How Does a Virtual Instrument Work? [2023]

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If you're looking to delve into the wonderful world of virtual instruments, you've come to the right place. Our team of expert musicians, audio engineers, and sound designers at Uniphonic™ have put together the ultimate guide to explain everything you need to know about virtual instruments.

What is a Virtual Instrument?

A virtual instrument is a software-based sound module that is played and controlled using a MIDI keyboard controller or a digital audio workstation (DAW). It emulates the sound of traditional acoustic instruments, such as pianos, guitars, and drums, along with synthesized instruments like synthesizers and digital sound modules.

These software instruments use digital signal processing (DSP) algorithms to generate sounds that can be manipulated and shaped to fit a range of musical genres, styles, and moods. Essentially, they take the sound data that is being played by the MIDI controller or DAW and turn it into a real-time audio stream that can be manipulated and enhanced.

What Are the Main Features of Using a Virtual Instrument?

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Using virtual instruments has many benefits, including:

  • Versatility: With virtual instruments, you have access to unlimited sounds and combinations of sounds to create your own unique and personalized musical pieces.
  • Portability: With no physical instruments to carry around, you can take your entire studio wherever you go.
  • Cost: Virtual instruments are generally more affordable than their physical counterparts.
  • Creativity: The ability to experiment and create new and unique sounds is limitless with virtual instruments.
  • Customization: Virtual instruments offer various customization options, including effects processing, editing tools, and the ability to switch between different instrument sounds.

The Different Types of Virtual Instruments

There are two main types of virtual instruments: synthesized and sampled instruments.

Synthesized Instruments

Synthesized instruments are virtual instruments that use DSP algorithms to create entirely new sounds that don't exist in the physical world. They offer a range of oscillator, filter, and modulation options to shape and customize the sound to fit a range of musical styles and genres.

Some of the popular synthesized virtual instruments include:

  • Serum – a wavetable synthesizer for creating unique and custom sounds
  • Massive – a virtual analog synthesizer used for bass and lead sounds
  • FM8 – a frequency modulation synthesizer for creating metallic and digital sounds

Sampled Instruments

Sampled instruments use recordings of real-world instruments that have been sampled and digitized to recreate the sound of the physical instrument. They offer a range of mic placement options, room reverberation, and velocity layers to make the sound as realistic as possible.

Some of the popular sampled virtual instruments include:

Music Notation Software

Music notation software is an important tool for composers, producers, and arrangers who want to write sheet music and transcribe their ideas into readable scores. In combination with virtual instruments, it allows musicians to create music as if working with an orchestra.

Some of the popular music notation software programs include:

  • Sibelius – a comprehensive music notation software with a range of features and tools
  • Finale – a well-established music notation software often used by professionals and educators
  • Dorico – a newcomer to the music notation software scene, Dorico has quickly gained a reputation for its ease of use and beautiful, professional-looking output

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

A DAW is an all-in-one software platform that allows users to record, edit, mix, and master audio tracks. In combination with virtual instruments, it can be used to create a complete song with a range of complex instrument arrangements and effects.

Some of the popular DAWs include:

  • Ableton Live – a versatile DAW used for electronic music production and live performances
  • FL Studio – a well-established DAW used for electronic, hip-hop, and R&B music production
  • Logic Pro X – a professional-grade DAW used by many music producers and composers on Apple devices

Quick Tips and Facts

  • Virtual instruments can offer unlimited possibilities in music creation.
  • They are more affordable and easier to carry than physical instruments, making music creation accessible to anyone.
  • Sampled virtual instruments can sound as realistic as acoustic instruments.
  • Synthesized virtual instruments can offer new and unique sounds that are not possible with acoustic instruments.
  • Music notation software combined with virtual instruments can allow for complete orchestration.
  • Popular virtual instrument brands include Native Instruments, Spitfire Audio, and EastWest Quantum Leap.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a virtual instrument and why do we need it?

A virtual instrument is a software-based sound module that emulates the sound of traditional acoustic instruments along with synthesized instruments using DSP algorithms. Having a virtual instrument allows for more versatility and affordability while allowing for limitless customization.

What are the main features of using virtual instruments?

The main features of virtual instruments include versatility, portability, affordability, creativity, and customization.

What are virtual instruments called?

Virtual instruments can be referred to as VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology), plugins, or software instruments.

Are there any downsides to using virtual instruments?

While virtual instruments offer many benefits, they also have some potential downsides. They can be CPU-intensive and require a good computer system to run effectively. Additionally, they may not offer the same level of expressiveness and dynamic range as acoustic instruments in some cases.


Using a virtual instrument can be a game-changer in your music production endeavors. The limitless possibilities with the vast array of sounds and customization options make it an essential tool for producers and composers alike. We hope this guide has provided you with a comprehensive understanding of virtual instruments and how they work.

As a team of audio professionals, we suggest Native Instruments' Massive as a starter VST for creating innovative and unique sounds with robust functionalities. But don't stop there – with the vast range of virtual instruments available, we encourage you to explore and experiment to find the perfect sonic palette for your music projects.

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