but certainly loud enough for practice use. For anything more than that, you'd want to hook up a set of speakers. To my untrained ears, the sounds were quite good, not overly tinny or fake. I suspect a real percussionist wouldn't even come close to being fooled but for a practice pad, this was more than adequate. And certainly more than adequate for a beginning percussionist or for those, like me, who just want to have fun.

The bottom line is that this is a nice, compact kit, with a lot of options and the flexibility of being able to take it anywhere, since it's battery-operated. If you don't need the battery, if you'll always be playing somewhere with easy access to electricity, then you can purchase a slightly cheaper set. Otherwise, this is competitively priced for what it offers. The only two disappointments were the metronome and, just a little, the foot pedals. Except for those, I was favorably impressed and I can definitely recommend this. I went back and forth as to whether this was a four-star review or a five-star review. I compromised on 4.5 and rounded down since Amazon won't let me give a half a star. Nonetheless, I really did like this drum pad.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided a free sample for this review with no restrictions on the outcome. I have no personal or financial interest in the company or in anyone employed there.



Korg Volca Drum Physical Modeling Drum Synthesizer Review:


I'm a newcomer to the synth/electronic music world, so I don't have a lot of background or experience to draw upon, like the 22 Apr 2019 reviewer seems to have. Then again, a lot of the terminology in that review is way over my head, so hopefully I can put a different spin on what this little drum machine/synth can and can't do. One huge drawback at this point is the lack of adequate documentation, so other than the sketchy outline sheet provided in the box and some interesting YouTube videos you're on your own to figure everything out.

The Korg Volca Drum has 16 "kits", and each kit has 6 "parts" which are basically drum instruments or noises, such as kick, hi-hat, tom-tom, bell etc. Using the available kits you can develop up to 16 programs, although it comes from the factory with 10 program slots already loaded (you can overwrite these if you want to). There are extensive controls to modify the sounds created by each part, and even within a program the same part can have multiple differing sounds. There are other features like Randomize to use a sound on different beats at different times, Accent to toggle accents on specific steps, Choke to prioritize parts over other parts, the list really goes on and on. My issue is actually understanding what all these features do and how to use them, which as I said before is not well explained at this point.

So you have an interesting situation: a very portable device with battery power that you can play with on the bus, that also has midi and sync connections to use in a more powerful home setup, with seemingly endless sound and programming features that are nonetheless elusive to the casual user or beginner (like me). Regarding the sound manipulation, there are 11 knobs to tweak waveforms to your heart's content, and a small display that tries to help you figure out what you're doing, but so far I find this an exercise in frustration. On many occasions, you change a parameter with no audible change, while in a few instances you get outrageous but unexpected output with just a minor tweak. You'll hear this in a lot of the videos, but actually controlling that feature is problematic at best.

Overall I'm happy with my purchase, and am determined to learn as much about this gadget as I can. I'm hesitant to say it is revolutionary, as I have no contextual basis to stand on, but from what I can see there are portable drum machines out there, and non-portable ones with more capabilities and logical workflows, but nothing this portable can do what the Volca Drum does. Hopefully with more grassroots participation we can help each other come up to speed with achieving what the device is capable of, namely some really cool synth patterns.



Teenage Engineering PO-33 Pocket Operator KO Sampler/Sequencer Bundle with CA-X Silicone Case, Blucoil 3-Pack of 7" Audio Aux Cables, and 2 AAA Batteries Review:


Exactly as advertised. Really fun gadget to make beats/ Loops on the go. The mic is also pretty sharp