Guitar and Bass Virtual Instruments | Pick, Pluck, Slap, and Tap

Publish date:
Social count:
Image placeholder title

Mention guitar or bass, and no two people will conjure up exactly the same image. There are so many ways to play these instruments and so many different sounds that they are virtually impossible to pigeonhole.

Guitar and bass have enormous sonic breadth and depth, and it''s doubtful that any one musician can invoke Doc Watson or David Torn (to give two polar examples) from a single instrument. That''s especially significant if you are a solo composer with a home studio and limited resources. With that in mind, I''ve compiled a representative roundup of virtual guitars and basses from sample libraries, dedicated sample players, and physically modeled software, limiting my choices to dedicated guitar and/or bass products, and not including those packages that also cover other instruments like keyboards and drums. One or two instruments may stretch your definition of guitar and bass a bit, but they effectively demonstrate the lengths to which sound designers can go to create expression and realism.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: Best Service Chris Hein Bass affords control over a large number of sonic artifacts. The notes highlighted in pink on the virtual keyboard are keyswitches used to activate different articulations.

Chris Hein Bass

Weighing in at roughly 13GB, Chris Hein Bass from Best Service focuses on two electric basses and an upright, but there''s more variety than you might think. You get a Musicman Stingray slapped and played with a pick, a Le Fay Remington Steele fretless bass played finger-style, and an 1870-vintage Meister Neuner upright acoustic bass strung with gut, nylon, or steel strings. Instruments are further divided into patches that focus on (for instance) pickup choices, playing distance between bridge and neck, and then subdivided into lighter-load patches with fewer sampled articulations.

At first, the control panel can appear busy and daunting, but the panel is simply there for re-assigning keyswitch and modulation destinations; most real-time controls appear as keyswitches below the normal range of the instrument (see Fig. 1).

My favorite of the electric instruments was the picked bass, whose aggressive rock ''n'' roll tone was outstanding without the need for excessive keyswitches and controllers. Stronger velocities bring in glisses and the same pulled-bass tone, which was much more effective in this context. For some reason, the all-in-one patch (which contains all of the articulations) defaults to monophonic, legato behavior. That setup makes for very convincing hammer-on and pull-off techniques, but I could find no mention of this in the documentation. I counted roughly 60 CC messages for real-time modification of the instrument''s behavior—many of them with no explanation and unclear nomenclature. (What are Atmosphere Level and Note Off Density?) Fortunately, most of what you''ll need to pull of a convincing bass line is under your fingers, and you can assign a few extras in the instrument''s control panel.

The thicker tone of the Hein fretless differs from the characteristically woody Fender Jazz bass that was part of Jaco Pastorius signature sound. The velocity switching moves abruptly to a comparatively aggressive, pulled-string tone at higher velocities—owing more to Larry Graham than Jaco.

Among the acoustic bass instruments, the steel-strung acoustic bass is a winner with a fuller, deeper tone than the gut- or nylon-strung counterparts, which tend to sound thin by comparison. Apparently, the modulation wheel moves the samples between a pickup and a mic tone. With the mod wheel moved all the way back, the sampled saturation effect moves too far into overkill for my taste, but you can back it off for a more subtle, overdriven sound (see Web Clip 1). Overall, Chris Hein Bass is a solid collection of instruments, but it needs better documentation.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: Here''s a multi in Impact Soundworks Shreddage. Simple power chords are layered on the left, shaded part of the keyboard, and single notes are laid out on the right.


With a tremendously accurate and musical set of sitar and other instruments under Impact Soundworks'' belt, Shreddage is the relatively new company''s first virtual guitar, and it''s equally impressive. Shreddage is promoted as a “metal” guitar suitable for rhythm parts, but it can do well in a variety of rock and R&B arrangements, and although its highest note (fifth fret of the high E string) doesn''t venture into stratospheric territory, it could probably do quite well in some lead-instrument situations.

The target software instrument is Native Instruments Kontakt (Version 2 or later), but the samples are unlocked, so pulling the audio files into any sampler is fair game if you want to do the programming. The samples are clean, with no effects or scripting deployed in Kontakt; instead, programmer Andrew Aversa includes some tasty patches for AmpliTube, Guitar Rig, POD Farm, TH1, and others.

Multis compose the full instrument rather than single patches crammed with all of the articulations and unwieldy set of keyswitches. Instead, clever round-robin programming coupled with velocity switching brings the instrument to life. Consequently, playing the instrument is a musical and direct process with little need for offline controller editing.

Shreddage''s strengths as a rhythm guitar become more evident as you play chords from the left-side keygroup. Single notes are in the right group (see Fig. 2). In general, light velocities trigger palm-muted notes, with stronger velocities triggering increasingly sustained samples. Eight alternate samples for every note help eliminate the typewriter effect common in single-sample notes. Successive keys alternate between up- and down-pick strokes.

The set includes patches ranging from simpler, limited articulations to double-tracking setups to achieve huge, wide-screen guitar sounds. Impact Soundworks Shreddage is a steal.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 3: The well-organized user interface of Manytone Manybass invites customization and experimentation.


A generous complement of synthesis parameters, amp and cabinet simulators, and multiple effects make Manytone Manybass an acoustic and electric bass collection with plenty of room for customizing sounds (see Fig. 3). Patches include instruments played from different picking-hand positions and techniques, and multiple pickup settings so it''s very easy to emulate, for example, changes from finger-style to tapping to slapping.

Four slots can load variation patches, and you switch between them with MIDI note-numbers or Control-Change messages (see Web Clip 2). Only one slot can be active at a time, which precludes layered patches, multitimbral, and velocity-switch setups. Many patches use velocity layers, revealing string rattle and other artifacts when played more forcefully. Don''t neglect to play above and below the conventional range of the instrument: The GrowlBass patch uses staccato bass samples above its highest Bb, and natural harmonics and pickup taps below its low B.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 4: Manyguitar''s Wizard at the top left provides dropdown menus to immediately switch to groups of preset parameters.

Useful and attentive programming is in abundance. For example, aftertouch-induced vibrato is subtle and quite natural sounding. Natty Dread is a warm, muted, and bottom-heavy reggae bass, and Punk Jazz nails the close-to-the-bridge nasal tone that opens the Weather Report tune of the same name. Manybass is a tremendously versatile and solid set of instruments.

Manyguitar 1.04
Probably the most versatile and imaginative collection of guitars I''ve surveyed here, Manyguitar acoustic and electric guitar emulations range from mellow to jangly, and all points in between: Strats; Teles; and 6- and 12-string acoustics, both processed and pure. Similar to Manybass, a generous selection of patches use velocity-enabled alternations to avoid static, repetitive-sounding instruments.

Trem Tele MW is a standout patch: a gorgeous Telecaster-type instrument with a lush, phase-shifter-enhanced tremolo, slide samples, and finger squeaks arranged outside of the instrument''s normal playable range. Light Velocities trigger palm-mute samples (see Web Clip 3).

In the realm of less-conventional guitar sounds, standout patches include Fripp&Eno, an otherworldly lead that simulates a delay-soaked EBowed guitar, and Fadepad, a slow-attack, resonant, chorused Stratocaster. Not surprisingly, the late Tim Conrardy, one of my favorite synth programmers, created these two patches.

All controls are intuitively laid out, and trying out existing patch parameters on a different guitar is no more than one pulldown menu away, as is the Sound Wizard, a menu of preset parameters that you can apply to any of the basic guitar types (see Fig. 4). The chances are very good that if Manyguitar doesn''t have quite the sound you''re looking for, you are only a couple of tweaks away.

Manybass or Manyguitar patches are exchangeable in either plug-in, and you can import your own samples, sound fonts, and patches formatted for Wusik Wusikstation. Manytone offers a number of additional sound sets, including meticulously sampled upright acoustic, fretless, and Precision basses. You can tweak sounds to taste with ADSR envelopes for amplitude and filter—each with adjustable keyboard tracking and a choice of resonant, high/low/bandpass filters.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 5: MusicLabs'' RealLPC can map MIDI notes from a keyboard into guitar voicings, as illustrated by the vivid green dots on the fingerboard. You use keys above the range of the notes to play up and down strums.

RealLPC 1

MusicLab boasts a product line that includes three sample-based guitars with a nice complement of realistic performance capabilities. RealGuitar and RealStrat—virtual acoustic and Stratocaster-type guitars, respectively—have been reviewed in EM (August 2006 and May 2008, respectively, available at The company''s most recent offering is RealLPC, a virtual, sample-based emulation of a Les Paul Custom guitar.

Performance artifacts such as release samples, assorted squeaks, and noises abound, and they are easily accessed and modulated through keyswitches, Control Changes, or an onscreen panel. You can even set the plug-in to play volume-pedal, violin-style solos quite convincingly (see Web Clip 4).

Without an understanding of how guitars are played, extensive sampling is not enough for a realistic part, and that is RealLPC''s ace in the hole. RealLPC works fine as a solo instrument, but it excels as a rhythm guitar. Hold down chords on a keyboard, and it can automatically map incoming notes into guitar voicings (see Fig. 5). Diatonic keys above and below the individual notes become alternating up-and-down strums, and flats and sharps trigger muted strums. Because the trigger keys extend across two octaves, it''s easy to create complex rhythms with either hand, and you can slide into chords and change inversions on the fly.

If you want a further assist, a built-in Pattern Manager loads MIDI files of rhythm strums and pattern picking in a variety of styles, and you can add your own. For even more realism, modulate the pick position as you play. I wish there were other pickups represented, but some of that effect is achievable with the pick position and a bit of EQ. In the tradition of the company''s other virtual guitars, MusicLab produces expressive and convincing guitar performances.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 6: The Kore 2 user interface affords plenty of real-time control in Native Instruments'' Essential Bass. Red and highlighted buttons reflect parameters I''ve selected for adjustment with the Kore controller.

Essential Bass

Essential Bass for Kore 2 and Kore 2 Player—from Native Instruments—confers easy access to eight default parameters and eight user controls (see Fig. 6). Synthesizer basses dominate the collection, but high-quality acoustic and electric instruments are in good supply. Among these are an outstanding acoustic upright bass sampled in several layers so that stronger velocities bring out a bit of string rattle and vibrato-induced growl. Another nice touch is a bit of sympathetic vibration from adjacent strings, subtle enough to add depth and realism without calling too much attention to itself. Notes of longer duration trigger release samples of the string snapping back into place, while four notes mapped below the range of the main samples trigger muted versions of each open string, and notes above the normal range provide string squeaks. Variations include a layered upright paired with a synth, which adds a nice, albeit synthetic girth. Kore 2 controls let you easily adjust the relative balance (see Web Clip 5) between a natural and artificial character. A handful of programs using the acclaimed Scarbee “Red Bass” (a Fender Jazz bass) sample set ably represent electric bass.

Scarbee Bass Library
The Scarbee Red Bass shows up again, but with more detail and performance options in the Native Instruments Jay-Bass for Kontakt, which is a single-instrument sound library in a series of electric-bass titles from the Scarbee Bass collection. What is uniformly appealing about the Scarbee basses is their uncomplicated, musical ease of expression: Although they make use of keyswitching, most everything you will need falls under your fingertips and within the playable range of the instrument. The Jay-Bass is a knockout with its full, woody, tone.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 7: The Native Instruments Scarbee Bass collection features beautifully sampled, musical replications of popular electric basses.

Touch the keys lightly ,and you can generate harmonics. Add a bit more velocity, and you''ve got dead notes. Dig in a bit more for normal notes played in round-robin style with samples of alternate fingering and intelligent crossover to the next string. Keyswitches below the range of the instrument let you deliberately choose an alternate string on which the same note can be played. Hammers, trills, and even sliding chords are possible. To slide chords, hit a chord, press a sustain pedal, and play the target root note. Although it''s not a fretless, it''s a great choice for those Jaco Pastorius emulations (see Web Clip 6). The Scarbee MM bass relies on a single-pickup humbucker—Musicman bass—as opposed to the two single-coil pickups (and three pickup options) of a Jazz bass. Overall, the sound is rounder with less of a pronounced mid- and upper-midrange tone than the Jay-Bass, but with a similar woody character.

For sounds more conventionally suited to rock ''n'' roll, the Scarbee Pre-Bass can hardly be beaten; it''s a single-pickup Precision bass with a rounder tone than the other Scarbee basses, but with plenty of detail and complexity.

All three Scarbee basses let you adapt the bass to a musical style in which bassists presumably make different string- and fret-position choices for notes, choose from a handful of tweaked preset effects, or create your own effects presets. As a whole, playing the NI Scarbee Bass collection is an immersive experience providing some of the most natural-sounding and playable bass instruments around (see Fig. 7).

Image placeholder title

Trilian 1.3.1

Spectrasonics'' Trilian offers a broad variety of electric, acoustic, and synth bass sounds. You get more than 60 different electric basses, each with a multitude of articulations. The new Acoustic Bass alone comprises 21,000 samples with mixable direct and miked outputs. Trilian''s core library is a whopping 34GB. As with the Native Instruments Scarbee basses, Trilian focuses on playability to the highest degree. Practically everything you will need to bring these basses to life lies under your fingertips.

Trilian''s new acoustic upright basses are perhaps the most intimately detailed sampled instruments I have ever heard, featuring careful and generous velocity-layering blended with extensive multilayered artifacts including slides, release noises, finger squeaks, and copious round-robin alternates for notes. Even the artifacts often use alternate samples and velocity layers. The remarkable attention to detail pays off in a big way, as these instruments shine in exposed solos and in dense mixes. As a performance instrument, Trilian is ahead of the curve with a smooth, polyphonic legato that gracefully allows hammers and pull-offs while holding down other notes (see Web Clip 7).

Spectrasonics'' STEAM engine—fundamentally the same synthesis that powers Omnisphere—allows you to personalize patches owing to its deep architecture and generous modulation capabilities. Higher-level preset tweaks appear on the instrument''s main panel (see Fig. 8). For instance, the Full-Range All acoustic bass presents knobs for altering the balance between mic (samples recorded through a Neumann U47) and pickup. Do you want a cleaner sound with fewer artifacts? Dial back the Noises knob. The Bissonette Studio Bass is similarly endowed, with front-panel controls to adjust the amount of Ampeg or Direct signal.

Trilian''s Chapman Stick—whose range extends from bass through guitar—is a serious piece of work, and it had me channeling (or at least attempting to channel) Tony Levin. You can really hear the impact of the fingers tapping the strings.

There''s a boatload more here: acoustic bass guitar, Hofner Beatle Bass-style instruments, a super-raunchy Music Man Sting Ray, and loads more above and beyond the vast collection of synth basses. Trilian is a studio brimming with just about any bass you''ll ever need.

Time and space prevent me from covering much more than this small handful of instruments; there are tons of virtual bass and guitar libraries currently on the market. See the Online Bonus Material for a few more, including some products I''ve examined before, which remain strong contenders worthy of consideration.

East West Fab Four

Sometimes it''s not enough to run a sampled 1956 Fender Stratocaster through a simulation of1966 Vox Defiant Amp to nail the guitar sound on "Fixing a Hole" by The Beatles; you''ll also need to account for the outboard gear and the engineering savvy. That''s exactly what Doug Rogers and East West had in mind when they created the Fab Four virtual instrument. Rogers worked with engineer Ken Scott, who has a long association with The Beatles, and purchased vintage guitars, basses, amps, and gear that replicated equipment used at Abbey Road Studios.

Acoustic and electric guitars dominate the collection, but they are only part of the repertoire here. Hofner bass, drums, keyboards, tabla, and even Mellotron flutes fill out the collection.

East West nailed it: Playing the guitars and basses (whose titles suggest the song that inspired them) is a trip back to the halcyon days of The Beatles. If you want to customize the sounds further, the Fab Four interface provides access to some excellent DSP, including ADT, a combination of an imaging and doubling effect with a pronounced analog flavor Also noteworthy from East West is Gypsy, which mingles Django-esque, Macaferri-type guitars with steel and nylon-strung guitars, bandoneon, cimbalom, and violin.

Wavelore Pedal Steel Guitar ($299)
Accurate reproduction of pedal steel guitar may be (next to saxophone) one of the most baffling instruments to accurately recreate in a virtual form. Wavelore is the undisputed winner in this category, and the company has succeeded brilliantly. Describing the detail with which the company has assembled the instrument would require an instruction manual on how to play it, but suffice it to say, Wavelore has made it easy while still capturing the elements that have made authentic pedal steel guitar and MIDI lifelong combatants. The most obvious stumbling block is the contrary string-bending motion built into the pedal steel''s system of pedals and pulleys. Play a chord, move a pedal and maybe a knee lever, and strings will raise while others will lower, and still others stay the same. Now play any other pedal steel patch and move the pitch-bend wheel: All notes rise and fall accordingly, but this is not so with the Wavelore instrument. You can even play out of 24 various positions with the aid of Continuous Controller messages, and the instrument will behave as a normal pedal steel would, with the appropriate strings responding to virtual pedals and levers. Pedal steel players can be persnickety about their amps, so the Kontakt convolution reverb uses an impulse response captured from a genuine pedal steel amplifier for further realism. The manual is good enough in some places to serve as an instruction course for steel players. Wavelore Pedal Steel Guitar is a serious and expressive piece of work.

Over the years, EM has covered enough virtual guitar and bass to make a collector envious. I''ve compiled a short list of some of my favorites. Big Fish Audio
From its title, you might guess that Raging Guitars is exclusively for metal and more extreme rock, but you''d be wrong. While most of the samples in this collection are saturated and overdriven, that''s still a wide-open territory, and I''d have no problem using these instruments in rock, blues, pop, or old-school fusion.

The Kontakt-hosted library is replete with everything from full instruments to loop-based construction kits and beyond. You also get a variety of strums, chords, muted guitars, and multiple pickup settings, as well as very effective round-robin programming.

Subsequent to the EM review, Big Fish corrected a few serious problems that hampered the library''s use, which is fortunate, as it is one of my go-to electric guitar libraries.

By the time this article is in print, look for Electri6ity from Vir2, whose demos promise to be a game-changer in the realm of sampled guitars. Vir2 is a spinoff of Big Fish Audio that focuses on libraries of playable instruments rather than loops. The centerpiece or Acoustic Legends HD is a 24-bit, 96kHz collection of sparkling, high-end acoustic guitars. Guitars from Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Lowden, and others come in dry and processed variations, and they even toss in decent banjos and mandolins in the bargain. Acoustic Legends follows a similar format to Raging Guitars, with whole instruments, sampled chords, and randomized alternate notes to alleviate telltale mechanical sample playback.

Vir2 rounds out the low end with BASiS. As with NI Bass Essentials, this set includes a wide selection of synth basses, but the focal point here is the set of acoustic and electric instruments. The standout axe here is the Gospel bass, loaded with presence and lots of low-end growl. Basis is a short list of high-quality acoustic and electric instruments.

Applied Acoustic Systems
Strum Acoustic and Strum Electric GS-1 stand out from the rest of the lot; for starters, they are physically modeled—not sampled instruments. With a few major exceptions, I have found physically modeled instruments to be less convincing than comprehensively sampled axes, but that''s not the case here. Assigning Control Change messages to natural musical gestures such as pick position elicits a very continuous, realistic musical response. Chord interpretation is extremely musical, and you can choose from a variety of voicing presets, including Movable Root and Powerchord, and load MIDI files for playback. Both instruments let you fine-tune the physical responses of each string; for example, you can add more inharmonic content to any string or change the gauge or increase or reduce string coupling. Try that with a sampler.

Hein''s guitar collection uses Kontakt 2 and later versions as hosts. You get extensively multisampled versions of six instruments: solid- and hollow-body electric guitars; a steel-string and a nylon-string acoustic; a banjo; and a mandolin. The banjo and mandolin samples sound as if they were taken from poorly maintained, cheap instruments; if that''s what you''re after, you''ve found your instrument library, but there are folk and bluegrass libraries with far more professional-sounding instruments on the market.

By contrast, the nylon-string guitar has a full-bodied tone and plenty of variety with a knob that lets you modulate between neck, center, and bridge-position samples. You get full, medium, and light versions of the guitar, with and without articulation effects, but light patches use too few velocity layers for my taste. The transients suggest that these samples were recorded with a pick; I would have appreciated a finger-style set.

I''m not aware of the provenance of the steel-string guitar, but it is also quite good, with very effective transitions from neck position to bridge. Release samples and finger squeaks add to the realism, and you can control the level of the artifacts. A knob entitled Atmosphere appears to add samples with extended release times, and is effective at simulating body resonance, but its presence on solid-body instruments is a mystery.

Get Hammered
Electric guitars have similar articulation features, a few of which are questionably implemented; for example, to create a hammer-on effect, you need to play a note and use a controller to switch to the hammered tone—as opposed to a genuine legato transition between tones. The full version of the finger-style jazz guitar has sharper transients than the plectrum-style version. Transitioning between neck and bridge position samples on the Jazz Guitar presets induces obvious beating and out-of phase effects. In general, I would have appreciated fewer key switches with more samples devoted to velocity switching; many transitions are surprisingly abrupt.

The Blues Guitar uses overdriven samples with feedback from a solid-body electric. As a monophonic lead instrument, it''s animated and effective, but chords sound unnaturally clean because it can''t emulate the complex interaction of multiple strings. With a few exceptions, I found the Chris Hein Guitars collection disappointing.

Marty Cutler and Kenny Kosek head up Chef of the Pasture, a bizarre mélange of banjo, fiddle, electronica, tall tales, and humor.