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Drum machines, samplers, and grooveboxes explained

Drum machines, samplers, and grooveboxes are often used to do the same or similar things. The similarities are so prominent that the term drum machine is now generally accepted in reference to all three in the correct context.

The crossover in functionality sometimes causes confusion around the definition of each and their role in music production. In this article, I’ll discuss what each type of unit does and highlight some differences between the three. I’ll also pick out a few iconic models in each category.

Why you should trust me

Like many others, my initial attraction to drum machines was motivated by my being a less-than-convincing drummer.

James Nugent, author and contributor at Higher Hz

Decades later, I still trust a drum machine more than my drumming despite the irony of trying to make a machine sound sloppier at times, which I am perfectly capable of by myself.

As a pianist, I saw finger drumming as a comfortable middle ground and was immediately fascinated by machines with pads, particularly the Akai MPC.

Over the years, I’ve created lots of finger drumming content, including tutorials, demos, and expansion pack previews, much of which has been featured by Akai Professional.

Although I entered the world of drum machines, samplers, and grooveboxes through a lack of experience as a drummer, I’ve learned the value of these on their own merit, and they have been an integral part of my workflow for many years.

What is a drum machine?

A drum machine is an electronic unit that produces drum and percussion sounds through synthesis or pre-recorded sample playback.

One of the main differences between a dedicated drum machine and a sampler or groovebox is that it comes with preset sounds. Relying on preset sounds rather than user-uploaded samples, a drum machine rarely strays from the most common drum and percussion sounds.

A typical example of onboard sounds might include kick, snare, toms, open/closed hi-hats, congas, clap, cowbell, and maybe a few others.

LinnDrum (LM-2) drum machine
LinnDrum drum machine | Image: Steve Harvey

Although the lineup of sounds is likely to be very similar from one machine to another, the overall sound might be entirely different.

Some drum machines intend to sound like a real acoustic drum kit, others offer far more processed sounds, and some vintage machines have an inherent lo-fi character that is highly sought-after today.

Drum machines were once little more than a practical alternative to a real drummer, but due to the distinctive character of some, many soon became wanted for their signature sound, much like a particular musician.

Along with touch-sensitive pads that trigger sounds, most drum machines have a built-in sequencer, allowing you to program more complex patterns.

Other common features/functions include level controls, tempo, swing, auto-fill, and sound-shaping parameters like tone, decay, attack, and tuning. Functions and adjustable parameters may vary between machines, but not often by much.

In short, a drum machine is typically a straightforward device desired for its specific character.

Iconic drum machines:

  • Linn LM-1 (1980) – “Thriller” (Michael Jackson), “Little Red Corvette,” “1999” (Prince), “Don’t You Want Me” (The Human League).
  • Roland TR-808 (1980) – “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Whitney Houston), “Sexual Healing” (Marvin Gaye), “It’s Tricky” (Run-DMC).
  • Roland TR-909 (1983) – “Revolution 909” (Daft Punk), “Vogue” (Madonna), “Show Me Love” (Robin S).

What is a sampler?

A sampler is a device that captures and plays back digital audio clips. These digital audio clips are samples, generally taken from existing songs, vocals, or instruments.

However, a sample, on its own, doesn’t have to be musical; it could be a recording of anything, like the ambient noise of a busy city or the calming sound of rain or the ocean.

Music-makers typically use samples to produce a remix of an existing song or to form part of a new song. Samples are used as they are or chopped up to create melodic, rhythmic, or ambient content.

Korg Volca Sample2
Volca Sample2 digital sampler | Image: Korg

A sampler captures audio via built-in microphones, a line in, or USB (if connected to a computer). Once samples are stored in the unit’s digital memory, you can trigger them using the device’s controls.

As well as playing a significant role in studio production, samplers with touch-sensitive pads for triggering sounds are ideal for live performance.

While the main function of a sampler is to capture and play digital audio, it often offers synth-like processes, allowing users to alter and manipulate samples. Along with basic functions like truncate (adjust the length), samplers can include built-in oscillators, filters, modulation options, and effects.

Some samplers feature a built-in sequencer; otherwise, you can sync the unit to an external sequencer. Another creative way to use a sampler is to spread a sample across the range of a keyboard instrument to play back at various pitches.

Hardware samplers aren’t as popular as they once were due to the convenience and flexibility of software samplers. However, many producers still favor hardware units, especially in genres like hip-hop and house.

Iconic hardware samplers:

  • Fairlight CMI (1979) – it is not just a sampler but is heavily featured by artists like Stevie Wonder and Kate Bush.
  • Boss Dr. Sample SP-202 (1998) – famously used by Fatboy Slim, amongst many others.
  • Akai S900 (1986) – marked the beginning of Akai’s dominance in sampling.

What is a groovebox?

A groovebox is a self-contained music production unit used to create sections or entire tracks using samples and loops. Musicians use grooveboxes in all stages of the creative process, from production to performance.

Grooveboxes combine three main elements to produce a speedy and intuitive workflow. The first element is a sound source, which could be a drum machine, synth, sampler, or any combination of the three.

The second element is a built-in sequencer that allows you to arrange samples, sounds, and loops into longer sequences. The final element is an assortment of controls, such as rotary knobs, sliders, RGB backlit pads, and buttons that provide a tactile, hands-on workflow.

A large screen (sometimes a touchscreen) typically ties all three elements together.

Akai MPC One
MPC One groovebox | Image: Akai

Some grooveboxes boast extensive connectivity, including instrument/microphone inputs, MIDI, and even CV/gate. So, you can produce an entire song with real instruments and vocals and control external gear via MIDI as part of an extended stage setup. Similarly, you can trigger internal sounds/voices with external gear.

A groovebox is an all-in-one music production unit that often acts as a centerpiece of any production or performance setup.

Producers and musicians sometimes refer to a groovebox as a sampler or drum machine because it offers that functionality, and that crossover is where much of the confusion comes from.

Iconic grooveboxes:

  • Akai MPC60 (1988) – the first of Akai’s MPC series that helped shape hip-hop thanks to notable users like J Dilla.
  • Native Instruments Maschine Mk1 (2009) – provides competition to Akai’s MPC and is still a significant player in hip-hop and electronic music.


I’ve focused on hardware units for this article, and while drum-based plugins and software samplers might be a more convenient and budget-friendly option, there’s much to be said for the hands-on experience.

As far as defining these machines, I think we can summarize them as follows:

  • Drum machine: triggers synthesized sounds or pre-recorded (built-in) samples.
  • Sampler: captures, stores, edits, and plays back digital audio (samples).
  • Groovebox: an all-in-one standalone music production unit.

As a buyer, it’s important to understand the functionality of each device to ensure it does everything you need. But I wouldn’t get too hung up on how anyone references them in conversation, as much as we musicians sometimes like to be pedantic!


1 comment
  • I have a zoom rt323. This machine is was ahead of it’s time. I think they were late 80s early 90s but are still ahead of most new stuff out there.