Are Virtual Instruments Worth It?


Hiring session musicians implies a significant budget for any kind of music project. Not only will you have to deal with achieving an efficient rehearsing and recording session to match the number of recording studio hours you can afford to book, but also with the musician’s punctuality, the quality of the instrument used, how talented the person is, and the right attitude to understand and perform what you desire in your project.

Music software developers brought a perfect solution to solve these issues: sampling real acoustic and digital instruments so that composers, producers, or authors can spend their time focused on making the best music and sound effects through the MIDI tracks of a favorite DAW and route them to state-of-the-art virtual instruments.

That’s the magic virtual instruments can provide to your audio projects, from music and sound effects for films to TV, games, radio, podcasts, audiobooks, and more: great professional sound at very affordable prices, from the comfort of your own home studio!

In this post I’ll present the most important facts you need to know about virtual instruments before you start your audio projects:

  • What Are Virtual Instruments
  • How Do Virtual Instruments Work
  • Virtual Instruments Vs Real Instruments
  • Top 7 Midi Keyboard Controllers for Virtual Instruments
  • What Are the Best Virtual Instruments
    • Where Can I Get Free Virtual Instruments
  • What Virtual Instruments Should I Buy

What Are Virtual Instruments

A virtual instrument is the software version of real acoustic instruments (orchestra instruments) or digital music devices (synths, drum machines). They are used in all kinds of audio and music projects (music, films, games, TV, radio, podcasts, audiobooks). Their sound comes from sampling real instruments or generating sounds on synthesizers.

Screenshot of my PC showing Native Instruments: Vintage Drums and Synths (from Kontakt Start)

You can use free or paid virtual instruments from various developers. If you opt for the free versions, make sure to check if there are enough positive reviews about the developer of the plugin. 

My top virtual instruments developers which offer free and paid plugins at really affordable prices are Native Instruments, Spitfire, and Reason Studios (keep reading below for more details). 

I estimate that 90% of the music and sound effects you hear in music, films, TV, and games, come from virtual instruments. The higher the budget of the project, the better the virtual instruments they use. Even to resemble choirs of human voices, the results are amazing!

How Do Virtual Instruments Work

Everything starts with sampling. It means playing one note at a time on the real instrument and capturing its sound on a sampler device or plugin. 

To obtain the best and most realistic sounds, each note should be played low and then loud. After that, each note of the instrument will be available on a soundbank and can be played using a  keyboard or midi controller.

The following video shows a perfect example of how you can sample a real acoustic instrument to make it available through your midi keyboard controller. The possibilities are really promising!

Once a real instrument is fully sampled, music software developers turn it into a VST plugin (Virtual Studio Technology), which is some sort of mini-software app, that allows the user to see a virtual interface with multiple settings, faders, and knobs to change or improve the sound.

The plugin can be inserted into a MIDI track on a DAW (Digital Audio Work Station). You can sample any instrument you want, by using an external sampler device with a good quality condenser mic, or through a sampler plugin to combine and create new synth sounds.

Free Virtual Instruments ReaSynth by Cockos and Ethereal Earth By Native Instruments – Audioproductcreators.com

Then, the user  (beginner or experienced musicians, producers, or authors) can play any lead melodies, paths, or drum loops on the keyboard and record them on your favorite DAW.

There are excellent free virtual instruments designed by the top music software developers. They are royalty-free and you can use them on any kind of personal or commercial project. 

I highly recommend Komplete Start (by Native Instruments), LABS (by Spitfire), and the 30-day trial version of Reason+ online. 

Virtual Instruments Vs Real Instruments

Whereas original tracks on CD or digital downloads will be produced with virtual instruments in the majority of the cases, the live concert version of those tracks will often be performed by strings, brass, or percussion musicians playing their own high-quality instruments.

To determine when virtual instruments are better than real ones, it’s necessary to identify what instruments will be needed in the audio or music project. Then the composer, producer, or author can choose between presenting live musicians or using the same virtual instruments from the original recording, played from a DAW during the live performance on the stage.

This decision can be influenced by:

  • The estimated revenue per each live performance: check in advance if it can cover the musicians and creators’ fees with ease, after the venue’s rental, audio engineers and assistants, vehicles and drivers, equipment renting, lights and sound contractors, among others, the audience will definitely enjoy live musicians playing their favorite hits
  • How much money will musicians charge per rehearsal and performance session, according to their background and reliability

In the table below I show the main types of audio projects, the most used instruments during the recording stage, and how likely it can be to present musicians over virtual instruments in live events:

Type of Audio ProjectMost Used InstrumentsReal Instruments or Virtual InstrumentsLive Events Most Common Choices
PodcastsDrum kits
Loops
Synths
Pianos
Bass
Guitars
Virtual InstrumentsVirtual Instruments rendered as a single audio track
Audiobooks
Soundtracks
Synths
Loops
Drum kits
Bass
Guitars
Pianos
Strings
Brass 
Virtual InstrumentsVirtual Instruments

Sometimes real bowed string instruments and acoustic instruments
Radio Program (Speech, Music)
Intro & Outro
Synths
Loops
Drum kits
Bass
Guitars
Pianos
Strings
Brass 
Woodwinds
Percussion
Virtual InstrumentsVirtual Instruments

Sometimes real bowed string instruments and acoustic instruments
Video Game MusicSynths
Loops
Drum kits
Bass
Guitars
Pianos
Strings
Brass 
Virtual InstrumentsAA and AAA games would use real orchestra  instruments and other acoustic instruments
Video Game Sound EffectsSynths
Drum kits
Virtual InstrumentsVirtual Instruments
Film Music
(Soundtracks)
Synths
Drumkits
Bass
Guitars
Pianos
Strings
Brass 
Woodwinds
Percussion
Virtual Instruments and Real Instruments
Real symphony orchestra instruments

Synths, drum machines, and samplers are also common in
full orchestral arrangements
Video Courses
Audio Courses
Synths
Loops
Drum kits
Bass
Guitars
Virtual InstrumentsVirtual instruments rendered as a single audio track
Main types of audio projects, most used instruments, and live events most common choices. – Audioproductcreators.com

Top 7 Midi Keyboard Controllers for Virtual Instruments

“A midi controller is an external device you can attach to your audio interface or PC to create music. It looks like a music keyboard or a set of pads and includes a group of knobs, buttons, and pitch wheels that resemble the ones on the virtual plugins. It makes the creation process much faster than using the mouse on your PC.” Audioproductorcreators.com

Having a midi controller is a must in every composer’s home studio. If you are already talented at playing the piano, you may find a large 88-keys midi controller keyboard very convenient.

If you work on the go (not always in your studio), you may opt for a two-octave keyboard (either mini-keys or full-size keys) to carry in your backpack.

In one of my studios, I use a Yamaha DGX-650 portable grand piano, to record piano, percussion, and synths. I’m still fond of my old two-octave Evolution MK-225C, which was my main midi controller as an audio engineering student (a long time ago, don´t calculate my age!). 

It still works really well with my favorite DAWs (Cubase, Reaper) and got me excellent results in Manchester (UK) using Propellerhead  Reason 2.0, which has also been a pro studio must-have.

In my main studio, I use a Komplete Kontrol S88, for full and comfortable piano performance. The greatest hook about it is that it comes (for free) with Komplete 13 Select. That’s why I tend to mention it with more frequency in all my posts.

Go and check more details from my recommended top 7 midi controllers in What Is a Midi Controller and How It Helps You Make Music.

What Are the Best Virtual Instruments

Among the best virtual instruments are Spitfire, Native Instruments, Propellerhead Reason, Arturia, and Omnisphere. You can identify the best virtual instruments by checking how long music software companies have been in the market. It indicates that they have evolved and adapted to the needs of the highly competitive industry. 

If you want to know what are the best virtual instruments, the following tips can give you a better idea of what single or bundled virtual instruments you can choose:

  • Check for videos, interviews, or websites online that discuss what gear and plugins are used by composers and musicians of medium and high-budget films, AA and AAA games, and pop and electronic music production. 

In some cases, producers and musicians do share what plugins they use from scratch to create their music, sound design projects, and sound FX, through promotional videos from those developers. 

  • Also, try to check what choices sound designers and sound effects engineers make during the mixing and mastering stages. Many sound FX are made with synths virtual instruments.
  • Try the free versions of virtual instruments offered by the main music software developers.
  • Contact the most popular recording studios through their official websites, and ask what developers and bundles are included in their studio DAWs for each type of audio project. They will make sure they show their potential clients the best tools they have.

Where Can I Get Free Virtual Instruments

Go to the free download section of the main virtual instruments developers. You’ll be requested to create an account. Once you are logged in you will have access to excellent plugins for free, with 7-day  to 30-days free trials. 

I can’t stop reassuring you that the very best options are Native Instruments (Kontakt Start), Spitfire (Labs), and Arturia (check frequently, as they rotate what products can be free in certain moments of the year).

Now, let’s begin with the details of what specific instruments you can use in your audio project.

What Virtual Instruments Should I Buy

Before you buy virtual instruments consider what type of audio project you will develop the most. For game music and sound effects get Reason 12. For film music get Komplete 13. For music production get Arturia, Reason 12, or Komplete 13. For podcasts, radio intros, outros, and audiobook soundtracks get Reason 12 or Komplete Start (free).

The table below shows the best option in virtual instruments for each type of audio project, based on my number 1 favorite tool. It will save a good amount of time when trying them for the first time:

Type of Audio ProjectDeveloper & BundleInstrument (if you want to buy the separate plugin) & Bundle (incredibly cheap end price)
Podcasts

Audiobook
Soundtracks

Radio Program (Speech)
Intro & Outro
Video Courses
Audio Courses
Developer
Native Instruments

Bundle
Komplete Start (Free)

A medium-high budget production can benefit from Komplete 13
(See in Film Music)
Synths and keyboards: Band, TRK-01, Mikro Prism, Lazerbass, Carbon 2, Space Drone, Newscool, Block Base, Synth, Analog Dreams, Ethereal Earth, And Hybrid Keys.

Loops: Expansions Selection. 

Drum kits: Band, Synth, Urban Beats.

Bass: Analog Dreams, Band.

Guitars: Band, Synth. 

Strings: Ethereal Earth, World.  

Brass: World. 
Music Production

Video Game Music and Sound FX
Developer  
Native Instruments

Bundle  
Komplete 13 Select
Synths: Kontakt 6 sampler, Analog Dreams, Hybrid Keys, Ethereal Earth, Retro Machines Mk2, Lo-Fi Glow, Modular Icons, Massive X, Super 8, TRK-01, Reaktor 6, FM8, Absynth 5, Form, Monark, Rounds, Massive, Reaktor 6 Blocks, Contour, Reaktor Prism, Reaktor Spark.

Loops: Decoded Forms, Indigo Dust, Lilac Glare, Nocturnal State, Rising Crescent, Solar Breeze, True School, Velvet Lounge, Deep Matter, Halcyon Sky, Lucid Mission, Neon Drive, Queensbridge Story, Molten Veil, Elastic Thump, London Grit, Stadium Flex, Spectrum Quake, Rush, Pulse, Scene, Moebius, Mechanics, Drive.

Drum kits: Battery 4, Polyplex, Drumlab,  Abbey Road 60’s, Studio Drummer, Butch Vig Drums.

Bass guitars:  Scarbee Rickenbacker Bass, Scarbee Mm-Bass, Lo-Fi Glow. 

Guitars: Session Guitarist Electric Sunburst, Session Guitarist Strummed Acoustic, Lo-Fi Glow.

Pianos: Noire, Una Corda, The Maverick, The Giant, The Grandeur, The Gentleman, Scarbee Klavinet/Pianet, Scarbee Mark 1, Scarbee A-200. 

Strings: Session Strings, Kontak 6, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++. 

Brass: Session Horns, Kontak 6, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++.  

Woodwinds: Kontak 6, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++.

Percussion:  Kinetic Metal, West Africa, Middle East, India, Cuba, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++.
Film Music
(Soundtracks)
Developer  
Native Instruments

Bundle  
Komplete 13

For medium and high budgets: 

+Komplete 13 Ultimate

or 

++Komplete 13 Ultimate Collector’s Edition 

+++Separate collection (State-of-the-art sound, absolutely amazing)




Synths: Kontakt 6 sampler, Analog Dreams, Hybrid Keys, Ethereal Earth, Retro Machines Mk2, Lo-Fi Glow, Modular Icons, Massive X, Super 8, TRK-01, Reaktor 6, FM8, Absynth 5, Form, Monark, Rounds, Massive, Reaktor 6 Blocks, Contour, Reaktor Prism, Reaktor Spark.

Drum kits: Battery 4, Polyplex, Drumlab,  Abbey Road 60’s, Studio Drummer, Butch Vig Drums. 

Bass guitars:  Scarbee Rickenbacker Bass, Scarbee Mm-Bass, Lo-Fi Glow. 

Guitars: Session Guitarist Electric Sunburst, Session Guitarist Strummed Acoustic, Lo-Fi Glow. 

Pianos: Noire, Una Corda, The Maverick, The Giant, The Grandeur, The Gentleman, Scarbee Klavinet/Pianet, Scarbee Mark 1, Scarbee A-200. 

Strings: Session Strings, Kontak 6, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++. 

Brass: Session Horns, Kontak 6, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++.  

Woodwinds: Kontak 6, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++. 

Percussion:  Kinetic Metal, West Africa, Middle East, India, Cuba, Symphony Essentials+, Symphony Series Collection+++.

Choir: Kontakt 6, Sublime Choir Sound+++, Mysteria+++.
What virtual instruments should I buy? – Audioproductcreators.com

Coming soon: a full description and analysis of the great instruments provided in Reason 12 Reason+, and Spitfire.

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