A Guide to Virtual Instruments


Feb 13, 2023

If you are recording or producing music on your computer, there is a chance you might have to incorporate some virtual instruments to accomplish your musical sound. This guide will help you through understanding the concepts and qualities needed to use virtual instruments. Now what are virtual instruments you may ask? Virtual instruments are a type of software that are used to emulate the sounds and functionalities of traditional musical instruments. Virtual instruments can either emulate synthesizers, guitars, drums, or orchestral instruments.

Since it’s a digital representation of an instrument, you can use a MIDI controller to play a virtual instrument. A MIDI keyboard combined with a computer, audio interface, and a virtual instrument can act as a digital keyboard since plug-ins can be utilized to replicate a sound of another keyboard. It’s common for most virtual instruments to act as plug-ins within a digital audio workstation (DAW). Virtual instruments also provide a user interface where you can control certain parameters like volume, pitch, modulation, sustain, and more. There are also virtual instruments that can be downloaded as a standalone device for performing live. Virtual instruments also provide a convenient and affordable way of getting a hold of a variety of sounds, different instrument palettes, and having the ability to create professional-level music.

Some notable virtual instrument plug-ins include Native Instruments Kontakt, Spectrasonic Omnisphere, Arturia V Collection, EastWest Symphonic Orchestra, and Steinberg HALion. There are also free plug-ins that are offered in the market which provide high quality sounds and functionalities.

Different Types of Virtual Instruments: Virtual instruments are typically split into two different categories: one being synthesis and the other being sample playback. Synthesis starts with a simple building block of sound, like a fragment of a waveform, which is then generated as a much more sophisticated sound. This recreates the sound of analog synthesizers, which begins with an oscillator that runs through a series of filters and modulations used to accomplish a specific sound. With your computer, this is a process-intensive operation, which means it requires a lot of CPU power.

On the other hand, sampling requires less CPU power but needs much more RAM space. This is due to sampling files taking too much space for your computer. The longer your samples are, the more space you need for your computer.

What to Look for in a Virtual Instrument: There are some questions you got to ask yourself when you are looking for a virtual instrument. Are you looking for an instrument that has a very specific sound or character to it? Do you need preset sounds or are you going to produce your original sounds? Will you incorporate third party applications?

When purchasing a virtual instrument, you need to consider the actual sound of the software. If it doesn’t sound good to you, then you are less likely to feel inspired when creating anything. A good way to prevent this from happening is to listen to demos on YouTube if you’re thinking of buying any virtual instrument.

You also need to consider the user interface of the virtual instrument. Some virtual instruments may sound really good but might have a terrible user interface. If you are finding the UI to be really confusing, then the virtual instrument might not be for you. Try to find some screenshots or videos online to get a visual of your virtual instrument’s UI.

Also make sure to check the system requirements of your virtual instrument to make sure it’s compatible with your DAW. You also need to make sure that your computer has enough processing power, RAM, and disk space available.

Does your virtual instrument also fit with your rig and playing style? If you want to figure this out, make sure your virtual instrument has a guide function that guides you through your hardware controller.

Uses for Virtual Instruments:

Virtual instruments can be used in a variety of different music situations: Composition and Arrangement: Virtual instruments can be powerful tools for composing and arranging music. This enables musicians to experiment various instrument sounds, create sophisticated orchestral arrangements, or layer multiple instrument tracks in a recording. Virtual instruments can give you a vast tonal palette to work with as they can inspire you to generate musical ideas and arrangements.

Performance and Live Music: Virtual instruments have become more popular for gigging musicians who need to replicate certain sounds of instruments live. Musicians can use MIDI controllers, like keyboards or pads, to perform their virtual instrument in real time. This enables musicians to replicate studio production sounds and to have a dynamic performance when playing. Film, TV, Video Game Scores: Virtual instruments can be found in various film, TV, and video game soundtracks. They give composers the ability to create realistic orchestral scores, ambient textures, and other unique sound effects that can help carry a story. Music Education: Virtual instruments are useful tools for teaching and learning music. There are many accessible options for students to practice and experiment with different instruments and their techniques. Normally when you first get your virtual instrument, there will be educational features such as tutorials, scales, chord progressions, and play-along material. Sound Design: Virtual instruments offer various possibilities for sound design and experimental music production. This allows for the opportunity to create weird and unconventional sounds that more traditional instruments wouldn’t be able to create. Home Recording: Virtual instruments are convenient solutions for home recording and DIY production. They eliminate the need for carrying expensive instruments and recording equipment, which allows musicians to create professional sounding music at their home.

Virtual instruments have changed the way we record music and have revolutionized the music industry by offering musicians and producers new creative opportunities to compose music. Now they have become an integral part of modern music production, allowing artists to find their own voice and experiment with different sonic possibilities.

Depending on what you have, virtual instruments can often sound as good if not better than traditional synthesizers or keyboards they are supposed to emulate. Unlike normal synthesizers or keyboards, you don’t have to deal with noisy amplifiers or to retune your oscillators. Instead of being monophonic due to limitations of how they are built, virtual instruments (like a keyboard) can have an unlimited amount of polyphony. Now you can have access to arpeggiators, aftertouch, step-sequencers, and other controls you wouldn’t get in some keyboards. You can also recall any sounds the instruments produce, save them as presets, or store them within your DAW’s session file. The various capabilities of virtual instruments have inspired many musicians to store their favorite keyboard sounds.

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