Welcome back to the most exciting edition of my VSTi (virtual studio technology instruments) series yet: the one in which I show you how to build a library of sounds and instruments that would make even the most populated orchestras green with envy.
VSTis differ from VSTfx in that they don’t change sounds; instead, they create them.
These instruments frequently act as the primary plugin on a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software track, or as a standalone programme on your computer, and use MIDI input data to detect and replicate melodies and musical tones.
VSTs come in many shapes and sizes, featuring practically every instrument, retro synth, soundscape, and whatever else some devious engineer has concocted.
Because it’s so simple to recreate popular and obscure instruments, a growing number of composers are opting for digital orchestras and mimicked samples rather than paying real musicians.
While technology has advanced and musicality (articulations, nuanced dynamics, and expressions) is better portrayed in VSTis, they are still not a perfect substitute for the real thing.
When possible, it’s still a good idea to employ virtual instruments as a supplement rather than the focal point of a recording. Even with the most stringent automation and AI learning, real instruments played by human artists will nearly always produce an unmistakable sound.
Studio for recording music
That said, I am well aware that most of our studios (including mine) have a significant amount of space taken up by unnecessary artefacts such as beds, work-desks, and wardrobes, and as a result, we lack the space (not to mention the funds) to host the entire London Symphony Orchestra to record a couple of harmonies for our next song, ‘Untitled and Unfinished Track #28.’
Another advantage of sampled instruments is that not everyone has the time to learn to play the kalimba or whatever other odd sound they like.
With instrument plugins, the possibilities are unlimited. It’s a really thrilling time to be alive. I feel honoured to be alive to witness the capacity to play with limitless sounds, and for concepts that would otherwise never see the light of day to be just a click of a ‘download here’ button away.
Of course, this has had the unintended consequence of allowing one too many DJ ‘insert virtually any phrase in the dictionary here’s to emerge, but I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
So, I assume…
VSTis OF DIFFERENT TYPES
Instruments of Music
As I previously stated, there are an infinite amount of VST versions to explore and add to your burgeoning library. This was obviously a slight exaggeration. If it were true, this article would continue on and on indefinitely.
However, there are a staggering amount of virtual instrument options, and listing them all would be a pretty odd way to spend my time.
If you’re really desperate, just google “list of every sound ever” and scroll through the results.
I’ll skip the unnecessary sarcastic statements and instead focus on the most fundamental branches of virtual instruments that are most popular among aspiring home musicians.
Any exceptions or omissions from my list should not come as a surprise – if you want a digital leaf rustling sampler, it most likely exists, but I think I can be forgiven for not include it among the more popular musician’s tools.
I’ll try to stay away from specific VSTi companies and products that I enjoy in this section because they’ll be covered in more depth later in the article and in future editions of the PianoDreamers’ VST series.
VSTis are most commonly used with synthesisers. There will always be a place for a virtual synth in your plugin collection, whether it’s hardware-modeled pieces like Arturia’s Jupiter-8 V (based on Roland’s synth of the same name), digital wave-table synths like NI’s Massive, or massive sound libraries like Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere.
The digital potential of synthesisers requires no explanation; given their electronic nature, they are logical candidates for conversion to virtual software. Many synth VSTs are entirely modelled and don’t use samples, reproducing a distinctive analogue tone through synthesis, just like their hardware counterparts.
With the exception of Izotope’s Iris 2, which is a whole new ballgame and more of a mini-DAW packaged as a VST than a basic virtual instrument, there are sample-based synths (Stagecraft’s Infinity, for example), but I’ve found them to be less pliable than synthesis-based synthesisers.
Before we go into sample-based VSTs, it’s worth noting that many gorgeous virtual instruments fall within the category of Kontakt (or another similar host like Vienna Ensemble) instruments and won’t work as standalone plugins in your DAW software. To run and change these sounds, you’ll need the base host.
So, if a digital instrument specifies that “the latest version of Kontakt is required to run this programme,” you better believe it.
It’s worth noting that Kontact comes in two flavours: a complete (paid) version and a free version called Kontact Player. Some libraries require the full version of Kontakt to run, while others can run on either, so read the description/requirements of your VST carefully.
The complexities of Kontakt are much above my grasp and what I can accurately explain in this essay without confusing everyone, so I’ll stop there. However, it’s well worth your time to consider Kontakt as THE cornerstone of your sample-based virtual instrument collection.
Guy Michelmore has created a fantastic video that goes into great detail over the entire Kontakt ecosystem and should answer most of your questions about how Kontakt works.
If you have the resources, you may also create your own virtual instruments by encrypting sounds to create a Kontakt library, using iZotope’s Iris, or just dragging and dropping audio files into your DAW’s in-built sampler (like Ableton Live’s Sampler).
KEYS AND PIANO
Piano Playing Giraffe
Wouldn’t it be irresponsible of me not to mention piano on a website called Piano Dreamers? Fortunately, I am not known for being sloppy (in fact, those who have read my previous articles will know that I am the polar opposite), and the world of sampled key and piano VSTs is a lot of fun.
It’s crucial to note that while you can get synth-modeled keys and pianos from libraries like Omnisphere and Massive, or even make them yourself, sample-based libraries are your best bet if you want a realistic Wurlitzer or a striking Steinberg.
I’ve always found piano VSTs to be difficult to master — there are so many wonderfully designed virtual instruments out there, but I never have a go-to option that blows everything else out of the water.
Whenever I enter the studio, there is a different piano for a different purpose (a.k.a roll out of bed at 11 10 9 in the morning).
That isn’t to suggest that these synthetic replicas of famous pianos aren’t accurate — they are — it’s simply that the tone I employ in every given tune is odd and finicky.
EP models, on the other hand, are more all-encompassing for my needs. There’s no reason for this, and this piece of advise may be utterly useless to you, but I’d look for a larger piano library or try out a variety of pianos before making a purchase.
When it comes to EPs, the first one you listen to and fall in love with is likely to serve you well for a long time.
A COMPLETE GUIDE TO VSTS ON THE PIANO
Strings are being played by a deer.
Virtual instruments in the string sector range from enormous orchestras with twenty different samples to singular, painstakingly modelled and programmable string instruments that I’ve never heard of (what on earth is a Balalaika?).
You may get very realistic replications of instruments like lutes and fiddles for a mediaeval tone, or mix a basic orchestra VSTi with a dark synth pad for a cyberpunk atmosphere.
Strings’ potential for use in nearly every genre of popular music goes without saying — but this is on top of that.