Top 11 Best Virtual/Software Instrument Plugin Brands 2021


The digital age of recording, in tandem with MIDI, has ushered in an entirely new way of making great music with virtual instruments. Like in-the-box mixing and mastering, which has become the norm in professional and home studios, instruments can now be recorded with software.

Whether synth-based, sample-based, or a combination thereof, virtual instruments have truly changed the course of music production history. This may be bad news for the session musician. However, software instruments have made it possible for composers to create entire symphonic scores from their bedrooms and an entire generation of music producers to get their ideas out without learning multiple instruments or hiring musicians. It’s also made life much easier when clients ask for a 10 bpm increase (simply turn up the DAW tempo instead of scheduling and paying for the musicians to come to re-record in the studio).

Whether it’s emulating specific iconic instruments, entire sections of instruments or exploring the vast unknown possibilities of advanced computer-based synthesis, virtual instruments are invaluable tools in the toolbox of those who work with digital audio.

Related articles:
Top 45 Must-Have Tools For Audio Recording/Mixing Studios
Full List: Audio Plugin/Virtual Instrument Companies/Brands

There are countless virtual/software instruments available on the market (both free and paid) and a great number of brands/companies that program them. This article will share my opinion of the best overall virtual instrument plugin brands to look out for.

Though obviously subjective and prone to biases, I’ve done my best to list out these brands based on the following metrics:

  • Company reputation
  • Diversity of virtual instrument types
  • Compatibility (Mac/Windows. AU, AAX, VST, etc.)
  • Sonic accuracy (with emulation and sampled plugins)
  • Creativity (with original instruments)
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI) and general ease-of-use
  • Overall sonic quality across all plugins

Note that this article is focused specifically on virtual instrument plugins rather than effect/process plugins.

For my take on the best audio effect/processing plugins, check out my article Top Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.

With all that being said, let’s list out the brands.

The top 11 best virtual/software instruments plugin brands, overall, on the market today are:

  1. Native Instruments
  2. Spitfire Audio
  3. Spectrasonics
  4. IK Multimedia
  5. Arturia
  6. Toontrack
  7. Heavyocity
  8. EastWest
  9. Vienna Symphonic Library
  10. UVI
  11. Steinberg

Let’s get into each of these brands in greater detail and explain why they belong in the top 11 best virtual/software instrument plugin brands. I’ll share their country of origin, a bit of history, examples of noteworthy virtual instruments to show diversity, and links to their official websites.


Click here to return to My New Microphone’s articles on musical equipment brands/manufacturers.


Native Instruments

Native Instruments is easily the best producer of virtual instruments on the market. This is true in terms of the sheer number of plugins the company offers, the wide variety of instruments, their sonic performance, GUI and user-friendliness, and NI’s acceptance across the industry by professionals and hobbyists alike.

The German company is also the developer of Kontakt, which is the industry-standard sampling platform. Native Instruments offers a ton of instruments for Kontakt, and the platform is also open to third-party developers, of which there are plenty. Users can even drag and drop their own samples to produce their own virtual instruments within Kontakt.

Native Instruments’ missing is to develop innovative, fully-integrated solutions for all musical styles and professions. Since 1996, NI’s forward-thinking approach and prolific nature have allowed it to achieve this mission consistently. As the audio industry changes, this brand evolves along with it.

If you’ve ever had a chance to work with any Native Instruments products, you’ll understand why the company is first up on this list.

Native Instruments virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Native Instruments virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Native Instruments Massive X

In addition to world-class virtual instruments, Native Instruments also produces effects plugins and other software along with superb hardware (like the Traktor DJ controllers and the Maschine controllers).

Native Instruments GmbH was founded in 1996 by Stephan Schmitt and Volker Hinz in Berlin, Germany, where the company is still headquartered today.

Official Website: native-instruments.com

Native Instruments is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best MIDI Controller Brands In The World.


Spitfire Audio

Second on this list (though the list is in no particular order) is Spitfire Audio, a British audio software company focused on sampling and producing the world’s greatest virtual orchestral instrument suites.

To improve upon the company’s already stellar reputation, Spitfire Audio works alongside the world’s best composers, producers, engineers, and studios to create detailed, sophisticated and realistic recordings of instruments. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to work with a Spitfire Audio virtual instrument, you’d hear the result of such dedication to the craft of producing world-class VSTs.

Though Spitfire is perhaps best-known for its industry-leading orchestral plugins, the brand also offers synthesizer-like instruments and other software to enhance the workflow (and sound) of “in-the-box” composers and producers.

Though composing can be rather complex, the GUI of Spitfire instruments makes getting the sounds you need simple and expressing your ideas effortless.

The sounds of the virtual instruments are breathtaking and worth checking out if you’re at all interested in scoring or orchestral music production.

Spitfire Audio virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Spitfire Audio virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra Professional

Spitfire Audio was founded in 2007 by Christian Henson and Paul Thompson in London, England, where the company is still headquartered today.

Official website: spitfireaudio.com


Spectrasonics

Omnisphere. Enough said. A “power synth” instrument that can be heard in film and television programs (and music) across the world with enough presets and features to keep you engaged for a lifetime. Omnisphere’s Hardware Synth Integration feature allows the software to be controlled by well over 50 hardware synths from third-party manufacturers (including Roland, Korg, Moog, Dave Smith, Nord and more).

That instrument alone is enough to earn this American company a spot on the list.

But wait, there’s more!

Spectrasonics isn’t just their flagship synthesizer. The company also produces other incredible virtual instruments. In the instrument list, you’ll notice that there are only 4 notable VSTs from Spectra rather than the typical 5. Well, even though the company “only has 4 VSTs”, each instrument packs so much functionality that it’s as if the brand has a massive catalogue of products.

The sounds that can be achieved with Spectrasonics virtual instruments range from perfect emulation of real-world sampled instruments to completely out-of-this-world soundscapes and effects. In other words, this company pretty much has everything you need!

Spectrasonics virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Spectrasonics virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6

Spectrasonics was founded in 1994 by Eric (former chief sound designer for Roland Corporation) and Lorey Persing in Los Angeles, California, USA. Today, the company is headquartered in Burbank, California, USA.

Official website: spectrasonics.net


IK Multimedia

Since 1996, IK Multimedia’s mission has been simple: to give musicians the tools they want/need to be creative and productive. In the world of digital audio workstations and home studios, this means, at least in part, providing world-class virtual instruments.

And that’s exactly what IK Multimedia has done. Among many other advancements in audio technology (including the industry-leading AmpliTube guitar amp simulation software), IK has developed a superb range of superb virtual instruments.

From synthesizers to full orchestral libraries, IK offers a deep catalogue of expertly crafted virtual software instruments that will surely add realism and excitement to productions across the world.

IK Multimedia virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable IK Multimedia virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

IK Multimedia SampleTank 4

IK Multimedia is a rather developed company with a well-rounded range of products. Along with its superb virtual instruments, IK also produces various other software and plenty of hardware for audio applications (interfaces, controllers, microphones, speakers, amps, pedals, synths, etc.).

IK Multimedia was founded in 1996 by Enrico Iori and Davide Barbi in Modena, Italy, where the company is still headquartered today.

Official website: ikmultimedia.com


Arturia

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mnm_Arturia_Logo.jpg

Arturia is a French company that specializes in both software and hardware for musicians. With a strong background in synthesizers and keyboards, their software instruments are largely focused on emulating real-world synthesizers, keyboards and pianos in digital VST formats.

What Arturia does, it does incredibly well. You won’t find big orchestral sample libraries with the company. Still, you will find an entire universe of sonic possibilities to explore with perhaps the best software synthesizers ever to exist.

The graphics and user-friendliness of these VSTs are on-point. Each plugin looks like a real instrument with real keys, knobs, inputs, outputs and other controls. The sonic performance is also beyond words. The functionality across all synths culminates in an overall sonic palette that surpasses many of the software instrument brands that offer more selection.

Arturia virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Arturia virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Arturia Piano V

In addition to awesome software instruments and plugins, Arturia also produces impressive surface controllers, synthesizers and MIDI controllers that outperform much of their competition.

Arturia was founded in 1999 by Frédéric Brun and Gilles Pommereuil in Grenoble, France. The company is still headquartered in Grenoble, France.

Official Website: arturia.com

Arturia is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top Best MIDI Controller Brands In The World
Top Best Synthesizer Brands In The World

Top Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World


Toontrack

Toontrack is another one of those companies largely defined by their flagship product. In this case, the VST is Superior Drummer: arguably the best sample-based drum software synthesizer to ever be released to the market.

In addition to their massive claim to fame, Toontrack also offers other virtual instruments, including EZDrummer (a smaller drum instrument), EZKeys and EZBass.

Toontrack VSTs are very intuitive to use and offer incredibly realistic sound for the discerning musician, producer, composer (etc.) to create masterful works all within the box.

With the brand’s success with Superior Drummer combined with a work ethic based on fun and deep-rooted commitment, Toontrack has evolved from its humble beginnings in 1999 to one of the most respected VST developers out there.

Toontrack virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Toontrack virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Toontrack Superior Drummer 3

Toontrack was founded in 1999 by Mattias Eklund and Henke Kjellberg. The company headquarters is located in Umeå, Sweden.

Official website: toontrack.com

As an aside, other virtual drum instrument brands worth checking out include:
Steven Slate Drums
XLN Audio


Heavyocity

Heavyocity is made up of expert composers and sound designers with a mission to create world-class virtual instruments for those who share their passion. Since 2006, the brand has consistently fulfilled its purpose of providing cutting-edge, inspiring instruments and sounds that supercharge creativity.

Heavyocity’s catalogue of virtual instruments runs deep. Their philosophy is to develop such VSTs for specific purposes and perfect them in a way that makes them go-to’s in the industry. This is different from, say, Spectrasonics and their Omnisphere VST, which has thousands of patches in one VST.

From guitars to percussion to synthetic masterpieces, Heavyocity should have what you’re looking for. Though the plugins are focused on their specific purpose, they are highly functional, with plenty of parameters to shape the user’s tone.

Each and every Heavyocity VST sounds great and is worth looking into for your toolbox of virtual instruments!

Heavyocity virtual instruments can be run in Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Heavyocity virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Heavyocity Damage 2

Heavyocity was founded in 2006 by Dave Fraser and Neil Goldberg in New York City, New York, USA, where the company is still headquartered today.

Official website: heavyocity.com


EastWest

Since 1988, EastWest has made a name for itself as one of the most well-respected and critically acclaimed software instrument developers globally.

EastWest is a pioneer in the in with several “firsts” to its name, including the first commercial drum samples collection, the first subscription service in the industry, the first multi-velocity sampled piano collection, the first 64-bit virtual instruments, and many others.

From vocal synths and choirs to orchestra sections and defined instruments to ethnic suites, EastWest provides more than 40,000 virtual instruments to professionals and hobbyists around the world. Their instruments can be heard on countless big-name productions in the fields of music, film, television, games, multimedia and performing arts.

EastWest plugins are among the best in terms of both sonic performance and usability. Many can quickly get you the sounds you need with surface-level adjustments though there’s often quite a bit of functionality that comes with a deeper understanding of each plugin.

With decades of experience and superb products to show for it, EastWest is, without a doubt, one of the best virtual/software instruments brands in the world.

EastWest virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable EastWest virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

EastWest Hollywood Orchestra

In addition to innumerable world-class virtual instruments, EastWest also owns and operates a large recording studio complex in Hollywood (eastweststudios.com), which the company purchased in 2006.

EastWest was founded in 1988 by Doug Rogers in Hollywood, California, USA, where the company is still headquartered today.

Official website: soundsonline.com


Vienna Symphonic Library

As the name suggests, Vienna Symphonic Library is an Austrian music software and sample library developer. They are another awe-inspiring brand of orchestral instrument suites.

Since its beginnings in 2000, VSL has recorded and produced virtual software instruments with over three million samples of nearly every symphonic orchestra instrument, choir, and more. In terms of volume, VSL is one of the greatest.

But this isn’t a quantity-over-quality issue. VSL’s libraries and instruments are recorded by experts, performed by the finest musicians and developed into virtual instruments by masterful programmers.

With every VSL product, you can hear the company’s dedication to its goal of helping composers, orchestrators and music producers realize their visions.

You won’t find any wild synthesizers within VSL’s catalogue, but what you will find are beautifully crafted software instruments that will bring your orchestral ideas to fruition without having to leave your computer.

Vienna Symphonic Library virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Vienna Symphonic Library virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Vienna Symphonic Library Synchron Bösendorfer Imperial

The Vienna Symphonic Library Synchron Bösendorfer Imperial captures the magically warm, orchestral sound of the Bösendorfer Concert Grand 290 Imperial played at the beautiful Synchron Stage in Vienna.

Vienna Symphonic Library was founded in 2000 by Herv Tucmandl in Vienna, Austria, where the company is still headquartered today.

Official website: vsl.co.at


UVI

UVI may be the least popular brand on this list but rest assured that this French software instrument developer deserves a spot among the best of the best.

Unlike the previous two brands that focus specifically on orchestral instruments, UVI pushes forward with leading-edge synthesis and DSP research to produce unique and expressive tools for musicians and audio professionals. Oh yeah, and they’ve got great orchestral instruments, too!

Whether it’s a vintage synth emulation, sound effect synth, world instrument or an instrument from the “unconventional” section, UVI’s products are sure to impress. The company offers a wide variety of products with inspiring sounds for professional and amateur producers/composers alike.

These virtual instruments look and feel as great as they sound as well, so there’s really nothing not to like about this excellent brand.

UVI virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable UVI virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

UVI Falcon 2

UVI was founded in 1987 by Alain Etchart and JB Celier in Paris, France, where the company headquarters is still located today.

Official website: uvi.net


Steinberg

Steinberg gets a special spot on this list as it’s the company the developed the VST (Virtual Studio Technology) audio plugin software interface. Pretty much every major DAW except Pro Tools (which uses AAX) and Logic Pro (which uses AU) uses the VST plugin format to run both effects plugins and virtual instruments.

Beyond being the inventor of such an important audio technology related to software/virtual instruments, Steinberg also offers a superb line of its own virtual instruments.

From samplers to synths to real instrument emulations, Steinberg has it all. This is likely due to the company’s long history of DAW development (and, therefore, the stock instruments of such DAWs).

Ingenuity is a big part of Steinberg’s continual success as an audio software company, and this ingenuity can be heard in its many virtual instruments. I’d strongly recommend giving a few of them a shot for yourself and, if you’re a Cubase user, definitely spend some time with the stock plugins.

Spitfire Audio virtual instruments can be run in both Mac and Windows operating systems and are formatted to AU, VST and AAX formats for practically any digital audio workstation.

Notable Steinberg virtual instruments (to show diversity) include:

Steinberg HALion 6

Steinberg is a major player in the audio industry as a software and hardware company. In addition to superb virtual instruments, the company also develops digital audio workstations (Cubase, Cubasis, Nuendo, WaveLab), scoring software (Dorico), and audio hardware (interfaces, controllers, etc.).

Steinberg was founded in 1984 by Karl Steinberg and Manfred Rürup in Hamburg, Germany. Pinnacle Systems acquired Steinberg in 2003, which Yamaha then acquired in 2004. The company is headquartered in Hamburg, Germany.

Official website: steinberg.net

Steinberg is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best Audio Interface Brands In The World.

Steinberg Cubase is one of My New Microphone’s Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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