Monday, 21 January 2019

Virtual Instruments

Good evening/morning/January/birthday/elephant*,

I hope you’re well and looking forward to a bit of a read. In this post, I’ll be talking about virtual instruments and in my next post I’ll talk about sample libraries. These are a media composer’s best friend and also nemesis – I’ll explain about that in the next post.

Virtual instruments (VIs) are also called software instruments or software synthesisers (softsynths for short). They generate digital audio and can be standalone programmes or plug-ins that are opened within a digital audio workstation (I use Pro Tools). They can be an emulation of an existing instrument (like a Moog or Roland synthesiser), designed to create new sounds, or a piece of software designed to host other sounds (like sample libraries).

One of the industry’s leading (and one of my favourite) VI makers is Native Instruments. I use their Komplete bundle on almost everything I do. Kontakt, Absynth, Massive, and FM8 are absolute go-to instruments for me. I own and use many VIs and sample libraries but there is one that I use above all others, and that’s Kontakt. It’s a sampler that hosts sample libraries so that you can play anything from a drum to a piano to a full orchestra.

I often have dozens of Kontakt windows open to create an orchestral score. You can open multiple sounds within one instance of Kontakt (so that you can create, for example, a whole string section all in one place). Many companies make sample libraries designed to be used in Kontakt. It has a great feature called “Quick-Load” that allows you to organise your samples however you want – I categorise mine by instrument type and then the name of the library, which I find is best for my workflow. If I want a solo violin, I can look in “Strings”, then “Solo”, and take my pick.

Some sample libraries are set up so that you can have multiple techniques loaded into one “patch” (a file you load into the VI). Say I have a violin section and I need sustained notes and short notes; I can load a multi patch and use keyswitches to swap between sounds. Keyswitches allow you to change sound at the press of a, well, key. They tell Kontakt that you are switching sounds and are usually placed right at the bottom of the keyboard. Luckily, Kontakt has a keyboard display that shows you where the keyswitches are, so you know which key to press for each sound.

My other favourite VI is Keyscape by Spectrasonics. I used it exclusively on my album Cypher. Unlike Kontakt it is a standalone product – a VI and sample library in one.

You need one instance for each sound you want (unlike in Kontakt), but you can play about with those sounds really easily. There are tweakable knobs and buttons all over the place, which is great for getting exactly the sound you want out of it.

For me, Keyscape has the best-sounding pianos out there (not to mention the dozens of other keyboard instruments it has to offer).

Omnisphere by Spectrasonics is an example of a VI that allows you to play with waveforms and all sorts of settings to make your own sounds. You can do this in VIs like Massive and Absynth, too. They also come with premade patches that you can use as-is or tweak to make your own version of the sound. (In fact, Absynth has a “Mutate” button you press to randomly modify the patch you’ve loaded – it’s a lot of fun and a feature I use often). Sometimes it is necessary to use the sounds that come with a VI, but I prefer to make my own (or at least tweak them) if time allows.

Many sample library companies are now starting to make their own VIs – which is great, because they can be adapted to work perfectly for the sample library they’re hosting. However, sometimes it backfires; the VI can be clunky or drain too many resources from the computer. Spitfire Audio have made their own and it’s pretty good. It works especially well for their Evo Grid concept. An Evo Grid is a collection of samples that have subtle movement in them. They’re great for creating atmosphere and giving your music a sense of realism. You can also select different parts of the grid to change the sound so it makes it sound a little more unique.

Hopefully this has been interesting or useful or at least not entirely boring. If you have any questions or comments please do use the comment section below. I’ll be back tomorrow with a follow-up post about sample libraries.

Until then, TTFN.

Sam x

*delete as applicable