A drum machine is considered to be a synthesizer in basic terms. It is designed to replace the sound of real drums by creating drum beats and rhythmic patterns. A major component of drum machines are the sequencers and arpeggiators, which are used to store and replay the patterns.
Drum machines can either create these beats and patterns via analog synthesis or prerecorded samples. In the early days, a bass drum, for example, would be replicated using basic waveforms, giving the instruments a unique sound but not necessarily close to the real thing.
The Roland TR-808 and TR-909 both a made a big impact on music in the 1980s and influenced a range of musical genres from hip-hop to dance to acid house. The unique sounds from these drum machines can easily be heard in the songs around this era and even today.
The process of programming drum machines can vary but for most machines, you can either record in real-time or use the sequencer to step through and build your pattern as you go. Playing live you simply hit the pads on the machine as though you were playing the drum kit.
Step-sequencing means that you place individual sounds at specific points along an 8-step, or more commonly, a 16-step bar. This allows you to build the pattern up over time and gives you more room for fine-tuning and detail.
Key features to look out for in a drum machine are pressure sensitive pads, these pads make different sounds when you hit them. Assigning specific sounds to each pad will allow you to create your own digital drum kit with whatever sounds are available.
A range of built-in effects is another key feature that you should be looking out for. Being able to add new and unique effects to your drum patterns will help you in defining your own original sound.
Lastly, a quality list of factory presets are great to use as building blocks to create your own sounds from. Drum machines are not only very useful for when you don’t have room for a full drum kit, but they are a lot of fun as well.