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Although computers have been involved in the music production process for decades, it was the invention of software instruments that really shaped the way many of us use them now.
Before these came on the scene, sounds had to be created using additional hardware, but now they can be generated by our PCs and Macs.
If you buy a DAW you’ll probably find there are several instruments that come included as standard. You should be able to produce a wide variety of sounds using these alone, but should you decide that you’ve exhausted their potential or that you need something different, you can add more as plug-ins.
Plug-in instruments come in various different formats. It’s important to understand, though, that it’s not just synthetic sounds that they can create: you’ll also find plug-in pianos, guitars, drums, strings and much more. As such, although you’ll often hear people talk specifically about ‘soft synths’, this term can be a little misleading.
The majority of software instruments can now be purchased as downloads from the internet. They’re usually available as demos so you can try before you buy. It’s worth doing this not only so you can hear how the instrument sounds, but also so you can make sure that it runs properly on your computer. Some of the new releases can work your Mac or PC pretty hard.
While we’re on the subject of system requirements, we should mention that while some soft synths take up a tiny amount of space on your hard disk, others are huge - this is because they use large numbers of high-quality audio samples to generate their sounds. Make sure you’ve got enough room to install a product before you hand over your credit card details.
This brings us neatly to the subject of pricing: some instruments do cost in excess of £100, but many others are available for just a few pounds. More still can be downloaded for free.