When it comes to getting song ideas down I need to work with the minimum of fuss whilst being inspired by the instruments I use. Whilst there are a lot of huge sound libraries out there which offer almost limitless potential, at the start of the process I really don't need to adjust the squeak on the chair of the second cello player or search through 700 different splash cymbals.
It is for this reason that I use rock solid, bread and butter VIs, I use them like a trusty old acoustic guitar. If I need to swap them out for something with more versatility later then I will - often I don't. Here are those bread and butter VIs I use for songwriting. At the end of each section, I also tell what VIs I swap them out for if I choose to do so.
Toontrack EZDrummer 2 For Drums
Toontrack has always made great drum VIs, but they raised the bar with EZDrummer 2. Having a drum VI that makes searching for grooves easy is a must and you can tap or record your rhythm to find a matching groove. Once you have that rhythm then you can quickly assemble it in EZ Drummer or just drag the loops to the timeline. The kits are good enough to work on most songs and there's a simple set of controls to let you tweak without disappearing down a rabbit hole and losing your song idea. It's also remarkable value for money.
VI Swap - Toontrack Superior Drummer, AIR Strike, Abbey Road Drums or my own samples.
AIR Xpand2 For Bass
AIR Xpand2 is one of the best things that ever came out of Pro Tools for composers. It features a shedload of really usable sounds, and the bass is no exception. All of the real basses work in song ideas as do many of the synth basses - I've lost count how many tracks I've written that feature Xpand2 bass parts. And this from someone who owns Komplete and Trilogy. Again the Xpand2 sounds just help me get ideas down fast without distracting me. Best of all for Pro Tools users it's free!
VI Swap - Spectrasonics Trillian, Scarbee Bass.
AIR Mini Grand For Pianos
There are some amazing piano libraries on the market, again I own many of them. If I need to get a piano part down fast then AIR Mini Grand is a great option. It offers a limited number of piano sounds, does not tax the VI and sounds good enough to get song ideas down. Again it's ended up in a lot of final mixes with producers asking me what the piano sound is when I tell them it's the free one that comes with Pro Tools they are amazed.
VI Swap - e-instruments Session Keys.
UJAM Virtual Guitarist For Guitars
UJAM Virtual Guitarist comes in a number of flavours; Amber offers acoustic guitar, Iron offers rock guitars and Sparkle offers pop guitars. I was never a fan of virtual guitars, mostly because it took too much work to make them sound any good. Not so with UJAM virtual guitarist, they are easy to use and sound great. If you are a songwriter/composer then buy them. Simple as that.
VI Swap - Nothing, real guitars are the only thing I would swap them for.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere For Synths
Omnisphere is quite simply the first place I go when I need pads, poly synths, arps, sweeps... in fact any kind of synth sound. It rarely disappoints and often inspires me and puts a smile on my face. Best of all it has such a vast library of sounds that you don't spend your life hearing it in other tracks. Thankfully the search function means I don't end up on some eternal quest looking for the right sound.
VI Swap - Nothing.
The purpose of this article is to highlight that when one is composing the need for a digital equivalent of a trusty old acoustic guitar is vital. DAWs can be both a blessing and curse for the creative process, my advice is to find some trusted tools that are simple to use and then make them your goto VIs for the writing process.