virtual instruments

Using virtual instruments: Eight home recording tips to make your tracks sing

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With multi-track recording programs like GarageBand, Pro Tools, and Logic becoming nearly ubiquitous, it’s easier than ever to take your own music all the way from first inspiration to finished audio file without leaving your room. But just because these high-powered tools are available, it doesn’t mean we all know how to use them well.

One big stumbling block that many up-and-comers encounter is learning to deal with virtual instruments (VIs) – the sampled pianos, guitars, drums, strings, and synths – that you can trigger from your keyboard, via a MIDI connection, and record internally in these programs.

Given that many such sounds often come standard with recording software, it can be tremendous fun to lay down a virtual drum groove, record a virtual bass line on top, add a virtual organ pad, and so on. Regardless of how cool your composition is, though, and how inspired your performance may be, the end result can still end up sounding mechanical and rather lifeless. But what’s to be done?

Making your virtual instruments breathe with the music, sound more realistic, and convey the true emotion of the song is a craft unto itself. To help you bring your own pre-packaged sounds to life – regardless of whether you’re using GarageBand or Pro Tools, Logic, or Digital Performer – here are some tips from the pros.

“It all starts with thinking like a player,” says Ronen Landa, a composer who has had his music played on the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and MTV. “If your virtual trumpet doesn’t take breaths like a real trumpet player would, it will ring false. Understanding the limitations and capabilities of the actual instrument will allow you to create a more realistic representation. One hint – despite your ten fingers on the keyboard, most guitars only have six strings!”

Emilio Palame – a pianist and composer who has worked with Peggy Lee and Chuck Mangione, and has composed and arranged for Nickelodeon shows – agrees. “For horns, think unison lines or octaves, and then maybe two- or three-part harmony at the most,” he says. “Unless you’re trying to emulate a big band, in which case thicker chords can possibly work.”

One of the best ways to make your VIs sound natural is to spend lots of time playing with them before you hit record. The more you absorb the nuances and idiosyncrasies of your new virtual instrument, the easier it will be for you to bend that instrument to your musical will once the red light is on.

Getting to know your VIs means, among other things, paying attention to how both the beginning and the end of a note sounds. “To make a solo track sound natural, you have to place your notes carefully, so as not to unnaturally cut off the previous note,” says John Montalbano, a bassist and composer who has recorded with Public Enemy and composed music for Comedy Central, VH1, and Fuse. “You’re kind of limited to the timing of the VI samples you have to work with, so it’s very important to know your samples.”

Knowing your VIs also means knowing their strengths and weaknesses – and specifically, how to maximize the former and cover up the latter. “For a pad instrument that is underlying the main focus of the track, it’s not quite as critical to have a pristine sounding virtual instrument,” says Montalbano. “It’s more important to have the flexibility to adjust the timbre or tone quality of that virtual instrument so it sits well in the mix. If you’re using it as a solo instrument, the focus of the listener will be on that instrument, so it’s much more important to use a sound that has greater fidelity and detail, and to spend more time making it sound realistic.”

Finally, knowing your virtual instrument means knowing all of the internal tools and parameters you can use to tweak its sound. “Many VIs now offer different mic positions, tonal variations, modulation expressions, and so on,” says Landa. “Use all of these tools to help achieve a realistic sound that balances well with the rest of your track.”

“Watch out for long sustained notes,” warns Landa. “They can trap you in a vast expanse of boring dynamics, so handle with care.”

Indeed, Palame says that, when it comes to horns and strings, the most glaringly unrealistic thing you can do is create static tones. “You don’t want a note just to sit there,” he advises. “That’s not how people play. Use crescendos and decrescendos as much as possible. To get more realistic sounds, do a lot of volume automation. Even if you’re only changing volume a slight amount, it just makes the instrument breathe more.”

If you have a recording control surface attached to your computer via USB or FireWire, you may be able to simply move a fader up and down as the track plays back in order to automate volume changes. And even for more basic recording programs like GarageBand, you can also draw in volume curves below the track itself to add more realistic ebbs and flows to your music. Be sure to check out your recording software’s instruction manual for specifics.

Whether you’re working with repeating drum parts or bass lines, string pads or guitar leads, adding variation to each repetition of a part can help your music sound less mechanical. “Playing the lines into your recording software, rather than cutting and pasting them, can help you achieve some subtle variations in performance,” says Landa.

Palame points out that cutting and pasting when it comes to drum parts can sometimes work – but only if done carefully. A dynamic and well-crafted four-bar phrase, for example, can be repeated and still sound fresh. “Each of those four bars has to be different when it comes to the velocities of each drum hit, especially the hi-hat and kick,” he said. “If the snare is only on the beackbeats, consistent velocity there is good because you want the backbeat to be fat.”

And while four bars is usually enough to trick the mind, don’t be lazy as you program the drum hits for your repeating phrase. “Be sure to do slight variations of open and closed hi-hats, and add modest fills to transition to the next section. Of course, you should think about adding cymbal crashes for accents and on the downbeat of each new section.”

“Convert your virtual instrument MIDI tracks to audio before applying effects,” says Montalbano. “Some virtual instrument suites have effects built in where you can add reverb, compression, and other effects while still in the MIDI state, but I prefer to convert before applying effects. It just gives me a better picture of what the audio sounds like overall.”

Palame agrees: “Virtual instruments are easier to process once they’re in audio,” he says. “I always wait until the end to do that, though, so if there are any note changes I have to do, I don’t have to go back and process things more than once.”

Where you pan certain parts (where you place them from far left to far right) can make a big difference in how realistic a virtual instrument may sound. “With strings, pan the violins and solo violins more to the left, violas to the center, and celli and basses more to the right,” recommends Palame. “That’s how they would appear on an orchestra stage. If you put a stereo mic in front of a real orchestra, that’s how you would hear things.”

Quick tip: if you’re not sure how to pan any given virtual instrument, pop on a favorite album that features that instrument prominently and listen to where it appears in the recording, left to right. Placing your own virtual instrument in the same space will be a great place to start as you build your own track.

In addition to the sounds that come included with any given piece of recording software, you can easily beef up your VI arsenal by purchasing plug-ins – add-on software programs that can give you more sounds to work with. There are tons of useful virtual instrument plug-ins available, and more being developed on a regular basis.

“For rhythm section sounds, the basic two that everybody should have are Spectrasonics Stylus RMX for drums and Trilian for bass,” recommends Palame. “As far as keyboards are concerned, Synthogy Ivory is the best virtual acoustic piano I’ve heard. Both the EVP 88 that comes in Logic and the Elektrik Piano from Native Instruments are great for Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos.”

“Some of the packages out there have fantastic detail,” continues Montalbano. “For classical and strings, I use the IK Multimedia Miroslav package, mostly. They even have samples of the violinist breathing!” For percussion, Montalbano recommends software from Toontrack, a company that creates a popular line of drum-based plug-ins.

To help you choose the right plug-in for your music, many manufacturers offer sound samples on their websites; some also make demo versions of the software available for free download. Getting opinions from the larger music community is also helpful – publications like Electronic Musician, Sound on Sound, and Keyboard regularly publish in-depth reviews of VI plug-ins, and online music production discussion forums are also great places to mine for opinions and recommendations.

It’s worth noting that some VI plug-ins are significantly pricier than others (some high-end orchestral VIs cost thousands of dollars), and not all plug-ins work with all pieces of recording software, so make sure that your recording setup, and bank account, can accommodate the VI of your dreams before you buy.

Whether you’re working with digital effects inside your recording software, or running your audio out to external effects processors, treat your virtual instrument audio like you would treat a live recording, recommends Landa. “I EQ each individual instrument for a final mix,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll run much or all of an ensemble through a single reverb to create the feeling that all the instruments are in the same room.”

Montalbano also recommends adding custom reverb to your virtual instruments, and using another powerful tool as well: “You may want to use some compression to bring out the nuances of the VI,” he says.

While effects can make your virtual instrument sounds pop and sizzle, they can also get in the way. “Some arrangers add chorus to virtual strings to try to make them sound more real,” says Palame. “It can create an interesting sound and texture for sure, but it does not make strings sound more realistic at all.” For horns, Palame recommends a specific effect: “Add a slight, 180-millisecond slapback delay,” he says. “It gives them more ambience and impact, especially if you’re using shorter notes.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

Build your own home recording studio

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Going mobile: A look at music making apps
Placing your music in video games: advice from Halo composer Tom Salta
Virtual synths and the art of imperfection
MIDI FAQ for beginners
Using a MIDI Controller In Your Home Studio

177 thoughts on “Using virtual instruments: Eight home recording tips to make your tracks sing

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  2. Hi, i have a question … can I use Trilian Bass connected with my instrument in line with Cubase ?? or it only works with MIDI keyboard?

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  62. Also, I forgot to mention, the reason behind making different tracks for all the drum sections is obviously so you can tweak their sounds optimal as well. Might be obvious but I believe many people don’t do this, while it really helps a lot, even if its just volume adjusting. You might need to throw them all over 1 bus to strap on a compressor over the whole package though, if you wanna delve in really deep and do it all right.

  63. When talking about doing software drums correctly, what I found is that doubling them with different samples can make your drum sound more “full”. What I was working on is basically a pretty heavy rock song, in between metal and rock, and I used a Drumkit from hell, and a Studio tight kit for the bass kicks and snares. (I always make different tracks for all the drum sections, i.e. snare, bass, toms, cymbals, high hats.) I only doubled the bass and snares, and I did it somewhat in a 70% drumkit from hell and 30% studio tight kit volume ratio. You’ll need to tweak out the volumes a bit, but when done right it really sounds a lot more like a real drum sound than only one of the two (software) kits alone.

  64. First of all , Thank you for suggesting these awesome Virtual Instrument , 

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    About the debate here of making virtual instrument sound real… it depends on what you are playing.. if u r more into techno , Trance stuff ..then that wouldn’t be an important issue u just have to have a good sound.
    But if you are into Other music category like rock, metal, jazz, fusion etc… having a real sound is PRETTY ESSENTIAL .
    Average listener might not differentiate BUT he/she will appreciate a piece of music with real sounding then with “plastic/unreal” sound although he dont know why …Thanks again for this great Article

  65. I am not a pro but have worked with VI’s for a very long time now. I was not surprised when I read this article and found that I had learned all these techniques on my own by just being incredibly obsessed with trying to produce a realistic sound. Being a drummer and keyboard player it was fairly easy to rationalize the specific techniques for those instrument groups. However, bass, guitar and horns proved to be more challenging. If you already are a player you can use your knowledge to more accurately emulate a true performance. If not, you must really try to “think” about what the instrument should be doing. I basically define what I do as “programming” even though I actually play the parts on my midi keyboard. The fun begins when I do the detailed editing which includes moving notes, changing velocities, adding volume changes etc and yes, applying a minimal amount of quantizing to tighten up the rhythm tracks. Hey, why not use the tools to make the music sound as good as possible; especially if you are not that technically inclined. Just be sure not to overdo it. Also, depending on what software you use, (I use Nuendo) the effects that can applied directly to the midi tracks are truly amazing. I have found no need to convert to audio until my processor gets maxed out.
    All in all, a pretty accurate article for those who pursue making VI’s as realistic as possible. If you go to my website, click on samples and you will hear that I know a little about using VI’s. 🙂 -Greg Roz

  66. Want a free tip from Michael Jacksons producer Bruce: ” Send the samples or VI to a pair of studio monitors. Put a stereo microphone a few feet away and record the “live” sound back to the DAW. Then mix the live sound with the VI track. Just remember to cut the low ends out to take out rumbling.”  Here’s one tip from me what I do. Real-time recording of everything. Rendering don’t do it for me. It just sound tighter and better in real time. I discovered this with Cubase a few years ago. I use Nuendo in my studio and the grouping of tracks just rocks. Cubase 5 can do almost everything Nuendo can. One last tip from me. If you feel you’re tracks sounds stiff and mechanic there’s one way around that bump. Manually move the tracks a little bit out of sync to get a more live feeling. Be careful though, less is more. Have fun!

    1. I have used these techniques as well and they do work nicely. I would like to add a few additional tips to this: Cubase 6 has better rendering than 5; Mixing real instruments with virtual instruments works as well as micing your VIs from the speaker, but with different results; If your program has tempo detection, you can take a quantized VI guitar, bass or drum (or mixture) track and render it to an audio file. Then do a tempo detection on the audio file. The tempo detection will base itself from slightly irregular transients of the audio file. Then quantize all additional virtual instruments to that tempo track for a more natural, yet tight sound.

  67. First of all, I hate the term “virtual instrument”.  Anything that creates a sound that can be played musically, is a real instrument!   Besides that side note, what the article doesn’t talk about is the alternative to making your “virtual instruments” sound more real.  Why not make your sounds less real sounding?  After all, your “virtual trumpet” is not a trumpet, period!   You can do interesting things that a real player could not do, or add effects to alter the sound all together, to create something novel and original.

    1. I agree. When I record electronic instruments I make them obviously electronic. I don’t like trying to mimic acoustic instruments. I say embrace the electronic aspect of things and run with it. It’s also a genre thing, though.

    2. Even though you might not like it, they are still going to be categorized as a virtual instrument which you have to use the keyboard to play with because people that play real instruments are not going to say that you play real instruments because that wouldnt be true. Thats like you saying to somebody that you play instruments but you don’t you just use a program I definetly understand how you feel cause music is music no matter how its made.   

    3. Virtual guitar isn’t a guitar I get that and it sounds that way if poorly executedin recording it. All this article is saying is simply to work on making the instruments sounding more natural. He didn’t say once that if your recording electronical music lets make these instruments sound normal!!! Funny how people get on the defence on something that’s not even related to the topic!

  68. I told my son (who plays trumpet) that MB20’s “If your gone” is real horns and he doesn’t believe me. It’s all on the perception of the listener – use what works within your limitations – many times listeners not only don’t know, they don’t care.

  69. You probably named a few of those libs based on quotes, but when it comes to strings Miroslav is not nearly as realistic as LASS, Hollywood Strings or Cinematic Strings. Though I’m sure you were staying within a budget target.

    Also per that comment: “Seriously? If you want your tracks to sound good, use real
    instruments… No matter how much you monkey with fake, it’s still fake.” – True, but there are libs that sound very close.

  70. “For rhythm section sounds, the basic two that everybody should have are Spectrasonics Stylus RMX for drums and Trilian for bass,” recommends Palame. Well, that being said, if EVERYBODY had these, then EVERYBODY would sound the same. Personally, I prefer to have a variety of VI’s including, Vienna, MOTU, Native Instruments, G-Force M-Tron Pro and Propellerhead products. This keeps people guessing and gives my products much more depth of field and less similarity to others.Read more: Using virtual instruments: Eight home recording tips to make your tracks sing — Echoes – Insight for Independent Artists

    1. Good advice. 1 important thing: we need to learn the limitations of the real instrument we try to reproduce. Like for horns if you need harmony ,record different traks because the can play only one note.samething for sax. For drums ,keys, guitars,bass play each instrument for the entire song. that will take longer but much better. sorry for my bad english. I am haitian my real language is french and haitian creole 

      1. Good advice! I get a live band feel using this single track approach for Caribbean and jazz music.

        1. can you please send me a demo of 1 of your song i would like to hear how  your band sound. you can go to to hear how my band can also go to yahoo and type roselin antoine in the address. You will see  my band pictures and hear some of my music 

    2. 1 tip from me: Tempo change can be verry helpfull because without a metronome no one can’t keep the same tempo for 3 / 4 / 5 minutes. If by example you start with tempo 90, after 1 minute, you change to 91 and at the next minute you change to 92. No body will notice the change, but they  will fill the difference. That can make your song sound more live 

    1. seriously crackhead not everyone has access to full set of drums guitar rig and a bass rig and/or the people who can play them so in short you make due with what you its about making music

    2. seriously crackhead not everyone has access to full set of drums guitar rig and a bass rig and/or the people who can play them so in short you make due with what you its about making music

    3. seriously crackhead not everyone has access to full set of drums guitar rig and a bass rig and/or the people who can play them so in short you make due with what you its about making music

    4. “But just because these high-powered tools are available, it doesn’t mean we all know how to use them well.”

      Did you seriously miss that this was a post about how to use virtual instruments and make them sound as real as possible? not everyone has the access, time, or money to get a horn section or orchestra in for a bedroom recording, and when it’s done right the average listener isn’t going to know the difference.

    5. There is nothing fake about a sample or digital.  It’s as real as any other analogy of a sound wave…and that includes something placed on tape and then manipulated, or cut and pasted, or copied.  If you really think any reproduction of sound is fake, best you stick to playing live with acoustic instruments.

      1. There’s no dispute that real instruments are better in terms of sound. But in terms of buget and flexibility while writing? Not always.

        1. Not even always better in terms of sound. It takes me 4 hours to tune a drum kit for the studio. Then to mic it up properly to avoid phasing problems is another issue. A virtual drum kit has already been tuned and mic’d. Someone with less engineering experience would not be able to tune and mic a drum set to match that of a virtual drum set. Same goes for other virtual instruments, not to mention that you can have different drum kit sizes and styles, different guitar amps and cabinets, etc.

    6. Im not gonna diss like the others just state that foryour idea to happen everyone would have to have a orchestra or a band and that truthfully would take away from creative process because then you have to deal with all the issues that come with it and there would be thousands of good songs that were not made and remember last but not least most of the people that play instruments use programs to tweek and get it correct so everybody uses programs one way or another

    7. KrakaHead. You obviously have no idea how much music you hear today is created using these tools. Movie soundtracks, commercials and of course, main stream music all use sophisticated recording techniques to CREATE music. I was once of your mentality but was enlightened when I realized that I could express my musicality through technology. Not FAKE, but what I heard, what I envisioned, what was ME could be finally produced into a song that did not require hiring a band and expensive studio time. ART is ART. Sure, a real band will always sound more “real”, but don’t discount the emotion and realism that go into producing someones song. No matter how they accomplish it.

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