Soft Touch

A Crash Course for Exploiting Virtual Instruments.
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A Crash Course for Exploiting Virtual Instruments.

Virtual instruments used to be pretty much gimmicks, with limited high-frequency response, grainy audio, aliasing, and the ability to suck the life out of a CPU. But today’s cutting-edge software instruments—aided by improved computers—boast a level of sound quality and innovation that rivals the finest hardware equivalents.

But maybe progress has occurred a little too fast, because improvements have happened at a rate faster than some musicians and engineers can assimilate them. So, let’s see how to make these babies really work for you.


Over the years, the way of adding instruments to a project has changed. They were treated initially like signal processor plug-ins—you’d insert the instrument, then create a MIDI track for it. However, a more common approach now is to use one operation to create an Instrument track that deals with both audio and MIDI.

For example, in MOTU’s Digital Performer, going Project > Add Track > Instrument Track (Figure 1) presents three options: Add an unassigned instrument track with accompanying MIDI track, add an instrument that will need to have a MIDI track added later on, or my preference, Add Instrument. When the Add Instrument Track window appears, you can specify how many Instrument tracks you want, the instrument to be assigned to the track(s), how many MIDI tracks you want to create to drive it (e.g., you might want multiple tracks for a multi-timbral instrument), and whether you want all these tracks to be part of a folder.

Digidesign Pro Tools, Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, and several other programs take the same general approach for inserting a specific instrument track—usually with an accompanying MIDI track. However, all have some unique variations. For example, when you insert an Instrument track in Cubase, there’s the option to browse patches, which uses a filtering process so you can seek a patch from a particular instrument category, musical style, plug-in, etc. (Figure 2). Or, you can go Devices > VST Instruments and when you choose a device, decide to create an accompanying MIDI track. It’s also possible to call up presets from within this window.

Another insertion technique is drag-and-drop. With Ableton Live, dragging an instrument from the Plug-In Device Browser into the Clip/Device Drop area automatically creates an Instrument track that takes the instrument audio as an output, and provides MIDI as an input. Mackie’s Tracktion works somewhat similarly. You drag a “filter” (which can be an instrument or audio processor) into a track. During the dragging process, you can specify which instrument to insert. Specify your MIDI controller as the track’s input device, and you can record MIDI data into the track that triggers the soft synth.

Multi-timbral instruments may require special handling. In Tracktion, the instrument needs to be wrapped in a “virtual rack,” and multiple outputs assigned. Power App Alley in the June 2007 issue of EQ describes how to handle multi-timbral instruments in Live. Some programs, like Sonar, let you specify during the insertion process whether you want a stereo mixed out, or tracks for multiple outs.


Some virtual instruments can insert as instruments or signal processors that utilize the instrument’s filters, envelopes, and other modules. I first saw this with Native Instruments’ B4, where you could use its excellent rotating speaker simulator with any audio signal. Now several synths have opened their doors to external inputs. These include modular synthesizers, like those from SonicCore (formerly Creamware), Arturia (Figure 3), and Korg, as well as individual instruments (like several Minimoog emulations).

With software hosts, the instrument itself may show up on a list of virtual instruments, while the instrument effects show up in the list of audio processing plug-ins. However, there are exceptions. For example, with Sonar, if you insert an external input-friendly synth into a track’s effects/instruments slot, the external input becomes available for any signal present on the associated track (see Power App Alley in the October 2006 EQ for how to use Sonar’s Pentagon I synth as a vocoder with this technique).

Another example: With SonicCore’s Minimax (Minimoog emulation), the audio input is a patch point within the Scope system (Figure 4). Thus, you can feed it from any output within Scope (including sequencer host tracks) and its output can be folded back into a host input, sent to the Scope mixer, or routed directly to an output.

Virtual modular synths make the best processors because of their flexibility and various modules. Of these, the MS-20 from Korg’s Legacy Collection, Analog Edition 2007 (Figure 5) offers some extremely creative possibilities. Like the old Moog modular synths, it doesn’t have a multimode filter. Instead, it has separate resonant highpass and lowpass filters, which when combined, can also give bandpass responses. But also remember that the original MS-20 was designed to handle external signals, and Korg’s emulation respects that.

An important element is MS-20’s the ability to condition the input signal via controls for level, low cutoff, high cutoff, control voltage adjust, and threshold. For example, you can use the filtering so that only low frequencies—like those from a kick drum—are recognized to provide a control signal.

As to the control process itself, there’s a frequency-to-voltage converter, so that pitch can be used as a control element. You’ll also find an envelope follower (great for patching into a resonant filter or amp) and trigger output, derived from the input signal, suitable for triggering either or both of the two envelope generators, providing a clock signal for the sample-and-hold module, etc.

Another great synth for effects is Arturia’s ARP 2600V—but there are plenty of others.


Virtual Instruments want to be played, which doesn’t just mean pushing down keys on a keyboard, but assigning parameters to MIDI, then using hardware controls (that generate MIDI controllers) to provide realtime control over those parameters. Being able to vary filter cutoff, envelope times, modulation, and other sonic qualities in real time is what makes synthesized parts come alive.

The typical way to create modulation assignments is with matrix modulation—so called because it presents a matrix of available modulation sources and destinations (Figure 6). I can’t overemphasize how important this is to creating expressive sounds. Just using velocity to open up the filter a bit to increase brightness with louder sounds adds a significant degree of realism, as does using velocity to speed up the attack time of an amplitude envelope so that louder sounds attack more forcefully. And while mod wheels are typically mapped to vibrato, they are also good for morphing between different sounds, changing the timbre of bass patches, adding octave-above and octave-below layers, and the like.

Keyboard controllers will offer at least velocity, pitchbend, and mod wheel controllers (and, hopefully, aftertouch response). There will also likely be a jack for an expression pedal and sustain switch. However, sometimes you want more physical control options—if not to add expressiveness, then to be able to program sounds by tweaking parameters in real time, as you used to be able to do with analog synthesizers. Currently, there are four main protocols for doing this.

Native Instruments Kore. Kore (reviewed August 2006) is a hardware/software combination that incorporates an audio/MIDI computer USB interface with a control surface (Figure 7), so you don’t have to rely on a mouse and keyboard. Kore’s main element is the KoreSound—a “container” for VST/AU plug-ins you can save and recall—that can be as simple as a single instrument containing a preset, to a complex combination of instruments, effects, mixing, and routing, treated as a single entity. Kore itself can serve as a plug-in, and all the plug-in parameters within Kore are accessible through the controller.

The KoreSound is not tied to any particular host or program. You could use it with Logic on a Mac, then with Ableton Live on Windows. As long as the same VST plug-ins are installed on both Kore-friendly platforms, the KoreSound is transportable. Also, Kore itself includes many effects of its own. This increases transportability, as you can be sure any Kore system has these effects.

Another aspect of Kore is that it streamlines the process of finding presets because it “tags” presets with attributes, then assembles these in a database. All presets included in NI’s Komplete soft synth suite have been tagged, as have some plug-ins from other companies; you can also do your own assignments.

Ultimately, Kore’s value is in direct proportion to your workflow’s complexity.The more complex it is, the more Kore can help you work efficiently.

Active Controller Technology (ACT). This Sonar-specific protocol deals only with hardware control over synth parameters (as opposed to Kore’s ability to work with Presets). ACT maps parameters found within Sonar—mixer faders, pan pots, effect settings, virtual instrument controls, and the like—to a hardware controller of your choice. Its biggest plus is context sensitivity, in that it instantly maps physical knobs to software parameters of the application having the focus. As long as a plug-in exposes automatable parameters, those parameters will be controllable via ACT.

For ACT to have the most positive effect, you need to customize it for your own needs. Simply using ACT to assign every single parameter to a control can get overwhelming. What works for me is to set up a consistent set of controls for the most-used parameters. For example, with almost all synths, I’m into tweaking filter cutoff and envelope attack, decay, and release times. Therefore, I’ve used ACT’s learn function to assign these to the same knobs for all the soft synths I use.

Propellerheads ReMote. ReMote is a Reason-specific protocol for mapping controllers to Reason. Several manufacturers support this so that if you’re using, for example, the Novation ReMOTE SL or Korg Kontrol49, you can select them as controllers within Reason, and their controls will be mapped to crucial Reason parameters. Bank switching allows directing the messages to particular instruments or functions within instruments, and best of all, ReMote accommodates multiple controllers. You can use a master keyboard controller for triggering notes and such, while using a fader box for dynamic, realtime control over particular parameters.

Novation Automap Universal. This protocol provides control for Novation controllers over VST Windows/AU Mac plug-ins via their Plug-In Automap, and a variety of host programs via Mixer Automap. These two Automap functions work from different templates within the controller. The templates load automatically, but can also be switched manually.

Plug-in Automap “wraps” plug-ins (as evidenced by a small control panel added to the plug-in with Automap functions), thus mapping their parameters to hardware controls on the controller. There’s also a learn function for customization. Control is independent of the host sequencer, as it “talks” directly to the plug-in. (The Mixer Automap function also works from a template, which is different for each sequencer and therefore, not all sequencers are supported.)

Rolling Your Own. Finally, you can create your own mappings with your hardware controller of choice, and save presets corresponding to different instruments. For example, if you have a fader box, assign MIDI controllers to the faders, then assign the controllers to particular parameters within your plug-ins. However, compared to the protocols mentioned above, which do most of the mapping for you, the custom approach is far more labor-intensive.


Virtual instruments tend to be pretty foolproof, but there are some potential problems.

Not enough CPU power. Instruments place more of a load on CPU than just about any other element of a host program. The symptoms of an overloaded CPU include audio crackling or popping, sluggish operation, or the host program crashing upon inserting an instrument. Fortunately, there are several ways to minimize CPU power.

  • If the instrument has multiple outputs, enable only the outputs you need.
  • The instrument may have a “high quality” or similar mode that gives better audio quality at the expense of greater CPU consumption. Choose lower quality—at least while tracking (you can bump the quality back up when mixing).
  • Increase the latency. Lower latencies tax the CPU more, leaving less processing headroom for handling virtual instruments.
  • Use the host program’s “freeze” function (if available). This renders the instrument’s audio output as a hard disk audio track, then disconnects the instrument from the CPU. Note that bypassing or muting the instrument is not the same thing, as the instrument remains connected to the CPU so it can return instantly upon unmuting.
  • If your host doesn’t have a freeze function, save the virtual instrument patch you’re using, bounce the instrument output to a hard disk track, then remove the instrument from your project. If you decide to edit the part later, re-insert the instrument and load the preset you saved. Do your editing, then bounce again.
  • Minimize polyphony. Playing more notes requires more CPU power. If you have a long release time where multiple notes sound at the same time, consider using an external processor like reverb instead. Also, most synths let you restrict the polyphony. If you’re lucky, this will be a “smart” algorithm that, for example, removes notes with the lowest volume and/or the same pitch if you exceed the available polyphony.
  • Bypass unused elements within the instrument itself. For example, there may be several elements or voices, so turn off the ones you aren’t using. You also may be able to turn off, say, the filter section independently from the rest of the plug-in.

Host program hangs while loading. Some programs scan plug-ins when they start up, or do a selective start-up where they scan only for plug-ins that have been added. If the program freezes during this process, that may indicate incompatibility with a particular plug-in. Programs often show the names of the plug-ins as they’re being scanned, so you may be able to see what was scanned when the program froze. Remove the plug-in temporarily from the folder containing it, and try again. If the host starts without problems, you’ve isolated the culprit. Check the website for the host and the virtual instrument for updates, but also realize that some plug-ins just won’t work with particular programs.

In addition, the program may scan a plug-in that requires some sort of attention, such as inserting a CD for verification. This warning may appear behind the host’s “splash screen,” and if you don’t see it, you can’t take the appropriate action. Move the splash screen if possible—or, with Windows machines, check the Taskbar for a tab that says something like “Error.” Use Alt-Tab, or click on the Taskbar tab, to bring the warning window to the front.

General instability upon adding a plug-in. This can happen with shareware and freeware plug-ins that, while well intentioned, may not be coded carefully. If you add these types of plugs, add one at a time, and try it with all the hosts you plan to use before committing it to your system.

Instruments don’t show as available. Most hosts have a preference that specifies the folder(s) where your plug-ins reside. Make sure that all folders containing plug-ins you want to use are included. For example, a host may create a folder for its own plug-ins and point to that, without pointing to a folder created by another program that also has plug-ins. It’s generally best to consolidate all your plug-ins in a single folder, and point to that in each host’s preferences. However, this can be problematic if a plug-in works with some programs, but not with others (either by poor coding or because a plug-in is keyed to a specific program), so you may have to create some custom folders that are pointed to by some, but not all, host programs.

Rewire doesn’t work. The order in which you open programs matters. You generally need to open the ReWire client first, and then the host.

The instrument won’t accept MIDI input, or deliver audio output. Remember that there are two parts to virtual instruments: the MIDI track providing it with data, and the audio output feeding into the host’s mixer. Both aspects have to be functioning properly for the instrument to work.

An instrument loads, but its samples and patches are missing. When you install an instrument, its content goes to a particular folder and the instrument “knows” this file path. If the path changes (e.g., you add a hard drive, or move the content folder), the instrument won’t know where to find its content. There should be a preference or option for specifying this path. If all else fails, re-install the instrument with its content.


I’ve played with a lot of virtual instruments—enough to have some definite faves. So, with apologies to the many products I either haven’t had time to evaluate, or don’t have space to include, here’s a look (in alphabetical order) at some instruments that have really spun my crank.

A.I.R. Instruments. Xpand, Strike, Velvet, and Structure are all superb. But Velvet stands out for not just emulating, but reproducing with uncanny accuracy, the sound of tine-based electric pianos.

Arturia. While famous for adding tasteful additions to classic instruments (Minimoog, CS-80, ARP 2600, Jupiter 8V, Prophet VS, etc.), to me, the company’s crème de la crème is the Moog Modular V. The flexibility of a good modular synth is a joy for sound designers.

Cakewalk. Cakewalk has produced a slew of fine instruments since acquiring rgc:audio, but none as innovative as Rapture. It combines DSP, wavetables, and out-of-control modulation options to produce sounds that range from pure analog emulations to hardcore electro. (Give each of its six elements a track in Ableton Live—they’re a perfect pair.)

E-mu. The competition in sampler-land is fierce—Steinberg’s HALion, NI’s Kontakt, MOTU’s Mach5, and many others. But with beat slicing, off-the-wall DSP, and the brilliant “synth swipe” feature that transforms your favorite synth sounds into samples, it’s worth dealing with the Emulator X2’s sometimes dated interface to take advantage of its feature set.

Garritan. For coming as close as possible to a real violin or cello, the go-to products are Stradivari Solo Violin and the Gofriller Cello. They’re amazing in the hands of someone who knows how to massage MIDI controllers.

GForce. In a world awash with Minimoog tributes, the Minimonsta not only nails that classic, rich Mini vibe, but incorporates some cool, extra tweaks.

Korg. The Legacy Analog Edition (MS-20, PolySix, and Mono/Poly) is a programmer’s delight. But the Digital Edition, with the fabled Wavestation and M1, is something else. The M1 includes all the sounds from the original M1 soundcards, placing banks and banks of sounds at your fingertips.

Native Instruments. People have their favorites—Massive’s, uh, massive sound; the clever, ambitious Kontakt; Absynth’s sophistication; the B4 clonewheel organ; and, of course, Reaktor. But special props go to the FM8, which resurrects FM synthesis in a way that eclipses all hardware units, and makes the technology relevant again.

Propellerheads. Sure, Reason is an all-in-one studio, but thanks to ReWire, it brings a suite of fine instruments (two samplers, a drum machine, subtractive synth, modular synth, and granular synth) to any ReWire-compatible host.

Steinberg. Given that they invented Virtual Studio Technology, it’s not surprising that Steinberg has a legacy of soft synths. But two stand out for innovation: Virtual Guitarist and Groove Agent—both of which can create convincing guitar and drum parts, respectively.

Sample libraries with front ends. Once upon a time, sample developers said, “Why are we developing different versions for E-mu, Akai, Roland, Ensoniq, Yamaha, and other samplers? Let’s just make plug-ins!” These days, more and more companies are mating their sample libraries with player engines, resulting in a world of plug-ins that’s way too big to summarize.

Spectrasonics put this approach on the map with Stylus (drums), Trilogy (bass), and Atmospheres (synth pads and more). It’s debatable whether it was the concept or Eric Persing’s brilliant sound design that got these products the attention they so richly deserved, but they remain coveted and viable.

Several of these products are software equivalents of workstations, and some stand out: Sonivox’s Muse couples the engine from TASCAM’s GigaSampler with a comprehensive sound library; IK Multimedia’s SampleTank was one of the first software workstations, and its convenience, depth, and roster of effects have kept it relevant; and East West’s Colossus is an expansive, rich environment for putting together complete compositions—think of it as General MIDI taken to the max.

String libraries have also taken this approach, from the ultra-high-end Vienna instruments to more budget approaches, such as IK Multimedia’s Miroslav Philharmonik and Garritan’s Personal Orchestra.

And we haven’t even touched on Vir2’s Acoustic Legends guitar library or their Drums Overkill, which wraps up just about every vintage drum machine sound into a convenient package. And there’s the Yellow Tools series, and Rob Papen’s Predator—a synth with a huge, but focused sound for dance productions. It’s all good. . . .