How to make virtual instruments sound real
Follow my tips and techniques for getting realistic results from your VST's
As producers, we have never had more choice when it comes to libraries of real instruments to use in our productions. Many of which have been recorded in great sounding studios, using high quality equipment and professional players. A mere 30 years ago if you wanted to use, for example, a Balinese Gamelan in your track you would have had to source a player and physically record them. These days you can have one at your fingertips.
Some purists will argue that if you want to use a real instrument in your music, you should play it yourself or pay for a session musician. This not always the practical solution, however, despite our ambitions and good intentions. Firstly, it relies on whoever is recording said instrument to be able to capture the performance to the levels the software companies can, with their far superior budgets. Secondly, to compete with these you would need to invest more money than most libraries retail for - and that’s just for that one-time performance. And thirdly, being able to explore the creative options of using said instrument, crafting the melody and making informed musical choices can be much harder when you don’t have that instrument to hand.
I cannot stress enough that this is not about replacing real musicians, if you have the option to record the real thing then you absolutely should! This is more about expanding your creative options and not limiting yourself unnecessarily. And, with the ever-increasing libraries of real instruments available, ranging from traditional to weird and wonderful, your sound palette has never been broader.
The most common complaint I hear about software versions of real instruments is that they don’t sound like the real thing. But, more often than not, this is down to the user rather than the library. That is not to say that there are not bad libraries out there, I’ve certainly used my fair share. But once you learn how to navigate the virtual instrument market you will find there are a wealth of libraries available which can offer remarkable results.
KNOW YOUR INSTRUMENTS
Knowledge is power
It goes without saying that - to replicate an instrument authentically, you need to at least have some knowledge of how it is played. Afterall, how can you faithfully recreate something you don’t understand? Taking the time to familiarise yourself with, such things as, playing techniques, articulations, chords and transitions can pay dividends when it comes to creating greater depths of realism. And, thanks to the likes of Google and YouTube, you are more than likely going to be able to find some great resources and tutorials to help you. You don’t have to be an expert – although I would never discourage a genuine interest – but spending a bit of time doing this will help you make considered choices, just like a musician playing the instrument would.
CHOOSING THE LIBRARY
What to look for when buying a sample library
This is critical if you are looking to create something which sounds truly authentic. The reason why is because, as with any commercial product, you get good quality and bad quality versions on the market. So, shopping around is certainly the best option. There are a few things to consider when deciding what is best to go for, regardless of the instrument
The full version of Kontakt comes as part of the Native Instruments Komplete bundle but a FREE version of Kontakt is also available on the Native Instruments website.
Modo Bass uses physical modelling to recreate the properties of a variety of legendary bass guitars.
Acous6tics Vir2 Kontact Guitar VST Library has a good choice of strumming articulations to produce realistic results.
Sample Library or Virtual Instrument?
There is no right or wrong answer to this, both have their pros and cons, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be part of your decision-making process. Sample libraries are designed to be used within a sampler such as Native Instruments Kontakt. Please note - there are other samplers available, such as Gigasampler or Directwave, but Kontakt is very much the industry standard and, in my opinion, the best at what it does.
In simple terms, a sampler lets you map real recordings onto keyboard keys. But, the powerful engines behind Kontakt mean it can do so much more; velocity sensitive notes, legato, round robins, the list is extensive. Many third-party software developers create sample libraries specifically for Kontakt, to make use of these powerful algorithms, and so it has become the industry leader in sample-based playback. The flip side to sample-based playback, however, is that the size of the libraries can often be colossal, sometimes as much as 80 gigabytes! This is because an enormous variety of samples needs to be captured to replicate a realistic performance.
The majority of virtual instruments follow a similar sample-based approach, but without the need for a sampler as the playback engine. Spectrasonics Trilian, for example, is a fantastic collection of real and synthesised basses and it is used by a wealth of high-profile artists. But, as with the majority of sample-based instruments, it takes up a lot of space. Increasingly, software companies are developing virtual instruments that are not sample based at all, meaning they can be much smaller. A great example of this is Modo Bass, which uses physical modelling to recreate the properties of a variety of legendary bass guitars and tones. So, if space is an issue on your computer, these sorts of virtual instrument may be a better option.
When you’re choosing a library it is really important to remember that having a good choice of articulations is going to make a great difference when it comes to programming a realistic sounding performance. On a guitar, for example, there are many different techniques you can use to play; strumming, plucking, hammer-ons, pull-offs, taps and slides to name but a few. Choosing a library that offers a decent number of articulations means you are going to able infuse your musical phrases with the kinds of detail you would hear from a real musician.
This clip was produced using Acou6tics Vir2. Having a good choice of articulations to switch between results in a more convincing performance.
Key Switches & Midi CC
Many virtual instruments and sample libraries use a key switch approach to swap between articulations. This is where notes on your keyboard are used to trigger different musical phrasings. Another option used by many is to use your DAW’s midi cc to control these articulations. Your use of these is dependent on whether you want to be able to play your parts live on the keyboard, swapping between articulations or draw notes and key switches in on a midi editor.
When you play the same note on a real instrument a number of times over it never sounds identical. Many sample libraries and virtual instruments record multiple instances of notes, which are then swapped between automatically as you play to replicate this natural variance. The term used to describe this is a ‘round robin’. When selecting a library be sure to consider whether it includes a good number of round robins.
This is a really important one! How easy is it to access and use features? Watch some videos, read some tutorials and see whether it will fit into your workflow. There are some libraries that I will choose over others, even though they may have a better range of articulations, simply because they are too fiddly or slow to navigate. A great example of this is Vir2 Electri6ity, which is ultra-realistic if you are willing to spend hours editing parameters, but for creating quicker parts its workflow is a real hinderance.
Humanizing your programming
Consider this, exactly the same ‘E’ note can be played in a variety of different positions on a guitar, as is true for many stringed instruments. So, if you are transitioning to that ‘E’ note from say an ‘A’ note, in order for it to sound natural, it needs to be the ‘E’ note that is closest to that ‘A’. That would be the logical choice for a musician playing the part so that should be the choice you make too. In this instance I would use a key switch to select which string is playing the ‘A’ note and which string is playing the ‘E’ note, ensuring they are transitioning in exactly the same way a musician would play it. Most libraries are programmed to make these kinds of selections automatically, but their accuracy is often intermittent. It is much more effective to manually select such things to guarantee they are correct.
The first clip demonstrates a bass part where the library has selected the wrong strings to play the notes. In the second clip I have manually selected the strings to make for a more natural performance.
When working within a DAW, on grid-based editors, everything is mathematically precise. This is not the case when a person plays an instrument, however, their timing naturally drifts no matter how competent they are at playing. Knowing this small detail makes an enormous difference! Try turning off your ‘snap to grid’ and randomize note placement around their snapped positions. Remember, this will affect your key switches so be sure to move them to match your note placements. Most DAW’s have an ‘unquantize’ option but these are not always the most effective, I prefer to manually handle this job so that I can control the drift.
We often interpret a really dynamic performance as having more ‘feeling’. This is why it is important to pay due diligence to the velocity of each note. Using Midi CC to adjust the velocity of a note will, not only, change how loud that note is heard but, thanks to the impressive algorithms embedded in most samplers and instruments, will often trigger a softer or harder played note. This is really important because, as well as changing the volume, playing an instrument harder or softer changes the whole timbre of its sound. So, be sure to automate your note velocities to create more dynamic, and therefore much more convincing, instrumentation.
Loading Multiple Instruments
As great as key switching is, it is not always entirely effective. Say, for example, you are creating a guitar part and on a chord transition you need some of the strings to ring and others to slide at the same time. As soon as you trigger the slide key switch it will affect all of the strings rather than just the ones you want to slide. A great solution is to load up a second instance of the same instrument, then have the strings you want to ring on one instance and the sliding notes on the other. I often use multiple instances of an instrument to enable me to embed levels of accuracy unattainable through key switching alone.
When you record a real instrument there are often non-musical ambient noises that occur throughout the recording. Take, for example, a grand piano; as well as the notes being played there is also the knocking sound of the keys being pressed, the movement on the pedals and the hammers returning to their upright position. These natural noises are just as much a part of the sound of a grand piano as the notes themselves. Software developers are increasingly including such details as part of their libraries and instruments so be sure to utilize these noises to deliver a greater sense of realism.
In this clip you can hear a piano with no key noise, followed by the same part with key noise included.
What are you waiting for?
Lifelike performances can be achievable with virtual resources, even more so when you begin to combine them with other plugins. Vir2 Electri6ity’s stock amplifiers, for example, are its weakest feature, but using a purpose-built amp simulator instead will elevate a guitar part to new levels. Convolution reverbs, analogue style processing and saturation are also great tools that will help polish your “pseudo-instrumentation” and convince the listener of its authenticity. So, what are you waiting for? Explore more instruments, learn more musical techniques and embrace the technology that makes this all possible!