I'm a keyboardist (Yamaha PSR-2000), and recently, I've been wanting to replace my keyboard with a simple 'MIDI controller' keyboard connected to a PC, and have the PC produce the sounds. The reasons are basically:

  • The sound quality and realism is better
  • More variety of instruments
  • More customization

(If I'm right about these...)

I've been looking for software that just provides a large variety of high-quality instruments, and not electrical synths (Minimoog etc.) of which there are plenty, but actual musical instruments like trumpet, guitar, piano, bass, flute, sax, and of course drums. It would be nice to have some customization but I basically just want good instruments. I've come up with (basically):

  • Native Instruments Komplete/Kontakt/Kore/etc.
  • Propellerhead Reason
  • Steinberg Halion Sonic / Halion 4 (I don't know the difference) (I don't think I could deal with their USB copy protection.)

Firstly, is there anything else? Is there anything free or low-cost ($100 or less)? Or am I looking completely in the wrong category?

Thanks in advance.

(P.S.: This is intended for live performance as well as for recording.)

UPDATE: Maybe I should add Toontrack EZDrummer to the list as a low-cost drums-only solution? And Cakewalk Studio Instruments as a low-cost ($50) drums, bass, strings, electric piano solution? How is the quality of these things?

ALSO: I know that a lot of DAWs come with their own virtual instruments. I may be getting Pro Tools SE if I actually by the Avid KeyStudio 49, and I have Cubase LE, but haven't installed them -- would anyone happen to know how good whatever they come with is?

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  • There are a bunch of questions here, so it's hard to answer concisely, but I think Zeronyne's answer gets as close as you really can to the basic question here, which I think is "What are solid software packages that provide an array of sounds modeled after acoustic instruments?" – Warrior Bob Apr 14 '11 at 16:16
  • Great question in my opinion. Maybe even a list of the important keywords relevant in manufacturer's descriptions would be useful. People's own use would be interesting as well. – Vass Apr 14 '11 at 17:00
  • This looks like a shopping cart question to me, so I down-voted it. meta.avp.stackexchange.com/questions/20/… – Kevin Nov 19 '13 at 5:12

This is a very broad topic. Your original assertion is correct. Software instruments present both a breadth and depth of sounds that are not readily available in hardware.

I'm trying to stay objective, so I will say that if you are looking for "real" instrument sounds, you are going to want to check out the three you mentioned above, along with offerings from East West, Spectrasonics, Garritan, Vienna, and a slew of others.

Piano is it's own massive category, with excellent products like Ivory, Akoustic, Alicia's Keys, and dozens more.

Basically, you need to go onto the manufacturer's websites and really listen to the demos. Then, if you can, you need to download some demos and play with them. Pro Tools is widely supported, so if you are starting out, you won't be hampered by incompatibilities, but you may have to upgrade to the latest PT, which finally works with virtually any hardware.

It seems like you are budget conscious, and there's nothing wrong with thatm but you may need to set your expectations realistically. A $100.00 softsynth that does all the basics is naturally not going to sound as good as Komplete or even the Propellerhead offerings.

  • Thanks, this was helpful. I'll definitely check those out. – Fred Dec 14 '11 at 13:28

So, definitely the Native Instruments suite is a great way to go, though it could be a very expensive option if you go for Komplete, and Komplete has perhaps way more electronic instruments (Absynth, FM7, Massive, etc) than you seem to want. Kontact has a pretty decent selection of sampled instruments out of the box and may be a really good option for you if you want a relatively low-cost entry into sampled instruments.

As Zeronyne mentions, you can start looking at sample libraries as one way to go. East-West has a number of very well-known and well respected titles for specific instruments such as trumpet, piano and strings. The downside is that these are all fairly costly and most of the libraries are highly specialized (ie: you buy a strings library, but the brass collection is a separate purchase).

Leaving dedicated sample libraries behind, if you want a good, entry-level orchestral suite, I highly recommend Edirol Orchestral. It's a decent price point, has a great selection of sounds across the entire symphonic range, and as a VST integrates well with a range of sequencers. You won't fool a seasoned musician into thinking it's a real orchestra, but with a few additional effects, you can do a pretty decent job.

Edirol also makes a great product called Super Quartet, which has a selection of keys, bass, guitar and drums that do great for any kind of jazz or rock arrangements that need that selection of instruments. As a low-cost way of getting 4 pretty decent simulated acoustic instruments, Super Quartet is an excellent option.

For dedicated piano sounds, I'm still a big fan of Steinberg's The Grand, though there are a lot of contenders, including Native Instruments Acoustik that features a really nice Bosendorfer grand. The Steinberg product is reasonably priced and I like its true sostenuto waveshaping for a very realistic sound.

If you're more on the orchestral side, I would suggest investigating Synful's Orchestral offering. They have innovated an unusual technology that is supposed to compete well with the high-priced dedicated simulated strings and symphonic packages. It sounds better when played back (as opposed to real-time) so this may be a consideration against it if you're doing a lot of live recordings.

For guitar, I can't recommend anything better than MusicLab's "RealGuitar" (what's with all this PascalCase in software titles these days, eh?). It's a truly awesome package that reproduces all the nuances of acoustic playing such as fret sounds and strumming delays. I am constantly blown away with this VST and have fooled guitarists with its realism.

LinPlug's SaxLab on the other hand is underwhelming. It seems it's much harder to do good sax (ain't that the truth brother). For sax and brass, you're much better off with sample libraries of passages, like Chronic Horns, a selection of over 500 sampled riffs and short passages that can be cobbled together for most stabs and fills.

I'm certainly forgetting a ton of stuff, but this is what I can come up with off the top of my head.


  • That's a lot of good information in one post! Thanks! – Fred Dec 14 '11 at 13:28
  • heh. No worries. And welcome back :) – Tom Auger Dec 14 '11 at 14:36
  • On the orchestral side I have been very curious about Synful's orchestral module. It uses some interesting technology and is extremely lightweight compared to all the giga-sampled offerings out there. It appears to be stronger for playback than for real-time performance however, so let that be a consideration. Good price too. – Tom Auger Dec 14 '11 at 14:40
  • Oh, and I just stumbled upon this list of orchestral synths, without any recommendation or bias, but a comprehensive list to be sure: answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20091015023727AA0P5kR – Tom Auger Dec 14 '11 at 14:41

It sounds like you are currently looking for a single software instrument that can provide a large variety of authentic sounds. The two categories of instrument most likely to provide what you are after are called samplers and romplers.

Samplers have the ability to map "samples" (i.e. recordings of individual notes played on an instrument) to keys. For more realism, you usually need more samples (e.g. every note on a piano recorded at several different volumes). Samplers usually come with a large number of included sounds (often mutliple GB) and can be upgraded by buying additional sample sets.

Some examples of samplers:

One very cheap alternative to samplers is to get a free SoundFont player such as sfz. A SoundFont is simply one sampled instrument packaged conveniently into a single file. You can get hundreds of free SoundFonts online.

Romplers (sometimes called Workstations / Sound Modules / Sample Players) is the name given to software instruments that are more like hardware keyboards. They use samples under the hood but there is no way to edit the samples or add your own. Instead they tend focus more on having a very good set of usable presets, using less disk space / CPU, and having an easy to use user interface.

Some examples of romplers:

Finally, the most comprehensive website for finding information on just about every software instrument is KVR. Check out their incredible plugin database.


You might be interested in a sample pack. There are many out there, some for free, although the higher quality ones frequently (but not always) cost money. The only problem with them is that there is often only one sound per note, or a few sounds and the in between notes are pitch-shifted.

Also, look into 8Dio. They make very wonderful realistic sample programs.

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