Virtual Instruments: In-Depth Guide + Best Free VSTi (2021)

Virtual Instruments Guide + Free VSTi

Welcome back everyone to what might just be the most exciting installment of my series on VSTis (virtual studio technology instruments) — the one where I show you how to own a library of sounds and instruments that would make the most populous of orchestras green with envy.

VSTis are separate to VSTfx in that they do no alter sounds — they generate sounds.

Generally using MIDI input data to recognize and recreate melodies and musical tones, these instruments often work both as the primary plugin on a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software track, or as a standalone program on your computer.

The variations of available VSTis span entire worlds, with nearly every instrument, retro synth, soundscape and whatever else some diabolical engineer has dreamed up.

Such is the ease of recreating popular and obscure instruments that huge numbers of composers have now turned to the convenience of digital orchestras and emulated samples over hiring real musicians.

Of course — what would a piece of mine be without a boring, unnecessary warning? — while technology has progressed and musicality (articulations, subtle dynamics and expressions) is better represented in VSTis, they are still not a perfect replacement for the real deal.

There is still merit, when possible, to use virtual instruments as an accessory instead of the centerpiece of a recording. Real instruments played by real musicians will almost always offer a sound that is inimitable, even through strenuous automation and AI learning.

Music Recording Studio

That said, I am well aware that most (mine included) studios of ours have a substantial amount of space taken up by unnecessary artifacts like beds, work-desks and wardrobes, and thus we lack the room (not the finances, of course) to host the entire London Symphony Orchestra to record a couple of harmonies for our next song ‘Untitled and Unfinished Track #28’.

The other benefit of sampled instruments is, well, not everyone has the time available to become a maestro kalimba player, or whatever other obscure desired sound.

The possibilities are endless with instrument plugins. It really is an exciting time to be a part of. The ability to experiment with boundless sounds, for ideas that would once never see the light of day to be just the click of a ‘download here’ button away — I feel privileged to be alive to watch it unfold.

Of course, this has also had the negative effect of opening up the music industry to the formulation of perhaps one too many DJ ‘insert literally any word in the dictionary here’s, but I suppose the pros outweigh the cons.

I suppose…

Different Types of VSTis

Musical Instruments

I previously said that there was a limitless number of different VST variations to navigate and add to your bustling collection. Obviously, this was a slight exaggeration. If it were true, this piece would go on for an infinite amount of words.

However, there truly is an exorbitant number of options when it comes to virtual instruments and to list them all would be a truly bizarre way to spend my time.

Just google ‘list of every sound ever’ and go through those search results if you’re truly desperate.

Unnecessary sassy statements aside, I will take the time to outline the very basic branches of virtual instruments that are most popular among budding home musicians.

As I think I’ve made abundantly clear, any exceptions or absentees from my list is not to be a shock — if you want a digital leaf rustling sampler it most likely exists, but I think I can be excused for not listing it among the more popular musician’s tools.

I will generally try to avoid mentioning specific VSTi brands and products that I like in this section, as these will be featured in detail later in the article and in further editions of the PianoDreamers’ VST series.


Synths

Wolf Playing Synth

Synthesizers are probably the most common use of VSTis. Whether they be hardware-modeled pieces like Arturia’s Jupiter-8 V (based on Roland’s synth of the same name), digital wave-table synths like NI’s Massive, or huge sound libraries such as Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere, there will invariably be a place for a virtual synth in your plugin collection.

The potential for synthesizers in the digital realm needs very little introduction — they are obviously perfect candidates for translation to virtual software given their electronic nature. A large portion of synth VSTs are purely modeled and don’t use samples, replicating a unique analog tone through synthesis the same way their hardware counterparts do.

That said, there do exist sample-based synths (Stagecraft’s Infinity for example) however I have found them to be less malleable than synthesis-based synthesizers — with the exception of Izotope’s Iris 2, which is a whole different ball-game and more of a mini-DAW packaged as a VST than a basic virtual instrument.


Just before we move onto sample-based VSTis, it’s worth touching on samplers — many stunning virtual instruments are actually under the branch of being Kontakt (or another similar host like Vienna Ensemble) instruments and won’t work independently as a plugin insert on your DAW software. You need the base host to run and modify these sounds.

SO when you buy a digital instrument and it says ‘you need the latest version of Kontakt to run this software’, well, you better believe it.

Note that there are two versions of Kontact, the full (paid) version, and the free one called Kontact Player. Some libraries will only run on the full version of Kontakt, while others will work fine on either, so make sure to read the description/requirements of your VST carefully.

The complexities of Kontakt run well beyond my comprehension and what I can faithfully explain in this article without confusing everyone so I will leave it there, but it is well worth your while looking into the product as THE foundation of your sample-based virtual instrument collection.

Below is a great video by Guy Michelmore that goes in-depth about the whole Kontakt ecosystem and should answer most of your questions about how Kontakt works.

You can also make your own virtual instruments if you have the means to do so, encrypting sounds to become an entire Kontakt library, utilizing iZotope’s Iris, or simply dragging and dropping audio files onto your DAW’s in-built sampler (Like Ableton Live’s aptly named Sampler).


Piano/Keys

Giraffe Playing Piano

It would be rather remiss of me to not mention piano on a site named Piano Dreamers, wouldn’t it? Luckily, I am not known for being remiss (in fact, for those that have read my past articles, I am known for being the painstakingly opposite) and the world of sampled key and piano VSTis is a fun one.

It’s important to remember that you can get synth-modeled keys and pianos from libraries like Omnisphere and Massive, or even create them yourself, but if you want a realistic Wurlitzer, or a standout Steinberg, your best bet will be sample-based libraries.

I’ve always found piano VSTs a hard thing to get right — there are so many beautifully modeled virtual instruments yet I never really have a ‘go-to’ option that blows everything else out of the park.

There’s a different piano for a different purpose whenever I get into the studio (a.k.a roll out of bed at 11 10 9 in the morning).

That’s not to say that these virtual replications of famous pianos aren’t faithful — they are bloody awesome — just that I am very peculiar and picky with the tone I use in any given track.

In contrast, EP models tend be more all-encompassing for my purposes. There’s no real reason for this and this piece of advice might be completely wasted on you but I would personally look for a larger piano library, or trial a lot of different pianos before making a purchase.

For an EP, the first one you listen to and fall in love with will probably serve you well for quite some time.


Strings

Deer Playing Strings

The strings field of virtual instruments ranges from sprawling orchestras incorporating twenty different samples to individual, painstakingly modeled and customizable string instruments that I’ve never even heard of before (what on earth is a Balalaika?).

These are often great for soundtracks and soundscapes, as you can find fairly faithful replications of instruments like lutes and fiddles for a medieval tone, or combine a basic orchestra VSTi with a dark synth pad for a cyberpunk feel.

It kinda goes without saying — but this is on top of strings’ potential for use in pretty much every single genre of popular music.


Drums and Percussion

Rhino Playing Drums

Drums are an interesting VSTi in that they often present themselves in 3 separate forms: as rhythmic synths (so technically they don’t belong in this section); as rhythmic samples and loops; and as a sample-based drum-kit.

Each of these methods of replicating rhythmic sections for your next big hit can be equally effective. There’s no rulebook when it comes to creativity — if your heavy metal song calls for a bunch of EDM-based 808 loops, then sobeit.

If this is the path you choose to go down, it’s probably a good idea to give me a miss when you’re considering album reviewers, but the point is that you can make such a decision, if for whatever ungrateful, godforsaken reason you thought it to be a good one.

I’m just kidding. Beauty lay in the eye of the beholder — music’s all subjective. Right?

You can also find dedicated virtual instruments for orchestral drums and percussion like timpanis and gongs, as well as individual rhythmic pieces such as tambourines and egg shakers.

In my experience, getting a good sound out of the later generally involves using a loop or very precise MIDI programming.


Guitars

Lion Playing Guitar

Name it and you can wield it. Acoustic, Bass, Electric — all are available to be tried on for size via various VSTis. Guitars make for particularly fascinating virtual instruments, as the way they are normally played and recorded doesn’t really make for smooth transition to an entirely digital makeup.

Some software does it better than others, but — especially on virtual acoustic guitars — chords and certain styles of playing like fingerpicking can sound jarring when compared to the real deal.

If you do want to get some of the more expansive libraries sounding realistic, it takes a lot of automation, programming and effects to get it to work. This can be worth your while for all sorts of reasons, but if you are a proficient guitarist I’d just go with the actual instrument.

Where guitar VSTis become really cool is when they’re not traditional instruments, instead using feedback, reverb effects and resonators to create unique soundscapes and sample-based synths, perfect for ambient creations.

Note: Technically, guitar amps aren’t VSTis and thus won’t be discussed in this article — and really, such is the depth of awesome amp simulators, it deserves an article of its own.

However, combining amp simulators with virtual/sample-based guitars can really assist in adding a level of realism to your recordings that may otherwise sound too stale or too digital.


Other Orchestral Goodies

Animals Playing in Orchestra

I mean, I don’t want to bore you to death, so I’m not going to list them all. But everyone’s favorites are available in varying degrees of versatility, quality and price.

Saxophones, trumpets, flutes are just some of the orchestral pieces us gluttonous musicians can lay our greedy little hands on and insert into our songs without any semblance of an idea on how to actually play them.

Like I mentioned in the strings section, these can often be acquired as standalone instruments, expansive sets of brass/woodwinds or entire orchestras.


Literally, And I Mean Literally, Anything Else

Animals Other Musical Instruments

Yeah, I’ve probably missed an absurdly specific instrument. So what? It exists. It’s out there. Along with an infinite number of other instruments that range from incredible to beyond useless.

Such is the perilous nature of virtual instruments — it is a gaping vacuum frothing at the mouth to suck you in with its ideas of ‘cat meows’ and ‘people throwing their trash into the garbage’ as being beneficial to your next song.

I’ve even seen presets for a sample instrument based on recordings of trains going by on train tracks. I see the merit to this VST if you’re a member of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, otherwise it’s probably superfluous for the needs of an average home studio.

That said, it’s probably pretty cool…

Most of the more senseless VSTis probably fall a bit more under the title of ‘field recording’ than ‘sample instrument’, but hey, if you can download it as a VST file, it belongs in this article!

To MIDI (keyboard) or Not to MIDI (keyboard)

MIDI Keyboard Setup

Being PianoDreamers.com, it’s probably a fair assumption for me to make that most of you reading this article will be adorned with a piano in some size, shape or form. However, not everyone will have a MIDI-compatible keyboard, leaving them having to program their VSTis by hand.

This is not always a bad thing — it allows for great precision with a song’s timing and those who compose music through writing instead of playing will feel comfortable using a mouse and keyboard (the one you type with). That said, if I were given a choice I would always go for a MIDI keyboard and playing the parts destined for a software instrument instead of doing it manually.

I find it much easier to have a realistic, musical rhythm when doing this, instead of the colder, robotic perfection that can unfortunately shine through even the most painstaking of MIDI compositions.

It also allows for a more natural expression and dynamic in your recordings, though of course these can be programmed into your MIDI data, it can be rather time-consuming.

Ultimately, the above rationale is really only applicable to me and should be just one element you consider when deciding if you want to buy (or use) a MIDI keyboard alongside your new Bazantar VSTi.

I generally make indie/alternative music that relies heavily on dynamics and a sense of musicality which lends itself to actually playing the parts, whereas those that compose visually or are making a more in-your-face, less instrumental-focussed genre like EDM or pop might find it easier to drag and drop notes into their DAW software’s piano roll (usually a separate compositional window).

The smart answer that could’ve saved all of the above waffling is — it’s up to you. Use both, or use neither and release a song that goes for 4’33” without making a sound (yeah, good one John).

The choice is yours.

How Expensive Are Virtual Instruments?

Virtual Instruments (VSTi) Price

My Goodness, I Was Told Virtual Instruments Would Be Cheap!

Who told you that? I sure didn’t.

I said they were convenient, not cheap. This kind of goes without saying, obviously a downloadable file is more convenient than lugging around a grand piano, 18 different guitars and an entire symphony of instruments. Obviously.

But no, virtual instruments can set you back just as much as their physical counterparts. When you consider just how much time was spent, how many samples recorded and how professional musicians and engineers hired, it makes sense that the bill would rack up pretty quickly.

And of course, just like when you go to the dump and find a fully functional original Fender Jazzmaster, you can find cheaper, hidden gems of VSTis that will operate at a quality well above their price point.

It all depends on your budget, your requirements and your patience to trawl through layers of garbage (I’m still running with the dumpster analogy here) before you find exactly what you need.

Which brings me to the next, and most exciting section of the article…

Best Free VSTis

Free VST Instruments

Who knows a budget when what you’re ‘buying’ is FREE! Don’t listen to what anyone (me included) tells you about how ‘time is money’ and ‘you shouldn’t download virtual instruments for the sake of it’.

Go wild! Go crazy! Get them all.

And then learn the hard way, when you have to choose from 25 different free violin VSTs for a 3-second harmony in your song that is barely audible.

Luckily you have me, the lighthouse in the fog, to guide you through the darkness to the best free virtual instruments for the categories I mentioned above.

Note: It’s always important to leave a disclaimer that this is just my opinion and that there are many great free VSTis for any number of desired instruments and sounds.

If you don’t like one of my suggestions, that’s fine — have a bit of a look around and there will be other free plugins of a high quality that will be more suited to your needs.

Additionally, some of the VSTis listed below require Kontakt to run — so don’t come running to the comments section here when you download it and realize it won’t work without a sampler — you have been warned.


Best Free Synth VST

Synth Icon

Hmmm. Would it be a hyperbole to say that there are millions of great options available when it comes to free synths?

Probably. There’s likely close to a million options, but are there a million great options? Seems far-fetched.

What’s this got to do with the best free synth VST? Oh, nothing. Sorry, I was just hinting that there are so many stellar free synths that picking one is like picking a *insert idiom such as ‘needle in a haystack but less generic*. But right, you don’t care about that — you have Google — so let’s get on with it.

TAL’s Noisemaker

Tal Noisemaker Synth

TAL’s line of synth products are some of the most popular among amateur and professional producers. The TAL-U-NO-LX, a Juno-60 emulation, is particularly lauded (check out its review rating on Plugin Boutique!)

While the NoiseMaker is an entirely different beast, it is a powerful option for those on the prowl for an easy to use, yet smooth-sounding synthesizer. It comes with inbuilt reverb and delay and the ADSR, portamento etc. options you would expect from any decent synth.

It’s not the most versatile synth — but that’s what is so appealing about it. It’s a workhouse without any frills that sounds fantastic, meaning it is perfect for a beginner, but also has a purpose in the toolbox of a more experienced synth connoisseur.

The best part? Those without synth programming knowledge (I say as I unashamedly raise my hand) will be delighted to find the NoiseMaker comes alongside 256 presets, meaning we don’t actually have to do any thinking ourselves.

We can just mindlessly click through random names until we find a sound we like. Hooray!

Honorable mentions:

  • Phuturetone’s Phutura
  • Digital Suburban’s Dexed
  • Daichi Laboratory’s Synth1

Best Free Grand Piano VST

Piano in 162

Piano in 162 VST

Free pianos are some of the easier free VSTis to source, yet let me be clear: many of them sound AWFUL.

Of course, there are real applications for such atrocities to actually blend perfectly with certain songs and styles of recordings, but for those needing nothing more than a good piano sound, finding one can be a strenuous task.

That’s why I’m here.

Sampled from the famous Steinway B grand piano, Piano in 162 uses 2 different recording locations that can be mixed in order to alter the sound, pedal resonances and can actually be used without Kontakt (more on how to do that here).

This is possibly the most realistic sounding piano that money can’t buy and I would actually take this over a number of far more expensive sample-based pianos, though as I said I am very picky with this kind of thing.

There isn’t a huge amount of user sovereignty with this VST — the only way you can alter the tone is through the mic mix — but given how immaculate the instrument’s character is to begin with, I can’t see this as being too much of a negative.


Best Free Upright Piano VST

Versilian Upright No. 1

Versilian Upright No. 1

What’s really great about this virtual instrument, other than its stunning realism and versatility (that one would expect from an upright piano), is how light-weight it is.

Whereas the heavily sampled Piano in 162, along with a number of other sample-based instruments in this list, take up in excess of 6GB of space and a fair chunk of your computer’s processing resources, Versilian’s offering into the free piano world has no such issues.

This makes it a perfect get for those with a lower-end PC, or a laptop (which are traditionally less powerful relative to their desktop brethren).

The VS Upright No. 1 does not compromise quality for minimal resource intensity — it still compiles a set of 71 samples from 2 different mics, has the simple yet important ability to add and subtract reverb, decay, attack, sustain so even piano aficionados can have some fun playing around with the tone.


Best Free Electric Piano VST

Spitfire LABS’ Wurli OR Spitfire LABS’ EP

Spitfire LABS Wurli EP

This one really comes down to personal preference, as both of Spitfire’s virtual EP instruments are extraordinary given their price tag.

I am a big fan of Wurlitzers in general, so I tend to lean in that direction, however there is no obvious difference in sonic quality between the two VSTs — they’re both fantastic.

The Wurlitzer is faithful to the 60s style of rock and jazz, whereas LABS’ EP probably leans more towards a 70s to 80s sound, though both are versatile enough to be used in pretty much any genre you are working within.

Most of all, given the meticulous sampling and noted quality of Spitfire products, they’re just FUN to play around with. Many free software-based instruments can struggle from a lack of smoothness and musicality when playing them, with average programming.

This means velocities and dynamics can become a bit murky and pushed to the side in favor of high-quality sampling. This is absolutely not the case with these two products.

This entire 200-word segment could have been aptly summed up by the two demos provided by Spitfire:

Demos

Best Free Strings VST

Palette’s Primary Colors

Palette Primary Colors Strings

My first thought upon hearing a demo of this plugin was: Why the hell is this thing free?

I have absolutely no idea, but we are better off for having it.

Primary Colors is an orchestral sample pack, containing presets for winds and brass, but we’ll ignore them because we’re here for STRINGS.

The sound quality is easily one of the best out of any VSTi I’ve heard — it’s almost unbelievable that it’s free.

The program is quite customizable too, allowing for altering the mix of the string ensemble, adding or subtracting tremolo, dynamics and programming articulations.

The only two drawbacks I can think of are

1) You need Kontakt to run it; and

2) It doesn’t have individual instruments. It’s sampled from an orchestral ensemble, so if you want solo violins and cellos you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

Considering the sheer depth and sparkling sound quality that comes packed up in this free virtual orchestra, I think we can forgive those two minor transgressions.

Honorable mentions:

  • Cakewalk’s SI Strings
  • The Stroh Violin
  • Spitfire’s LABS

Best Free Drum VST

Sennheiser’s DrumMic’a

Sennheise DrumMic’a Drums

You’re not the only one that’s confused — I too thought that Sennheiser created great headphones and mics and that was that. Apparently, we were wrong. They are responsible for one of the most authentic sounding free VST drumkits that are on the market.

What’s so great about this kit, other than the whopping 13,000 samples that comprise its library, is just how deep it goes. Want to change the mic that’s on the snare, entirely altering the tone of the kit? No problem.

Don’t like the transients on that kick drum? An easy fix. Think that the cymbals are too muddy? Just use the in-built EQ!

Finally, DrumMic’a has what all good drum VSTis need to have to aid lazy, rhythmically challenged composers like me — a drag’n’drop beats section, where you can just put realistic sounding MIDI grooves into your recordings, dust your hands and say ‘a job well done’.

Honorable mentions:

  • MT’s Power Drumkit 2
  • StudioLinkedVst’s Drum Pro
  • SimpleRecorder’s Djinndrum

Best Free Guitar VST

Ample Sound’s Ample Bass P Lite II

Ample Sound Ample Bass P Lite II

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned that I sometimes struggled with virtual guitars and getting them to sound realistic, and eventually getting them to sit nicely within any given song’s mix. While this is mostly true of electric and acoustic guitars, I have found it far less applicable to virtual bass guitars.

Ample Bass is designed much more for rock, indie and punk than other genres, so electronic producers need not rush out and smash that download button only to be disappointed when their next Trance song sounds, well, downright weird.

This plugin comes full of the articulations that set aside the musicality of real instrument playing from those created by code — including slaps and mutes.

The level of control the user has over Ample Bass, for what I consider a notoriously difficult instrument to emulate, is nothing short of impressive.

Honorable mentions:

  • Iridium Iris’ Lethality
  • DSK Guitars’ Acoustic Guitar
  • Spitfire LABS’ Peel Guitar

Best Free Organ VST

Martinic’s Combo Model V

Martinic Combo Model V Organ

Unlike most of the powerful free VSTs I have listed, this entry is not a sample-based instrument. Rather, it is a fully-modeled synth — which I have found to be equally as effective when it comes to replicating electric pianos, organs and sometimes even woodwinds.

The advantage of modeled organs like the Combo Model V — based off the, you guessed it, 60s combo organ — is that they have way more options to mess around with and a far more malleable tone than free sample-based VSTs.

For example — you can make minuscule or radical changes to the pitch of each note, add volume swells, varying levels of vibrato and change the tone simply by pressing a button.

The Combo Model V also sits really nicely in a mix. You probably aren’t going to want to put it in any ambient songs without some serious VSTfx (although Rocketship would argue otherwise), but it can fit perfectly in an upbeat, rock or jazzy track you may be working on.

Honorable mentions for piano and keys:

  • Spitfire LABS’ Soft Piano
  • Lostin70s’ HanNon B70
  • Bitsonic’s Keyzone
  • NoiseAsh’s Sweetcase Vintage Electric Piano

Note: Yes, there’s a lot of Spitfire LABS’ products in here. What can I tell you? It’s probably the most popular (and rightfully so) free bundle of virtual instruments on the market. Although, can it really be on the market if it’s free? Leave me be, I must tend to my philosophical musings.


Best Free Orchestral VST

Orchestral Tools’ Layers

Orchestral Tools Layers VSTi

In my experience, much like guitars, it can be really difficult to find solid virtual orchestral instruments at a low (ie. free) price point, partially due to the high degree of samples required to even come close to replicating the intricacies of playing the instrument — though unlike with guitars I tend to find expensive digital trumpets to be very realistic.

With that said, the samples used on Orchestra Tools’ Layers is top-notch. You could easily use many of the sounds on offer in this ensemble in professional compositional works and have it sounding as high-shelf as any other paid sample library.

Layers comes with the ability mess around with mic positions and program articulations for a number of orchestral patches including: strings, woodwind and brass.

Given the power, depth and pristine nature of the recordings Layers uses, perhaps its only downside is that it is quite a hefty program, taking up around 17GB of space on your computer’s hard drive.

That said, it’s a rather small price to pay when the actual price you have to pay is nothing at all.

Honorable mentions:

  • Versilian Studios’ Chamber Orchestra 2
  • DSK’s Overture
  • Project Sam’s The Free Orchestra

Soundscape and Sound Design VSTis

Cinematique Instruments’ KLANG series

Cinematique Instruments KLANG Drown

Cinematique Instruments, who have branched into KLANG as an independent brand, frequently offer free virtual instruments that are often based on combining and affecting various sounds.

While some contributions are only simple — though elegant — synth pads and don’t really constitute as unique to the earlier synthesizer section, the KLANG series has also included field recordings of neon signs buzzing, bustling train stations, and a re-processed spieluhr (a music box).

Honourable mentions:

  • Silence Other Sounds’ Relict
  • Resomonics’ ChillerScapes

Class Dismissed

Well that’s it!

Hope you’ve enjoyed following along, learning a few things (don’t forget, there’s quiz coming at the end of the VST series! Just kidding! Or am I? No, of course I am.) and feel ready to tackle one of my favorite elements of music composition.

There are just so many sounds you can play around with using synths and sample libraries like Kontakt, Spitfire LABS that it’s like being a kid in a toy store — it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Hopefully my articles are able to plant this seed of excitement and inspire you, but also calm you down and dish out some perspective before you go on a downloading spree and your hard drive blurts the error message: Disk Space Full.

Virtual instruments are a splendid tool to have at our DAW’s disposal and allow us a level of creative dominion simply inconceivable ten years ago. It’s just so FUN.

But as we all know — fancy sound design plugins, smooth strings or dynamic synths should only be used to augment your productions, because they will never replace the simple yet ever-evolving art of making a good song.

About the Author – Ben Knight

Ben Knight author

Hailing from the depths of the world — aka Australia — Ben Knight is a passionate pianist, cellist, songwriter and engineer.

With a Master’s in Writing and Editing, he combines his love for music with his knowledge of the written word to make sure he has the funds to keep buying unnecessary pieces of musical equipment for his home studio.

You can check out his band Mellow Daze on all the major streaming services.

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