The beginner's guide to: virtual instruments

Arturia s Analog Factory Experience combines a virtual instrument and a MIDI controller keyboard
Arturia's Analog Factory Experience combines a virtual instrument and a MIDI controller keyboard.

If you tell someone who doesn't know much about the subject that you make music entirely with your computer and software, there's a good chance that they'll assume your tunes are of the bleepy, synthetic variety.

But while it's certainly possible to make all kinds of electronic-sounding music with your Mac or PC, this is only a small part of the modern day sonic story. We don't want to bore you with a history lesson at this point, but it's important that you understand how much and how quickly computer technology has advanced.

Until around ten years ago, the computer's primary role in the music production process was to sequence sounds that were produced elsewhere - in other words, it had to be used in conjunction with separate, real-world hardware. However, in the last decade, it's become possible to produce just about any type of sound you can think of entirely within the confines of your Windows or OS X-running machine.

This is thanks to the arrival of virtual instruments - bits of software that you can load into your computer and use to generate sounds comparable to their real-world equivalents. What's more, these can be loaded into your music production software as plug-ins, making it extremely easy to use them in your songs.

A wide variety

Most of the initial wave of virtual instruments comprised emulations of classic hardware synthesizers, but while these are still available, you now have a much wider selection of sounds to choose from.

Computer hard disks are much bigger than they were - and processors much more powerful - and this has made it possible for software developers to produce stunningly realistic emulations of 'real' instruments, including drums, stringed and orchestral instruments, made up of thousands of samples.

What this means is that, when you hear an acoustic drum sound coming out of a computer, the chances are that what you're listening to is an actual recording of that sound rather than a digital emulation.

While many of these sampled instruments sound amazing, they're not always the most practical solution. Some of the largest ones can literally fill a hard drive - you may find that you need to buy another one of those at some point - and it can take quite a while for certain larger sounds to load.

Some developers still choose to make virtual instruments that don't contain samples, and instead generate their sounds as you play them on your MIDI keyboard. Many of these are synths, but advanced programming techniques mean that real sounds can be emulated in this way, too.

"When you hear an acoustic drum sound coming out of a computer, the chances are that what you're listening to is an actual recording of that sound rather than a digital emulation."

Prices of virtual instruments vary. You could pay hundreds of pounds for one plug-in, but the good news is that many can be downloaded for free (or for just a few pounds) from the internet.

As well as price, the other thing to consider is compatibility. Unfortunately, not all virtual instruments work on both Mac and PC, so check that your computer platform and operating system are supported before you buy anything.

You also need to ensure that you choose instruments that are in the correct format. On the PC side, most are supplied as VST plug-ins, and these run in the vast majority of DAWs. Mac users will also come across the VST badge, though the Audio Units (AU) standard is just as popular. Bear in mind that if you're running one of Apple's DAWs (GarageBand or Logic), any plug-ins you buy will have to be in the AU format.

Four free instruments to try

Togu TAL BassLine
Mac/PC (VST)

This cracking freebie emulates Roland's classic SH-101 hardware synth. As its name suggests, basslines are this plug-in's forte, though it's also useful for creating other sounds - big synth leads, for example.

Native Instruments Kore Player

A versatile and easy to use download that comes with 300MB worth of sounds. These are all created by Native Instruments' acclaimed synth engines, and if you want to add more, you can do so by purchasing one or more of the affordable Kore Soundpacks.

Yellow Tools Independence Free
Mac/PC (VST, AU, DXi)

At 2GB, this is one of the largest free instruments available - make sure you've got a decent broadband connection before you try and download it! Independence Free contains some amazing real instrument emulations, and there are plenty of editing options, too.

Univers Sons UVI Workstation

A brand new software workstation that has amazing potential. You can download a demo soundpack to get you started, while more sounds can be purchased from within the software's interface.

For more advice, check out The Computer Music Special Beginner's Guide (volume 32) which is on sale now.