Let the Beat Drop: Drum Machines and MIDI for Guitarists
In this two-part series, She Shreds teams up with Reverb to guide you through purchasing, connecting, and troubleshooting a drum machine to add beats to your riffs.
Like many, I found my passion for music by playing with friends in bands throughout high school. Playing guitar with others and performing live unlocked that amazing feeling of connection that’s only really possible through musical collaboration. However, when I started making beats I did it with the intention of carving out a space for myself as an independent. I wanted to empower myself to enjoy making music on my own terms as much as I did collaboratively.
These days, with many bands on in-person practice hiatus and no jams in sight, it’s a great time to look inward and find that beat within. We all have it in us, and we’re lucky to live in an age when the tools for beat making are relatively accessible to many different skill levels and budgets.
Earlier this year, music gear marketplace Reverb reported that it had seen a significant increase in synthesizer, keyboard, and beat production equipment purchases—particularly among new buyers. In fact, compared to the same time period last year, searches for MIDI keyboards, drum machines, and MIDI controllers were up well over 100%.
Drum machines and MIDI controllers are a perfect place to start for any guitarist looking to get into beat making. When I record music, I use both MIDI-controlled drum pads and hardware drum machines. In this two-part series, you’ll find a run down of benefits of both formats, gear recommendations, a step-by-step process of setting up your drum machine, and a little exercise to help you make your first beat!
“Drum Machines are the perfect accompaniment instrument,” says Justin DeLay, Director of Product and Category Marketing at Reverb. “Whether you need a simple, almost metronomic beat for practice, or a solid groove to jam solo, a drum machine brings guitar practice to life.”
Table of Contents
Types of Drum Machines
You’re going to come across two main types of tools to create your beats: MIDI-controlled drum pads and standalone hardware drum machines. Both are great options and depending on what style of music you make and how you like to make it, one may be better suited for you than the other.
Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, is what allows your computer to connect to other musical hardware like a drum pad or keyboard. So a MIDI-controlled drum pad is basically an instrument that triggers a signal to play a sound generated by your computer. For this reason, a MIDI controller is a great choice if you’re already using a DAW (like Logic Pro, Ableton Live, or GarageBand) which already has built-in sounds that can be played through a MIDI controller.
A huge benefit of using MIDI drums is that you can edit them after recording, so you have freedom to tweak the sounds as much as you like. If you mess up, it’s no big deal—just fix it in post! There’s also a million places to download super cool drum samples of all styles for free (Samples from Mars, LANDR, Cymatics) so you really have a lot of sounds at your fingertips even with limited gear.
Apart from the technical side, as a guitarist, you may find that the ability to play the pads with your fingers feels more musical than the workflow of a classic step sequencer style drum machine.
Some things to consider when purchasing a drum pad:
- Would you like a controller with only drum pads, or a keyboard as well?
- Would you like your pads to have velocity sensitivity (whether or not the pad can sense how hard you press)?
- Do you need extra features like color-coded drum pads, a built-in screen, step sequencer, or other onboard controls?
- Advanced users may want DAW-specific MIDI controllers designed to fully integrate with their music making software.
Buyer’s Guide: MIDI Drum Pads
Skill Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Hardware Drum Machines
Unlike MIDI drum pads, hardware drum machines generate sound on their own, so their most obvious benefit is that there is no need for a computer. With a drum machine you immediately have all the sounds, knobs, and buttons right in front of you. I personally love the tactile feeling of turning a knob—it’s just super satisfying!
Most drum machines come set up with many different presets to play with. For a beginner this can be a great way to learn what your machine is capable of, and it’s also convenient for someone who just needs a groovebox for practicing. That being said, many drum machines are anything but simple. It really depends on which product you choose and how much you want to dig in. If you want to get a little weird, try sending your drum machine through your guitar effects chain!
Some things to consider when purchasing a drum machine:
- Genre of music you’re playing: What style of sounds can your drum machine generate? Do you have the ability to import your own samples?
- Do you want to program drum beats with a sequencer or do you want to play them live with trigger pads?
- Do you want a drum machine with MIDI connectivity? Can you sync your machine with other hardware or your DAW’s MIDI clock? Do you want a drum machine with it’s own MIDI clock?
- Number of outputs: Do you want individual outputs for each drum sound or is a single output sufficient for your needs?
“Overall, I would start with an affordable, introductory model,” says Justin DeLay of Reverb. “When starting out with drum machines, a good price range to target is the $100 to $300 range. And as always, I’d be remiss not suggest buying used! That said, where you might want to invest a little bit more in your machine’s capabilities will depend on the type of music you want to play. If you’re looking to play more of an indie pop sound, you might want to invest a little bit more to have a deeper sample library. If you’re more interested in an EDM sound, you might want to look into models that allow for more true synthesis and programming.”
Buyer’s Guide: Hardware Drum Machines
Skill Level: Beginner to Intermediate
“This [Arturia DrumBrute Analog Drum Machine and Sequencer] user-friendly drum machine includes USB, MIDI, and CV connectivity, allowing you to integrate it with any music gear and making it a solid pick for beginners to intermediate users who want a drum machine that can grow with them as they expand their setup,” says Abby Santourian, a Chicago-based musician and synth specialist on the Reverb team.
Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced
“If you’re looking to take a more active role in creating your beats and plan to play with your fingers (as opposed to setting the patterns and leave the machine alone), check out the Akai MPC series (Used MPC500, MPC Live upgrade),” says Justin DeLay at Reverb.
Now that you have all the information to decide which type of drum machine is right for you, as well as a few recommendations for both MIDI and hardware drum machines, you’re well on your way to creating the beats of your dreams. Stay tuned for the second part of this series where I’ll go over connecting, troubleshooting, and creating your first beat!
About the Author
Charlotte Friesen is a guitarist hailing from sunny and snowy Winnipeg, Canada. After touring nationally and recording with artists of a wide range of genres from goth to indie pop, she has turned her talents to music production and theatre sound design. You can follow her beatmaking endeavours on instagram @charlottejfriesen.