Ten of the best vintage drum machines

We don’t need to rehash the importance of drum machines to contemporary music and how revolutionary they were, so let’s cut straight to the chase and have a look at these blasts from the past that the Gearslutz community loves the most!

Note: these are listed in alphabetical order by manufacturer - except the Roland machines which are ordered chronologically.


Akai Professional MPC60

Akai Professional MPC60


The MPC60 was a true breakthrough device that set the late 80s rap and hip-hop scene on fire. It’s safe to say that it's responsible for some of the biggest hip-hop beats and it ushered a big shift in the way music is produced. This iconic machine was the result of a combined effort from AKAI and Roger Linn, with the goal of not only surpassing its contemporaries but delivering a self-contained music studio that could produce entire songs and also record samples with reasonable quality. Above all else, the MPC60 is a beat-making powerhouse, with plentiful sound editing options, powerful sequencing, impressive live jamming capabilities and a trademark swing that spiced up so many great songs.



E-MU Systems Drumulator

E-MU Systems Drumulator

Introduced in 1983 as an affordable alternative to the "market leading" drum machines of the time (namely the LM-1 and the DMX), the E-mu Drumulator is a gritty 8-voice digital beatmaker powered by twelve 8-bit PCM waveforms and a step sequencer. With a trimmed-down design that was conceived to keep costs in check, the Drumulator is not particularly flexible, with little room for sonic tweaking, a very basic sequencer and a programming workflow that heavily relied on a lonely fader. However, it can be connected to a computer (albeit old ones that are probably very difficult to find now) for on-screen editing which facilitated the whole proces. Also, the sonic palette could be expanded with EPROMs - and most importantly, despite being fairly fixed-in-stone the sounds became iconic and made their way to many hit records including early Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears releases.



Linn Electronics LM-1

Linn Electronics LM-1

The Linn LM-1 was a groundbreaking machine in many ways, most notably for being one of the very first programmable machine ever to use samples, with twelve 8-bit 28 kHz - and unmistakable - drum & percussive sounds plus a step sequencer. Designed by instrument visionary Roger Linn, the LM-1 is considered by many as one of the punchiest sounding machines ever made and stands above its competitors in quality. That quality came at a cost though - the LM-1 was released with a daunting price tag that only a fortunate few were able to afford, and it had a very short production run of only 500 units, so you can already imagine that it is still very much a luxury item and with vintage gear being as popular as it is, maybe even more so than it was in 1980.



Oberheim DMX

Oberheim DMX

Oberheim is a name carved in synthesizer history. The DMX was one of the most loved machines of the 1980s and can be heard on many great records from the 1980s. This early digital beast followed the trail of the LM-1 with 24 sampled instruments for sound generation and a total of eight voices. Oberheim also released a scaled-down version of the DMX - called the DX - which compromised on features in order to achieve a friendlier price point. Nowadays both machines are coveted pieces of electronic music history and obtaining one of them for your studio is an increasingly difficult task as they’re not exactly cheap - or easy to find.



Roland CR-78

Roland CR-78

The quirky CR-78 is the eldest on our list but it’s a pioneer when it comes to programmable patterns and also one of the first drum machines to use a microprocessor - hence the “CompuRhythm” name. While it incorporated a digital control element the CR-78’s sound engine is essentially analog, with fourteen drum or percussion voices and a basic four-track step sequencer which required an add-on programmer to use. Its unique sound became classic over the years and this little box has been used on many hit records, especially during its heyday in the late 70s/early 80s. Like many of the boxes on this list, there aren’t many CR-78s floating around and the WS-1 programming module is even more elusive, making it a rare and sought-after machine.



Roland TR-808

Roland TR-808

Easily one the most popular pieces of gear ever made and certainly the most recognisable electronic drum sound of all times, the Roland TR-808 needs no further introduction. Its cultural impact speaks for itself, and only a handful of instruments had a comparable reach in terms of influencing how music is made. It’s not only the cornerstone of hip-hop, but a defining tool for modern music production in general. Ironically enough, the 808 was a commercial failure back in 1981 when it was first released and only 12,000 units were made, returning little (if any) profit for the company at that time. No one could dare to imagine that it would become such an iconic instrument - and perhaps the most desirable drum machine of all time.



Roland TR-909

Roland TR-909

The TR-909 was Roland’s attempt to amend some of the “failures” of the TR-808, trying to be more “realistic” in terms of sound by introducing samples for the cymbals and a different overall tone for its analog section. The 909 also brought MIDI connectors for syncing and communicating with other instruments, a hot feature at that point. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough, and just like the TR-808 it failed to reach a wider audience, the sales figures were disappointing and that ultimately led to its demise. Once again history repeats itself, and the 909s had a delayed renaissance, now viewed as helping to have shaped the aesthetics of techno and house music.



Roland R-8

Roland R-8

Hailed by many of our users as one of the very best all-around drum machine ever made, the R-8 is a sample-based rhythm powerhouse with 32 voices of polyphony, flexible sequencing and plenty of sounds which could be further expanded with cards. A “mk2” unit also appeared shortly after, with extra memory including the classic 808 and 909 sounds, and it’s also available as a sequencer-less 19” rack version. You can still find the R-8s for relatively low prices which if history demonstrates will not last forever, so grab one before the prices skyrocket or they become more rare - and come back to thank your fellow Gearslutz for this amazing tip.



Sequential Circuits Drumtraks

Sequential Circuits Drumtraks

A crafty machine based on 8-bit samples from Sequential Circuits (makers of the legendary Prophet synthesizers) offering thirteen instruments with pitch and level controls and six voices of polyphony, with six corresponding mono audio outputs that makes it remarkably flexible. As a Dave Smith creation it also featured extensive MIDI features including programmable tempo changes and also a novel storage system based on cassette tapes. Although the Drumtraks is a very interesting design it is somewhat of a insider secret - it’s well praised and loved by the industry professionals and vintage synth enthusiasts but not quite as popular with the broader audience.



Yamaha RY30

Yamaha RY30

The Yamaha RY30 is a very interesting digital machine released in 1991, known for its high quality samples, ease of use and good sound editing capabilities. The RY30 boasted a 16-bit/48kHz engine to power the twelve instrument pads capable of layering two waveforms from over 90 available options with plenty tweaking options, a control wheel for quick parameter change, an LCD display and onboard memory with room for expansions. Along with Roland’s R-8, it’s one of the best representatives of early 90s machines, making good use of the increasing capability provided by digital technology.



A few notes:

* Just to make it clear: our list consists only of programmable drum machines, hence the absence of primordial but important units such as the various AceTone models, the Wurlitzer Side Man, Korg MiniPops and others. By this criteria the Roland CR-78 was almost left out as it required some extra add-ons to be programed, but ultimately it was “programmable” so we opted to keep it since it’s hard to argue against its historical significance.

* It’s hard enough to define “vintage”, so our list encompasses a little more than a decade of gear history, stretching from 1978 to 1991 to cover the better chunk of the analog drum machine golden age and also the rise of sample-powered units in the digital era that followed. The youngest machines on our list will turn 30 in just a few years, and they definitely feel "old enough" now.

* One can only imagine how hard it was for us to narrow down on these ten amazing machines and it breaks our hearts to leave some lovely units out, so honourable mentions go to the Alesis HR-16, Boss DR-110, E-MU SP12, Linn Electronics LinnDrum, Yamaha RX-5, and Korg’s original KR-55 and the Electribes. As if we didn’t have enough Rolands, the CR-8000, TR-606 and TR-707 are also highly appreciated by this community and could have easily made it to the list. We could go on and on as there’s no shortage of interesting machines from yesterday to explore. Maybe you have the next big must-have collecting dust in your studio right now...

* We should also note that despite being relatively recent the Jomox and Elektron machines such as the Alpha Base or Analog Rytm are bound to be placed in the 'drum machine hall of fame' at some point - the same applies to the Dave Smith Instruments Tempest and AKAI’s latest MPCs, so stay tuned for our upcoming “best current drum machine” round-up!

For more on drum machines and electronic music production visit our Electronic Music Instruments and Electronic Music Production forum.