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Roundup: Supersized Virtual Instruments

March 1, 2010

In the old days, organizing sounds in the studio was easy: The Hammond B3 and/or piano sat in one corner, the drum set in another, and if there was a synth, you organized sounds within the synth itself.

But then came computers and virtual instruments, with an explosion of sounds—drum software with hundreds of kicks, synths with 40GB libraries, orchestral libraries that needed more than one computer to function . . . wow. But have these huge libraries simplified our lives, or complicated them? If you’re looking for that perfect kick drum, do you really need to audition 4,156 samples?

Well, that’s what this roundup is all about. We’ll cover a few tips, then review some cream-of-the-crop programs— including two seriously cool programs you can get for free.

0.0000Fig1_pathFig. 1. With IK’s instruments, and those from Native Instruments, you can specify a particular path for the library.


Programs with big libraries are picky about finding their data. If a hard drive crashes, or a library’s moved to a bigger drive, the program might lose track of its sounds.

Many programs default to storing libraries on your root drive (C: drive in Windows-speak) because that drive is guaranteed to exist in any system. However, it also holds your operating system and applications. If your instrument streams samples from disk, then you’re asking your root drive to do a lot. Storing libraries on their own drive means being able to stream more data.


Programs often include a setup option to install the library on a separate drive, but you can change the path later if desired. For example, clicking on Prefs with IK Multimedia’s instruments lets you specify the library location (Figure 1); Spectrasonics and MOTU instruments require that you place a shortcut for sound libraries within the program file folder (Figure 2).


Invest in the future and spend $200 on two Terabyte drives (or bigger!)—one to store your libraries, the other to back up the first hard drive. Backing up that much data takes time, so do it while you’re at a movie (or asleep); but backing up is less of a hassle than reconstructing a TeraByte of data after a crash. Libraries are seldom copy-protected (that task goes to the playback engine), so you can usually replace a crashed drive with your backup, and keep going.

An internal SATA-type drive that connects directly into your motherboard is ideal, but if you hate opening up computers or need portability, then use a quality outboard FireWire or USB 2.0 drive. However, for optimum results consider adding a USB or FireWire port card to your computer rather than using the onboard ports.

0.0000Fig2_PathFig. 2. Instruments from Spectrasonics and MOTU use aliases (shortcuts) to locate libaries.


If you have a program with, say, 100 kick drums, go ahead and audition them but when you find one that sounds good, stop—don’t keep going because “maybe there’s a better one.” Music is about inspiration and emotional impact, not getting lost in kick drum sounds.


When you have a bazillion instruments and presets, take advantage of any “favorites” options so you can return to sounds you like. But don’t become so stuck on a few favorites you stop exploring your options—the advantage of big libraries is a wealth of choices that almost guarantees you’ll be able to find the right sound for the right project.


And while we’re on the subject of favorites, let’s get to the reviews— these are a few of the better instruments that have crossed my desk in the past few months.

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