PART 2: THE SOUNDS YOU NEED, Section 1: Virtual acoustic instruments
The character and identity of your computer music set-up is defined by the sounds from the virtual instruments, synths and effects that you choose to use within it. The market for these packages, also known as plug-ins, has exploded in recent years and now you can recreate pretty much every ‘real’ instrument and effect ever created in software, plus a load of stuff never even made in hardware! In fact there are so many virtual instruments and effects packages out there that we’ve decided to break this section down into three sub sections: virtual acoustic instruments, virtual electronic instruments and virtual effects.
Section 1: Virtual acoustic instruments
In this section we’re looking at all instruments available in software other than electronic synthesisers and drum machines. This means that we’ll discuss everything from full on orchestral instruments to human voice emulations plus guitar, brass, woodwind and other instruments along the way. We’ve even included a section for the more obscure world instruments that you can recreate in software. In short, if you can think of a real world instrument, you’ll be able to buy it for your virtual one from the following…
Recreating the sound of brass has always been a personal bugbear but then I’ve been around long enough to remember the ancient synths that did it terribly! Thankfully, the latest software is far more capable and there’s a lot to choose from. You can, of course, get brass emulations as part of orchestral software packages, but for this section we’ll concentrate on those that simply offer brass…
Arturia Brass (£199) is an instrument with modelling technology developed through research with the finest ears at IRCAM and promises some of the best emulations of trumpet, sax and trombone, all created in real time. It’s very easy to set up and use and there’s a riff library to trigger the sounds or you can play them via MIDI with a keyboard or breath controller.
If it’s just saxophone that you’re after then Linplug’s Saxlab (£89) is your best bet featuring emulation of the various sax family models, effects and lots of real-time editing possibilities behind an easy to use interface.
While both of these are have their own unique playing front ends, there are also collections of sounds that are sold with standard sample players like Native Instrument’s Kontakt/Intakt player. The first of these is EastWest’s Symphonic Orchestra Platinum 3 (£249). It’s a huge collection featuring French horns, solo horns, trumpets and many other instruments.
Another big set of brass sounds sold at Dolphin is the Sonic Implants Symphonic Implants Collection for GigaStudio 2 and 3. At £499 it is the most expensive but also offers great flexibility in terms of brass orchestration with the original players recorded in different orchestral sizes.
This section of instruments is dedicated to reproducing acoustic stringed instruments (as opposed to something like the Mellotron, or pads from synthesisers). It is dominated by the sample collection focussed products by Sonic Labs and East West. Once again, though, they are still virtual instruments in the sense that they have been formatted to play through popular soft samplers or are supplied as complete sample players including a copy of NI’s Kontakt/Intakt sample player.
Sonic Implants have once again supplied a huge collection with their Strings Collection (£499) which is available for GigaStudio2/3, Kontakt and EXS24 formats. It includes a massive library of orchestral string sounds (1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos and so on) recorded in their natural orchestral position. As with Brass, EastWest have a Symphonic Platinum 1 collection available for £399 that covers strings. It covers a whole selection of styles for violin, harp, viola, cello and bass and comes with the now standard EastWest/NI sample player.
Applied Acoustics Systems weigh in with String Studio VS-1 (£109.99) which is essentially a string synthesiser that uses modelling technology to recreate the sounds of guitars, harps, bowed instruments and others.
Yep, you guessed it, where Sonic Implants and EastWest dominated both brass and strings, it was almost inevitable that these two giants of the sampling world would also have competing woodwind collections. And, again, where Sonic Implants arguably have the bigger collection of samples, EastWest have the NI sample player included and the edge on price.
Sonic Implants Symphonic Woodwind Collection for GigaStudio 3 is again £499 and features impeccable recordings of solo and ensemble piccolo, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes, and English horns. EastWest’s Symphonic Orchestra Volume 2 (£399) is their woodwind collection, once again pumped through NI’s Kontakt for maximum ‘all you need’ flexibility. Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and more are present and correct.
There are so many instruments around the world that people hit with sticks that it’s no surprise that the virtual percussion instrument market is huge! EastWest weigh in with Percussive Adventures 2 (£179) uses NI’s Intakt sample engine to play back hugely-inspirational loops and sounds that have garnered some great reviews. Symphonic Orchestra volume 4 (£249) features concert hall recordings of several instruments including timpani, chimes, gongs, basses, snares and, of course, the triangle! Sonic Implants are, of course, right here with their Symphonic Percussion Collection (£380) featuring a huge collection of samples from 50 instruments.
ZeroG offer some very distinct packages. Altered States (£199) is a fine instrument for off the wall percussion and uses an NI front end to play atmospheric loops, pads, effects and beats. Beats Working – In Cuba (£189) is what you’d expect: recordings of the finest players that Cuba has to offer and played back via an NI Intakt front end.
Wizoo’s Latigo (£159) has ‘no boring loops’ but a selection of Latin performances played by a couple of Miami Sound Machine’s percussionists in 30 styles from Bossa Nova to Samba. Ole! Also from Wizoo is Darbuka (£169), a north African/Middle Eastern percussion package that, like Latigo, uses the best recordings and its own front end to play them. There are a few World virtual instruments that include lots of percussion but these are listed in part 11 later.
5. Complete Orchestral
After reading about the various packages that cover the component parts of an orchestra, you won’t be surprised to hear that there are many offering the complete deal. Notably EastWest offer the entire Symphonic Platinum range (as detailed in the first four sections here) for £999. On top of that Dolphin also sell cut-down versions of this range – ‘best of’s, if you like. The EastWest SO Silver Edition (£99) has the NI front end but fewer samples but still represents a good introduction to orchestral sampling and at a very good price. More expensive is the Gold Edition (£319) which has most of the instruments from the Platinum range recorded as stereo 16-bit samples (rather than the multi-channel 24-bit Platinum samples). If you’re happy with stereo and 16 bits then this is a great buy!
Where EastWest do the NI player versions of orchestral instruments, Steinberg do the Halion player versions. Halion Symphonic Orchestra has over 1,200 instruments patches and 27GB of data. At £369.99 it’s more expensive than the EastWest Gold Edition but does feature 24-bit as well as 16-bit samples and (perhaps consequently) an extra 12GB of data.
Now to the extremes! Garritan Personal Orchestra ((£115) features high-quality samples of the best bits of an orchestra going through a Kontakt player engine. It’s expandable and easy to use so is a great way to start your orchestral compositions. At the other end of the scale is the Vienna Symphonic Library Pro Edition. Put simply this is the complete orchestral package. All the instruments, all the recording types, all the character, everything you need… At £2,999 it is the most expensive software package out there, but you get what you pay for.
Edirol’s HQ-QR (£230) is a complete orchestral instrument featuring strings, woodwind, percussion, brass and keyboards. There are plenty of types of each and a simple interface to control them.
As with brass there were some people – myself included – who thought that emulating guitars in software should not even be attempted, but the latest packages do enable you to produce axe-wielding music without being able to strum a note.
Steinberg were among the first to get in on the action with Virtual Guitarist. The Virtual Guitarist 2 and Electric Rhythm Guitars package sells here for just £169. It has 6.8GB of top notch playing over a variety of styles and includes plenty of editing features like GrooveMatch technology that enables you to adapt all the content to the groove of your tune. Best Service’s Real Guitar (£132.95) utilises some great samples along with Guitar Touch and Floating Point Fret technology to really go for the best in guitar emulations. Virtual Bassist (£149.99) is, well, just that. Steinberg have packed 25 styles, riffs, intros, fills and so on into this along with that GrooveMatch technology. Finally Bournemark Software’s Broomstick Bass features over 20 bass instruments, several recording styles and loads of effects and is well worth the £169 asking price.
Drums were arguably the first instruments that went virtual simply because putting together a player for a bunch of short percussive samples is easier than the modelling technology required for, say, a trumpet. However, today’s drum software packages are scarily sophisticated and not exactly simple sample playback devices…
FXPansion BFD (£179) offers control over seven drum kits, each piece of which has been recorded at 11 positions with up to 46 velocity layers! There are also three expansion packs: 8 Bit Kit (£85), Jazz & Funk Collection (£150) and XFL (£129) which features 22GB of extras.
Native Instrument’s Battery 2 (£135) is another great sample player, this time more in the mould of a drum machine pad type player. It also has expansion packs including Studio Drums (£69) with over 3,000 extra samples. NI’s BandStand (£149.99) is a GM drum module designed to be easy to use and intuitive.
A sample library section wouldn’t be complete without EastWest and here they offer Drum Kits From Hell 2 (£69), a 2.4GB instrument with the NI front end featuring 3,200 heavy and natural drum sounds. Stormbreakz is a big beat and breakbeat-based sample player based on live drum loops and costs just £79. Quantum Leap Stormdrum (£235) is the final East West package (again powered by NI) and has 6GB of superb samples and madcap playing from four world-class drummers.
Best Service Artist Groove (£112) also features four top drummers playing fills, intros and loops over a variety of tempos with single hits and an NI interface all included. Artist Drums (£112) is similar with the focus on the actual drum sounds so you get lots of layered recordings and dozens of MIDI files.
Spectrasonics have arguably the daddy of all drum instruments with Stylus RMX. For £133 you get a monster 7.4GB library and one of the easiest interfaces ever and you’ll be stringing together original grooves in no time. There are five S.A.G.E expansion packs available at Dolphin, each for £53.99: Backbeat, Burning Grooves, Liquid Grooves, Metamorphosis and Retrofunk.
There are bass guitar instruments (see above) and plenty of synths will provide you with enough bottom end to keep you happy. However, these dedicated bass instruments provide a selection of both acoustic and synthetic sounds…
With Trilogy (£169) Spectrasonics have done for bass as they did with Stylus for drums. It’s a superb collection of every bottom end sound you could imagine, all wrapped up in an easy interface. EastWest’s Quantum Leap Hardcore Bass (£129) is 2.2GB of electric bass sounds played through the NI front end so you get plenty of sonic editing of the 6,000 or so samples.
9. Pianos and organs
Pianos and organs were among the first instruments to be synthesized in hardware, and therefore software, so there are many fine emulations of both about.
The Bösendorfer is widely regarded as one of the finest pianos around and in the real world you’d pay thousands for one. In the virtual world, however, just £125 will get you the EastWest Bösendorfer 290, a Kontakt-engine-based, 2GB instrument which, with 24-bit quality samples and 28 programs, captures the beauty of this amazing grand piano.
No piano collection would be complete without a Steinway and this time it’s Best Service who come up with the goods with the Galaxy 5.1 (£166). You get 6.5GB of 24-bit samples of up to 40 seconds in length (!) and optimised for 5.1 surround. Synthogy Ivory (£179) offers three grands in one package. There are 11GB of samples (3,500 in all) recorded in a variety of concert halls and studios.
On the organ front Native Instruments have two B4 packages. The original B4 (£119) captures the sound of the original B3 organ whereas the B4 MkII (£149.99, £59.99 upgrade from v1) adds a tube amp and a selection of cabinets for a wider variety of rich sounds. Dolphin also offer an exclusive deal to get the B4 MkII complete with B4D controller offering an authentic drawbar organ experience for just £219.99.
It’s the last bastion of emulation: the human voice. Yes, this is the hardest of all ‘instruments’ to emulate but there are a number of packages out there that attempt to do it, the most successful of which are more simple choir-type emulations. Zero G are one company pushing the envelope here with their Vocaloid software the engine of which was developed by Yamaha. Leon (£109.99) is the ‘male’ version that ‘sings’ any English word you decide on in any key. Lola (£109.99) is the female version. EastWest’s Symphonic Choirs (£299.99) is a 24-bit collection that offers five choirs, three mic positions and an incredible 37GB of data, so probably more data for your buck than any other package mentioned here!
11. Other ‘World’ instruments
Instruments and sample collections that offer World sounds are now very popular. So while you may come across many examples in the sections above (under woodwind and percussion, for example) there are others that offer so many other diverse sounds that they deserve this section for themselves!
EastWest’s Ra (£349.99) has 14GB of instrument recordings from seemingly everywhere you can think of (plus a few places you won’t!). And with that NI front end you’ll be playing them via your keyboard like you were trained for year in hot climates. Yellow Tools Culture (£259) has 9GB of highly-detailed sounds (the conga set alone has 1,000 variations!), its own playback interface and an engine designed for a low processor load operation.
The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones
- Part 1, Sequencers and software studios.
- Part 2, Section 1: Virtual Acoustic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 2: Virtual Electronic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 3: Virtual effects
- Part 3, Section 1: MIDI Keyboards
- Part 3, Section 2: MIDI Controllers
- Part 4, Sound Cards & Audio Interfaces
- Part 5, Monitors
- Part 6, Extra Power