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Prepare for a few controversial decisions as we run down our list of the best drum machines of all time. From the fattest analogue machines to the iconic sample-based units and seminal early rhythm boxes, we’ve whittled the options down to our ten favourites.

10 – Alesis HR-16/HR-16B

Launched: 1987
Original RRP: $600 (around £375)
Current price: £50-200 for a unit in good, usable condition

For a long time in the 70s and 80s, drum machines remained the preserve of the relatively moneyed music-making elite (LinnDrum for $2,995 anyone?). It all changed in 1987 when Alesis unveiled the HR-16, one of its first forays into the drum machine market and the first truly low-cost digital drum machine. Overnight the playing field was levelled.

Offering an impressive 49 16-bit sampled drum and percussion sounds – including a full ‘ethnic’ set – the HR-16 was both powerful and affordable, and with sequencing duties taken care of across 100 user-programmable patterns (and 100 songs), its studio credentials couldn’t be argued with either. It was also incredibly easy to use.

Sound-wise the HR-16 is both clean, full-bodied and clear, if a bit, well… cheesy (its closely related younger sibling, the HR-16B, has a better sample set). Not that that stopped it from being embraced (and loved) by many thousands of fans and circuit benders worldwide, including Orbital, Leftfield and Autechre.

If there was a flaw with the HR (and at that price, there really wasn’t), then it was the construction, which was notably flimsy, with unreliable gummy buttons and irritating pads. But when it managed to blow open the floodgates to beat builders worldwide these minor failings seem, at best, churlish, and even today the box remains a solid investment.

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  • Freddie Freak

    Good list. Not sure about the 909 in bronze medal position tho ;-0 Learned a few things I didn’t know from this list.

  • sXe

    The Roland TR-909 is a real classic. It’s the probably most overused Drum
    Machine in history of electronic Music. In the 90′s, it was hard to get some Techno Music without sounds of this Monster from 1983.

  • jamnlewis

    there should definitely have been at least one Akai MPC in there!

  • first and last and always


    Er… MPCs aren’t drum machines.

  • Joaquin

    I own the Elektron Machinedrum and it rocks !

  • Cliff

    No Sp 1200? Countless, undeniable classics were done on that alone in the Hip Hop world. Solid list though

  • @Cliff… Mentioned on page 3… “Although not around long enough to generate a huge user base, its younger and similar-sounding brother, the SP-1200, can claim fans and users among a host of electronic music luminaries from Daft Punk and the Prodigy to Todd Terry, the Beastie Boys and the Wu Tang Clan’s RZA.”

  • Kiss

    Lm-1 is missing!!! His many hit records did and does it have ! From prince to Jackson , Genesis, kraftwerk.,,

  • magoni

    The 707 is awesome.

  • trampbaby

    seriously guys Plastik man?? you couldn’t put cybotron’s clear or Beastie’s Paul Revere or an awesome use of 808 in a song? LOL

  • trampbaby

    great job by the way David…there are a TON of ultra important drum machines…in terms of the musical landscape….but these are the most well known..

  • chris


    Nice to see brand like plaia i did not know,
    But where is the drumtracks from sequential circuits?



  • Dennis

    The Oberheim DMX/DX drum machines used 8 bit samples, not 12 bit!

  • Attack

    Dennis, you’re right. We’ve phrased that badly. The DMX/DX samples are stored at 8-bit but are processed using a compander algorithm to achieve a resolution roughly equivalent to 12-bit. We’ve edited it to clarify.

  • Tell_me_why

    I’m surprised that Korg DDD-1 didn’t even get honorable mention. It was a great sounding, affordably priced drum machine, that even had a sampling option.

  • SimonLeBoggit

    Can someone please help me name a drum synth I bought in the early 1980’s (it’s driving me mad trying to remember it). It was a pretty tacky pre-MIDI analogue drum machine with four small hand-triggered pads (kick, snare & two toms). It had a couple of brass coloured buttons for cymbals. Several pots for tone or tuning (I think). The only automated thing was the hi-hat. I think it was generally silver & brown. And no, it wasn’t Mattel. Can’t find anything resembling it on the net. Cheers.

  • Attack

    Sounds like MPC Electronics’ The Kit to us.


    Is that the one?

  • SimonLeBoggit

    Yes! Thanks very much. Weirdly, I’ve just stumbled across it here too: http://www.synthmuseum.com/mpc/mpckit01.html. Phew! 🙂

  • Lasse

    You did bad research. Sorry to say that. You missed the best one…
    Yamaha RY30 in conjunction with
    “The ARTIST SERIES feature samples of the artist at his
    Yamaha Drum kit with a song and patterns by that artist triggering
    an RY30. Using the patterns done by the artist is literally ´like
    getting Dave Weckl or Tommy Alderidge to play on your tune´.
    The patterns can be freely cut and pasted and altered to the users
    —-Phil Clendeninn, Yamaha product marketing specialist

  • neodub

    @first and last and always

    MPCs are drum machines. Not synth drum machines, but sampling drum machines. Still, a drum machine. And I agree at least one should have made it. I’d choose the MPC60 or my all-time fave MPC3000.

  • zaga

    I dont know where you guys get those prices,maybe you could tell me,a 909 actually dont go for less than £2 K easy.in 2010 was possible to get a kicked one for around £1100 but not anymore.

  • SixtyNine

    Spot on most people have no idea how much these machines were used in their heyday! There was some pretty tasty programming going on I bet most people today upon hearing would think was a real drummer. I’m referring to the DMX and Linn Drum in particular. I have a DMX which was the 80’s electro funk AKA Boogie machine!

  • M

    “Spastik” sounds more like a 606 to me. But it’s modded and eq’d and not a great example of the sound anyway. I’m frowning atcha.

  • Syn-fi

    No space for jomox or vermona? Where is the dynacord addone addrive? Prices are all wrong by about £500

  • Fanatic

    I am shocked no MPC made it on this list.


    I think the best drum Machine or workstation ever created is the Yamaha motif brand. We have three in our studio in Los Angeles. Hands down nothing sounds better. http://www.edrcstudio.com

  • Stephen

    The Univox SR-120 has a hidden “feature.” You can press down multiple beat buttons at once (with some fennes get them to stay), allowing beats to be mixed, or superimposed, in bizarre and fantastic ways!
    Here are the insides, aren’t they beautiful!?

  • Andreas

    I don’t think that the Machinedrum is a classic! Put on MPC, much classier 🙂

  • Frank

    The SCI Drumtraks is missing – used by Prince almost as much as the Linndrum 🙂

  • Dingoo

    My DX sounds nothing like on those records.

  • PGregor

    No Roland R8 or 606 but a PIA???… The knife of Autechre first albums!!!

  • JUKE179r

    I am proud to say I still have the HR-16B, TR-909 & TR-808.
    I had to brag. lol
    And I agree with others… the Plastikman track is no way an 808 but a watered down 909. It’s a very annoying track if you ask me. Ack…


    As said above, “Spastik” by Plastikman is apparently a TR 606 Drumatix machine, together with a TR 909.
    Bambaata’s “Planet Rock” or Hashim’s “Al Naafyish” would be good examples of pioneering 808 use, though.

  • Would have loved to see the DDD-7 make the list. Still looking for samples on the net. Really crisp highs and punchy mids.

  • Skylark

    No LM-1 *instantly* invalidates this list. And no TR-808? Doubly so…

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