What is a virtual instrument and how does it work?
There are many different types of software instruments. Some instruments work like synthesizers, and use different types of basic waveforms to create artificially simulated instruments. I call these synthetic instruments. Instruments like Digidesign's Hybrid and Native Instruments' FM8 and Absynth fall into this category. Although they do not always create the most convincing emulations of acoustic instruments, they are the best at emulating traditional analog synths.
Other software instruments use samples of real instruments played by real musicians that are triggered and played back by some type of MIDI device. As you might have guessed, I call these "sampled instruments" and these instruments can sound unbelievably realistic. The creators of sampled instruments spend large amounts of money in the studio getting these samples just right. I've lost count of the amount of times I've been asked "dude, where did you cut that string section?" Spectrasonic's Omnisphere and Toontrack's Superior Drummer fall easily into this category.
There's another set of instruments that are based around already created 2 or 4 bar loops. The reason I call these instruments, rather than loop libraries, is because instruments like Native Instruments' Native Instruments' Battery and Digidesign's Transfuser allow you to play loops like instruments in a very musical way. You can play back an assortment of loops in a single performance just as you would play a piano or synth part. No doubt about it, I call these "loop-based instruments."
One of the greatest things about software instruments is the ability to customize them to your liking. I very rarely use a preset exactly as it is presented to me. I am always tweaking EQ, adding modulation FX, messing with envelopes and filters. Altering software instruments can help set your music apart from anyone else. The trick is to find a patch with the basic building blocks you are drawn to and then to tweak until you get it exactly like you want it! The last thing you want is for another Logic user to instantly recognize the default patch on the EXS24 instrument. How embarrassing!
Save Your Sounds
Perhaps this goes without saying, but whenever you stumble upon a sound that you've altered or created that you think you may use later, be sure to save a unique copy of the preset for easy recall later. Soon you'll have a database of sounds that are all your own. This is a huge time saver, and time is money.
Take Your Time
This applies to all software instruments, but in particular, take your time when dealing with software instruments that emulate real instruments. Playing a flute part with a MIDI keyboard is only the tip of the iceberg. Professional programmers spend hours upon hours altering MIDI parameters that can more accurately mimic human elements of a sound. Oftentimes a modulation wheel will add vibrato. Digging into the keys may trigger a different tonal quality. You may need to ride the volume slider to mimic human dynamics more closely. You may find that one patch accurately depicts legato lines and another more accurately mimics staccato or marcato passages. Attention to detail is the name of the game with this type of programming.
Print Your Software Instruments To Audio Tracks
Once you've perfected a sound, it can be helpful to "freeze" the track (like in Logic) or print the instrument to an audio track. The reason this is important is because it can be very easy to accidentally alter a patch's parameters while working and ruin the patch you spent so many hours creating. It can be very difficult to return to this exact sound. I always err on the side of "safer than sorry." Printing instruments to audio tracks assures me that whatever I do, or whatever system I'm on, all my tracks are safe!
Layer Sounds For Even Greater Creativity
You may find as I have, that layering multiple patches together can yield particularly pleasing results. I find myself often layering a piano with a synth, or a dark pad and a bright pad. This is kind of a Brian Wilson approach to production... a wall of sound approach. I find myself layering a few different string patches together for thicker, more powerful results. In particular, the combination of Spectrasonics Omnishere's string patches layered with IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonic creates a gorgeous string sound. The possibilities are endless.
Take Some Time and Learn About Analog Synthesizers
Many software instruments are patterned after real analog synths. Even sample-based instruments make use of envelopes and filters! The basic routing and manipulation of waveforms is nothing new. The lineage of these instruments dates back to the beginning of sound synthesis. Having a basic understanding of synths and how they work can really help you when you're trying to dig beyond basic presets. Understanding the sound of basic waveforms, such as square waves, sawtooth waves, sine waves and others will help you reverse engineer synths you hear on the radio. Take the time to learn all about oscillators, filters, envelopes, and modulators. This knowledge will serve you well, even if you are not a synth junkie.
Learn Your Gear!
Learn your gear, learn your gear, and learn your gear! Whew...There, I said it! I emphasize this point because endlessly buying new gear is an easy trap to fall into. Every magazine and website focuses on one thing, SELLING YOU NEW GEAR! Don't buy it! (pun intended). You probably have far more horsepower than you understand with your current software instruments, without buying any new gear. Be sure that you learn all about the instruments you have so that you can really know when you need something new. Don't get me wrong, you will need new instruments as you get better at programming. I'm only stressing the importance of digging into what you have so that you actually know what you NEED rather than stabbing in the dark towards the next best. Trust me, I've been there! DISCLAIMER: If you find yourself literally salivating like a dog when you see the huge selection of software instruments throughout the Woodwind & Brasswind website, you may need to seek professional help. (Or give in and buy it!!!)
Software instruments are fun, powerful and will help you make better, more creative music. There isn't an article long enough to tackle all that could be addressed on this topic. I think that's part of the fun... not knowing. There are all kinds of happy accidents awaiting you. Use instruments in unique ways, not just the way they were designed. Anything is possible. The key is to dive in expecting greatness and stop only once you've achieved it!