I started playing in a band about ten years ago. When I first started playing, VSTs were not anywhere near as accessible as they are today. So, what’s changed? Music has made a massive shift towards electronic music production over the last 10 years. In short, VSTs make it so you can have a library of sounds and different instruments at your disposal within seconds.
VSTs are extremely efficient. They speed up your workflow and give you instant satisfaction. I can’t tell you how many album sessions that I’ve been in where we end up using VSTs and not even really touching our hardware synths. You can cover a lot more ground faster by just browsing through incredible sounding VSTs.
With as efficient as VSTs are today, session musicians are definitely not seeing as much work. Don’t get me wrong, I love session musicians and believe they will always have a place in music, but VSTs have made it possible for producers to use specific instruments instantly.
If you’re in the studio and you’re trying to decide on a piano sound, rather than having to bring in a different piano, change the placement of the mic or even find a new room altogether, you can simply sift through VSTs. While some producers still do things the traditional way, and some bands will always prefer this, the majority of producers and groups have adjusted.
Another thing to go with this is the fact that some VSTs actually sound astounding. Recording real instruments and making them sound good isn’t always easy. Finding great players is also challenging. Producers can save a lot of money in the long run from using VSTs. Rather than having to hire session musicians, they can simply write in MIDI parts and jump through different sounds.
Improvements In Technology
Improvements in technology have slowly lead to the take over of VSTs. Years ago, this type of technology just wasn’t sustainable. So what’s changed? The processing speed of computers and software innovation has come exceptionally far along.
Sample libraries are now absolutely massive, and this simply wouldn’t have been possible without substantial storage setups. The bright side of this all is that technology is still continuing to develop. With this, we can expect to see even more extensive sample libraries and even larger soft-synths.
It’s crazy to think about what studio and keyboard setups will look like in 10-15 years. With the improvements in technology, we’ve also gotten better sample libraries. Producers and engineers have been able to capture some absolutely beautiful sounds.
Almost every time that I sit down at my MIDI controller and use VSTs, I find myself discovering some crazy effect or synth that inspires me to write a song.
Years ago, I would never have thought that orchestral libraries would be as realistic as they are today. FORZO, a library from Heavyocity, sounds incredibly realistic — so much so that I cannot perceive a difference. Producing music for Hollywood blockbusters is a much different process than it was in the past.
Much More Versatile Than Hardware Synths
15 years ago, bands would go into the studio and produce these fantastic albums with crazy synths. The only problem back then was, there was no real way of playing it live. Of course, many bands played to backing tracks, but there wasn’t an easy way to bring all the samples from the studio to the stage.
A Hybrid Setup For Live Performances with VST Instruments
I’ve strived to play every part done in the studio as a keyboard player on stage. I remember when we first started using Nexus, I immediately was worried about not being able to replicate the sounds live. For those unfamiliar, Nexus is a sample-based virtual instrument, mostly utilized in electronic and hip-hop production.
With the use of MIDI controllers and today’s powerful laptops, musicians can sample or play any VST live. I was very fortunate to have the drummer in my band as he is a wiz when it comes to programming synths and creating systems that work for live music. We devised a hybrid setup that allowed for both playback and triggering.
My setup consisted of a Roland FA-08, Dave Smith Prophet 12, Behringer FCB1010 foot controller, and an iPad running TouchOSC. One of my favorite pieces of gear I use is rather inexpensive. The Behringer FCB1010 is a MIDI foot controller that I use to control many parameters in Ableton Live.
The number of pedals allows me to trigger additional samples, switch the song we’re on, or use it as an expression or volume pedal.
Recreating VSTs Inside Ableton Live
With time well-spent, you can recreate so many synths now all without sacrificing your original sounds. Being limited to a limited number of keyboard patches and sounds is something a lot of keyboardists run it when performing live. The traditional way around this was just to have tons of keyboards.
The problem with this is that touring with multiple synths is a complete pain to set up every night.
Along with this is the fact that some synths or keyboards are harder than others to change patches on. Bringing samples used to be a lot more complicated, as well. Bands used to bring gigantic racks filled with hardware samplers, like the Akai S Series sampler, which could be played with a MIDI controller.
The samples recorded needed to be short (upwards of only eight seconds in duration) and initially relied on the standard floppy disc for transferring data (imagine that).
Modern tools sure have made live on stage more comfortable. Our approach is a bit of a hybrid. Some VSTs are directly loaded into my DAW, Ableton Live. But we don’t own every single virtual instrument we’ve ever used. For these situations, it’s off to the sampler. Most DAWs come integrated with some sort of sampler, so you can do this as well.
For any synth we don’t have, it’s meticulously programmed into the sampler. I can play each note or loop as I would have in the studio. It’s not without flaw, but it works great for live performance.
Versatility is such a huge reason that VSTs are so popular. They allow you to seamlessly browse thousands of sounds at a click of your mouse. Take drums or piano, for example. You can search hundreds of different drum VSTs or piano VSTs, all while listening to what the part sounds like at the same time.
The Future Of VSTs
The future of VSTs and sampling technology is exceptionally bright. I expect to see more and more sample libraries and soft-synths in the years to come, and I look forward to them as well.
A few recommendations I have for VSTs to check out are:
About the Author – Chris Senner is a touring keyboardist, musical equipment enthusiast and the blog owner at Keyboard Kraze.