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 digital audio technology, we now have keyboards and other external pieces of audio equipment 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 literally stands for Virtual Studio Technology. It’s a computer software interface that contains the sounds, effects and editors that your MIDI controllers use to create music. They’re the colors of the paint for your canvas, and some of these things come with thousands of sounds to choose from (for a price, of course). Whether it’s a simple piano tone 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. Many even allow you to tweak the sounds they give you to basically create your own sound just like a hardware synth. 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, time and ultimately, easier workflow. If you’re making beats or just creating music in general, virtual instruments need to be in your toolbox.
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 — we see some scrutiny that only “expensive” and “bundles” in here. We still think these are the best of the best VST software as a whole(hence the article title). If you wanted some simpler solutions or “free” VST’s, we’re still working on those lists so you’ll have to stay tuned.
The most popular types of VST sounds
We have some new guides coming along that specifically target the ‘types’ of virtual instruments available at our fingertips. We figured to write specific guides since this popular top 10 is pretty broad and essentially only lists some larger VST and as some people have commented, expensive bundles.
- Piano VST: Our favorite VST and many others. This is a staple point in the VST sounds game. Many piano VST come sounding extremely real, while others can offer more digital-based or even retro-vintage sounding keys. Other bundles also give us keys that aren’t necessarily piano, such as rhodes, synth hits, harpsichords, etc.
- Synthesizer VST: The world of synthesizer VST is humongous. With so many out there in the world, it’s difficult to choose a few, however there are also a lot of sketchy and just straight up terrible synth VST (usually free ones are a waste of time, although a few hidden gems are out there).
- Guitar VST: You’d be surprised at how real-sounding guitar VST are. They even have loops that stick with a key and can match the tempo of your song.
- Strings\Orchestral VST: Without some good strings at hand we don’t feel comfortable making music. You can find strings all the way from synth pads to literally orchestral sounds they use for professional Hollywood movies.
- Choir VST: Choir VST are fun to play with for us, and these include voices of huge choirs all the way to single-voiced tenors and falsettos. You can’t use them every song of course since it may become overkill, but every now and then it’s fun to stick some choir into a chorus or breakdown of a track.
- Bass VST: We have a ton of bass VST that we use with our MIDI keyboard to get some groovy baselines going. We have about a 2-3 that we really stick to, but there are tons of great bass sounds out there ranging from dirty synth all the way to real pluck bass guitars.
- Drums VST: As expected, many beautiful drums VST come with a slew of sounds, whether it be vintage, modern or even synth-like. They can also provide us with pre-made patterns we can use to create ideas, or their own FX processes to get that sound we really are looking for.
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. Again, the following models we found were the best of everything out there, so many will come with a price-tag (but well worth it if you want to invest in sounds for years to come).
- 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 today. We’ll work on individual types of VST’s in the mean time, and if you do have questions or want recommendations about a particular sound or category, 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 and remember to check out our top 10 best digital audio workstations article if you still need a program to use these with.
The top 10 best virtual instrument plug-ins
Native Instruments Komplete
This is pretty much the most popular virtual instrument bundles 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: 13,000 sounds (it really depends on the version you grab) and 100+ GB of instruments and effects. It’s basically a compilation of all of their VSTs: Reaktor (synth studio), Rounds (synth), Kontour (phase modulation synth), Alicia’s Keys (piano VST), various orchestras with choir and piano, FM8 and Massive (another crazy synth we personally use all of the time), and more. There are also “real” instrument VSTs as well including a few bass, violin and guitar, so don’t think it’s just synths or piano sounds — they’ve even got congo and tropical tones and drums in there.
The Native Instruments Komplete 12 is hands down one of the best VST software bundles ever, and although the cost is up there (depending on which version you want to grab), you’re getting a collection of VST instruments and effects that will take you months to go through, let alone learn and ultimately use in your music. If it’s too expensive for you, you can always grab their individual VST’s for cheaper, albeit with less sounds of course.
Arturia V Collection
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 their amazing 17 software instruments (which are of course available individually as well): 5,000+ keyboard sounds and 100+ drum kits, consisting of some of the famous ones such as Jupiter-8V, modular and mini V, Oberheim SEM V, Stage 73, Wurli, B3, Continental, Farfisa, and more. We just bought this one and seriously can’t stop using it. There are way too many synths and even real instruments (just 20 separate upright piano sounds alone) to use and it’ll most likely take us a few years to get around to all of them. The Arturia V Collection 5 is by far the best synth collection out there, so if you want the digital cream of the crop, here it is — it’s a beast!
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, the Omnisphere 2 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 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 or the Arturia 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, the Steinberg Absolute 2 is more geared towards the ‘contemporary’ artist with a bit more newage, digital-like sounds, so if you want that route this is a great option. Steinberg as a great reputation among the music gear world.
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 perfect to add to your sound library. If you want to go the full nine, grab the Miroslav Orchestra and Choir 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.
Now that we’ve covered some synths and natural sounding virtual instruments, it’s time to take a look at one of the most solid drum plug-ins out there. It’s all dedicated to percussion: 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 the Toontrack EZDrummer 2 to add to your collection. It’s another one of the best VST software in the market, especially if you’re sick of sampling drum breaks (I don’t think we ever will be completely, but it’s at least a nice change sometimes) or want to create your own patterns and don’t have the time or room for a real drum set.
Spectrasonics Trilian Bass Module
Need something to hit those subwoofers? 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+ bass sounds (almost any type you can think of, such as fingered, picked, fretless, slapped, electric, acoustic, and more). We don’t want to over-exaggerate, but if you do end up getting this plug-in, you have almost any bass sound that’s available in the world. We’ve heard of many even pairing this one up with an additional synth and piano VST to make sure they’re covered in all areas. It’s within the middle price-point of the advanced virtual instruments in the market but for good reason — you’re set for life in that lower frequency game if the Trilian Bass Module is in your repertoire.
IK Multimedia Total Studio
Here’s IK Multimedia’s version of their super bundle of both VST instrument and effects. It’s around the same price as Komplete, so if we were to give you a strong opinion it would be go grab NI’s instead. However, if this one’s discounted at a decent price at the time of you checking and 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 out the IK Total Studio 3, we included it in here for a reason, although it may only appeal to a smaller few of our readers it was worth mentioning.
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 from 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 Celemony Melodyne, the power is up to you (here’s looking at you, T-Pain).
Are you a fan of Skrillex? Or perhaps you aren’t a huge dubstep fan and just want some electronic flavor and swag sprinkled throughout your tracks? Here’s a list cap to end with. It was hard to choose among the wide array of Sonivox 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. The sounds in the Sonivox Wobble aren’t completely natural sounding, but that may not be what you want anyways. Awesome synths, bass tones and FX, this thing is definitely unique and isn’t comparable to many others in this list.