What is a Virtual Instrument? – Everything you need to know!

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What is a Virtual Instrument

What is a virtual instrument? We look into it and answer your questions, introducing you to the different types, and show you a few free examples!

Are you new to music production and looking to get yourself all setup but are wondering how do you get the instruments into your session? Or perhaps you are setup and looking for more information on what is a Virtual Instrument. Today we are going to be answering your questions so that you have a better understanding of what Virtual Instruments are (in relation to music production) and how they work.
We will run through the various types you may come across if you are on a Mac or PC, look at some examples and at the bottom of this post we will have a few free virtual instruments for you to try out for yourself.

The purpose of this article is to really help you better understand the software so if there is anything I have missed in this article that you would like me to look into then leave me a comment below and I will be happy to help where I can.


What is a Virtual Instrument?

Put simply, a Virtual Instrument (VI) is a piece of software that emulates an instrument like a piano, drum kit etc inside a computer. There are two main ways a VI can do this, first by taking specific recordings of an instrument such as a piano. Saving the recordings and putting them into a piece of software that allows a user to select the notes they want to hear. For the purposes of this article we will refer to these as Sample Virtual Instruments (SVI). The second way a VI can produce sound is to have built in sound generators or oscillators. You can think of it like an equation or algorithm that the computer uses to calculate a sound signal. So for the purposes of this article we will refer to these as Algorithmic Virtual Instruments (AVI).

To fully appreciate the work that goes into VIs let’s spend a bit of time exploring the development of SVIs and AVIs.

Sample Virtual Instruments (SVI)

A lot of work can go in to recording SVIs since the developers need to figure out how to make the user feels like they are playing the real thing, OR come up with innovative ways of giving the user access to the recordings that makes sense and is musically playable. Let’s take a piano as our example instrument and look a just few of the things a developer will need to consider getting a realistic feeling piano VI. The obvious place to start is with recording the notes and here there are a few options, you can either record each and every note, or you can record every second note/fifth/octave and later stretch that recording tuning it down or up to reach the other sample recordings. You can even record just one note and stretch that over all notes, the concept is the same however we will not explore this option today.

So we have our recordings and let’s say we decided to take each C note on the piano and each 5th, great! So what else might we want? Well have a think about a piano and what it sounds like when it is played… when does it sound different? When do we hear things that are present when you play a particular note in one way, and what is not when you play it another? How about the difference between when a note is played hard vs played softly? So you might go through and record the same notes again but played hard and then recorded again while being played softly. And then what about how the piano sounds when the sustain pedal is used etc? Then what  about round robins where you take multiple recordings of the  very same note?  … I think you get the point here, and it is for this reason that developers may chose to only sample particular notes from a keyboard and then stretch them or else they might end up with a lot of samples taking up a lot of disk space.

Once all the recordings have been collected, you would then have the job of programming them into a Sample Virtual Instrument. This involves:

  • assigning the samples to the appropriate notes
  • matching up the appropriate midi signal to the recordings
  • mixing the audio and possibly adding effects the user can tweak

As you can see it is quite an involved process and there is a lot to consider when creating a SVI. Most DAWs these days will include a Sampler, whereby you can create your own SVIs using your own recordings. I would highly recommend trying this out, it will give your productions a unique and authentic sound and you will over time build up a library of custom instruments.

Algorithmic Virtual Instruments (AVI)

Algorithmic Virtual Instruments work quite differently to the above mentioned SVIs with the biggest different being that they do not use sample recordings at all. Instead, the developers have created a type of algorithm that depending on the input variables generates a sound. The benefits of this type of VI is that they are usually very lightweight both in terms of file size but also load on your computer. They are however often unable to accurately (in my opinion) generate complex sounds that well such as an orchestra, guitar or singers voice.

Mostly commonly, you will find synth instruments dominating this category since it is fairly easy to take the programming (analog synthesis) already wired in the hardware synths, and translate this into a software. Now I am not saying that what you get in this case is a like for like between a hardware synth and software synth, but it is very close indeed. In fact quite often the difference in sound is due to tiny inconsistencies in the manufacturing of the hardware (say a resistor is 5 ohms when really it is 5.3 ohms, or it changes to 5.3 ohms because after a few minutes the synth warms up and this particular resistor is very close to the heat source etc) or even in the case of the legendary TR-808 drum machine the parts are chosen because they are defective and produce a particular sound that non-defective parts can’t.


Are there different types of VIs?

Not to be confused with above discussion, we will now look at the different types of VIs you will likely come across depending on what system you use (Mac or Win) and what DAW you use. As we go through the different types keep in mind that at their core, they are more or less file type `containers` for VIs whose end goal (producing sound) is the same.



Created originally by Steinberg and released in 1996 VST or Virtual Studio Technology plugins enabled the user to add effects such as echo and reverb to audio tracks without the need for outboard gear. In 1999 version 2 was released adding the feature for the VST to receive midi data allowing the user to manipulate the plugin this type of VST is referred to as VSTi (Virtual Studio Instruments). Further versions/revisions have now been released continuously adding to the functionality of the plugin and integration with DAWs. This is the most common VI type and almost all of todays plugins come in VST(i) format.


Audiio Uniits Logo

For Mac users this Audio Unit (AU) format will not be new but to anyone who has not used a Mac computer for music production before it is likely unfamiliar. Put simply this is just Apple’s version of a VST, at its core is it an OS API that can generate audio from some form of input very quickly (low latency). A number of stock AUs come pre-installed with most Mac computers. This give Mac users something to play from the get go and since these AUs are quite good you don’t have to feel bad about using them in your productions.


AAX Logo

This is a proprietary format owned by Avid called the Avid Audio eXtension and is the only VI type that Pro Tools accepts. Avid is quite keen on keeping to their AAX format and will continue to innovate and improve the technology. I have included a link to one of Avid’s blog posts on the matter of why they keep with the AAX format. So if you are interested please give it a read! I found it most informative however if you would like to know one key take away then it would be that AAX supports both Native and DSP. Native meaning it runs within your DAW and computer using the CPU to calculate the audio signal. DSP meaning you connect to an external DPS to off load work from the CPU to your DSP. The second link below shows a very interesting article about this and test Native vs DSP performance. I would recommend giving this a read!!

Why Do We Need AAX? The Explanation

What You Need to Know About Native vs DSP


Some examples

Kontakt 5

Konttakt 5 Inteerface

Kontakt 5 from Native Instruments (NI) is a standalone or DAW compatible plugin that comes in VST, AU and AAX variants. It is primarily used to surface sample based instruments developed by many companies including Spitfire Audio, Soniccouture and NI themselves. Kontakt also acts as a sampler allowing users to import samples and create their own VIs within the plugin. This is great since it allows you to use all the powerful features of Kontact including effects and scripting meanwhile allowing you to build up a cross platform library of instruments. Best of all it is free and there are many free libraries available for it online, check out the section below for links to free Kontact VIs.

Mini V

Mini V2 Interface

The Mini V from Arturia is one of, if not my favorite synth plugin of all time. It has a wonderful warm sound and a lot of parameters that you can adjust to get the sound you are after. Arturia has based this on the retro Moog synth and have taken the same algorithms used in their synths and put them into a software plugin. This is the key to the great sound of the Mini V. You can spend a lot of time `tinkering` with this plugin and messing around getting it to produce some way-out-there sounds. Or just browsing the presets for some classic retro synth sounds. I would almost go as far as to say, if you were going to spend money on a plugin (perhaps your first VI plugin) get this one!

Spitfire Audio – British Drama Toolkit

British Drama Tooolkiit

The Spitfire Audio British Drama Toolkit is a plugin in designed to be used inside Kontact 5 mentioned above. It is developed by Spitfire inside the Kontact framework. Spitfire is well-known for their high quality sampling and they pride themselves on this. They also do not pretend to be a software company that writes code, instead they are a plugin sampling company. The toolkit has some very interesting features that make it a real `toolkit`. For example from a single preset you are able to play a number of different articulations of a chosen instrument. So when you lightly press the key, you might hear `chatter`. Then when you press with medium velocity you might hear a `normal` sound and when you press a key with high velocity you will hear something quite different. This combination of many articulations across many instruments make it a really great toolkit particularly for scoring.


Free Virtual Instruments to try out

Check out the links below to some of my favorite free VI plugins, just click on the company logo to be taken to the product page. These are all really great plugins and completely free so a big thanks to these companies for giving them away!

Spitfire Audio - LabsSoniccouture Logo

Steinberg Logo

Tunefish Logo


The wrap up

If i could offer one piece of advice here, don’t go too crazy with collecting plugins. For sure search out some free plugins, but really get to know them first before filling up your library with so many plugins you don’t know what does what anymore. I would suggest that for each plugin you find, spend a week or maybe even make a few tracks with it so that you get to know how it works. Remember the best plugin for you is the one you know how to use.

Do you have any favorite plugins of your own that you would like to share with the community? Leave us a comment or a link below! Or if you have any questions leave them below and I will be happy to help where I can.

Let me know if you like this article by clicking the like button below, and let me know if there is anything else you would like me to cover, in the comments section.

Thanks for reading!


4 thoughts on “What is a Virtual Instrument? – Everything you need to know!”

  1. Hello Tim,
    Oh wow…you certainly piqued my interest. I had NO CLUE about music and their virtual presence. After reading your article, I have a sense of understanding and definitely an idea of where to go next!
    Thanks for taking the time to educate the masses. All the best:)

  2. Wow, I never knew about virtual instruments. I can tell after reading your article that there is a lot to them. It is pretty cool. I might have to try one of the free software and get my feet wet that way.


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