What is a Virtual Instrument in a DAW? [2023]

is a virtual instrument in a DAW?

If you are an aspiring musician or an experienced producer, you must have come across the term "virtual instrument" or "VST" in the world of digital audio workstations (DAWs). Virtual instruments are software programs that mimic traditional musical instruments, both in sounds and playability. As opposed to hardware instruments, virtual instruments go a long way in making music production accessible and cost-effective, especially for home studios. In this article, we'll cover everything from what virtual instruments are to the difference between virtual instruments and traditional instruments.

What are Virtual Instruments?

In simple terms, virtual instruments are software programs that replicate traditional instruments and synthesisers that can be played within a DAW, essentially acting as a plugin. Virtual instruments can mimic almost any traditional instrument, such as drums, piano, guitar, or even orchestral and world instruments. These virtual instruments come in various formats and can either be standalone software or add-ons to a DAW.

There are different types of virtual instruments, such as 'sample-based' and 'synthesis-based' instruments. Sample-based virtual instruments have actual recordings of the instrument's sounds. Synthesis-based instruments usually generate their sound using different synthesis methods and can have more flexibility than sample-based instruments.

Pro tip: Virtual instruments come in different forms, including standalone software for your computer or DAW plugins.

Using Virtual Instruments in a DAW

The majority of DAWs come with their built-in default virtual instruments, while others could be purchased as separate plugins from third-party vendors. You can either use them during the recording process or after recording as part of the mixing process.

One advantage of virtual instruments is their playability and convenience, as they can be used to compose and record music in the comfort of your home studio or anywhere you are. Also, virtual instruments help in maintaining consistency between tracks of the same instrument throughout your production, rather than recording different takes from different sources.

Pro tip: Using virtual instruments eliminates the need to have access to recording equipment, real instruments, and a physical space to record in.

Differences Between Virtual Instruments and Traditional Instruments

Virtual instruments differ from traditional instruments in several ways, but the most obvious one is the manner in which they are played – virtual instruments can be played using MIDI or computer keyboards, while traditional instruments require performers to play them physically. Unlike traditional instruments, virtual instruments can produce and manipulate an infinite array of sounds, are less physically demanding, and can offer precision, making it easier to add effects from external plugins like compressors to create unique sounds.

However, traditional instruments have a unique, raw organic feel that virtual instruments can't replicate, such as the warmness of analogue recordings ensuring creating that authentic sound experience for listeners.

Pro tip: While virtual instruments have several advantages, traditional instruments have their unique, raw organic feel that makes music more authentic.

Virtual Instruments in the DAW


Virtual Instruments help recreate the sound and feel of real instruments in a DAW. This is especially useful for home studios as it can be used to create and record music in the comfort of your home studio.


Virtual Instruments have been around for decades from the first software instruments (or softsynths) that could emulate a sound like a piano to today's highly sophisticated emulations of real instruments. The first virtual instruments available for use in DAWs were predominantly analogue synthesizers, which could be used without a physical synthesizer, giving him the ability to create sounds he otherwise lacked, and it has been like that ever since.

VST plugins

VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins are the most used among the virtual instruments available in the market. They are commonly developed by third-party developers like Native Instruments Kontakt or Spectrasonics Omnisphere. VST is a universal format that is recognized by all DAWs, providing compatibility for different computer platforms that support the VST standard.

VST Hosts

Many DAWs, such as Ableton Live, Logic, and Cubase, can host VST intruments and plugins directly within their program. It is important to ensure compatibility between the plugin and the DAW.


VST standardized the format for the development of virtual instrument plugins, which eliminated the need to search for plugins and not knowing if they are compatible with the DAW.


Most virtual instruments come with predefined presets; users can select and modify the presets or create new ones from scratch. This means that there's no need for in-depth virtual instrument knowledge to use them.

Competing Technologies

VST is the most used standard for virtual instruments. However, other formats exist like Audio Units (AU) and AAX, which are used in Logic Pro and Pro Tools, respectively.

Programming languages

Developers need programming languages to diagnose and solve any problems that might occur during virtual instrument plugin development. These include C++, Lua, and Max/MSP.

Virtual Instrument FAQ

1. Does a DAW have virtual instruments?

The majority of DAWs come with built-in default virtual instruments. Add-ons from third-party vendors can also be purchased and added to a DAW.

2. Is MIDI a virtual instrument?

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which is used to send instructions for virtual instruments and can be used to play them, is not a virtual instrument.

3. What is the difference between a virtual instrument and a traditional instrument?

The most obvious difference between virtual instruments and traditional instruments is the manner in which the instruments are played. Virtual instruments can be played using MIDI or computer keyboards, while traditional instruments require performers to play them physically.

Quick Tips and Facts

  • Virtual instruments can be purchased in formats such as VST, Audio Units, and AAX from third-party vendors.

  • Virtual instruments eliminate the need to have access to physical recording equipment, real instruments, and a recording space.

  • Virtual instruments come in different types, including sample-based and synthesis-based instruments.

  • Virtual intruments have built-in presets that can be modified or used as they are.

  • Virtual instruments can be played using MIDI or computer keyboards.

  • Virtual instruments help maintain consistency throughout your production.


In conclusion, virtual instruments help make music production affordable and accessible, as they can be played from anywhere and anytime using various computer platforms. Even though virtual instruments might not be able to replicate the unique, raw organic feel of traditional instruments, they offer several benefits such as consistency and convenient access to an array of sounds. By using virtual instruments, you'll find that creating music with your DAW has never been more accessible.

Pro tip: Some of the best virtual instruments in the market are Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Native Instruments' Kontakt, and Arturia V Collection.



  • Splice. The Eternal Debate of Virtual Instruments vs. Live Instruments.


  • Sweetwater. The Benefits of Using Virtual Instruments in Your DAW


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