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.
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 11 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 Are:
- Native Instruments
- Spitfire Audio
- IK Multimedia
- Vienna Symphonic Library
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.
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 wavetable synthesizer
- Native Instruments Kontakt sampler
- Native Instruments Reaktor 6 modular DSP lab synth
- Native Instruments Battery 4 drum sampler
- Native Instruments Alicia's Keys piano for Kontakt
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).
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.
Spitfire is perhaps best known for its industry-leading orchestral plugins. However, 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, helping you to express your ideas effortlessly.
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 Hans Zimmer Strings
- Spitfire Audio BT Phobos Polyconvolution Synthesizer
- Spitfire Audio Mandolin Swarm
- Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer Percussion Professional
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 synth
- Spectrasonics Keyscape keyboards
- Spectrasonics Trilian 1.5 bass/orchestral
- Spectrasonics Stylus RMX Xpanded percussion
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 virtual instruments.
IK offers a deep catalogue of expertly crafted virtual software instruments, from synthesizers to full orchestral libraries, 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 sampler workstation
- IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonik 2 orchestral
- IK Multimedia Modo Bass bass guitar
- IK Multimedia Hammond B-3X Tonewheel Organ
- IK Multimedia Syntronik synthesizer
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.).
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 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:
In addition to awesome software instruments and plugins, Arturia also produces impressive surface controllers, synthesizers and MIDI controllers that outperform much of their competition.
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:
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 percussion
- Heavyocity Gravity ambient synth
- Heavyocity Mosaic Voices choir sampler
- Heavyocity DM-307 sequencer
- Heavyocity NOVO strings
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 worldwide. Their instruments can be heard in 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 undoubtedly one of the best virtual/software instrument 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 instrument collection
- EastWest Voices of Soul vocal instrument
- EastWest Quantum Leap Silk instrument collection
- EastWest Quantum Leap Goliath instrument collection
- EastWest Fab Four instrument collection
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.
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 piano
- Vienna Symphonic Library Synchron-ized Solo Strings
- Vienna Symphonic Library Saxophones
- Vienna Symphonic Library Vienna Choir
- Vienna Symphonic Library Big Bang Orchestra: Dorado Percussion Ensemble
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.
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, 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 sampler/synthesizer
- Drum Designer sequencer
- Kinetics Falcon Expansion sampler
- Voklm Falcon Expansion pads
- PX Memories synth
Steinberg gets a special spot on this list as it's the company that developed the VST (Virtual Studio Technology) audio plugin software interface. Almost 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 sampler
- Steinberg TGuitar acoustic guitar
- Steinberg Zilhouette Strings
- Steinberg Groove Agent 5 drums
- Steinberg Poly synth
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 Cubase is one of my Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.
Choosing the perfect virtual instruments for your projects and compositions can be difficult. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Virtual Instrument Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help picking your next favourite virtual instrument.
Best Audio Plugins By Type
Here are additional My New Microphone articles regarding the best audio plugins by type:
• Top 11 Best Distortion Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Saturation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Digital Equalizer/EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Digital Parametric EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Dynamic EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 8 Best Graphic EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Linear Phase EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Parametric EQ Emulation Plugins For DAWs
• Top 8 Best Passive EQ Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Digital Compressor Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best FET Compressor Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Optical Compressor Emulation Plugins
• Top 10 Best Multiband Compressor Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Variable-Mu Compressor Emulation Plugins
• Top 11 Best VCA Compressor Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Limiter Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Channel Strip Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Chorus Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 9 Best Flanger Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 9 Best Phaser Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Tremolo Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Analog Delay Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Digital Delay Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Tape Delay Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 12 Best Reverb Plugins (Spring, Plate, Algorithmic, Convolution)
• Top 9 Best Stereo Imaging Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Guitar Amp Simulator Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 7 Best Noise Reduction Plugins For Your DAW