Beyond ambient or orchestral styles of music, drums are the backbeat of most types of modern music.
When drum machines first came about in the late 20th century, they had very particular sounds built in. A drum machine could be classified by its unique sounds, rhythms, and sequences. Nowadays, drum machines are far more versatile thanks to the fact that these once hardware devices can now be found in VST form.
With in-depth editors, multi-channel groove production, and out-of-this-world effects, the best drum machine VST may as well be an arrangement, composition, recording, and production tool all in one.
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To help you find the right drum machine VST for your needs, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best drum machine VSTs on the market. Some of these drum machine VSTs use sample playback while some of them create sounds using synthesis. And some offer both!
As with most drum machines out there, you will find sequencers built into these VSTs that allow you to jam along. Truly, you couldn’t refer to one of these instruments as a ‘drum machine’ if there wasn’t a sequencer built-in.
Without further ado, let’s dive in and explore some of the best drum VSTs on the market today.
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History of Drum Machines
It might surprise you to find out that the very first iteration of the drum machine as we know it came about in the early 1200s. The Book Of Knowledge Of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, a book written in 1206 by Ismail al-Jazari, an engineer who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey, described a unique device with four automated musicians.
Two of those musicians were drummers. Users could program the drummers by moving the peg mechanism. The device was often used to entertain guests at the Sultan’s parties.
Of course, the first electronic drum machine didn’t come around until 20th century. Leon Theremin, electronic sound pioneer, and Henry Cowell, famed musical theorist, came up with a unique device known as the Rhythmicon, which some referred to as the Polyrhythmophone. The device used a combination of radio technology and valves to generate rhythms in conjunction with the harmonic series. Because the device never caught on and only three were ever made, it became more of an antique than an instrument.
It wasn’t until 1972 that EKO released one of the first truly programmable drum machines known as the ComputeRhythm. With a 16x6 grid and a large matrix of buttons, players could program unique rhythms with ease. This drum machine would become the template for years of drum machines to come, including those from Roland, Linn Electronics, and Akai.
🏆 Best drum machine VST - Spark 2 🏆
Arturia is arguably one of the best software companies out there for reproductions of classic devices. This high-quality and expansive virtual drum machine integrates synthesis and sampling. What sets Spark 2 apart from other drum machine VSTs, however, is its Modular section. With a slew of oscillators, envelopes, filters, and more, users can piece together custom drum sounds.
Upon loading ✅ Spark 2 up for the very first time, you’ll find 180 kit presets, 30 of which are classic drum machine emulations. You can also purchase 14 additional packs. Within the presets lie tons of cool effects, mixing tools, and step sequencing operations.
Spark 2 is completely compatible with the original hardware, which is now discontinued, as well as the brand new LE hardware. Compared to the original VST, Spark 2 has greatly improved song and sequencing modes, expanded REX support, a gorgeous new interface, and a unique modular sound design engine that users can create their own synthesized instrument and percussion sounds with.
Original Spark users know that this VST has been somewhat of a staple solution for quite some time now. New users will not only enjoy the massive collection of vintage drum machine emulations, but also the seemingly endless modulation and tweakability features.
Pros of Spark 2 Drum Machine Plugin
- Incredibly deep tweakability
- Sounds amazing
- Powerful onboard options
- Lots of great presets
Cons of Spark 2 Drum Machine Plugin
- Complex interface
Best 808 drum machine VST - Nepheton 🎯
Most fans of D16 know the company because of its top-notch TR-909 emulation. However, when D16 decided to turn its sights to one of history’s most popular and iconic drum machines, the Roland TR-808, they had their work put in for them. Luckily, D16 has some experience and they were able to 🎯 absolutely nail the classic 808 sound with the Nepheton.
From the classic sounds to the functional step sequencing, everything that you would expect to find on the original can be found on the Nepheton. Of course, as with most digital replications of classic hardware units, the D16 team decided to put their own spin on it. Some of the new features include additional sound-shaping controls, a shuffle knob, simultaneous congas and toms, and, of course, the new ‘Laser Gun’ tone.
✅ The Nepheton is the best 808 drum machine VST because it actually synthesizes the drum sounds, just like the original unit. Most drum machine plugins that offer an 808 sound are relying on samples of 808 drum machines - i.e. recordings other people have made. The benefit of the Nepheton is that you actually get to tweak all of the 808's parameters directly, instead of relying on sample manipulation (which can sound really weird). In other words, you directly change what is being synthesized, instead of manipulate what's already been recorded. This results in much more realistic sounds.
In terms of effects, you’re not going to find anything new or groundbreaking, which is probably a good thing for purist users. However, you can insert your own effects thanks to the fact that the VST has multiple outputs, which can be set to just about anywhere in your host mixer that you please.
While there are several virtual 808 drum machines on the market today, including one made by Roland, nothing has yet to surpass the usability of the D16 Nepheton. This virtual drum machine is very easy to play with, has incredibly accurate sounds, and delivers far more control compared to the original hardware unit.
Pros of the D16 Nepheton 808 Drum Machine VST
- Best 808 drum machine VST
- Sounds great
- Straightforward interface
- Reasonably priced
Cons of the D16 Nepheton 808 Drum Machine VST
- Nothing innovative
Best 909 VST - Drumazon
Next to the 808, the 909 has solidified its place in history as one of the most iconic and recognizable drum machines. The 909 has been synonymous with the sounds of house and techno for decades now. Having access to a 909 VST is key for producers who need to have usable and sculptable sounds in their arsenals. There is no better grouping of sounds to create classic club music.
Just as D16 hit the nail on the head with the Nepheton, the D16 Drumazon takes all of its cues from the original Roland TR-909 while providing users with unique sound-shaping options. The folks at D16 just know how to make thee vintage drum machine VST emulations better than others!
✅ The D16 Drumazon comes with a wide variety of additional controls that allow the virtual drum machine to break the mold of a simple sequencer. With sonic punch and warm, vintage goodness, you can a plethora of sounds and tools to craft one-of-a-kind musical pieces.
It is important to note that the sounds built into Drumazon aren’t necessarily identical to the classic 909, though they do have enough of the same qualities for producers to use it as a substitute. With additional flexibility and beat-making options, we’d probably pick the Drumazon VST over the real piece of 909 hardware any day.
Some of the ways in which Drumazon differs from the original include the ability to manipulate various Tune and Decary controls, which can be very helpful for dialing in the perfect sounds and feel for any production.
Beyond all of that, D16 nailed the interface. The layout is very clean and looks just like the original. Users of the original hardware unit will feel right at home with one of the best 909 emulations on the market today.
Pros of the D16 Drumazon 909 Emulation
- Clean interface
- Incredible sound
- Useful modern adaptations of classic design
Cons of the D16 Drumazon 909 Emulation
- Not 100% faithful recreation of the 909
Best All-in-One Drum Machine - Heartbeat
Now, we wouldn’t normally add a VST to a drum machine list that didn’t include any form of sequencing, though as one of the best all-in-one drum machines on the market, we felt that putting ✅ Heartbeat on our list was crucial. With one of the most versatile synthesis engines of any of the drum machine VSTs on this list, as well as several sampled elements, the Heartbeat drum machine VST can keep you busy for hours on end.
Heartbeat draws inspiration from the Roland TR Series drum machines, though, unlike the D16 emulations, it does not directly emulate them. Within the VST you will find eight drum synth channels, including two kick channels, two snare channels, one hi-hat channel, one cymbal channel, and two percussion channels. All of the drums can be edited using the global settings, including Velocity, Attack, Decay, Pitch, and Time Gate.
Beyond the drums, you will also find a MIDI input processor. The MIDI input processor is where things get interesting, as users have the ability to layer or trigger sounds with it. Once you have your MIDI loaded up, you can use the powerful, built-in master bus processing to get your sounds right where you want them.
Heartbeat has two aux effects, including the TSAR-1D Algorithmic Reverb and the Filter Echo. Beyond that, you can process your drum sounds using the VCA-style Dyna-Mite module and the Master Bus EQ.
Softube, the company that designed Heartbeat, is known for crafting VSTs with flawless analog authenticity and detailed editing systems. Heartbeat has both of those, making it an excellent option for those who want a powerful, thunderous, and entertaining drum machine that they can use for just about any production. While this drum machine is not the best for achieving perfect emulations of classic sounds, it is rather spectacular considering its extensive capabilities.
Pros of Heartbeat
- Powerful sounds
- Great interface
- Best-in-class onboard effects
Cons of Heartbeat
- No built in sequencer
- Not an emulation (if you even care)
Best Drum Machine for Programming Beats - Breaktweaker
Breaktweaker is the ultimate drum machine VST for programming beats and we can’t think of a drum machine that is more fun to use. From sample wrangling to beat manipulation, the possibilities are endless with this one-of-a-kind Izotope drum machine VST. Breaktweaker is perfect for those who like to mash, chop, and mangle beats to create sounds and rhythms never heard before.
Breaktweaker combines a powerful synthesis engine with sampling to give users the best of both worlds. The sound design possibilities are limitless. BT, the iconic Trance and IDM producer who helped design Breaktweaker, provided most of the sounds as well, so you know you’re getting high-quality samples and presets.
The real value of ✅ Breaktweaker comes through with the synthesized drum designer. You’ll find two wavetable oscillators, perfect for building sounds from scratch. From deep and percussive to weird and wild, you can build just about any sound that you can imagine. The sequencer pushes creativity even further, allowing you to transform patterns that you create to take them somewhere completely different than where you started.
The MicroEdit section is where in-depth users find a haven, as this section allows you to create stuttering beats, chop up step sequencer sections, and use effects to mash and mangle your sounds. In our eyes, it is the MicroEdit section that truly sets Breaktweaker apart from other drum machine VSTs on the market today. You can use the section to generate subtlety and movement to help your beats cut through your instrumental tracks.
In many ways, Breakttweaker takes a very similar approach to classic drum machines in terms of rhythm-making. However, with so many additional features for a rollercoaster of beat-making and tweaking, it’s almost as if Izotope has made an instrument all its own.
Pros of Breaktweaker Drum Machine
- Incredible tonal sophistication
- Besti-in-class programming for glitchy, stuttery beats
- Best modern drum machine for EDM & IDM
Cons of Breaktweaker Drum Machine
- Complex interface
- UI is hard to look at for long periods
Best Value Drum Machine - Kong (Included as part of Reason+)
Users of Reason+ will enjoy Kong, which is included in the company’s software. There are 16 pads found on the interface, perfect to awe and inspire. You can use synthesis, samples, loops, physical modeling, and effects to build the beats you’ve been dreaming of. If you want to learn more about Reason+, check out the full Reason+ review here.
Kong isn’t your typical drum module. We see this unique VST as a sound provider, meaning it gives you options to build the sounds in your head rather than relying on sounds of the past. There are nine different drum modules to make use of and 11 effects and support generators. With Reason’s alternating groups, powerful sequencing, and program automation, you can craft unique beats. On top of that, Reason+ includes a massive - and growing sample library.
Some of the included drum modules that you’ll find include the synth bass drum, the synth snare, the synth hi-hat, the synth tom tom, the physical bass drum, the physical snare drum, and the physical tom tom. We love the addition of the physical drums, as they work well in organic productions. With various modeling capabilities and hit types, you can make these organic drum samples sound like a wide range of drums.
The Sample Player NN-Nano module is a multi-layered sampler and sample player that allows you to build your own drum samples from scratch using layering techniques. With onboard velocity switching, you can program samples to pop up depending on velocity levels that you set. You can also easily use the Kong to chop up other samples like a traditional MPC.
A few cool features found in the interface include the Noise and Tone support generators. The Noise generator adds noise to your sound, as the name suggests, while the Tone generator can add anything from speaker-shaking subs to ear-piercing high notes.
Where the Kong drum machine truly excels is the Effects section, which allows users to manipulate their sounds with nine different effects modules. Because the drum machine runs with ✅ Reason, it is very easy to use Kong as a separate effects module or route external effects into Kong.
Pros of Using Kong for Your Drums
- Powerful options
- Great onboard programming
- Massive sound library
- Great value
Cons of Using Kong for Your Drums
- If you really want to dive into Reason, there is a learning curve (that's why I've created the course Learn Reason in an Afternoon)
- You don't like subscriptions
Best Free Drums Plugin - Beat Factory Drums
If you’re looking to get high-quality sounds without breaking the bank, you might consider the free Beat Factory Drum VST plugin. Even with its $0 price tag, this VST packs quite a punch with high-quality samples built-in.
One of the best things about Beat Factory is its completely tweakable ASDR parameters. Plus, there is a volume knob and pan pot for each of the sample pads. You can manipulate your drum sounds to fit them perfectly within any style of production. All of the samples come from the MPC 2500, which the VST was modeled after.
One thing we found quite cool was the fact that this particular drum machine was sampled using high-end outboard gear. Most free drum machine plugins out there don’t have this high of fidelity and it’s noticeable.
With Beat Factory Drums, you get 10 kits to start yourself off with. While you don’t get a versatile effects section with Beat Factory Drums, you do get a helpful reverb module to add a bit of space and depth to your drum grooves.
Drum Machine VST FAQ
Here we'll answer a few of the most common questions we get about drum machine plugins! If you have any questions, or thoughts, please leave a comment below!
What is a drum machine?
In hardware terms, a drum machine is a physical unit that imitates the sounds of electronic drums and percussion using sequencer operations. Typically, drum machines are shaped like small boxes and are the size of a typical computer keyboard. Some of the key components found on most drum machines include buttons, knobs, and pads.
Drum machines are most often used in electronic music, though are excellent for programming unique sequences in other styles of music, such as folk, rock, and pop. While physical drum machines had been around since the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that software emulations began taking over the market.
What is an 808?
An 808 is a unique - and iconic - electronic drum sound that stems from the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Some characteristics of an 808 include low-end sub and punch. One unique thing about the 808 drum is that it can be tuned to a wide variety of pitches to fit into just about any production. The base of an 808 drum is static noise, which was meticulously programmed to emulate the sound of a deep, resonant kick drum.
Of course, the 808 sound has come a long way since the original drum machine. With new distortion, compression, and ADSR capabilities, producers have transformed the 808 in numerous ways over the years.
How to Make Drum Machines Sound better?
There is so much you can do to make your programmed drums sound even better. From layering claps to adding shuffle, here are the 5 drum programming tricks every producer should know.
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