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What is a Drum Machine?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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A drum machine, sometimes called a rhythm machine, is an electronic, digital drummer. Smaller and lighter than a VHS tape, the drum machine comes with various repeating drum patterns and styles to serve as the backbeat for everything from hard rock to jazz, pop, funk, salsa and hip hop. Tempo or beats per minute (BPM) is adjustable, and some drum machines also include percussion sounds.

Like most digital devices, the drum machine has a LED screen for cycling through "patches" or tracks named according to music genre. "Hard Rock" might be one category, with 10 or more track variations called HR-1, HR-2, HR-3, and so on. Each track within the category will differ from the others in some way. One might use the kick drum on an extra beat, while another might include toms or a cymbal ride.

Preset patches offer the user a wide variety of ready-made choices. Switching to another genre or category offers a whole new set of relative choices. A drum machine can come with several "drum kits" that each have their own "voices" or effects. Other handy patches of the drum machine include beginnings, breaks and endings. These can be stitched together with the standard patterns to preprogram an entire song -- a great tool for soloists and songwriters.

Many models come with pressure-sensitive pads for finger drumming. Pads are each assigned a drum sound, such as bass, kick, snare, hi-tom, low-tom, cymbal crash and more. Play for fun or record your patch to digital memory for later use. You can even record an existing patch while adding your own sounds to it, making tracks customizable.

A drum machine might also include a synthesized bass guitar track. Bass "voices" or effects can include slap, finger, pick, synth and acoustic. It's easy to practice your chops or write original songs while playing with a "trio." Some drum machine models allow you to enter chord progressions to automatically transpose the bass so that it will play along with you, rather than the other way around. This is another great feature for songwriters putting together a demo or recording tunes for their own pleasure.

Drum machines do not have speakers, but feature a wide variety of inputs and outputs. The headphone jack along with the ¼" mono-in for guitar will allow you to play for hours without disturbing the household or neighbors. Line-out can be used for external amplification, to run to a recording system, mixer or other device. Connections vary between models but many also include a MIDI jack.

The drum machine is a basic tool for any guitarist, worth its weight in gold for its ability to provide great sounding drum tracks anytime, anywhere. Practice is much more enjoyable and interesting when playing with a drum machine, and songwriting becomes more inspired. A drum machine is a great gig tool. Program it to accompany your set at the local club.

Drum machine features vary widely, so if a particular function is important to you, be sure it is included before buying. A basic model starts at less than US$200, but drum machines are also integrated into many other devices, including digital effects processors and personal recording studios. If you will be acquiring one of those in the near future, you might save money by looking into those devices as well.

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Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Mar 31, 2014

@Vincenzo -- very true, but the drum machine is just another example of how people took an invention and expanded how it is used beyond what the original designers intended.

By Vincenzo — On Mar 30, 2014

A lot of people don't realize that drum machines were originally developed for the sole purpose of providing guitarists with a drum track so they could both practice and write songs with the aid of a consistent drum beat. They were never meant to replace drummers, but that's exactly what has happened in some musical styles (hip hop, for example).

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