Volca Beats / Korg / $159
It would be easy to dismiss the compact Volca Beats as little more than a toy. Put it in the hands of an artist like D'Marc Cantu, however, and entire tracks can be created with little else. That's the premise behind Cantu's soon-to-be-released track "Rival," which was reportedly recorded on a Volca Beats in one take, on the first day he had one. With a combination of analog and digital PCM samples, the drum component of Korg's Volca series carries a well-rounded sound, with the kick especially deserving high praise. Putting together a basic sequence on the Volca Beats is as easy as one would expect, but look closer and you'll find it has some surprising beat-twisting features up its sleeve. With names like Step Jump, Active Step and Motion Record, what many of these do should be clear from the off, but one read through the manual is all you need to gain a complete grasp on things. The Volca Beats is also the only instrument in this list that comes with the option to run on batteries. Combine that with its built-in speaker, and you could be making techno in a tent on your next holiday.
AIRA TR-8 / Roland / $499
For many, the TR-8 will be one of the more obvious choices for this list. Roland made waves when they revealed their AIRA line, and for good reason—their balance of sound and affordability have made the instruments extremely popular over the course of the past year. The TR-8 hits the right notes for producers and musicians looking for a modern replacement for the classic 808 and 909 boxes; with full MIDI control and the ability to serve as a USB audio interface, it's what most people were hoping for when the first hints dropped last year. As for the sound, the Roland engineers obviously spent considerable time getting the DSP sorted. The TR-8 does a pretty remarkable impression of those timeless analog units. This is both a blessing and a curse—the sonic potential of the originals is matched very closely, but as a result, it can be tough to push beyond the envelopes defined by those vintage analog circuits. Roland added a few built-in effects (reverb and delay) to add some variety, and of course stapled on the Scatter module common to all members of the AIRA family. If you want to add some timeless sounds to your studio or live setup and don't feel like dropping thousands on one of the originals, this is without a doubt one of your best options.
Drum 2 / Nord / $599
When Nord released the original Nord Drum unit, their first synthesizer designed primarily for drums and percussion, they surprised many (who were expecting a regular drum machine) by revealing a unit designed primarily to act as a sound module for actual drummers. The Swedish engineers at Nord stayed busy with updates to the original, and last year quickly unveiled the second generation. With full MIDI control and stereo outputs, the Drum 2 falls into a sweet spot for drummers and producers alike. Its six voices can be triggered via MIDI, with the option to play voices chromatically via their own MIDI channel, or by drum pads, including support for both third party pads and the company's own Nord Pad accessory. What sets the Drum 2 apart from the others in this list (other than its extremely compact size) is its unique synthesis framework, which combines subtractive and FM synthesis to achieve physical modeling. Add on to this a tasty set of effects that include drive, crush and EQ per channel, as well as an overall delay, and you'll find you can squeeze some truly remarkable sounds out of this little guy.
DRM-1 MKIII / Vermona / $825+
If you're familiar with the German boutique manufacturer Vermona, you'll know what to expect with the third revision of their DRM-1 drum synthesizer: straightforward, fully-analog quality. Without a doubt, it's the most old-school pick here. Vermona accurately describes it as a drum synthesizer rather than a drum machine because it doesn't come with a sequencer of its own—you can trigger its eight voices either with MIDI or CV (with an optional upgrade). This is a logical choice, since there's no shortage of sequencers nowadays, whether software or hardware. Also, this omission probably helps to keep the price relatively low. Helpfully, you can customize the MIDI note numbers assigned to each voice, making it easy to use another instrument to sequence the DRM-1. The only downside to this frugality is that there's no way to control the sound parameters outside of physically adjusting the rows of knobs on the front panel. Sculpting the voices with those knobs is a real pleasure, though, and the sounds you can tease out are absolutely massive. Each voice even has its own individual out on the DRM's front panel, by way of a jack that doubles as an effect insert point. If you want eight channels of analog beef at an affordable price, this is the right choice.
Analog Rytm / Elektron / $1267
Electron's "drum computer" takes one look at the Vermona's simplicity and does a 180. The Analog Rytm is the newest of a set of recent analog offerings from the renowned Swedish gear makers. Keeping in line with their history, they designed the Rytm with an insanely deep sequencer and an obscenely flexible synthesis system. It was a considered approach—rather than just copying the voice architecture from the Analog Four (their new synth), they reportedly designed entirely new circuits for the Rytm that are fine-tuned for drum and percussion sounds. Like Dave Smith Instruments' Tempest (see below), you can pair those analog voices with your choice of a library of onboard samples (a full gigabyte of sample memory is possible on the Rytm). Unlike the Tempest, however, you can add your own samples to the Rytm by way of MIDI SysEx. This process can be a bit unwieldy, so an enterprising developer has already released an iOS app called Strom that can help shuttle samples to the Rytm directly from an iPad. Elektron is also working on its own computer integration for the Rytm—a system it calls Overbridge—that will introduce VST parameter control, project recall and bidirectional audio streaming, all over USB. (This was scheduled to be released at the end of 2014, but it looks to be a bit delayed at this point.) The Analog Rytm boasts a fully analog signal path from start to finish, including distortion and compressor master effects, but adds digital touches where it makes sense, like sample playback, LFOs and send effect buses for reverb and delay. The result is a well-engineered and well-rounded machine that's easy to recommend.
Tempest / Dave Smith / $1999
If you're looking to get a bit weirder with your sounds, the Tempest could be the way to go. This workhorse may be the most controversial of the options in this list, in the truest sense of the word. Depending on whom you ask, it's either the greatest drum machine in the world or an expensive synth that's been shoehorned into service making drum sounds. There are valid points on both sides of that argument, but those who side with it tend to do so with vigor. (Karenn and Barker & Baumecker have both said it's crucial onstage as well as in the studio.) With six extremely full-featured analog voices that can be layered with a host of onboard samples, there's a lot of creative freedom here. Each voice has its own dedicated output jack as well, allowing you to add your own finishing touches. The sequencer on the Tempest was designed by drum machine pioneer Roger Linn and will be comfortable for anyone who's used an MPC. The 16 pads can be utilized in a variety of ways, from playing samples live to step sequencing, mutes and even playing notes chromatically. Adding to that level of control are the two touch strips that can be assigned to pretty much any parameter you'd like, putting them at easy reach when playing live. The OLED display on the Tempest is one of the best I've seen, period—an important feature, since many of the advanced functions require a bit of menu diving.