Regardless of what you do in your studio, chances are that sooner or later, you’re going to need the help of virtual instruments.
Because unless you have a fully equipped studio in which you can record each and every instrument smoothly…
Virtual instruments totally make sense as they’ll provide you with an extremely realistic and accurate rendering of most instruments, so that you can breathe new life into your projects.
Sounds like something you might have a use for? Then read on.
Table of Contents:
- The 7 Virtual Instrument Categories to Know
- 1. Best All-Around: Native Instruments Komplete
- 2. Best Drums: Toontrack Superior Drummer
- 3. Best Synthetiser: Spectrasonics Omnisphere
- 4. Best Piano: Toontrack EZ Keys
- 5. Best Bass: Spectrasonics Trillian
- 6. Best Guitar Amp Simulator: IK Multimedia Amplitube 5 Max
- 7. Best Orchestra/Choir: Miroslav Philharmonik
Now, for the sake of the post, we will disregard all options that are specific to a certain DAW. Because if you use that DAW, you already know about it.
And if you don’t use that DAW, then you probably won’t be interested in using it anyway.
The 7 Virtual Instrument Categories to Know
For this article, I’ll order the best softwares in 7 categories:
- Guitar Amp
1. Best All-Around: Native Instruments Komplete
For over 20 years ago now, Native Instruments’ Komplete suite has been the most extensive bundle available…
As well as the most popular one, for these reasons:. simply because of the quality of the recordings, the unique instruments available and the huge discount you get for buying the bundle.
Now, up to version 11, NI’s Komplete was available in 3 different suites, which are still available in the current line:
- Select – which is the cheapest edition with which you get 45GB wrth of sounds
- Regular – which is the standard edition with 200GB worth of sounds
- Ultimate – which was the biggest and most expensive edition of all with 600GB worth of sounds.
But with Komplete 13, Native Instruments created a new suite: the Ultimate Collector’s Edition
And as you might have guessed by its name, this is the most extensive suite of them all, with nothing less than over 1TB of sound, which is why it actually comes with its own hard drive.
With this version you get more than 73 expansions and over 122,000 sounds., respectively 28 more expansions and 32,000 sounds more than in version 12.
To get an idea of the level of realism the Komplete Suite offers chek out this video:
Check out the different versions here:
- Komplete 13 Select – (Amazon/B&H)
- Komplete 13 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Komplete Ultimate 13 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Komplete Ultimate 13 Collector’s Edition – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
2. Best Drums: Toontrack Superior Drummer
Yes, it’s finally here. After almost a decade in the developing, the third iteration of Toontrack’s critically acclaimed drum sampler has finally arrived…
And it definitely lives up to its expectations. In fact, it completely blows any potential competitor out of the water, and here’s why:
- All drum samples were recorded by legendary sound engineer George Massenburg in Galaxy Studios, Belgium
- All recordings were made in a 11.0 configuration (meaning no less than 11 microphones were used for each recording) with revolutionary “height” microphones to better capture the ambience
- No other drum sampler offers such advanced features
- It’s ideal for e-drummers
So that’s for the very general overview of this new version. But let’s go a little bit deeper and see where the real power of SD3 resides.
- The Tracker – which relies on artificial intelligence to automatically convert an audio file to MIDI samples. Very useful for e-drummers, for instance.
- The Bleed feature – which is unique to SD3 and allows to use the sounds picked up by the mics “other than the one(s) directly intended for a specific instrument or ambience” so as to create an even more realistic sound.
- Import your own sample – in addition to the 235GB library available, you can also import your own sample and more importantly, you can SUPERIMPOSE them to the already existing ones.
One last BIG aspect of Superior Drummer 3 is the Song Creator feature, which will automatically create structure groove variations according to the initial MIDI rhythm you choose. Pretty sweet, right?
Check out this video to see Superior Drummer 3 in action:
Also check out Superior Drummer’s “little brother” EZ Drummer:
As well as SD3’s direct competitor:
3. Best Synthetiser: Spectrasonics Omnisphere
Rarely before has a music software program been so unanimous…
And if you ask 100 music producers what virtual instrument synthetizers they love most….
Chances are 99% will have the same answer: Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere.
If I had to use ONE word to describe Omnisphere, it would probably be “POWERFUL”…
Simply because the amount of features and tools this software offers is in a class of its own.
But also because of its virtually endless capabilities when it comes to creating and synthetizing sound, be they samples or even nothing at all…
That’s right, this software can not only synthesize pre-existing sounds, but also purely CREATE sounds from scratch, which, to date, NO other virtual instrument can do.
Here are the major new features of Omnisphere 2:
- Import your own samples – oddly enough, the first version of the software didn’t offer this feature
- Redesigned user interface
- New “Sound Lock” feature – it allows to “block” a specific sound attribute as you browse, so that the results all include this specific element.
- 400 DSP waveforms – compared to only 5 available in the previous version, these allow you to modulate and change any sort of sound as you please, be it taken from Omnishpere’s library, recorded by you or even created by the software itself.
But rather than listing a multitude of powerful features, why not just take a look at this video which highlights the biggest ones:
- Click to compare prices – (Amazon)
4. Best Piano: Toontrack EZ Keys
Anybody looking at the EZ Keys box cover will probably think it’s just another virtual instrument piano…
Which it absolutely is, and a good one at that.
But, as crazy as it sounds, the instrument part is not the strongest feature of this software…
EZ Keys’ core strength lays in it’s songwriting assistance aspect.
So how does this program actually helps you write a song? Well, mainly thanks to these 2 features:
- A revolutionary “Circle of Fifths toolbox” – which allows you to change the key of any midi sample as well as enrich a simple chord, among many other features
- The ability to create a whole song out of a simple melody – lay down a simple melody, feed it to EZ Keys and let the program do the rest.
To expand a bit on this last point, just know that by letting EZ Keys figure out the key of your melody, you’ll be able to isolate a bassline and corresponding chords…
Which is tremendously useful and will save you a lot of time during your writing process.
In other words, a great tool to keep you inspired throughout your composing process.
Take a look at this video to see these features in action:
- Click to compare prices – (Amazon)
Now, if the “songwriting” aspect is not something you feel the need for, and if you’re solely looking for SOUNDS…
Then you might want to turn to Spectrasonics’ Keyscape instead.
To put it simply, the both the quality and quantity of sounds available in this virtual instrument is unprecedented.
But don’t take my word for it, take a look at the video below which features renown piano and keyboard players trying out different features of Keyscape, including jazz legend Herbie Hancock:
One last advantage of Keyscape is its perfect integration with Omnisphere 2. So if you happen to use the latter, using Keyscape will be very intuitive.
Check it out:
Finally, if you’re looking for pure piano sounds, as in upright and grand pianos, Synthogy’s Ivory II is regarded as the best in the field…
Since it’s the ONLY SOFTWARE that specializes in this instrument.
Check it out:
5. Best Bass: Spectrasonics Trillian
Clearly, Spectrasonics are a reference when it comes to sampling instruments.
The thing is…
Sampling pianos, vintage synths or keyboards is one thing, but sampling a plucked string instrument is a WHOLE other thing.
Because between the organic sound that comes from a pick touching a string to the one of the string slapping against the pickup…
There is a virtually endless amount of nuances to capture. And so even though we’re still pretty far from being able to play the guitar or bass on a keyboard, there are some seriously good options out there.
And among them, NONE has reached the level of realism that Spectrasonics’ Trilian has.
In fact, the current version is actually a decade old but is still the leader in Bass VSTs, which should give you an idea of just how good it is.
Here are the key features of Trilian:
- 34GB library – each note has been recorded several dozens of time so that you get a different attack, sustain or harmonic everytime you press a key
- Various types of bass – electric, fretless, and even upright.
- Many different techniques – pick, slapping, fingerstyle as well as various types of articulations such as staccato, legato, slide, gliss and many more.
- Round-Robin algorithm applied all over for even more realism, so that no 2 notes sound the same, even with reapeated notes.
- Full Omnisphere integration
To grasp the level of realism in Trilian, just know that Spectrasonics went as far as sampling various different release articulations, for when you release the keyboard key, so that you’ll never hear twice the same.
Finally, the “Bass legends” feature allows you to impersonate some of the greatest bass players in history, such as Marcus Miller, Abraham Laboriel and John Patitucci.
To hear all of these features live and in action, check out this series of official launch videos:
6. Best Guitar Amp Simulator: IK Multimedia Amplitube 5 Max
Some guitar players argue there is no need for a full guitar recording setup anymore…
Now that we have AmpliTube. And to be honest, it’s quite hard to disagree when you consider all the features and possibilities the last version of this virtual instrument offers.
Because the true power of AmpliTube lays in its virtually endless combinations of cabs, speakers, amps and microphones. which you can interchange.
On top of that, you can even MOVE the mic position on the cabinet for even more sound tweaking. Talk about hyper-realism, huh?
In terms of numbers, here’s what you get:
- 107 amplifiers
- 101 cabinets
- 31 speaker models
- 18 microphones
- 44 rack effects
- 107 stomp boxes effects – (chorus, delay, flanger etc…)
Apart from all of these to choose from, you can customize the way you “blend” your effects by using various “stomp boxes” simultaneously, as well as using dual amp and dual cab setups.
Another BIG feature of AmpliTube is that it’s actually a standalone software, meaning that although you can absolutely use it within your favorite DAW, it will work on its own.
And its integrated 8 tracks DAW is suprisingly good. So if you’re just starting out with music production and haven’t figured out which DAW you want to use…
You’ll still be able to record yourself in AmpliTube.
Check out the video below to get a general idea of AmpliTube’s features:
Also check the regular, cheaper and less feature-rich version of Amplitube 5:
7. Best Orchestra/Choir: Miroslav Philharmonik
Here’s another — very — challenging “instrument” to sample: a philarmonic orchestra.
So how exactly do you sample several dozens of instruments, sometimes up to more than a hundred?
Well it seems Miroslav Philarmonik 2 may very well have found the way by recording thousands of different sounds for a massive total of 55GB library.
The thing is, despite how complexe this task is, there are dozens of options available in the market right now…
So why choose Miroslav Philarmonik 2 in particular? Well, essentially for those reasons:
- It’s a full, complete suite of all the instruments present in a philarmonic orchestra
- It’s affordable
- It’s powerful
- It works as a stand-alone software thanks to its built-in DAW
The instruments have been recorded in CNSO Studios in Prague, Czech Republic, which is the prefered studio to some of the greatest contemporary composers, such as Ennio Morricone.
And just like the previous pick of this list, Miroslav Philarmonik 2 offers a built-in DAW and as such doesn’t require you to use an external one.
If you want to see a skilled composer using Philarmonik 2 to write and orchestrate a draft, take a look at the video below:
Also check out EastWest Hollywood Orchestra, which is another very popular option among studio composers:
To conclude this part, I’d like to mention the Vienna Symphonic Library project, which is probably the most ambitious project around when it comes to sampling philarmonic orhestras.
The project started back in the year 2000 and has become the most comprehensive database for classical instruments samples.
They’ve recorded more than 3 million samples and are the go to choice for Hollywood composers and sound designers.
So as you might guess, their products are very expensive, but if you’re considering using them for professional intent, they’re definitely worth it.
Check them out: