So you're wondering which virtual instrument (VI) you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer's guide, we'll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a virtual instrument plugin.
If you've found yourself asking, “Which virtual instrument should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.
Please feel free to jump around this article and read all the additional resources I have provided links to.
With that, let's get into this comprehensive virtual instrument buyer's guide to help you in your next virtual instrument purchase!
Table Of Contents
- What Is Your Virtual Instrument Budget?
- System Requirements Of The Virtual Instrument
- Consider The Freebies
- Consider Virtual Instrument Bundles
- Plugin Vs. Standalone Virtual Instruments
- Virtual Instrument Plugin Formats
- Types Of Virtual Instruments
- Virtual Instrument User Interface
- Virtual Instrument Emulations Of Hardware Instruments
- Choosing A Virtual Instrument
- Controlling The Virtual Instrument
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What Is Your Virtual Instrument Budget?
The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, so I'll keep this section brief.
I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.
Virtual Instruments, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget. Some virtual instruments are even free.
Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option. Many virtual instrument companies have bundles that could save you significant cash over purchasing each instrument individually.
Consider the cost-to-benefit ratio of the purchase of the virtual instrument(s). For example, if the virtual instrument(s) are needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. If, on the other hand, you don't plan on making money with the virtual instrument(s), perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.
Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your virtual instrument(s).
Only you can determine your budget. All I'm here to say is that you should consider it.
System Requirements Of The Virtual Instrument
Virtual instruments are software, and software has system requirements. These requirements represent the minimum specifications a computer must have in order for the virtual instruments to work.
Virtual instrument system requirements include:
Virtual Instrument Operating System Requirements
A computer’s operating system manages its memory and processes along with all of its software and hardware. The OS must be compatible with and powerful enough to run the virtual instrument as a standalone application or as a plugin in a digital audio workstation (if applicable).
The most popular operating systems are Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS. Note that these operating systems are updated on a regular basis. When considering a virtual instrument, be sure to check both the compatible operating systems and the minimum/maximum version of the OS.
Virtual Instrument CPU Requirements
A computer’s central processing unit (CPU) performs calculations and actions and runs programs within the computer’s operating system. It’s regularly referred to as the “brains of the computer”.
The CPU, physically speaking, is generally a square chip in the motherboard of the computer/device. It takes instructional inputs from RAM (random access memory), decodes and processes the action, and delivers an output.
The bit-depth of a computer’s CPU refers to how much data the computer can process.
Today, computers are generally either 32-bit or 64-bit. 32-bit computers can access 232 bytes (units of digital information) of RAM, while 64-bit computers can access 264 bytes of RAM.
64-bit computers are faster, have better graphics, and are more secure. Additionally, some virtual instruments will only work on 64-bit systems. Know your computer’s bit-depth and CPU specifications, and ensure the virtual instrument's system requirements are compatible with your computer.
Sometimes, developers offer 32-bit and 64-bit versions of their virtual instruments. Be sure to use the proper version.
Virtual Instrument Supported Hosts/DAWs Requirements
When using a virtual instrument as a plugin inside a host DAW, we must ensure compatibility between the two.
There are numerous digital audio workstations on the market. DAWs also have system requirements in regard to computers and operating systems. Furthermore, a virtual instrument plugin must be compatible with a DAW to function properly within that DAW.
Virtual Instrument RAM Requirements
Random access memory (RAM) provides applications with a place to store and access data on a short-term basis. It stores the information the computer is actively using so it can be accessed quickly.
A virtual instrument is run as either a standalone application or an application plugin inside another application (the DAW). When processing digital audio, a computer must have adequate RAM. If it doesn’t, the performance will be sluggish, causing latency, overloading and errors in the virtual instrument and DAW (when applicable).
Virtual Instrument Storage Space Requirements
Storing virtual instrument software takes up space on the computer hard drive. Developers generally give a minimum space requirement for installing and holding the instrument on the hard drive.
Virtual Instrument Screen Resolution Requirements
Virtual instruments have graphic user interfaces. Therefore, there should be a minimum specification for screen resolution for the instrument to be visible on the computer screen.
Consider The Freebies
This may seem odd for a “buyers’ guide,” but consider the freeware option when looking for your next virtual instrument.
There are plenty of free virtual instruments available for download. Some of these instruments perform just as well or even better than paid options.
Why spend money if you don’t have to?
The stock virtual instruments in your digital audio workstation should also be tested before opting for paid-for options. Though these plugins aren’t technically “free” (unless your DAW is also free), they should be considered.
If you do happen to have your eye on a paid virtual instrument, see if you can try a demo version before you buy. Oftentimes, there will be a demo with limited functionality or time usage. Demos should give you enough experience with the user interface and “character” of the virtual instrument to make an informed decision on purchasing it or not.
It goes without saying, but do not pirate/steal software. That’s not what I mean by free.
Consider Virtual Instrument Bundles
Many developers offer bundles of their virtual instruments at a discounted price. Rather than buying each instrument individually, we can save by bulk buying a larger quantity.
Sometimes, we only need a single instrument, which is fine. If we need several, it may be worth opting for a bundle and receiving the virtual instrument we need and even some we may not need (at this very moment).
Of course, there’s an argument to make about having too many options. Buying bundles may give us too many instruments, which may waste our time as we audition them.
Similar to bundles, some developers have switched to a subscription model, whereby a monthly fee is paid for access to a certain amount of the brand’s virtual instruments or even all its instruments.
Virtual instruments and bundles sometimes go on sale. If you’re interested in a more expensive bundle or individual instrument, it may be worth waiting for the software to go on sale.
- Click the link to check out virtual instrument bundles at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out virtual instrument bundles at Plugin Boutique
- Click the link to check out virtual instrument bundles at Plugin Fox
Plugin Vs. Standalone Virtual Instruments
Plugin virtual instruments are designed to “plug into” digital audio workstation software. They're effectively software within the software. With virtual instrument plugins, we can assign instruments to tracks within a DAW and control them effectively with MIDI within the workstation.
Standalone virtual instruments are designed as their own applications and run independently of a DAW.
So long as we can control these instruments (typically with a MIDI controller) and have an audio output from the computer, we can use these virtual instruments live. We can even send their audio output to a recording setup, though using a plugin version within a DAW is likely easier.
Though many virtual instruments come in standalone and plugin options, it's important to do our due diligence when choosing a virtual instrument to ensure it's compatible with our needs.
As mentioned above, we need the virtual instrument to be compatible with our computer's operating system and general specifications.
In the next section, we'll discuss the various plugin formats that virtual instrument plugins will be subject to.
Virtual Instrument Plugin Formats
Beyond the standard system requirements, virtual instrument plugins also come in a variety of formats to be compatible with different digital audio workstations (host software). These formats can be thought of as interfaces between the plugins and the DAWs they’re plugged into.
In this section, we’ll discuss the different virtual instrument plugin formats we tend to see on datasheets. Let’s list out the sub-topics:
- VST (Virtual Studio Technology)
- VST3 (Virtual Studio Technology: Version 3)
- AAX (Avid Audio eXtension)
- AU (AudioUnits)
- RTAS (Real-Time Audio Suite)
- TDM (Time Division Multiplexing)
- Extended Plugin Formats
Note that many virtual instruments will come in a variety of these formats in order to accommodate the most digital audio workstations and computer operating systems possible. Still, it’s important to know the differences between the formats.
VST (Virtual Studio Technology)
VST was originally developed by Steinberg and is the most widespread format. If you’re using Windows, chances are your DAW will support VST/VST2 plugins (Pro Tools does not). VST/VST2 is also designed for Mac, though it’s less popular on Mac OS DAWs.
VST3 (Virtual Studio Technology: Version 3)
VST3 is the newest Steinberg plugin format and is a completely separate format from VST/VST2. VST3 is more powerful than VST/VST2, allowing for increased functionality among its plugins. It is available on Windows and Mac and is becoming more and more widespread.
AAX (Avid Audio eXtension)
AAX (Avid Audio eXtension) is Avid’s proprietary format, used exclusively to interface plugins with Pro Tools. Like Pro Tools, AAX is available on Windows and Mac.
AU is a format designed by Apple and is used with Apple’s host software, notably Logic Pro and GarageBand.
RTAS (Real-Time Audio Suite)
RTAS is a plugin format developed by Digidesign, which is now Avid. This is the old format for Pro Tools.
TDM (Time Division Multiplexing)
The TDM plugin format is another format developed by Avid. This one is designed for outboard hardware DSP processors integrated with Pro Tools.
Extended Plugin Formats
Some virtual instruments are designed to be controlled and played through software samplers.
The main player to be aware of is Native Instruments' Kontakt.
The NKS (Native Kontrol Standard) format (.nks extension) is an extended plugin format developed by Native Instruments. This format allows virtual instruments to integrate with Native Instruments' Komplete Kontrol and Maschine software and hardware.
MOTU’s MachFive and TASCAM GigaStudio are also worth mentioning, though they're not nearly as popular as Native Instruments' format.
Types Of Virtual Instruments
Virtual instruments run the gamut of sound and real-world instruments. From grand pianos to ethnic percussion, sample manipulation to vocal patches, deep synthesis to orchestral ensembles, noise to ambience, foley to drum kits, there's a virtual instrument for pretty much any sound you could think of.
So it's impractical to list out all the “types” and endless “sub-types” of virtual instruments. Rather, we can say that virtual instruments range on a spectrum from sample-based playback to synthesis. Looking at virtual instruments this way, we have three broad categories:
Sample-based virtual instruments: these VIs load and playback samples, manipulating them and tying them together to produce the desired result. Sample-based instruments require little CPU but are more demanding on RAM and hard drive storage space/memory.
Synthesized virtual instruments: these VIs take basic building blocks of sound (programmed oscillators/waveforms) and process them into whatever sound is required. Though these instruments may not take up as much memory (RAM and hard drive space), they are rather processor-intensive and demand more CPU.
Hybrid virtual instruments: these VIs find themselves between sample-based and synthesized virtual instruments, using design processes from each type. Most virtual instruments are considered to be hybrid.
Neither method is inherently better than the other, and both designs can yield similar results.
If you research enough, you'll likely be able to tell if the virtual instrument you're interested in leans more toward a sample-based or synthesized design. The system requirements can help. Remember that sample-based VIs are more RAM/space-intensive, and synthesized VIs are more CPU-intensive.
Getting back to the different instrument types, let's consider how a few online retailers parse out virtual instrument types.
Sweetwater categorizes virtual instruments in the following manner:
• Virtual guitar & bass software
• Virtual drum & percussion software
• Virtual synth, keyboard & organ software
• Virtual orchestra software
• Sound module software
• Sampling software
• Looping software
Plugin Boutique categorizes virtual instruments in the following manner:
• Drum machines
• Kontakt instruments
• Maschine expansions
• Reaktor ensembles
• Virtual instruments (general)
PluginFox categorizes virtual instruments in the following manner:
• Kontakt instruments
• Kontakt libraries
• Acoustic drums
• Acoustic guitar
• Electric bass
• Electronic drums
• Electric guitar
• Electric piano
• Grand piano
• Orchestral percussion
Virtual Instrument User Interface
The user interface of a virtual instrument isn't only about aesthetics but also about functionality. Sure, it's great to have a beautiful GUI or, in the case of hardware emulations, a graphic that resembles the original unit. It's arguably even more important to have a well-laid-out interface that's intuitive and fast to use.
This is especially important when choosing a VI with a lot of functionality or a great number of sample banks. Being able to easily control the VI and make it perform the way you need it to is essential. The graphic user interface is a big part of this control and use.
Virtual Instrument Emulations Of Hardware Instruments
I should mention that there are plenty of virtual instruments that aim to recreate the sound of hardware instruments.
Though there's nothing quite like playing a vintage instrument that's no longer in production, the software emulations on the market today are arguably even better, at least from an objective point of view. Doing away with noisy circuits and the ageing and detuning of hardware makes software versions much easier to upkeep.
With modern computer programming, these hardware instruments may even benefit from additional features.
Controlling The Virtual Instrument
To use our virtual instruments effectively, we must be able to control them. MIDI controllers are essential for getting the most out of our virtual instruments.
Different styles of MIDI controllers will be optimal depending on the instrument. For example, virtual orchestra software will likely benefit from a full 88-key MIDI keyboard, while a drum virtual instrument may benefit most from a performance pad-based controller.
Furthermore, a softsynth will surely profit from extensive MIDI mapping with a feature-rich controller (with faders, knobs, buttons, XY pads, etc.).
There are certain software instruments on the market designed for full compatibility with specific MIDI controllers. Going back to NI's Maschine, this is an example of a MIDI controller that is certified to work seamlessly with hundreds of virtual instruments from Native Instruments and industry leaders like Arturia, Heavyocity, and Output.
- Click the link to check out MIDI controllers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out MIDI controllers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out MIDI controllers on Amazon
For more information on choosing the best MIDI controller for your virtual instruments, check out my Ultimate MIDI Controller Buyer’s Guide.
Choosing A Virtual Instrument
Now that we know all about virtual instruments, it's time to choose which one(s) we want.
So ask yourself what instruments you need, and search for them on online marketplaces.
Consider the system requirements, formats, graphic user interface, hardware compatibility, general playability, latency, and overall customer support from the company that offers the virtual instrument.
Check out video demos to see and hear how the virtual instrument works, and consider testing a demo yourself before making a purchase.
Knowing what you know now, you're all set to make an educated choice on your first or next virtual instrument!