Prepare for a few controversial decisions as we run down our list of the best drum machines of all time.

1 – Roland TR-808

Launched: 1980
Original RRP: $1,195 (£765 in the UK)
Current price: £900-£1,500

The top spot of any drum machine list surely goes to the inimitable source of the mighty sub-shaking boom that has not only defined hip hop, but has also filled out the low end of generations of dance records.

Launched to an underwhelmed public just a few months after Linn’s considerably more expensive LM-1, the 808 was originally considered as something of a poor man’s relation, featuring 16 unrealistic analogue sounds that Keyboard magazine notably likened to ‘marching anteaters’.

But its lower price point and eventually its widespread second-hand availability may have sealed its fortune. In the 808, 80s producers saw a cheap – and relatively intuitive – means of generating beats, and more specifically, a bass drum that could easily fill out the lower end of a mix – as well as tight hats, crispy claps, snappy snares and an unmistakably honky cowbell. The rest is history.

In the dance music world, the appeal of the 808 – other than that kick drum, which is still layered with other drum samples to craft bass drums that tickle exactly the right low-end frequencies – was its ability to program 12 different 32-step patterns, making it a serious compositional tool. Never mind the fact that it offered no MIDI control, no swing and very few adjustable sound parameters; the 808 played a key role in the development of electro, early techno and house, then went on to appear in virtually every style of dance music since.

So ubiquitous is its use among dance music’s elite that again it’s almost easier to list those who haven’t used the 808 than those who have. It’s no exaggeration to say that the history of hip hop and dance music would have been very different – and considerably more lightweight – without Roland’s colourful ‘rhythm composer’.

As the Beastie Boys memorably noted: “Nothing sounds quite like the 808!”

You’ve read our favourites. Now test your knowledge with our quiz.

Author David Felton
1st August, 2012

Comments

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

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  • 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.

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

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  • @jamnlewis

    Er… MPCs aren’t drum machines.

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  • I own the Elektron Machinedrum and it rocks !

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

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  • @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.”

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

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  • The 707 is awesome.

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  • 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

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  • 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..

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  • Hi

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

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  • NINEHUNDREDANDNINE !

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

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • Sounds like MPC Electronics’ The Kit to us.

    http://www.troperecordings.de/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/MPC-THE-KIT.jpg

    Is that the one?

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

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  • You did bad research. Sorry to say that. You missed the best one…
    Yamaha RY30 in conjunction with
    RSC3071 DAVE WECKL
    RSC3072 TOMMY ALDRIDGE
    RSC3073 MATT SORUM
    RSC3074 PETER ERSKINE
    “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
    delight.”
    —-Phil Clendeninn, Yamaha product marketing specialist
    http://www.synthzone.com/midi/yamaha/ry30/RY30TIPS.TXT

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  • @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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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!

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  • “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.

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

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  • I am shocked no MPC made it on this list.

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  • 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

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  • 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!?
    https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-Bi7z6u8qjEw/Tikp5tboypI/AAAAAAABHZc/LAeIqSdnvhM/w958-h719-no/IMGP6373.JPG

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

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

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  • My DX sounds nothing like on those records.

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

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  • 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…

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  • 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.

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

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

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  • not yet @jamnlewis bc the world hasn’t hear my music yet.

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  • Prince didn’t use DrumTraks. He used exclusively LM-1.

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