Virtual Instruments are software instruments that run on your PC or Mac computer. Some VI’s emulate ‘real’ instruments and some offer unique sounds. In almost all cases they offer more flexibility than hardware instruments – they take up no space, you can load as many as your computer can handle and you can easily store presets. Some are based on samples, some on synths and some use both.
Practically all DAW software like Steinberg Cubase, Logic or Ableton Live come with their own selection of virtual instruments. While these are usually very good, they won’t necessarily cover all the bases you’ll need, or offer every sound you’ll need. For this reason, virtual instruments are sometimes referred to as ‘plug-ins’, because they add to your existing setup. Slightly confusingly, some also run as applications in their own right, but still come as a plug-in format, so you get a choice whether to use them on their own or inside your sequencer.
VST instruments formats explained
The most common formats for plug-in instruments are VST on Mac and PC; Audio Units on the Mac; and RTAS on Mac and PC for Pro Tools. Most major plug-ins are available in all of these formats and there’s rarely any kind of price difference between them, except in the odd case where Pro Tools DSP versions might be involved. MOTU’s Digital Performer supports the MAS format, but it’s the only software that does. As we noted before, some instruments can be run as a standalone application as well, with no need for a DAW host. Many instruments just exist in a single, feature-complete version, though you do also find ‘LE’ or cut down versions of some. These tend to offer the essence of a plug-in’s sound and features but not the full feature set. The trade-off is that they can be significantly cheaper, and there’s often an upgrade route if you decide later that you want all the features.
VST plug-in sounds and security
There are many types of virtual instrument and they work in a variety of ways. Some synths for example are quite small in size as they use algorithms to generate their sound. Virtual instruments that emulate ‘real’ instruments like pianos or guitars on the other hand can have very large sound libraries, because they use sampled audio as the basis of their patches. ‘Real’ sounds are much harder to emulate convincingly using synthesis than they are using samples. Increasingly these days, sample-based instruments also use some synthesis and so could be classed as hybrid models.
In terms of authorisation, virtual instruments use a range of security methods depending on the developer. Some have simple serial numbers and others use challenge and response systems that lock a product to one computer. Others use a USB iLok 2 key for authorisation, which means you can install the instrument on a number of computers and use it on one machine at a time, wherever you have the key plugged in.
The more heavyweight instruments can have quite high system requirements, but most are reasonable. Synths often prefer a faster CPU as they are generating their sounds in real time, whereas sample-based instruments like lots of RAM because they have to load lots of small audio samples into memory in order to make sound. Instruments usually have onboard effects as well, which appreciate a bit more CPU power.
Virtual synthesizer software instruments
Virtual synthesizer software instruments range from analogue emulations to totally new and unique models. Rob Papen’s Predator 1.5 for example is a cutting edge synth for electronic music and will slot into any dance, house or techno setup with ease. Waldorf’s PPG Wave on the other hand is a recreation of a real hardware unit, so while it’s less flashy to look at, it provides a really authentic and warm sound.
Virtual piano software instrument
Synthogy’s Ivory II Upright Pianos instrument uses advanced multi-sampling and features like Sympathetic String Resonance to bring an amazing level of detail to its piano sounds. Steinberg’s The Grand 3 does much the same and contains recreations of Yamaha, Bosendorfer and Steinway pianos. Spectrasonics’ Trilian is amazing for acoustic and electric basses and has a number of excellent electronic basses thrown in for good measure.
Virtual drum software instruments
Drums are particularly well catered for, with a range of acoustic, analogue and hybrid drum instruments on offer. FXPansions’ BFD2 is an amazing virtual acoustic drum kit software that plugs straight into your DAW. Toonrack’s Superior Drummer 2.0 has advanced features like a specialised MIDI engine and Pro Arranger. XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums are great fun to play with, and NI’s Maschine software paired with the Maschine or Mikro controller provide incredible beat-making tools.
Virtual orchestra software instruments
Garritan’s Personal Orchestra 4 is affordable and contains the Garritan ARIA sample engine as well as a range of excellent orchestral sounds.IK Multimedia’s Miroslav Philharmonik contains both stunning orchestral and choral patches. Native Instruments Session Strings Pro contains a whopping 48GB of string samples and lets you play up to four 11-piece ensembles for a stunning string sound. Arturia’s Brass is a rather unique instrument that uses advanced physical modelling technology to recreate trombone, trumpet and brass sounds.
Other virtual instruments
Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere is described as a ‘Power Synth’ because it mixes multiple sound generation types including synthesis and sampling. It also has masses of onboard sound tweaking and effects capability. Native Instruments’ Komplete 8 and Komplete 8 Ultimate provide an incredible array of instruments covering practically all the bases you need at a very reasonable price. MOTU’s Ethno 2 provides a huge range of ethnic and other percussion sounds.
Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere is hard to beat for its atmospherics and hard-hitting synth sounds, its onboard effects and high level of programmability. It also has a vast 40GB core sound library. NI’s Komplete 8 will also give you a huge range of synth and sample based sounds including Absynth 5, much loved by sound designers and composers.
Virtual Instruments for creating backing tracks for solo guitar/singer
A good drum machine will serve you well. Something like FXPansions’ BFD Eco at costs just £30 for making simple beats. Or there’s NI’s Komplete Elements to consider, with over 3GB samples and 1000 sounds from its bigger brother, covering a wide range of uses.