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.
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
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.org: This 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.
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.
8dio: This 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
Cinesamples: This company has possibly the best option for
Other Great Options:
Spectrasonics: This company makes a bunch of great products, but their most popular
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.