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Virtual instruments are software emulations of traditional instruments or hardware electronic musical instruments.
There is a staggering range of virtual instruments available nowadays, covering multi-timbral rompler modules to dedicated emulations of guitars, basses, drums, keyboards, and more.
Some of these VSTi plugins (as they’re also called) are free. So in this article we’ll take a look at some of the best free virtual instruments you can download today. Many of which are pro worthy.
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Intro: About Virtual Instruments
The benefits of virtual instruments are fairly obvious. They take up much less space than their hardware equivalents, they don’t overheat, and many of them have virtually unlimited polyphony. They are also much easier to edit and they almost never break down.
Here we run down some of the most intriguing virtual instruments currently available. Although some purists may scoff at the idea of these replacing their well-loved guitars or keyboards, there is no denying that they provide a surprising range of great sounds at a price that even professional musicians will appreciate.
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Native Instruments’ Kontakt Player is arguably the Don of all free virtual instrument plug-ins. Based on the company’s own hugely successful Kontakt sampler, Kontakt Player effectively hosts all sample-based instruments developed for its more fully-featured big brother.
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The compatibility goes the other way as well. All free instruments developed specifically for Kontakt Player will load up and play in the full version of Kontakt. Between the two, there is a staggering assortment of free and paid instruments, all boasting of the trademark Native Instrument quality.
To get budget-savvy musicians and producers started, NI offers a free Kontakt Factory Selection consisting of 50 premium instruments. Some of these are slightly cut-down versions of the instruments developed for Kontakt, while some are full versions developed specifically for Kontakt Player.
While Kontakt Player focuses mainly on standard instrument libraries, Native Instruments’ Reaktor Player is geared more towards the synthesis side of things.
Reaktor is of course the full-blown modular synthesis environment that gives users unparalleled and unlimited opportunity to design virtually any type of synthesizer, sequencer, or signal processor they could think of from scratch. With Reaktor Player, users are able to play back a wide variety of instruments and effects developed in and for Reaktor, with a more modest set of editing capabilities.
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As with Kontakt Player, there is a huge range of ready-made instruments available for use in Reaktor Player. NI even offers two free devices to get you started: the Blocks Wired pre-patched modular synth and the Mikro Prism synthesizer.
Reaktor Player obviously doesn’t come close to providing the depth of power and customizability offered by the full version of Reaktor. Nevertheless, it is a good introduction to modular synthesis. Furthermore, the availability of hundreds of Reaktor instruments cover a board range of sound-crafting options.
Ample Guitar M Lite is the free version of Ample Sounds’ popular AGM guitar simulator. Emulating the warm, rich tones of the Martin D-41 acoustic guitar, Ample Guitar M Lite is now on its second version.
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For the price of a free download, you get an enhanced set of features that now match the capabilities of the full version. The note range now spans E1 – C5, and the plug-in now works as a standalone instrument. Even if you do opt to use the instrument in your DAW, multiple instances will take up much less resources than before, and they will load up faster as well.
As you may have guessed from the name, Ample Bass P Lite is Ample Sound’s free bass guitar sample player plug-in. A cut-down version of the full Ample Bass P II component of the company’s Bass Series product line, this plug-in has fewer samples and fewer round robin variations than the full version. It also has a smaller note range than the paid product, covering D1 to F4. Nevertheless, the Ample Bass P Lite does a good job of cranking out the distinctive tones of the Fender Precision Bass, which it models.
Manda Audio’s MT Power Drum Kit is a free drum sampler that has a fairly wide selection of acoustic drum kit sounds. Great care has been taken to record and process the original samples, giving users a range of high-quality drum sounds perfectly suited for pop, rock, and even metal.
Those who wish to process their drum sounds with their own plug-ins might not appreciate the fact that the MT Power Drum’s sounds are already processed. Nevertheless, EQ and compression were applied quite tastefully, and the sounds should fit in well in most mixes.
Togu Audio Line has garnered quite a bit of acclaim for its excellent line of synthesizers and effects processors, a number of which are free. NoiseMaker is one of these, and it compares favorably to the company’s own paid emulation of the Roland Juno 106 analog synth, the TAL-U-NO-LX.
The NoiseMaker incorporates some of TAL’s more popular effects processors on board. There is the Juno-derived chorus with two modes for starters, along with a reverb, a delay, and a bitcrusher, all of which exist as free standalone plug-ins.
DistroCore’s DC Bazz::Murda is a bass and kick synthesizer that is capable of a surprisingly wide array of sounds. Although aggressive and distorted industrial sounds are its forte, it can be dialed back for more subdued tones as well. Even so, this is one plug-in that was obviously designed to get as loud and nasty as possible. For some users, that could be a good thing!
Native Instruments’ Kontakt Player and Reaktor Player are a couple of the best free virtual instruments that you can get, without a doubt. They provide a superb one-two punch that simply can’t be beat.
Between the two, you pretty much have all your bases covered, whether you need bread-and-butter rompler sounds, exotic World Music libraries, or synthetic sounds ranging from vintage to cutting-edge.
Given the wide range of sounds they cover and the trademark NI quality, these two are neck-and-neck as our top picks for best virtual instrument plug-ins.