Nowadays, there are a lot more possibilities when it comes to creating music for the world to hear as compared to even 10 years ago. With the incorporation and growth of MIDI controllers, we now have keyboards that come as blank slates without any built-in sounds or effects to work with. Instead, MIDI keyboards as well as other programmable controllers with pads, knobs and faders can be tweaked and customized via a computer using a program or two. Basically, we can choose our canvas and which colors we want to paint with using software, making the possibilities pretty endless if you ask us. Today we reviewed some of the most popular virtual instruments out there for you to use with your controllers.
What is VST software?
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology. It’s a software interface that contains the sounds, effects and editors that your MIDI controllers use to create music. They’re the colors of paint for your canvas, and some of these things come with thousands of sounds to choose from. Whether it’s a simple piano sound or a wobbly dub step bass synth, you can have it. The possibilities are pretty endless and what’s even better is how real these things sound — nowadays most of your favorite songs use VST’s and you wouldn’t be able to tell. As opposed to some who prefer a real synthesizer, drum machine, or merely a real drum set, the VST alternative gives you some powerful options when going digital as opposed to analog, helping you save money, (perhaps arguably) time and an easier workflow.
How to choose your VST software
- Your budget. This is probably the biggest range when it comes to cost we’ve seen in quite a while in the gear world. However, the range makes sense — if you’re buying a single synth sound it’s going to be cheap, but if you go for a big bundle that gives you more possibilities than you count, it’ll cost you more.
- Sounds, effects, editors or more? Do you even want sounds, or perhaps an effects bundle? We mainly cover virtual instruments and effects in this particular article, especially the most popular bundles (since we had to choose 10). We’ll work on individual types of VST’s in the mean time, and if you do have questions about a particular sound, let us know in the comments.
- The type of sound or effect you’re looking for. It all depends on what you want. A simple synth sound or two, or an entire grand piano with custom effects? Choir? Violin? Bass? All of the above?
For a little more information on shopping for VST’s, check out Sweetwater’s virtual instrument buying guide.
The top 10 best virtual instrument plug-ins
If you’ve read our best music production equipment article, VST’s are crucial if you need to pair up your external controllers with some sounds. We can’t tell you how difficult it was choosing only 10, especially with some of our picks being complete ‘bundles’ as opposed to a single instrument\collection. Considering MusicRadar chose 50 of the best VST plug-ins, our 10 is very constrained. However, we made sure they were all top-notch and well worth the look. We welcome criticism so let us know your opinions on this.
Remember to check out our top 10 best digital audio workstations article if you still need a program to use with these.
Native Instruments Komplete 10
This is pretty much the most popular VST bundle in the market and will be for quite some time. We personally have a copy of this and think it’s one of the best investments we’ve ever made when it came to really stepping up our production game. Native Instruments is here to stay with not only their software but controllers as well. Komplete gives you the following and more: 12,000 sounds and 130 GB of instruments and effects. It’s basically a compilation of all of their VSTs: Reaktor 5 (synth studio), Rounds (synth), Kontour (phase modulation synth), Alicia’s Keys (piano VST), various orchestras with choir and piano, FM8 and Massive (few of our favorite synths ever), Massive (another crazy synth), and more. There are also “real” instrument VSTs as well including a few bass, violin and more, so don’t think it’s just just synths. This is hands down one of the best VST bundles ever, and although the cost is up there, you’re getting a collection of VST instruments and effects that will take you months to go through, let alone learn.
Arturia V Collection 4
What can we say about Arturia when it comes to their synth sounds? Considering they’re pretty famous for their line of synths such as the MiniBrute and MicroBrute, this collection of VST instruments is superb. It’s a combination of 13 of their awesome software instruments: 6,000 keyboard sounds and 188 drum kits, consisting of some of the famous ones such as Jupiter-8V, modular and mini V, Oberheim SEM V and more. This is by far the best synth collection out there, so if you want the digital cream of the crop, here it is.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2
This thing is powerful. Not only does this include a bunch of sounds (over 12,000 to be exact), but it also includes filters (innerspace, bassman, boutique, stompbox modeler, crying wah, envelope filter, analog flanger\phaser\chorus and more — way too many to name)., expanded modulation, ring mod capabilities, and the ability to ‘morph’ your synth sounds with their oscillator. It’s one of the most intricate “let’s put an entire synth into a piece of software’ attempt we’ve ever seen. It also has a great arpeggiator with some advanced features (transposition, pattern lock, speed offset, etc) to give you a real custom feel. If you want an advanced synth that also comes with more FX than you think you’ll ever need, this thing is amazing.
If you weren’t aware, Steinberg made the famous Cubase DAW and here is their rendition of a VST instrument collection. It’s a bit like Kompete 10 in terms of being a bundle decently priced with many VSTs combined into one package. You get quite a few synths, loops and samples (some cool creepy sounds with their VST Dark Planet) and other dance synth sounds. There aren’t nearly as many as Komplete 10 but if you do want to save some money and still grab a decent bundle (that is more geared toward synths) grab this one. Again, it’s more geared towards the ‘contemporary’ artist with a bit more new, digital sounds so if you want that route this is a great option.
IK Miroslav Philharmonik Orchestra & Choir
Here’s a big favorite in the market when it comes to an orchestra\choir\more ‘real’ sounding VST instrument collection. It’s pretty cheap if you’re comparing it to the other software we’ve included thus far, and it’s extremely powerful and natural sounding. There is 7 GB of orchestral sounds, 20 FX (reverb, EQ, tremolo, chorus, lo-fi to name a few), and some editing control too. If you’re looking for some violins, cellos, bass, symphony choirs and more, this thing is is perfect to add to your sound library. If you want to go the full nine, grab this and a synth bundle we’ve mentioned previously and you’re golden for quite some time. We love the natural essence this adds to tracks.
Toontrack EZDrummer 2
Now that we’ve covered some synths and natural sounding instrument VSTs, it’s time to take a look at one of the most solid drum plug-ins out there. It’s all dedicated to percussions: record a rhythm real-time then edit it in a MIDI browser, switch up the velocity or amount on any of the drums, and find a groove\match a tempo. You can also add some controllable effect chain presets to really fine-tune your drum track. If you want full control over your drums and more, grab this one to add to your collection.
Spectrasonics Trilian Bass Module
This is one of the best bass-focused VST instruments in the market. Spectrasonics is up there when it comes to being high-end. You get 60+ basses (almost any type you can think of, such as fingered, picked, fretless, slapped, electric, acoustic, and more). We don’t want to overexaggerate, but if you do end up getting this plug-in, you have almost any bass sound that’s available in the world. It’s up there when it comes to price but for good reason — you’re set for life.
IK Multimedia Total Studio 3
Here’s IK Multimedia’s version of their super bundle of both VST instrument and effects. It’s around the same price as Komplete 10, so if we were to give you a strong opinion it would be go grab NI’s instead. However, if you were interested in their Philharmonik plug-in we had previously included and also wanted a few synth sounds, a sampler software and some FX, this may be the package you’re looking for. The synths are pretty solid and it also comes with a cool software called ‘AmpliTube 3’ which is a guitar and bass tone-creation software. Check this out, we included it for a reason.
Celemony Melodyne Essential
Here’s a bit of a different spin on a VST plug-in as we’ve previously listed. This particular piece of software is pretty cool and only applicable if you’re recording vocals. Now to preface, we’re highly against autotune (most of the time, it can be used here and there and sound cool if you do it right), but this is slightly different than what you’ll hear on the radio. Most can use this to touch up their track (or, suffice to say, correct some of the incorrect notes!). You can also extend some notes if you feel that you or the singer didn’t hold it for long enough. It basically gives you the capability to modify each note separately in any way you can think. However you want to use this power is up to you (here’s looking at you, T-Pain).
It was hard to choose among Sonivox’s wide array of VST instruments, but since we already pretty much covered the other sound types, we felt this would put a different spin for number ten. It’s called a ‘dubstep grime generator’ but don’t let that steer you away just yet if it’s not exactly what you want — we can see this being used in some hip hop, R&B and other electronic types of music as well. Check out a few others by SONiVOX we really like: Eighty Eight Ensemble and Vocalizer Pro.