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Virtual Instrument Showcase

By Moshe Lehrer

Armed with nothing more than a computer and the right virtual instruments, modern day musicians can create just about any type of music imaginable. Virtual instruments have come a long way in the past few years, and if an analog instrument exists, chances are you can find a virtual instrument that can emulate it fairly accurately.

Here's a showcase of some of the useful virtual instruments out there for every musical need and budget.

Synthesizers

Analog synthesizers are big and bulky, and if you're a touring musician, lugging multiple synths around can be a real pain. Fortunately, there are some great software synths out there, both for emulating classic synths of yore and for pushing synthesizers into new, unexplored territories.

If you want a specific classic or vintage synth sound, take a look at the The 10 Year Suite from Arturia. It includes 8 software instruments including 6 emulations of classic hardware synthesizers.

For the classic synthesizers, there's the Prophet V, ARP 2600 V, Moog Modular V, Minimoog V, CS-80V, and the Jupiter-8V. The hardware versions of these synths are incredibly bulky and hard to carry around, but now you can have all 6 of them right on your computer.

In addition to the emulators, The 10 Year Suitealso includes 2 other virtual instruments, BRASS, which is a recreation of saxophone, trumpet and trombone sounds, and Analog Factory, which brings you an additional 3500 synthesizer sounds.

If you're not looking for a specific synth, but are more after flexible synth sounds, you might want to try out FXpansion DCAM: Synth Squad.

DCAM: Synth Squad includes 3 modeled synthesizers they call Strobe, Amber and Cypher. Instead of trying to emulate classic synthesizers, Fxpansion has combined the features of analog machines with more modern features the older machines could have never accomplished.

Strobe, based on classic performance synths, is a simple, straightforward synth with very few complex controls.

Amber is based on divide-down string ensemble synths. It allows you to play up to 96 paraphonic notes simultaneously.

Cypher is a synth for creating analog-style frequency modulation, wave modulation, and variable-depth sync as well as other oscillator processes. It can also act as a conventional subtractive synth, but will give you much more control and complexity than Strobe.

Another option that would give you tons of control over your synth sounds would be the Spectrasonics by Omnisphere. Spectrasonics is billing this piece of software as a "Power Synth". It's a virtual synthesizer that gives you a lot of control over the sounds it produces. You can choose from synth based or sample based oscillators, and it includes a library of over 40GB of sounds. It allows for patch switching and layering on the fly, which is perfect for live performances; and you can delve deeper into its toolset for use in the studio.

Specific Instruments

You might be looking for sounds from a specific instrument for your musical production. Maybe you're looking for a unique vintage tone that's difficult or expensive to recreate without the vintage equipment. Good thing there are some great virtual instruments and tools to help you achieve exactly the sound you're looking for.

Pianos

If there's a specific grand piano sound that you're after, try out the East West Quantum Leap Pianos virtual instrument. Sampled from a collection of grand pianos (Bechstein D-280 Concert Grand Piano, Steinway D Concert Grand Piano, BA Sendorfer 290 Concert Grand Piano, Yamaha C7 Grand Piano), Quantum Leap Pianos allows you to recreate the sounds of these pianos with 3 mic positions per piano, 10-16 velocities per note (and again 16 velocities in soft, sustain and soft sustain pedals), 16 velocity staccato and the software can even detect true repetitions of the same note. You just play the notes on your keyboard controller, and the sounds that come out sound just like the classic grand pianos you've chosen.

If you're more interested in recreating the sounds of classic electric keyboards, you might want to think about the MOTU Electric Keys. Electric Keys is a huge collection of classic and vintage electric pianos, clavs, organs, and other electric keyboards. The Electric Keys has a 40GB sound library of 24-bit/96kHz samples. You can sound like 50 different keyboards from the past forty years.

Drums

If you want to find the perfect realistic drum sound, take a look at the BFD2 Acoustic Drum Production Workstation from FXpansion. It includes 55GB of vintage, boutique and classic drum kits, and allows you to control performance and humanization functions to help make the drums more customized and realistic sounding.

Another great drums option would be the Ocean Way Drums - Gold Edition from Ocean Way. The software includes over 40GB of 24-bit/48kHz drum samples, taken from 19 multichannel drum kits. The drum kits were recorded with up to 13 separate mono and stereo sound sources per drum, giving you much more flexibility when crafting the drum sounds. And they let you mix and match drum kits. Take a snare from one drum kit, a hi hat from another, and create custom kit configurations.

If you're looking for a simple inexpensive drum kit, consider the Toontrack EZ-Drummer Virtual Drum Module Plug-In. EZ-Drummer has 5GB of 16-bit/48khz multiple microphone drum samples. It also has its own internal mixer for stereo and multi-track routing from within the plug-in.

Mellotrons

Sometimes, your music might call for some old school mellotron style sounds. If you've been bitten by the mellotron bug, IK Multimedia SampleTron could be a great piece of software for you. SampleTron allows you to recreate, manipulate, process and stretch the sounds of 17 different instruments, including Mellotrons, Chamberlins, Optigans and their derivatives.

Guitar Amps, Stomp Boxes, and Other Gear.

For guitar players looking for a specific tone, you might want to consider the IK Multimedia Total Guitar and Bass Gear Modeling Software Bundle. It emulates classic, vintage and modern guitar and bass gear. It can get you the sounds of 51 stomp boxes, 26 amps, 33 cabinets, 11 mics and 23 rack effects on 2 rigs.

Bass

Many music styles need a thumping baseline to drive the song. Spectrasonics Trilian - Total Bass Module Software Plug-In could be a great alternative to auditioning a live bass player. Focusing on bass samples, Trilian includes a 34GB library covering all sorts of acoustic basses, over 60 types of electric basses, including fingered, picked, fretless, slapped, tapped and muted samples. An engine to create synth bass sounds completes this collection.

Symphony Orchestra

There are several options for producers looking to add symphonic sounds to their recordings and performances.

If you're trying to recreate all the nuances of a symphonic orchestra on your computer, you should definitely consider Vienna Symphonic Library Symphonic Cube from Vienna Instruments. Symphonic Cube bundles 10 instruments, encompassing 550GB worth of samples including all sorts of solo strings, chamber strings, orchestral strings, harps, woodwinds, brass and percussion.

Or you could buy each of the instruments separately, like the Vienna Symphonic Library Orchestral Strings 1 . The Strings 1 kit focuses on violin and viola ensembles. Featuring over 35GB of uncompressed 44.1kHz/24-bit samples, Strings 1 includes just about every type of sounds you'd expect from an entire violin or viola ensemble. Interval performances of varying styles and speeds, repetition, runs, as well as single notes samples are included.

For a slightly more affordable entry into the world of virtual orchestras, take a look at the Vienna Symphonic Library Special Edition Plus. Covering string, brass and woodwind instruments, the 31GB set includes 44.1 kHz/24-bit samples.

Another option would be the East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra Platinum Complete Plus - Virtual Orchestral Instrument, which gives you control over an entire virtual symphony orchestra, and allows you to place the listener at 3 different microphone locations that help you control the overall tone and sound of your recording. The set includes both 24 bit and 16 bit samples.

You can also add symphonic choirs to your virtual instrument setup with East West Symphonic Choirs - Play Edition. With Symphonic Choirs, you can have a virtual choir sing any words you type into your computer, in any language, in any key you play. The choirs have a surprising range (Sopranos - D3 to E5, Altos F2 to A4, Tenors C2 to D4, Basses B0 to D3), and you can choose from 3 different microphone positions to get a variety of styles.

Virtual instrument Bundles and Workstations.

There are some excellent bundles out there that include many virtual instruments, to cover just about every musical need.

There's the Digidesign Music Production Toolkit 2, an add-on for Pro Tools LE or Pro Tools M-Powered 7.3 and Higher. The Music Production Toolkit 2 allows you to work with bigger, more complex projects with up to 64 mono or stereo tracks.

It also includes 5 plug-ins: Eleven LE (simulates the sounds and tones of many popular vintage and modern guitar amps), Hybrid 1.5 (a synthesizer that gives you the flexibility to recreate the sounds of classic synths), Smack! LE (compressor/limiter), Structure LE (a sample player that includes a library of 140 instruments, and you can also add your own samples), TL Space - Native Edition: (Convolution Reverb to recreate the sounds of different sounding acoustic environments).

There's also the IK Multimedia SampleTank 2.5 XL. Sampletank 2.5 XL has 6.5 GB of samples from all different kinds of pianos, strings, winds, vocals, orchestral sounds, organs, percussion, drums, basses, guitars, synths and ethnic instruments. It has 3 different types of sample engines to give you more control over sound manipulation. It's an easy to use program that can have you up and running quickly.

For a little more power, consider the IK Multimedia Total Workstation 2. The Total Workstation 2 is a bundle that includes 5 virtual instrument plug-ins; SampleTank 2.5 XL, Miroslav Philharmonik (Orchestral instruments, ensembles and choirs), Sonik Synth 2 (synthesizer workstation to get the sounds of vintage keyboards), SampleMoog (16 Moog synthesizers), and SampleTron.

One thing that sets the Native Instruments KORE 2 apart from the other virtual instrument bundles is that it has its own hardware controller to run the software. Kore 2 is a hardware/software workstation that bundles together a hardware controller with 6 sound engines, Reaktor (sound studio), Massive (bass and leads), Absynth (synthesizer), FM8 (FM synthesis), Kontakt (sampler), and Guitar Rig. It has a sound library covering almost any type of instrument or sound imaginable, and it's easy to find the sounds you want through the instrument browser. It's designed for both live performances and in the studio.

Grooves and Loops

If you're looking for grooves and loops to build your music over, you might be interested in the Spectrasonics Stylus RMX Xpanded - Realtime Groove Module. Stylus RMX expanded includes 7.4 GB's of loops and grooves, and gives you many different ways to manipulate them, including integrated FX racks with 27 different effects. One of the cool things about the Stylus RMX is that it includes a feature that allows a user to introduce constantly-evolving variations of the same loop into a track, giving the music an improvised sound.

Not everyone has a dedicated sequencer to mix their tracks. Fortunately there are packages that can be used as a standalone virtual instrument, as well as a plug-in for other sequencers—packages like the Ultimate Sound Bank PLUGSOUNDPRO. With 8GB of sounds in its bank, PLUGSOUNDPRO includes a wide variety of instruments, synths, loops and phrases that you can easily drag and drop right into your sequencers timeline. It also includes a host of useful effects to manipulate and tweak your music, and has features to allow you to direct-sync to a sequencer for tempo, transport, synching, time stretching and other cool tools.

Other

Sometimes, you may feel that the sound of a vintage amp cannot be accurately emulated in a computer. Sometimes, only the real analogue device will do. If this is the case for you, then you may want to consider the MOTU Volta - Voltage Control Instrument Plug-in. With the Volta, you'll be able to control any hardware device that has a control voltage input, directly from your computer. It also allows you to tempo-synch your hardware to your software timeline.

For the aspiring drummer, the Alesis E-Practice Pad - Electronic Drum Practice Pad could be great tool to practice with. It has a built-in metronome, 65 different drum sounds, and tons of games and exercises to choose from.

No matter what type of music you are trying to create, there's a great virtual instrument out there to help you achieve your perfect sound. Enjoy discovering the sonic possibilities of your computer.


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