With so many great virtual instrument bundles available, it can be hard to know where to invest your hard earned cash. We take a look at the most popular plugin collections available today..
Virtual instruments (or ‘software synthesizers’ or ‘soft synths’ for short) have been around for about 20 years. Long gone are the days when you needed to spend thousands of pounds on hardware that produced you sounds. With the advent of more powerful computing and continual virtual instrument R&D, we are now in a position where many studios do not own any hardware synthesizers at all. Hardware synths are great, but virtual instruments offer great value for money if you have a computer-based studio setup.
Here we take a brief look at the most popular plugin collections..
Native Instruments (or ‘NI’) were one of the first soft synth companies, and have developed numerous software titles over the last 20 years. Battery was one of the first drum samplers, and Kontakt soon became the go-to instrument sampler, with many 3rd parties also creating instruments that use the Kontakt sample engine. Every year, NI package up all of their newly-created and previous instruments, and offer them as Komplete Ultimate, which currently has over 17,000 presets and requires a whopping 440GB of storage.
If 17,000 sounds is too many to handle, then a cut-down version, simply called ‘Komplete’, takes the core of NI’s sound selection, and serves up a package that is still very comprehensive, with over 12,000 sounds (130GB). Individual NI products can be purchased in their web shop, but really the only sensible (and cost effective) way to buy NI plugins is to buy Komplete or Komplete 10 Ultimate.
Komplete covers all styles of music, including more traditional (sample-based) sounds like pianos, orchestral instruments and drums, but also incorporates a very powerful modular synth creation environment in Reaktor. Reaktor can be configured to be anything you like – synthesizer, sample player, effects unit, or anything else you can build with its graphical system building blocks.
Also included are Massive – a huge sounding synth with a very powerful modulation system, FM8 – a good old FM synthesis plugin based on the Yamaha DX7 engine, and Absynth – an additive-type synth creating some very unusual textures and sounds.
Applied Acoustics Systems (or AAS) have been creating virtual instruments almost since the technology’s inception 20 years ago. AAS Tassman was one of the first decent soft synths that was modular and therefore completely configurable.
The difference between AAS and most other companies, is that they do not use sample-based synthesis at all. All sounds are creating using ‘physical modelling’. This is a way of creating the sound by analysing the instrument (acoustic or electronic), and modelling its physical behaviour rather than the resulting sound.
What this means is that the sound is manipulated at the core of the synth engine, and as such is highly expressive. There are no velocity-layers as with sample-based synthesis, so the sound is truly ‘created’ on the fly with no sudden ‘stepping’ to another sample, making for super smooth dynamics. Applying this technique to real instruments gives incredible realism, with the added bonus that the memory footprint is tiny, and it only takes a few minutes to download and install.
The latest version of the original modular soft synth, Tassman lets you create your own synths and effects.
Lounge Lizard was one of the first electric piano plugins. Incredibly realistic and eminently tweakable to go well beyond your average electric piano.
A classic analogue synthesizer-style plugin.
A plugin that uses physical modelling to the max, creating very realistic stringed instrument sounds using the string as its resonator, and bolting on the body and other physical aspects of real instruments.
If you’re not a guitar player, but want authentic sounding electric and acoustic guitars, then Strum GS-2 will do the job nicely.
Physical modelling of struck objects. Great for realistic, as well as other-worldly, percussive sounds.
Arturia’s V-Collection bundles together a suite of 13 soft synths and virtual drums. Most of the plugins in the collection are emulations of classic synthesizers, and if it’s old-school synths you’re after, then V-Collection is probably the one to go for.
The classic synths included are:
Matrix-12 V is a plugin that recreates the lush sound of Oberheim’s late-eighties classic Matrix polyphonic analogue synthesizer.
Solina V is, as the name suggests, is the Solina String Machine in software. This was a classic instrument from the 70’s and 80’s, doing an interesting, but not always highly realistic, impression ofviolin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass instruments.
Mini V is that great little synth that started a revolution in the 70’s – the Minimoog. The Mini V, however, is polyphonic, bringing that classic synth a new lease of life.
The ARP2600 V is, of course, the classic semi-modular ARP 2600 from the seventies renowned for it's rich sound and extensive sound warping capabilities.
Prophet V is Sequential Circuits famous Prophet 5. If you don’t have a few thousand pounds spare to buy a real one, then this plugin will put you in the right sonic ballpark.
CS-80 V is a classic Yamaha CS-80 analogue polysynth, great for pads and strings
Jupiter-8 V is a very passable recreation/adaptation of the Roland Jupiter 8 from 1981. Roland recently re-introduced the Jupiter in a small hardware format with the Boutique JU-08.
An Oberheim SEM V, Wurlitzer V and Modular V complete the line-up of classic synths, plus you get Analog Lab (a single plug-in containing sounds created with the rest of V-Collection), and Spark– a fully-fledged drum machine.
Rob Papen is a synth designer and programmer who has created a number of innovative and unique plug-ins. eXplorer 3 gives you all of his virtual synths and effects in one package, with thousands of thousands of rich, complex, track-ready presets created by Rob Papen and guest artists.
Included in eXplorer III are the following:
• Blue II: Crossfusion synthesis - FM, phase distortion, wave shaping & subtractive synthesis.
• Predator: Phat analogue synth with killer presets and first class features
• Predator FX: Filter, modulation, vocoder and effects plug-in.
• Blade: Cutting edge additive synthesis plug-in for the creation of unique sounds quickly and easily
• Punch: Sampled and synthesized drums in a high quality percussive instrument
• SubBoomBass: Ultra-deep groove bass synth with built-in step sequencer
• RG: Electric & acoustic guitar grooves with sequencer and synth effects
• RP-Distort: Distortion effects plugin with additional innovative features.
• RP-Delay: Delay insanity. reverser, 6 lines, 8 filters, 4 LFOs & more.
• RP-Verb: An advanced, transparent and musical algorithm reverb with easy controls
• RP-AMOD: Features classic audio modulation FX to spice up your tracks.
Steinberg invented the VST plugin, and paved the way for everyone else to provide plug-ins in a standard format. There are now other formats, but VST (Virtual Studio Technology) has been a stalwart and was the catalyst for hundreds of other instruments.
The Absolute 2 VST Plugin Collection includes all of Steinberg’s current line-up of professional soft synths, with over 5,500 presets taking up nearly 60GB of hard drive space. The range of instruments is impressive, with sampling, drums, piano, orchestral, synthesised and cinematic sounds only a few clicks away. This collection represents great value for money, and covers the vast majority of genres and styles.
What you get….
HALion 5 is a powerfully inspirational virtual sampling and sound design instrument that forms the heart of modern sound creation and production environments.
HALion Sonic 2 features the latest sampling and synthesis technologies, a world- class library and an intelligent user interface that excels in the studio as well as on stage.
Groove Agent 4 combines three specialist instruments for creating dynamic drums, dancefloor-filling beats and sizzling percussive grooves in almost any genre.
The Grand 3 features five premium piano models with an overwhelming sound quality, different microphone positions and usability due to the range of included tools.
HALion Symphonic Orchestra puts the awesome emotive power and sheer sonic majesty of a full symphonic orchestra under your total control.
Padshop Pro introduces a new way of granular sound design. Get yourself ready for out-of-this-world atmospheres and far-out effects.
Retrologue 2 offers old-school analog synth sounds and biting sonic blocks, ideal for creating fat and funky lead and bass sounds.
Hypnotic Dance is a treasure trove for electronic music producers with solid bass lines, cutting leads and beautifully textured pads.
Triebwerk is the go-to choice for club-worthy dance sounds with soaring synths, four-to-the-floor drum kits and queasy vocals.
Dark Planet is best-suited for cinematic scores and musical excursions, comprising creepy sounds, shattering loops and eerie instruments.
Zero Gravity is the exceptional expansion pack for Padshop Pro and comes with 250 new presets and a fully loaded new SoftGrain Wave ROM.
So, which virtual instrument package should you go for?
Here’s our summary of the above collections. Hopefully you’ll be able to narrow down your choice and be on the path to creating music using some of the best tools available.
A good all-rounder, with acoustic and electronic sounds, but takes up a LOT of space!
A unique and very realistic sounding collection of plugins using physical modelling technology.
If you like your classic analogue synths, this is the collection to get.
For a modern suite of sounds using the latest synthesis concepts, then look at eXplorer 3.
A good suite of very usable plugins, ranging from acoustic instruments to synths and drums.