When it comes to getting songs down then virtual instruments are one of the great things about using a modern DAW. There's a lot to choose from and you can drop a lot of cash buying them, so for the meat and potatoes here's 7 virtual instruments I reach for every time.
My reason for choosing all of them is that they make getting a track down quick and easy without compromising on sound. As a songwriting I need to capture an idea fast before I then take time to craft and hone it. For this reason I need instruments that inspire me without having to spend hours trying out presets or searching through grooves.
Xpand2 is a simple playback only multi-instrument sample player, it includes all the staple instruments needed for songwriting, as well as some more unique sounds. Up to four parts can be combined to create layered or stacked sounds and effects can be added to each part. There's an arpeggiator per part as well as some quick and easy sound modifiers. There's a lot of great sounds such as synths, basses, drums and even loops. It first shipped as a Pro Tools only VI but more recently it has been ported over to both AU and VST which means it can be used in all major DAWs.
AIR Mini Grand
I've spoken about Mini Grand before, it's a simple Grand piano with some features such as stretch tuning, reverb and velocity sensitivity. It has several piano sound variations ranging from hard and bright to soft and ethereal. When I want to get an idea down I reach for Mini Grand and it's ended up on the final mix of tracks because it's a great sounding Piano. Best of all it's free for Pro Tools users.
An overused cliche used often in the sound world, but Omnisphere deserves to be regarded as a synth with almost limitless sounds. It offers everything from stunningly beautiful real strings to rip your head off synth leads. Add to this great arpeggiators, bass parts, vintage synths and indescribable sound palettes for sound design and you can spend hours exploring this synth. If you are going to spend money on one VI then make it this one.
Stylus is over 10 years old and yet it still continues to be a staple for using loops, grooves and one-shot samples. Stylus allows you to use different loops and grooves together, it allows you to lock the grooves together either using an internal groove or an external MIDI groove. What makes all Spectrasonics instruments so useful is the library of sounds. The only thing you need to take care of is that after over a decade of ubiquitous use in the production world it's easy to use a groove that's been used on a hit record, so taking advantage of the powerful sound and groove design tools is a must.
UJAM Virtual Guitarist Amber
If you need to get acoustic guitar tracks down fast when building a song and don't have a guitar to hand then this is one of the best acoustic guitar VIs on the planet. It sounds great and is simple to use, loaded with lots of pre-played grooves, I defy anyone to spot it in a track - I've been using it for some time and no one has yet. Read my review of Virtual Guitarist Amber.
Toontrack Superior Drummer
Toontrack are one of the most established creators of drum instruments in the industry, creating a reputation with their entry level, but still powerful EZDrummer yet offering almost endless power with Superior Drummer. The sheer speed with which one can build a track is what makes this my goto Drum VI from a collection of several, it offers great sounds, well played drum parts and the flexibility to break out all the parts for mixing.
There are a lot of electric piano instruments on the market, AIR Velvet isn't new but as a standalone instrument it offers a lot of variation from the classic Rhodes and Wurlitzer as well as more modern DX7 type tones if one wishes. It has built in effects, EQ and tremolo making it easy to get the sound you need fast.
So there is my songwriting arsenal of VIs, in the next article I'll talk about some of the sound libraries I use from specialist sample library creators.