Virtual Instruments — Software Instruments

What to Look for in a Software Instrument

I’ll keep this as brief as possible (trust me, this is brief considering the subject).

Cost: The first thing you’ll notice about virtual instruments (VIs) is the price. Some cost a few dollars and other are thousands. The price is fairly indicative of the quality. However, the VI industry is changing so fast and is so competitive, prices and quality levels are very dynamic. A $2,000 library five years ago may be surpassed in quality by a new, $250 one.

Quality of Samples: Where a sample is recorded and with what gear can make a huge difference in the sound. Some of the better libraries are recorded in the finest halls in the world, through the finest Neve preamps/consoles, with multiple mic positions and the best mics in the world in each position. The goal, of course, it to make it sound like a world-class performance when you press a key. Listening to audio demos on a company’s website doesn’t always tell the whole story. In most cases, demos are played and edited by pros; it’s not usually the sound you get when you load it up and press a key.

Amount of Flexibility: Usually this is in the form of round robins and different articulations. Some libraries only come with a few options, while others come with everything you can think of and more. Effects and modulations are also important for many music creators, especially when it comes to sampler/synth hybrids and sound design/foley.

Komplete Ultimate 10 hard drive; the library takes nearly half a terrabyte.

Some libraries take hundreds of gigabytes of storage space. Komplete Ultimate is one of the more flexible libraries.

Required Resources: A larger library may take hundreds of gigabytes of hard drive space, plus several GB of RAM per instrument loaded from it. If you have 8GB of RAM on a mobile CPU, there’s no point in installing all of the latest and greatest orchestral libraries. On the other hand, if you have several newer desktops with 32-128GB of RAM each, you can handle much more. When resources are shared between multiple systems, the standard program to facilitate this networking is Vienna Ensemble Pro.

What Can I Do for Free?

For students, the instruments that come with a DAW are usually enough to learn on. Depending on they style of music produced, and the chosen DAW, they may even get a commercially-viable product at the end of the day. Bundled instruments vary greatly in type, quantity, and quality in each DAW, so if you’re counting on them, make sure to do your research. GarageBand, Logic, and ProTools (the full version) are among the most well-rounded. There are plenty of free options out there that give students a lot more options in any DAW.

Kontakt Player Free: This one’s a no-brainer. It gives students the feel for the most-used sampler on the market and comes with a selection of playable instruments.

UVI Workstation: The UVI demo includes some strings, electric piano, drums, guitar, and bass.

99sounds.orgThis site hosts a lot of “sound effects” which include instruments and sound packs, including many synths, cinematic textures and loops, drums, thunder and other sound effects.

Ample Sound Ample Guitar M II Lite and MDrummer Small: These ones are decent instruments, despite having full version counterparts. MDrummer is a Windows-only VI.

What Else Can a School Do?

Students usually get a 30-50% discount on VIs, including most of the best ones (noted below, wherever info is available). Schools can get even greater discounts from what I can tell; most library manufacturers don’t disclose institutional prices publically. Often there is a multi-seat requirement to get the best discounts.

East West is the first major player to offer a subscription model, for those who want to test out the career or get started immediately for very little initial investment. For students, it’s $14.99 (double for non-students).

Careful consideration must be taken before purchasing any piece of software since the shelf life of a DAW or virtual instrument could end up being short. Updates aren’t always free.

The Big Players

Native Instruments: NI is definitely in the media, in part due to the popularity of Kontakt. They offer instruments of all types but aren’t super popular among professionals when it comes to strings and orchestral instruments. Their premiere library is Komplete Ultimate, sold for $1,199 currently. It includes 87 separate libraries and effects and takes roughly 500 GB to install fully. It’s an amazing way to start a library collection if you can afford it. NI also has proprietary keyboards that make it easier to use their VIs (and any other library that’s licensed through Kontakt, including many from other companies). No student discount, but steep institutional discounts and holiday sales.

8dioThis is possibly the biggest library creator in the world. They have a ridiculously large assortment of choirs and just about every instrument you can think of (including some unique creations). Their larger bundles cost more than $1,000. Up to 30% discount for students.

Spitfire Audio: Spitfire’s selection is smaller than 8dio’s, but their sampling and programming techniques are possibly the best in the world. Prices are in line with 8dio, for the most part. One unique thing they have is called Labs—small instruments for a few dollars each, sold for charity. They also have a $10,229 bundle of everything they make. 30% discounts for students.

Orchestral Tools: This is another newer company, but one that’s doing it exceptionally well. The sampling is great and the UI contains things like 12 variations of crescendos and diminuendos, written as you’d see them in sheet music. Orchestral Tools, Vienna Symphonic Library, and some of Cinesample strings all have an adaptive legato engine that adjusts to your playing speed.

Cinesamples: This company has possibly the best option for budget but pro-sounding brass, and their newer strings have a very natural string legato engine that doesn’t take a VI genius to figure out. String legato is the most difficult thing to pull off convincingly in the VI world. 50% off for students! Getting something as simple as their Piano in Blue or Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato can add a lot to the production value of a track that’s full of sub-par instruments.

Other Great Options: East West (EWQL), Project SAM (Symphobia), Vienna Symphonic Library, and Audiobro (LASS) are all great options. Any of these companies offer enough to properly and professionally score a film, and most of them update their offerings regularly with serious innovations. There are many great composers who use each of these (and the above) company’s offerings without hesitation. Of course, everyone has their favorite, for valid reasons.

Spectrasonics: This company makes a bunch of great products, but their most popular is Omnisphere. It’s labeled as a synth, but is more powerful and unique than possibly any other VI out there. The company bundled a lot of their previous, acoustic libraries into it as sound sources, then added many features that simply don’t exist in other libraries; it has acoustic strings and guitar, as well as a host of other sounds and unique instruments played in interesting ways. It’s a must for film scoring and has remarkable performance features as well. Definitely check it out.

Cinematic Strings/Cinematic Studio Strings: This is a newer addition to the industry, but a good contender. They provide only a few simple instruments—a large string library with the essential articulations, a smaller string ensemble, and a piano. It’s a great option if you want to get a pro sound that’s easy to figure out and at a comparably lower price point. 30% discount for students.

Waves: This company isn’t a contender at all in the field of virtual instruments. The only reason I mention them is they recently released a grand piano for cheap that sounds great, and they are No. 1 in audio effects. 35% discount for students, though they regularly put stuff on sale from 50-80%.

There are more than a hundred VI makers out there. Here’s a more comprehensive list of library makers.

Resources for this Section

If you have the full version of Kontakt 5.6.6 or higher, click the image to download an example VI, created with 20 glass bottles.